The destructive work of totalitarian machinery, whether or not this word is used, is usually supported by a special kind of primitive social philosophy. It proclaims not only that the common good of 'society' has priority over the interests of individuals, but that the very existence of individuals as persons is reducible to the existence of the social 'whole'; in other words, personal existence is, in a strange sense, unreal. This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery.
Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie," Is God Happy? Selected Essays, Basic Books, 2013, p.57.
Anti individualistica, la concezione fascista è per lo Stato; ed è per l'individuo in quanto esso coincide con lo Stato, conscienza e volontà universale dell'uomo nella sua esistenza storica.
Against individualism, the Fascist conception is for the State; and it is for the individual in so far as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in historical existence.
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) & Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), La Dottrina del Fascismo, "Doctrine of Fascism," 1932.
ἢ οὐκ ἔξεστί μοι ποιῆσαι ὃ θέλω ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς;
Aut non licet mihi quod volo facere?
Or am I not allowed to do what I wish with mine own?
Merve Emre is identified as "a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Weslleyan" and an associate professor of American literature at the University of Oxford. She is working on a book called Love and Other Useless Pursuits. Her article in The New York Review of Books caught my attention just because of its title, "The Illusion of the First Person," which promised, or threatened, to express some of the essential evil that has gripped modern academia. If the "first person," i.e. the pronoun "I" and its reference, is an "illusion," then individual personal existence, as noted by Leszek Kołakowski, is unreal. And, as Kołakowski concludes, having lived under Communism himself, this is a "convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery."
The metaphysics of personal non-existence goes back to Hegel, for whom only universals are real, and where what seems to be individual existence is an illusion that contains a "contradiction" that is resolved, in favor of the universal, by death. Despite what seems to be his materialism, this is inherited by Marx, for whom individual existence dissolves, in a practical and political, if not metaphysical, sense in class identity and class structure. This is all inherited by the modern academy; and Merve Emre's ostensible treatment of the "personal essay" is dense with Marxist references and terminology, with adverse implications for personal freedom and the liberal political order.
We are quickly tipped off at the beginning of Emre's article by her citations of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and Louis Althusser (1918-1990). These are all representatives of the Frankfurt School of Marxism, responsible for the vicious nonsense of "Critical Theory" and so for the poisonous "Critical Race Theory" that has suddenly been foisted by academic charlatans on much of the rest of American society. Emre's references are less to this kind of "Theory" than they are to more classical Marxism, which seems to mark her as a more informed and hardcore Old School ideologue.
Emre sets off to discredit the idea that a "private individual" exists:
The private individual is not a particular person with a particular story to tell, no matter how distinctive, original, or purely bizarre that story may be. The private individual is not a proper name [lists several essayists]... Rather, it is the idea that animates all these figures, the powerful, unobtusive concept that gives the personal essay the appearance of ventriloquizing a singular and spontaneous subjectivity.
In other words, as Hauser says to Quaid, "You are not you; you are me" [Total Recall, 1990, both played by Arnold], where the right "you" means the social and ideological forces that produce the apparent "you." So the "I" is an "artful construction," a "made-up self," a "series of 'distorting representations' of the individual from whose consciousness it originates and whose being it registers." And this is not, as we might think, something crafted by the individual to detail one's experiences and thoughts, improve one's image, conceal guilty knowledge, or deceive others. No, it is the product of the social and ideological forces that have created that "consciousness" in the first place. It is an "artful construction" of class, race, and gender, not of a free and individual mind.
Thus, Emre says, "What if individual subjectivity were as much a fiction as the 'I' with which it so prettily speaks?" Indeed. "Individual subjectvity" is itself an ideological construct of social and/or economic forces, with their attendant "ideology," i.e. the fictions that Marxism sees as the false veneer of the alienation and exploitation that capitalist society needs to justify itself.
