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Singularity and Multitude in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The fraught relationship between global capitalism and cultural identity looms large in the work of contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. His novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for example, tells the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton University on scholarship before going to work for Underwood Samson, a high-powered asset valuation firm in New York City. But when the United States responds to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center with a series of military invasions that throw the global power structure into high relief, Changez must confront the tensions within his personal identity as a transnational global subject. He soon recognizes that he “lacked a stable core,” and he confesses that he could no longer tell if he belonged “in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither” (168). As the narrative progresses, Changez grows a beard, resigns his post at Underwood Samson, and returns to Pakistan, where he helps organize a series of large scale protests against American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. What makes Changez’s transformation from pro-American market fundamentalist to anti-American political activist so compelling is that he exists both inside and outside the logic of global capitalism. By embodying both sides of the contemporary conflict between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, his consciousness troubles any clear distinction between “us” and “them”—a key mentality and core contradiction within neoliberal globalization. Like much of Hamid’s work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks us to consider the limits of this mentality and to question the extent to which a distinction between inside and outside—or the global and the local—is possible at this point in history.

Hamid complicates this question in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Unlike Changez, who views the world through both Pakistani and American eyes, the unnamed protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia never leaves Pakistan. His journey is from an impoverished village in the Pakistani hinterlands to the developmental boom of contemporary Lahore. Hamid’s shift in emphasis from transnational to regional subject would seem to eschew the idea that globalization strips everyone of a “stable core.” Indeed, there is no reason to read Hamid’s unnamed protagonist as anything other than authentically Pakistani. Not only does he never experience the nostalgic longing for cultural authenticity that is evident in Changez’s split identity, but he is also repeatedly reminded that he does not belong to a global elite with the privileged mobility to exist in more than one place at a time, and this despite the fact that he earns a modest fortune bottling untreated tap water. One example of such a reminder is when he meets his childhood sweetheart (referred to throughout the novel as “the pretty girl,” who has since gone on to become an internationally recognized model) at the most exclusive hotel in the city. Having recently been damaged by a truck bomb, the hotel, which Hamid describes as an “outpost of a leading international chain, a bridge with lofty, illuminated blue signage to the outside world,” has made a concerted effort to “push the city away” and establish itself as “an island” unto itself (104). The intense security surrounding the hotel marks a stark contrast between the transnational elite and the local residents of Lahore, a contrast that manifests itself in seething traffic jams and “looks of resignation, frustration, and not infrequently anger.” It is from this “snarled horde” that the unnamed protagonist attempts to “detach” himself and enter the transnational “citadel,” but his effort is interrupted by armed guards who summarily turn him away precisely because his identity is bound within the confines of the very city that hosts this corporate resort (104). It is only when “the pretty girl,” who can move in and out of Lahore at will, vouches for him that he is permitted to enter into a space that is marked as the exclusive domain of well-heeled cosmopolitanism.

Yet Hamid never allows us, as readers, no matter where we are from or what our socioeconomic circumstances may be, to escape from a fundamental—and sometimes uncomfortable—identification with his novel’s hero. He accomplishes this by narrating How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, from beginning to end, in the second person. The protagonist’s experience being turned away at gunpoint from a hotel restaurant is your experience being turned away at gunpoint, thus opening within the novel a deterritorialization of identity that puts readers into close proximity with a radical otherness. For example, Hamid collapses the points of identification and differentiation between his unnamed hero and his readers when, in the novel’s opening pages, he writes:

This book is a self-help book. It’s objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things. (4)

Hamid’s ideal reader has, of course, seen all of these things, which is precisely why he needs to mention them, for without some basis of identification readers may close themselves off from the radical difference embodied by an impoverished and diseased child from an isolated rural village. At the same time, the narrative, focused as it is on how globalization comes to bear on local contexts, needs to maintain the integrity of its hero’s cultural identity, which is why it bears stating that “you” have not seen such luxuries (even though you have). In other words, even as Hamid creates points of identification between his readers and his story’s huddling child, the text reminds us that this protagonist is no Changez; on the contrary, this character is sealed off from the centers of global capital and fixed in a position of distant otherness, and yet he is shot through with the same forces that fix all of us within globalization’s mechanisms. This unrelenting collapse of the difference between his novel’s diverse global readership and its unique central character allows Hamid to develop a critique of identification and difference that may help us begin to understand how we, as singular individuals, exist within a global network, and how our shared position within this network unites us as a multitude of global subjectivities.

