Saturday, 11 April 2015

Postmodern Urdu Literary Criticism

I think we have a good future for Urdu criticism in Kashmir if we continue our current zeal and keep ourselves updated
Literature, understood as criticism of life, and criticism as refusal of any attempt to write off alternative possibilities of meaning are central to the current postmodern project of understanding the world. We need good critical works to document the mess we are passing through and the book we discuss today is an attempt to show that Urdu literature and literary criticism has insights for all of us to consider how we live in a pluralistic, open ended world of texts and contexts. 
Postmodernism is many things for scholars and critics of it. We can’t avoid engaging with it as we are living in the postmodern age. I think we can agree that it is among other things, avoidance of extremes of binary polarities that define language based discourse or ideologies, skepticism regarding any claim of finality in interpretation, distrusting all narratives of progress, emancipation and salvation preached from various quarters as far as they are wedded to the regime of texts and disguised ideologies and power interests, cultivation of humility towards the Real primarily approachable in textual or linguistic terms only as the fruits of the claims of ilmi ludnni, intuition and revelation – too are received primarily in language by the masses and turning to art and literature rather than to conventional philosophy for understanding and “salvation.” Our author refuses to engage with more nihilistic interpretation of postmodernism and focuses primarily on literary uses one can make of it. After having heard upcoming scholars like Mushtaq Haider, and read Dr Altaf Anjum’s text, we discuss today Urdu Mai Mabaad Jadeed Tanqeed (Postmodern Criticism in Urdu). I think we have good future for Urdu criticism in Kashmir if they continue their current zeal and keep themselves updated. 
Willy nilly, in the post-Goedel world, in the world made unsafe by emergence and clash of fundamentalisms, in the world where we see Fascist binary logic of “you are with us or against us” operate with full force, in a world where the colour of truth changes with the ever changing alliances of parties, corporate, dictators, and it is power that is shaping the version of truth drilled into us through advertizing or other marketing campaigns, we need postmodern tools to help question and articulate the darkness and untruth masquerading as truth and ideology masquerading as faith. 
Although Urdu criticism had woken up to the challenge of postmodern criticism and sensibility, there is still a lack of works that situate the whole discourse in proper perspective. Despite such influential voices as Gopi Chand Narang and newer emerging voices like Nasir Abbas Nair taking the task in their hands, one finds almost everything connected with postmodernism and its reception foggy. And there is an acute shortage of comprehensive works in Urdu that review the state of affairs till date. Dr Altaf’s work promises to be good introduction in this regard. 
Dr Altaf begins his case for applying postmodern criticism on Urdu literature from the very epigraph of the book by bringing Iqbal’s analogous argument for taking modern Western criticism seriously and quoting Ghalib couplet that states the need for guarding against meaning closure by advocating the case for radical innocence to the revelations of Being in all experiences. In fact Persian poets and mystic poets have been employing a range of concepts and metaphors that find strong echoes in the postmodern project though we find little engagement with this rich source that would have added richness to the thesis. The author succeeds in arguing the case very well showing familiarity with relevant secondary and tertiary if not primary sources of postmodern criticism. Access to primary sources like Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lacan etc. that is required for quality work in postmodern criticism of Urdu literature is somewhat hampered by the current policy of veto to philosophy that underlies the theory our scholar seeks to engage with in Kashmir University and literature departments of the subcontinent. Our scholars are forced to read much of tertiary material for the sake of using it in their works to avoid difficult process of translation of non-Urdu sources. 
What impresses the reader is accessible and lucid prose and the balancing act or ceaseless crossing of the opposites that the author, in true postmodern vein, employs to adjudicate amongst divergent voices in criticism. 
Nothing is easier to misunderstand or distort than postmodern thinkers like Derrida. The author has succeeded in “correctly” reading some standard “misreadings” and steer clear of countless philosophical quibbles over the finer points in Derrida corpus. But this comes at a cost. We don’t get any profound engagement with postmodern theory but we do get a neat summary of certain essential debates for a beginner and here and there provocative and insightful statements if not well argued theses for the general reader and specialist Urdu critic on the mess that postmodern thought seeks to articulate and the bigger mess postmodern Urdu criticism is. 
The book’s strength is very useful review of emerging but proliferating mass of writings on structuralist and poststructuralist postmodern critical writings in Urdu criticism. It generally avoids stock and hackneyed judgments regarding them and seeks to situate them in the developing (anti)episteme of anti-theory discourse without seeking to impose his own views that one could identify as ideological. The author focuses more on description and paraphrase of preceding scholarship than inventing new theses or interpretations. He has enough command over the material he handles to do fine balancing acts here and there and give informed judgments on major debates while forcefully seeking to refute the views of opponents. 
I hope our scholar more critically engages with the teachers and recognized scholars in the field who have done more of an archival or documentation and translation work of postmodern texts or ideas so far. 
Despite some missing quotation marks and faulty paraphrasing here and there and some laxity in properly acknowledging previous scholarship and sometimes obscuring sources of his ideas or judgments, very occasional wrong translations like absurdism for abstractionism, gross misunderstandings like construing metaphorical use of the term God for belief statement of the critic Eagleton, reliance on 2004 work on feminist criticism for giving an impression of review of 2014 scenario, the book does draw attention to itself and will be helpful to students of contemporary Urdu criticism. Scholarly though brief appraisals of some major and minor contributors (though all are called significant!) to the debate on theory in Urdu criticism in the last chapter shows our author’s individuality and forceful voice that one can anticipate could prove a good addition to the extremely small number of competent scholars in literary criticism in Urdu. 
A dozens or so names are shortlisted as critics making important contributions to postmodern Urdu criticism. I am wondering what to make of Harold Bloom’s statement to the effect that only five or so critics exist today in the whole world. Perhaps we forget the great adage “Don’t consider inferior thinkers.” I hope the question of Tradition that has hardly been engaged with in the work, is given due attention in the future work of the author.

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