Rather than being plainspoken, your work has both highbrow and lowbrow elements. You revive words that aren’t common and combine them with words newly invented. I’m thinking of “bitty Bible. / The mates skip courtship for midlife’s bitter harangues,/ kvetching as they hump.” This is part of the playfulness in your poems. I get the sense that you are playing as the poem moves along.Continue reading
The following interview was conducted over e-mail correspondence during a few weeks in April and May (2017).
The first question I had for you, George, came up while I was reading the first paragraph of your story “Eclipse.” “I might not have earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts from an accredited junior college…” your narrator, Tommy, says in the first sentence. He repeats these “might nots” later. It teaches us about his character, and yet a lot of the first paragraph is about getting the setting right. How important is it when you are writing a story to balance these elements early?Continue reading
This interview was conducted over the course of two weeks, via email, during the first 100 days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
In order to write “Twelve Bible Stories in Need of Revision,” it seems you’d need a fair understanding of these Bible stories and their context. Do you mind talking a little about your religious background?Continue reading
А смерть — это средство передвижения.
Потому что всюду жизнь,
и стоит только дёрнуть за шнур на шубе,
как из рукава спустится лесенка,
поднявшись по которой, можно выйти на свет,
не делимый на тот и этот,
потому что Мышильда бежала,
хвостиком махнула —
Берлинская стена упала и разбилась.
И все увидали, что её нет.
Как нет мёртвых.
Есть только живые,
и можно ездить друг к другу в гости.
И я, вся в белом,
отправляюсь к своему жениху
и перевязываю ему раны.
А потом он, в новенькой форме,
приезжает с ответным визитом
и привозит мне хлеб и вино.
А потом мы вместе садимся в золотую карету
и я, выглянув из окошка,
машу белым носовым платком
всем, кто остаётся,
что значит «я уезжаю».
И они не плачут.
Потому что кругом
в сущности, очень малая
и просто невозможно уехать далеко.
*Я умераю (нем.), в частности, последние слова Чехова
So death—it’s a means of transport.
Because life’s everywhere,
and all we have to do is tug at the cord of a fur coat
for a stepladder to descend from the sleeve
and, climbing up, we can enter a place
not divisible into this world and that,
because the Mouse Queen ran away,
waving her tail—
the Berlin Wall fell and shattered to bits.
And everyone saw that it didn’t exist.
Just as the dead don’t exist.
There are just the living,
and we can visit one another back and forth.
And I, all in white,
set out toward my groom
and bind up his wounds.
Then he, in a brand-new uniform,
arrives to return the visit
and brings me bread and wine.
Then we sit together in a golden carriage
and set off,
and I, peering out the window,
wave my white handkerchief
to everyone who remains,
which means, “I’m leaving.”
And they don’t cry.
Because in essence,
is a tiny, entire
and it’s simply impossible to go very far.
*“I am dying” (German), Chekhov’s last words.
Looking for Scythians, we crossed a black field and found a slick of rock,
only the rock, unimportant, smooth to touch. Sergei swung his limbs in the sun,
like a very large, muscular baby. Barrows dot the south of Ukraine, he said, the
buried with horse bones, with griffins wrought in iron tearing each other’s throats.
Asthmatic, monolingual, I struggled to keep up like the trip’s distracted
whom I was meant to amuse and teach some English. The three girls always lagged,
brushing reams of gold hair wasted on the little group’s boys, oblivious as cats.
Only sweet, fat Vanya trailed at my heels, asking in his Little Lord Fauntleroy
“What is your favorite flower?” Meanwhile, Sergei portioned fields groaning with my
sunflowers, into which battle or German bomb made them notable. Once, in the
he woke with a start from a dream of his wife. We stretched out, not touching,
side by side like broken boats. He called me sonishka—little sun, or sweetie—but
when I tottered under my knapsack (“Be careful, you must have children one day”)
personal, merely fear of race suicide. So I didn’t know for whose benefit he
if not for mine or Vanya’s, like an apoplectic dad. He scolded the boy’s dawdling,
or his trembling at the pond’s edge, as the others splashed, in his body still like a
part girl. Sergei tossed him into the dirty water, then told me, “He’s got to be a man,”
stripping in the reeds, illustrating his point with ruddy muscles. He washed, talked
“If civil war’s coming, I’m ready, even to die.” He spoke with a passionate
that longs to be amplified. I kept quiet, but such public and quotable voices, like a
adorned for a warrior and long buried, seek no reply. He wore camo like a soldier
A few years later, at home, I scrolled through photos of winter boots and naked
peeping, almost shyly, from plastic tarp on the concrete of Maidan Nezalezhnosti,
dead men barely out of adolescence, where I used to sulk in beer gardens. Under
another reader posted: “I put on the Les Mis soundtrack, ‘Do You Hear the People
So inspiring!!” If that was Sergei’s healthy, lusty chest smashed on the ground, I
I last saw him in 2012 at a battle reenactment. In a crowd of drooping mustaches
knives tucked into sashes, he modeled Cossack pants, his second wife in a peasant
They stood on a bridge, and I took a photo for them on the bank: their fresh start,
tossing their parents’ house keys to the river. They grinned as cannon smoke blew
in their faces.
In the beginning, the earth was born. Then God gave light to the heavens and raised the earth from the water and formed the firmament that vaulted above Springfield, Missouri. And he threw all manner of fowl into the air and all manner of beast onto the earth and blew breath into the dirt to create Adam and carved Eve from the dusty rib.
Many begats later, cars were born. But God must have foreseen this, because he made the dinosaurs, whose decomposed bodies gave us oil. Therefore, oil is good, as are oil companies, as is burning the bodies of all the beasts that came before us, so we can get to Bible study on time without having to catch a bus as big as the dinosaurs that were never mentioned in the beginning.