One reason Hamid needs to take such care to balance identification and difference in the first place has to do with the precarious systems used to disseminate difference throughout the world—the novel being one such system—and how those systems threaten to break down under the pressure of a radical influx of otherness. In his book The Deliverance of Others, David Palumbo-Liu argues that too much otherness can overwhelm those on the receiving end of delivery systems, thus leading to a further entrenchment of difference and, ultimately, alienation. He even goes so far as to make the seemingly paradoxical suggestion that increased exposure to otherness makes knowledge of difference all the more difficult to achieve. For example, he argues that “if by ‘globalization’ we mean a newly extensive and intensive connectedness between remote and disconnected peoples,” then we in the humanities and social sciences must address the implications of having lost “the luxury of focusing only on discrete and separate objects, phenomena, and behaviors, since these are now mingling and cross-referencing each other in unprecedented and sometimes discrepant manners.” This leads, in turn, to an ironic juncture where “knowledge of others appears to have become only more problematic in an age when the distance between others is continually shrinking” (30). One of the great virtues of literature is that it opens up possibilities for experiencing otherness through the exchange of our shared imaginations, and one may reasonably assert that literature is a vehicle for self-transcendence precisely because it brings complex, emotive representations of otherness close to readers. Yet even when the powers of the imagination are at work, there are deep challenges to our accessing an honest knowledge of intersubjective difference. Palumbo-Liu relates these challenges to:

a number of imperatives: for example, how to displace (or at least “bracket”) oneself enough to allow for the imagining of an other that endows that other with his or her (or its) own sphere of action and choice, without mandating that the other has to act as we do? And yet how to make a bridge between their discrete acts and our realm of understanding . . . if we do not retain (as if we could truly give it up) our own particular sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable? (54)

What complicates these challenges even further is that any attempt to imagine the lives of others must include a reckoning with the external forces that impact those lives, and how those forces apply unevenly to individual subjects depending upon their positions within the global order. In other words, as Palumbo-Liu makes clear, identification with otherness must expand upon “wider considerations of historical, political, ethical and social (rather than simply intersubjective) life” (73). When the degree of difference delivered through a literary text overwhelms its readers’ “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” the work’s potential to transform its readership into something more than what it was when it first encountered the text is threatened.

It seems to me that Hamid’s use of the second person throughout How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is his attempt to answer the sorts of imperatives that Palumbo-Liu identifies as a challenge to reading literature in a global age, for the second person point-of-view is uniquely suited to integrate readers into the narrative vehicle. In his short essay “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Hamid places his interest in the second person point-of-view within a literacy narrative that begins with role-playing games and Choose Your Own Adventure stories, both of which empower the reader/participant to determine the contours of the story, and ends with Albert Camus’s The Fall, a book that takes the form of a dramatic monologue, including frequent references to a reading/listening “you.” Hamid’s first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, borrow from The Fall insofar as they too take the form of dramatic monologues with frequent appeals to “you.” Addressing his motive for structuring these novels as dramatic monologues, Hamid explains that he wanted to show “how feelings already present inside a reader—fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty—could color a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on” (78). This sentiment relates to Palumbo-Liu’s observation that readers can’t help but retain their own “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” and that these feelings pose an obstacle to our ability to “bracket” ourselves enough to successfully imagine the lives of others (54). Yet it is worth considering the extent to which dramatic monologues do more to cultivate active self-consciousness in readers than they do to develop a productive consciousness of difference. It is only when we come to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia that we see Hamid fully commit to the second person point-of-view as a means of propelling his readers out of their own and into someone else’s experience. So whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist was designed to be “a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics,” How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—with its unremitting “you” that fixes the reader within the subject position of the narrative’s central character, a narrative approach that Hamid calls “a kind of . . . self-transcendence”—becomes an explicit exercise in encouraging readers to recognize that we are more than singularities to be reflected back by a mirror (79). We are part of a global process of identification and difference that both separates us and binds us together.

