Homelessness

Terry Eagleton

  • States of Fantasy by Jacqueline Rose
    Oxford, 183 pp, £20.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 818280 5

In the days of F.R. Leavis, English literary criticism was wary of overseas, a place saddled with effete, Latinate languages without pith or vigour. Proust is relegated to a lofty footnote in Leavis’s The Great Tradition; one of the few foreign writers approved by the Scrutineers, apart from those like James and Conrad who had had the decency to settle in the Home Counties, was Tolstoy, who could be read as a kind of D.H. Lawrence without the sex and the mines.

For post-colonial criticism today, the position is largely reversed: Englishness is a sort of spiritual disability and literature begins at Calais. One good reason for this is that a younger generation of critics has spurned the chauvinism which once made Bunyan as much an arm of empire as the Boy Scouts. Another, more dodgy, reason has to do with the political paralysis of the British Left. Before Thatcher, radical critics in Britain could find enough political potential at home to keep them occupied. Now, with the near-demise of socialism and the shackling of the labour movement, political struggles have increasingly to be exported to the Third World. Post-Structuralists have turned to Africa and the Caribbean; the feminist critic Jacqueline Rose, who is also Jewish, has turned in this collection of Clarendon Lectures to Israel and South Africa; and the odd middle-aged Marxist has discovered a stomping-ground in Ireland, which if not exactly Third World hovers somewhere around the one-and-a-half mark.

There are other reasons for this stampede from Trotsky to Trinidad. If culture is to be politicised, then it is more convenient, as well as a good deal more important, to attend to post-colonial cultures which are thoroughly politicised already, rather than to examine the ideological subtext of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some younger literary critics, along with a few survivors from the Sixties, would understandably like to feel that what they are doing is more like working on glaucoma than on water imagery in the early Eliot. And indeed in a sense it is, since literature is all about subjectivity, and though this used to be part of the problem (is criticism just ‘subjective’?), it can always shift over to join the solution. For subjectivity read identity, and then find in that concept a crucial link between culture and politics. It is embarrassing that while some avant-garde critics are promoting the notion of identity, their colleagues down the corridor are busy deconstructing it; but at least identity has more political clout as a critical term than syntagm or synecdoche.

Culture in the everyday sense of the term is the very medium in which feminists, ethnic activists and revolutionary nationalists have been busy inflecting their political demands, so that radical critics who turn to these questions find the connections they are fumbling for already forged for them in reality. It saves you a lot of tedious spadework. All this will then get you out from under F.R. Leavis, even if in another sense it will land you right back alongside him. For the Leavis now ritually caricatured by left-wing critics (including Rose) as a mere élitist and reactionary was much concerned, in however hopelessly idealist a way, with the broader sense of culture; he furiously lambasted the narrowly academic study of literature, launched an ambitious movement in cultural politics and helped to inaugurate what in later hands was to emerge as cultural studies. The governing metaphor in Rose’s study, deployed with splendid resourcefulness, is of unconscious histories, buried affiliations, broken and rejoined lines of influence; and the uncharted route which leads back from post-colonial theory to the aggressively parochial Leavis is one of the less predictable.

Culture, however, is a problematic way into politics. It sounds a richer, more intimate affair than, say, proportional representation; but the post-colonial critic Robert Young has recently reminded us of just what racist, imperial baggage this apparently suggestive notion carries with it from the anthropologising 19th century. Jacqueline Rose has her own suspicions of that brand of literary politics for which culture is everything. Political criticism has had much more to say of culture than it has of the modern state. It has, to be sure, had something to say about the Early Modern state, as with Foucault and the New Historicism, where the theatrical violence of absolutism makes a dubious appeal to the aesthetic sensibility. But a political criticism which is silent on citizenship, democracy, human rights, none of which is a particularly aesthetic matter, is as truncated a discourse as a biological science which has nothing to say of breathing. In a similar way, much Western post-colonial criticism has been rather coy about the economic. Whatever the relations between North and South are about, they are not in the first place about something called culture, however much they might implicate it.

Rose’s title, States of Fantasy, is a bold attempt to repair this omission. The phrase yokes together the political and psychoanalytic: ‘state’ belongs to the language of modernity, ‘fantasy’ to a Freudian idiom which is at once part of that modernity and an archaic drag on it. In coupling these concepts, Rose is out to demolish what she considers, a bit questionably, to be perhaps the greatest fantasy of all, namely the assumption that fantasy itself belongs solely to some private, indeterminate realm set over against the robust public certitudes of the political. On the contrary, Rose claims, to be in a state is more like being ‘in a state’ than we care to imagine, even if the one involves an assertion of authority and the other a dissolution of it. Fantasy and collective political identities go together like Laurel and Hardy, and the august authority of the state, as Edmund Burke was aware, is a version of the sublime superego. There is that within any political power which is excessive, self-undoing, and so a threat to its untrammelled sovereignty. Daydreams of homecoming, nightmares of rootlessness, fetishism of the land: these are psychic scenarios which, in the Middle East and elsewhere, break loose from the privacy of the bedroom to issue in the dispossession or threatened destruction of whole peoples. Indeed the very term ‘land’ is cusped between the material and the mythological. It is fantasy which is solid, and political identities which are fragile. When Freud wrote of the unconscious in London, he was himself stateless.