2. Noah’s Ark
In Sunday school we raised our hands. “What about marsupials?” we said, and yes, we were told, Noah collected two of everything, including marsupials.
“All manner of creature,” our Sunday school teacher said, a little exasperated at our efforts to unman the good book.
“Yes, rhinoceri,” she said. “And yes, opossums. And yes killer bees. And wasps. And yellow jackets. And salamanders and tadpoles and scorpions.”
This made God more a crazy man than a wise leader, and Noah his fool, we thought. “Who would bring scorpions?” we said, and were told that God loves all his creatures, which made us wonder if he loved scorpions more than he loved us. He must have, because we didn’t have stingers and scorpions did, and the presence of stingers is better and more lovely than the absence of stingers. So runs a child’s mind.
But the story of Noah may be more believable now, since there are fewer species, due to extinction. Fewer pairs of animals, considering all those that have died out in the past five thousand years. The passenger pigeon. The Tasmanian tiger. The Pyrenean ibex. The golden toad. All gone.
And, of course, due to global warming, the polar caps are melting, and the sea rising—we might need a ship after all.
So, Noah’s Ark 2017:
And Noah loaded the few remaining animals, including snakes and scorpions and killer bees, which all thrive in the newly heated world, and he sailed the rising seas for forty thousand days and nights, until such time as all the animals had eaten one another, and Noah had thrown himself overboard to be away from the constant rocking of the waves, the loneliness of being the last mammal alive in all the watery world.
Job receives a foreclosure notice from Bank of America. He fell behind on his payments after his crops died because his well dried up as a result of global warming and irresponsible water policies by major corporations. During the foreclosure process, his foreign wife is deported. Sleeping in the streets, he contracts the Zika virus from mosquitoes whose population range is bolstered by their warming environment. Later, after he has scraped together enough capital to wager on the stock market, a successful margin call allows him to recoup a small part of his losses, but immigration laws prevent his extended family from joining him in the United States, and there is no amnesty offered because his last name is Middle-Eastern-y.
“Why, oh Lord, why?” Job cries, and is arrested by the police for disturbing the peace.
4. The Walls of Jericho
Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred. And the Lord said to Joshua, “Take this thing and do this thing,” this thing being the Ark of the Covenant, and this thing being march around the city. And so they marched for six days in silence except for the trumpets of the priests. No one knows what the people inside the city were doing while the priests marched around the outer walls blowing their horns and kicking up dust, because the Bible doesn’t mention any of them except Rahab the prostitute, who was supposed to be spared because she harbored spies, her profession obviously not being much of a big deal in God’s eyes.
And on the seventh day the priests all shouted, and the walls fell. And Joshua’s army went straight into the city and murdered every living thing inside (except the prostitute) with the sword—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys. Murdered. Killed. Destroyed is the word more modern versions of the Bible use, so destroyed. Sliced. Hacked. Chopped apart. And the army ransacked the city, taking all the gold and silver for the glory of the Lord, which seems strange, because since when does God need gold? And after the sacking there was the burning, and after the burning some lesson we are supposed to have learned about opposing any who have God on their side.*
5. Samson and Delilah
Samson was forced to cut his hair and buy a suit and go to interviews under rows of fluorescent lighting. He was hired by Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company, and in his cubicle on the fourteenth floor he would occasionally, between calls, reach up to touch his hair before remembering it was all gone. In the mornings, when he woke with Delilah beside him breathing softly, he would wonder what might happen if he did not go to work, not sure he could handle another day looking out the mirrored windows at the big buildings rising all around, wondering where his animal strength had gone, if he could manage to grow his hair out again in spite of Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company’s dress code.
Then with such thoughts a darkness began to fall over him at the prospect of the days to come. He was not sure he could bear up under the weight of this new world. He longed for the feats of strength he had once known, to slay the lion with his own hands, to murder the thirty men for the cloth they wore, to murder more of the Philistines for making him angry.
And each day, usually late in the afternoon, he wondered whether he might pull down the pillars of the building on top of himself and all the others who sat staring at their screens. But he had cut his hair and clothed himself in soft suits. So he wondered, there beneath the darkness of the artificial light, whether he had the strength to throw his office chair through the window so that he might walk out into nothingness.
6. The Good Samaritan
A man was driving down from Denver to Dallas when his car died. He sat on the side of the road in the West Texas flatlands while the shadows of the passing cars stretched out in front of him. His cell phone had no bars, so he just sat on the side of the road watching the cars whiz by, the semis rocking him with the wind of their passage. He counted more than two hundred cars before he grew tired of counting. He held out his thumb for a time, but when he did this, women sitting in the passenger seats of the cars reached to lock the doors, even though they were traveling by him at seventy-five miles an hour. No one even slowed but a state trooper, who waved to indicate that he could not park there.
When night fell, he slept in the back seat but grew so cold he had to get out and walk around. In the scrub brush to the sides of the interstate he could hear the coyotes calling to one another. The stars above him looked like holes shot in the night through which he could see heaven.
In the late hours, two men pulled over and beat him and took his wallet and cell phone, and though a few cars slowed while the beating was going on, none stopped. When he woke from the beating, the man walked fifteen miles to the nearest phone, which was located in a gas station. The night manager, who was just about to go home, told him he had to buy something before he could use the restroom to wipe the blood off his body, but since he’s the only one who spoke to the man, he gets to be the Good Samaritan.
