Academic journal article ARIEL

Radical Aesthetics: Arundhati Roy's Ecology of Style

Academic journal article ARIEL

Radical Aesthetics: Arundhati Roy's Ecology of Style

Article excerpt

In "The End of the Imagination" Arundhati Roy frames her protest against globalization as a defence of aesthetics. She contrasts global development and nuclear proliferation with an alternative--beauty. "There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours," she writes. "Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with race from others, enhanced, reinvented, and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it" (Cost 123). Roy uses affective terms, portraying those who resist technocracy as protectively maternal, rather than as critically distanced. And although she depicts resistance as a collective enterprise--this is "our own beauty"--her description evokes the intersubjective but private encounter between mother and child, not the publicity of protest. Roy invokes an embodied, affective experience only to rehire its political efficacy. But while her own stance straddles the two positions, she depicts them as separate modes of thought--politics and aesthetics. Because her political claims depend on an assertion of aesthetics as a separate sphere, Roy's work offers an opportunity to evaluate the relevance of aesthetics to the overtly political intersection of postcolonial, anti-globalization, and environmentalist writing.

Advocacy of aesthetic autonomy raises immediate concerns in a post-colonial context. For one, if the aesthetic has primarily affective, subjective resonance, does it imply nostalgia for "pre-theoretical innocence" (Armstrong 2) or initiate a retreat from political discourse? (Roy's preference for protesting "empire" rather than "globalization" might suggest that she rejects the evolution of the discourse, at the very least. (1)) Does the concept of aesthetic pleasure invoke naive subjectivism and ignore the cultural and discursive forces that shape subjectivity? Such privileging of subjective experience might permit the renewal of cultural essentialism and self-exoticization (Massumi 2), which postcolonial studies long worked to critique. Moreover, separating aesthetics and politics might reinforce "binarized, highly moralistic allegories of the subversive versus the hegemonic, resistance versus power" (Sedgwick 100) that valorize experiences associated with powerlessness without posing solutions. (2) But finally, if the purpose of positioning aesthetics as in dialogue with and yet fundamentally separate from political discourse is to find a source of affective solidarity among the oppressed, it is worth examining whether the re-emergence of aesthetics can usefully alter the terms of political engagement.

In Roy's case, "beauty" provides the basis for a politicized humanism that contests the critiques of cultural compromise and assertions of unapproachable otherness typical of both postcolonial and ecocritical discourse. Nonetheless, she maintains a tension between aesthetic autonomy and political engagement rather than integrating them. Roy locates the search for beauty in private encounters between marginalized individuals and the environment. Thus, she foregrounds not the perceiver's power or demand for political recognition, but her embeddedness in a living but largely non-human world--her ecological solidarity. (3) In The God of Small Things, Roy offers the aesthetic as an alternative politics, but also an alternative to cultural politics because she portrays the sensory pleasures her fragile characters and narrator share as negating socio-historical agency. (4) Since the novel's resistance to agency operates by representing characters already excluded from political participation (for reasons of age, caste and gender), the private experience of finding beauty in the world might seem elegiac or merely consolatory. (5) In order to secure this exclusion, the novel enacts a division between imaginative and critical energies, as when the narrator describes how "[n]ow that he'd been re-Returned, Estha walked ... along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans" (14). …

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