Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Kalpavigyan and Imperial Technoscience: Three Nodes of an Argument

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Kalpavigyan and Imperial Technoscience: Three Nodes of an Argument

Article excerpt

The critical study of kalpavigyan (a word commonly identified as the Bangla term for science fiction but in its original context much larger in scope) typically involves two kinds of analysis. The first of these sees kalpavigyan as a diminutive subset of a global phenomenon called science fiction or sf, of which the representative works are Anglo-American or European-French in origin. The second, lacking a systematic framework for analyzing the specific phenomenon in Bengal, posits that kalpavigyan cannot be understood without reference to the larger body of Bangla popular science writing that has been the primary vehicle for the emergence of kalpavigyan. A consequence of these analyses is a fixation on the emergence of kalpavigyan, which necessarily begins the story with nineteenth-century colonial origins, and traces some form of linear history of kalpavigyan: a history that seems to run parallel to its counterparts in other languages. Yet even such historical studies of emergence have not been plentiful: there exist only a handful of works of any significance (Ghosh 1988 and Bal 1997 in Bangla; in English, Sengupta 2003 and 2010; Chattopadhyay 2013a and 2013b; Bhattacharya and Hiradhar 2014). Following the arguments of John Rieder (2008), one may frame emergence in sf within the colonial matrix generally instead of seeking to identify a single local point of origin, and Rieder's own later paper (2010) further complicates the question of origins. Others (eg. Csicsery-Ronay 2002, Csicsery-Ronay 2003, Kerslake 2007) have also framed questions of emergence and dominance of sf genres in countries with robust technoscientific development, by linking those developments to imperial (colonial, postcolonial, neo-colonial and neo-imperial) interests. It has thus become abundantly clear that the framing of kalpavigyan within these two kinds of analysis has a certain necessity, and indeed, urgency, if possible alternative trajectories of kalpavigyan are to be located. However, the urgency lies less in providing a mere historical account than in discovering the possible theoretical framework for describing these trajectories. Thus in this paper I do not attempt history, but rather, following Rieder and Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., posit a methodological framework for the analysis of kalpavigyan which follows the lead of Chattopadhyay (2013c) in describing a possible pathway of looking at non-anglophone sf. I agree with Rieder's analysis of the emergence phase of the genre as a mixed entity inseparable from early adventure fiction, but I resituate it within the specific contextual tone of the kalpavigyan phenomenon. This re-siting is crucial to the argument proposed in my earlier work (2013c) and intersects with other similar analysis carried out on early sf by others (cf. Haywood Ferreira 2011; Banerjee 2013). I argue that kalpavigyan's characteristics are the result of a resistance to the general homogenizing tendency of imperial technoscientific modernity in colonial Bengal, which tempered the genre to an ironic use of science. That is, sf in Bengal, during its emergence phase, was not understood as an entity that represented the triumph of modern sciences and technology or post-Enlightenment technoscientific rationalism, but as a pre-existing but liminal space within adventure fiction and fantasy where the synchronistic impulse of European colonial knowledge could be entangled with multiple, conflicting histories of empire as a method for historical revisionism and a rationale for political anti-colonial nationalism.

This paper is in two parts. In the initial part, I provide an overview of the current state of sf criticism in relation to the theme of empire, as well as an overview of sf criticism in Bangla that relates emergence to the question of empire in terms of theory. In the latter part of the essay, which is further divided into three subsections, I explore three thematic nodes in the kalpavigyan phenomenon: one, a tendency towards self-reflexive parody that consistently mocks the appropriation of science from a nationalist perspective while being open to it as a tool for progress of the underdeveloped colonized 'native'; two, imagining utopian alternative histories of universalism within delocalized locales while being fully saturated with nationalist images for the purpose of bolstering cultural pride; and three, the tendency to continuously appropriate the pre-colonial and the mythic for supposed scientific content in order to create a narrative history of national science. …

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