Theories of how globalization affects and/or produces intersubjective identification and difference tend to privilege the local as the site of heterogeneity, while disparaging the global as the site of coercive homogenization. But this view fails to consider the extent to which contemporary globalism subsumes the local into a systemic process that has as one of its key mechanisms the ongoing production of both identification and difference. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have usefully argued, what is needed now is a focus on “the production of locality, that is, the social machines that create and recreate the identities and differences that are understood as the local.” They similarly press for a more nuanced view of globalization, which they insist “should not be understood in terms of cultural, political, or economic homogenization. Globalization, like localization, should be understood instead as a regime of the production of identity and difference, or really of homogenization and heterogenization” (45). In other words, the production of identity and difference are not mutually exclusive, and it is thus a mistake to think that some people are swept up in a process of homogenization, while others experience heterogenization. On the contrary, the dual move toward identification and difference can occur within a single subjectivity. Consider a key passage from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:

As you and your family dismount [the bus that has brought you from your village to Lahore], you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential. (14-15)

What we have here is a narrative description that confounds a clean split between homogenization and heterogenization, and all the more so considering that it locates the split in “you”—a term that in this case signifies a closed singularity and a multitude of subjectivities. The language Hamid uses to describe his protagonist’s transformation from natural-born member of an expansive yet clearly localized clan into an atomized member of a deterritorialized global multitude forces a reconsideration of the heterogeneous/local vs. homogeneous/global conceptual divide. It is hardly clear that being part of a tightly-knit clan promotes authentic difference, and especially not among the clan members themselves. It seems to me that the rush to promote the local over and against the global sometimes fails to measure the extent to which localization is productive of communal identities that very well may be experienced as stifling and burdensome to those born into them. Hamid’s “you,” on the contrary, is individualized, and thus rendered diverse, to a degree hardly imaginable under any conventional definition of family or clan or community. And yet this hyper individuation is part of an explosive “proliferation” of singularity that cuts across the world’s increasingly mobile human population and gives way to a new form of intersubjective identification, a proliferation that matches, if not exceeds, the world’s “shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans.”

The takeaway here is that homogeneity and heterogeneity are undergoing a collapse in much the same way that Hamid collapses our collective “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable” into his protagonist’s individual sensibility and geographically-bound set of experiences. Under the expanding regime of global capitalism, the inside/outside dichotomy has given way to an “explosive transformation” that renders this distinction increasingly irrelevant, and Hamid’s novels, beginning with The Reluctant Fundamentalist and accelerating through How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, do much to not only represent, but also to interrogate this transformation. I agree with Hardt and Negri when they insist that it is inaccurate “to claim that we can (re)establish local identities that are in some sense outside and protected against the global flows of capital” and the biopolitical regime that ensures its advancement (45). Or, as they claim somewhat more forcefully: “we should be done once and for all with the search for an outside, a standpoint that imagines a purity for our politics. It is better both theoretically and practically to enter the terrain of Empire and confront its homogenizing and heterogenizing flows in all their complexity, grounding our analysis in the global multitude” (46). At stake in this argument is the recognition that globalization is more than “a machine of biopolitical command”; it is also the “plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities of globalization that have learned to sail on this enormous sea” (60). But without the recognition that we, as individual subjectivities, constitute a larger multitude that circulates within the global system and represents the only feasible point of resistance to existing power systems, we will never be able to reconfigure globalization in our own image.

