Embarrassingly, I am just now discovering the work of Mica Nava. Her 2007 book, Visceral Cosmopolitanism (Berg Publishers) is fantastic from start to finish. Her prose is flawless, her feminist cultural study methods impeccable, and her feminist theory rich, challenging, and free of jargon. Without dismissing or attenuating standard critiques of racism, she successfully attends to the under-researched question of how and why some white British women were not racist during the presumed height of British imperialism in the years leading up to WWI through the rage of identity politics in the 1980s. Nava draws on Richard Sennett’s sociology (“How Work destroys Social Inclusion”, 1999) to frame the problematic in terms of social and economic ‘belonging,’ and over and again she returns particularly to Stanley Cohen’s notion of “instinctive extensivity” (States of Denial: Knowing about Suffering and Atrocities, 2001) to wrestle with the psychological and practical dimensions of how and why some white women ‘decided’ to identify with non-white men over against the normative dictates of their class and families. As she puts it, her “approach has been to focus on the unconscious non-intellectual, emotional, inclusive features of cosmopolitanism, on feelings of attraction for and identification with otherness—on intimate and visceral cosmopolitanism” (8).
My ignorance of Nava’s research, and of the specific British histories she details, retrospectively brought into focus my consumption of certain episodes of “Downton Abbey”, “Foyle’s War” and “Call the Midwife.” Do you remember Season 4 of the stupidly entertaining “Downton Abbey”, when Lady Rose (Lily James) falls for the American Black jazz singer, Jack Ross (Gary Carr)? Or Season 6 of the sublime “Foyle’s War” when Michael Kitchen’s Detective Foyle and his sidekick Sam(antha), played by the captivating and sublimely named Honeysuckle Weeks, take on the entire history of US military bigotry and UK anguished post-WWII masculinity in one episode, “Killing Time”? Or the two episodes of compellingly sentimental “Call the Midwife” which portray white women impregnated by Black men? Each of these severely compact TV episodes, which I consumed with relish, are given due flesh and soul by Nava’s careful and judicious assessment of specific race and gender dynamics that exhibited and sustained twentieth-century anti-racism.
I’ve not seen it, but I could add to this list the Masterpiece production of “Mr Selfridge,” a dramatic series about the American businessman who opened a British Department store in 1911 and saw huge success in large part because of his attention to women sales clerks and women shoppers. Nava devotes two chapters to the importance of Selfridge’s store, the first focusing on his labor practices, attention to women’s desires, and specific choices in stocking clothing and furniture that made ‘cosmopolitanism’ acceptable and affordable, and the second examining the so-called “big shop controversy” spawned by G. K. Chesteron’s publication in a London paper of a nasty letter about department stores (like Selfridge’s). Not only did Selfridge respond to Chesterton with his own, somewhat incoherent newspaper letter, but so did nearly 200 female employees, in another newspaper letter that Nava replicates and analyzes with the tender sophistication every feminist theorist should hone.
Throughout her book, Nava cites and uses critical race theorist such as Said, Stoler, Appiah, Bhabha, and Torgovnick to underscore the importance of delineating, exposing, and critically engaging the horrid categorizations, legal restrictions, and lethal practices surrounding race in the twentieth-century. But she also argues convincingly that race hatred is not the whole story. What bred, nurtured, and rewarded feelings of love for bodies and persons marked as racially other? Her answers are astute and beautifully composed.