If individual existence is a fiction and a function of transient historical ideology, then it would have an origin at some point in time:
According to [Walter] Benjamin, the private individual was conceived sometime between 1830 and 1848, during the reign of Louis Philippe, often known as the first "bourgeois monarch." Under his rule, the European ruling class and the middle class came together [in an "intentional fallacy" of agency] to realize their defining goal [as though they were deliberately planning history]: the separation of the public domain from the private, where, as Karl Marx observes, the bourgeoisie could rejoice in "Property, the Family, Religion, and Order." [editorial comments inserted]
Of course, Louis Philippe, was known as the, not "the first," bourgeois King -- he was the last King of France. At the same time, the "separation of the public domain from the private," which is the definiton of "civil society," goes back at least to Hobbes and Locke, and was rejected by Rousseau, whose thought has been identified as the preparation for the Terror of the French Revolution. Marx, who concurred with Rousseau, and whose thought prepared for the subsequent Terror of every Marxist revolution, thus supplemented Hegel's metaphysical abolition of the individual with the erasure of all private life and existence.
This is the perfect definition of "totalitarianism," a term that we owe, however, to Benito Mussolini, who fully agreed, as we see in the epigraph, with these characteristics, metaphysical and political. But this is the irony of Leftist politics, which shares its origins with Fascism, wanting only the nationalism of the latter -- until, that is, the worthies of the Soviet Union decided that "national liberation" would appeal to the peasants of the Third World better than the revolution of the (non-existent) industrial proletariat. The Left is always desperate to pin Fascism on capitalism and liberalism, however paradoxical, rather than have its own roots exposed.
Thus, we can see Merve Emre for the frightening ideologue she is, with a fair range of ignorance beyond the narrow confines of her indoctrination -- just what we may have come to expect from the modern Academy. We see her ideology restated through the rest of the article:
Once labor had been cordoned off from life, once the productive activity of work had been extricated from the supposedly unproductive experience of dwelling, the private individual was born. He was, quite naturally, blind to his own history as a derivative creature, an artifact of political and economic processes that he has little incentive to question.
While, in fact, Civil Society separates one from politics, not from labor (i.e. it includes private business, which is why Marx could smear it as the Hobbsian "war of all against all"), the implication here is interesting, that "labor" is the uniquely "productive" activity of life, against which "Property, the Family, Religion" are meaningless substitutes -- Marxist orthodoxy. The motto that Feminism used, "the personal is political," reflects a principle that all personal life is properly political, including, for Marxism, all "labor" and "production." If you want to get away from politics and your job, you have a "false consciousness." And, as we see, the private individual is "blind to his own history as a derivative creature," meaning, again, "you are not you; you are me."
We know we are getting a lot of orthodox Marxism when we see a lot of talk about "production." Now, Marxism at least has the virtue of awareness that goods are actually produced. Marx, as much as Adam Smith, is a child of the Industrial Revolution. This is a leg up on a lot of recent academic belief, "English Department Marxism" (as in Emre's own English Departments), which is little better than Cargo Cult economics, accepting the principle that goods are somehow simply found, like "natural resources," and must then simply be "distributed." However, Emre is not free of the errors that creep into even apparently orthodox Marxism. Ideologues have trouble grasping that capitalists are unconscious victims of a historical dialectic and material forces that they don't understand.
The moral basis of Marxism, such as it is (especially when it contains, strictly speaking, no morality), at least holds that depriving the workers of the fruit of their labor is "alienation," which drives all social change -- although this is then immediately contradicted by the principle, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" -- which will alienate any worker from "production" that he does not "need" -- a principle subsequently used to starve to death millions of Ukrainians in Stalin's Terror Famine -- as Putin now mercilessly bombs their descendants.
Subsequent Marxists, however, like the idea that anything we do is "production," so that Plato writing the Republic is the same sort of thing as industrial workers producing an automobile. Thus, Merve Emre can see the essay she writes here as "production." However, Plato's philosophy, or Emre's essay, is not the sort of "production" that distinguishes modern life from that of Ancient Egypt -- where Emre's "production" does not need the help of anyone else, let alone fellow workers, managers, entrepreneurs, or capitalists. Marx thought that mechanization would eliminate the need for the exploitation of labor, allowing for the "end of history."
Looking at the rest of Emre's essay, she seems to think that "exploitation" is what we get when writers are not paid for their status, regardless of whatever it is they write, if anything. An actual job is unnecessary. Indeed, it is unclear from the little that Marx says about his communist utopia, with no money, government, or businessmen, whether anyone might just avoid employment and live off the fat of the land, letting the "production" of others satisfy his every need. If productive workers objected to that, then obviously they are "kulaks" who are withholding what others "need."
