For Aijaz Ahmad

work, theory

Eight years ago, I taught an undergraduate literary theory course with a section on the history and theory of the English curriculum itself. I spent some time looking at the University Archives’ collection of Rutgers course catalogues in order to make a selection for students. One of the pleasurable discoveries was the English listings of Livingston College in its early years (here 1971):

The image is from the 1971–72 catalogue, digitized for me by Erika Gorder in University Archives and Special Collections, in the days before that department was destroyed by flooding. The whole collection of names is striking (I’ll put the second page with the rest of the faculty at the bottom of the post). Since I was thinking about Literary Theory at the time, I was particularly pleased to see the name of the author of In Theory as an erstwhile Rutgers faculty member. I was very sorry to learn of Aijaz Ahmad’s recent death. Though In Theory is a book of polemic grounded in a very particular historical moment, I have found myself returning to it again and again as a model: as it turns out, its historical particularity is what gives it generalizing force.

Ahmad was listed for two English courses in 1971–72, “Literature and the Peoples of Color” (“Comparative readings in the literature of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Afro-America”) and “Black Autobiography.” That first course description puts me in mind of a remark in In Theory:

One may even suggest that it was initially on the pattern of ‘Black Literature’, as a distinct counter-canon with its own generic difference, that the latter category of ‘Third World Literature’ had been in some respects modelled. If the latter was given a transnational character, that too was because no other ethnic minority in the United States, except the African-Americans and to a much lesser extent the Chicanos, is large enough to seek modification of the university and the associated canon exclusively in its own name.1

A few pages later, Ahmad amplifies his materialist explanation for this intellectual-historical development:

What we have witnessed, however, is that the combination of class origin, professional ambition and lack of a prior political grounding in a stable socialist praxis predisposes a great many of the radicalized immigrants located in the metropolitan university towards both an opportunistic kind of Third-Worldism as the appropriate form of oppositional politics and a kind of self-censoring, which in turn impels thowards greater incorpoation in modes of politics and discourse already authorized by the prevailing fashion in that university.2

To feel the full force of the provocation now, it may be necessary to substitute “Global South” for “Third World”; I doubt Ahmad would have minded. His claim that a great deal of the prevailing forms of cultural politics can be explained by the class locations of their proponents remains telling: nearly thirty years later, we can still observe the persistent sidelining of class, the tendency to nominate professional-class literary spokespeople for whole nations or ethnicities, and the dominance of English as the language in which the struggles of the oppressed are literarily represented. (What Ahmad says about “World Literature” and the English language anticipates much of what has been said in more recent debates.)

As particularized as In Theory’s analysis is to its moment and to the debates of the 1990s—overparticularized, perhaps, in the harshness of its notorious attack on Edward Said—it is the way this approach still resonates that impresses me. Ahmad teaches us how to intepret the persistence and proliferation of new forms of nationalist ideology in the age of globalization, by calling attention to their characteristic social basis and asking cui bono.

I wonder how Ahmad’s Rutgers experience fit into the working-out of the later argument of In Theory. The course description suggests that at the time something like Third World literature was at least a conceivable teaching topic for Ahmad. 1971 may have seemed a rather more hopeful moment for Third World radicalism than the early 1990s.

Here are the rest of the Livingston English faculty listings:

  1. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1994), 83. ↩︎

  2. Ibid., 86. ↩︎