Saturday, May 3, 2008

other others and other discussions of such matters as...

...race, class, gender and physiology.

I usually reserve my commentaries on the New York Review of Books’ new issue for my blog, where it fits into a year and a half of growing commentary on the human condition and its discontents.

But since all the readers of joculum already know what I am going to say, I offer this as a quick contribution to the nonexistent dialogue of Counterforces.

I remain fascinated with the implicit editorial interests of NYRB and how often the publication combines its progressive politics with its assumption that the literate politically committed individual needs to be up on the alterations of science and of the European cultural inheritance at the same time as the basics of the postcolonial debate, race, class, gender, and physiology alongside traditional academic disciplines with a little street organizing thrown in alongside modestly revisionist art history.

I want to skip over a good many topics and just mention ever so briefly the juxtaposition of the review essay on Herodotus…the Father of Cultural Studies as much as Thucydides is the Father of Neo-Conservative Politics, as witness who likes to read which (and I, for the record, bogged down on Thucydides freshman year of college and Have Always Meant to Get Round to Reading the other)…to have that more or less next to a quick overview of the way in which the study of chimpanzees influenced the politically loaded discussions of human nature and the degree to which genetic inheritance can be counterbalanced by the adaptability that those critical few genetic differences bestowed upon the human species…and to wind up the issue with a survey of Michel de Certeau, in some depth. Certeau is another one of those cultural theorists more cited than read, in part because his issues have also been raised in part by a good many Anglo-American thinkers, some of whom actually engaged in dialogue with his contributions to the global conversations he helped shape. (I typed “conservations,” and readers of joculum will know I always record my Freudian Typos even when they seem to be merely mechanical.)

Certeau is interested in how otherness gets shaped, and his discussions of the Other seem a whole lot more relevant to the actual conditions of history than all those other Others that led to the discussion of how other we should let the Other be because after all, he she or it was Other.

Human beings, as Herodotus’ infinite curiosity was wont to reveal, like exotica about as much as they hate it. Cultures go to great lengths to enhance or suppress the natural human tendency (yes, natural, goddamn it) to take an interest in the unfamiliar or to be sensibly or excessively afraid that the unfamiliar might be injurious.

Clever purveyors of Otherness in cycles of trade from distant antiquity onward have known how to market themselves as entertaining curiosities with something worth buying, rather than dreaded potential adversaries to be cut down on sight. Unfortunately, the would-be marketers have seldom known all the rules of the new game, and countless thousands have been cut down on sight anyway. A smaller number have been welcomed on arrival as long-expected missing pieces of the others’ cultural puzzle, only to have the others perceive their self-interested scams a bit too late.

NYRB likes to publish lots of examples of cultural collisions in which both parties felt certain that the other was disrespecting them. (This makes its reportage on Iraq particularly interesting.) With that in mind, we might want to circle round from Certeau’s histories of the reception of otherness of all sorts, and re-read Sanford Schwartz’s essay on Frida Kahlo’s painting The Suicide of Dorothy Hale with which the issue begins. And then re-read George Soros’ take on the global economic crisis, and make our way back down the table of contents.

Usually I am incapable of reading an issue without posting about six thousand words of theoretical interconnections. But joculumites already know the conclusions I am going to draw, and usually don’t bother to read them.

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