The domestic sphere was his incubator, his sanctuary from commercial and social [except kinship] considerations. There he could retreat, wide-eyed and mewling, to probe what he believed [!] to be his thoughts, lodged in his self, his mind, his body, and his home. "The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions," Benjamin worte, explaining how the ownership of property mirrored the ownership of subjectivity. He continued, "From this arise the phantasmagorias of the interior -- which, for the private man, represents the universe."
From his we gather that in the communist utopia, there is indeed no privacy, no private life, no home, no thoughts of your own, and no barrier between you and the blistering, involuntary "reality" of politics and "production." Not only are the exterior manifestations of privacy, like your own property, swept away, but with them go your own self, your mind, you body, and everything about you that is "interior" and subjective or unique to you or owned by you. Your inner life and everything you could call your own is absorbed, not just into public social life, but probably, from the evidence of history, into the State and the Cult of Personality of Big Brother or some other kind of "Dear Leader." You are not you, you are HIM. Or rather, there is no "you."
Notice the actual contempt expressed by Emre in an expression like "wide-eyed and mewling." This is a contempt for all other people, people who expect to be themselves and not just a reflex of Emre's totalitarian ideology. But the police will take care of that. Dissenters will get "re-educated" and will learn better. Or else. At least now, you can be no more than expelled from the modern university, and not (yet) sent to a labor camp or executed. That's next.
For Benjamin, the best representative of the private individual was the collector of decorative objects, “the true resident of the interior” as an architectural and an existential space. For us, it might be the personal essay collection, which props up the same ideology. The personal essay’s historical and aesthetic function has been to persuade us not just that personhood is beautiful or good, but that it is primordial -- that individual subjectivity and its expression exist prior to the social formations that gave rise to it. This is a lie, the lie that subtends bourgeois individualism and all its intrusions into language, art, and education, as Adorno explains. The personal essay appears as the purest, most unflinching aesthetic expression of the lie, for the simple reason that, for an essay to qualify as personal in the first place, the primacy of the private individual must be presupposed, “implicitly but by the same token with all the more complicity,” Adorno wrote. [boldface added]
The brutality of this is breathtaking. That you exist as an individual is, to Marxism, an "ideology" (which, in Marxism, is always a fiction -- Marxism itself is not an "ideology"), and a "lie." Actually, that latter is not good Marxism, as a lie requires a liar, which requires that the liar knows the truth and speaks the lie instead. This is an "intentional fallacy" denied by Marx and Engels. The capitalist himself responds to forces he does not understand. The idea that capitalism involves conscious agents who know their own evil is not proper Marxism, it is a decayed and confused version of neo-Marxism, the "English Department Marxism," that has lost touch with the original principles of the theory. It is "moralistic," which is as great a sin in Marx as it is with Nietzsche, both theorists of pure power.
The highlighted block, however, is good Marxism; and it is from expressions like "bourgeois individualism" that we clearly see Emre's brutal Marxist dogma. Individualism remains the principal enemy of Rousseau, Marx, and people like Adorno and Emre, just as the denial of the metaphysical existence of the individual is the foundation of so much of it in Hegel. You are not you; you are a cog in the dialectic of the "social formations." So don't try telling us about yourself. You have only "false consciousness." We will tell you what you are. Otherwise, shut up.
The personal essay appears as the purest, most unflinching aesthetic expression of the lie, for the simple reason that, for an essay to qualify as personal in the first place, the primacy of the private individual must be presupposed, "implicitly but by the same token with all the more complicity," Adorno wrote.
As we might imagine, the "lie" of the "primacy of the private individual" carries away with it the primacy of the personal and natural rights of the individual, let alone any kind of government that would enforce them, which the Marxist condemns and rejects along with the bourgeois and capitalist culture that created this so-called "lie." As Kołakowski says, "This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery."
