Thank you for this welcome opportunity for conversation on the new vision and direction for Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as announced in the mission statement for the journal’s upcoming tenure at Columbia. I am especially engaged by your accent on the humanities and task of philological renewal, as by the journal’s commitment to the ongoing disciplinary life of critical and postcolonial theory. Despite the prognostications of demise that have haunted postcolonial theory since its very inception, the field has been powerfully evolutive over the past three decades. Since the combative and countercanonical energies of its beginning years it has, in the main, comprised laborious empirical work precisely in the domain of connective history: such that the term transnationalism has become by degrees the preferred substitute term for postcolonialism. Thanks to the efforts of numerous scholars across the disciplines it is all the harder to justify provincial historical thinking: secularism, cosmopolitanism, political economy, and indeed modernity itself each evince a global canvas. We can no longer entirely circumscribe the conditions of possibility for twentieth- century phenomenology within Europe, or restrict the political reverberations of mimamsa to ancient South Asia alone, or ascribe a purely Western genealogy to the longue durée of ethical cynicism-stoicism. It now reasonable to query the pedagogic as well as ideological soundness of certain forms of disciplinary abstraction — wherein, say, a curriculum that deals exclusively with the history of European citizenship is presented as sufficient to the concept of the ”citizen,” and so on.
To arrive at this critical juncture, however, many of us in the humanities have had to take our cue from the social sciences. Since the 1980s, oppositional English departments have addressed the task of substantiating connective histories through a powerful positivist turn, underwritten by deep suspicion about “pure” literary or aesthetic value. Even those scholars who spoke up in defense of theory in past decades did so by insisting upon the ineluctable materiality or evidentiary worth of impalpable epistemologies, whether philosophical or literary. Though this emphasis was especially invigorating after the stifling era of postwar synchronous literary criticism (in the Anglo-American academy), perhaps the one- way relationship between the humanities and social sciences is ripe for reversal under a new interdisciplinary comparatist dispensation?
Our collective endeavor in postcolonial literary studies has been saturated by the strenuous demands of information gathering: Which subaltern- colonial conscripts were on the ground in the world wars of the previous century? What were literate South Asians actually reading in nineteenth- century colonial libraries? What does a transnational history of malaria look like? This sort of work remains necessary but is no longer sufficient to the world it has brought into view. We are also beholden to the more subtle consciousness that even the most minor histories, or occluded life forms, or localized language games might possess an undisclosed global import; the smallest utterance could be a crucial link in a vast discursive network. Is corroboration the only meaningful academic response to such intimations? Or is there some untapped disciplinary merit to be had in conscientious, indeed, skilled fictionalizing and conjecture?
Literary scholars are, arguably, trained to overinvest details — the textual or evental fragment — with planetary significance. They used to do so in the name of a human condition quite uninformed by the existential materiality of most global populations. A posthumanistic and, indeed, post- positivist comparatism may yet pave the way ahead toward an imaginative and subjunctive historiography: supplementing the question of “what really happened” with the “what might have happened” or the “what ought to have happened” of a more conjectural and provisional connective scholarship. Perhaps the newly reconstituted CSSAAME will encourage experimentation in the humanistic social sciences in the course of its efforts to yoke regions and disciplines anew.
© 2013 by Duke University Press