States of Disconnect review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Wenjin Cui’s review of States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century, by Adhira Mangalagiri. The review appears below and at its online home: My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, MCLC

States of Disconnect: The China-India
Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century

By Adhira Mangalagiri

Reviewed by Wenjin Cui

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2023)

Adhira Mangalagiri, States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. vii + 286 pp. Index. ISBN: 9780231205696​ (Paperback); 9780231205689 (Hardcover);  9780231556118​  (E-book).

This book sets an ambitious task to “rethink the transnational” through the conceptualization of what it calls “states of disconnect.” While its specific focus is on “the China-India literary relation in the twentieth century,” States of Disconnect aims at no less than reshaping the paradigm of comparison and supplying a critical vocabulary for a new ethics of transnational relation.

According to Mangalagiri, “states of disconnect”­—the key term of the book, the usage of which is directly informed by Judith Butler’s “contemplation on the meanings of ‘states’” (218)—not only refers in a literal sense to nation-states in disconnect, but also “describes the conditions of transnationalism in crisis a particular text inhabits and indexes” (21) and, most critically, designates “hermeneutic strategies for contending with disconnect and finding in the seeming ends of transnationalism—amid declining globalized hyperconnectivity and rising national parochialism—an ethics of literary relation” (30). Specifically, the book conceptualizes three such states: friction, ellipsis, and contingency. In addition to a brief explication given in the introduction, it provides detailed discussions in five chapters of case studies as well as a theoretical elaboration in the conclusion.

Friction is the main subject matter of two chapters. Chapter 1 (“Anatomy of Antagonism: The Indian Policeman in Chinese Literature”) “reads a collection of Chinese poetry, short stories, and novels written between 1900 and the 1930s, largely products of Shanghai’s semicolonial literary scene, that engage the much despised figure of the Indian policemen then stationed in Chinese treaty ports under British employ” (26). While these texts “engage the figure of the Indian policemen antagonistically, in expressions of hatred and hostility and often in scenes of violence” (32), Mangalagiri argues, “expressing hostility toward the policeman in literary form made possible new forms of China-India relation—new ways of relating across the colonizer/colonized divide—that remain illegible under rhetorics of friendship or alliance, but that nonetheless bind together” (34). Chapter 4 (“Word and World in Crisis: Hindi Texts of 1962”) “examines a selection of Hindi literary texts written in the months immediately following the war [i.e., the border conflict between China and India in 1962], focusing on three moments of intertextuality in the pages of the popular Hindi magazine Dharmayug,” all of which “engage with ideas of China as a brother turned enemy, mourning and denouncing the loss of a cultural ally now seen as a duplicitous traitor” (28). Although on the surface these texts “seem to offer little beyond racist, anti-China rhetoric and a virulent Indian nationalism that glorifies military might as a vehicle for national strength,” Mangalagiri claims, “by casting doubts on the fidelity of the sign and its claim of signification,” they “afforded writers and readers a contemplation on literature’s capacity to be read multiply in a literary climate that insisted on recruiting literature narrowly in service of the nation’s violence” (29).

Ellipsis is primarily dealt with in chapter 3 (“Dialogue and Its Discontents: 1950s Cultural Diplomacy Untold”), which “studies records of China-India cultural diplomacy unfolding upon this charged Chinese literary terrain [i.e., against the backdrop of the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns in the mid-1950s], reading conference proceedings, reports, and travelogues by writers such as Lao She老舍, Ye Junjian葉君健, Mulk Raj Anand, and Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ with an eye to the ellipsis [sic], the fraught silences of both cultural diplomacy and political persecution” (28). Focusing on two scenes of poetic practice that “throw into sharp relief a dissonance between form and content, of generic demands of top-down political directives rubbing against the fundamental irreducibility of poetic practice,” this chapter attempts to bring into view “new kinds of literary relation that refuse to abide the state’s directives” (98).

Mangalagiri’s third state of disconnect, contingency, is the focus of two chapters. Chapter 2 (“Revolution Redux: Agyeya’s China Stories”) “studies the three short stories that comprise Agyeya[1]’s China-based oeuvre,” which “conduct an experiment in thinking China and India together not through the logic of historical necessity, as two nations on a tandem march toward revolution, as leftist narratives of the time would have it, but through the play of contingency, a form of storytelling that revels in the capacity of historical uncertainty to conjure new horizons of possibility” (72). According to Mangalagiri, “Agyeya’s disillusionment with China and India’s twinned revolutionary destinies enables a literary critique of the limitations of historical determinism and a revelry in the capacity of the literary mind to break free, to find different paths toward liberation” (93). Chapter 5 (“On Correspondence: Lu Xun and Premchand”) looks at the writings of Lu Xun and Premchand, “two canonical writers whose paths never crossed,” not via the “similarities and differences” model of comparison, but “reading their lack of historical connections on its own terms by contending with Lu Xun’s lifelong disdain for India and its literature while capturing his correspondence with Premchand, in both senses of the word as a resonance and a dialogic epistolary practice, metaphorically conceived” (29). Such a reading, Mangalagiri claims, “articulates a dialogic relation borne of and founded upon disconnect, a logic of exchange that can only occur in the face of separation, that contends with the fragmentary, dispersed, mediated, and always incomplete and interrupted quality of reading another’s words in a different time and place” (162).