This theoretical background out of the way, Emre can continue on to venting her animus against the "personal essay." First we hear that any one of the older cohort of essayists, such as Montaigne, "is unwilling to disentangle the individual from the conditons of man or nature," which seems to mean that they would agree with the erasure of individual consciousness and existence. Of course, they would not, not in the era when the distinctive "liberty of the moderns" was identified, which immunizes individuals from state action, in contrast to the collective "liberty of the ancients," which allowed Socrates to be condemned for practicing free speech. The Marxist, naturally, doesn't believe in free speech, or in any immunity from state action. You will be naked before the power of the State, and its agents, like Merve Emre.
As Emre goes along, we get swipes at the "quintessence of the spirit of bourgeois intimacy," which means your relationships outside of the politics of the communist police state -- this is why in communist Cambodia people were executed for expressing affection to relatives. But we get a particularly revealing reference in the discussion of Charles Lamb (1775-1834):
Writing under the pseudonym Elia lets him throw a small but devastating wrench into the personal essay's production of individual personhood -- its demand for "a single subject whose identity is defined by the uncontested readability of his proper name," as Paul de Man writes in his essay "Autobiography as De-facement."
It is unlikely that Lamb, in an era when many pseudonyms were used, for various purposes, thought that this is what he was doing. A pseudonym would not detract in the least from the sense of self the author may have had. The entire Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, were published under the pseudonym "Publius." The "uncontested readability of his proper name" is simply irrelevant. Political anonymity could protect one from retaliation by, among other things, a malicious government.
This is still an issue today, when the FBI and the federal Department of Justice have become instruments one of political party. It is also now a tactic of the political left to harrass and even vandalize people at their homes, where exposing people's home addresses is called "doxxing." These tactics came together when mobs were directed to the homes of Supreme Court Justices. This violated federal law, a law that was then not enforced by the FBI or the Department of Justice, which obviously, for their own corrupt and vicious political purposes, wanted the Justices to be harrassed.
But the interest here is the invocation of Paul de Man (1919-1983), whose status as one of the luminaries of the "deconstruction" movement was fatally damaged when it was discovered that he had been writing Nazi propaganda pieces during World War II. It did not help when Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the godfather of the movement, tried to help by arguing that de Man's writings meant the opposite of what they sounded like.
Since in "deconstruction," anything can mean anything, this kind of argument could be used to say that Adolf Hitler actually loved the Jews, even in killing them. So the upshot to the business was to discredit, not just de Man, but Derrida and deconstruction altogether. It was much like the moment when Derrida protested that he had been misunderstood by John Searle, when one of his principle claims had always been that authors can never be "understood" in terms of their own "authorial" intent, which is lost and irrelevant to the reader.
So Merve Emre perhaps should have thought twice before invoking a discredited Nazi propagandist; but perhaps she was unaware of the controversy. She may only have been a child when de Man was exposed and many realized what had been going on with "deconstruction." Her ignorance in other areas of general knowledge may carry over to this.
In Emre's view, Virginia Woolf's critique of essayists suffers from a failure to damn "bourgeois individualism," but she does condemn "the spread of education." So perhaps some value can be derived from her. I don't find it very edifying. But we know where Woolf really falls short:
The intimate connection between education, the bourgeois public sphere, and the specter of private individuality compels Woolf to judge the personal essay "a sign of the times." It is the genre whose formal conventions -- the "capital I" of "I think" or "I feel" -- not only draw the individual into public view, but also insist upon the primacy of the individual.
Heaven help us in the face of the "specter of private individuality." One begins to wonder about the possibility of any value from Emre's essay if all we are going to get is repeated exercises applying the Marxist cookie-cutter that Emre employs. The only value I can see in this is the further illumination of the cookie-cutter itself, with all its ugly implications, and not in any of the conclusions that Emre may draw from it. The conclusions are intrinsically vitiated by Emre's ideology and method.
The way Emre highlights the "formal conventions" of "the 'capital I' of 'I think' or 'I feel'" might remind us of the novel Anthem  by Ayn Rand, where individuality, personal names, and the pronoun "I" have been abolished in a dystopian future. It is not hard to imagine Emre as a cheerleader for such a society -- what we see of her is so vicious and so terrifying. Indeed, if the "first person" is a "fiction," as Emre tells us from the masthead, a society without personal identity would seem like the most natural thing.
