Unbearable Identites

This page describes in detail my current book manuscript.

Unbearable Identities: The Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki (under review)

Unbearable Identities argues that modern subjectivity has been definitively shaped by global circuits of ideas and representations of cultural others. This claim is made against the dominant view that the modern subject is marked most profoundly by the rise of interiority and reflexive understanding about local cultural norms.  For a line of writers from Michel de Montaigne through Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frantz Fanon, and D.T. Suzuki, personal and cultural identity were not the goals, but rather the unbearable limiting conditions of modern subjectivity. They responded to and critiqued each other’s ideas about global subjectivity over a four-hundred-year period that spanned five continents. The task they set themselves was to develop a way of being in the world that could bear the weight of this new, global existence. Unbearable Identities describes and evaluates their attempts, unfolding this never-before-told interconnected history of the quest for a global self that began with Montaigne’s encounter with the Tupi and culminated in Suzuki’s invention of modern Zen in America.

Crucial to this history is the idea that global subjectivity is not a given but an achievement. We are always effected by the world, but only by elucidating those effects do we become global subjects. For these writers, then, the global could not be thought in abstraction, but only through the transformation of both self and world, or what I call, extending and critiquing the late work of Michel Foucault, “practices of the global self.” The engagement with Foucault that runs throughout the book is part of a broader claim I am advancing that because we have missed the globality of modernity, we have often mis-theorized the modern and, as such, developed frail points of intervention. Foucault, for example, argued that Hellenic “practices of the self” had been lost in the scientism of modernity. I aver, to the contrary, that practices of the self did not disappear, but rather globalized in the modern era. Montaigne’s skepticism, Schiller’s aesthetic, Emerson’s double consciousness, Suzuki’s Zen koans – all of these were practices formulated explicitly to make us into new kinds of global subjects. To intervene in practices of the self today, then, we cannot tell a history of Western thought and its decline from the ancients to now, as Foucault does, but must rather engage it on these global terrains.

One of the key practices of the global self in this tradition was writing itself. The essay form has often been considered a tool of the private modern self as she explores her own thoughts and words in writing. But from Montaigne’s Essays through Emerson’s Essays and into Suzuki’s Essays, what we see, in fact, are writers using their words to understand how their private self relates to the broader world. Unbearable Identities tracks five modes of essay writing: skeptical, teleological, alternating, emptying, and revolutionary. It shows how these forms of writing are related to the kinds of global selves that these authors championed. Furthermore, I make a case for the essay form as a critique of disciplinarity and periods. The connection between Montaigne, Emerson, and Suzuki, for example, simply does not fit within the purview of any single discipline as these authors reach into literature, philosophy, anthropology, and religion. Nor, clearly, can they be thought of with respect to a period. But the connection is obvious and fundamental – Emerson, after all, took his title from Montaigne, as Suzuki did from Emerson. Moreover, the thematic of the global self unites their writing. Following a genre (as Bruce Robbins has suggested) and a theme (as Eric Hayot has suggested), Unbearable Identities thus lays new scholarly ground in thinking about the long, global history of the essay in the construction of the modern self.

The concept of “unbearable identities” is tied to the normative argument that I argue emerges from this history. The first moment when identity becomes unbearable is when it can no longer support the subject in their quest to become a complete self. But the desire to become a global subject is as fraught as this private identity. For writers like Kant and Hegel (the teleological essayists), the unbearable identity can only be overcome through a kind of new, universal, cosmopolitan identity grounded in a federation of states. Claims such as these produce two new forms of the unbearable identity: this Atlas-like attempt to prescribe a way of being for the whole world is more than any individual thinker can bear, and, in attempting to do so, they conscript others into unbearable identities as cogs within their universal machine. More than this, in fact, they tell others that they are stuck in “primitive” identities which they must transcend in order to live up to globality. For revolutionary essayists like Fanon and W.E.B. Du Bois, it is this unbearable imposition of identity that must be overcome for global selves to emerge. From a different angle, Suzuki responded that identity as such was unbearable, and the only way to truly be global was to lose our egoistic self. Yet this, too, produces an unbearable identity: both because it creates a mystic non-self as a truth for all, and because the resulting post-self, as even Suzuki admitted, cannot bear the weight of the practical decisions needed in daily life.

