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Culture and Eurocentrism

Associate Professor Qadri Ismail locates the birth of "English literature" in India
December 11, 2015

In his first book, Abiding by Sri Lanka (2005), Associate Professor Qadri Ismail found in literature a conceptual space that, unlike anthropology and history, generated helpful perspectives about continuing political conflicts in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. As part of his even more interdisciplinary new book, Culture and Eurocentricism (Rowman & Littlefield), he backtracks to interrogate the Eurocentric concept of literature—tracing when and where writing became a canon and a discipline. Ismail reveals how that 19th-century creation was/is intertwined with anthropology's invention of "culture" and cultures, as well as the philosophy and political science of Europe's colonial period. In the process he gives a thorough shaking to such dearly-held assumptions as the integrity of contemporary cultures and reading as moral improvement.  

Against a background of Hobbes and Locke, you show how both "literature" and "culture" arose together within the colonial era to claim subjectivity and imagination for Europeans versus native populations. "English literature emerged to interpellate the colonized (Indian) into the superiority of (civilized) English subjectivity," you continue. "It sought to improve, transform, which is also to violate, epistemologically and otherwise." (And, while literature was newly understood to create empathy, English writers such as Percy Shelley and politicians such as Thomas Macaulay refused the possibility of being "transformed into Indianness by reading Indian literature.") How have the disciplines of English literature and anthropology moved on from those origins?

Both Anthropology and English are no longer colonialist in the more offensive ways of the 19th century. But it is true of cultural anthropology that it is the study of the other, of a subject producing a view of an object, right? And that structure has not changed. There are individual anthropologists who don’t do that, but as a discipline, that has not changed. . . .

Literature is a somewhat different story. As I argue, it emerges in the colonial encounter, in India. Until that moment in the early 19th century, the books that we now take for granted and categorize as literature were not so categorized. I don’t think the discipline has come to terms with that, that literature was absolutely essential to the colonial mission to civilize the natives: to in fact civilize the barbarians who are considered capable of being improved and to maintain the savage in that condition which is considered incapable of improvement. (And, as we know, literature was brought back to England and taught to the working class well before the English upper classes studied English as a major—that didn't happen until after the first World War). What we have in the discipline in the century after that is an accommodation of difference. The discipline can accommodate texts from, you know, wherever. . . . Whether it has come to terms with the structure of its emergence and the consequences of that politically, I'm not so sure.

You write in the book: "If culture emerged, as argued here, at the intersection of (at least) two disciplines, then the concept itself demands an interdisciplinary response; not in our method . . . but our reading." What are the pleasures of reading across disciplines? What are the challenges?

I profoundly disliked a lot of contemporary anthropology, much more than the 19th-century blatantly racist anthropology, precisely because contemporary anthropology "others" unconsciously. That was not pleasant.

The pleasure of the reading then comes in noticing connections between disciplines that the disciplines themselves not only deny but actively evade. . . .  Culture emerged as I say as the interaction of literature and anthropology; also sociology. And not just the "high," elite culture, concept of culture, the arts and so on, as opposed to the anthropological notion of culture, as our way of life. All those concepts of culture are inextricable. Noticing those connections was enormously pleasurable.

In the introduction, you state (and illustrate): "Why can't the pleasure of producing prose gain mention in the text, even if disciplinary reason might seek to interdict such a move? (Or funditry, as Stephen Colbert might suggest, abet punditry?)" The text is studded with such interruptions of humor and unexpected reference, colloquialisms running up against academic language. Can you talk about how you chose the style of the book?

I don’t know how much that was a choice. On the one hand, Derrida is notorious for writing "obliquely." But generally the argument from deconstruction is that writing does not proceed in some linear, logical way. So if you work from such a premise then your own writing must demonstrate that. The other aspect of it, in so far as one can be conscious of these things, is that I like being humorous—you can ask my students, you can ask my friends—and humorous about otherwise "serious" objects. I suppose you could say that my personality plays into the book, and, after a point, you're not going to bash it out.

It's also work being funny! It's not something that's spontaneous. I wonder about [Professor] Julie [Schumacher]'s book [Dear Committee Members], which is hilarious, I wonder how long—I suppose I could ask her—it took to write it. I don't think you can sit down in your couch, with your coffee cup, and just be funny like that.

Cover of Culture and Eurocentricism

Among other University colleagues, you credit Professors Tony C. Brown and Andrew Elfenbein (plus adjunct Joe Hughes) with commenting on various chapters. What if any impact has teaching, and your students, had on this book?

Oh, a huge impact. Just to give you one example, I've been researching this book for 12 years, and at one point I really wanted to teach Hobbes. If you teach it, you have a much more intimate knowledge of it than you otherwise would. And it always happens that a graduate student will see things in a text that you might have missed. I wasn't scheduled to teach a graduate seminar that coming year, and I was complaining about this to a friend of mine. He said "Well, why don't you just teach Hobbes to undergraduates?" I said, "Well, that's a bit much, isn't it?" And he said, "No. You read it carefully and then teach them whatever might be appropriate for an undergraduate class," which is what I proceeded to do. And the undergraduate Literary Theory course I've taught at least once a year for the last so many years has helped me focus and figure out a lot. Every one of those classes always has some really, really smart students.

