Monday, February 14, 2011

A Few More Thoughts on Kateb

A funny thing about academic writing is that a lot of it is done in pieces. You write a chapter for a conference or for a journal and at some point these get mashed into one text and you have a book. This means that you have the option of reading a book out of order, or of just reading one chapter. That said, when you read an entire book you get to the end and maybe have a little sympathy for the author.

I said yesterday that I was concerned that Kateb's writing comes across as very male. He turns to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman to describe his ideal of the democratic individual. All of these authors are pretty progressive about things like gender and concepts like the hermaphrodite are not unfamiliar to them, though even in their balanced view of the world, the male side generally gets the benefit of the doubt. I think Kateb himself is likely very progressive about these things, but I wish he would think harder about the implications of the word individual because I'm sure the moment we hear the words American Individual, Homer Simpson is probably more likely to pop into our heads instead of say Kima from The Wire. In other words, Kateb's individual is more than likely white and male.

I further suspect that the individual comes from a privileged position because Kateb finds groups to be the root of most evil (I would say all, but I wouldn't ascribe to anyone so thoughtful such an all-encompassing word.) Kateb is consistent on this point - he finds identifying oneself with any group to be problematic, whether that group is a nation, an army, or a group with some commonality. I see his point - he wants to avoid absorption into the whole and the potential for docility that comes with joining others in solidarity (what a rational choice person might call a collective action problem.)

This is something that only someone in an insular academic setting for their entire life could possibly come up with because they really haven't had to deal with the day-to-day bullshit of systems that consistently kick you in the ass because you are female or black or brown or someone who pursues some alternate lifestyle. Those of us who do feel it daily find hope in groups and see them as necessary to finding individual freedom and rights. Kateb, I'm sure, would say that these groups are okay because they are either a) temporary or b) in contestation of government. But the groups I'm thinking of are ongoing in a fight and not necessarily against government. I myself identify as a feminist and see this as a group I will be a part of for my entire life and what I fight isn't necessarily part of a government institution.

Kateb spends a few pages on Foucault in a way that is interesting to me. He brushes everyone's favorite theorist of docile bodies aside because he thinks that Foucault doesn't understand the complexity of the individual. In other words, Kateb's individual isn't docile because his individual is too complex to be formed by being named an individual. I think quite the opposite. Foucault sees the individual as so complex that docility requires a certain internal strength to see where one is being defined and to slowly undo the systems of oppressive definition within ourselves.

Which is also why I think groups can be important to the individual. How do you recognize that you are docile? Perhaps when you talk with a friend and recognize you manifest the same behaviors that have contributed to your oppression. Foucault encourages critical thinking within the individual and part of that critical thinking, I would argue, is to recognize what disciplines you and those like you adopt.

I wonder if Kateb is weak on this point because he sees the only real threat to the individual as governmental. Other individual-threatening entities, in particular the corporation, enter no where into his argument. I’m not the only one who notices this – Thomas Dumm notes, “His [Kateb’s] admirable faith in the capacity of all of us in our own ways to participate in liberal democratic culture sometimes operates as a rhetoric for evading a confrontation with the most damaging conditions created and sustained by its corporate underpinnings (33).”

Where I do fall in love with Kateb, though, is at the end of The Inner Ocean when he talks about Whitman. I think I mentioned before that I love Whitman. He's so earthy and weird. I can't help but feel moved by Whitman. Kateb writes about Whitman in the final chapter and he is so very earnest and honest. Here his individual takes on some depth. Kateb's Whitman-reading individual loves life and seeks it out in themselves and in others, and in doing so leaves room for all manner of being. This I love and can totally endorse.

Things I Read While Writing This
The Inner Ocean by George Kateb
united states by Thomas L. Dumm
I also thought about Foucault in a very general way, but didn't think about one particular text.

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate:

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