Here’s the question that J. Daniel Elam’s book (World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics [Fordham University Press, 2021]) poses in stark terms: How to live in an insufferable present? One answer is to work as a revolutionary or as a reformer to create a future that is better than this present. That, we might say, is the traditional answer—and, as Elam is at pains to show, that answer is tied to a package of assumptions that he calls “liberal.” I, of course, would quarrel with using the term “liberal” in that way. But that’s irrelevant at the moment. Let’s instead just identify the key features of the package: an investment in effective action, understood as the ability to envision something and then act in ways that bring that vision into existence. Such a model of effective action is going to emphasize the will (hence a certain model of the controlled self dedicated to a coherent “project”), along with rational planning, and the capacity to command resources (both of human labor and of required materials). In sum, a celebration and enactment of “mastery,” of shaping the world to fit one’s vision of what the world should be. For Elam, mastery leads, just about inevitably, to tyranny. The present is laid waste, is sacrificed, in the name of the future—a future that never arrives.
In response, Elam wants to articulate a politics that does not bank (and the word “bank” is particularly apposite here, with its image of delaying present gratification in favor of future returns on investment) on any future at all. This politics eschews utopian visions, even visions of reform, declaring them “sweet cheats” that devastate the present while never delivering the promised future. To that extent, Elam is seeking the same golden calf I have been pursuing: a non-sacrificial politics, ways of being in the world with others (human and non-human) that don’t require victims.
But there is a catch. The present is itself unliveable, insufferable. Completely and utterly. Back to the affirmation issue. What does it mean to live in a present that cannot be affirmed, that is a continual affront to every value and desire one holds dear—and to live in that present with no hope that the future will be any better. To be blocked on all sides. No exit. Just a succession of present moments all as bad as this one.
It seems inevitable under such circumstances that the search will begin for “lines of flight.” It is unimaginable (unless one sinks into the utter torpor of despair) that nothing will be done in an attempt to meliorate the situation. Even if only in fantasy. Shamed by the cruelty of American society and the puerility of American politics, I dream of moving to Canada. I don’t do it, but the idea that an escape is possible offers some small consolation, some inkling that the present doesn’t have to continue utterly unchanged.
The activists Elam discusses in his book are just that: activists. They keep moving, keep acting, even though all ways forward are blocked. What do they do, how do they live? What choices do they make in a world that has denied them any meaningful freedom—if we take freedom to name the ability to make a choice and to act on that choice. Elam downplays the political acts that these Indian activists performed. That’s probably a weakness in his book. But this downplaying has two functions: one, to starkly dramatize his central question of what to do when the future is foreclosed, and two, to allow him to highlight an alternative politics, a politics that is not oriented to actions designed to create a future. A politics of living in the insufferable present, a politics “in the meantime” (3).
It is a politics precisely because it seeks an alternative to the regimes of mastery. This politics turns its back on (even at times explicitly renounces and refutes) the marshalling of resources that yields the tyrannies of most political projects, including colonialism. Against the command and utilize structure of efforts to produce a future, this politics aims for egalitarian moments of collective togetherness that produce nothing, that offer a fleeting experience of sociality for its own sake. The model feels aestheticist because of this focus on the non-utilitarian, on that which is done for its own sake. George Simmel thought of “sociability” in these terms. Simmel was thinking about the person who loves to throw a good party (Mrs. Dalloway). There is no thought of what is to be gained by throwing the party; it has no aim other than of bringing people together. Mrs. Dalloway tells us that she throws her parties “for life,” as a tribute to life. She has a “gift”—and fights back against those who consider calling her “a perfect hostess” is a sneer. The present is all—although death does come to her party when she learns of Septimus’s suicide. The party is not a denial of death, but a way of attending to the preciousness of each moment in the face of that inevitable future death. Death—and other imagined futures that are less inevitable—do not justify sacrificing the present.
