World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth
Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics

Fordham University Press, 2020


World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth recovers an alternative strain of anticolonialism that does not seek national sovereignty, authority, and political recognition, but advocates instead inexpertise, unknowing, unintelligibility, and collective unrecognizability. Early twentieth-century anticolonial thinkers endeavored to imagine a world emancipated from colonial rule, but it was a world they knew they would likely not live to see. Written in exile, in abjection, or in the face of death, anticolonial thought could not afford to base its politics on the hope of eventual success. This book shows how anticolonial thinkers theorized inconsequential practices of egalitarianism in the service of impossibility: a world without colonialism. To trace this impossible political theory, this book foregrounds anticolonial theories of reading and critique in the writing of four thinkers, Lala Har Dayal, B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi, and Bhagat Singh. These activists theorized reading not as a way to cultivate mastery and expertise, but as a way of rather to disavow mastery and expertise altogether. Reading was antiauthoritarian precisely because it urged readers to refuse authorship, and, relatedly, authority. To become or remain a reader, and divest oneself of authorial claims, was to challenge the logic of the British Empire and European fascism, which prized self-mastery, authority, and sovereignty. Bringing together the histories of comparative literature and anticolonial thought, Elam demonstrates how these early twentieth-century theories of reading force us to reconsider the commitments of humanistic critique and egalitarian politics.

'Internationale' from Bhagat Singh's Jail Notebook

'Internationale' from Bhagat Singh's Jail Notebook

I have written extensively on the relationship between world literature and the circulation of South Asian anticolonial critique across the world. My work has largely focused on the 1920s and 1930s, which was the last time ‘world literature’ was en vogue. It appeared, on the outskirts of Europe, as philology – the predecessor to comparative literature – especially in the works of Robert Curtius and Erich Auerbach, German Jews who wrote in exile or in secret during Nazi rule. Analyses of ‘world literature’ also appeared, my work argues, in the aesthetic experimentations of anticolonial political writing – the predecessor to postcolonial theory – that was written under conditions of imprisonment, exile, or death. Though the two bodies of work appear at first glance to be unrelated, I argue that they share more than mere contemporaneity. Comparative philology and anticolonial political thought were both committed to envisioning a new ‘world’ in response to, and from underneath, the horrors of fascism and colonialism, that literature was to imagine, inherit, and create. By reading philological criticism and anticolonial thought together – and as texts that offer aesthetic and political theory – I illuminate a shared concern for radical democratic humanism, egalitarianism, and secular worldliness.

These concerns are at the core of my forthcoming manuscript (Fordham University Press), World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth. The book examines a heretofore unacknowledged aesthetic practice in South Asian political writing in the works of M.K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Bhagat Singh, among others. This form of anticolonial thought argued for reading and communal interpretation not in order to cultivate a form of mastery, but precisely to disavow mastery altogether. These thinkers urged readers to read for its own sake – that is, for inconsequence. Reading, in this formula, was a practice of egalitarian antiauthoritarianism precisely because it urged readers to refuse the calls of authorship, and, relatedly, authority. To remain a reader – and to remain a reader with others – was precisely the goal of this anticolonial theory of reading. To become or remain a reader, and thus purposefully divest oneself of authorial claims, was to fundamentally challenge the logic of the British Raj, which claimed to prize self-mastery as the alleged proof necessary for national independence.

In the case of British India, where the British author was the aesthetic extension of British authority, reconfiguring the hierarchical relationship between the allegedly transcendent author and the multitude of readers was a way to imagine a postcolonial democracy. To upend this colonial configuration, anticolonial writers disavowed expertise and self-mastery, and, instead, asserted a heteronomous collectivity through practices of reading. As an anticolonial practice, reading could mark modes of refusal, non-productivity, inconsequence, in-expertise, and non-authority. In direct contrast to the values of British liberalism, these recalcitrant ideals were perfect for envisioning a radical egalitarianism rooted in communal reading and collective textual criticism.

World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth argues that the literary and philosophical project of contemporary democracy emerged not from within Europe, but rather as a response to the horrors of its colonial rule around the world. The radical importance of this anticolonial theory of reading, in my interpretation, is not that it places education, literacy, and the inculcation of what Deidre Lynch calls ‘loving literature’ as the moral and political ideals of an independent Indian nation. Instead, it prizes practices of communal and egalitarian critique – a celebration of colonial unknowingness ad infinitum – as the model by which a truly antiauthoritarian anticolonial politics might be attained. In this sense, although anticolonial thinkers openly advocated Indian independence from British rule, they endeavoured to imagine, quite seriously, a nation founded less on authoritative national sovereignty and more on egalitarian readerly internationalism – or, as one activist declared, ‘a flag of books, in the hands of all’.

Literary scholars of anticolonialism have not ignored anti-imperial reading, but have tended to view it as autodidacticism and therefore focused on scholarly (and often, therefore, political) mastery. In these analyses, there is a consequentialism to reading: eventual expertise and liberal recognition – for both the individual and the Indian nation for which he (most often he) was the metonym. This logic stands, however, in direct contrast to that of many South Asian anticolonial figures. Reading was revolutionarily anticolonial precisely because it was inconsequential – leaving no traces, it could demand no recognition or seek teleological authority. An anticolonial culture of reading refused and therefore undermined the very logics of British colonial rule.

Instead, anticolonial thinkers relied on Anglophone colonial pedagogy to perpetually refuse the expertise, and therefore sovereignty, that the British Raj would ostensibly recognize as deserving of national independence. Rather than becoming the ‘mimic men’ T.B. Macaulay had imagined in his famous Minute on Indian Education in 1835, antiauthoritarian anticolonialism became a different menace, revealing the hierarchical and anti-egalitarian norms at the heart of British liberalism and the European nation-state. Envisioned in this way, anticolonial thought becomes more radically about retaining the promise of postcolonial, radically democratic, antiauthoritarianism rather than the mere attainment of national independence.

I frame my study of Indian anticolonial thought within the space of two theoretical thinkers: Erich Auerbach on one hand and Frantz Fanon on the other. Auerbach, the so-called ‘master’ of comparative philology, famously apologises, at the end of his monumental Mimesis, for the fragmentary and inexpert quality of the work. M.K. Gandhi attempted to ‘reduce [himself] to zero’ only to be challenged by revolutionary activist Bhagat Singh for being too much of an author to properly act on behalf of the masses. Fanon’s demand that we must ‘remain tethered to the wretched of the earth’ is a demand that we refuse the colonial logics of expertise, authority, and self-rule that were the alleged proof needed for political independence or recognition. Like Auerbach and Fanon, the writers I analyse in the book insisted on remaining ‘wretched’ and ‘minor’. This reveals a politics and poetics of anti-mastery and anti-majoritarianism – rendered especially clear in so-called ‘non-literary’ genres that my book is fundamentally invested in: the jail notebook, the manifesto, the film review, the ethical manual, and the political tract. World literature from this position foregrounds a process of receptivity, circulation, critique, and response rather than authorship, authority, and production.

Pieces from World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth have been published in a number of highly ranked journals, including PMLA.