The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age by David Palumbo-Liu
As one of the most potent forces in contemporary scholarship, globalism is a literary topic and an analytic tool that forces a reconsideration and a redefinition of the major categories of human organization, such as nation, state, citizenship, race, gender, class, and community. David Palumbo-Liu’s The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age participates in this larger project, interrogating the boundaries that constitute identity by differentiation. What is local? What is foreign? What is common? What is other? With such epistemological and ontological grounds disrupted, Palumbo-Liu concentrates on studying, in contemporary literature, relationships marked by extreme differences: difference between the “human” and the “animal,” difference between “white” and “black” in the new political reality of South Africa, difference between the “self” and “other” in tissue and organ transplantation, and difference between one’s own “affect” and “feeling” from those of others. These are what Palumbo-Liu calls the “insurmountable” and “incommensurable” differences of the global age operating in the fictions of J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ruth Ozeki. In his analysis of these extreme differences, Palumbo-Liu’s analytic framework demonstrates the internal contradiction that seems inherent to the analysis of globalism and literature—the need to emphasize the enormous material, political, and discursive differences (the prefix “in” to express negation or impossibility is a fixture to adjectives such as “insurmountable” and “incommensurable” difference), as well as the need to represent “how we are bound together” “in this newly interconnected world” (xi).
It is all the more startling, then, to encounter Palumbo-Liu beginning his study by declaring his assumption about human commonality, and this explicit insistence on human commonality forms a major distinguishing feature this study of literature and globalism: “we are the same because we all define, rationalize, and reach for our economic preferences and utilities in the same way; we all have a human body; we all have human [End Page 407] emotions. These are baseline assumptions, and they help keep us talking to each other” (xi). That humans think, feel, and have a body are facts unlikely to be contested, yet precisely their status as truisms, Palumbo-Liu argues, is what makes these commonalities the most revealing grounds for testing the viability and limitations of the “delivery systems”—the material and discursive systems by which humans interact and connect with one another. Just as importantly, these delivery systems are the means by which “otherness” is constructed—that which is deemed patently outside the human commonality. Thus Palumbo-Liu puts a dialectical pressure on human commonality, presenting a theoretically intense interrogation of the philosophical underpinnings of rationalism, and the economic, political, social ramifications of it; literary manifestations of rationalism in the form and logic of realism; the ideology of the family and of community; theories of the human in relation to theories of the body; and finally, theories of empathy, feeling, and affect. In his analysis of the literary texts, Palumbo-Liu concentrates on those moments, or historical “slots,” in which the political, economic, cultural, and technological specifications of this age puts particular challenges to the delivery systems by which humans interact. What happens to the commonality of human rationality in the context of the “otherness” of animals, as in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello? What happens to the logic of the family when racial “otherness” is turned upside down, as in Gordimer’s My Son’s Story? What happens to the idea of art as a human commonality—and a liberatory one, at that—when the idea underpins the technological industry and economy of human cloning, as in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? What happens to the commonality of human feeling and affect when they are put into the services of chemical industrialization and global commercialization of meat consumption, as in Ozeki’s My Year of Meats?
In Palumbo-Liu’s rigorous analysis, the limitations—and falsity—of the delivery systems founded on human commonality are laid bare. But they are not cast out. And here is the second distinguishing feature of this study as a study of globalism and literature—its heightened expectation, and hope for, the meaning of “deliverance of others.” While eschews the religious connotation of “deliverance” as salvation (of being led into “the light” [xi]), he wishes to highlight the ethical connotation—as a “call to embrace others and take responsibility for them” (xi). This ethical dimension leads Palumbo-Liu to stretch the meaning of “delivery” beyond the concrete encounters between people (in the economic, social, political, cultural, technological realm) to the encounter of intersubjective feeling, empathy, and affect.
Palumbo-Liu is intensely alert to the misuse of those commonalities—in the easy and effortless claims of understanding the other, of feeling the other, of becoming the other. Yet Palumbo-Liu argues the theoretical potential for feeling as the foundation of an ethical encounter with the other; thus the highest achievement of ethical encounter, what he calls “redemptive” or “positive” moments, are reserved for those most successful literary encounters of feeling the other’s presence. For example, the most “redemptive” moment in Never [End Page 408] Let Me Go is the exchange of a simple gift between two people, people, in this instance, who are cloned humans for the purpose of organ harvesting and who know the inevitability of their death. Despite the fact that the giver, now dead, misunderstood the meaning of the gift, the receiver, Ishiguro writes, values it as “one of [her] most precious possessions.” Such is the deliverance of the other, in which “the [gift] is meaningless, the gesture is everything; the exchange is absolutely wrong, and perfectly right” (131), Palumbo-Liu writes. But immediately, Palumbo-Liu turns on his own celebration of the “inexact exchange theory” (131), questioning the series of assumptions necessary to overlook the patent material inequity and injury in this severe instance of “otherness.” Such is the dialectical argumentation paradigmatic of this book, in which the “deliverance of others” is ultimately bound to the potential and limitation of human commonality.