7. Jesus Walks on Water
Jesus walked on water, and Lake Cuyahoga once caught fire. Neither of these things seems plausible, and yet one happened for sure. If one happened, perhaps the other did, too. Let’s say the Sea of Galilee was so polluted that Jesus was able to step on the steel tailings, the airplane parts, the oil sludge, the acid runoff, the iron ores, the tractor tires, the hulls of abandoned boats, the bricks from fallen factories, the corpses slowly decaying, the bloated bodies of dead fish, the missiles and the makings of bombs, the bullets, the martyrs and madness of all the Middle Eastern wars, the cries and discomfiture of those who live there under the arc of exhaust from approaching drones.
And when his disciples saw him walking on water, they were sore afraid.
8. Jesus Refuses to Feed Five Thousand
As evening approached, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. They need only pee in this cup, and also to prove that they have been looking for work.”
In the end, all were fed, but Jesus watched them with a wary eye to make sure none were freeloading. He had his disciples destroy all the food that was left over, because feeding them again would only make them dependent on him, and what they needed was self-reliance.
9. Lazarus, Saul, Suffering
Lazarus must have been only borne back from the brink, not reborn. Then blinked his newly opened eyes at the world around him and asked if he could go back.
Saul’s eyes were also opened, and what he saw was that it was easier to be kind. With this kindness he could become more Christlike, but we tend to forget Saul’s story.
On the cross, Jesus lamented the suffering to come. He asked why he was to be forsaken, and if we apply his last words to the world which we now inhabit, we’ll find the same silence for an answer that God gave his only begotten son.
And they slaughtered the fatted calf because red meat, and it was good. The bush caught fire because of global warming, whence came the drought in the desert from which the refugees are fleeing by the hundred thousand. Moses thought he heard God because of the Klonopin, which he had to be careful with because it conflicted with his diabetes meds. Moses, too, came from the desert and wandered for forty years without water somewhere near Syria, but now has put on too much weight.
Abraham claims he was never going to kill his son, but Isaac brings it up every Thanksgiving during the Cowboys game. Now Abraham’s sons study law at Georgetown, and each calls the other an interloper. They never come home for Christmas. Sarah drinks too much wine, wonders what happened to the time, and remembers when her sons were young, in the years after she was barren.
Daniel shot the lion with a crossbow on safari. He sold the head to a dentist for a trophy. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not so much for their people’s wicked ways but because they lay in the path of a proposed oil pipeline. The mountains quaked not in the presence of the Lord but because of hydraulic fracking. Their tops had already been removed by the mining of coal. The rivers ran red with rust. The sun turned black as sackcloth from the smoke of the factory fires.
Onan spilled his seed in the desert and set the curriculum for abstinence-only. Jonah rode in the first submarine before we filled the seas with them. At one time, men came together to build a tower, but God caused them to not understand one another, and the tower came down.
In the valley of the shadow of death there are still waters that restore souls. All a man has to do is sit by them, if he believes in that sort of thing.
11. And God Gave Man Dominion Over Every Living Thing that Moveth upon the Earth
Just add the words “did not” to this verse. The words can be placed after “God” or after “Earth.” Either way works, depending on your interpretation. You’ll have to change some words and some verb tenses to make the new verse make sense, but we’ve been doing that since before it was written.
12. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, who come down out of the skies in the end of days, when man has turned against everything God has said.**
* For revision, simply replace Joshua’s name with the name of any modern army. Replace the Ark of the
Covenant with bombs and bullets, the trumpets with the treading of booted feet or the vapor trails of
drones. Burn still the city. Carry away the spoils. Still claim it’s all done in God’s name.
** Actually, this one is still pretty accurate.Continue reading
In September 2016, at the Brisbane Writers Festival,1 Lionel Shriver, a London-based American writer whose realist novels often take on the evils of capitalism, walked onstage with a sombrero on her head and proceeded to deliver a full-throated denunciation of writers who, in her view, hide behind the fear of “cultural appropriation” in order to avoid utilizing the capacities of fiction to tell the whole truth about our societies.
Fiction writers, Shriver believes, ought not to be afraid to take on any role, anypersona, any character, even if it means crossing racial, national, gender, sexual, religious, or class divides. For her, this is what fiction does best: the writer enters into perspectives different from her own and hopes that her readers will learn to empathize, too. Today, however, boxed into identity categories that become more and more sharply differentiated by the day, writers are taught to be afraid of stepping outside of their own experience. The result, Shriver concludes, is that they are essentially being limited to memoir, the faithful transcription of their own experience, and nothing else. We can easily see where this ideology, if strictly enforced, will lead. It will result in the end of imaginative literature, since it is imagination itself that is being censored. As Shriver notes, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”
Shriver goes on to note the fact—and I suspect that many writers share her worries—that she stays off Facebook and Twitter to make sure that her creative fires are not extinguished, which they surely would be if she were to become part of the “literary community” in its activist mode. Social media, she notes, has become the prime arena where the norms of identity politics are enforced, and where every violation of an aggrieved minority’s sensibilities is rabidly criticized. Not only that, but she would not have been able to write some of her novels, adopting the personae of, among others, Armenians or African Americans, if she were taking part in this culture. As it is, despite her relative distance from social media, she still finds herself overcautious and self-censoring. As an example, Shriver relates a recent incident at Bowdoin College2 where the distribution of miniature sombreros at a tequila party was condemned as an act of ethnic stereotyping, and concludes, “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”
After about twenty minutes of listening to what she perceived as an unbearable personal attack, the Sudanese Australian author, television presenter, and multicultural activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied made the dramatic gesture of walking out on Shriver’s lecture. Her response to Shriver’s call to arms against the fear of cultural appropriation, published in The Guardian,3 is a good entrée to the other side of the picture, the very attitude that compelled Shriver to give her incendiary lecture in the first place.
