General Theories of Particular Factoids

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Tue Jul 18 13:14:20 MDT 1995

    While I can't lay out all my reasons clearly, I have a general feeling that
such questions as "Why did the Kamikazis sacrifice themselves?" are simply
silly, and they distract from serious analytical and theoretical issues.
    A 2400 year old play throws some light on the issue, though it no more than
patriotic suicides should be allowed to have theoretical weight.
    Antigone in _Antigone_, knowing that she will be executed if she buries her
brother, buries him.
    She is not acting from religious motives: she declared that she would not
do the same for a husband or son for it would be possible to get a new husband
or a new child, but all of her brothers are dead and also her parents so she
cannot have another brother.
    She has no desire to be a martyr or "witness" to the truth, since she makes
it quite clear that if she had the power to tear Kreon's heart out and live her
self she would. (She is by no means a theorist of "non-violence.")
    So however one interprets the details of the play, in discussing Antigone's
motives they must be characterized (in 20th c. terminology) as something on the
order of "I can't not do it; I can't not be me; being me, I can't not bury him,
though I have no desire whatever to die myself, and I won't get any real
satisfaction out of burying him."
    One can be fascinated, I suppose, by the embryonic individualism here (the
theme of "Who am I" that dominates so much 20th c. culture), but one cannot
offer any general interpretation of "human nature" or what have you on the
basis of it. Nor would it really be very interesting to trace the possibility
of a gene that codes for determination to bury one's brother or be true to
one's self. Nor would it be very interesting to reach for deep philosophical or
scientific accounts of what makes Antigone so much more intelligent than her
sister Ismene (Ismene cannot perceive until it is too late that *she* cannot
live without Antigone).
    I would, tentatively, go this far in "interpreting" _Antigone_: General
theories of any sort simply do not explain particular human actions. We can
*use* particular actions (fictive or "real") to make visible our sense of
general principles or theories, but the theories themselves must be based on
other grounds than the examples. The Kamikazi pilots don't give evidence for
anything whatsoever; they can be dramatic illustrations (possibly) of general
theories about how historical practice shapes human activity, but the
conviction that historical practice does so must be otherwise arrived at.
    The preceding paragraphs are profoundly unsatiisfactory, but the best I can
do for now.
    Two points, however, on two other threads: Someone (I forget who) was
profoundly right in denying that there was any such thing as "race." My right
thumb is much bigger than my left thumb (my uncle had larger hands, and his
right thumb wouldn't fit into a bowling ball). "Negro" "Asian," etc. make no
more sense than would a division of humanity into big thumbers and little
thumbers or matched and unmatched thumbers. This fact bears on the argument
about knowledge independent of discourse or the visibility of ideologies.
Racism is an ideology, and it is possible to see that with clarity; that is, we
can know that "race" does not exist and that people who think so have, _really_
been victimized by ideology. It is absolutely necessary to maintain this
distinction; the problem is simply to find the least unsatisfactory way of
saying it, and then of going on to work on the problems raised within it; any
problems it raises must be solved without backing off from its certaiinty. See
Barbara Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,"
New Left Review No. 181 (May/June 1990).
        Carrol Cox
        Illinois State University

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