Nivedita Majumdar’s book The World in a Grain of Sand: Postcolonial Literature and Radical Universalism promises to analyse postcolonial literature from a standpoint of radical universalism. In six of her seven chapters she fulfills this promise.
She seeks to identify literature that resolves an apparent contradiction between the local and the universal. She sees colonialism as an aspect of capital, a totalising system that spreads traumas across the entire world. Yet this is not homogenously experienced nor struggled against, as there are differences in how capital and colonialism have been imposed, and between local histories, struggles and societies.
Majumdar proposes a literature that synthesises the particular and local experience of oppression, trauma and domination, with awareness of the structural foundations that produce and shape that experience. These structural foundations are universal in the sense that capitalism is a totalising system from which no part of the world can escape. In this way she advocates a materialist analysis, to break out of the misconceived cultural focus of postcolonialism. There is another sense in which she conceives of the universal, and that is in shared human needs and feelings. Radical universalism proposes that solidarity, and collective action are a basis for liberatory agency against injustice. She critiques apparently universalist literature, with a “cosmopolitan patina”, which sees freedom from domination as an individual pursuit, within neoliberal and conservative paradigms.
Majumdar welcomes a challenge to postcolonial orthodoxy which “rejects the homogenized Imperial West of postcolonial theory, calling instead for the recognition of a ‘single but radically uneven world-system; a singular modernity, combined and uneven; [and] a literature that variously registers this combined unevenness in both its form and content.’ “ (Warwick Research Collective (WReC), Combined and uneven development: towards a new theory of world literature).
I find Majumdar’s proposition appealing and valuable. Postcolonial and cultural theory are deeply problematic for their division of the world into two camps: on the one hand the nations and identities that have been colonised or dominated, on the other hand dominating or imperial nations or identities. Within Australia where I am reading and writing from, as with other countries that postcolonial writers identify as Western, imperialist, colonial settler or part of the Global North, postcolonial perspectives cannot explain or respond comprehensively to exploitation and struggles.
And for people living in postcolonial societies, as Majumdar‘s discussion reveals, postcolonial writers fail to recognise and give solidarity to struggles against oppressive and specifically capitalist forces at work within the societies that are their subject matter. This is at the core of Part One of the book. Majumdar analyses the conservative implications of several literary works that have met with broad approval from postcolonial theorists. In the first four chapters she discusses them by themes of agency, gender, neo-orientalism and neoliberal logic. For example, set during the Sri Lankan civil war, Anil’s ghost by Michael Ondaatje is applauded by postcolonial theorists, yet Majumdar finds that Ondaatje justifies and downplays the Sri Lankan state’s oppression of and violence against Tamil people.
Nation states and nationalism are central issues in the conservativism of postcolonial theory. Majumdar implicitly identifies the two camps trap when she says “in postcolonial theory the nation is either vilified as an instance of universalist domination or celebrated as epitomizing particularist resistance.” When thinking about the government of previously colonised Sri Lanka, Majumdar intimates that postcolonial theory cannot identify its government, or representatives of Sinhala people, as villainous.
Chapter Six “The National and the Universal” is the chapter in which Majumdar’s standpoint is inconsistent with the rest of her book. Her discussion of the selected literature in this chapter is jarring, for its contradiction of radical universalism.
One of these books is “poet Mourid Barghouti’s memoir, Ra’aytu Ram Allah, published … Arabic in 1997 and translated into English in 2000 as I Saw Ramallah.” She says it “challenges fundamental assumptions of postcolonial studies regarding universality and national identity.”
She claims Barghouti as an example of radical universalism, apparently because of his ambivalence about establishing borders for an independent Palestine, which suggests that he doesn’t accept either of the two postcolonialist positions on the nation, quoted above. Barghouti hates “borders, boundaries, limits. The boundaries of the body, of writing, of behaviour, of states. Do I really want boundaries for Palestine? … Now I want boundaries that later I will come to hate.” Majumdar writes “The aspiration for sovereignty in the form of nationhood must be honored because the ‘others are still the masters of the place.’”
