Theorising postcolonial reception: writing, reading and moral agency in the Satanic Verses affair

Allington, Daniel (2012). Theorising postcolonial reception: writing, reading and moral agency in the Satanic Verses affair. In: Benwell, Bethan; Procter, James and Robinson, Gemma eds. Postcolonial audiences: readers, viewers and reception. Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge, pp. 199–210.



The notion that one should focus on writing as a form of action rather than on text as an object of endless reinterpretation is far from unusual outside the academy, as the example of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), reveals. Popular discussion of this work has never focused on how its text can be interpreted, nor on the degree of support that the text offers for one interpretation or another. Rather, it has revolved around such questions as whether Rushdie had intended to cause offence to Muslims, whether he could have anticipated the geopolitical incident sometimes called the 'The Satanic Verses affair', and to what extent he can be held responsible for the violence of that incident. These are ethical questions. The scholar who studies The Satanic Verses in terms of human action can attempt not only to clarify those questions but also to understand the ways in which they have been posed and answered throughout the The Satanic Verses affair itself. In doing so, he or she must conceive The Satanic Verses not as a linguistic structure to be interpreted this way and that, but as a complex and unfolding history of writing, publication and reception. Though such study may seem alien to the mainstream of literary criticism, it is of key importance if we are to understand a work like The Satanic Verses as it exists within our culture. If 'production' can be taken to include not only the composition of a linguistic text and the manufacture of the material documents that embody (or imply) it, but also its 'symbolic production' (Bourdieu, 1993) — that is, the production of belief about the text (in particular, belief that it is or is not a great work of literature) — then the actions of those who pronounced upon The Satanic Verses are as central to an understanding of the work as are the actions of those who wrote and published it. For their legacy has been the production of The Satanic Verses that Muslims and non-Muslims know today (regardless of whether they have read it).

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