What practices embody this politics of the present? Elam’s quartet—Lala Har Dayal, B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi, and Baghat Singh—didn’t throw a lot of parties. What they did do, a lot, was read and write. Hence my unjust crack in my last post that when the going gets tough, the tough pick up a book. Reading is certainly a line of flight, a way to escape the insufferable present into another place. There is an imperative need to envision an elsewhere—be it Canada, a utopian future, or the world offered by a book—when present circumstances are soul- and life-destroying. And Elam’s book brings home just how bookish radicals on the left are. Even Stalin had pretensions to being a scholar. Most revolutionaries read voraciously—and their revolutionary convictions stemmed almost as much from their reading as from their direct experiences of oppression and injustice.
Elam, however, is not interested in the convictions that underwrite one’s disgust with the present. Rather—and this is his book’s greatest strength—he develops a particular ethos of reading. It is not the only possible way to understand the practice of reading, but it is a way that he argues (persuasively) is shared by philology and anticolonial politics in the period between the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis stands for Elam (as it did for Edward Said) as the exemplary text of a philological practice of reading that announces its own incompleteness, inadequacy, and non-totalizing, fragmentary forays into interpreting a world and its texts. That world, those books, will always exceed any effort to comprehend it, so that the individual philologist is always already engaged in a collective project, contributing his or her mite, to a project that aims not so much at achieving comprehension (in every sense of that word) as at creating fellowship (“fraternity” in the work of B. R. Ambedkar) through the ongoing conversation. We are all readers together, struggling to parse a difficult text, occupants of a kind of Borgesian library where the effort to understand does not generate despair and competition, but fellow feeling, cooperation, and (perhaps) delight in the world’s endless intricacies (good and bad).
One concrete form this practice of reading takes is the commonplace book (103-105). As distinct even from the anthology (which is aggressively curated and annotated by its editors), the commonplace book simply presents snippets one by one in an egalitarian jumble. We can identify the one who has compiled the commonplace book, but he or she is certainly not an author and only a very minimalist editor. The compiler is assembling a fellowship—and joining its ranks. Elam sees such work as “the assertion of one’s own radical inconsequentiality, commonness, and accessibility” (105).
And then proceeds to explain why this self-abnegation of the reader is political.
“An ethics rooted in inconsequence refuses future possible outcomes in favor of an investment in the secular (that is, non-transcendent) present. For Leela Gandhi [from whom Elam derives his attention to “inconsequence’], this is a political gesture: “we democratize our consciousness by sacrificing our telos,” she notes. If inconsequentialism names “ a force of interruption in the worldly drama of repetition, reproduction, and duplication, so that newness might reenter the world,” inconsequentialist reading is the practice of a revolutionary anti-authorial recalcitrance that both inaugurates and is made possible by a certain worldly commitment to the common, the impossible, and the ephemeral present” (105).
A radical politics of renunciation. The list of what is renounced is long: hope for a better future, faith in one’s self as an effective actor, surrender to the myriad voices of a multitudinous world, and acceptance (even affirmation?) of the massive territory of the impossible. But where, Elam and Leela Gandhi ask, has our allegiance to schemes for betterment gotten us: just the deadly repetitions yielded by our efforts at mastery.
Mine is not a renouncing temperament. And it is all too easy to sneer at the Western academics espousing renunciation even as they carefully build their CVs. But Elam’s book brought home to me, in the starkest terms, the issue of how one lives (day to day in the most mundane ways) in a present one despises yet cannot escape. The answer, at least for me if I am honest (and I suspect my case is not so different from many others), is that I read and write “against the day” since few other outlets for protest or action are open to me. I do contribute to political causes (what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”) and attend the odd protest or two. I agonize over the daily news, but somehow feel it a duty to keep up even while it does my spirits or the larger society no good. And I take lots of “moral holidays.” The term is from William James—and he did not mean it negatively. He simply wanted to note that all of us give ourselves breathers; we take a respite from worrying about or even suffering from the state of the world. We go on a picnic and even manage not to feel in the least bit guilty about it.