In Abdel-Magied’s view, Shriver had performed a gratuitous act of verbal violence, insulting all minority cultures by exhibiting the same kind of patronizing colonialist attitude that has led, in Abdel-Magied’s terminology, to genocide. Abdel-Magied turns the crux of Shriver’s argument against her when she observes that Shriver has the arrogance to claim that fiction should be able to “exploit” other cultures if it is to do its rightful job. That is precisely what constitutes, to Abdel-Magied, the most offensive aspect of fiction: that it arrogates to itself the right to imaginatively enter—and thereby “exploit”—any realm of existence. For Abdel- Magied, Shriver’s defense of the idea of cultural appropriation is merely a distraction. What Shriver is really doing is arguing “that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a ‘decent’ job—in the eyes of a white woman—he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way.” Abdul-Magied sees Shriver as doing nothing but “mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories.”
We have here two diametrically opposed views, and I want to explore how literary culture could have reached the point where these fields of opinion have become so completely marked off from each other. What is striking to me about Abdel-Magied’s response is that she speaks about literature from the standpoint of a social-justice activist—specifically, one beholden to the principles of identity politics—rather than that of a writer, critic, scholar, or even reader. Writing, from Abdel-Magied’s perspective, is purely secondary, a by-product of some higher philosophical or ideological goal.
What is that higher ideology to which writing is secondary? What is the history of the ideological interpretation of the functions of literature that has brought us to this pass? Did Shriver exhibit a lack of empathy when she embarked on her defense of cultural appropriation, or did Abdel-Magied show herself to be tone-deaf to the worries of practicing writers who are afraid that they might be called out at the first signs of giving offense? Was it insensitive on Shriver’s part to put on a sombrero, with its undoubted associations with racial injustice, as a provocation to get the audience’s attention? Have Abdel-Magied and those who stand in her camp politicized writing in a way they shouldn’t, or do Shriver and her followers take too naive a view of writing, isolating it from the history of colonialism and racial and sexual injustice in a way that ultimately sets it up as an instrument of class privilege, as Abdel-Magied fears? Should literary writers protect readers from being hurt or offended or aggrieved or insulted, or is it their job to take on personae that do precisely that? Did Shriver even need to bring up empathy as a foremost objective for literary writers, or is empathy, as a goal, yet another distraction from the job of the writer? What is empathy, after all? Do we need to understand its meaning to get to the essence of the present debate, marked by so much hostility on both sides?
Jack Citrin and David O. Sears, in American Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism (Cambridge University Press, 2014), offer standard definitions of cosmopolitan liberalism, nativism, and multiculturalism that are relevant to this discussion. Cosmopolitan liberalism accepts cultural diversity but rejects identity politics as too divisive, whereas nativism rejects as too fractious the mere idea that multiple cultures should be recognized. On the other hand, Citrin and Sears write, “Multiculturalism … construes ethnicity as a vital and enduring foundation for one’s personal, social, and political identity.” The dilemma that then arises is how to “furnish some unifying ideological cement for a diverse society” such as ours (p. 43).
If Shriver and Abdel-Magied seem so irreconcilably opposed, it is because they adhere to radically different worldviews. Shriver, clearly, is in the cosmopolitan liberal camp, whereas Abdel-Magied falls in the multiculturalist camp. American politics has lately, dramatically, moved to the nativist viewpoint, at least for the substantial portion of our society who support Donald Trump, whereas cosmopolitan liberalism has lost a lot of its appeal, its sexiness, if you will, as a result of years of direct confrontation between the multiculturalists and the nativists.
Literary writing has found itself squarely in the crosshairs of this fight. Interestingly, as American culture as a whole seems to be moving toward a softer multiculturalism, wherein identities can be fluid and need not deem themselves quite so separatist, literary culture, like the academy in which it resides, seems to be moving toward a harder multiculturalism, wherein the claims of identity assume the first order of priority. In the process, literary writers have felt themselves increasingly pressured to take public stands on such vexing issues as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, and various forms of exceptionalism, not to mention increasingly sharp categorizations of sexuality. The designation “people of color,” for example, has dramatically hardened in the literary realm, even as public opinion as a whole takes a softer view on race and gender, such as with the growing acceptance of gay marriage. Nor is the fluidity necessarily restricted to coastal elites; it has recently expanded into the country’s heartland, where during the late 1990s and early 2000s biracialism, gender ambiguity, and even undocumented status gained a measure of acceptance. Perhaps it was as a counterreaction to this growing acceptance that a vocal minority of whites chose to throw their lot behind Trumpist demagoguery and demand conformity to a white, male, heterosexual, patriarchal, nationalist America of a bygone era. In my own city of Houston, where transgender acceptance is widespread, this vocal minority rebelled with particular vociferousness against the opening of bathrooms to all genders and made their voices heard beyond all proportion to their actual numbers.
