The Politics of Names and Singularity, Research Time, 07/03/2014

The concept of singularity is central to the broad conceptual argument of my Ecophilosophy project, essentially a corollary of Leibniz’s Law. If two objects share all the same properties (including spacetime location), thereby becoming completely indiscernible, then they’re actually the same object and there’s only ever been one. The reverse would be true, that the uniqueness of any object is constituted by only the smallest difference. The least variation constitutes absolute uniqueness. Of course, we can map the degrees and kinds of variations and divergences, but from an absolute sense, every body is unique, singular.

One of the central challenges in my composing that manuscript was developing its politically relevant articulations. In that context, the principle of singularity implies the importance of preserving natural diversity, the continual creation of new bodies in ecological processes. But Donna Haraway gave me a spin on the concept that works for feminist politics as well in her essay “Reading Buchi Emecheta.”

I owe Haraway thanks again for revealing Emecheta to me,
another African novelist whose work I should read soon.
Emecheta is a Nigerian novelist and academic who has been publishing since the 1970s. Her biography practically defines human strength. Married at 18, she had five children with a husband from whom she had to hide her writing because he opposed her developing the ability to think for herself. After he left her in England with their children in council housing, she went on assistance while raising them alone and attending school, eventually earning a PhD in sociology. She has since become an internationally successful novelist and has lectured in prestigious universities in Britain, the United States, and Nigeria. Her novels often describe in Nigeria and the West who are beaten down by the injustices of sexism and racism that limit opportunity through prejudice. Haraway describes her as having a sharply critical view of how women are treated and controlled in the institution of marriage. After reading this essay, I’d like to get hold of some of Emecheta’s work.

Haraway’s essay discusses two critical views of Emecheta’s work, as well as her own. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi reads Emecheta in terms of how well the novelist measures up to her own theory of African liberation through the embrace of traditional lifestyles like plural marriage, conceiving of the solidarity of African women in the diaspora as “amicable co-wives with an invisible husband.” She rejects Emecheta as rejecting her African identity by concentrating on the injustices that follow women after the failure of marriages, and so is incompatible with her vision of African liberation. Barbara Christian’s reading fares little better, although she was friendly to Emecheta’s ideas, incorporating the Nigerian into her own project of tracing articulations of motherhood throughout the history of African and African-American women through slavery and the modern era. In both of these interpretations, no matter how hostile or friendly, Emecheta’s work and life is judged on the basis of their own intellectual priorities.

Haraway’s own reading, which she gave in her class, “Methodological Issues in the Study of Women,” discussed and valorized Emecheta’s “heterogeneous statuses as...
“exile, Nigerian, Ibo, Irish-British feminist, black woman, writer canonized in the African Writers Series, popular writer published in cheap paper back books and children’s literature, librarian, mother on welfare, sociologist, single woman, reinventor of African tradition, deconstructor of African tradition, member of the Advisory Council to the British Home Secretary on race and equality, subject of contention among committed multi-racial womanist and feminist theorists, and international figure.”
This list of attributes is a gesture toward the singularity of Emecheta, and indeed of everyone. Human reason operates by forming general sets of standards for evaluation and judging phenomena by their accordance with those standards. But true respect for people (and for any body) requires recognizing the inability of anyone to be completely encapsulated within a general systematic framework of evaluation. Look hard enough, and you will discover aspects of someone who won’t fit your pre-existing framework of comprehension and value. To know someone, you have to understand them not in terms of your own priorities, but simply know them.

— Antonin Artaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze

Of course, I’m subject to this kind of judgment, even as I write about how I want to have done with judgment. My own philosophical development of the concept of singularity essentially creates my own framework against which to judge something. I can judge a critic by the degree to which they attempt to understand a figure through exploration of their singularity or subsume them within a more general framework. In this sense, judgment is inescapable. But I’m also aware that we can never truly, in the words of the figures I identify with in the philosophical tradition, have done with judgment. It will always be useful. 

The key, I think, that puts my own approach above that of the people I judge is that I don’t absolutize my framework of judgment. One has to remain away that any general framework of comprehension and value is a pragmatic, contingent matter, a tool that’s used for a purpose. To extend such a framework for judgment beyond its pragmatic purpose is the harmful move, boxing the singularity of Emecheta into a cause that she never chose.

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