Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

In this essay I want to consider a work of fiction, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses(1988a), for several reasons. First, because it is a textual representation of some of the things anthropologists study: religion, migration, gender and cultural identity. Second, because it is itself a political act, having political consequences far beyond any that ethnography has ever had. And third, because it is generated by the classic encounter between Western modernity-in which anthropology is situated-and anon-Western Other, which anthropologists typically seek to understand, to analyze, to translate, to represent.

In all the recent concern with writing ethnographies we have, I think, tended to pay insufficient attention to the problem of reading and using them, to the motives we bring to bear in our readings, as well as to the seductions of text and context we all experience. In reading social texts we inevitably reproduce aspects of ourselves, although this is not simply a matter of arbitrary preference or prejudice. We are all already-constituted subjects, placed in networks of power, and in reproducing ourselves it is also the latter we reproduce. To do otherwise is to risk confronting the powers that give us the sense of who we are, and to embark on the dangerous task of reconstructing ourselves along unfamiliarlines. It is, easier to use our to confirm those understandably, readings powers.

In what follows I want to distinguish between a number of readings of the book, and to relate them briefly to a complex political field in contemporary Europe. That is, of course, my own strategy for reading, because I am persuaded that this text is generated by and is a reflection upon one very specific political-cultural encounter-and that it is so read and used in postcolonial Britain. I shall then try to reconstruct some authorial intentions, and place them within the political field, and follow that with a political reading of some parts of the novel. This will involve a consideration of the modem category of "Literature" as it operates within the text of the novel as well as outside it. It is necessary to stress that I make no claim to have captured the total meaning of The Satanic Verses (whatever that may be), still less to describe "the Rushdie affair" in all its international ramifications. My aim is to intervene in the political debate surrounding the publication of the book by raising some questions about the ambiguous heritage of liberalism as it affects non-Western immigrants in the modem European state, particularly in Britain.2 (Asad, 239-240)

About the Author

Talal Asad is an anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has made important theoretical contributions to post-colonialism, Christianity, Islam, and ritual studies and has recently called for, and initiated, an anthropology of secularism. Using a genealogical method developed by Friedrich Nietzsche and made prominent by Michel Foucault, Asad "complicates terms of comparison that many anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists receive as the unexamined background of thinking, judgment, and action as such. By doing so, he creates clearings, opening new possibilities for communication, connection, and creative invention where opposition or studied indifference prevailed".

"I am interested in the phenomenon of religion (and secularism) as an integral part of modernity, and especially in the religious revival in the Middle East. Connected with this is my interest in the links between religious and secular notions of pain and cruelty, and therefore with the modern discourse of Human Rights. My long-term research concerns the transformation of religious law (the shari'ah) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt with special reference to arguments about what constitutes secular and progressive reform."

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