Identities harden as much by acts of omission as commission. A signal feature of the work of the writer Jhumpa Lahiri is the plea that it makes for assimilation— we’re like you, we’re doctors, engineers, academics, and other professionals, we pose no threat to American values—yet this plea writes poor South Asian immigrants out of the equation altogether. Whereas Lahiri has legions of followers in the academy, more complex writers such as Don Lee or Ha Jin, both of whom posit a more fluid concept of ethnic identity, have fewer adherents. In his novel Nanjing Requiem (2011), for example, Ha Jin resisted the temptation to depict the Japanese invaders of China as monsters and the Chinese resisters as angelic; this is problematic from the point of view of identity politics, because it rejects hard categorization between the oppressed and the oppressors. Nanjing Requiem has many flawed characters, even those who are on the victimized side, a common phenomenon in any turmoil or war. In the same vein, throughout his body of work, Don Lee, like his fellow Korean American writer Chang-rae Lee, has resisted hardened identities. In an interview about his most recent novel, The Collective, he told me:
Has there been a form of literary affirmative action for ethnic writers, and, if so, has it ultimately hurt more than helped us? Has there been a backlash to multiculturalism? Have we been ghettoized as writers of color, and has that been the book industry’s fault, or our own? Are white writers, when appropriating other races or cultures, treated differently? Is that kind of appropriation ethical? If we stopped writing about race and made our characters non-race-specific, would it lessen attention to our work? Has the subject of race been a crutch, lending an artificial urgency and weight to our books? Without it, would many of us be exposed as not very good writers?4
Perhaps we can deduce from these examples at least a tripartite division among writers in regard to their fealty to identity politics: those without a readership beyond the academy tend to present the most hardened identities; those with a foot in the academy, yet with a broad readership, are somewhere in the middle; and those not affiliated with the academy and strictly reliant on general readers take the most fluid stance toward identity. In the latter group we may find writers whose core motivation is to throw into doubt the very idea of identity. Salman Rushdie (though he teaches at Emory, he was already a global writer before he ever taught a class) has made it his lifelong mission to explore the notion of hybridity or mongrelization, which doesn’t sit well with contemporary American identity politics. Likewise, the Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk (though he now teaches at Columbia and lives in New York half the year) has thrown into radical doubt the very distinction between Eastern and Western that we have been taught to regard as a hard historical accretion going back centuries. In novels like The White Castle (1991), My Name Is Red (2001), and Snow (2004), Pamuk asks whether these polarities are figments of retrospective imagination. Certainly, Pamuk and Rushdie belong to the academy only as a secondary occupation; they do not have to teach to earn a living. Yet might it be for that very reason that they have the liberty to transcend identity politics?
In short, the more literary writing becomes institutionalized, the more radically incomprehensible it appears to people outside the academy. This explains the predictable lineup of the forces on either side whenever a controversy erupts over something that someone has said in the literary world that violates the hard codes of identity, with the bemused public making a mockery of the oversensitive literati’s aggrieved stance and the literary people in the politically correct camp either dismissing the public as nativists or accusing them of being ignorant of the continuing debilitating inheritance of legal and cultural inequality.
We cannot divorce the discussion of identity politics in literature from the expressed mission of the American university in the twenty-first century: what kind of knowledge it seeks to impart to students, what conditions it feels are ideal for learning, and how the study of literature and the practice of creative writing fit into this plan as an operational matter. This is, perhaps, a debate where academic collegiality is incompatible with imaginative writing, which most would agree is nonconformist, solitary, often opposed to community or citizenship or even responsibility, and in general driven not by any optimistic political agenda but by darkness and light in equal measure.
Philosophy professor William B. Irvine, in his book A Slap in the Face (Oxford University Press, 2013), offers, as one possible response to insults or hurt, the Stoic attitude:
If we overcome our craving for social status—if we stop playing what I shall call the social hierarchy game—we will find ourselves inhabiting a different world, socially speaking, than we formerly did. In particular, when someone insults us, it won’t ruin our day the way it used to. Instead, we will calmly assess the event. We will realize that the insulter, because he values fame, is playing the social hierarchy game—he wants, that is, to maintain or improve his position on the social hierarchy. Furthermore, he assumes that we are playing this game as well; nearly everyone,
after all, plays it. His insult, we will conclude, is a move in that game: he is trying to improve his standing on the social hierarchy, improve it at our expense. Since we no longer play the social hierarchy game, though, our “losing” this encounter won’t matter to us. (p. 192)
Well, that is one way to think of an insult, as the dominant player’s move in a game of social hierarchy where we have the choice whether or not to be part of the game. If we exit the game, we deprive the insulter of his power. Some might think this too sanguine an assessment of how insults actually work; when backed up by economic power or surveillance or imprisoning authority, insults can, after all, be charged with real danger to the body.
But there’s another perspective Irvine offers in the same book that might be just as relevant to the issue that concerns us here. Here’s what Irvine says about praise, on the other side of the equation from hurt. The context is a discussion of the “conspiracy of flattery” that takes place when praise has ill intent:
People typically initiate a conspiracy of flattery against someone because they think he has a character flaw: they might, for example, think he is both conceited and thickheaded. Rather than directly insulting him, they trick him into demonstrating the truth of the accusation: if he fails to detect the conspiracy of flattery, it will become apparent to everyone—except to him—exactly how conceited and thickheaded he is. Thus, conspiracies of flattery have something in common with practical jokes. In a good practical joke, we create a situation in which the victim of the joke will demonstrate a character flaw: we might, as we have seen, glue a dime to the floor so we can watch the office tightwad try to pick it up. In a conspiracy of flattery, we don’t do anything “practical,” we just slather on praise. (pp. 68–69)
Could it be that identity politics in the literary world is just a con game, a practical joke that’s being played upon marginalized subgroups, a higher form of insult because it is ultimately based on a patronizing or cynical view of the inherent character flaws of the various sub-identities? How would we go about proving such a case in the literary world, and if this insidious proposition might have some truth to it, how might participants in the con, both those with power and those who feel they lack it, exit the trap?
The question of self-esteem is at the heart of what the entire anti-PC industry has been about since the instigation of the first phase of the culture wars almost thirty years ago.
