Friday, August 10, 2007

Lit-Crit 202

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?


Janet said...

To understand those of another race or culture, I’ve been told, I must pursue an inexhaustible knowledge of my own particularities, and theirs.

The problem is, that it is exhausting.

While I'm all for celebrating and experiencing a variety of cultures, I can't help but feel that if we all just focused on the underlying "common humanity" that you speak of, the world might be a more peaceful place.

slouching mom said...

I wonder why it has to be an either/or. Why we can't discuss both particularities and universalities. It seems to me that the two could easily coexist. But maybe I'm being naive.

kittenpie said...

I'm with slouching mom on this. I think that yes, there are many cultural differences and life experiences caused by colour and faith that shape people. But I also believe that there are points of intersection, shared needs and emotions and dreams.

Andrea said...

exactly. Yes. I'm with slouching mom too--why can't it be both?

To believe in a universal underlying sameness *is* a privilege of belonging to the hegemonic culture--not so much in its existence, but in any belief that we know what that underyling sameness is. We're all human. OK, what does that mean? Too often, a dominant group imposes its own definition on other groups. And its a definition that flatters and benefits itself. ("We're all human; we all love freedom. Never mind that I've enslaved you.")

I think that underlying humanity works best when it is used only as the basis for a shared respect without insisting on sameness of any kind. You are human; you are therefore entitled to human rights and to decent treatment and respect and honesty, because you are human. But any commonalities we share must be explored in the only way they can be--by enumerating them as commonalities between two individuals. In other words, the humanity I share with my daughter will not be the same as the humanity that I share with you or with my mother or with my neighbours or with my enemies.

So, why not? Why can't I use the shared humanity as the basis for respect without needing to use it to assume anything about you or about what we have in common?

Take an extreme example: a psychopath, a murderer. What, besides being human, do the two of you have in common? What shared values, what shared dreams, what shared beliefs, could you presume? Probably none. S/he is still human, and still deserves respect and human rights based on that.

Mad Hatter said...

Yes, the problem with Lit Crit 101 is that it did tend to be totalizing. Lit Crit 202 wouldn't have come along if that weren't the case. But if you were to ask me if I am a post-structuralist, I would have to answer "no." Still I think that in order to get at that notion of the human family we need to try our darndest to see and hear the differences that keep us a part and that make us desire each other more when we come together.

On a separate topic: how is it possible that I am only now realizing that you did your PhD on Vilette? Did I know and just forget?; because, hotdamn, woman that may well be my favourite novel EVER. And did you know that I did my Masters on Emily's poetry. Reception theory was my 202 not New Historicism but, ultimately, it's same shit, different pile.

Oh and that line about the priest in the bushes is nothing but inspired. I can just see Lucy Snow saying it in a fashion that strips all the humour out of it and reduces it to a single mental sneer.

Momish said...

I just love how you can tie every topic into a literature lesson!

I think the two go hand in hand and for the most part, are not in opposition. The full "picture" of someone would come with both aspects. In understanding a person, I would hope to find our similarities. In appreciating them, I would hope to find our differences. In accepting them, I would hope I need nothing at all.

L Boogie said...

I agree about the two coexisting! I'm so glad we're able to see this at the church we currently go to.

We don't just blend in and say "I don't see color". We see color and it's beautiful, then join together to get the job done!!

Carrien said...

On a practical experiential level I experience it as, "You are a person, same as me. You are different in how you think, talk, eat, and look. How interesting."

To quote (or probably misquote) some more literature, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

Most of the non white people I run into these days are the most ethnocentric, classist, and racist. Could this be because universalism is a white man's privilege? Not likely in my opinion, it just a matter of education.

Lawyer Mama said...

Honestly, I think it's a combination of both. There are times when are similarities are what draw us together. And then there are times when varied cultural perspectives can lead us to solutions.

You asked if focusing on our differences can change society. I think it can to an extent.

I can't speak from a political standpoint. But in corporate America (and I would hazard a guess Canadian as well), and within the legal community, there has been a more widely accepted push for diversity lately. Not to undo wrongs of the past or to make a company (or a law firm) represent the colors you see in the real world. Some businesses have discovered that having many people of diverse backgrounds working together is beneficial for problem solving and creative thinking. (Now, whether or not this will actually be successful in changing hiring practices down the line, I have no idea. But the idea is out there.)

So I see both sides of the coins. As I said to Gunfighter on BlogRhet yesterday, there are generally two reasons I read a blog: (1) because of the things we have in common, and (2) because of the things we don't. So while I embrace our common humanity, I want to see the world from different points of view. And race contributes to that.

Julie Pippert said...

I don't understand why it is perceived as mutually exclusive.

