Introduction: When the Impossible Knocks

Abolfazl Ahangari
Dilip M. Menon

Introduction: When the Impossible Knocks

In his introduction to World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth, J. Daniel Elam remarks that the epilogue to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth “is a call to abandon Europe, its mad rush toward total slaughter.”[1] The Wretched of the Earth obviously has played a key role in the formation of the central idea of this book — it appears in full in Elam’s title. But we might look back and re-think this description after reading Elam’s own epilogue. There, he reminds us that “Fanon died before Algerian independence” (similarly, Har Dayal and Bhagat Singh also have never found a chance to see Indian independence, and Gandhi “lived to see Indian independence, but it was not the swaraj he had imagined”), and then draws our attention to the harsh reality that “the colonial world will outlive us, too.”[2] Elam’s book, along with Fanon’s, is a call for abandoning Europe, for ending the mad rush toward total slaughter, for thinking and acting otherwise, while knowing that it will be most-probably impossible and that Europe will outlive us too.

But methodologically speaking, this project is quite different from Fanon’s book. Although while reading it, you may feel the same rage – or in Wallerstein’s words “controlled anger”  – toward sovereignty dominant in Fanon’s writings, Elam has no intention of providing an answer to the question of colonialism in any clear sense.[3] To me, World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth fully belongs to the present, the so-called condition of postmodernity and globalization (or more specifically, the globalization of the Global North); it should be confronted as a book written not only in, but also for, the twenty-first century, in which anticolonialism as a political discourse  that aspired for national independence has nearly lost its political competency (and subsequently appeared as practically impossible in the condition of postmodernity) but is preserved in academia as a rich historical tradition. By returning to the anticolonial discourses of the early and mid-twentieth century, Elam starts an intellectual journey toward rethinking academic humanities, for relocating the self as a scholar in the humanities by delinking from its the colonial and authoritarian structure of power and offering an alternative albeit impossible (McGlazer thoroughly develops this aspect in his review essay “Impossible Professions”).

This journey is made possible by Auerbach. In Mimesis, as Elam points out, Auerbach takes a journey “through ‘Western Literature,’ offering plenty of asides and personal commentary along the way,” and this journey has gradually given him the might to “survive fascism [and subsequently any other form of authoritarianism or mastery],” if not resisting it. [4] Similarly, Elam also takes a journey to colonial India. Along with Auerbach, akin to Beatrice’s role in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he begins an odyssey for self-recognition as a literary scholar and cultural historian: in each of the four chapters, he meets an Indian anticolonialist — Lala Har Dayal, B.R Ambedkar, M.K Gandhi, and Bhagat Singh — and provides a space for each of them to articulate themselves in and for the present as the theorist of anticolonial reading. This intellectual journey has led him to paradoxically resign from his authorial role and find himself as an “inexpert” and “immature” reader. This quest for “self-erasure” may seem factually impossible for him as the author of World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth, but not impossible at the level of imagination — since anticolonialism “relies on imagination … to imagine radical, pessimistic but utopian.”

Being a reader, for Elam, is a decolonial option. To him, if “British authorship was the mechanism of British colonial authority,” anticolonial reading, as it is elaborately discussed through four Indian anticolonialists, was about envisioning “the possibility of egalitarian emancipation.”[5] Appearing as a reader was offering them a chance to coexist “with others [to appear as one among millions of other readers]” and was providing enough power to imagine “an end that is not the end” and accordingly to act for undoing mastery and unraveling the colonial structure of power (not just naively replacing an old master with a new one).[6]  By training as a comparative philologist, Elam knows that in Mimesis, Auerbach is consciously not taking the position of an author but a reader. While reading Western literary texts, he brilliantly notes that Auerbach is finding himself, “[p]erhaps Auerbach finds himself in Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, overwhelmed with books neither she nor he had read.”[7] Auerbach repeatedly rediscovers his self in the process of reading Western literary texts and coexisting with the literary personages; and it was a possible way for him to survive fascism — more precisely, to stand against European post-enlightenment individualism which had gradually led to the formation of Fascism and Nazism in Europe.

This radical egalitarian and communal view, Elam notes, “emerged not from within Europe,” and accordingly, remains “largely unintelligible” to Europeans as colonizers.[8] In his “master class” introduction, to employ Ramsey McGlazer’s phrase, he beautifully demonstrates how Fanon remains unintelligible to Sartre: if Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth by having in mind “the wretched” or “the colonized” as the interlocutor, Sartre sought to make it intelligible for Europeans, to change the interlocutor and to warn the colonizers. Sartre unintentionally misinterprets Fanon's egalitarian violence aimed at standing against the colonial legal violence and putting an end to “the horrors of its [i.e., European colonial] oppressive rule around the world” as “masochistically bloodthirsty,” and as “actual crime and murder.”[9] As a response to Sartre, by looking back to the Ranganathan’s second law, Elam remarks “Every Reader His Book;” that is, it was Sartre’s great mistake to translate/interpret Fanon’s words for European audiences, to impose his interpretation on readers, and to not let the book be read by European readers free from Sartre’s authority as an expert. While Sartre assumed the authority to write a preface and summarize the book, Elam quests for returning to philology as “the art of reading slowly.”[10] More precisely, by emphasizing reading as the moment of experiencing “immersion of the self in the ephemeral” (to put it in Bargi’s words), and refusing “the expertise, and therefore sovereignty,” Elam undermines the authorial role of Sartre as a post-enlightenment total subject.[11]  In this respect, I believe, World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth is warning Europeans to “disavow mastery” and to “remain a reader” of world literature: Elam’s disavowal of European individualism for the sake of non-European egalitarianism is aimed at making possible “the transition from despotic rule to democracy and freedom.”[12]

The Essays

In the first review essay of this forum, the author emphasizes the question of World Literature. Omid Azadibougar in “Comrades in Discontinuity: The Makers of the Other World Literature” considers Elam’s World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth as a possible option for decolonizing the institution of World Literature and its formation as a global category in Western academia. He wisely notes that this book “shifts the focus of World Literature from the moment of translation and transfer to the moment of defiance and refusal to be coopted into the system.” 

In the second and third essays, Dilip M. Menon and Drishadwati Bargi examine Elam’s anticolonial theory of reading in two different ways. Menon in “Reading for the Future,” puts more emphasis on the inconsequentiality of the act of reading in which the reader stops considering reading as an instrument for fulfilling his/her future desires, since “[i]mplicit in the idea of tragedy is the notion of future — inevitable and unexpected.” On the other side, in her “Readers of the Impossible Present” Bargi focuses on reading as “fundamentally a de-idealizing experience” through which the subject encounters “immersion of the self in the ephemeral” and “the contingent and the uncertainties of the present.” This self-effacement (putting aside the subject’s self-mastery), Bergi notes, is necessary for the appearance of “revolutionary virtue, a practice that is not different from sacrificial love.”

In the fourth essay, “The Politics of the Impossible,” Ajay Skaria focuses on the question of impossibility, as one of the central themes of Elam’s book, and rereads it along with the notion of “the minor [as an equivalent for ‘the wretched of the earth’].” The minor, as Skaria points out, is “not a majority in waiting” but “the sense of embodying practices, beliefs, or even a way of being that is at odds with the norms dominant in society;” and Elam’s monograph is “a very subtle and nuanced exploration of the politics of the minor as practiced by four figures who were quite prominent in Indian politics.” In other words, each of these four Indian anticolonialists, by recognizing the self as the minor, has made it possible for acting the impossible.

In his “Impossible Professions,” the last review essay of this collection, Ramsey McGlazer considers Elam’s book as an anticolonial response to the question of academic humanities in the “neoliberal universities in the Global North.” He beautifully reads this book as an author’s quest for decolonizing Western academia and notes:

If the neoliberal university remains, with exceptions, “a society of individuals … whose only wealth is individual thought,” Elam calls for the decolonization of this society, and he does so by studying those who spoke the “words outlawed” under colonial rule: “Brother, sister, friend.” This is not often what’s meant by decolonizing the university or the curriculum, but Elam’s book shows compellingly that any decolonization worthy of the name would need to include, or perhaps begin with, a transformation of subjectivity, an alteration of the “imperious” habits that we have learned, the hierarchizing styles of thought that we have internalized and reproduced.

This, I believe, can be an ideal end to this introduction.

[1] Elam, Daniel. World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics. (New York: Fordham Press, 2021), p. 3.

[2] Ibid., 114. 

[3] The Fanonian rage or anger here has nothing to do with colonial violence. It has to be perceived, along with the Weberian conception of the state as legitimate violence, as an act of resisting the imposed law which legitimizes the injustice and inhumanity — or more specifically, for putting an end to violence, for the mad rush toward total slaughter.; Wallerstein, Immanuel. “Frantz Fanon: Reason and Violence.” (Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 1970, Vol. 15, 1970), p. 222. 

[4] Elam, 126, 4.

[5] Ibid., ix.

[6] Ibid., 5, 114.

[7] Ibid., 129. 

[8] Ibid., 3; ‘The colonizer’ is not the one who colonizes, but part of the greater history in which the colonizing mentality is formed. 

[9] Ibid., 3, 2. 

[10] Ibid., vii, 4. “Reading slow” is also a Gandhian practice, but it has to be reminded that “Gandhi’s “slow reading” is not “fast reading,” but rather “reading towards mastery.” p. 161.

[11] Ibid., x.

[12] Ibid., ix, x. 


Published: January 20, 2023

How to Cite:

Ahangari, Abolfazl. January 20, 2023. "Introduction: When the Impossible Knocks." Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South. Accessed date.