Unsentimental Globalism

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Every great book has its shadow books. Sometimes we sense them as the submerged iceberg of all the research that stands behind but does not get integrated into the text at hand; sometimes they linger like a specter of paths-not-taken in the book’s long gestation; and sometimes they are the imaginary book that we begin to conceptualize under the tutelage of the book we hold in our hands. The shadow book I’d like to discuss (which I hope will convey my admiration and enthusiasm for Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres and her long-standing contributions to postcolonial studies) is called Unsentimental Globalism. Goyal didn’t write this book. Nobody has. But it should be written. And I have Runaway Genres to thank for this conviction.

Readers of Runaway Genres will recognize my interest in unsentimental globalism as an outgrowth of Goyal’s persuasive and paradigm-setting second chapter, “Sentimental Globalism.” There she makes a powerful case for the generic domination of the 19th century Atlantic slave narrative in contemporary efforts to figure and apprehend the world today. In Goyal’s rendering, the slave past now lays like a gauze over the present, inhibiting our ability to properly reckon with and apprehend the complex machinations and history of global inequality, domination, and liberation. Ending slavery, Goyal intimates, will free many people but liberate few societies, leaving much of our deeply unequal world system intact.

Goyal’s diagnosis of contemporary politics and culture is connected to what she sees as a resurgence of the sentimental tradition. “Stories of African tragedy and American triumph,” she write, “say more about how race works in a neoliberal age, as the end of politics declared in these universalizing narratives can proceed only by way of a disavowal of antiracist and anticolonial critique, as a resurrection of sentimental humanism that purports to be universal” (66). To paraphrase Goyal’s theory of “sentimental globalism”––sentimental feeling, once promoted as the most effective weapon to end Atlantic slavery, is now cultivated as the baseline of responsible global citizenship. The analogic power of slavery has “conflat[ed] a range of geopolitical situations into a sentimental template of a generalized global feeling” (174). “Template” is an especially important concept for the argument of Runaway Genres because it conveys both a reproducible structure and an arbitrary constraint.  The “sentimental template” globalizes because it homogenizes and constrains (111).

Having established the contours of sentimental globalism, Runaway Genres goes on to define almost every other text under consideration against this template. Terms like sympathy and sentimentality are of the most populous in the book. They recur, not least, when Goyal tells us explicitly what novels by Chris Abani, Toni Morrison, Teju Cole, Ishmael Beah, Chimamanda Adichie, Colson Whitehead and others are not doing. For example, Cora, in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, “represents the antithesis of sentimental portraits of black womanhood.” “She is outside the sentimental norm” (138).  Likewise, Abani’s novella Song for Night “fully departs from the sentimental script” (95). And Julius from Cole’s Open City is admirable because he “displays no sentimentalism” (200). What’s more, discussions of the sentimental tend to recur at the conclusion of each chapter and work as signposts about the shape of the chapters to follow. In wrapping up her reading of the gothic, Goyal tells us that satire is likewise “resistant and impervious to the reader’s sentimental education” (104); talking books will “still further” transform the “sentimental substitution of the modern slave narrative” (139); and the literature of the new African diaspora will “finally push aside the sentimental substitution of a facile globalism” (170). In other words, the arc of Goyal’s book is of an increasing departure from the “sentimental template.”

Yet here is something curious about Runaway Genres: for all of its attention to sentimentality and its alternatives, the term unsentimental occurs only once. There is, on one level, a practical explanation for this. As Deborah Nelson has shown in Tough Enough, the unsentimental as an ethics and politics in its own right––rather than a passing adjective––is notoriously difficult to track.  “The unsentimental has no critical history.”[1] Even when the unsentimental is employed as an adjective, often with a “default admiration” connoting prose that is “clear eyed” or “unflinching,” this casual usage, according to Nelson, “derives from our failure, paradoxically, to take it very seriously.”[2]  Nelson believes we need to take it seriously. The unsentimental, she argues, “does define something specific”–– it explores the “same  terrain as sentimental literature –– painful reality, suffering, sufferers––but without emotional display…[The] unsentimental work prizes the object of reflection over feeling about the object.”[3]

Readers of Runaway Genres would agree, I think, that this is a very good description of Goyal’s literary archive. After all, her interest is in texts that return to histories of colonialism and racial injustice with an eye to comprehension, solidarity, and political redress, rather than emotional impact. In Nelson’s terms, at least, Goyal is a scholar of the unsentimental. And because Goyal’s archive, unlike Nelson’s, is oriented squarely towards the problem of global racial equality and justice, it casts the shadow of a theory and history of unsentimental globalism.