After wandering around with Joan Didion a bit, Emre concludes with:
Public styles are always marked by nationality, literacy, class and race; there exists no such thing as a perfectly inclusive or universal language. Yet the claim to mediating friendship through style nevertheless reveals how, against the rising tide of individualism, the famliar essay demanded that its readers place the highest premium on the imaginative interactions of nonintimate selves.
The interest of these statements may be, first, that this is the first mention in the essay of race, which is the lodstone and polestar of "Critical Race Theory." So, curiously, Emre's Marxism may have not gone the full path of Frankfurt School doctrine. We might wonder why not, but there is no answer in the essay. Race does come up, briefly, again.
The next point is Emre's denial of "universal language," which Emre takes to mean that there is nothing to mediate the "imaginative interactions of nonintimate selves." What is inclusive and universal, however, is not the language, but the human condition. Literary effort seeks out that universality, since the particularity of all human life, its individuality, is nevertheless an expression of common human nature. Thus, we are intrigued about what is unique to individuals, since, like variations in music, it illuminates the common theme. Emre's goal, of course, is to erase all that variation and reduce it to a totaliarian sameness.
We see her failure to grasp the point of the particular in the universal at the beginning of the next section:
Why are people attracted to stories about individuals? The answer is as obvious as it is petty and perhaps cynical. The fiction of private individuality projected by the personal essay allows bourgeois subjects to accrue various economic, cultural, and social rewards. These rewards are dispersed by institutions that are both constituted by the fiction of the private individual and responsible for reproducing it. The most obvious institution of this kind is the school and, as Adorno observes, its elevation of “pedagogical necessity” into “a metaphysical virtue.” Once the production of personhood becomes bound to and administered by pedagogy, its illusions gain in intensity and reach, as does the personal essay.
We are attracted to stories about individuals because we are individuals, and we enjoy the varieties of human life. We are intrigued by all the possibilities of life. It is an aesthetic variety -- something to be lost in the "socialist realism" of Emre's Sovietized art. If Emre finds this "petty and perhaps cynical" is looks like it is because she is contemptuous of other people and their stories. She doesn't like them, doesn't care, and is equipped to dismiss them as suffering from "false consciousness." This is not unusual in the self-styled "social justice" elite, who love humanity in the abstract but can't stand people in the concrete -- unless it is burying them in the mineralogical kind of concrete.
And false consciousness, of course, is in the service of capitalism, so "bourgeois subjects" are able "to accrue various economic, cultural, and social rewards." We expect that the "rewards" from various "institutions" will be the loot of capitalist exploitation, but Emre surprises us by turning on "the school," where, presumably, the "fiction" and "illusions" of "personhood" are part of the "production" of this institution.
Emre, of course, is ostensively writing about the "personal essay"; and so what we get next is to tar such essays, as they become part of college entrance applications, as instruments of oppression. In this case, the oppression was real enough, as Ivy League schools decided that "too many" Jews were qualifying for admission. The worthies of Harvard, etc., seemed confident that the deficiences of Jewish character, certainly not up to WASP standards, would be revealed in their personal essays, providing a pretext for rejecting them.
Whether the essays turned out to be sufficient for that was, at the time, irrelevant. There were no anti-discrimination laws; and if Harvard, etc. wanted to reject applicants for being Jews, no one was going to stop them, and there really was very little public disturbance about it. Thus, Emre's strategy here of vesting the "personal essay" with all the evil of anti-Semitic discrimination looks like a stretch. Even if it were true, a "personal essay" used for some disreputable purpose does not discredit personal essays, since there is nothing about them that is intrinsically wrongful -- except as a "lie" identified by Marxism. You can use many things for a disreputable purpose, like using a Marxist essay in The New York Review of Books to promote tyranny. Indeed, Emre thinks that what the essays were supposed to display was, "one's commitment to an idealized model of private and rational individualism," which was propably not what Harvard admissions officers, free of Marxist jargon, had in mind.
More interesting is Emre's next attack, which is on the much more recent habit of Ivy League Schools to keep out "too many" Asian or Asian-American applicants. The open discrimination of Harvard against Asian students is currently before the United State Supreme Court, which must decide whether to enforce the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or to suspend them in favor of extra-constitutional, ad hoc, and dishonest principles of "diversity" that prohibit an "overrepresentation" of Asians (or Jews, probably).
