This semester, I gave my students a confounding assignment. I asked them to write a “non-representative representation” of a community to which they belong. The quoted words are not mine. This is literature scholar Mark Chiang’s phrase for an over-determined theoretical construction that “hypostatizes contradiction” insofar as it does or says that which it cannot do or say. Chiang is interested in the impossible project of ethnic cultural production, specifically Asian American literatures. Such literatures are read, by definition, as representations of “Asian America” even though they can never adequately capture the collectivity to which they refer. As Chiang writes, “If Asian American literature ‘always fails to stand for’ Asian Americans, that is because it always must be measured in terms of that relation”. I tried in various ways to assuage my students’ concerns. Write some “we” through your “I”, I told them. Find a way to mark formally the limits of an attempt to “speak for” both yourself and others. Every representation, every locution, every word comes up against the limits of referentiality, so just write! But they were still anxious about the project of, to borrow Donna Haraway’s words, situating their knowledges. They were vexed that I had asked them to fail. What is “we”? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “we” is “the subjective case of the first person plural pronoun.” It is a pronoun “used indefinitely in general statements in which the speaker or writer includes those addressed, i.e. his or her contemporaries, compatriots, fellow human beings, etc.” “We” is an epistemology. “We” is an assumption of shared subjectivity, perspective, or experience. “We” is an invitation to affiliate. “We” is a promise and a threat. As the feminist theorist Robyn Wiegman writes, we is a “towering inferno of universalism” and “monstrous display of self-infatuation” – an error, an excess – that we can nevertheless not want, a “tantalizing hallucination” we cannot help but desire. “We” is what we write toward. Equally, “we” is what we must never reach. What is “we”? I am asking the question like this, as opposed to the more conventional forms of “who are we?” or “what are we?” because these latter two assume that “we” already are; we just need to be specified, qualified, and described. I am not convinced.
The question, it seems to me, is not how to develop a vocabulary that is adequate to representing some collectivity, but rather: how to apprehend, at a conceptual level, the simultaneous violence and vitality of aspirations to collectivity in the first place. “I” cannot speak “we” and yet inevitably I do, with equal parts arrogance and hope. This paradox is what I asked my students to investigate. This is what we (“we”?) must ask.
“We” is a rhetorical fiction, variously employed but perhaps nowhere as consequentially as in the construction of national identity. In his canonical 1882 lecture, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”, Ernest Renan famously defined the nation as “a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those one is prepared to make in the future”. Renan quoted a Spartan song to gloss his idea of nation as soul: “We are what you were; we will be what you are”. To be a “we”, we must have had a shared history. To continue to be a “we”, we must in tandem inherit the future. There is at no time a “we” that is exclusively present. We are never who we think we were nor who we wish to be. Our collectivity requires us to imagine origins and futures that by definition cannot exist.
After Renan, theorists like Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha further elaborated nation-ness as an ambivalent, indeterminate mode of imagining “we”. In Bhabha’s account, the nation emerges through and as narration; it is a process and “form of cultural elaboration” that unfolds in time. Famously, Bhabha reads the time of the nation as doubled into what he terms the pedagogical and the performative. “The people are the historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy”, he writes, in a passage that brings to mind elementary school celebrations of the United States of America’s Pilgrims and “founding fathers”. But, he continues: “the people are also the [performative] ‘subjects’ of a process of signification” that resists and subverts the pedagogy of the nation. Bhabha’s performative subjects disrupt official-national narratives. By that same token, they are potentially warring subjects. To stay with the U.S. context, they are Dreamers and the Tea Party; activists at Standing Rock and billionaire-plaintiffs seeking to cordon off the sea.
All articulations of collectivity – whether pedagogical or performative – are provisional, conditional, unstable, fabricated. But this fabrication has real-world consequences. I’m writing these words in December 2019, as India’s lower house of parliament debates a “Citizenship Amendment Bill” (CAB) which would extend citizenship to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs from neighbouring countries, but specifically not to Muslims. They are not “us”, shout the bill’s sponsors from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But this is not who “we” are, not our secular India, critics of the bill protest. Versions of India’s citizenship debate resound worldwide, from Brexit to Trump’s border wall to the Syrian refugee crisis to China’s mass detention of ethnic minorities.
Who represents us and our interests? Who speaks for you, for me? We are not like them; we believe in secularism, climate change, women’s rights. We are not like them; we believe in private property, gun rights, separation of church and state. We are for life and choice. We are pro-life. They are not us. We are not them. This is not who we are. We are better than this. The nation is never quite what it says it is, nor who it thinks it is not. In the very same moment as its boundaries are drawn, they are also crossed: by those who refuse to abide by the limits of its “we”; equally, by those it would endeavour to keep out.
Is there a bigger, broader, species-level “we” that might counter these resurgent nationalisms? I am writing these words in October 2020. The unfolding coronavirus pandemic both confirms the need for and gives the lie to the idea of a global community whose shared interests will supersede our differences. The “flexible citizen” – anthropologist Aihwa Ong’s name for the figure whose transnational attachments exemplified turn of the century cultural logics – is now in quarantine. The major players in the field of global capitalism retain their mobilities, while the rest of the human “we” struggles to change the stakes and outcome of the game.
What is “we”? The myth of the public sphere. The myth of “world”. A Twitter feed. Noise. At its worst, in other words, “we” is the summoning of bodyguards and the dissemination of alibis. For an example of the defensive, apologetic mode of collectivity-articulation, recall the words with which James Zetlen launched www.sorryeverybody.com, a now-defunct website that curated thousands of apologies for the 2004 re-election of American president George W. Bush: “Sorry World (We Tried) – Half of America.” Like the “we” of the Paris agreement, Zetlen’s “we” was too late. Like the “we” of Occupy, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, Zetlen’s “we” tried and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. But failure is always instructive, which is what I was trying to teach my students. The “half” that didn’t vote for Bush (or Trump or Brexit or the Citizenship Amendment Bill in India) and the half that did are subject to the same nationalist pedagogy. The “half” of humanity that is pursuing herd immunity to COVID and the “half” attempting to lock it out are subject to the same virus and must uneasily coexist. They, we, are therefore equally signs of the nation’s and globe’s potential rupture, equally contributors to the refashioning and revisioning of collectivity by other means. They might be we, even if we aren’t as yet. “We” is immeasurably larger than we think it is, and much smaller than we hope. Hidden within that parenthetical – (we) – is the promise of failing together. Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is assistant professor of English and Social, Cultural and Critical Theory at the University of Arizona. Her public writings on feminism, identity, literature, disciplinarity, and postcolonial questions have appeared online at The New Yorker, Public Books, L.A. Review of Books, and Guernica, and in print in numerous scholarly and public venues. She is currently at work on two projects, on the teaching of ethnic literatures and on the idea of a “New India.” raginitharoorsrinivasan.com / twitter.com/raginits