It’s International Blog Against Racism Week. I’m late to the party as usual, and I forgot to bring a salad.
You say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we're falling apart …
And I said what about "Breakfast at Tiffany's?
She said, "I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it."
And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got."
I can still remember how shocked we were, the day my Lit-Crit professor explained that we weren’t allowed to talk about the universal human family anymore.
It was my third year of university, so I had long since adapted to the need to substitute “human family” for “brotherhood of man.” But I thought it was just a matter of semantics – surely we still wanted to believe in a fundamental common humanity that makes the whole world kin?
Nope. Universals, it appeared, were a middle-class Eurocentric mechanism to rid the world of baklava, curry, and reggae music. To gesture towards a shared humanity was to impose a drab uniformity, one that would fit comfortably only if one shared the hegemonic white, Western, Christian, capitalist values that informed it. Instead of seeing people as possessors of a shared human essence, we were to see them as “sites” where various markers of identity intersected. What I think of as “me,” I learned that winter morning, is really the product of a peculiar mix of cultural identities: white, female, child of the seventies, teen of the late eighties, affiliated with a “Bible” church that lacked the respectability of a real denomination in a largely secular Canadian/Ontario/Southwestern Ontario culture.
All my life I’d thought that tolerance meant seeing myself and others as more than the sum of these parts. Not so, my lit-crit prof explained. The remedy for racism is not in a shared universal humanity but rather in a thorough and painstaking acknowledgement of difference.
Two opposed impulses, both with the same goal: to overcome racism, the humanist moves towards the general and universal, while the post-structuralist moves towards particularity.
It is not coincidental that I imbibed these ideas in a class on literary criticism. The academic machine has benefited enormously from the abandonment of universal values. There is only so much one can say about the conflict between good and evil in King Lear. Even extending the field to include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won’t buy us more than an hour or two of lecture time. Universals lend themselves perilously well to concision, the enemy of academic effort in the humanities. Particularity, on the other hand, bears academic fruit in season and out of season. (J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of print journalism and its relationship to the U.K.’s involvement in the war in Iraq: Discuss.)
My Ph.D. thesis is a good case in point: one of the central texts was Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, a novel that culminates in a key conversation between the staunchly Protestant heroine, an Englishwoman living in Belgium, and the man she loves, a devout Catholic. When Lucy cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” M. Paul repeats her words in French, recognizing in them a kernel of shared faith that overcomes the mutual prejudice that divides them. It is a deeply humanist moment that is clearly pivotal to the novel, yet I had little use for it in my dissertation, the purpose of which was to situate the novel as a response to the Papal Aggression of 1850 (in which the Pope appointed bishops in England and sent the whole nation into paroxysms of fury and paranoia: for about five years thereafter, whenever a twig snapped, Britons jumped and looked anxiously over their shoulders for a priest hiding behind the bushes ready to stamp them with the Mark of the Beast).
Anyhow. My point is that my lit-crit training prepared me to wield a very fine scalpel indeed, pegging Brontë not only as a Protestant but also as an Englishwoman, a member of the Church of England, someone influenced by the Evangelical movement (especially in her anti-Catholicism), but also rooted in Broad Church teachings. In my analysis, she emerges as a product of her time, and by “time” I don’t mean the Victorian age – I mean the first half of the 1850s.
To understand those of another race or culture, I’ve been told, I must pursue an inexhaustible knowledge of my own particularities, and theirs. Race, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, weight, physical appearance, height, birth order, generation (X, Y, Z) … there’s no real reason ever to stop adding to the list, slicing up the differences that divide us into ever smaller categories.
As an approach to literary criticism, it works. It generates interesting readings, and (just as importantly) it generates multiple readings. But as a solution to the problem of racism? I don’t know. I have sympathy for those who are impatient with identity politics, skeptical of the value of this endless scrutiny of differences. Is there anything in such understanding that motivates true political change? Is an accurate knowledge of the “Other” more important than the impulses of benevolence rooted in a recognition of sameness? If that “recognition” is really little more than narcissistic projection, might it not still be useful as a basis for political action?
The at-times heated discussion of race in the blogosphere that has taken place at BlogRhet this week illustrates the divide I alluded to at the beginning of this post (can you remember back that far?). There are humanists who insist upon the value of seeing beyond race, and then there are (many more) post-structuralists who insist that such colour-blindness is impossible or – worse – itself a privilege of whiteness. For all that this is couched in very theoretical terms, it is ultimately a very practical question – what works better? To focus on the human traits that bind us together? Or to examine and seek to understand the cultural differences that divide us?
What do you think? Can the “universal human family” make a comeback, along with skinny jeans and big hair? Or should it remain in Room 101, where the postmodernists have banished it?