For me, reading is very often one of those moral holidays. It is not political in the ways that Elam describes. But it is true that reading can offer the deep consolation of learning that there are others who feel as I do about the current state of things, and who have ways of articulating or explaining our mess that resonate with me. Edmund White has written movingly about how his reading of Proust and Genet during his Ohio boyhood allowed him to understand there was not only nothing wrong with him as a homosexual, but that there was a world, a fellowship, out there that he could join. Reading Hardy, Joyce, and Woolf as a teenager had the same effect on me; there was a world beyond the suburban desert of my hometown—and I was going to leave and join that world.
The point is that reading is often very solitary—and an escape from one’s surroundings. But that reading can also intimate that an “elsewhere” exists—and is already occupied by those one would like to have as fellows. The politics therein focuses on the imagined “republic of letters,” or the “world literature” referenced in Elam’s title. No matter that countless tales of disillusionment reveal that world to be petty, cutting, and back-biting once achieved. In the space of reading, the fleeting utopian fellowship of equals that Elam invokes offers its escape. I still think turning that image into a politics requires a way to get from here to there. But it is, of course, just that kind of calculation that Elam rejects. So: is reading just a “moral holiday” if we don’t try to make its egalitarian allurements, its invitation to join a world we want to belong to, “real”? Are we to leave those awakened desires in the world of fiction, accepting they are impossible to realize in the non-fictional world?
A short digression: worth thinking about the ways in which the internet allows every sub-community discover that it has it adherents. White, the isolated gay Ohioan, finds his similars through books. Now deeply devoted fans of the Dick van Dyke Show discover they are not alone—and form chat rooms followed up by conventions. No avocation is too obscure or too outré to not have its quorum.
Elam is striving to articulate an anticolonial politics. On the one hand, that politics is trying to escape the massive damage that has been done by fantasies/practices of mastery and the infinite demands of productivity, accumulation, and the quest for profit. On the other hand, he is trying to imagine a politics that deals with the ethical question of how to live in a world that refutes our most basic desires for justice, an end to suffering, and love between one human and another.
That second, ethical, question—how to live—can be put in stark existential terms that make it seem less political and more just a matter of responding to the human condition. Elam hits that existential bedrock in the following passage:
“What does it mean to read in the face of death? What does it mean to read without seeking mastery or expertise? What does it mean, therefore, to read without consequence?” (104).
Most academics read in order to have fodder for their own writing. They rarely read without thinking about how what they are reading is going to drive their own production of a new text. Writers are harvesters from the books they read. But there is a limit, there is an impossible future: namely the future of one continuing to live and write without end. No one gets to cheat death—everything we might do to cheat death is inconsequential, cannot have the consequences those actions aim toward.
So maybe one fundamental political question to ask is: how do we live together on this earth in face of the fact that the future for every single one of us is foreclosed? If we accept our radical lack of mastery in the face of death, does that have consequences for how we should arrange our relations to one another and to the world we inhabit? What would follow (and this is the burden of much of Judith Butler’s recent work) is we accepted our radical equality in this matter of dying (instead of seeing some people as less consequential, as more dispensable, as more acceptable victims of mortality)? I am trying to register here why Elam’s book moved me so deeply. It goes against almost all of my instincts, but opening myself to his eloquent meditations, leads me to seeing how the pretension to mastery is just that: a pretension. Elam adds that it is a pretension that only generates misery—in the short and the long runs. So: can we abandon that pretension? What does it look like to abandon it? And what practices and politics follow if we succeed in this act or renunciation? There are paradoxes here, to be sure, since to talk of “acts” and what “follows” them as I do in my last sentence returns us to the ground of the consequences of doing things, but Elam’s book has convinced me that the difficulties of thinking through impossibility and non-mastery should not short circuit the effort to do so