To be sure, reading Runaway Genres as an indirect invocation of unsentimental globalism means reading it against the grain. Yet only to an extent. Although Goyal’s book circles around rather than fully engages the unsentimental, my thinking with the text (not against it) kept circling back to the idea because I was inclined to connect the chapters as additive and accretive of positive movement, rather than as successive deviations from a hegemonic core of global sentimentalism. Calibrating the text to this end entails some reverse engineering. For one, “Global Sentimentalism” is no longer the pillar-like chapter that establishes a hegemonic core around which subsequent chapters orbit in relative distance. Instead, sentimentalism competes in an open field of contending globalisms. And rather than a series of case studies increasingly delinked from the sentimental, the structural emphasis is on the durable linkages between satire, gothic, deobjectification, and postcolonial diaspora, which become the rudiments of a long standing and interconnected project. Unsentimental globalism emerges not against sentimentalism but across these generic worlds.

If unsentimental globalism only casts a shadow in Runaway Genres, it’s in no little part because of the counterpuntal timeframe of the book, which principally moves between the 19th and 21st centuries.  Yet the final sentence of the book is notable for its gesture towards what is and also isn’t in the book: “What we talk about when we talk about slavery is thus the Atlantic past, the global present, and everything in between” (205).  However, the “in-between” is for the most part left out of Goyal’s story. Or rather, the “in-between” is the part of the story that we, as readers, are impelled to work through ourselves. The “in-between” that was brought to mind for me included the histories and literatures of labor internationalism, anti-colonialism, decolonization, as well as naturalism, modernism, existentialism, and postcolonialism: political and formal movements that could all, in their own way, be aligned with the unsentimental. Their relative absence from Runaway Genres isn’t a fault of the book but an epiphenomenon of its strengths as a searing riposte to the neoliberal present.

At the same time, we know from Goyal’s wider body of work that commitments to the postcolonial animate her ideas. We can infer, too, from some of the places where postcolonialism does arise in her book that Goyal sees the apprehension of and solidarity with postcolonial struggles as hindered by the “sentimental template” and the logic of analogy with slavery. Indeed, postcolonial histories emerge in Goyal’s argument as the yield of sentimentality’s defeat. Of the child soldier narrative, for instance, Goyal argues that the “rejection of the sentimental mode… [enables]… a fuller appreciation of the itineraries of terror, rooted in colonial history, that have led us to this moment. Jettisoning the universalizing impulses of the sentimental tradition, gothic child soldiers raise ghosts and demons who claim a reckoning with the postcolonial histories that have birthed them” (68). Similarly, the literature of the new African diaspora can “fully push aside the sentimental substitutions of a facile globalism, asking instead for a finer reckoning with both past and prospect” (170).

But is it really the “rejection” or “jettisoning” or “push[ing] aside” of sentimentality that focalizes the postcolonial? Do we need to depart from a coherent center to reopen the lines of sight that help us apprehend histories of domination and our implicated place within them? Or has the theory and culture of anti-colonialism and postcolonialism always been unsentimental––unsentimental not as minor trait, adjective, or absence of sentimentality, but as philosophy, ethics, politics? I think this latter proposition is insipient in Runaway Genres. The distinction can seem like a minor point. But in giving the unsentimental a positive historical and stylistic charge, Goyal’s shadow book also gives us a head start on a reappraisal of the relationship between, say, literary genre, style, and the legacy and future of postcolonialism. This is no little thing. And I, for one, am excited by the prospect of such a turn.


[1] Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 11.

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