As I said in my blog post

"Because while I don't think another person's race ought to matter to me, in my assessment of them, it can matter to them in how they feel a part of the world and therefore I ought to respect that, especially if they ask me to consider it as part of my understanding of them as an individual. I ask the same. My racial experiences are a part of me, too, and have affected how I view race, racial issues, and culture. Where I come from, the place and the people, affect who I am and how I perceive things, as well as my beliefs. I think this rings true for all of us, regardless."

I think in an individual way we can get to know and respect individual diversity. Grouping and learning through grouping is rarely the best route, anyway, and carries inherent dangers, as I also suggested (e.g., diagnosing medical condition through misuse of race).

And in this, we also learn to both respect how we are alike and how we are different, individually.

Ravin' Picture Maven

bubandpie said...

I agree with what so many of you have said - there is no logical or necessary conflict between unity and diversity, common humanity and cultural particularity.

There is, I suspect, a logistical conflict, and that is what may be driving some of the conflict at BlogRhet. It might even come down to which we do first: do we search for common ground as the basis for communication and then discover our differences from there? Or do we need to discover and acknowledge the "invisible knapsack" we're carrying before any kind of communication is possible?

In reality, there is probably a kind of messy interchange between the two impulses - but that reality gets clouded by the defensiveness we feel when we believe that our attempts to overcome racism are being characterized by our opponents as a perpetuation of it.

bubandpie said...

Oh, and Mad - It was only one chapter on Villette, in the end (one of five), but that novel was the starting point for my research. (The other four chapters were on other anti-Catholic novels of the 1850s, with an epilogue on Dracula in which I argued that the vampire is a direct descendant of the infiltrating priest figure from the 1850s.)

flutter said...

I just think we are all people, and that THAT above all, is what is important.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I've been ruminating on your post all morning, which may mean I'm less coherent rather than more. Some thoughts:

First, biologically speaking, we are one human family. We are all one species, share a common ancestor, and interbreed freely (I'm not saying that to be creepy, but because it is part of the bioligical definition of a species). There is such a species as homo homo sapiens, or "human." It is real. The insistence that we are our differences rather than a single commonality depends on the post-modern tenet that there is no inherent meaning in biology or any other physical fact, that meaning is only the social construction we place on them. I reject this tenet of post-modernism, so I'm de facto a "humanist" as you define it.

Second, the post-structuralist approach is inescapably hypocritical. It may be knowingly hypocritical, but I don't think that exonerates it of that flaw. If we do not share a basic commonality, then translation - or even communication - is impossible. We are all left isolated in our own unique bundles of identities, and there is not much point in teaching or reading or studying post-structuralism or anything else, because we cannot truly understand someone who does not share our all our specific identity points.

Third, there appears to be an assumption in the post-structuralist approach that these disparate identities are unconscious. Sometimes that is obviously true - I am not always conscious of how my assumptions as a white person differ from those of a person of color, and having those assumptions pointed out can be helpful. But sometimes those identities are deliberate.

I consciously, deliberately and (someday, hopefully) thoroughly immerse myself in a Christian identity. It is not a facet of my personality that I need dissected and explained as merely one of many intersection points. It is who I am on a level that no other identity point can be, and my understanding of racism (at least within the church, and possibly outside it as well) is that its end comes when my Christian identity becomes so large that the other identity points shrink in comparison.

Sorry to write such a long comment. I probably should have made this a post instead.

Veronica Mitchell said...

My husband just told me that our species is called Homo sapiens sapiens, so now I just sound like an idiot.

Gwen said...

I'm with Slouching Mom and others: why can't a balance be sought? Even if that balance is messy and difficult to find (isn't balance always, anyway?)? I think the spot on the beam is determined, too, by context, and by the needs and priorities of the participants.

I just spent a month in Mexico (yay for me!) and while I was capable of finding all kinds of common human ground with the residents of our small town, it would be naive to assume that their Mexican-ness (what? it's not a word?) and my American-by-way-of Indonesia-ness didn't exist.

But the discussion is really about race in terms of blog relations, in terms of blog representativeness, right? Someone, somewhere in this blog-wide discussion brought up the issue of class (class alone and the race-class relationship), which I thought was interesting. Blogging requires access and time. How do race and class affect that?

I think that we all (and by "we all," I mean the smallish group of women who congregate in the same blog circles, not every denizen of Web 2.0) try very hard to be thoughtful, rainbow loving blogizens. But the issue was also originally one of marketing, right? Where's the money for niche cultural blogs? Being a reader of racially, life-choice, culturally diverse blogs doesn't necessarily bring the marketing dollars to those less mainstream blogs, does it? I know there's talk of blogging being "so last year," but there's still a way in which it's outside the statistical norms of North American behavior. As a capitalist corporation, intent on selling the most with the smallest financial outlay, where do you choose to spend your money? The way those choices are made in the blogosphere are reflective of the way they are made in "real life," yes?

