Heterodox Philology: A Conversation with Gauri Viswanathan
Michael Allan and Gauri Viswanathan discuss connections among philology, literary history, and religion, drawing from writers such as Edward Said, B.R. Ambedkar, Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Massignon, and Kumud Pawde. The conversation was initially conducted via Zoom on September 2, 2020, and collaboratively edited for readability. A preview of the conversation is below, and the full text can be read in the journal Philological Encounters, here.
Michael Allan: When Philological Encounters was founded, the overall vision was to connect textual, hermeneutic, and philological practices from across literary history, primarily in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. As a comparatist, I have always felt a strong connection to the work of the journal, and I appreciated when Islam Dayeh (the founding editor) approached me years ago about experimenting with potential formats for publication. Over the course of our conversation, we brainstormed having a series of interviews to highlight scholars who have helped transform literary studies and whose reflections on philology would be of interest to our readers. The idea was to capitalize on the idea of “encounters” through the sort of dialogue that an interview format makes possible. You, Gauri, immediately came to mind for me, and I am deeply grateful that you are the first in what is foreseen to be a series of conversations to be published in the coming years.
Allow me to begin directly with a question that has been at the heart of our journal since its inception. The inaugural volume, taking its cue from debates around Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, considered the future of philology [Zukunftsphilologie] and wove together the work of scholars such as Erich Auerbach, Edward Said, Paul de Man, and Sheldon Pollock.1 As we consider the place of philological inquiry in the humanities, I would love to hear how you understand the term philology. Is there a place for philology now?
Gauri Viswanathan: I would have to contextualize my answer in terms of my own disciplinary training, especially the courses I took with Edward Said at Columbia. As you know, Said was a very prominent voice in the 1970s and 1980s, and the way that he had framed philology is productive even today as we rethink its importance. Even while he constantly referred to classical philology and returned to some of the figures that you mentioned, like Auerbach and Nietzsche, he had a subversive reading of literary representations, which is most prominent in Orientalism, but its antecedents were already established in his earlier book Beginnings.2 His reading of Orientalism has its roots in classical philology, which he identified as preparatory for the practice of textual criticism. It is very hard to disengage his idea of representation from the way it has been deployed in literary studies, coming as it does through the philological route.
The 1970s and 1980s are foundational decades in the history of literary studies in terms of the arc that it presented for students writing and professing literature as our field in the twenty-first century. Particularly in those decades in the 70s and 80s, there was an effort to provide a scientific foundation for literary interpretation that went beyond the compulsions of subjective judgment. The humanities have always been in tension with the social sciences and the hard sciences, because the humanities are largely perceived to be lacking in scientific rigor, with the emphasis on interpretation permitting license to unrestrained subjectivity in the reading of literary texts. You see in these two pivotal decades an attempt to reshape literary studies and give it a more scientific foundation so that literature can be shown to follow what might be called the laws of nature, or something akin to the laws of science. There is an attempt to place literature within a framework in which it is as rule-governed as the social sciences with which the humanities are often seen to be in contest.
The text was originally published in the journal Philological Encounters (volume 6, issue 1–2) in July 2021 and can be accessed in full online.
Michael Allan is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. He is the author of In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), editor of a special issue of Comparative Literature, “Reading Secularism: Religion, Literature, Aesthetics” (2013), and co-editor of a special issue of Philological Encounters, “Lingua Franca: Toward A Philology of the Sea” (2017). Michael was a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2011-12, 2016-17, and 2017-2018.
Gauri Viswanathan is Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities and former Director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University. She is the author of Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) and Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). She also edited Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (New York: Vintage, 2001), and is co-editor of the book series South Asia Across the Disciplines, published jointly by the university presses of Columbia, Chicago, and California.
Citation: Allan, Michael, “Heterodox Philology: A Conversation with Gauri Viswanathan”, Philological Encounters 6, 1–2 (2021): 243–264, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/24519197-bja10017