Reading and Experiencing a Play Transculturally


Ranjan Ghosh


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

A transcultural poetics of reading is what makes a play go “global,” making it, in the process, go beyond its “home base”to“circulate out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin.”1 It is not merely about reaching out for the “other” through negotiations in culture, civilizations, and concepts, but rather about judging and orienting one’s peculiar nativity and cultural exclusiveness for more intense and intricate moves in cross-cultural negotiations of meaning. An “effective life” of a play exists in a vital combination generated through the duality of the work’s existence both inside and outside its culture. Reading, performing, and experiencing a play, thus, is like living between cultures, different constellations of beliefs, manners, and languages; it is about finding the “unpeace” amidst contesting territories of power, domination, obscurity, obfuscation, and elision. This “unpeace,” at once the site of conjuncture and misjuncture, vitalizes our reading and viewing. Inhabiting and exploring this locus of uncertainty renders “strangeness” to our transgeneric perception of a play both as a text and as a performance. Such meditative and performative acts of living on the borders of cultures and traditions help monitor and effectuate the cross-cultural “traffic” leading to wider horizons of experiences. However, there exists something that stays undocumented and quaintly fragmentary, avoiding hardened historicist embeddings and “historical efficacy.”2 This is the politics of “trans” in the transcultural that induces a separate order of defamiliarization where identity and difference work at the same instant to transit beyond habitual ways of apprehension. There is a remarkable estrangement in that trans introduces a “strangeness,” a liminality, the familiarity with which comes in varying versions of shock, enticement, and freshness. With “trans” comes the cognitive shift, conceptual inflections, the linguistic transfers and the unease of “profit” and “loss” in cultural translation. Transcultural spaces, thus, inform our experiences—literary, aesthetic, and cultural—with affect, a different set of sentiments and interpretive values. These spaces generative of an “unpeace” challenge the organicist notion of culture and the tendencies to return to the security of the universals of the human condition and specific cultural codifications. Transcultural encounters creatively destabilize our received understanding of cultural formations and easy syncretic and synthetic tendencies in the construction of socio-literary significances. The “trans” in transcultural poetics, in other words, is about going global but clearly not just in additive ways but in a coadunative combination replete with the peculiar modes of substraction and inwardness, where cultural specificities and exemplarities are honestly kept in play, where the Archimedean point and the panopticon are difficult to locate and achieve in such mondializations. Indeed, in such substractions, in cultural specificities and porosities, the potentiality of going global is astutely realized. Appropriating Rabindranath Tagore, this phenomenon can be meaningfully illustrated as the river that while flowing down the mountain knows its water is somewhere connected to the ocean. Being global is not finding one’s texture in bland cosmopolitanization; rather, it is in moving beyond such formations to increase the foreignness that is not alienation but studious curiosity, a critical inclusiveness, to challenge the limitations of thought and augment potentialities for connection. Such critical inclusiveness has a strong tendency to fight the conceptual hegemony that certain languages in their predominant circulation and overwhelming number of users create, or rather inflict, on our understanding. There is, instead, exchange and play, borrowing and bartering, trade and profit, deficit and loss. Transcultural poetics influences the planetization of literature (of drama), in profound ways, affecting policed and legislated ways of reception. As Wai Chee Dimock argues:

Space and time, in short, have no absolute jurisdiction when it comes to the bond between texts and readers. Not a preassigned grid, they are molded instead by the actions and passions of words. They can behave like “a kind of fan”, as Mandelstam says.… This fan can be folded up, putting Italy in the immediate vicinity of Russia and making strange bedfellows out of the fourteenth and the twentieth centuries. The now thus begotten does not in the least resemble the now legislated by the Soviet government. Stretching across hundreds of years and thousands of miles, it is temporally and spatially wayward, out of step with any party line, any mechanical clock of progress.
Aiding and abetting this population of nows, all unsynchronized, literature stands accused as the enemy of the state. Its projective and retrospective horizons play havoc with territorial sovereignty. To each of its readers it holds out a different map, a different time scale, pre-dating and outlasting the birth and death of any nation. Morphologically speaking, literature might turn out to be one of the most robust inhabitants of the planet, a species tougher than most. We can think of it as an artificial form of “life”—not biological like an organism or territorial like a nation but vital all the same, and durable for that reason. Its receding and unfolding extensions make it a political force in the world. To acknowledge this force, we need to stop assuming a one-to-one correspondence between the geographic origins of a text and its evolving radius of literary action. We need to stop thinking of national literatures as the linguistic equivalents of territorial maps.3


1 David Damrosch, What is World Literature?(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 6.

2 Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), xiv.

3 Wai Chee Dimock, “Literature for the Planet,” PMLA116 (2001): 173–88 (175).

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.