This is very far from your discussion of universalism and post-structuralism, I realize (I've been a month without commenting; so rusty!).

The anonymity of blogging makes color-blindness possible, I suppose: but does that create more egalitarian societies or less?

bubandpie said...

Veronica - Your remarks remind me of a position I've heard described as "post-positivist realism," which claims that cross-cultural dialogue is possible and desirable only because there is an "objective truth," a shared universe we inhabit together.

Our "knowledge" of reality is inherently biased, yes, but dialogue across racial and cultural boundaries is useful precisely because it exposes some of our blinders - and it is desirable because we need one another to derive the fullest possible picture of everything "reality" includes.

Mimi said...

Hm. I come at this from a litcrit background too, and what interests me is how the identity politics / difference people are often now accused of splintering us all into hopeless and helpless relativism, unable to make judgments about what is and is not acceptable behaviour .... the call is out for a return to some Fundamental Values.

Ultimately, if we understand ourselves and each other as irreducible and unknowable difference, occupying differential positions with respect to one another, we're backed into a corner where we can find commonality anymore.

Donna Haraway suggests provisional and tactical alliances (maybe me and some other professors believe in academic freedom, and maybe me and some other innercity dwellers believe in pesticide-free urban spaces, and maybe me an some other women believe in nationally-funded daycare, but not all of these groups agree with each other, or on all the issues)

But then we miss making grand statements. Is that bad. Sometimes it is. I don't know.

Emily said...

I think that literature is a comfortable place because, although there may not be right answers, there are usually satisfying connections and conclusions to be made. Not so real life. The "tensions" in real life are not always as exciting as they are in literature -- sometimes they are just tense.

painted maypole said...

wow. I am thinking rather hard. I find it appalling to think of giving up on humanity, and i still believe there are lots of things that bind us all together in the ways we are alike. But I don't think that has to negate the ways that we are different. I remember when I was very young my dad commenting to me that white people (us) were much more comfortable with blacks if they were like the Cosby family, but far less comfortable if they were different in any way other than their skin color. I don't think, however, that the idea of humanity means we all have to be alike. We can be different and still share humanity. I think I am talking in circles. Please don't grade me, professor BubandPie. OK - ans so just NOW i read the rest of the comments, and it seems people are saying the same thing I am, only much, much better.

Omaha Mama said...

I'm sort of an "I'm Okay. You're Okay" type of person. Same or different. Some people are rude, ignorant, a-holes...but I don't judge that by color. I do think it has to be some of both, with regards to the question you pose here.

In my touchy feely human service classes [bachelor's is in social work] we discussed the change from a melting pot to a tossed salad mentality.

I have trouble speaking about this topic at any great length because regarding race, my world is so very milky white. Not on purpose, it's just where we live/work/etc. Now I could go miles talking about other minorities, like say, people with disabilities. :-)

Great post - I think you've outdone yourself with this one.

Marian said...

It has to be both ways. I'm a trans-racial adoptive parent (once so far, as well as thrice a biological parent). Within the walls of our home, yes, absolutely,truly "love sees no color" and all we see in our member who came by adoption is our precious child/sister. Simultaneously, we have to intentionally remain cognizant of the differences so that they can be acknowledged, accepted and celebrated. Outside the walls of our home, color is an issue, and we do harm by not preparing ourselves and meeting it head-on.

Jenifer said...

When I posted on Race awhile back, I felt funny even posting it. I agree with so many other commenters in that there should be no conflict of interest when celebrating our common unity or unique diversity.

Close your eyes and we are all people at the end of the day. Our history, our culture, tells the tale of who we are but, needn't define who we must be.

Wonderful post.

I have finally cleared my Google reader! I saved your posts for last. I might not even write my long-overdue cottage post...I may just link over here.


Lisa b said...

Well in Queer Theory 101 we learned that post-modernism is nice for theories but to effect change we must work 'as if' those ideal conditions are present where we can account for all the intersections of identity.
So in my thesis we are expected to account for as many differences as possible whilst knowing that we can never do that fully. We can never fully know anything blah blah blah so once your head has exploded in pondering that you are then allowed to go back to dealing with reality and just make the changes you are able to make.
For example if you admit that your anti-racism curriculum will never fully address the problems of racism then it is not racist. If you think your curriculum can then it is.
I am scared to go and read blog rhet but I will.

bubandpie said...

Lisa - I think another way of characterizing the humanist/postmodernist divide (aside from the universal vs. particular dichotomy I've used here) is in terms of introspection and extraversion. Even the activist model you describe still insists upon the need for a preliminary confessional phase - we need to discover our inner racist, and only then can we move forward.

I think that process of introspection is valuable - but it can also be paralyzing. I wonder sometimes if the people who just blithely go on with the business of forming relationships and caring about other people don't get more done in the end.

nomotherearth said...

