Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wishing Away One's Own Existence

Late in the first chapter of Seeing Like a State (discussed in the last post), James Scott has moved on to discussing the pre-revolutionary Russian state and its efforts to make legible the peasantry, in the years after the emancipation of the serfs. While reading this section, I felt uncannily as though I were listening to my old professor of Russian history, George Yaney, talking about "the peasant problem". And then the next thing I know, Scott has mentioned Yaney by name! Much later in the book, he quotes from Yaney’s The Urge to Mobilize thus:
It sometimes seems to me that if I could persuade everyone to say "systematize" each time he wanted to say "liberate" and to say "mobilization" every time he wanted to say "reform" or "progress" I would not have to write long books about government-peasant interaction in Russia.
Well, indeed. And as Scott notes, Yaney could just as easily have been talking about the Leninist USSR .

I previously invoked Professor Yaney, though not by name, in an entry from more than three years ago, in which I touched on the concept of "hauntology", which was then buzzing rather loudly through certain parts of blogville (namely, k-punk & blissblog & others) (by the way, people seem very curious still about hauntology; my two posts—here is the second one—on the topic receive constant hits, more than most anything else I've written here, I think). I wrote that he had one day "said something to the effect that, as horrible as what happened to the Native Americans was, he was nevertheless happy it had happened." And: "To wish otherwise was to wish away his own existence." At the time, I had been reminded of these words by k-punk's observation, viz. Octavia Butler's novel Kindred, that "The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself." (See here for my own take on Kindred, and, while we're at it, though it's not strictly relevant, here on Butler's Parable of the Sower.)

Aside from wanting to note the excitement at seeing my professor's name, I revisit these ideas now in part because I find I am often at risk of wishing away my own existence. When I read history, my sympathies are always with the resisters. And yet were those resisters to have won, at almost any point, my existence would have been not just unlikely, but impossible. (Hell, for me, the Vietnam War was quite possibly a necessary pre-condition for my existence, given when and how my parents got together and decided to get married.) Yes, our lives are all contingent. What I'm trying to get at isn't something so banal as that (at least I hope it isn't). The point is that we are well beyond being merely complicit in the evil of the system. The point, contra my professor's apparent meaning in his remarks, is not that simply because we value our own lives—the fact that we exist—that we thus blithely accept as in a sense good that which led to our existence. I want to be able to re-capture something good in what was lost, while always being aware of the fact that my life—my existence—has depended on that loss. So when I write about not being automatically given to anti-modernity, it is in part to keep upfront that awareness. Since I have been trying to argue that modernization has been, step-by-step, an illegitimate, unjustifiable violence on real people, the maintaining of awareness is meant to make it clear that in any re-capturing I would have much to learn to even be able to survive on a day-to-day basis, and it is meant to make it clear that I am ultimately arguing not just against that which I hate, but against that which I like, that which I take for granted, that which I love.

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