In arguing that culture (including standards of what constitutes literature) has been imposed on groups of people, rather than made by them, you open up the question of how people create or understand their identities.

Culture is not something we made; culture made us. The dominant response from what used to be called the Third World and even other groups in the West is to demand that we are also subjects, we have a culture, and it is as good as anybody else's. It is a form of separatism—and captured in a t-shirt that was quite popular some years ago: "It's a Sri Lankan thing; you wouldn't understand." It's separatist in that sense: It builds a rampart around an identity, which is something intellectually indefensible, and politically and ethically quite problematic.

The other alternative is to conceptualize subjectivity as marked by the other. By several others. Something as intimate as my name is marked by a past that is not mine. Quite apart from the fact that, in my case, it was not even my father and mother, my parents, who gave me my name, but a religious authority. You are not you—in a post-structuralist phrase that people sort of mock—in that you are not identical to yourself. If you are named after somebody, as almost every human being is, that's an example of that. So you can acknowledge the fact that you are marked by the other—and not just individually but every social group. 

. . .

Below is an excerpt from an article Professor Ismail wrote about his name, as an accompaniment to Culture and Eurocentrism. It was originally published with groundviews in Sri Lanka. 

The Import of Sri Lankan Muslim Names

My name is Mohamed Qadri Ismail. Mohamed Qadri Ismail is not my name. 

The statements may prompt a wtf. (The acronym, btw, of the World Taekwondo Federation.) Surely one cannot affirm a position and its contradiction. Yet I do. The second sentence doesn't necessarily negate the first.

Mohamed Qadri Ismail, an impeccably Sri Lankan Muslim male nomination. Mohamed: the name of the prophet; Qadri: a Pakistani pir authorized it; Ismail: my father's surname, his father's before that, of Abraham/Ibrahim's son well before that. (According to the Bible, Abraham, who lived for 175 years, begat Ishmael at 86.)

I may not share my name with anyone else, but innumerable individuals bear my names. (Some 150 million in the case of Mohamed/Muhammad.) It identifies without binding, inescapably networks me globally. Roots and uproots. Makes me both Sri Lankan and not, not entirely.

Put differently, several heterogeneous, enmeshed strands constitute my identity or, better, subjectivity: a patriarchal, Arab/Islamic, Pakistani, biblical, Sri Lankan, even a European.

I think of myself as a Sri Lankan Muslim. But these other scripts inescapably, dissymetrically impress my subjectivity, are inside and outside me. My identity is not one. (Just as much as WTF inevitably recalls wtf.) One is always more than one.

Indeed, I have two first names: Mohamed, literally, which orients, introduces me but nobody uses, and Qadri, which everyone does. This makes my second name my first ("given," primary), another apparent contradiction.

*

Soon after I was born, or so the story goes, my father rushed from Durdans to see the pir, then visiting Ceylon. (Given the record of its nomination, including Serendib, Sri Lanka/Ilankai is not one, either, isn't identical to itself, carries the trace of these other headings.) "Your Holiness," he said, "my wife has had a baby boy." The pir decreed: "His name is Qadri."

A higher authority, a religious figure, superseded my parents. And gave me that uncommon thing that I cherish, a name beginning with q.

*

Mrs Bassett taught us the edict in grade two: every word that begins with a q must be followed by a u. During the interval that day several classmates surrounded me, confused word and name, insisted the latter was misspelled. It had to be Quadri. It was.

Despite my protests, I had no choice. Anglicized for the rest of my time at St Thomas', they called me kwodry. Khaadri everywhere else.

A higher authority, the teacher, with the force of Europe behind her, superseded the pir. And I lamented my name beginning with q.

*

We may like to think of ourselves as agential entities authoring, creating our identity; our subjectivity gets imposed upon us. The school story instantiates the work of eurocentrism, a more fitting term for force of Europe. In stating that rule, undoubtedly with a ruler at hand for enforcement, Mrs Bassett, interpellated by eurocentrism, interpellated us in turn.

But eurocentrism doesn’t operate in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else, only by obviously identifiable modes, exclusively through elite institutions like Christian missionary schools. It frames our everyday, even sets our clocks: the prime meridian passes through London, fixes Sri Lanka five and a half hours ahead. We iterate, reinforce eurocentrism every time we check the time.

Numerous Sri Lankans—female, male and of any other gender, Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala—iterate eurocentrism every time we sign, state, speak something as personal, affective, intimate as our "own" name. For the concept surname/family name—usually that of the father or some originary patriarch—is an import. It arrived from Europe, forced itself, without our quite knowing it, upon us.