That's funny B&P - I recently wrote a paper arguing how Dracula exemplified racial fears of Victorian England.

I think you have to find the commonality BEFORE you can celebrate the differences. So, it's not either/or, or both - it's one and then the other.

I especially like the example in the Mists of Avalon regarding religion. Did you read it? That all religions are the same, but people celebrate them differently. I like that idea of the One Religion.

Bon said...

as a postmodern kinda humanist, i do think both are pursue an interest in the commonalities we share, while keeping the difference in mind so as to allow those of us who intersect more often with the dominant discourses not to assume thus that our experiences really are neutral and don't have race read on to them in advantaging ways.

i'm really not sure the dichotomy is necessary at all...or that the concept of white privilege - and having us white people own it - excludes the possibility of seeking commonality, and caring for others and forming relationships with them. one can be a reflective extravert, honest!

edj said...

I think both are possible and even necessary. If we don't acknowledge our differences, we belittle each other; if we focus on them extensively, we waste time that could be spent getting to know each other. The differences are real and huge, but only sometimes insurmountable, and depends a lot on what both individuals (I'm choosing to make this personal to a certain extent) bring to the table.
At least that's what I think. Who cares about your old litcrit prof?
And, just for your info, I couldn't get either of the links in this post to work.

Terri said...

I just read your post and all of the comments and my brain is working overtime. I'm not nearly as educated or intelligent as you or many of your readers apparently are. Neither am I particularly knowledgeable about many of the philosophies and theories discussed herein, but I think I get the gist of what's being said, and being very naive and foolish, if not somewhat presumptuous, I'll share my opinion.

I'm not quite sure what would be most beneficial from a political or cultural standpoint, but personally my world view is ultimately shaped by my faith. We are all created by God, but created differently. I believe we need to recognize the commonalities and embrace the differences. That is what I strive to teach my children. We can't truly be color-blind or pretend not to notice differences. My children have taught me that. As much as I try to downplay physical differences in people, my kids still notice things like skin color, accents, physical handicaps, etc. So instead of trying in vain to stop them from noticing these differences, I try to teach them that just because someone looks, acts, or thinks differently doesn't make that person is wrong, or mean we shouldn't associate with him or her. But to do this, I have to first teach them to see others as people, human beings like themselves, created by God, sharing the same planet.

I agree with others who have said these two positions do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I kind of believe both positions have merit, but ultimately I think we really need to see humanity as God sees it, and we can't truly do that this side of heaven. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Sandra said...

I love that the first post I get to come back to from my fav, fav, fav B&P is this one.

I agree that the two concepts don't need to be mutually exclusive. But as someone who works in a sector where issue of race is critical and anti-oppression training and analysis happens daily, I have to say that time invested in celebrating differences is important. Without it, it denies so much of the reality that non-white people experience.

It is unfortunate that idealistically we can't be "one family" with a focus on commonalities. Until society changes and we stop oppressing based on differences then the over-simplification is dangerous.

Big hugs to you.

liv said...

What I want to say is essentially what slouching mom said. But also, that there are places where history and culture heavily influence how we live. These issues of race are highly charged because of personal experiences, and boiling it down to theoretical terms and trying to box it all into schools of thought seems a bit too easy.

ewe are here said...

I don't understand why we have to pick one or the other. I accept that there are and will always be cultural differences amongst people of different backgrounds, religions, etc. But there are also differences, albeit maybe not 'cultural differences' between people who seem to stem from awfully similar roots. While acknowledging such differences --after all, they are what make people interesting -- I like to find and focus on the 'common ground' that we all share when it comes to things that affect all of us.

winslow1204 said...

Race seems to still be an issue in America. I hate it is, but it is, for blacks and whites alike!

Rock the Cradle said...

This was fascinating reading.

I'm with the majority here...I think both humanism and post-structuralism have to eventually co-exist in order for us to reach a greater understanding.

But I also think that it has to start with humanism. There must be an initial connection to establish interest and empathy before people can go on to learn more about each other.

I can't help wondering what little, seemingly insignificant moments would let that first connection happen...

Anonymous said...

I am the child of two bi-racial parents, so racial and cultural identity has always been a difficult issue for me.I interacted within many different communities and cultures and adapted to several sets of social expectations, so the lines of race are fuzzy for me and honestly sometimes variable depending on context. I was often pressured as a child to "pick a side" so other people would know how to deal with me, as if each race comes with an instruction manual. I cannot speak for anyone else but I wish people would understand that the construction of race is not so straightforward, to be open to being surprised by the similarites and differences, to listen. I have been adamant about acknowledging all the parts of my heritage:caribbean, irish, spanish, and Indian because they are all part of who I am, and to ignore any is to do a disservice to myself and my family.