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The Auction House of Postmodernity:
Salman Rushdie and the Ends of Literature in a Global World Order

Robert P. Marzec
SUNY Fredonia

What are the ends of literature in a "global world order"? By marking an opening to the complex phenomenon of globality, my question makes reference to Jacques Derrida’s 1968 article "The Ends of Man," which is highly pertinent to the "trans-" economies of reality that have come into play over the last three decades. Quite by accident I discovered in that article, specifically in the two motifs of deconstruction that Derrida engages (Nietzschean and Heideggerian), a functional characterization of the tension that now marks the limits of the national and the international. Mainstream efforts to come to terms with globality inevitably slip into 1) fundamentalism (modernism), or 2) a free-floating pastiche of capitalist-driven internationalism (postmodernism, as defined by Fredric Jameson): either you are reactionary and defend the terrain of the nation, or you argue for a transcendence of all borders in the hopes of establishing a common humanitarianism, a "global village."

Obviously this binary ignores the stark relational differences in what one might call the "nation-" or "transnation-function" (to extend Foucault’s use of the "author function"). For instance, a plea to maintain a solid sense of nationality may not necessarily reflect a fundamentalist agenda. In an age when transnational corporations have taken over the mantle and acquired the power of the old imperial orders, national differences face the threat of obliteration. Without a national culture, former colonies such as Algeria and India lose their potential to resist global superpowers of homogenization.1 In addition, being "cosmopolitan," as Bruce Robbins argues, may be no better, for the cosmopolitan mode of existence tends to valorize the individual traveler, transgressing borders only to take part in a privileged (usually Western) "aesthetic spectatorship": Mary Louis Pratt’s critique of the "imperial eye" that roams about as a "monarch of all it surveys."2 On the side of internationalism, one could find potential value for a politics of resistance in the form of a transnational coalition of the working-class, for the argument can be made that each national "essence" is a product of and controlled by the corporate elite and their influence over government officials. "Freedom," as Fredric Jameson points out, can be either freedom for social groups looking for a release from the authoritarian nation-state, or it can mean freedom for the marketplace, for the capitalist entrepreneur.3 Freedom can apply in the reverse of each of these as well, as both nationalism and internationalism can be turned into an elitism.

What needs to be thematized in this beleaguered either/or logic (and even in the attempts to combine the two in a less derivative fashion), are the limits of the national and the global. By "limits" I do not mean "limitations," but rather the disciplinary borders that mark how each defines itself: the limit or "edge" of the nation that frames and thus forms its identity in opposition to an other nation’s liminal frame. But also the disciplinary limit in the sense of the logic informing the discourse of nationality: the limit enframes and this indicates a belief in a homogenized identity, one which reads what lies beyond the limit as a threat, or at best a difference to be "tolerated," but not transformative in relation to the "inside." This is nationalism operating as an essentialism, in which national subjectivity prides its strength on the sovereignty of identity-formations. The paradox, however, is that the international—even with its emphasis on breaking down all borders—functions along the same essentialist lines, on the degree to which identities form themselves as sovereignties. International corporations break down borders, yes. But not by replacing homogeneity with heterogeneity, though this would seem to be the evident conclusion. Rather, they fulfill their movement across borders primarily by destroying the difference of these borders in order to install a larger, more global structure of homogeneity. The logos of that homogeneity would be the accumulation of capital.

The task, then, is to think the national/global opposition in terms of a limit-analysis, in terms of its "ends." I would propose a re-situation of Derrida’s engagement with "the ends of man" from thirty years ago within these current representations of the national/global problematic. At the end of that article, Derrida offers us two deconstructive choices, the first Heideggerian, the second Nietzschean:

a. To attempt an exit and a deconstruction without changing terrain, by repeating what is implicit in the founding concepts and the original problematic, by using against the edifice the instruments or stones available in the house, that is, equally, in language. Here, one risks ceaselessly confirming, consolidating, relifting (relever), at an always more certain depth, that which one allegedly deconstructs. The continuous process of making explicit, moving toward an opening, risks sinking into the autism of the closure.