While Emre clearly wants to hang the burden of racial discimination on the "personal essay" (the goal of her whole essay), she does admit that there is more to it than that:
The overtly discriminatory origins of the admissions essay have been superseded by more covert models of calibrating personhood by ethnicity, as in the recent case of Harvard University admissions officers accused of assigning Asian American applicants lower scores in subjective categories such as “positive personality.” Yet the value the admissions essay -- and the college application process in general -- places on the private individual as a self-reflective and self-governing subject, the rightful heir to the spoils of capitalism, remains as powerful as ever.
Indeed, Harvard "overtly" relies on personal interviews with applicants to judge their personal characteristics. When Asian applications did not seem socially stunted enough, Harvard admissions officers actually altered the evaluations after the fact, making the students less personable and likeable. This dishonest and fraudulent procedure, violating their own stated principles and inregrity, was actually ignored by previous judges in the lawsuit brought against Harvard -- revealing their own bias and bigotry and, truly, invalidating their rulings.
Emre must be careful about this. If Harvard is condemned for such actions, then Emre has put herself on the side of critics of "affirmative action," and she is in some danger of being "cancelled" by the forces of academic righteousness. She is on thin ice here, to imply that the Asian students have a case and that, perhaps, the Supreme Court should rule against Harvard. If Harvard loses, it is the Asians students who will be portrayed as the racists, and perhaps Merve Emre also. She may be targeted for a Maoist browbeating "struggle session" (批鬥大會, pīdòu dàhuì) from persons holier-than-her. Since we are not in the regime she would prefer, at least it won't be a literal beating -- unless it is in a Washington DC jail, where her regime is the closest to being realized.
Otherwise, Emre is not going to let go of her thesis, so, essays or not, the value of the process "places on the private individual as a self-reflective and self-governing subject, the rightful heir to the spoils of capitalism, remains as powerful as ever." This is especially noteworthy here in that it is a rare targeting of "capitalism" by name. "Bourgeois" we get from Emre a lot, but "capitalism" not so much. But we never to hear exactly why the fruits of capitalism are "spoils." That is assumed; but, naturally, it will be well known to most of the equally corrupt academic readers of Emre's essay.
The last sections of Emre's essay begin with a confessional addition to the personal essay, "used to conceptualize new notions of personhood":
At the start of the last century what Peterson has described as the "Catholic tradition of confession," with its ponderous moral and spiritual accent, its desire for masochistic public exposure and redemption, had yet to enter the scene of personal essay writing and did not do so until the mid-1960s.
It sounds like Emre may not be familiar with Catholic confession, which does not in the least involve "masochistic public exposure." The privacy and sanctity of the confessional is taken pretty seriously by Catholics. Perhaps she is confusing Catholicism with Protestant Evangelical and Revival testimonials of conversion and redemption, which can be pretty masochistic, if not ponderous. If so, this is a pretty serious confusion, and a testimony to her ignorance or carelessness. But the use of "ponderous" may tip us off that Emre has no respect for the Catholic rite, or religion, whatever it is like.
On the other hand, if Emre thinks that confessional writing did not occur until the 1960's, I might wonder how the Confessions of Augustine fits into that narrative. A story of moral development and personal salvation sounds pretty individualistic for the 5th Century AD, when Emre's thesis is that nothing of the sort existed before the 19th century. But we have already seen that Emre's historical sense may be gravely limited by a Marxist ideological filter.
However, Emre does mention Augustine, Rousseau, and, of all things, even Freud, but this is through a particular interpretation, about what only "coalesced" in the mid-twentieth century, with a literature that "originates 'in [their] subject matter' and that writers 'mean, at least literally, what they say'." I'm not sure that either point makes much difference. Augustine sounds pretty literal. So it is really only the subject matter that will make a difference, since it allows for Marxist social structures to enter into the mix, where now we can get back to race:
The rise of confessional writing authorized new groups to speak as individuals, amplifying the voice of the “voiceless” in testimonies to dispossession. Yet as Cheryl Butler argues in The Art of the Black Essay (2003), the essays of James Baldwin, Rebecca Walker, and, more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates are only awkwardly aligned with the tradition of the personal essay. Even if personal experience is what authorizes the essay form, its function as “a weapon for the downtrodden and the desperate-to-be-heard” presumes that personhood was, from the outset, an unequally distributed resource. Nowhere is this more evident than in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” in which he examines himself from the self-estranged perspective of the white Swiss villagers who rub his skin and touch his hair, astounded by his blackness: “There was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.”
