Profession of the Unseen: Postcolonial Scholar Poets and the Formation of World Literature

Burke, Jordan, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, University of Virginia

“Profession of the Unseen: Postcolonial Scholar Poets and the Formation of World Literature,” recalls how poetry circulating between Africa, India, Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States redefined literature during the Cold War by reassembling what William James calls “the reality of the unseen.” Drawing on broad theories of forms and networks by Bruno Latour, Pierre Bourdieu, Talal Asad, and Jahan Ramazani, and on original interdisciplinary archival research, I map the surprising material connections between the institutionalized forms of religious knowledge and the forms of postcolonial poetry. This style of interfield reading derives from a network of postcolonial scholar poets who likewise “connect / beasts with monks / slave economies / and the golden bowl,” as the diasporic Indian poet and linguist A. K. Ramanujan has it. Opposing representations of religions within the colonies as premodern archetypes for empire, these poets dispersed a pantheon of colonial “high gods” using radical ethnographic and archival studies. Thereby, they exposed what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the illusio of field divisions,” of the racial, temporal, and formal structures that naturalize literary value.

Each of my chapters follows the archival footprints of academic poets whose literary innovations intersect with their significant interventions in religious studies. Chapter One connects the Ugandan poet and anthropologist Okot p’Bitek’s conflation of the religious past and modernity in his landmark poem Song of Lawino to his critique of the temporal politics of anthropology and of its literary limb, the Oxford Library of African Literature. Turning from time to race, my second chapter introduces to Caribbean studies the poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite’s correlation of international literary norms to the racial management of Afro-Caribbean religions. My third chapter lingers on the South Asian diasporic poet A. K. Ramanujan, an eminent linguist at the University of Chicago whose poetic studies of ritual language unsettled the American foreign policies behind postwar modes of cultural interpretation. With this last turn to interpretation, the mode of reading refined by these scholar poets became self-conscious. Contemporary poetry by the Trinidadian-British linguist Vahni Capildeo, my coda suggests, is the culmination of this mode coming to terms with itself. In the same way that these poets circled the globe, their projects interconnected through the Oxford University Press, radical publishing houses, and a network of research institutes throughout the anglophone world.

If emerging accounts of the Cold War-era globalization of writing programs present the dissemination of literary pedagogy as a predictable transfer of ideas from center to periphery, I furnish a less isomorphic account. Trained in an array of disciplines, postcolonial scholar poets provide a much needed context for, rather than a contrast to, current retrievals of form, aesthetics, and interpretation in literary studies. Understanding them recalls how the reading and making of postcolonial literature intertwines with ongoing debates between disciplines about modernity, race, secularization, and the postwar management of knowledge.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Postcolonial Poetry, Postcolonial Literature, Religion and Literature, Okot p'Bitek, Kamau Brathwaite, A. K. Ramanujan, Vahni Capildeo, World Literature, Literary institution, Literary network, Cold War, Decolonization
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: