Secular Collectivity

Thursday, April 24, 2008

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Unit for Criticism

[This short piece was originally presented at the “Erich Auerbach and the Future of Criticism” conference on April 18, 2008 here at Illinois as part of a roundtable on “Auerbach and Edward Said.” The other panelists were Jed Esty and conference co-organizer Manuel Rota. The conference focused especially on the legacy of Auerbach’s great book Mimesis, which he wrote while in exile from Nazism in Istanbul. In American critical discourse, Edward Said’s many discussions and invocations of Auerbach and the circumstances of the writing of Mimesis have helped make the German-Jewish scholar a recurring topos for discussions of comparative and world literature.]

I am interested in how Said draws on Auerbach as a model for the intellectual and as a point of departure or Ansatzpunkt for issues of commitment and cultural legacy. In the relation between Said and Auerbach I see a series of tensions that remain unresolved: between the individual and the collective; between part and whole; between home and homelessness; between critique and affirmation; and ultimately between what, with a nod to Jean-Luc Nancy, I would call common being and being-in-common. At stake is the question of whether commitment and cultural legacy can be rethought from the grounds of being-in-common instead of common being—that is, from the grounds of a community without essence.

In a 1998 essay in Critical Inquiry, Aamir Mufti has most convincingly drawn out the implications for the discussion of Auerbach as an intellectual model for Said, and he refers, rightly, I think, to Said’s 1983 essay “Secular Criticism,” the introduction to The World, the Text, and the Critic. Mufti emphasizes “Auerbach in Istanbul” as Said’s privileged figure of the secular, minority, exiled intellectual. Since Emily Apter’s essay on Spitzer and Auerbach in Istanbul (now collected in The Translation Zone), the empirical picture of Auerbach’s exile has appeared more complicated—and I’m sure that Kader Konuk’s forthcoming work on the writing of Mimesis in Istanbul will give us the definitive account of this moment. My own concern here is less with the historical context of Auerbach’s exile, however, than with its significance for Said and its role in his argument for a secular criticism.

For Said, as Mufti, Bruce Robbins, and others remark, secularism as a critical ideal is not primarily the opposite of religiosity, but rather a skeptical stand toward all forms of nationalism, identity politics, and dogma. (I’ll return to the question of nationalism at the end of this post.) Here is how Said defines criticism:

On the one hand, the individual mind registers and is very much aware of the collective whole, context or situation in which it finds itself. On the other hand, precisely because of this awareness—a worldly self-situating, a sensitive response to the dominant culture—that the individual consciousness is not naturally and easily a mere child of the culture, but a historical and social actor in it. And because of that perspective, which introduces circumstance and distinction where there had only been conformity and belonging, there is distance, or what we might call criticism. A knowledge of history, a recognition of the importance of social circumstance, an analytical capacity for making distinctions: these trouble the quasi-religious authority of being comfortably at home among one’s people, supported by known powers and acceptable values, protected against the outside world. (The World, the Text 15-16)

But if distance and discomfort are central to Said’s conception of the intellectual, they alone do not constitute secular criticism for Said. The opposite, proximity, is also necessary. A few pages later, he writes, “Criticism in short is always situated; it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings. . . . To stand between culture and system is therefore to stand close to—closeness itself having a particular value for me—a concrete reality about which political, moral, and social judgments have to me made and, if not only made, then exposed and demystified” (26). To be “situated” as a secular critic is to be both distant from and proximate to culture. Said captures this paradoxical situatedness in the figure of Auerbach’s tenuous exile at the edge of Europe, in Istanbul.

Said’s favorite figure of this situated, secular intellectual comes from the end of Auerbach’s essay on “Philology and Weltliteratur,” in which, after identifying “the earth” as the philologist’s home instead of the nation, Auerbach goes on to dispossess the critic of any claim to home. He famously cites what Said calls the “exilic credo” of Hugo of St. Victor: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land” (qtd. in The World, the Text 7). In Said’s multiple citations of this passage he makes Hugo a little less unhomely for his readers than he appears in Auerbach’s essay by citing him in English rather than Latin.

The minority intellectual who emerges from the chain of citations linking Hugo to Auerbach to Said is an incredibly compelling figure of engaged dissent or proximate distance, and Said’s summation of this position is all but irresistible: “criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom” (29). In a contribution to a special issue of boundary 2 (2004) on “critical secularism,” Stathis Gourgouris calls such secular criticism an “experimental” attitude and likens it to the genre of the essay, a reference to Adorno’s account of his own aleatory approach in “The Essay as Form” (Adorno is another key minority exile for Said).

But somewhere around here I start to worry about the absolutely anti-systemic tendency of the account of criticism that Said takes, in part, from the model of Auerbach. Auerbach becomes the occasion for Said’s refusal to affiliate with any theoretical movement or critical ideology: he writes that “criticism modified in advance by labels like ‘Marxism’ or ‘liberalism’ is, in my view, an oxymoron” (SC 28). I have two questions about Said’s refusal of system, method, school, and theory and they both turn on questions of collectivity:

First, does Said’s refusal of system risk becoming a methodological individualism? For me, this would be one of the real limits of the figure of Auerbach in Istanbul: it’s a heroic, or perhaps melancholic, but in any case individualist model of the exile, even if the intellectual project involves the reconstruction of various cultural totalities through the synecdochal model of beginning from textual fragments.

Second, does the combination of the secular critique of identity with a methodologically individualist skepticism of system risk writing out the collective energies that theory can represent and that are encoded in the texts of “religiosity,” broadly conceived? Is ideology not a necessary component of political movement and collectivity? The negative critique of secular criticism needs supplementation by the kind of recognition Fredric Jameson offers in the too-little discussed final chapter of The Political Unconscious, which takes up “The Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology.” Jameson provocatively suggests that “all class consciousness—or in other words, all ideology in the strongest sense, including the most exclusive forms of ruling-class consciousness just as much as that of oppositional or oppressed classes—is in its very nature Utopian. . . . insofar as it expresses the unity of a collectivity. The achieved collectivity or organic group of whatever kind—oppressors fully as much as oppressed—is Utopian in itself, but only insofar as all such collectivities are themselves figures for the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society” (PU 289, 291). No doubt, we can hear in Jameson’s use of “figure” in this passage an echo of his teacher Auerbach’s thought, and particularly of the notion of “figural realism” in which the representation of the everyday here and now connects vertically to another realm, here secularized as classless society. While I have some questions about the residually Christian framework of even this secularized model of figuration, I also think it would be worth exploring how Jameson’s insights might provide a way of thinking about the Eurocentric canon represented in Mimesis as a utopian figuration anticipating an even more worldly collectivity—as I believe Said would want us to see it as well.

My questions for Said and Auerbach, then, are these: How do we get from criticism back to collectivity? Can we imagine moving from minority critique to something that we might not want to call majority but that is also not simply oppositional? Is it possible to imagine not just secular criticism but secular collectivity, a being-in-common that does not presuppose common being?


After I gave the talk posted above I read Robert Warrior’s fascinating essay “Native Critics in the World: Edward Said and Nationalism,” his contribution to the 2006 collectively authored book American Indian Literary Nationalism (written with Jace Weaver and Craig S. Womack). Drawing on his own experiences studying with Said, Warrior makes a compelling case that one can be—and indeed that Said was—both a secular critic and a nationalist, and he makes a provocative allusion to the figure of Auerbach in Istanbul:

Said’s articles were included in the one box of research papers and two boxes of books that I mailed to myself when I moved to Pawhuska on the Osage Reservation to draft my dissertation in the spring of 1990. I can . . . remember comparing what I was doing to Said’s description . . . of the impact of exile on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.
In his monumental study of western literature, Auerbach describes the difficulty of composing so ambitious a book after having fled from Nazi Europe to Istanbul, a great city, but one with no library to support such an effort. In moving to Pawhuska, I was the opposite of an exile, someone returning home to do what Taiaiake Alfred would later advocate for Native American Studies, that it come from ‘someplace Indian.’ . . . Thinking in Pawhuska of Auerbach in Istanbul and the importance of that to Said’s self-conception of exile in his life of criticism, I thought of the ironies of how I had come home to the national capital of the Osages only to be reminded of the underdeveloped nature of our life as a nation without, among other things, a library. . . . Reading and rereading The World, the Text, and the Critic as I worked in Pawhuska helped me to learn one of the enduring lessons I took from my work with Edward Said. That was the idea that it is possible to be a critic, a nationalist, a cosmopolitan, and a humanist all at the same time. (191-92)

Although my own project is not a nationalist one, Warrior’s vision of “Native nationalism,” inspired in part by Said, is one that sounds very much like the secular collectivity I call for above—it involves, among other things, a community open to negotiation with internal and external difference. Perhaps most inspiring to me, though, is the fascinating itinerary that is traced here: from the German-Jewish exile in the Islamic world, to the Palestinian Christian based in New York (one of the great “Jewish” cities of the world!), to the cosmopolitan Osage nationalist and critic.

Kader Konuk’s work on Auerbach in Istanbul demonstrates that Auerbach was not the isolated figure there that he is often made out to be; rather he was part of a lively, modern, secularizing, conflicted society that was also host to a large community of refugees. A new vision of the multiply affiliated intellectual that emerges from Auerbach, Said, Konuk, and Warrior seems like a good Ansatzpunkt for thinking further about the possibility of secular collectivity.


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Ted Underwood said...

I think the tension that you've described in this posting is an unavoidable consequence of a critical stance -- unavoidable, at least, for writers who acknowledge themselves as socially situated.

A tension between standing apart and being-in-common is certainly visible in critics' relationship to political community -- but it might also be a useful way to think about their relationship to academic disciplines. And it's not just an issue for professional intellectuals. Satirists, and novelists with a satirical bent, have long had to negotiate a similar dilemma.

The analogy to satire leads me to offer a provisional reply to the question you end on -- "How do we get from criticism back to collectivity?"

I would suggest that this is one of many places where irony is indispensable. At least, that seems to me to be how satirists and novelists have usually gotten away with poking fun at a community while acknowledging their own membership in it.

Of course, some older forms of critical distance aren't secular in the sense you specify; they don't rigorously eschew the premise of a real "common being." But someone like, say, W. H. Auden might be a pretty decent model of the way irony can permit a provisional embrace of provisional forms of being-in-common. In Auden, community is simultaneously undermined and affirmed by the pathos of provisionality. "September 1, 1939" is very directly about this trick, but maybe in too grandiloquent a way; it might be better to point to "Under Which Lyre," the community in question there being the university . . .

I hope someone will connect this abstract issue to the example that is salient at the moment -- which would be secular intellectuals' uneasy relationship to Barack Obama's rhetoric of community. But I don't have the heart to do it. In February, the connection would have been easy to make; but right now, the only philosophical book that comes to mind when I think about Obama is Albert Camus on "The Myth of Sisyphus."

Ted Underwood

Michael Rothberg said...

I like Ted's way of thinking about the problem of collectivity in terms of satire, irony, and provisionality. I think one of the things we most desperately need is more figurations of the collective. No doubt a large part of Obama's appeal involves the promise of a new kind of being-in-common. Or, in any case, I'll admit that promise appeals to me, even though I probably should know better.

I'd be curious to hear if other people have ways they like to think about collectivity (or reasons that they don't!)...

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