Life Hypnotic with Helene Cixous
In the summer of 2005, in my attempt to complete my collection of Said's writings, I bought a book called Freedom and Interpretation: Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1992 from someone in the UK, in which Said's essay, "Nationalism, Human Rigths, and Interpretation," was included. I was unaware at the time that I already owned this very essay in Said's Reflections on Exile. The question that was put to the lecturers (who included Kristeva, Ricouer, Eagleton, et al.) was: "...consider the consequences of the deconstruction of the self for the liberal tradition. Does the self as construed by the liberal tradition still exist? If not, whose human rights are we defending?" (2). This is a question that came up in class when Steven and I presented, and one of the things we discussed in our preparation was whether there was a way of defining civil rights in a way that was meaningful that did not have to fall back on founding religious texts or terminology. This question seems especially salient in the United States, where citizens are much more likely to derive authority for their opinions from the Bible than, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Enlightenment texts, or the Constitution.
While reading the book, there occurred one of the happiest accidents of my life: the discovery of Helene Cixous. Her almost Woolfian prose and sensibility were invigorating, and although her "moment" may have passed, her texts remain relevant and moving, as all great writing is. For Cixous, the issue is why the construction of ourselves as subjects involves so much fear of the Other: "All poets know that the self is in permanent mutation, that it is not one's own, that it is always in movement, in a trance, astray, and that it goes out towards you. That is the free self. Our time is afraid of losing, and afraid of losing itself. But one can write only by losing oneself, by going astray, just as one can love only at the risk of losing oneself, and of losing" (19). Again, we ask ourselves, how can we construct or make our governments enforce an idea of human rights to individuals who are always "in movement," and "in permanent mutation"? Do my rights obtain in the instant where I am losing part of myself in the act of loving another? Whether I am recognized as a citizen in my place of residence or not? When I am captured and interrogated by American soldiers because my name is Abdur Zahid Rahman, which is, to them, the same as Abdur Sayed Rahman? Perhaps in the beginning of the 21st century, "in times of strangeness, by sharing unhappiness, by being strangers together, people and poet reconstitute an internal homeland" (26).
In the end, it is not a national identity that defines us, but language, which remains central even when we are in exile. Language does not lie apart from us, however, nor are we long immune from physical violence once language comes under attack: "Those who do not tell the truth, those who feed untruths to the world, have begun to kill. and the great scandals of our society have had modest beginnings. Every day the media spectacle poisons the public. We are assassinated from far off and from close up" (32). Finally, it is not those who are free, but those who are not, that stimulate us to expand the realm of freedom of language and movement: "Do we need a camp, a prison, a war, to free us from our indifference to ourselves and from our fear of others? So that we do no forget our good fortune?" (44).
Johnson, Barbara, ed. Freedom and Interpretation: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1992. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.