States of Disconnect is firmly anchored in the fields of comparative literature and postcolonial studies. It shares a number of important assumptions and perspectives that are often found in these two closely interrelated disciplines. First, the nation-state is a homogenizing and oppressive power and as such should be combatted by reflecting on the transnational. Moreover, the conflict between the nation-state and transnationalism is a question of the first order that fundamentally defines modern existence. These assumptions are evident in the book, which emphatically claims its inheritance of “comparative literature’s keen attunement to the limits of national categories and nation-based epistemologies” (5) and appears to interpret every text in the framework of the opposition between nation-state and transnationalism. Second, a heightened distrust in anything that may evoke a sense of unity (e.g., essence, necessity, immediacy) and a corresponding valorization of a host of categories that presumably disturb it (e.g., difference, fragments, contingency, mediation). The purported new model of comparison the book seeks to construct through the thinking of disconnect is unequivocally oriented in this direction, with interesting twists and turns that I elaborate on later. Third, the emphasis on the value of literature as a distinct mode of thinking, which capitalizes on imagination, fictionality, affect, dialogic form, etc. As Mangalagari sees it, each state of disconnect discussed in the book “exceeds its descriptive, contextual function and becomes a lively force for relation only when captured in literary form. What makes literature well suited to grapple with the breakdown of transnationalism ethically is its inherently dialogic character” (24–25). A central claim of the book, as such, is that “attending to the affordances of literature, the intricacies of imagination and interpretation, makes possible an ethics of transnational relation when none seems at hand” (2).

All of these ideas and the ways in which they figure in the book deserve careful consideration. One is tempted to ask, for instance, whether the nation-state has any positive role to play in the fight against colonialism and capitalism. Moreover, is the nation-state necessarily homogenizing and exclusionary, deterring any and all true relation with what may be called the other? The book interprets the negative portrayal of the Indian policemen in Shanghai’s semicolonial literary scene and Lu Xun’s lament for the decline of India (I am not sure it is accurate to characterize it as “disdain,” let alone “lifelong disdain for India”; as noted in the book, Lu Xun held deep admiration for ancient Indian civilization, especially Buddhism, and an apparent empathy for its modern decline) as both stemming from nationalism’s exclusionary logic. However, as the book itself somehow admits, such perceptions are not really about pitching China against India, but rather derive from an anti-colonial perspective that places China and India on the same side of the struggle. Instead of “disconnect,” what we find is actually a keen sense of the shared fate between the two nations. In the case of Lu Xun, moreover, it is hardly sufficient to interpret his vision of Mara poetry in terms of nationalism. While nationalism is indeed an important part of the picture, the notion of Mara poetry also addresses a host of other questions that can hardly be grasped in the exclusive framework of the nation-state/transnationalism dichotomy, including the nature of poetry, the relationship between poetry and politics, and the re-grounding of morality.

The book’s valorization of literature as a distinct mode of thinking is also not entirely convincing. I do not doubt that literature holds irreplaceable value and that literary forms carry great creative power. However, it seems to me overblown to claim that “states of disconnect” become “a lively force for relation only [emphasis added] when captured in literary form” or that literature’s “inherently dialogic character” alone enables the building of “relation.” Literature does not have exclusive power to build relations; and we should be thankful for that fact—otherwise, the literary world would be the only place worth living. Nor does it by its own sheer existence build relations: if that is the case, there would be no need to make any distinction among different types of literature, since works that extol racism and chauvinism would be no less capable of building relations as others (which seems to be the argument of chapter 4). Although the book makes a laudable attempt to “restore to literature the full range of potentialities intrinsic to its dialogic character” (20), it would benefit from more careful differentiation of how specific literary forms function in specific contexts, as well as from a greater awareness of literature’s intrinsic limits.

