CSSAAME’s proposal to rethink the region and the disciplines comes at an apposite moment: while there is an almost ubiquitous acknowledgment of the importance of location, attempts to give substance to this idea face the threat of dissolution of all locations into expansive global narratives. Can regional studies offer a new site of engagement with spatial specificity and connectedness at the same time?
More than four decades ago, Bernard Cohn wrote about there being “as many definitions of regions as there are social science disciplines and problems that social scientists investigate.” He identified four kinds of regions for special attention: historical, linguistic, cultural, and structural. Cohn’s essay was an attempt to complicate the picture by focusing on the problems that arose while working with clear definitions. He questioned in particular the assumption that regions, once established, are unproblematically comparable.
The critical valence of the region as an analytical category in the postcolonial context has derived mainly from its ability to avoid simplistic paradigms based on the nation or on a unitary understanding of the postcolonial condition. The region has been invoked in order to designate subnational or supranational locations, often implicitly referring to the category of the nation for comparison and contrast. In foregrounding sites of affective habitation that do not correspond to national territories, the region has the ability to challenge the nation’s dominance over idioms of belonging. By bringing longer precolonial histories into the discussion, regions have also complicated easy causal explanations in terms of colonial charting and reconfiguration of spaces. However, while the region may appear as a more immediate locus of privileged geographical affect than the nation, it is as deeply linked as the nation to political and administrative arrangements and systems of control. It is useful to recall the region’s etymological connections with regnum. The common sets of practices, which give identity to a region, develop in a space of rule, regulation, and control and undergo constant negotiation.
In literary studies in India, the category of the region has been invoked most often to speak of the literary cultures of individual languages. The phrase “regional literature” refers in practice to literature written in languages other than English and, to some extent, Hindi. The regional here stands in contrast with the national, indicating its marginal status in relation to the centers privi- leged by the nation- state. This marks a departure from the relationship of inclusive transcendence in which regions were placed within nationalist discourse, where the true meaning of all regions is seen as emerging from their identification with the nation. However, even when the region stands in an oppositional relationship to the nation, it has often been conceived in precisely nationalist terms as a site of immemorial and authentic belonging, as the really true nationality. Recent scholarship has tried to move away from this conception by focusing on the political processes through which regional identities have emerged as sites of control and exclusion, not only through the work of colonial and postcolonial governmental technologies but also through various techniques of norm setting within literary institutions and linguistic practices. New scholarship has highlighted the fractured nature of the literary public sphere and its consequences for understanding the formation of linguistic identities.
Literary histories have been a crucial space for narrativizing linguistic regions. The identity of linguistic regions is often secured at the expense of a wide range of language practices, oral and written. The historical and political processes through which literary regions are shaped can be grasped only by going beyond monolingual models of literary history. Multilingual histories of literary cultures may not only throw better light on the literary and language practices of a region but also open regional spaces to new connections beyond the borders of linguistic identities. This has important consequences for our reading of individual literary texts and the history of literary forms. The space occupied by texts are to be considered not in terms of the history of a single- language literature but as constituted by networks of cross- linguistic connections and transactions. The philology for our times needs to acknowledge multiplicities of articulation and access; this is crucial if the concept of the vernacular is to retain its critical edge in cultural historiography.
I see this approach as opening regional studies to the rich dynamic of a new sort of comparative work. What I have in mind is not the comparison of preexisting unities; the work of comparative literature within a nationalist frame has often moved in this direction. The new comparative work, which does not take the self- intelligibility of national literatures for granted, brings into the limelight relationships that cut across languages and national territories.
A striking example of this is Isabel Hofmeyr’s work on Indian Ocean print cultures, about which she wrote in CSSAAME recently. Multilingualism, complex and fluid relationships with territoriality, and multifarious negotiations with imperial gov- ernance, communities, and norms — the Indian Ocean print public sphere has brought all these to the foreground. Even major texts like Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj have become available for a fresh reading through a rich understanding of genres,reading practices, and addressees. Its meticulous attention to location and circulation, to spaces and processes makes Hofmeyr’s work an important example of the new comparative work I have in mind.
Understood in this sense, the region may be seen not as existing self- sufficiently prior to the work of comparison but perhaps as a conceptual and methodological tool that is constituted through comparison. We need to see comparison as a process of opening enclosures to understand them in their contaminated connectedness; it involves a training of the eye on the jostling of differences from which identities are forged and equalities measured and determined. The consequences of such reorientation for conceptual categories, methods, and disciplinary assumptions have not yet been fully understood. The philology of comparative regional studies may learn more from a cultural anthropology of practices than from a stable typology of doctrines or forms. CSSAAME’s relaunch offers an opportunity to reconsider and interrupt our disciplinary habits. By challenging the stability of proper spatial locations, the category of the region — not as a distinct preexistent object, but as constituted through comparison in its new sense — offers the promise of productive critical interruption.
Cohn, Bernard. “Regions Subjective and Objective: Their Relation to the Study of Modern Indian History and Society.” In An Anthropologist among Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Hofmeyr, Isabel. “The Complicating Sea: The Indian Ocean as Method.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32 (2012): 584 – 90.
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