Alexander Bove responds to Nathan K. Hensley
Nathan K. Hensley’s critique of (among other things) the “world of breezy phrasemaking and conceptual slackness” that, between the range of texts it engages and the way it engages them, characterizes Robbins’ book made me think more carefully about what initially troubled me about it. The Beneficiary is not just about ideas; its narrative voice and persona are as front and center as the history it sketches and the politics it espouses. But while at times this breeziness may seem refreshing and amusing, it can also mask underlying ideological inclinations. Why else, for instance, instead of taking Naomi Klein’s theory about American capitalism’s “shock doctrine” more seriously from an academic viewpoint (as, say, Bernard Stiegler does in State of Shock), does Robbins’ chapter on Klein invoke her great “fashion sense” (95), getting “jilted” by capitalism (97), “having a good time” (101), “erotic inclinations” (102), emotional “affinity” (97) or “fulfill[ment]” (102), and end with a sly joke about “roommates… with benefits” (115)—all of which works to lure the reader into acquiescing in, and being entertained by, unconscious gender bias and power relations? Robbins’ discussion of Klein (along with Jamaica Kincaid here), concerned far more with tone (“in perpetual danger of self-righteousness” 99) than content, conjures compromising narratives in a way that appeals more to fantasy than “imminent critique”: Klein wants to “bully” corporations for behaving like tourists escaping the responsibilities of citizenship, says Robbins, but “in order to do so [Klein’s new-style activism] must disobey the parental injunction to stay at home and do the usual chores” (100) in search of injustices “more exciting and more profitable to expose” (101), apparently making them/her equally tainted by “corporate wanderlust.” More broadly speaking, couldn’t Hensley’s criticism about conceptual imprecision be brought to bear on the book’s central concepts themselves, the beneficiary and its discourse, which too easily blur into broader scholarship on the history of the bourgeoisie, humanist approaches to capitalist inequality, and various neoliberal discourses on globalization? If there is a key factor for authors to be included in Robbins’ exemplars of the beneficiary’s discourse, is it their affinity with what Hensley calls the book’s “tendentiously individualizing” propensity? What would happen if we threw some other literary figures, who perhaps thought more radically, into the mix of beneficiaries, like Wilde, for instance, or Dickens? Or does the beneficiary’s “pained perception” of complicity have to be, by definition, ambivalent?