Rose is a little ambiguous about whether political states are reducible to fantasies, rest on them, have a material reality despite them or are real to the extent that fantasies are too. There is a tension here between her Post-Structuralist wariness of a world independent of what we make of it, and her political sense that apartheid and intifada are all too obdurate. That tension emerges in other ways too. Post-Structuralists are sceptical of such notions as nationhood, belonging, foundation, collective identity, smacking as they do of metaphysical homesickness and violent homogenising. Much of this book is devoted to unhinging these certainties, and it does so with rare brilliance. But a Post-Structuralist who is also a pro-Palestinian Jew, and so alert to two forms of statelessness, is rather a different matter. As Rose is well aware, dismissive talk of nationhood, an eager embracing of diaspora and a delight in fluid identities ring a little hollow on the West Bank. Similarly, those in Ireland today who are enthusiasts for the deconstructed subject are more often to be found in suburban Dublin than on the Falls Road. But they do, nevertheless, have a point: the problem is how not to fall prey to lethal myths of national destiny without thereby giving oneself carte blanche to rob others of their territory. States of Fantasy considers this dilemma with admirable judiciousness, refusing any heady post-colonial affirmation of hybridity (getting under each other’s skin, she remarks, is common enough with historic antagonists), while giving no quarter to the more paranoid forms of ethnic identity. The one, Rose comments, may just be the flipside of the other: it is those who have lost the minimal conditions for identity who yearn to be falsely secure. If the Jewish people have been romanticised by some Post-Modernists as that which eludes all fixed meaning, this is hardly the way they talk in the Knesset. Identity may know no bounds, but neither does national security.

The problem, then, one for feminists as much as for post-colonial peoples, is how ‘the dispossessed can claim their legitimate rights without taking on the psychic trappings of the oppressor’. The short answer, no doubt, is that they can’t. It is a question of how much of that baggage they are forced to take on board, and how much it might matter. For one so alert to complexity Rose doesn’t really ponder the distinctions between, say, ethnic and civic forms of nationalism, or between blatantly mythical ideas of territorial possession and more reasonable notions of ownership. At one point she welcomes the idea of a provisional identity, while on another page all assertion of identity has become ‘false self-consistency’. But if her book fails to resolve the problem it broaches, it is probably because no merely theoretical resolution is in any case possible. When it comes to affirming an identity without colluding with the logic of those who have stripped you of it, you just have to try it and see what happens.

It is de rigueur nowadays for radical critics to take a swipe at Englishness; one such exercise forms perhaps the weakest chapter of this book. It is easier to negotiate the ambivalence of national identity if you take an instance of it which strikes you as resoundingly negative. But this rather predictable sniping is followed by a beautifully subtle reflection on the notion of justice, which once more draws politics and psychoanalysis together. Whereas Derrida has somewhat peremptorily pronounced justice the only concept immune to deconstruction (why not then mercy as well?), Rose stubbornly refuses to disentangle it from fantasy. In a quasi-Nietzschean critique of Kantian ethics, she seeks to restore the dimension of desire to a rationalist model of justice which needs to renounce it. Justice, as she points out, is after all something we hanker for as well as think about; and whether my rights are secured depends more on the desire and recognition of the other than on myself, as the Israelis are well aware. Kantian or Rawlsian ethics seem to Rose a little touched in the head, with their superegoic delusions of utterly self-possessed subjects. But this may be a case of her taking on the oppressor’s psychic trappings. Like many Post-Structuralists, she seems to assume that such ethics are the very paradigm of moral discourse, and so understandably tries to take them apart. If one did not so confidently identify morality with Kant in the first place, one would not need to rush so eagerly to deconstruct it. Freud makes much the same mistake, identifying morality with terroristic ideals which just rub our noses in our own failure. This is the concept of the Mosaic law promoted by those anti-semitic Christians who see all Jews as Pharisees, though it was not the concept of the Pharisees either. The Judaic law is one of merciful love, not the projection of some sadistic superego. Freud (and Rose along with him) can’t understand how you can love your neighbour as yourself since they both confuse eros with agape. (Which is not to suggest that they are unrelated.) Loving your neighbour as yourself has nothing to do with how you feel about her, which is why Freud’s self-regarding protestations about how precious a commodity love is, and how it just won’t stretch that far, are beside the point. Where the book is on more fertile ground is in its acute suggestion that ethical universality is both just and unjust together, thus upending both Kantians and Post-Modernists at a stroke. The best treatise on this topic is known as Measure for Measure.

Ever since the Seventies, there have been heated debates on the cultural left about the convergence between politics and psychoanalysis, two ways of talking which seem at once seductively akin and poles apart. It was not, of course, a wholly new topic, but while the politics in question were Marxist, not much theoretical headway was made. Once the political focus shifted to gender and ethnicity, to human beings split and blocked in their social conditions as well as in the psyche, fresh insights began to emerge. But they were still for the most part framed at a rebarbatively abstract level. Part of the achievement of Rose’s book is to crank this whole discussion down to Realpolitik, of which literary types are in general notably nervous, while sacrificing nothing of her theoretical sophistication. The questions she poses are not ‘What are the relations between society and the unconscious?’, but ‘How, in a racially and ethnically mixed culture, can you get pluralism without potentially violent antagonism? What are the affective or psychic conditions of a genuine democracy?’ Like most Post-Structuralists, she is happier when emphasising difficulties than providing solutions, a syndrome which used to be known as liberalism; but this is a work as intimate with the detail of Israeli politics as it is with Jacques Lacan. It is also, one imagines, itself something of a homecoming, a reclaiming of buried territory, and so an instance of what it analyses. Rose is an intellectual of the diaspora who, after a long detour through theory, has turned back to base in order to know the place for the first time, in all of its embracing, excluding difference.