What Emre, or Cheryl Butler, may have overlooked are the slave narratives, which recount the experience of Africans sold or born as slaves but who later obtained their freedom -- one that begins in Africa is that of Olaudah Equiano (d.1797), who seems to have been born an Ibo but ended up as an Abolitionist in England. With any historical consciousness, these accounts are difficult to ignore, since we see the speculation that "six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist." These were valuable documents to the Abolitionists, who protested the humanity and brotherhood of Africans. Are these narratives not "personal essays," and "testimonies to dispossession," about, indeed, the "voiceless" and downtrodden, often before Marx, or Louis Philippe, had been born?
In comparison, James Baldwin's experience in a Swiss village, whose inhabitants may never have seen a black man, sounds a little silly. American Indians often had the same reaction to black American "Buffalo Soldiers." But that was before Baldwin's time. And we might wonder how Baldwin happened to find himself in a remote Swiss village. Doesn't sound like serious political activism to me.
The uncanniness that Butler identifies in Baldwin’s moment of double-consciousness [realizing that he is different to himself and to the Swiss]... resides in the moment when the essayist recognizes “who I am.” Yet this recognition is also the moment when the question of the private individual is dissolved by the knowledge that the ability to write and to speak as an “I” is a restricted social and political phenomenon. “Haunted by sociopolitical dramas around issues of race, sex, and class, for example, the essay itself might arrive as a racy document with a radical politics left unveiled,” Butler writes. Had the personal essay followed in the footsteps of the racy documents of the 1960s, it might not exist anymore, having yielded entirely to the countercultural currents of the political essay.
This betrays some wishful thinking. If only that pesky personal consciousness had just evaporated, leaving us with the truly serious and real "political essay." That's real consciousness. And then we could get the revolution where individuality is abolished. But Emre herself looks forward to when the "ability to write and to speak as an 'I' is a restricted social and political phenomenon," abolished by the communist police state. Everyone is allowed to voice only the Party Line.
The final section of Emre's essay complains about the "confessional" version of the personal essay in magazines and on social media. The humor of a parody essay by Christy Vannoy is something that Emre, of course, wants to turn into a condemnation of capitalism:
...the Personal Essay Vannoy ventriloquizes channels the genre’s conceptual production of personhood as a salable commodity.
We're back to "production" again, and now the problem seems to be that someone, like Vannoy, might get paid for their essays. Is Emre paid for her essay in The New York Review of Books? I don't know. Is that bad? Presumably.
Apparently we can't have that:
Under what conditions is content king? When the personal essay makes the production of personhood not only publicly legible but also monetizable.
Indeed, perhaps this is what Emre has done herself. But how is this supposed to work? Should Vannoy or Emre be paid a "basic income" and then allowed to write essays for the fun of it? That is what Marx's Utopia sounds like, where you don't even need the income, since you can take any product available for free -- since everything is produced in such abudance that there can never be any shortages.
But will a "basic income," where money remains necessary, really finance the jet-setting lifestyle to which Merve Emre, and all of our ruling class elite, may have become accustomed? Not many people have professional positions in both New York and Oxford. It must involve a lot of travel, and nice dinners. I'm not sure how this is supposed to work out; but then that has always been the paradox of Marxism advocated by "swimming pool socialists." Perhaps Emre doesn't actually have a swimming pool. That works better in California, or Florida, than in New York or Oxfordshire.
Vannoy's parody essay ends with a competition for "the most promising personal essay," with the prospect of the winner buying multiple magazines as trophies of the win:
If there is something painfully anachronistic about buying every copy of Marie Claire, then there is something equally painful in the recognition that the Personal Essay’s performance of personhood only gives her access to exploitative labor conditions. But this is as good as it gets.