b. To decide to change terrain, in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside, and by affirming an absolute break and difference. Without mentioning all the other forms of trompe-l’oeil perspective in which such a displacement can be caught, thereby inhabiting more naively and more strictly than ever the inside one declares one has deserted, the simple practice of language ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground. The effects of such a reinstatement or of such a blindness could be shown in numerous precise instances.4

Derrida is clear that these reservations do not mean it is not necessary to change precisely the terrain. He argues that "a new writing must weave and interlace these two motifs of deconstruction."5 I claim a generality for this twofold deconstructive interlacing, and the potential for it to serve as an alternative praxis to the national/global debate as it currently stands. What form might a dual national/global deconstruction take? And what form of political potential would unfold in its wake? To address these questions, I turn to two texts by Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children and "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers."

First the national. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie explodes the logical economy of what he refers to as "the national longing for form."6 The novel unabashedly challenges the ontological foundations of nationality and the structure of freedom that supposedly arises from the founding of a Third World nation as an act of independence from a First World imperial order. On the eve of India’s independence, the presence of the British still remains, even though they have physically left the subcontinent. This presence informs the construction of an "independent" nation through and through. The Sinai family (the family that stands at the center of the novel) inherit one of the houses forming part of the grand British estate of Sir William Methwold. The transfer of the estate is to take place the day of India’s independence from Britain. However, the terms of the transfer demand that the new inhabitants not remove, nor rearrange, Methwold’s furniture. The family must also honor the Anglo tradition of the "5 o’clock cocktail hour." So accustomed do the Sinai’s become to the revenant presence of the English, they ironically come to depend on this daily routine of rituals as they embark on the road to independence. This interpellation to a British mode of existence at the personal level has parallels on the national register. Different constituencies make demands for the primacy of one language over all others. Language marchers demand the partition of the state of Bombay through the setting of distinct linguistic boundaries (MC 199). The marches swell in anger and in the heat of the Indian summer to become "language riots" (228). The potential for freedom at the de-stabilized moment of the withdraw of colonial rule turns back to a centralizing logical economy that differs little from the British imposition of the English language as the official administrative, "universal" tongue.

Rushdie further focalizes these supplementary effects on both the national and the personal level when he turns his attention to an even more rigid and violent centralizing order. The Muslim nation of Pakistan is formed when it becomes clear that the post-independence religious antagonisms between Hindus and Muslims are not about to subside in the foreseeable future. Rushdie explores the effect of Pakistan nationalization on the character known as the "Brass Monkey." The Brass Monkey is the narrator’s (Saleem) non-biological sister. Throughout the course of the novel, she stands on the margins as a defiant and deviant being. Events frequently anger her, and when this happens she takes revenge by burning her father’s, mother’s or relative’s shoes. When she is troubled concerning matters of love, she pushes those closest to her away—and burns their shoes. She is described as animal-like, able to talk in the language of birds, and is intimately connected to cats. From these animals, Rushdie writes, she learns a form of "dangerous independence," capable of helping her to defend herself "against the possibility of being tricked" (MC 179). These and other examples indicate the performative "essence" of the Brass Monkey’s identity to be the enaction of a form of resistance, of a warding-off of that which might "trick" her out of her independence.7

However, this resistant essence changes dramatically when the Brass Monkey and her family move to Pakistan—to the "Land of the Pure." In Pakistan, the Brass Monkey becomes "Jamila Singer," a famous vocalist whose beautiful voice rapidly gains an astounding preeminence. Her voice is heard throughout the nation. Formerly a "useless" daughter and the disdain of her family, she is transformed into a "national heroine" (MC 376). Jamila Singer’s success is indissolubly related to the metaphysical formation of Pakistan as a nation. Her voice is described as "pure," and linked to the violent metaphorics of state warfare: "‘your voice will be a sword for purity; it will be a weapon with which we shall cleanse men’s souls’" (MC 376). Purity is constituted here from a structure of transcendence, out of the impulse to establish a mode of being that stands against heterogeneity, bringing with it the demand for policed borders. The fortifying walls of nationality create a positivist inside and outside in a place where these opposites did not exist before. This notion of purity demands an erasure of the differential self and places the normalized self in confinement.

