Social Scientist. v 23, no. 269-71 (Oct-Dec 1995) p. 112.


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SHELDON POLLOCK*

Literary History, Indian History, World History

Literature, literary history, and their interactions with community identity formations are crucial features of the social order. Yet we know precious little about some of the key historical moments in their development for any social orders of the premodem world,, when so many of the transformations occurred that shaped modernity. We understand little about the particular circumstances within which certain kinds of speech come to count as "literary" language; we have very few accounts of how notions of "the literary" change over time and place; few attempts have been made to compare and analyze the different narratives of the development of such literary languages; far fewer, to relate literary-language choice or change and narratives of literary history to their most salient conditions, the acquisition and maintenance of social and political power.

For a student of Sanskrit culture like myself, the promise of a history of literary cultures that asks questions like these lies in the possibility of understanding one particular stage in the long-termhistorical process of the rise and fall oftransregional communities of readers and writers, and figuring out what such cultural communities might have to do with real or potential political communities. But as a student of culture more broadly I am also interested in how such cosmopolitan ecumenes relate, at one end of the spectrum, to local and regional formations, and, at the other end, to transcontinental or even world systems of literary culture.

The sort of literary history that addresses the crucial features I mention above does not exist, as far as I can tell, for any region of the world. Certainly none brings to bear serious comparative evidence, or can be said to address long-term change. South Asia is an arena in which a more complex study of these processes can be undertaken than anywhere else. If for an earlier paradigm of knowledge India was the "sociolinguistic giant" (Fasold 1984:20), in a future paradigm of literary studies it may constitute the literary-historical giant, with a multilingual textual history of greater depth and continuity than any other cultural area in the world. In fact, the study o^ literary history in South Asia may help us fill one of the key desiderata in a postcolonial South Asian studies: the reorientation of method, whereby our

Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.

Social Scientist, Vol. 23 Nos. 10-12, October-December 1995



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