• The Information Essay n+1 editorial

  • Another University is Possible

    The typical telling of the familiar Enlightenment story goes something like this: all men are equally endowed with rationality and logic. These rational men also have inalienable natural rights with which no actor can interfere. Thus all rational men must enjoy liberty. These rational men are not subject to the arbitrary power of the state or the church; it is only through a social contract between free men and the state that they voluntarily relinquish some of their liberty for the benefits of living in a society and enjoying the protection of a sovereign ruler. It is in the Enlightenment philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and John Locke, for instance, that we see the birth of European modernity expressed through the ideas of the individual, rationality, equality, liberty and property.

    Contemporary understandings of the Enlightenment assume that philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau, Hume and Locke, are expansive and inclusive in their views of humanity, especially since they claim their ideas are universal. But how do these philosophers define who gets included in the category of ‘man’? Who gets to enjoy categorisation as a rational individual with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property – and who does not? It is taken without question that the philosophers’ exclusivism underlying the category of ‘man’ is merely anachronistic. More importantly, the political nature of such categorisation is considered to be completely beside the point of their theories, which, we are repeatedly reminded, serve as the bedrock of liberal democracy. Quite rightly, SOAS students wish to be critically engaged by their lecturers on this point of how humanity is conferred to include some people but not others in the Enlightenment vision of ‘man’ and hence, European modernity.

    Membership to the category of rational, free and equal men is restricted, as has been extensively documented by some of the Enlightenment philosophers themselves, and as Leah Bassel and I argue in our forthcoming book on women of colour and austerity. “Race is in no way an ‘afterthought’, a deviation from ostensibly raceless Western ideals”, Charles Mills reminds us, “but rather a central shaping constituent of these ideals”. The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

  • The Capitalist’s Imagination

    Anyone who has bought a house, started a business, purchased a stock, or spent a few dollars on a lottery ticket has fantasized about how their future might change based on those decisions. Each of those economic acts was also a flight of imagination, combining expectations with calculations of gain. Of course, it’s not just individuals who do this, but institutions, such as the banks that make loans to the home buyers or entrepreneurs, or the firms that provide earnings projections for their stocks. While some part of those projections are based on seemingly rational calculations, the uncertainty of the future is unavoidable, and that is where fiction and fantasy come in. The act of imagining the future in finance goes by other names—”vision” and “invention” are among the more respectable euphemisms—in order to disguise the presence of the non-rational in financial activity. But rarely do scholars explore the role of imagination in economic life systematically. In a realm dominated by economic and financial scholarship that aspires to be “scientific,” fantasy and creativity in envisioning the future are often ignored; they don’t fit well into a model of research whose aim is to reduce unknowns and to eliminate surprises as much as possible.
    German sociologist Jens Beckert tackles this problem head-on, making imagination the focus of an extended meditation on the role of the unpredictable future in creating modern capitalism. His new book, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, makes a thorough, exhaustively documented argument in support of what many have suspected about capitalism: It’s a castle in the air, built on fantasy shading into fraud. He makes a compelling case that no corner of the market is untouched by the process of generating imagined futures. The novelty of his work lies in offering a way to understand that process as a social system in which everyone, from individuals to institutions, is implicated.

     

  • On the Perilous Potential of Feminist Silence 

Those who know me in my life beyond the page are likely amused to read me expounding with such reverence on the subject of silence, since I avoid it strenuously. Or is it as Kafka wrote to his lover Felice in 1916: does “silence avoid me, as water on the beach avoids stranded fish”? There is something involuntary in my speaking, the flapping and flailing of my desperate tongue. Silence is generally associated with passivity and expression with action, but for me silence requires the greater effort. My mind turns again to drowning: the poet Seamus Heaney spent his childhood on a small farm in Ireland where each spring his family forced the overflow of newborn puppies below the surface of a barrel of water. Their sputter, their squirm, then their stillness: this is how it feels to hold words back. “The strain,” Kafka writes elsewhere, “of keeping down living forces.” Silence is the water that fish breathe, but for puppies it’s what kills them. What kind of creature am I? …

its edge sharpens against the performance of white silence. Which is not, in fact, silent: it’s a careful repertoire of subdued gestures, coded words, and background expectations about who should speak, when, how, and how much. The unconscious expectation is that words coming from white people—especially white men—are not an interruption, but part of the “white noise” of our social world. The background track. Latina expressivity is not just a value-neutral cultural norm that appears exaggerated in relation to the different cultural norm of white restraint. It shows up as a form of resistance to the fact that the white valorization of silence—or, at the very least, “appropriate” affect—always seems strictest when it comes to us. Let’s Get Loud. But this noisy affect—the energetic interjection, the volume of a phone call on the train platform—is often the last stubborn trace of Latinidad to get assimilated away in an “upwardly mobile” trajectory. There’s still a siren in my voice. But what emergency does it announce?