Rushdie deconstructs this form of nationalism: "the blind and blinding devoutness and the right-or-wrong nationalism which had already begun to emerge in her now began to dominate her personality, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Publicity imprisoned her inside a gilded tent; and, being the new daughter-of-the-nation, her character began to owe more to the most strident aspects of the national persona than to the child-world of her Monkey years" (MC 375, emphasis added). In order to gain access to this national structure, Jamila must submit to the logic of positive polarities. Inclusion in the nation reveals itself to be a form of enslavement, cloaked in the guise of benevolent success.

A similar form of enslavement informs attempts to establish an international structure as well. In Rushdie’s short story "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" the establishment of an egalitarian multiculturalism hides an even more hostile form of oppression. The terrain of the story is an international "Grand Saleroom." The people who control this saleroom—the auctioneers—have put up for sale Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, a story that has evolved into a cultural meta-narrative for the twentieth century. The auctioneers publicize the sale widely and "prepare for all comers."8 They feel that the magical ruby slippers will tempt people "from their bunkers" ("RS" 87). They prepare for the dangerous coagulation of bidders who will undoubtedly become violent and sick when, one by one, they are forced out of the bidding: "in addition to the standard facilities provided for the comfort and security of the more notable personages, extra-large bronze cuspidors have been placed in the vestibules and toilets, for the use of the physically sick; teams of psychiatrists of varying disciplines have been installed in strategically located neo-Gothic confessional booths, to counsel the sick at heart" ("RS" 87). The sickness in question is a dis-ease arising from homelessness, from a failure in an age of postmodernity for home to offer the sense of fundamentalist security it once promised.

The ruby slippers sparkle behind bullet proof glass, and people from across the planet have come to get a glimpse of "the impossible": "Exiles, political refugees, deposed monarchs, poets, memorabilia junkies, defeated factions...displaced persons of all sorts" ("RS" 91). In the Nietzschean era of center-less relativity, the barrier between fiction and reality has collapsed: "The presence of imaginary beings in the Saleroom may be the last straw. Children from nineteenth-century Australian paintings whine from their ornate, gilded frames about being lost in the immensity of the Outback . . . A literary character, condemned to an eternity of reading the works of Dickens to an armed madman in a jungle, has sent in a written bid. On a television monitor, I notice the frail finger of an alien creature with an illuminated fingertip" ("RS" 94). The auctioneers’ liberalism knows no bounds; they extend their generosity to include even fundamentalists, who "openly state that they are interested in buying the magic footwear only in order to burn it, and this is not, in the view of the liberal Auctioneers, a reprehensible programme" ("RS" 92).

In opposition to the tendencies of nationalist essentialism marking the Indian context, and the full-blown nationalist essentialism of the Pakistani context, the magnetic power of the auctioneers lies precisely in their pluralism, in their embrasure of tolerance: "What price tolerance if the intolerant are not tolerated also? ‘Money insists on democracy,’ the liberal Auctioneers insist. ‘Anyone’s cash is as good as anyone else’s’" ("RS" 92). The economy of capital reflects the transgressive movement of desire: it operates upon a principle of heterogeneity, calling for and giving agency to all differences. The most radically diverse are allowed into the grand saleroom, and turned into a commodity to support monopoly capital. Here Rushdie indicates the extent to which late capitalism has developed the power to expand its sovereignty globally.

But how does this power function? How is it the case that a sovereign, centralizing (and thus apparently modernist) mode of production has evolved to such a level that it can now incorporate its most vigilant critics? We have a name for this paradoxical power that characterizes the current stage of capital, a term taken from the sciences and developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, called "isomorphy." They explicate the term in the following passage from A Thousand Plateaus:

[Capital/the State apparatus] does not proceed by progressive homogenization, or by totalization, but by the taking on of consistency or the consolidation of the diverse as such . . . it makes itself felt only by spreading everywhere; this was the case with Christianity, which became imperial and urban, but not without giving rise to bands . . . Worldwide organization thus ceases to pass ‘between’ heterogeneous formations since it assures the isomorphy of those formations. But it would be wrong to confuse isomorphy with homogeneity. For one thing, isomorphy allows, and even incites a great heterogeneity among States (democratic, totalitarian, and, especially, ‘socialist’ States are not facades). For another thing, the international capitalist axiomatic effectively assures the isomorphy of the diverse formations only where the domestic market is developing and expanding, in other words, ‘in the center.’ But it tolerates, in fact it requires, a certain peripheral polymorphy, to the extent that it is not saturated, to the extent that it actively repels its own limits . . . When international organization becomes the capitalist axiomatic, it continues to imply a heterogeneity of social formations, it gives rise to and organizes its ‘Third World.’9 The notion of isomorphy forces us to rethink the wisdom of concentrating our critique on a center enforcing its authority on peripheral peoples and cultures, and to sharpen Foucault’s insight that power is capillary and comes from below, from the periphery in the form of self-disciplined, docile bodies. Capital does not function by spreading a homeostatic structure, but unfolds upon the alterity of diverse territories in a movement more like that of desire. It has developed the ability to destroy to some extent its "logocentric root," thereby deterritorializing itself in order to reterritorialize upon a different geo-political landscape, in order to found a newer and more radical market.

In the trope of a global auction house, Rushdie reveals in sharp contrast the extent to which capital postpones its own limit by destroying the central root that would foreclose peripheral development. To function and thrive, the auction— the prison-house of Capital—must maintain an outside, an exteriority, so that it has something to appropriate and internalize. Capital must ensure the existence on some level of that which stands as its other, that which opposes it. The disparaging implication here is that capitalism not only finds value in its most radically other, but that it must actually enable something like radical opposition to continue to go about its business if capital is to have anything left to incorporate: "exiles, political refugees, deposed monarchs, poets, memorabilia junkies, defeated factions" have all been captured in the auction house.

What, therefore, can we articulate as the "ends of literature" in a global world order? Any critical, non-derivative engagement with the phenomenon of globalization, and with the concept of nationality, must enact a dual deconstructive politics, such as Rushdie enacts in these two narratives. With the rise of a global capitalist order, we are seeing the logical economy of colonization realizing its full potential. Capital, in expanding beyond national borders, has evolved to such an extent that it now carries the traits of the very forms of freedom that postmodernism once found viable. No longer a center being imposed on a periphery, global capitalism has become the non-foundational "beating heart of the earth" ("RS" 98). In Midnight’s Children and "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" Salman Rushdie performs a dual deconstructive politics of resistance. In marking the ends of the nation, and the ends of global capital, Rushdie’s texts operate differently from canonical narratives of nationalism (Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair, Kim, A Suitable Boy) and colonial narratives of cosmopolitan travel (Robinson Crusoe, The Story of an African Farm, Out of Africa, Mister Johnson). Rushdie’s deconstruction of the "home terrain" and the differential, global terrain offers a viable alternative to the modes of incorporation operative on both sides of our contemporary occasion—warding off at one and the same time the reactionary aggressiveness marking the national persona, and the benevolent invitation to bid at the transnational action house of postmodernity.

Endnotes

1. This is Yael Tamir's argument. See his Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

2. Bruce Robbins, Feeling Global (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 3, 17, 61-62. Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes (London: Routledge, 1992), 201-208.

3. Fredric Jameson, "Preface" from The Cultures of Globalization, ed. by Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), xiii.

4. Jacques Derrida, "The Ends of Man," from Margins of Philosophy trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 135.

5. Ibid., 135.

6. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), 375. Hereafter cited as MC.

7. Here, "essence" should be understood in the Heideggerian sense of the term: not as representative of some innate, static core, but in how something dwells, how a phenomenon or a persuasive cultural ideal has come into being and what enables it to maintain its being in the general economy of reality. The root of the German word that Heidegger uses is Wesen, meaning "to dwell." See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 3. By marking essence as "performative," I mean to expand the potential of engaging essence as an activity, and to refer to Judith Butler's thematization of subjectivity as performance. See her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), 171-180.

8. Salman Rushdie, "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," in East, West (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 87. Hereafter cited as "RS."

9. I have written elsewhere more extensively on Deleuze and Guattari's development of isomorphy in as essay entitled, "The War Machine and Capitalism: Notes Toward a Nomadology of the Imperceptible." The term isomorphy appears in A Thousand Plateaus trans. by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). See especially the section entitled "The Apparatus of Capture, " pp.436-437.

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