In its earlier manifestation, around the time of the end of the Cold War, some of the leading polemicists speaking up for the superiority of “Western civilization” were Allan Bloom, William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and Roger Kimball, as well as more rough-and-tumble provocateurs like Dinesh D’Souza and those associated with such conservative mouthpieces as The Dartmouth Review and The New Criterion. Liberals got into the act, too, with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Hughes, Stanley Fish, and Robin Tolmach Lakoff, among many others, making important contributions to the effort to revive what they believed was the “vital center,” the post-World War II liberal-conservative consensus that had produced comparative political and social stability while the Cold War was being fought. In the first wave of the culture wars, both sides agreed that self-esteem, when not earned intellectually but generated automatically from one’s identity, led to mediocrity, a dumbing down of civil society. Instead of intellectual discourse centering on ideas, the collective mythology of identity as an inalterable fact provided space to those who might otherwise have nothing important to say. In the estimation of these critics, it dragged the entire national discourse down to a level where trading in or protecting against insults (which are said to harm fragile self-esteem) crowded out all other forms of exchange.
A different approach than expecting stoic acceptance would be to actively enter the realm of democratic participation. Here, the reasoning of educator David Hursh, in High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), is very suggestive. Hursh mentions John Dewey, our founding philosopher of progressive education, as being seminal to his understanding of how teaching is “social life in action,” how education can reduce social inequality in the world outside the school as it enacts conditions of social equality within the school. In a way, then, the current utopian vision of identity politics in the literary world seems to be a natural extension of Dewey’s original progressive ideal of education.
In Dewey’s formulation, “knowledge is a byproduct of activity” so long as it is “inseparably united with doing” (Hursh, p. 27). But is the same true of literature? Is literature, too, an arena where democratic citizenship, as Dewey understood it, is enacted, a field in which students take responsibility for the formation of their own identities in the pursuit of freedom? Perhaps the present formulation of literature as a mode of activism is not that far from the original progressive ideal. Today, when writers speak of “literary citizenship,” they mean an arena of rules and rituals where bounded identities are respected for their essentiality and provided room for fulfillment in a way that actual political life doesn’t generally allow.
We might ask whether creative-writing pedagogy has lately been made to take on the responsibility of serving as a space—a safe space—for dialogue about democratic action (the way Hursh, following from Dewey, understands it), so that alternatives to dissatisfying public life can be envisioned. If this is true, and literature bears the onus of performing progressive activism, then could it be that education as a whole is failing? Must we now engage with the failure of schooling in general as a space where alternatives can be conceived and encouraged, a failure to which creative writing responds with activist bravado?
Hursh cites Adrienne Rich’s definition of the political as a strategy that was entirely typical of an earlier generation of writer-activists, before neoliberal identity politics became the norm.
In What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (Norton, 1993), Rich quotes from her own journal entry of 1969:
The moment when a feeling enters the body—is political. This touch is political. By which I mean, that politics is the effort to find ways of humanely dealing with each other—as groups or as individuals—politics being simply process, the breaking down of barriers of oppression, tradition, culture, ignorance, fear, selfprotectiveness.
She goes on to say that her words didn’t just come “out of one woman’s efforts to live and be human, be sexual, in a human body,” but that they “came as much from a spirit of the times.” For Rich, her body was not her sole claim to identity; it was one reality among others. But if writing today wants to take on a broader mantle, defining politics in a manner that excludes nothing, is the inevitable result the kind of impasse we find ourselves in? What, in this formulation, is not politics? And why is it important to know that?
To go back to Hursh, we are really asking how much freedom students should have to define themselves, a question that ultimately leads back to the question of vocationalism in schooling (to which Dewey, early in the last century, was opposed) versus humanism (which activist thinkers prominent in the counterculture, such as Rich and Paul Goodman, vigorously advocated). Has liberal education turned into a form of higher vocationalism, to the extent that the ends and means are defined rather than ambiguous, the students’ identities revolving around their position within a fixed spectrum of attainable ends?
Identity politics in literature, to the extent that it curtails freedom, can be seen as a yearning for predictability—almost an industrialized form of reproduction, though couched in a postmodern literary infrastructure. Literature should be efficient in the sense that it should not be wasteful or unpredictable. It should handle insults and hurts (“microaggressions,” in the current argot) in a manner that protects the reputation of the one who is attacked. Any challenge to identity raises fundamental questions about the source of that identity, whether it is earned or unearned, genuine or phony, and creates ambiguities in terms of reception and audience that the infrastructure of writing has been seeking predictable means to handle. The ideal seems to be to minimize the time occupied by purely literary endeavor, utilizing excess personal energy for the establishment of one’s literary brand. In the Marxist framework, the surplus value created by the efforts of labor is appropriated by capital. In the postcapitalist literary environment, such surplus value accrues to the institutions of writing, meaning the various orthodoxies, particularly identity politics, that give it legitimacy. Letting writers appropriate surplus value for themselves in the form of time or other resources enabling freedom from economic entanglement is the last thing the institutions of writing wish to permit.
Efficiency is the essence of neoliberalism. In a neoliberal society, individuals maximize their earnings potential in the marketplace by turning their bodies and minds into units of free-floating capital. In effect, they treat their individuality as a commodity. Could it be that literature, when it is defined by identity politics, is converting itself into a form of efficient neoliberal instrumentality, driven by the idea of the privilege afforded by surplus value? To be able to smoothly reproduce identity on the page leaves plenty of energy to market the associated literary identity.
Identity politics purports to seek social justice for the marginalized. But do the marginalized really have the resources to speak for themselves? Or are we really doing the opposite of what the founders of progressive education had in mind, by requiring authors, teachers, educators, and anyone else in the public sphere to take on the performative or self-narrating functions that literature used to perform, and therefore making passive, or sidelining, the very subjects of benevolent improvement, the “marginalized groups” that everyone in identity politics talks about, keeping them from taking on an active citizenship role? In other words, has literature been replaced by continuous verbal performance, an oral delivery of repetitive identity to which the writing itself is subjugated as almost an afterthought?
