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The Case for Attachment: Making a Tragic Investment in a Risky World

Martha Nussbaum and What I Loved

August 2007
To Alice, from Anne--

I've spent the past two weeks deep in landscapes you sent me to, Siri Hustvedt's 2003 novel What I Loved, and Martha Nussbaum's 1994 essay in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, "Valuing Values: A Case for Reasoned Commitment." Both were rich texts for me, full of insight and provocation. I want to record some of that here, as an archive for when we might talk more about these things, as a record for myself, in case I want to write more about them, and as an invitation to others, who might want to join the conversation.

I'll start with Nussbaum. Now I forget the context in which you recommended her essay to me: was it our talking about the social justice pilot program? the Teaching and Learning Initiative? Friends Association of Higher Education? BMC's work in community partnership? Amidst all the conversations we've been having about these on-going projects, and about "breaking"--breaking away from settled commitments, and especially from conventional assumptions about women's investments in connected relationships--I read Nussbaum's essay as an incredibly compelling argument for "binding." She speaks about the "sense of tragedy in the continued commitment to values we cannot uphold." What I saw in her acknowledgement of all these dimensions was what's long been missing for me in much of the work about change that I've been engaged with on Serendip. That work has been incredibly important and growth-inducing for me, but it is absent all nostalgia, all regret for what we can not do, much as we might long to. It doesn't account for the power of memory, is absent the sense of the tragic which Nussbaum acknowledges: "that we cannot do justice to the claims...does not mean that we are no longer committed to all of them."

Most striking for me was Nussbaum's willingness to take on the skeptic who "assumes a stance of detachment from commitment...the allure of freedom from disturbance" (also recognizable in Derrida's "free play," Fish's attention to power politics, the economist's "low decision costs," Bork's turning decisions over to the majority). "Eager to avoid the disturbance of being involved in the predicament" of life, the skeptic omits "the disposition to "make ethical commitments and to get upset about them....She assumes the detached posture of an onlooker watching the play of forces because the cost of immersion and concern would be too great a disturbance."

Nussbaum's finale, with its refusal of "excessive detachment," also called to mind a conversation I had this summer with my college roommate, a yogi practitioner for whom the world is deterministic. In the world as she understands and experiences it, every act causes, inevitably, a reaction that "attaches" (imagine her striking herself as she says this). One's best practice therefore entails learning to "detach." But what if the world is serendipidous and random in its actions? What if actions didn't have inevitable results, but unpredictable ones? Would one manage it differently? Be more or less detached from one's emotions and behavior?

All those questions were context for my reading of Hustvedt's novel, which I also found very compelling. In reconsidering my own willingness to take the risk of being invested in this risky world, and in others in it, this passage was key:

"Mixing is a key term...It explains what people rarely talk about, because we define ourselves as isolated, closed bodies who bump up against each other but stay shut. Descartes was wrong. it isn't: I think, therefore I am. It's: I am because you are. That's Hegel--well, the short version."

What's most striking about Hustvedt's novel, of course, is its willingness not to blink from the implications of this sort of mixing: it's not necessarily a positive thing, and can be devastating. Of particular interest to me was the phenomenon of the antisocial personality, which comes into being when a child "wanted to fit in, be more like the others," and so "he gave them what they wanted." Trickery, deception, lying are all the result of wanting people to like him: "He gives us the performance he thinks we want. It's not always easy to separate the actor from his act."

And--here's the second great, complementary, paradoxical insight I found in Hustvedt's novel--it's not ever easy to separate the viewer from his view:

"'All those different people see what they see just a little different from everybody else.....they saw me and I saw them, but I didn't see myself and they didn't see themselves'....'The place where I am is missing from my view. It's like that for everybody. We don't see ourselves in the picture, do we? It's a kind of hole.'"

"The difficulty of seeing clearly haunted me long before my eyes were's a problem of the viewer's perspective....we're missing from our own picture. The spectator is the true vanishing point, the pinprick in the canvas, the zero...I'm only whole to myself in mirrors and photographs and the rare home movie, and I've often longed to escape that confinement and take a far view of myself from the top of a hill--a small 'he' rather than an 'I' traveling in the valley below from one point to another. And yet, remove doesn't guarantee accuracy either...the truth was mobile and contradictory."

Thanks for inviting me into a consideration of these mobile and contradictory truths. They invite not only a break from the tyranny of self--what Nussbaum calls "the need to look for a deeper consistency and unity in one's own commitment"--but also from the tyranny of one's own point of view.


Related Explorations on Serendip

Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Psychology

Paths to Storytelling as Life

The Use of Narrative Therapy with Families




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