The most problematic element of the book, which is also its most important contribution to the fields of comparative literature and postcolonial studies, is its conceptualization of disconnect as a new model of comparison. The concept of disconnect in this book designates states in which positive connections (e.g., unity, solidarity, friendship) are absent, or what the book calls transnationalism in crisis. Mangalagiri sees such states as increasingly prevalent in contemporary reality, with globalization in decline and nationalism on the rise, and seeks to respond to this historical situation through the idea of disconnect. While aligning itself with comparative literature’s “core concern with finding in literary practice—writing, reading, translation—possibilities for ethical ways to relate with national others in a hostile world” (8), the book also criticizes the field’s current model of mobility and circulation for its dependency on and valorization of the paradigm of globalization. Such reliance, as Mangalagiri sees it, “not only diminishes literature’s ‘worldly force’ by placing literature in a derivative and reactive position to capital,” but also “risks methodologically perpetuating the exploitative and uneven workings of globalization even when intended as a critique” (7). Most importantly, the shifting contemporary reality has simply rendered the old model of mobility and circulation enabled by globalization inadequate. As she puts it in the introduction after a brief survey of the discipline’s history:

An approach to transnational comparison founded upon the premise of global connectedness may have lived more comfortably in a world steeped in the cross-border affordances of globalization, Now, stepping into twenty-first century’s third decade, the stakes of transnational comparison seem to have shifted. What can such comparison offer a world caught in the resurgence of authoritarian politics, failures of democracy, crises of migration, rampant ethnoreligious violence, a globe in lockdown, a planet in decline? These realities may not all be singular to our particular moment, and yet, for a generation of comparatists confronting the disintegration of the only norm they have borne witness to—the profits of neoliberal globalization and its chimeral horizons of unbounded openness—the disciplinary tenor and tools of the past no longer seem adequate. (7)

It is based on this assessment of the current state of the field that the book sets the ambitious task to “rethink the transnational” and reshape the methods of comparison through the “critical attunement to disconnect” (7). It “harnesses a comparatist lens to look not only across or through but also at national borders, and to study these not only as permeable constructs but also as barriers” (7–8). Against “the impulse toward hyperconnectivity in the study of transnationalism,” it takes up the challenge to “read uncomfortable expressions of hostility, antagonism, or misunderstanding ethically, in texts that refuse to sate our critical appetite for transnational connection and affinity” (8). To put it another way: “Approaching comparison from the perspective of its discontents, I explore the ability of comparison to offer tools for apprehending disconnect on its own terms and to engender reading practices that unexpectedly draw from lapses in connection an ethics of transnational relation” (8).

If it is relatively easy to grasp this basic meaning of disconnect and the significance it assumes in the book, it is considerably harder to understand the specific states it presents as disconnect and to follow the tour-de-force reversal it makes to “draw from lapses in connection an ethics of … relation.” On the one hand, some of the states of disconnect it presents can hardly be explained by what it claims to be nationalism’s exclusionary logic. Both chapter 1 and chapter 5 (as observed above) provide important cases in point. On the other hand, despite its emphatic claim to challenge the model of mobility and circulation, the kind of relation the book extracts from the various states of disconnect does not look much different from what one typically finds in the old model. Moreover, the reversal appears to be built on certain understandings—sometimes conflicting ones—of comparative method that need further examination.

Let us take chapter 5 as an example. After introducing Lu Xun and Premchand as a pair that “seem to lend themselves naturally to comparison” because of the “uncannily parallel lives” they led, the “striking resonance” between their literary practice, and the “aesthetic and ideological similarities” in their oeuvres, Mangalagiri turns to claim that “the question of how to go about conducting this comparison presents a conundrum” (159). The reason she gives, however, is rather surprising: “Lu Xun and Premchand never met and, given constraints on circulation and translation, could not have read each other” (159). It is unclear why the comparison between the two presents a conundrum merely because they never met or read each other: Is some form of acquaintance a necessary condition for comparison not to be a conundrum? Later on, it is made explicit that the lack of “material evidence tying the writers to each other” (161) as such is what qualifies the case as a state of disconnect, here specifically contingency. If that is so—i.e., that two writers whose lives parallel one another with astonishing “aesthetic and ideological similarities” are difficult to compare because they never met nor read one another’s work—then disconnect is a wide net that can be used to catch almost anything, including striking instances of apparent connection.