Could it be that performing the rhetoric of identity politics is yet another form of high-stakes testing and standardization? Though the rhetoric of identity politics doesn’t manifest itself as a test in the formal sense, it does measure the ability to function in a certain kind of marketplace—a neoliberal marketplace with clearly defined norms of behavior. This points to the enigma of why it might be important for neoliberal capitalism to indulge the rhetoric of identity politics so vociferously, even as its actual practices (gentrification, for example) lead to the devastation of the cultural spaces of minorities, through any of a number of imperialist practices that force cultures to conform to efficiency in an overtly capitalist manner or be made the target of surveillance and even imprisonment. Of course, the sphere of literary production does not intersect, for the most part, with those capitalist practices that cause so much ruin and devastation to cultural wholeness; rather, it restricts itself (mostly) to internal psychological probing or self-policing.
Is it possible that, in lieu of actual capital being earned by victimized groups, a substitute form of cultural capital—i.e., identity—is being offered? Competition, performance, and achievement—all neoliberal ideals whose final confirmation occurs in the marketplace—are measured against the ideals of identity politics, rather than any substantive knowledge content; one is, in essence, in competition with oneself, or rather one’s history as one’s physical embodiment in a specific time and place, the goal being to present oneself as solid and logistically viable.
Ravi Kumar, in Education and the Reproduction of Capital: Neoliberal Knowledge and Counterstrategies (Palgrave, 2012), connects neoliberalism’s principle of bringing all human practices into the ambit of the market to the transformation of education around the world into a tradeable commodity focused on marketable skills. We need only update this by considering political correctness as the only legitimate marketplace neoliberals are willing to grant for ideas. The goal of knowledge reproduction then becomes to construct a range of formalities wherein political correctness may be executed in practice. Individuals can trade on the solidification of their identity and thereby maximize their capitalistic value.
Neoliberalism is known to lead to extreme inequality in the economic sphere; perhaps neoliberal cultural practice, of which multiculturalism is the prime engine, leads to similar inequality among and between groups, in a never-ending game of identity one-upmanship.
Neoliberal inequality functions by dividing workers according to various identity categories, which prevent those workers as a whole from demanding universal rights and privileges, as used to be the case before the rise of identity politics. The parallel manifestation in the literary realm would be the demand for each aggrieved group to claim the greatest disadvantage for itself, because such recognition leads to academic and literary legitimacy, the flow of funds and the establishment of academic departments, and the chance to take the group’s case public, an option that brings with it its own form of lucrative rewards. Of course, in such a race for most-aggrieved status, there is no winner, and the competition never ends; the struggle only breeds infinite loops of self-involvement, providing the weave and texture of writing.
The logical conclusion of the critique of cultural appropriation is that writers cannot possibly outbid themsleves in the grievance stakes, because charges of privilege must and will be raised against them, not least by the hyperconscious writers themselves, as in the case of the Bangladeshi American poet Tarfia Faizullah. Her first book, Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), is an account of her travels to Bangladesh, the home of her parents and grandparents, to research the fate of Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 war. In an interview published in 2014 on The Paris Review’s website, Faizullah notes that it was in 2006, when she was twenty-six, that she first heard “about such a wide-scale atrocity in Bangladesh. I became fascinated by it, and started researching and writing the first of the interview poems, just from imagination.” Very quickly, however, she realized “that there was only so far my imagination could go, and only so much I could do from the States. So I applied for a Fulbright because it seemed—you used the word urgent, and it seemed very urgent for me to go to Bangladesh and record the voices of these women, and spend time in the country in which these atrocities occurred.… I was starting to reckon with what it means to be a South Asian Muslim woman from West Texas, and how sometimes it was very easy to identify as one thing or another.”5
Immediately, it will be obvious that insurmountable problems of authenticity arise when we buy into the identity politics discourse—authenticity as defined by the identitiarians themselves, as an existential condition. The question that inevitably arises is whether Faizullah, her Bangladeshi heritage notwithstanding, is herself engaging in an act of cultural appropriation—not of ethnic identity, but of class. We might call Seam a book rooted in the logic of microaggressions, even though it is about some of the biggest violations that can be committed against the human body. There is no sense of politics, history, or context in Seam, and this may well be because the discourse must be limited to the body. Could it be that the birongana Faizullah interviews have a more ingrained sense of historic tragedy than Faizullah can permit in her book? In which case, doesn’t Faizullah’s selfconciousness about her privilege come across as a barrier to imagination to which she is resigned? She cannot really put herself in the position of the raped women, nor does she intend to. Moreover, she cannot legitimately present the experiences of these women from their point of view; the central consciousness must be hers alone. All this follows from the logic of identity politics.
Faizullah’s case is an interesting example of a writer caught in the tripwires of a cultural discourse that disables her from tackling history even as, throughout her book, history all but begs to be tackled. There is historical tragedy, and then there is personal tragedy of the kind propelled by identity politics. One can imagine writing about Bangladesh’s history, geography, culture, religion, or everyday life in any of a number of modes—romantic, surrealist, utopian, nihilistic, misanthropic, even social-realist—that deviate from the resentful tone of identity politics. But should a writer of Bengali—or Filipina or Vietnamese or Nigerian or Colombian or Mexican—heritage step outside identity politics, or the posture of post-ideological self-analysis that neoliberalism prefers, how would the writer find acceptance within the grievance discourse?
Of course, any writer publishing with a prestigious press is by definition privileged, because how else would they have obtained the cultural capital required to get where they are? But they are compelled to resort to mythical identities (of families buffeted by exile and tyranny, of histories of racism, or, more recently, microaggressions) rather than speak from their actual position of privilege.