To return to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and to conclude, Hamid recognizes that the state, and the state’s inseparability from the global financial powers, shapes the contours of our being. And yet he also suggests that our shared experience within the explosive pull of globalization’s orbit can serve as a catalyst for our recognizing how this pull continues to transform our consciousness and our relationship to each other. He writes, “If there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, . . . then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. States tug at us. States bend us. And, tirelessly, states seem to determine our orbits” (H139). And yet, for all of the tension that globalization creates between this economic/political regime and our respective cultural and/or individual identities, Hamid is clear that the orbits we find ourselves circulating within pass through each other. And so, as How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia‘s unnamed narrator, who is also “you,” lies on his deathbed at novel’s end, Hamid leaves us with these pertinent lines: “You have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you” (222). This sentiment expresses the hope of the multitude: that the free circulation of difference is foundational to an expansive collectivity that cuts across the global terrain, a collectivity that has at its center a desire for liberation from all that seeks to arbitrarily bind and/or divide. We are inseparable. A multitude of singularities.

Note: I presented this paper at the 3rd International Conference on Language, Linguistics, Literature, and Translation, “Connecting the Dots in a Glocalized World,” which was hosted by Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman from 3-5 November 2016.

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The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, though it was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected our contemporary cultural sphere is from the species-level threat of nuclear war. We just don’t seem to care anymore. This is precisely why The War Game is still worth watching. It not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the persistent danger of nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant today. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over American military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

The War Game is also concerned with the potential of a nuclear war to undo the democratic institutions that protect individual rights and civil liberties. As the threat of nuclear warfare becomes increasingly immanent early in the film, the British government suspends its democratic system and institutes an authoritarian government headed by a special council of fifteen officials. The new authoritarian government forces evacuations and civilian billeting, institutes food rationing, and establishes explicit classes of people who will receive wildly divergent qualities of treatment in case of a nuclear attack. Those of the lowest class will receive no treatment at all, but will be “put out of their misery” by the police. Unsurprisingly, these mandates give way to social discord. The suspension of democratic law leads to military officers shooting enlisted men for refusing orders, and domestic police summarily execute citizens for civic unrest. The War Game is lucid in this regard. It is not naïve to believe that the world’s democracies would suspend their constitutions under the pressures of nuclear war. One could reasonably argue that they would do so under far less urgent circumstances.

One potential critique of The War Game is that the film is overly speculative, and that an actual nuclear crisis will not necessarily end in world war and the death democracy. Watkins answers such objections by contextualizing the film’s nuclear crisis in relation to actual historical events. For example, The War Game makes regular and convincing comparisons between the atrocity suffered by the fictitious British city and the actual atrocities that occurred at Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The comparisons are convincing because Watkins places the British citizens in situations modeled on actual reactions to WWII-era bombings. So when the film’s British police collect, loot, and burn the bodies of thousands of dead citizens in the streets, they mimic the actions of German police in the wake of the Dresden bombings. Similarly, when the film’s British survivors seem to regress into a state of apathy, filth, and disease, they repeat patterns observed among the Japanese survivors of America’s atom bombs. These examples suggest that the suffering of the past may very well slip into the future so long as nuclear stockpiles remain intact.

It is important to recognize that the human condition would never be the same after a nuclear war. The human psyche would suffer such a horrendous blow that many would no doubt envy the dead. Just imagine the consequences of an entire nation suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The future would be grim indeed. But perhaps we’ve already been acclimating ourselves to precisely such a future. It does seem that many people have already accepted the threat of nuclear war as an unlikely but ultimately justifiable reaction to hostile nations. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with this blasé attitude toward such a future. A nuclear strike by any nation under any circumstance would be an outright assault on the most basic elements of human dignity. We are fortunate to have organizations like the Ploughshares Fund that have remained diligent in resisting the irrationality of nuclear weapons. We need these organizations to remind us of the very real dangers that nuclear weapons pose to humanity. But we also need films like The War Game to remind us of how close we have actually come to destroying ourselves, for that is exactly what we threaten to do every time a nation produces or enhances a nuclear weapon, and every time a national leader threatens a member of the international community with annihilation.

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