Author's Roundtable 3: Response from Matt Hart

Thursday, November 19, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Vernacular Capitalists: A Response to Ritu Birla

Written by Matt Hart (English)

Author’s Note: The day after I delivered these remarks, the Graduate Employees Organization, IFT/AFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO (GEO), suspended strike action pending ratification of a new contract with the University of Illinois. In a major victory for academic labor, the GEO won concessions on all four of its key issues: salary increases for the poorest paid, maternity/paternity benefits, restoration of the union’s right to bargain in the event of material changes to working conditions, and protection of tuition waivers. Although this victory makes my introductory comments less newsworthy, it only magnifies the sentiments behind them.

Ritu Birla is the author of a remarkably absorbing book. But before I begin responding to it, I can’t resist the chance to comment upon the GEO strike. In my time at Illinois, I’ve worked with some pretty terrific graduate students and, as I’ve moved from teaching small seminars to large lectures with TA support, I’ve learned that our students’ intellectual gifts are matched by the professionalism, dedication, and love that they bring to their teaching. It seems to me that the GEO has done a terrific job at the bargaining table, fighting back several of the University’s most regressive proposals and winning meaningful salary raises in very difficult budgetary circumstances. As you’ve heard, their remaining battle is over graduate tuition waivers or, as I like to call it, advanced humanistic study as we know it. Most of us in the Unit don’t work in grant-rich disciplines. Without guaranteed tuition waivers, we not only give up on the goal of educational equality: we will find it impossible to build sustained excellence in our graduate programs. It seems that the administration is determined to create an à la carte policy on graduate tuition, where certain departments can access new revenue streams that boost their bottom line even as they further restrict educational access to the privileged. This policy will put new pressures on department heads and on our beleaguered systems of faculty governance, which often lack the power to resist the Board of Trustees, even when they have the will. So when I say that the GEO’s struggle for guaranteed tuition is the faculty’s struggle, too, I don’t only mean that we share a common set of principles; I mean that the GEO represents the most determined, the most effective, and the most democratic means of resisting the next step in the corporatization of our University. I spent this morning chanting, “Who are we? GEO!” This is no empty slogan: as faculty, we have no better advocate than our students.

OK. Time to get back on topic.

As you heard from Lauren, I’m neither a legal historian nor a scholar of late colonial India. When it comes to Stages of Capital, then, whatever expertise I possess lies in the work I’ve done on the vernacular. As a critic of modern and contemporary literature, I’m most interested in the vernacular as a linguistic phenomenon—that is, as dialect, nation-language, or some other written or verbal sign of indigeneity, ethno-national identity, or deviance from a presumed norm. But as any student of vernacular literatures soon learns, it’s impossible to treat the vernacular as a narrowly linguistic phenomenon. In the first place, as I’ve explored through my concept of the “synthetic vernacular,” the very fact of translating the vernacular into print opens it up to all sorts of transformations and adulterations. More importantly, the vernacular is not simply a mode of writing or speech; it is a discourse in the broadest sense, not just a language but, as Grant Farred argues in his work on black vernacular intellectuals, a language of power.1 Moreover, as such a language of power, the vernacular is not easily assimilated to a simple discourse of subalterneity; rather, because it represents the way in which the indigenous becomes expressible as such, it is an ideologically over-determined discourse that can be co-opted by sovereign power even as it can be mobilized in resistance to it. Thus, when Farred insists that the vernacular has a basically populist caste, we ought to remind ourselves, using Ernesto Laclau as a guide and Sarah Palin as an example, that populism is the emptiest of signifiers.2 And when we narrow the topic to the politics of language, we ought to remember the work done by the Africanist Moreadewun Adejunmobi, whose studies of English education in the context of the Nigerian anti-colonial struggle describe the phenomenon she calls “major discourses of the vernacular”—as when the colonial government in Lagos made indigenous language education a priority, at the same time as anti-colonial activists opted for what they saw as the universality and modernity of English.3

The social polyvalence of the vernacular is palpable in Professor Birla’s book. As you have heard, she focuses on how Indian vernacular capitalists—whom she calls “insiders in the colonial economy but outsiders to modern market ethics”—worked to “legitimize themselves as modern subjects” (3). In a fascinating series of chapters about the uneven development of Indian market governance, Professor Birla shows how institutions such as the Hindu Undivided Family or HUF, which confound Eurocentric distinctions between “kinship as a symbolic logic and commerce as a material one” (16), became the object of profound disagreement, between Indians and the British, to be sure, but also between reformers and traditionalists within Marwari society. In her chapter on gender and the making of capitalist subjects, for instance, she describes how the HUF was not only a problem for the British, who shed real tears about corporate partnerships, liability, and loss and, one suspects, crocodile tears about the morality of child marriage. Rather, as “a private system for the regulation of females, sanctioned by ancient authority,” the HUF was seen by Marwari reformers as a signal contribution “to public welfare,” while for the orthodox it “constituted the foundation of an alternative Hindu public” (222). In debates like these, Professor Birla writes, “idioms of gemeinschaft” ought to be seen as “effects of a politics of gesellschaft” (201). If there’s one thing, then, that this non-specialist reader takes away from Stages of Capital, it’s Ritu Birla’s explanation of the way “colonial authorities regulated vernacular capitalism […] by coding it as a rarefied cultural formation,” while vernacular capitalists themselves first challenged and then redeployed the very categories of culture through which they were subjectivized as Indian Economic Man (5).

Now I’ve written enough reviews to know that the easiest way to criticize someone’s scholarship is to look for sins of omission, with the corollary that the subject most often left out is (who would’ve thunk it?) the one you’ve just published upon, with the implication that the author would never have sinned had she only consulted you first. But if this reflects poorly upon the academic propensity for narcissism, it’s nevertheless defensible as a function of scholarly expertise: for we all see through a glass, narrowly. I’ve already noted my deep appreciation for the way Professor Birla adds to our understanding of the vernacular as a cultural, legal, social, and economic discourse. I hope it’s not churlish, then, to wish that she’d made her theorization of the nature and limits of this discourse somewhat more explicit. As I read Stages of Capital, I started an ad hoc list of rough synonyms for vernacular. In no particular order, I came up with the following: indigenous, gemeinschaft, pre-modern gemeinschaft, customary, convention, long-held convention, community, kinship, tradition, social customs based on religious laws, personal law, and the nexus: family, clan, caste, and ethnic/communal identity (218). Now my complaint isn’t that Professor Birla conflates these terms; on the contrary, concepts like kinship and personal law are handled with great particularity. But when such social and historical precision combines with great cultural and semantic diversity, it becomes hard to define the modifier in vernacular capitalist without reducing it to a lowest-common-denominator label like indigenous—and that, as we’ve already seen, is only the beginning of the discussion.

In the end, this seems like a fair price to pay. My objection only stands because Professor Birla has assembled such a rich historical archive, replete with examples and ambiguities, as when she writes about her focus on the unstable distinction “between law as a logic, and law as a nomos or the conventions of localized practice” (236). Stages of Capital is a compelling work of history centered on Indian market governance. If this literary critic leaves it wanting more, then that only points towards the interdisciplinary work still waiting to be done on the discourse of the vernacular. I only hope that Professor Birla is already writing her next contribution to the field.

1Grant Farred, What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota P., 2003).
2Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).
3Moradewun Adejunmobi, Vernacular Palaver: Imaginations of the Local and Non-Native Languages in West Africa (Clevedon UK, Tonawanda NY, and North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters, 2004).


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