Microloans and Micronarratives: Sentiment for a Small World
How can we come to care about the fate of others far away? This question haunts the modern revival of interest in cosmopolitanism, a keyword that has emerged at the turn of the millennium to articulate the nuances of lived experience in an increasingly global era.1 While definitions of cosmopolitanism differ, I use the word here to signal a mode of belonging that implies a heightened sense of responsibility for an expanded view of community. Understood in this way, cosmopolitanism has frequently been criticized for its inability to inspire the genuine affect that enables such ethical responsiveness. Its skeptics often argue that the ties of cosmopolitanism are inevitably arid and artificial, especially when compared to the emotionally enduring bonds of nationality or ethnicity ( Himmelfarb 1996; McConnell 1996; Pinsky 1996). However, these portrayals of emotionless cosmopolitanism overlook the long and rich history of sentimental discourse that has sought to create robust feelings of community across social borders.2 This structure of feeling, I suggest, has been dismissed because it frequently figures the cosmopolitan subject as female. As a discourse primarily associated with women (and accordingly afforded low levels of cultural capital), sentimentality poses a challenge to the implicitly male subject of many modern accounts of cosmopolitanism.3
In the pages that follow, I consider how this legacy of cosmopolitan sentiment, a legacy most often associated with the novel, informs twenty-first-century rhetoric on the Internet. An American Web site called Kiva, through which individuals make microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries, harnesses the power of this feminized discourse to promote emotional connection at a distance. In considering how the rhetoric of sentiment enables what Bruce Robbins (1998) calls “actually existing cosmopolitanism,” I explore how this phenomenon works and assess what some of its possibilities and dangers might be. As Kiva enables new modes, again in Robbins’s (1999) terms, of “feeling global,” it deploys familiar sentimental tropes, such as the woman in distress, the self-sacrificial mother, and the virtuous poor, for ends that are no longer identified in exclusively feminized terms. In doing so, it draws on, and alters, the forms and tropes of the sentimental novel. The rhetorical strategies of Kiva allow us to address a central question posed by the editors of Public Culture in their millennial issue on cosmopolitanisms: “If cosmopolitanism seeks to take the large view, how can we think the intimate under its sign without restricting intimacy to the domestic sphere?” ( Pollock et al. 2000: 584). Kiva encourages such intimacy by emphasizing the importance of smallness, using microloans and micronarratives to create an effective sphere of operation for sentimental attachment. Ultimately, I hope to suggest that Kiva’s small-world sentiment offers a limited and limiting, but perhaps necessary, contribution to cosmopolitan practice.
Sentimental Discourse at a Distance
Sentimentality, the term I use to describe the emotionally suffused experience of sympathy for others, claims a long and vexed history. This structure of feeling goes by many names (sentiment, empathy, compassion, tenderheartedness, fellow feeling, pity), all of which have varying connotations in different times and places but gesture toward a recognizable emotion of other-directed concern. Since such emotion implies a form of selfhood that takes shape through its immersion in the well-being of others, sentiment helps produce a fundamentally ecological subjectivity. While sentimental sympathy is defined in part by how natural and instinctive it feels to its subject, it is deeply informed by, and heavily invested in, practices of cultural politics. Sympathizing with hardship requires a number of unstated assumptions: most crucially, it relies on the assessment that the suffering is (at least to some degree) undeserved. Built into the concept of sentimental commiseration, then, are ideas about justice, fairness, and the proper responsibilities of individuals, governments, and social networks. These assumptions give rise to familiar tropes that emphasize the dissonance between individual responsibility and social hardship: the single mother who works multiple jobs to pay for her children’s education, for instance, is often an iconic object of sentimental compassion because she appears to be fulfilling the individual end of a social contract while sacrificing her own interests for the benefit of more vulnerable subjects. Precisely because so many explicit or implicit social judgments inform the production of sentimental emotion, sentiment can serve as a disciplinary mechanism for particular social beliefs. Since sentiment reflects assumptions about whose suffering is worthy of concern, it plays a powerful role in shaping the visibility (or invisibility) of particular kinds of people. It also testifies to emergent beliefs about the proper scope of care and obligation. In Lauren Berlant’s (2004: 1) formulation, the idea of compassion for suffering “carries the weight of ongoing debates about the ethics of privilege.” Sentiment, in other words, implies normative judgments about both subject and object of concern.
As a form of cultural practice, sentimentality has long been linked to the lived experience and emotional life of women. Feeling has been described as a fundamental form of female labor, one designed to compensate for what women lack in material power ( Hochschild 1983). To be sure, the cultivation of emotional sensitivity has not always been exclusively associated with femininity ( Chapman and Hendler 1999; Ellison 1999; Morgan 2004). Nonetheless, sentimentality continues in many modern contexts to be dominated by the specter of feminization ( Warhol 2003: 29 – 30). Although sentiment was once considered a marker of sophistication, defined by what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “refined and elevated feeling,” its modern appearance is now more likely to imply diminished levels of cultural capital that provoke anxieties about the emasculation of aesthetic practice.
As sentiment has been bound to femininity, it has also been affiliated with the form of the novel. In an analysis of sentimentality in Distant Suffering, Luc Boltanski (1999: 86) argues that a person who has witnessed suffering needs to offer two kinds of report: a descriptive account of another’s suffering and an introspective account of the reporter’s own emotional state of compassion. “Where will the speaker find the discursive resources required for this process?” he inquires. He concludes that the ideal form for such report is not the propaganda pamphlet or the political essay but in fact the novel, which oscillates between external and internal modes of description. If we consider such narrative connections in light of the feminization of sympathy, it is not hard to understand how the triangulation of the novel, sympathy, and femininity prompts Jane Tompkins (1985: 124 – 25) to define the American sentimental novel as a genre “whose chief characteristic is that it is written by, for, and about women.” Similarly, these connections lead Margaret Cohen (1999: 20) to suggest, referring to the French sentimental social novel, that “literary history offers few cases where gender and genre line up so neatly.” While the novel is by no means the only cultural form affiliated with the production and consumption of sentiment, novels have frequently afforded spaces in which the power of sympathy finds full hearing.
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I thank Jennifer Williams, whose invitation to join a panel at the Modern Language Association in 2007 led to this essay, and Tanya Agathocleous, who provided helpful comments on an earlier version.
- For selected moments in this interdisciplinary retheorization, see Kristeva 1991; Rorty 1993; Bhabha 1996; Heater 1996; Nussbaum 1996a, 1996b, 1997; Tuan 1996; Brennan 1997; Cheah and Robbins 1998; Posnock 1998; Robbins 1999; Gilroy 2000; Hill 2000; Pollock et al. 2000; Anderson 2001; Berman 2001; Dharwadker 2001; Singer 2002; Archibugi 2003; Ghosh 2004; Grewal 2005; Nwankwo 2005; Appiah 2006; Aravamudan 2006; Cheah 2006; Stanton 2006; and Walkowitz 2006.
- Even Martha Nussbaum (1996b), responding explicitly to the concerns of Robert Pinsky, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Michael W. McConnell, defends the affective power of cosmopolitanism not through sentimental discourse but through explicitly elite forms of literature, such as Athenian tragedy.
- On the implicit masculinity of the keywords of cosmopolitan debate, see Pollock et al. 2000: 583.