The question of whether theory is actually essential for understanding and appreciating literature has long existed in academia. With the onset of what we call the modern age, theory has powerfully penetrated the reception of literature.
The Kantian idea of ‘disinterested’ appreciation of art and the subsequent ‘l’art pour l’art’ movement (art for art’s sake) received a serious blow when the Russian formalists initiated a debate that was soon championed by structuralists and post-structuralists—especially the Marxists—that literature should be viewed as political. In other words, literature entered the age of theory.
This is, by and large, what Sanjeev Upreti’s Siddhantaka Kura claims. Upreti argues that no reading is, in reality, immune to theory, and the very decision to read without admitting a theory entails the theory of ‘disinterestedness’ and ‘purpose without purposiveness’. In other words, it is impossible.
Upreti draws all modern critical theories within the all-encompassing idea of cultural criticism, and discusses theories including Russian formalism and Saussure’s structuralism as the bases of cultural studies, moving through the transitional post-structural stage. Tracing the root of cultural studies, he goes back to the late Victorian era, where poet and critic Matthew Arnold projected his assumptions about ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. The very questioning of this Arnoldian binary triggered a debate that was quickly taken up by Marxist critics.
Upreti has traced the gradual evolution of critical theories from New Criticism to modern cultural theories. The New Critics, who perceived text as autonomous and self-sufficient, concentrated more on form and language. Their reading was ‘ahistorical’ and by the same token ‘non-political’. Attempts to locate the work outside the text would be labeled a fallacy. The only conflict possible out of this reading is the conflict of meaning generated by irony, ambiguity and paradoxes engendered by the choice of language; a reader in this scenario would be just an honest, objective interpreter.
Upreti argues that the Russian formalist attempt to link form with the defamiliarisation of the world it produces in the reader was a way ahead in critical theory from the limited, exegetical agenda of the New Critics. The Structuralists projected the idea of the binaries, and that of the inevitable presence of a conflicting force. The rise of the post-structuralists—especially Foucault, Derrida and Lacan—and the simultaneous shattering of the erstwhile logocentric notion of truth and the legitimising grand-narratives, then gave way to postmodernism and then to cultural studies.
Though inconspicuously, Upreti credits the Marxist notion of reading literature as discourse. The book discusses the rulers’ legitimising strategies—ideology, hegemony and discourse—and their reflection in literature. This idea, through socialist realists like Luckas and Pierrie Mecherey, and the scholars of Frankfurt School and the neo-Marxists, eventually crept into cultural discourses of feminism and post-colonialism.
Upreti’s book is thus a general survey of the critical theories of the 20th century that were, and are, at the helm of academic discussion across the globe. Organised in clear Nepali, the book clarifies many academic misconceptions about theory. Upreti’s novel and his patent projection of the ‘Alternative Nepali Modernity’ questions the totalising tendency of western modernity, and argues that modernities are many, and their parameters differ from culture to culture.
The book, in my opinion, is able to address many questions regarding theory, especially the question of postmodernism that has triggered many unnecessary and conflicting discussions in the Nepali literary and critical sphere. The book contends that postmodernism is not as loose as it is sometimes thought to be, and doesn’t connote any sort of orderlessness. In fact, Upreti argues, postmodernism is a continuity of modernism, and is still guided by order, with added room for multiplicity, experimentation and individuality.
What is significant is Upreti’s attempt to demonstrate the fundamental application of each theory in terms of popular Nepali texts. Repeatedly, he has referred to Abiral Bagdachha Indrawati, Sumnima, Sirishko Phool, Kathputaliko Ghar, Saranarthi and the like. Of course, it would’ve been better had he incorporated more recent texts as well.
At a time when theory in academics has assumed the repute of a beast, Upreti’s book is refreshing. With certain terms in English or other European languages that have not been exactly translated into Nepali, Upreti has created his own parallels out of a lack of alternatives. Personal projections are limited, and most claims are reiterations. The argument that even those theories that operated within the framework of linguistics were bases of cultural studies is rather debatable though. The book mysteriously effaces discussion on existentialism that had a tremendous influence on subsequent theories including early feminism, and does not adequately consider phenomenology that was, in spite of being difficult to comprehend, quite important. Lastly, everyone might not agree with the contention that all modern critical theories either led to or fall under the label of ‘cultural theories’.
[First published in The Kathmandu Post]