Ethnocentric Criticism

Before (or after) reading my scattered musings in this post I’d urge you, if you haven’t read it before, to give your attention to Aijaz Ahmad’s essay entitled Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”. Written in 1987 it is somewhat dated, and bears a tedious title. That aside, it is a surgical and incisive demolition of the concept of ‘third-world literature,’ and much of academic postcolonial theory.

I shall argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “third-world literature” which can be constructed as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge. There are fundamental issues-of periodisation, social and linguistic formations, political and ideological struggles within the field of literary production, and so on-which simply cannot be resolved at this level of generality without an altogether positivist reductionism.

Ahmad develops his argument to challenge the Three Worlds Theory, or at least Jameson’s conception of the theory. (It is here that the outdated part of the essay is most obvious, in the use of ‘Second World’ to mean socialist countries.) Nevertheless his argument is illuminating.

Elsewhere Ahmad has written (and hints in this essay), about the tendency of the élite or relatively upper class writers and philosophers from developing nations to be raised to canonical status in the West, simply as they are afforded more opportunity and access. Those from a working class background tend to go untranslated or unpublished.

Not, of course, that this is problem only for developing nations. Pierre Bourdieu is his “not-autobiography” Sketch for Self-Analysis contrasts the status (and volume of published work, secondary criticism etc.) of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, both from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, with Georges Canguilhem (as a young boarder he didn’t know what wash-basins were for) and by insinuation himself.

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.