chapter  11
Distance and intimacy: forms of writing and worlding
ByNaeem Inayatullah
Pages 20

When I aim to learn about a civil war or a revolution in a part of the world I know little about, my first impulse is to find a novel. Only afterwards do I compile a professional bibliography. In the language of this book, I initially bypass the mode of worlding constituted by social science and by Western International Relations (IR). Instead, I turn first to the transgressive worlding of fiction. How might this make sense even for a professional academic? Reading a novel and reading a professional article call for different dispositions. We are suspicious, alert and guarded when reading a scientific account. In contrast, while reading a literary narrative our “guard” is down. What raises our guard? And, what facilitates its lowering? With a scientific narrative, the reader anticipates that the writer will marshal all

arguments, evidence and authority to advance an explicit claim. Immediately the reader is defensive. Through years of training and experience she knows that the writer will not disclose the best arguments against his own position. Therefore, she must quickly ascertain the contours of the argument, so the better to resist it. Even if she agrees with the author’s claim, she understands that she may not agree for the same reasons, with the same intensity or scope, or for the same purposes. The reader is keen therefore to uncover what is being withheld. She, not the writer, bears the burden of providing balance and wholeness to the deliberation. Is this not why the reader is alert and on guard? Literary narratives produce a different posture in us. We accept the distance

between the author’s imagined world and the actual world we inhabit. Additionally, because no explicit claim is being contested we are in no hurry to locate the author’s position. As a result, our guard is down and we settle to delight in the story. An effective narrative can transport us in time, space and most importantly, social location. This relaxed transportation enables two qualities: it creates continuity between the novel’s characters and the reader that

allows the reader to access the tribulations of those with whom they might not otherwise sympathize; and it allows us a sense, therefore, that multiple valuable positions exist on any issue. We can then locate these alternative positions within our own thinking/feeling process. Literary narratives can sound out our own multiplicity. Effective literature has robust characters with complex motivations. These

characters are embedded in thick social relations as they struggle over potent ethical dilemmas. Literature necessarily displays generosity toward every character, but especially toward antagonists. The probing of an antagonist’s motivations coupled with the narrative’s ability to move us into unexpected places permits us to feel our potential complicity in the very problems we work to solve. This traversing from our initial position to that of the other and back again produces in us a sense that we have experienced something enriching and potentially transformative. If fiction works by enabling continuities and intimacies between reader and

writer, between protagonist and antagonist, and between alternative visions of the world, then science, social science and Western IR work instead by creating distance. Distance and separation are created between writer and reader, observer and observed, and between the various parts of the world and its holistic constitution. The centrality of distancing in Western social science is my point of departure but I do not develop it here. Allow me, nevertheless, to provide a quick summary of my assumptions. Distancing, which may ultimately be seen as a kind of linear or non-dialectical

logic, serves as the foundation for an epistemology that dominated postReformation Europe and then, with colonialism, spread throughout the world. As David Blaney and I have suggested elsewhere (Inayatullah and Blaney 2004), this epistemology emerged as an attempt to resist, contain and control the genocidal dogmatism that Catholics and Protestants fired upon each other. Their symmetrical exterminating wrath resulted from the belief that earthly differences are degenerate forms of god’s original labor. The commitment to what James Tully (1995) calls an “empire of uniformity” led to a negation of cultural and religious difference. Nevertheless, epistemological distancing was not then, nor is it now, monolithic. Indeed, both inside and outside the geopolitical confines of its European “origins,” alternative epistemologies offer substantive resistance. Thus, for my purposes the term “West” serves less as a geopolitical container and more to identify those instances in which the epistemology of distancing is dominant. Likewise, while the spatial location of resistance to this epistemology remains relevant, terms such as “non-West,” “third world” and “fourth world” serve less to demarcate clean lines between homogenous Euclidian spaces and more to identify instances of transgression regardless of spatial location.2 With these caveats in mind, I employ a framework in which “epistemological distancing” and “Western” are interchangeable; and “third world,” “fourth world” and “resisting” are synonymous. As I imply above, distancing is not only negative. However, I do take it to be

the differentia specifica of the modern Western understanding of life. Distancing has

been systematically developed into what we call science and social science. Because it is no longer employed in the context of its antipode, namely dogmatic religious faith against which it served to create a sense of tension and balance, contemporary distancing practices may be characterized more by how they confound problems than by how they illuminate them. Today, instead of simply sustaining distance we may need to develop a sense of continuity and intimacy with difficult and potentially overwhelming questions, debilitating doubts, and with difference itself. Generating intimacy does not require us to reject altogether the benefits of the precise analysis offered by epistemological distancing. Rather, by acknowledging the presence of intimacy and feeling within our thinking we begin to understand life more holistically-with both mind and body, thought and emotion, and an analytic distance with an awareness of our familiarity and complicity in life’s construction. I do not argue for the replacement of scientific analysis by literature. We need them both. Their juxtaposition allows us to ask whether their differences can serve as resources for meaningful living. Nevertheless, my interest is not even-handed. My primary motivation is to explore how Western social science may deepen both its ability to understand and change the world by incorporating aspects of literature. With this in mind, in the section that follows I examine parts of two novels:

Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina (1945), and Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits (1982). I assess them on the basis of the following six propositions that distinguish literary from scientific prose. I claim that: (1) relative to social science, literature highlights the narrative process over definitive ethical/political conclusions; (2) while literature’s message cannot but be political, this delivery is nevertheless suggestive rather than argumentative; (3) literature places the responsibility of closing on an interpretation upon the reader rather than the writer; (4) literature explains complex life processes and deep meanings through characterization, mood, and the interaction of its characters rather than by reference to abstract social forces; (5) literature is often characterized by generosity toward otherness and difference rather than by an exclusionary focus; and (6) instead of striking an imperative mode, literature adopts a posture of modesty and patience regarding its influence on readers. In a closing section I review potential lessons that social science can learn from

literature as well as what the West can learn from visions of life that resist it. In this encounter between Western social science and resisting literature perhaps the most significant lesson is that the latter offers an alternative epistemology that might transform both the West and the rest.