This ambivalence is juxtaposed with Barghouti’s painful reflections on the loss of Palestinian homes and lands, and quandaries about the meaning of Palestine. “The Occupation, Barghouti laments, has ‘succeeded in changing us from the children of Palestine to the children of the idea of Palestine’…Barghouti then takes it on himself to redirect attention to the original crime. He holds the Occupation criminally responsible for turning the concrete into the abstract.”
The universality that Majumdar identifies is in Palestinian shared experience of trauma. “The Occupation may be a particular historical event, but it acquires resonance because it invokes the universal feeling of injustice. The specificities of Palestine lovingly charted in the narrative are always undergirded by universal concerns of pain, love, loss and anger.” Majumdar praises Barghouti for “erasing the duality between the universal and the particular” and observing that the poem’s ‘horizon expanded … to embrace the universal, the human, as well as the intimate and the personal.’ ”
From Majumdar’s standpoint of radical universalism, collective agency gives hope. In the literature of Part One, it was collective responses to structures and shared experience, with awareness of context, that were Majumdar’s criteria for radical universalism, and she sees isolated and individualised struggles for survival as failing to challenge oppressive social relations. Yet here in Chapter Six, Barghouti, and with him Majumdar (at least in so far as she conveys), do not see any possibilities for Palestinians beyond experiencing and remembering the trauma of dispossession. They see the people of Israel as “the other”, and the Occupation. Universalism apparently excludes Israeli Jews, or any project of mutual recognition of the humanity and national identity of each group. A truly contextual and universal response would be to recognise that there are in fact two peoples living on the territory of Palestine/Israel and that a full reversal of the Occupation could only mean military conquest, violence and oppression against the Jewish people of Israel. Self-government for Palestinians alongside self-government for the Israeli Jews is a minority position on both sides, yet there are Jews and Arabs working together for justice and peace for both peoples. I do not know if they have inspired literary works to show the possibilities. There is cinematic collaboration, in dramas and documentaries, that explore the conflict from this perspective, and openly recognise the injustices perpetrated on Palestinians by the Israeli state. Most biting and memorable is the TV miniseries Our Boys.
Majumdar is not helped with her concept of the nation by the authors whom she has chosen to cite, particularly Fredric Jameson on whom he relies heavily. None is explicit about the Marxist position which supports the right of nations to self-determination, and works for breaking down boundaries between nations, not by conquest, but to be freely chosen by peoples.
The other literary work focussed on in Chapter Six, In the eye of the sun by Ahdaf Soueif is about women in Egypt. Majumdar concludes her discussion of it writing “Even as they highlight patriarchal oppression, Arab women writers … are keenly aware that the condemnation of specific questionable cultural practices can further the agenda of othering and conquering.” This half-heartedness, justifying failure to condemn “questionable cultural practices” does not ask for characters who show a third way to struggle against both these cultural practices and would-be imperialist conquerors.
Majumdar says of the literary works analysed in Chapter Six that “these two postcolonial texts belie postcolonial theory, demonstrating that the universal and the particular are not in contradiction.” And yet Barghouti proposes no way to overcome the trauma of Palestinians, at least not as he is represented by Majumdar.
I think the heart of the problem for Majumdar is that even as she proposes radical universalism, she is not immune from influence by the postcolonial categorisation of nations into two camps. This inhibits solidarity with “others” (the people whom they assign as part of colonising societies) and against injustices inside a postcolonial society.
Her selection of exemplary radical universal and anti-colonial literature in Chapter Six appears to be influenced by contemporaneous points of conflict between the military position of the USA, in Palestine/Israel and the Islamic world. In the case of other literature that she discusses, which is set in India and Sri Lanka, the hand of the USA is not an element of their stories, and her analysis is much sharper, she avoids the two camp generalisation which she applies particularly to Barghouti, and somewhat to Ahdaf Soueif. If only she maintained her standpoint of radical universalism when reading Barghouti, she might see the dominant “anti-Zionist” forces in Palestinian politics as an obstacle to the dialogue and solidarity building, between Palestinians and Israelis, necessary to the process of achieving an independent Palestinian state and justice for Palestinian people.
Majumdar is an author with important theoretical insights, which unfortunately she does not always manage to apply in practice. Nonetheless I recommend the book as showing a way to read a number of postcolonial texts and to think about literature portraying struggles in any context.