So we get the drift that selling essays to magazine is part of a system of "exploitative labor." If so, I'm not sure how Emre thinks that is supposed to work. Of course, the "personal essay" is not even going to exist after Enlightenment, and perhaps "women's magazines" won't exist either. It is hard to imagine how anything of the kind would survive with nothing but the sort of raging political content that might pass muster with Emre.
The confessional has proved a highly successful strategy for extracting literary production from an increasingly deskilled workforce that needs to do little more than share experiences.
My curiosity here is what "deskilled" is supposed to mean -- things like this are rarely explained by leftist writers, who always assume that their audience already knows the political catechism. There may be a labor shortage of electricians and plumbers, but even the most skilled of them are not going to be submitting articles to The New York Review of Books. They are going to be fixing your wiring and plumbing. So the writers targeted by Emre will be the triumphant graduates of some kind of school, who, in this day and age, may be more likely to write the kinds of essays Emre would value than otherwise. Someone like, say, Merve Emre herself. So if someone endures "education" without becoming a brutal Marxist ideologue, perhaps Emre thinks they are therefore "deskilled."
The Personal Essay who narrates the conditions of her own existence is more matter-of-fact about what other essayists have failed to recognize, or, in Tolentino’s case, have helped to perpetuate: the precarious conditions under which creative labor is performed.
Finally, this seems to be what the complaint is all about. "I'm not getting paid enough." We might also remember that there are no more "precarious conditions under which creative labor is performed" than acting. Aspiring actors, certainly in Los Angeles or New York, notoriously work as waiters while trying to get acting jobs. Or Harrison Ford and Adam Carolla had honest jobs as carpenters, although Carolla was looking for comedy gigs rather than acting parts.
Ford got his break while building a deck for George Lucas. While being a waiter certainly contributes to social flourishing, we might even think that carpentry produces something more substantial and enduring. Or we might remember Wally Shawn in My Dinner with Andre , whose character mooches off his "girlfriend Debbie" while shopping around his scripts for plays, complaining that now he must take the subway, while when he was young it was always taxis. This sounds a bit like something out of personal experience of "precarious conditions."
A Marxist is certainly going to think that such situations would amount to "exploitative labor conditions," although what "deskilled" labor would have to do with it is a little mysterious. Emre, perhaps like Marx himself, may have little sense of what her utopian society is going to be like. At the very least, however, there will be no individual persons in it. Some sort of free floating social consciousness will produce the political rants that will pass for literature. But Emre will expect to be supported, like so many of her class, in the style to which she has become accustomed.
Since Merve Emre never provides any evidence or reasons why the "first person" is a "fiction," apart from Marxist ideology, then the title of her essay should more honestly have been, "The Fiction of the First Person, According to Marxist Ideology." But honesty is never what we might expect in these matters. The background of the issue, in Hegel's metaphysics, itself is never discussed or candidly admitted even by Hegelians, whose commitments are often only revealed by their politics, not by their stated philosophy -- a dynamic we see with the Hegelian apologist Robert Solomon. We may reflect on the dishonesty of this when it appears that people like Solomon know how bad all of this would sound to the public, so it is concealed through evasion or under the kind of verbiage at which Hegelians, and now "Theorists," excel. Hegelians now hope to reconstruct Hegel as some kind of Wittgensteinian, actually rejecting metaphysics and so, after a fashion, erasing the scene of the crime. Evasion may be more obvious and, if anything, more dishonest in Solomon's own whitewash of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Merve Emre does not favor us with her political opinions, which is a kind of achievement in its own right, since leftist writers often cannot resist some kind of swipe, at least, at Donald Trump. So Emre displays some admirable restraint. However, even an essay safely directed only at other essays, the "personal essay," cannot conceal its illiberal and horrifying premises. She would have nothing to say otherwise. As I have said above, I was alerted to her essay by nothing more than the title, which already proclaims her animus against other people and, indeed, humanism -- let alone to liberal democracy, human rights, and the prosperity of capitalism. With the shocking hostility now widely expressed against free speech by academics and public figures, we can see the influence that people like Merve Emre have been exerting. In Britain, a woman was recently arrested for standing and silently praying, by her own confession, outside a (closed) abortion clinic. This is where we are headed.