Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Stuffed Shirts
“Between Individualism and Fragmentation:
American Culture and the New Literary
Studies of Race and Gender”
I have to admit I skimmed past the first half of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s article, thinking that I had already read it about eight times already (by other authors). She discusses the “battle, which pits conservatives against liberals and is [...] leading, directly or indirectly, to the replacement of a long uncontested hegemony of white, male authors, by a plurality of women, African-Americans, and members of various minority or marginalized groups.” She goes on to discuss the awakenings among the various marginalized groups that this group of old, white men who are the Authors of American Literature couldn’t possibly speak for them or represent their corner of the culture. Ultimately, says Fox-Genovese, our concept of the American culture as a whole is confused because we can’t “understand the pattern of marginalized cultures in relation to each other as well in relation to the canonical culture, and, especially, the relation between the canonical culture and the ideal of a national culture.”

When she gets to this idea, I perk up. Forgive me for not maintaining my excitement at the notion that diversity is a great idea. If you don’t know me and you’re reading this, please don’t mistake me for a Ralph Reed devotee. The fact is, I am lucky enough to live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where people from every country in the world are represented within five square miles of me. Not only that, but it is my great pleasure to teach students from all those countries at Northern Virginia Community College. When I step outside this idyllic place—like, for example, when I go to Cincinnati for school—I become a rabid proponent of the tenets of diversity, believe you me, and I miss seeing and hearing people from other places. A person has to live among a population that resembles Hitler’s Nazi youth to be reminded (no offense to my Cincinnatian friends, but it’s true).

Anyway, what I like about Fox-Genovese is that she doesn’t stop at the observation that there’s more to American Literature than Melville, Cooper, and Thoreau (and all those other guys)—oh, and Emily Dickinson. She doesn’t stop at the inclusion of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. She understands and makes the case for the way Stowe and Cather and Jacobs were marginalized. But she expresses the concern that I have always had for these discussions. Essentially, she’s saying that by isolating these writers into little ghettos of diversity (my term), we marginalize them all over again; we do nothing to explain their relationships to our culture as a whole. In effect, we’re excluding them the very same way they were excluded always.

As I read the last half of this article closely, I began to think of it in terms of a grossly oversimplified metaphor. If American literature is a shirt, heretofore, it’s been a blue button-down oxford, like the kind from Brooks Brothers. That’s been the only kind there is, end of story (except maybe the pink one they got out for Emily Dickinson). Opening up the field to these previously marginalized writers has meant, essentially, lifting the dress code. So sometimes we see greens, yellows, garish shades of chartreuse and orange, and even the occasional Hawaiian print. Not only that, but they’re different cuts of shirt—from camp shirt to v-neck to tank top to halter top. The purists probably frown on having all those colors and all that skin showing; they would feel much more comfortable if we grouped like shirts with like shirts—or at least all the oxfords with the oxfords and those godawful Hawaiian prints on the luau deck. The point is, segregation is an archaic idea, in culture and in literature. I think that that’s what Fox-Genovese is getting at.

Fox-Genovese cites T.S. Eliot’s famous argument that “we cannot hope to understand culture if we thoughtlessly identify it with individual experience. Culture, he might have said, cannot be reduced to autobiography. Instead, he said that the culture of the individual is dependent on the culture of the whole society to which that group of class belongs. Therefore it is the culture of the society that is fundamental.” She goes on to say that because it is important to study culture as representative of a group and not to marginalize, “the most compelling results of the new literary studies of race and gender point back, albeit in new terms, toward the older paradigm of American Studies as some combination of history and literature.”

I think she is right; in many ways I think that many of these originating texts in American Studies are very solid. They require the kind of updating that Fox-Genovese is doing in her essay, but the historical approach that allows a critic to look at the culture as a whole is important. She reminds us at the end that we should not be ashamed that our culture is “the product of historical struggles that have been won by some and lost by others. Such are the consequences of power.” That may mean that “their views would prevail” at present, but it doesn’t mean that the views of previously marginalized groups have to be silenced forever.

The danger of being too sensitive about our dark and violent past, I fear, is that we erase it, the way the Ministry of Information does in Orwell’s 1984, when past events don’t jibe with the present interpretation of history. In all, I think Fox-Genovese makes a very cogent argument for inclusion of diverse viewpoints and a sensible way of thinking about America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey there. this is carlos - since i don't have a blog, i guess i'll go on as anonymous. oh well.

in any event, the one thing that i'd like to comment on is the "ghettos of diversity" (your coinage). it reminded me of adrian piper (one of my favorite kantian philosophers, by the way) who stated (i'm quoting from memory here) that we always belong to a ghetto. the question is not getting out of them, but rather, to examine to which ones we claim membership and why. she, of course, says it much more elegantly.

anyways, i don't know if there's a "culture as a whole." perhaps, playing with homophones, i would think that "culture is a hole" in the sense of vortex, alla black hole. not something that is established but something that is always in the process of becoming. in that regard, unless we look back into a cultural construction of the past (at the risk of becoming too metaphysical: is it possible to examine the present cultural conditions of anything?), our examinations of cultural artifacts - or any given "culture" as a whole - are always mediated by the re-construction of said past and the fact that any viewing of the past is a means to view the present (as if that were possible). existentially speaking, we are doomed to fail in our attempts, but it is that sense/knowledge of failure that makes us human. or so we like to think.

okay. i'm getting too tangled up in words, which is something you don't deserve and i don't need. therefore, ta ta.