Friday, December 2, 2011

Extraterritoriality, Negative Capability, and Utopia

From the 1516 version of Sir Thomas More's Utopia
The intellectual and the Jew, Musil notes, are both extraterritorial, stateless beings. The intellectual, at least, is, at best,  not merely international, one presumes, but actually a-national, outside of nation, state, territory, stance. Unaffiliated. But does that mean objective or disinterested? I would think not. One can observe in a very interested way the goings on of a world one is not exactly part of when one is, ultimately, both dependent upon that world and hoping that it might in fact change, evolve, dissolve into a less-entrenched version of itself. The intellectual or artist, leaving for the moment the Jew aside (who serves Musil here as noble model of extraterritoriality and autonomy, yet who also was often at the time of Musil's musing the intellectual of the pair as well), observes, creates, and critiques the world from the margin, in hopes that her utterances will have some effect on it; but she does not react in the same way as the other inhabitants to whatever occurs, to the seemingly good or seemingly bad turn of events; happenings, people, works are not judged by the same criteria as the others use, for her intentions are not to maintain the unexamined status quo at all costs, nor indeed, to necessarily violently overturn or destroy it out of a sense of excluded resentment (for her outsider status is not a punishment, but a choice, or, if not a choice, at least a holy necessity); but rather, her intention is to question it, open it up to fresh air and new light, to see it from different angles and in new contexts. This openness requires a resistance to settled sureties, Keats's (Shakespeare's) "negative capability" which does not grasp after certainties, but is most comfortable in undoing and revolving possibilities. The artist is only alive in that non-place; utopia.
But how does one come to be extraterritorial? Or, rather, why is not everyone so?  Emerson said: man wishes to be settled...but only insofar as he is unsettled is there any hope for him. But how is it possible for most people not to ask the first questions which lead to this fruitful unsettling? To ask the most basic questions of what appears everywhere to be a given: what is reality? what is the chief end of man (as Thoreau puts it)? what is most needful?  Questions which do not have answers. Their resistance to simple answers makes them, indeed, a foreign language,  phrases from the mother tongue of  the land of Extraterritoriality.


  1. "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves, while wiser men are full of doubts." --Bertrand Russell

  2. Dostoevsky on "the impudence of simplicity...this unhesitating confidence of the stupid man in himself and his talents...". Gogol's Lieutenant Pirogov, Dostoevsky glosses, "has no doubt he is a genius, superior indeed to any genius. He is so positive of this that he never questions it; indeed he questions nothing" (From The Idiot).