Saturday, August 12, 2006

Becoming the embodied subject

If you look at an Australian $50 note, you will see a picture of David Unaipon, an Aboriginal writer and inventor. Below this picture Unaipon is briefly quoted as follows:

As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope, not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.

David Unaipon appears to be an admirable representative of the Australian Aborigines. However, what strikes me about his appearance on our currency is the double standard involved. Only an Aborigine could get away with expressing pride in his race, culture and traditions; if a white Australian were to do the same, he would not get his face on the $50 note, but would probably be denounced as a racist or bigot.

So why do we have such a double standard? Why is the majority population expected to have no serious pride in their own ethnicity, whilst at the same time celebrating the ethnicity of others?

The answer, I believe, has to do with the basic philosophy adopted by white intellectuals, namely liberalism. Liberalism asserts that to be human, we must be free to create who we are through our own will and reason. This means that we are most human when we are least subject to any qualities which might pre-set our identity or influence our choices.

To put this another way, liberals prefer to see the individual as an atomised, thinking and choosing mind, unconstrained by any inherited nature or tradition.

In a discussion at View from the Right, the American traditionalist, Jim Kalb, offered a similar explanation for the double standard:

My guess is that it’s a consequence of the nature of the liberal individual, which is the same as the Cartesian ego—a disembodied subject with no qualities at all other than the free-floating ability to have experiences and make choices.... The Cartesian ego isn’t really part of the world of experience. How, after all, could something with no qualities be embodied? So perhaps there’s a feeling that it’s more legitimate for Third World types, who don’t seem to be free floating Cartesian egos, to be embodied and thus part of the world of experience. The feeling then is that white people are Cartesian abstractions while nonwhites are vibrant concrete realities. [Emphasis added.]

If Jim Kalb is right, it would help to explain why some liberals are so willing to accept the demise of the West. For instance, Jens Orback, the Swedish Democracy Minister, said earlier this year,

We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.

Orback has already accepted the future dominance of Islam and a Muslim population in his own country. Perhaps he does so because he can only conceive of the existing Swedish population as being disembodied liberal subjects, whereas the non-Western immigrants carry a real, embodied tradition and identity – and therefore represent something of greater weight and worth in the world.

Could there be a clue to a strategy for Western survival in this? Perhaps what the Western remnant needs to do is to emphasise strongly that they do not belong within the category of “liberal subject”. If the remnant were to insist clearly enough on a separate identity as an embodied subject, then perhaps Western liberals would accept that we too belong in a different category to the liberal individual, just as non-whites do.

This would mean asserting, as a matter of course, that we embody qualities which we have not chosen for ourselves: it would mean, for instance, recognising the importance to us of our manhood or womanhood and of our particular national or ethnic traditions.

There was a time when we did do this as a matter of course. The further back in time you go, the less the influence of liberalism, and the more clearly you find expressions of European ‘embodiment’.

Let me give just two examples. Jorgen Jorgenson and Elizabeth Fenton were both settlers in Tasmania in the 1820s and 30s. Jorgenson had already had a colourful career. He was born and raised a Dane, but in 1809, when Denmark and England were at war, he led a coup against the Danish administration in Iceland, with the support of some English merchants. He ruled the country for two months, before being deposed.

Whilst in power, Jorgenson wrote letters to Icelandic officials, demanding that they pledge their loyalty. Here is how one Icelandic official, Jon Guthmundsson, replied to Jorgenson:

Who are you? You are born a Danish subject … But what are you now? You have not become a British subject, yet you have ceased to be what you were and should be, and also ceased to be a human being. Whoever and whatever you are, you have insulted me by assuming me foolish enough to be seduced, cowardly enough to be fearful, and dishonest enough to ignore honour and duty.

The Icelandic official berates Jorgenson for his betrayal of his native country and for the ambiguous status of his identity. He does not see such ambiguity as a liberation from the “prison of ethnicity”, but as a loss of an essential human quality. The Icelandic official is a fully embodied white subject.

Jorgenson was already living in Tasmania when Elizabeth Fenton set sail in 1828 to become a settler there. Her husband had served as a soldier in India, so she began her journey from India in a Muslim vessel, the Hamoud Shaw. After praising the Arab captain she wrote,

He has one European on board who holds the office of chief mate. He makes me quite melancholy. He is English by name and complexion, but his tastes, manners and his scruples, not to say his religion, are Arab.

He is the son of a Scotch clergyman, but for many years has been leading his present life, trading between Muscat and Mozambique. Muscat is, in his imagination, what Paris is to a Frenchman ... His converse turns on murders, executions, shipwrecks, his reading is the works of Voltaire and Paine, of which he has read just enough to unsettle his belief.

Poor fellow! though it always makes me nervous to hear him speak, I pity him too; he may not always have been what he now is; has he been made this [way] by disappointment or alienation from the humanising relationships of life?

Elizabeth Fenton was similarly disconcerted by the existence of a Greek convert amongst the crew:

The crew are a mixture of Bengalees, Arabs and negro slaves. Among this crowd there is, - Oh! sad to write it! – a Greek, a native of Athens, a Moslem now by adopted faith and practice.

Little reckons he of past time; Marathon is no more to him than Mozambique. He would rather have a curry than all the fame of his ancestors.

Couldn’t we apply this last sentence to your average disembodied modern liberal: “he would rather have a curry than all the fame of his ancestors”? Elizabeth Fenton, though, pre-dates this mentality; for her, a connection to ancestry and to homeland is the natural condition of man, disrupted only by “alienation from the humanising relationships of life”.

She too associates the human with the embodied subject, and she does so with the confidence which we need to return to if we are to clearly distinguish ourselves from the suicidal category of “disembodied liberal subject”.

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