- The Subaltern Appeal to Experience: Self-Identity, Late Modernity, and the Politics of Immediacy
What makes experience such an indispensable category, especially for humanists and social scientists examining dispossession and subordination? Why has experience persisted in academic discourse even after thorough and convincing critiques of appeals to immediacy? How might the trajectory of experience in twentieth-century thinking be mapped? These are some of the questions and issues that Craig Ireland undertakes to explore in The Subaltern Appeal to Experience. In this intriguing book Ireland provides a nuanced discussion of contemporary debates on experience, together with a valuable examination of the historical development of the deployment of the concept within late modernity.
Ireland's point of departure resides in two influential and ideologically opposed texts: American feminist historian Joan Scott's poststructuralist critique of experience, first published in Critical Inquiry, and British Marxist [End Page 163] historian Edward Thompson's path-breaking book The Making of the English Working Class. Beginning from an examination of the appeal to experience in the autobiography of the well-known science fiction writer Samuel Delaney, Scott articulates a Foucauldian-inspired critique of experience that demonstrates how its apparent immediate impact must in fact be read as a socially constructed category at work within memory. Thompson's book, a classical touchstone within British subaltern historiography, traces the emergence of a working-class consciousness within groups of northern labourers in the industrial revolution. Although vehemently critical of continental structuralist and poststructuralist models, Thompson is no naïve empiricist; his writings attempt to understand the ways through which the labouring classes of northern England arrived at self-consciousness and agency, a process in which experience functions crucially as, in Ireland's words, 'a potential fissure in an unassailable hegemonic order.
Ireland's analysis of the assumptions implicit in Thompson's thought locates the critical intervention of experience in the disturbing or unsettling of accepted ways of thinking. As he puts it, 'in the Thompsonian appeal to experience is the hope that something might somehow so unexpectedly disrupt dominant ideology that the subaltern will be galvanized into forging or reinforcing counterhistories and oppositional ideologies' (original emphasis). In other words, the shock of the new, the unanticipated, provokes a reconsideration that has the potential to open up innovative ways of understanding and thinking through new configurations. Such a conception has obvious affinities with modernist aesthetic theories of defamiliarization (Shklovsky's 'making strange,' Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, Pound's axiom 'make it new'). For modernist theorists and writers the shock of defamiliarization has the function of breaking down habitual lines of thought, thereby putting in question conventional assumptions, and it is this action of stimulating new reactions, connections, and thoughts that underpins the ethical claims of art to develop human capacities. It might have been productive for Ireland to analyse in more detail the relationship of Thompsonian theories of experience to postwar British cultural criticism, especially the writings of Raymond Williams and John Berger. In particular, Williams's 'structure of feeling,' a concept he developed in an attempt to replace both the unsatisfactory determinism of conventional Marxist theories of literature and the equally debilitating intuitive vitalism of F.R. Leavis's literary criticism, seems to have a critical affinity with Thompson's theorizing. Williams used and refined 'structure of feeling' from his early writings on drama in the 1950s to the later theoretical reflections of the 1970s and 1980s, throughout the decades when Thompson was writing The Making of the English Working Class. A similar intersection with Thompsonian theories of experience might be explored in the writings of John Berger, especially his widely read book, A Seventh Man (1975), coauthored with the photographer John Mohr, which elaborated [End Page 164] the genre of the photo-essay in an attempt to represent the experience of migrant workers in Europe.
Nevertheless, The Subaltern Appeal to Experience is an excellent examination of pressing issues for historical and cultural critics. Readers of the book will discover thoughtful analyses of the German tradition in...