To truly overcome the unbearable identities of global life, I argue, we need to become “radical pluralists,” an idea that I trace to Emerson and Du Bois. The idea of radical pluralism is that the plurality of identity goes all the way down – across cultures, individuals, and natures. Traditional pluralism preserves unbearable identities because it encases individuals within cultural norms. Radical pluralism frees subjects to experience the world as they actually do: replete with multiple dispositions, norms, and tendencies. The task of the radically pluralist subject is thus to learn to “alternate” (as Emerson puts it) between different modes depending on the situation. They do not prescribe a single identity for themselves or others, nor do they attempt to evade the need of learning about one’s self and others that is central to modern life. Rather, they learn to share the burden of global being, both in themselves and with others. Radical pluralism is also itself plural, and key to the idea is that it is different for different subjects – something that I show through a comparison of the idea in Emerson and Du Bois. My book itself works to embody radical pluralism in each of its analyses as it shows the contributions of each thinker and style of writing, while also pointing out their limitations with respect to the normative frame of avoiding unbearable identities.

The book moves across discipline including comparative literature, global intellectual history, the history of anthropology, Buddhist studies, political theory, and critical and postcolonial theory more broadly. While mine is not a standard book of postcolonial criticism, postcolonial critics have thus far done the most to work out this more global history of thought (although new globalizing trends across the disciplines are beginning to contribute). This is especially so with respect to what I, following David Scott, would call its “constitutive” claims – that is, its claims about how global, colonial history constitutes modern identities and ideas. My contribution to this debate is to show the tremendous power colonialism had on conceptual developments with which it is rarely associated. Recent work by Susan Buck-Morss and Timothy Brennan, for example, has shown how Hegel’s dialectic applied to the Haitian Revolution and colonialism more generally, but it does not consider how colonialism was fundamental in shaping the concept itself. One of the arguments across Unbearable Identities is that the modern dialectic of self and other can be traced back to Rousseau’s reading about primitive life in the Americas, and that to understand both the concept and its place in our lives requires “reconstituting” such histories. This is even important for modern Zen, since Suzuki often describes Zen as becoming a subject very much like Rousseau’s ideal, albeit through different means. Through examples like these, and in dialogue with other postcolonial critics, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sankar Muthu, and Gayatri Spivak, I show the importance of this ongoing work of reconstitution.

A primary aim of the book is to connect these insights into broader research on the modern self. I argue that the idea of a self-contained West does not fully comprehend what modern subjectivity is. In addition to the primary engagement with Foucault, then, I also discuss the relevance of this expanded global frame for critics such as Stanley Cavell and Charles Taylor. For Cavell, for example, the perfectionist Emersonian subject is “unhandsome” in the sense that she unhands claims to grasping knowledge and respects the human condition as one of reception and acknowledgement. I argue that an Emersonian subject – on Emerson’s own terms – also must unhand the truth claims of any given culture, and be receptive to plural ways of life. Equally, the “sources” of the modern self are not only to be found in a lineage that can be traced from Plato and Augustine through the dueling discourses of science and romanticism, as Taylor has it, but also encompass an ongoing desire to connect the self to the world, and to learn other global practices, including animism, anti-rationalism, and meditation.

These claims about the global origins of modern subjectivity change how we read writers beyond Europe as well. Rather than reading Fanon and Du Bois as reactive to Western modernity, for example, I show how they participated in and advanced this global conversation. This is similarly true for my concluding chapter on how this extensive history matters for contemporary Buddhist studies, as well as the critical theory of aesthetics through Suzuki’s influence on John Cage. While appreciating the claims of Suzuki critics in religious studies such as Bernard Faure, David McMahan, and Robert Sharf, and Cage critics in critical theory including Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and Branden Joseph, I show how they all rely on the assumption that Suzuki “Westernized” Zen, or that Zen in Cage is an empty mystical philosophy. Showing how Suzuki and Cage build on and engage the history of global subjectivity laid out in the rest of the book, I make a case for their importance as global theorists in our day.

In sum, the book will make three primary moves. First, it gives an expanded account of the centrality of cross-cultural engagement to modern intellectual history, offering a “geo-history” of modern concepts and practices of the self. It thickens previous accounts through its extended scope back to Montaigne and forward to Suzuki, while it also disputes some of the claims about individual authors made by individual critics. Second, by turning to Transcendentalism’s radical pluralism rather than Idealism’s (or deconstruction’s) ontological universalism (as we see in Brennan, Buck-Morss, Cheah, Muthu, and Spivak), I move past the universal ontologies that belie so much of postcolonial theory’s claims to diversification. Finally, this study represents one of the first extended engagements with critical Buddhist studies within global and postcolonial theory. It both shows the value of Buddhism for such theories, and shows how such theories can help us reframe modern Buddhism not as a simple Westernization, but rather as a significant innovation in an ongoing history of global thought. Overall, then, Unbearable Identities offers a new history of the modern self as a global project, an ethical argument for specific practices of the global self, and an extended engagement with and critique of some of the major trends in critical and postcolonial theory.