Seen One, Seen ’em All

From Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books:

Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Read the whole thing here

A Feminist Reflects on 1968

Feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham reflects on the liberation movements of 1968:

Already in the 1960s marginalised groups such as single mothers, the homeless, people with disabilities had been asserting their right to define their own problems and devise solutions. In America the civil rights movement and black power had been symbolically challenging segregated space and racial stereotyping. In 1968, these new political insights converged into a vision of human liberation that resisted cultural containment. In this utopian moment, it appeared possible to conceive new ways of relating, qualitatively different forms of living, even the transformed perceptions pursued by artists and mystics. 

With hindsight, it is evident that these revelatory glimpses did not simply derive from the movements of rebellion. The structure of capitalist society was beginning to shift in a manner barely evident at the time. How could we have known that empowerment would be the adman’s dream ticket or that the market would zoom in so thoroughly on personal identity. Impossible to know how liberation’s potential would be muffled in contorted debates about competing claims of oppression and esoteric discussions about cultural representation that eclipsed basic recognitions of inequality and injustice. 

Upping the Anti

And Vinay Bahl reflects on her own reading of Rowbotham’s work, especially this bit –

Movements develop in the process of communicating themselves…. We have not even words for ourselves. Thinking is difficult when the words are not your own. Borrowed concepts are like passed down clothes, they fit badly and do not confidence…. We walk and talk and think in living contradiction.

 and how these words are useful for explaining her dilemma as a “Third World” woman using Western feminist concepts and categories:

It is in this historical context (and while reading Sheila Rowbotham) that I found myself thinking of building bridges among women, rather than promoting the idea of “differences” according to the prevailing fashion of academic and political discourse. But I am also aware that I shall be misunderstood if I claim to agree with Sheila without examining the relevance of the fact that she is a white British feminist and I am an Indian (problematic concept) “colored” woman. This threshold dilemma arises because postmodernism in the academy does not allow me any other voice except standing against the West as “different.” Indeed, I have generally found it very difficult to communicate with Western feminists (with a few exceptions of course) because when not feeling guilty for not “understanding” me, their predominant mode has been that of condescension. These experiences made me aware that I am supposed to remain comfortably “different” and alien in U.S. society or find support from the Indian community (which has its own oppressive mechanism to control their women, that I reject) for the rest of my life.

I cannot accept this imposed reality because if I have to constantly define myself in opposition to the constructs of “otherness” thrust on me, then that would be the surest way to “othering” myself I am well aware that the moment one allows oneself to be subsumed within categories of “otherness” one automatically empowers what one is set against. What I seek instead is the creation of voices of dissent, of multiple points of attack and defense, sharply individuated yet linked.

Any theory, if it is to be of some practical use in the material world, must be capable not only of explaining material reality but also of providing a tool to act upon that reality. All of us know that today no country is formally a colony, but this does not mean that we are living in a postcolonial era. It only means that relations between First and Third World now take a more concealed form. We are well aware of the debt-dependency of Third World economies, of the no longer subtle means of control exercised by the World Bank and the IMF. It is in this wider context that the link between the micro-politics of the academy and the macro-politics of imperialism exists. Therefore, it becomes imperative that scholars both from First and Third Worlds should be aware of the ways in which their investigative and interpretive studies promote or serve the designs of imperialism. As scholars our concern should be to find the lived truth of specific human relationships in specific historical circumstances and not the theories of inevitable incomprehension, of convenient relativism, that now flourish in the Anglo-Saxon academy.

Therefore, in order to understand the issue of “differences” as promoted in the United States, and searching for ways to live with respect, independence, and human dignity, I started asking the following question of myself: Why should I always see myself as “different” in U.S. society when I have become a typical part of the historical process of this country? Moreover, my arrival in the United States is not simply a personal decision on my part but also a product of a complex historical process of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism in which the histories of Britain, the United States, and India are intertwined. With this understanding of the historical process of the world capitalist system, I do not see myself as “different” from Western women. Even when I dress differently, when I have a different cadence or accent in speech, or different aesthetic tastes and food habits, it does not make me more “different” in the United States than in India because both countries have a vast variety of people with a vast variety of tastes and languages. I know that I am not different as a human being from other human beings because we all need the same human rights, the same human care and same basic things in life, and the same clean environment. That is why I refuse to he treated as “different.”

II

Today, all of us (Third and First Worlds alike) experience the pressure of unrestrained global capitalism. In this perspective and context it seems illogical and unrealistic to interpret and analyze the experiences of people and societies as only a process of internal (therefore, different) conditions. Instead, we should try to understand the contemporary hegemonic powers and forces, their ideological and other mechanisms of control, and explore how they interact with different societies and how they shape peoples’ views and consciousness. International feminist scholarship has begun the task of understanding the connections between First and Third World economies and their effect on the lives of women in all countries. This work is essential if links are to be forged between women’s political struggles all over the world. The idea of creating bridges has caught up many women in the world in recent years, and Sheila’s writings have been a contribution to that healthy trend.

The article is at Monthly Review