World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2020) recovers a genealogy of anticolonial thought that advocates collective inexpertise, unknowing, and unrecognizability. Early twentieth-century anticolonial thinkers endeavored to imagine a world emancipated from colonial rule, but it was a world they knew they would likely not live to see. Written in exile, in abjection, or in the face of death, anticolonial thought could not afford to base its politics on the hope of eventual success, mastery, or national sovereignty. J. Daniel Elam shows how anticolonial thinkers theorized inconsequential practices of egalitarianism in the service of an impossibility: a world without colonialism. To trace this impossible political theory, Elam foregrounds theories of reading and critique in the writing of Lala Har Dayal, B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi, and Bhagat Singh. These anticolonial activists theorized reading not as a way to cultivate mastery and expertise, but as a way rather to disavow mastery altogether. To become or remain an inexpert reader, divesting oneself of authorial claims, was to fundamentally challenge the logic of imperial rule, which prized self-mastery, authority, and sovereignty. Aligning Frantz Fanon’s political writing with Erich Auerbach’s philological project, Elam brings together the histories of comparative literature and anticolonial thought to demonstrate how these early twentieth-century theories of reading force us to reconsider the commitments of humanistic critique and egalitarian politics in the still-colonial present.
J. Daniel Elam is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong.
Kelvin Ng hosted the episode. He is a Ph.D. student at Yale University, History Department. His research interests broadly lie in the history of imperialism and anti-imperialism in the early-twentieth-century Indian Ocean circuit.
Zifeng Liu is a PhD candidate in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. His dissertation examines Black left feminism and Mao’s China.