The dubious assumption on which Mangalagiri advances her inquiry continues when she goes on to present two potential approaches to this purported conundrum. “One approach could entail plotting resonances and dissonances between their life and works, exemplifying a practice that seeks to connect distant texts by identifying common denominators and aesthetic and contextual intersections” (159–160). While this description seems to indicate a standard procedure of comparison, the criticism that follows reveals that she actually has in mind a more flawed type, one “of imposing upon disparate texts an externally derived normative standard of measure, thereby posing equivalences that only perpetuate structures of inequity and dominance” (160). Similar problem can be observed regarding the other approach she suggests, which is to “begin with the texts themselves, by highlighting resonant particularities of their writings, such as, to cite a common topic of study, their shared interest in depicting peasants and rural life” (160). The first part of this description again indicates a standard procedure of comparison (which is hardly distinguishable from the first approach stated above), with just more overt emphasis on close reading; yet the second part—where concrete examples are given—again twists it into a method that relies on the imposition of external measures. Mangalagiri indeed has reason to criticize such apparently flawed method; however, it is unclear why finding “resonances and dissonances” in different works as such is problematic, nor why it would not be suitable for the task of comparing two writers (sharing many acknowledged similarities) who never met or read each other.

In the next paragraph, Mangalagiri identifies a “further challenge to the imperative of comparison”: “In light of Lu Xun’s disdain for India and Premchand’s seeming disinterest in China, the critic’s foisting them together risk being disingenuous and antithetical to the two writers’ own writing and commitments” (160). Putting aside the question of whether it is exactly right to talk about “Lu Xun’s disdain for India” (touched on above), neither of the two reasons offered here would seem to normally present a problem for comparison, especially if we believe in Barthes’s notion of the “death of the author.” For Mangalagiri, however, such purported attitudes of the two writers are taken to be further evidence of the state of disconnect.

The next move taken in the book is even more surprising. Having made a case for the state of disconnect between Lu Xun and Premchand and posing this disconnect as a challenge for comparison, Mangalagiri asks: “Comparison notoriously decontextualizes, dehistoricizes, deterritorializes; why then compare Lu Xun and Premchand at all?” (160) For someone whose objective is to transcend national boundaries, it would seem safe to assume that ideas like “decontextualizing,” “dehistoricizing,” and “deterritorializing” would have a positive ring. More generally, is it not precisely the virtue of comparison to do all these, which take things out of their “natural” habitat so as to better understand them from a distance, through defamiliarization?

Mangalagiri does answer the question she poses in the positive, although yet again in an unexpected manner: “The task of comparing Lu Xun and Premchand, then, arises from and responds to the reader’s intuitive sense of commensurability, even camaraderie, between the two. For generations of readers, the Lu Xun-Premchand paring requires no justification, it simply exists, an immediate and experiential truth.” This claim appears to return us in full circle back to where the chapter begins, which introduces Lu Xun and Premchand as a pair that “seem to lend themselves naturally to comparison.” How is this justification, or rather the claim that no justification is needed, different from the conventional approach? Later on, Mangalagiri proposes to locate her interpretative approach, “of reading disconnect dialogically, in the idea of correspondence” and explains:

As an approach to comparison, correspondence first names the readerly intuition of affinity between Lu Xun and Premchand: the powerful sense that one resonates with—or correspond to—the other, the irresistible pull of tracking similarities that so many readers have pleasured in. I take the salience of this sense of correspondence as a point of departure and add to it the act of corresponding, the epistolary logic enacted in the practice of exchanging letters, of maintaining a correspondence. Activating the epistolary workings of correspondence articulates a dialogic relation borne of and founded upon disconnect, a logic of exchange that can only occur in the face of separation, that contends with the fragmentary, dispersed, mediated, and always incomplete and interrupted quality of reading another’s words in a different time and place. (162)

Rhetoric apart, it is again unclear how “reading disconnect dialogically” is different from the method of finding “resonances and dissonances” and the model of mobility and circulation that are common practices in comparative literature and postcolonial studies.