… “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.” Here, even if speaking fails to redress injury, it has a liberating value for the speaker herself.

But the word “profits” makes me nervous in my own case: like the literary men I discussed earlier, do I profit from speaking at someone else’s expense? I’m hyper-educated and white-passing; what do I have to resist? Is “what is most important to me” important to others? I hear how the torrent of my talk can cut others off at the pass and scatter the fragile questions flocking in the air. Maybe my preemptive resistance to being silenced has become its own kind of violence. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson notes how “words change depending on who speaks them”; so too with silence. Since silence is relational, it registers differently in different rooms. The two places I feel freest to let my voice run wild in its “natural range” are at play with Caribbean women and at work with white men. In both cases I feel sure I’m not drowning anyone out; I better scream not to drown my damn self. But it’s another matter in more “integrated” environments—the seminar on colonialism, the cocktail party for the magazine’s special issue on African fiction—where I can’t help but hear the faultlines creak in polite tones, my ear tuned tight to every note of condescension, defense, correction. I try to listen: for the various volumes at which we’ve been pitched by our individual and collective histories, for what my brown voice in its white body will do here. What will it amplify. Who will it echo. How will it be quoted. In whose name. On behalf of what. Yet still I struggle to stem the anxious, desiring torrent of constant comment that rises in me. In striving for a Zen perspective, Lydia Davis wonders: “how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place?”

… The truth is, women need to be fluent in both rhetorical modes in order to hear ourselves think, hear each other talk, and tune the dial toward the survival of our many voices. I’m not worried about the music we make. I’m worried about how it’s heard, what stations play it, and who gets paid—in social capital, if not actual dollars. Poetry in translation is not exactly a cash cow. So very few writers from any given country get global play—which is all the more reason to be careful, critical, and capacious in our listening. Think of all the unpaid hours women have labored to bring another woman’s name to our lips. Some labor is loud and proud: critiquing the canon as it stands, making claims for unknown or forgotten figures. And some labor is quiet and lonely: the long hours Yvette Siegert and Katrina Dodson spent as translators, getting lost in someone else’s language in order to bring it into ours. Let’s not turn our back on this crowd just because a lone literary pinup makes a better poster. Let’s not turn the volume down on the static just because silence seems like easy listening. It isn’t.

Re-reading again now in this, the fiftieth anniversary year of its first publication in 1966, I can’t help feeling that Wide Sargasso Searemains just as groundbreaking and heartbreaking. Doubtless, Rhys’ audacity and ingeniousness – and that which enables the novel to travel so well down the decades – was to take a canonical text like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and disrupt its imperial flow via a feminist and post-colonial re-reading. In subjectively reconstructing the life of the so-called mad woman in the attic – Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason – endowing her with a real name and identity in Antoinette Cosway – Rhys took incredible technical and imaginative risks, and prised open the doors of world literature to other such anti-colonial literary ripostes.

This year’s election results took place off the screen, in the margins of the mainstream media and the shadows of aboveground culture. It turns out that Democrats, the Hollywood party, didn’t manage to go viral this time, didn’t get far enough beneath the surface to feel the long-simmering American passions coming to a full boil. The political failure of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy reflects the failure of the liberal culture industry at large. I can only hope that those of us who are appalled and terrified by the election of Trump will be prepared to challenge our own assumptions—not about what’s just but about the world in which we’ll be fighting for it. Those challenges to ourselves aren’t just a matter of substance, of wider-ranging subjects—they’re a matter of artistic vision. Kael asserted, as in the introduction to her 1976 collection, “Reeling,” that the horrors of the Vietnam War and the ugliness of the Nixon era had brought about an extraordinary burst of defiant, discerning, investigative creativity in American filmmaking. The cinema may again prove to be a crucial mode of far-reaching understanding—and of resistance.

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