- Hospitality, Reading, and the Aesthetic of Uncertainty:Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist
According to Peter Melville, the 9/11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda militants precipitated "a crisis of hospitality" in American culture, "a defensive turn" that reduced all outsiders to "objects of suspicion" (178). Outsider and enemy are, of course, closely related. As Carl Schmitt points out, the outsider is, in fact, always the potential enemy on whom the political depends (27). Evidently, the already tenuous distinction between these two figures blurred in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In terms of Immanuel Kant's understanding of hospitality as the right of the outsider "not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another" (82), this does indeed constitute a crisis of hospitality. My purpose in this essay is to trace Mohsin Hamid's response to this crisis in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a novel that charts the arrival in the United States of its Pakistani protagonist, Changez, and dwells extensively on his cordial reception there, while nevertheless making the point that he is perceived to be exotic and therefore regarded as an outsider. Just as importantly, it then goes on to depict the way in which perceptions of him change after 9/11. In other words, the novel traces Changez's transition from outsider to enemy during his stay in the United States.
With this transition in mind, I examine Hamid's novel in the context of Judith Butler's reflections on the framed, and thus exclusionary, nature of notions of the human in Frames of War (2009a) and the conversation that [End Page 84] they form with Emmanuel Levinas's humanism, particularly his conception of the precariousness and vulnerability of the other person (see, for example, Alterity and Transcendence, 1999, 126–30). Although The Reluctant Fundamentalist has received a fair deal of critical attention, few readers have commented at any length on the relevance of Butler's and Levinas's arguments on precariousness to its concern with the question of hospitality to the stranger. Joseph Darda's (2014) insightful reading of the novel in relation to Butler's understanding of precariousness and precarity is a notable exception here. Nevertheless, Darda does not consider the bearing of Butler's arguments on how representation conceals the vulnerability of the human on Hamid's project in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I argue that this novel counters the frames that seek to determine representation and, in the process, broadens the notion of the human that they inscribe. Its concern with hospitality extends to its own representations and their effect on its readers. In this regard, I contend that the sheer indeterminacy of the text necessarily destabilizes the reading process by precluding readers from fixing the opposition between East and West that grounds the normative conceptions of the human that it resists. In routinely deferring such difference, the act of reading becomes less exclusionary and hence more responsive to that which exceeds the frames that attempt to regulate the work's representations. Finally, my emphasis on this novel's aesthetic of representation means that the tenor of my argument differs from that of Michael Prefect, who examines "the degree to which the hospitality that Changez extends to his American guest corresponds to the hospitality that America extends toward him" (203).
For Butler, notions of the human are normative (2004, 19–49). Far from being inclusionary, the "normatively human," which is differentially constructed and distributed, is deeply exclusionary (xv). It informs what is deemed familiar and thus establishes codes of recognition that determine who is produced as a "recognizable subject": that is, "who counts as a life, who can be read or understood as a living being, and who lives, or tries to live on the far side of established modes of intelligibility" (2009b, iv). The frames that contextualize the norms of intelligibility and recognizability exclude some lives, therefore concealing their "precariousness," which, for Butler, is a shared condition of human life since we are all dependent on what is "outside ourselves, on others, on institutions, and on sustained and sustainable environments" (2009a, 23). Importantly, precariousness is [End Page 85] differentially...