In fact, the actual analysis presented in this chapter appears to be informed exactly by these common methods. The analysis hinges on the travel, circulation, and chance encounters of a few “mediators” between Lu Xun and Premchand as well as a few ideas that are supposed to be common to both their works and those mediating “intertexts.” Some of the connections are quite interesting and revealing, but a substantial portion is arbitrary and superficial. The connection drawn between Lu Xun’s Mara poetics and Premchand’s fables (which prompts Mangalagiri to coin the term “Mara fable”), to begin with, is made through granting Lu Xun’s Mara poetics an extremely general meaning—“holding subversive potential”—and then applying this term to the Chinese writer Zheng Zhenduo’s 鄭振鐸 reading of Raju’s Indian fables, which somehow “prompts a turn to Premchand’s experiments with Mara fables in his earliest short story, ‘The Most Valuable Jewel in the World’” (189). While this text “remained beyond Lu Xun’s reach,” a connection is drawn because its “presence figures as an absence in Zheng’s writing on Indian fables.” As for why Premchand’s fables are given the attributive “Mara,” one can only presume that it is because they also carry “subversive potential.” This is still not the end of the itinerary: “‘The Most Valuable Jewel,’ in turn, points toward Eroshenko’s fable-like ‘A Narrow Cage,’ a story Eroshenko wrote with thoughts of India on his mind and that Lu Xun read as offering a more radical vision of India than that of Tagore’s [sic]” (ibid). Eroshenko’s story is purported to have inspired Lu Xun’s “famed ‘iron house’ metaphor” because it conveys a sense of confinement also shared by the latter. Moreover, since it carries “the missing trace of Premchand’s critique,” that is enough reason to bring in another tale by Premchand which in turn “joins in and reshapes Lu Xun’s image (in collaboration with Eroshenko), articulating a nationally unbound literary spirit of revolt waged against the claustrophobic confines of conformity and returning to Mara poetics its transnational resonance” (189). As can be seen in this brief account, the connections drawn in this chapter are mostly based on the “correspondence” of a few stock ideas (e.g., subversion, confinement) that can be easily found in many texts, and on an extremely broad standard of what counts as connection (e.g., contemporaneousness, shared genre or authorship), which incorporates even “absence[s]” and “missing trace[s]” as evidence. This may indeed be in the spirit of contingency the book intends, but for a reader expecting more substantive connections than those marked only by their elision, it feels more like contingency run amok.

Despite these issues, the book as a whole has the great virtue of bringing into sharp focus the need to question the model of mobility and circulation that currently dominates the fields of comparative literature and postcolonial studies. Mangalagiri’s criticism of the model’s reliance on the paradigm of globalization, and the associated problems this has led to in both fields, is spot on. Equally inspiring are the book’s efforts to dwell in the discomfort of disconnect—a practice that is too often glossed over in our attempt to establish connections—and its emphasis on the distinct value of literature for the construction of a connected world. I am not sure, however, that the model the book proposes and the analysis it delivers are adequate to its ambitions. In addition to its failure to truly transcend the model of mobility and circulation, the book appears to stumble in its conceptualization of comparison. Ironically, despite its heightened emphasis on difference and disconnect, the book uncouples itself from comparison’s most fundamental feature and greatest virtue—its function as a tool that “decontextualizes, dehistoricizes, deterritorializes.” It is symptomatic that, although the book takes the China-India comparative unit as its subject matter, one can easily imagine its analysis being replicated—with little adjustment—for the study of other comparative units. There is little inkling of the cultural specificity of the two cultures, two gigantic and vastly different ones for that matter. What we get instead are two standard products that can be easily replaced by similar ones in the global market of cultural commodities.

I hasten to clarify: in bringing up the issue of cultural particularity, I do not mean to uphold any form of cultural essentialism. There has been so much conflation between the two that one rouses suspicion when tracing certain modern Chinese ideas, for instance, to the tradition of Confucianism rather than to their supposed origins in Western modernity. However, surely we can envision a cultural entity without asserting its identity or essence? And we must—otherwise, how to account for the diverse cultural traditions that are clearly unassimilable to the universalist aspirations of Western imperialism, including its more recent manifestation in globalization, whose weakness Mangalagiri has rightly criticized? It seems to me that in order to build true relations between different cultures, we need to draw out the epistemic coherences as well as limitations of each cultural tradition and do it precisely through the distancing effect of comparison. Hegel may be terribly wrong in dismissing China and India from the perspective of Eurocentrism, yet the distance he felt among these traditions is real and, if we strive to replace the vertical order of hierarchy he envisioned with a horizontal one of divergence, this sense of distance could help us grasp both the value and the limitation of each culture. For instance, instead of asking questions like why China failed to produce great epics as Greece did, as if the epic is a universal genre whose absence signifies a weakness, we may ask what epistemic orientations inform the divergent evolutions of literary genres in each culture and what consequences such orientations entail. This kind of comparison, as French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien puts it, helps us grasp the unthought of each culture and thereby open it outward to new ways of thinking. It is through “the dialogue between cultures, such as that between China and Europe—if taken in the exact sense of the term, playing simultaneously on the dia of distance and the logos of the intelligible,”[2] in the final analysis, that we can harness resources to resist the homogenizing power of imperialism and the uniformization process fueled by globalization.

Wenjin Cui
University of New Hampshire


[1] The Hindi poet, novelist, literary critic, journalist, translator, and activist Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan (1911-1987).

[2] François Jullien, “Rethinking Comparison.” Tr. Erik Anspach. Modern Language Quarterly 73, 4 (Dec. 2012): 503–504.

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