It is difficult to imagine American writers in the academy operating along the Orhan Pamuk–Salman Rushdie–J. M. Coetzee global cosmopolitan axis, since to do so would be to make a frank admission of privilege—a no-no for identity politics even though (or perhaps because) it often results in the liberation of imagination from established tropes. Faizullah’s work, by contrast, illustrates the practice of writing from what we might call imagined direct experience. Though the experience Faizullah narrates is presented as authentic, it is actually communal. The claim is that, because one’s own family or race or religion experienced a grievance, one shares in that grievance.
Note that the communal experience, the basis for such writing, requires bounded identity: were a Bengali writer, for instance, to start writing about Jewish lesbians or undocumented Mexicans, she might well be accused of robbing those oppressed classes of their own claims to prestige. (I use the term “prestige” advisedly, and in full cognizance of the convulsions that identitarians face when a plain white woman like Rachel Dolezal decides that appropriating black identity, and fighting on behalf of social justice for black Americans, no less, is her only route to privilege.6)
Is identity politics in schooling just another form of test preparation for the workplace, a standardization that cannot name itself? Has literature, in turn, succumbed to this ideology as writers continually assess themselves, hold themselves accountable, and fail themselves when they do not meet the standardized output of identity-politics norms? Has literature become a perpetual self-enforcement mechanism designed to root out unwanted (or inefficient) behaviors that may interfere with the ideal of self-sufficient communities beholden to separate cultures—all, however, pursuing the universal goal of capitalist improvement?
Can a literary writer have a group consciousness? Because that is what the current debate is ultimately about. When literature commits itself to multiculturalism, it is excluding all frames of reference outside of group consciousness.
As we discuss the current manifestation of the literary debate, we cannot get away from the crucial transformation that has occurred in the past three decades in American schools on all levels. I mean the rise of neoliberal schooling, one manifestation of which is high-stakes testing, which Hursh goes on to talk about and which takes us back to vocationalism versus humanism. I have been pursuing the possibility that identity politics is integrally connected to neoliberal education, which promotes standardized testing and accountability, instills values of personal entrepreneurship (“branding,” in today’s parlance), and seeks to convert public education into a private system as much as possible and by any means necessary.
Let me present a capsule summary of why multiculturalism in the academy, and literature in particular, so deeply offends conservatives. The scholars in question are Gary A. Tobin, Aryeh Kaufmann Weinberg, and Jenna Ferer, and their book is The UnCivil University: Intolerance on College Campuses (Lexington, 2009). They write: “Multiculturalism centers more on sensitivity than sensibility, rights as opposed to responsibility or justice, and language control rather than learning. Multiculturalism is the antithesis of real diversity, and of enlightening interchange and cross-fertilization from many cultures.”
These conservative scholars, like many others of their generation, question whether it makes intellectual sense “that only black people can teach about black society, Jews about Jews, or individuals of Arab and Muslim descent can teach about the Middle East.” They wonder if this tendency—the fear of cultural appropriation—is not turning the ideal of multiculturalism on its head by denying legitimacy to scholarship (or writing) that does not stem directly from the scholar’s or writer’s immediate experience. As with other conservative scholars of their era, their distaste for multiculturalism in the academy—and by extension in literary writing—grew over time as they perceived that what had started off as an innocent “celebration of difference” (p. 46) was turning into a hardcore political agenda derived from hierarchies of grievance and victimization.
Though these happen to be conservatives talking, I would hold that their argument is yet another iteration of the cosmopolitan liberal position. What they fear is precisely what cosmopolitan liberals fear: a stifling, language-suppressing bureaucratic machine that accomplishes precisely the opposite of diversity by inflicting a deadening uniformity of thought, making people afraid to say anything that might violate the rules of political correctness and hesitant to ask challenging but necessary questions—questions such as the French writer Michel Houellebecq has so irreverently posed about received notions of the hierarchies of culture throughout his controversial career, thereby enhancing, not diminishing, humanist values.
From a left perspective, the concern is that identity politics is a buy-in option granted by neoliberal capitalism, allowing an entry point to marginalized groups, letting people of color step into the munificence of neoliberalism as long as they check their radical economic demands at the door—that is, if they even remember anything about class issues. These used to saturate the fiction and poetry of earlier generations of African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Jewish American writers such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Margaret Walker, John Okada, Raymond Barrio, Américo Paredes, Nathanael West, Bernard Malamud, and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, the diversity on offer is strictly delimited: it exists only within the cultural realm, rather than in the realm of class privilege.
The multiculturalists would respond that culture has to be rethought if class privilege is to be broken down, and that literature and art are the prime vehicles through which to accomplish this goal. Their argument would be that once you cease to stereotype a marginalized group as inferior, then economic doors will open up for that group. The purpose of writing thus becomes the propagation of a view of the minority in question that takes issue with simplistic media renderings, the implication being that the road will in this way be cleared for that group to participate fully in American economic life.
The hard question for supporters of the multiculturalist view in literature is whether this is in fact true. Does access to economic opportunity really follow from non-stereotypical literary or artistic depictions of minority groups? Is it possible that valuing culture over class makes class mobility less likely, freezing categories and conditions and preventing social fluidity? There would seem to be evidence for this perverse outcome having in fact occurred, but here the question is about how much responsibility literary writers want to take upon themselves. Is their job to promote cultural diversity? Is it to break down class? Or is it neither?
I find it interesting that Shriver, who has come in for so much criticism, is a novelist who often deals with economic issues. (One of her novels, So Much for That, is about the perils of our healthcare system.) If one looks at the literary writers who suffer the most ostracization these days, they tend to be those who think more about class than culture. We may say that they wish to step outside neoliberalism, rather than accept its main philosophical premises. The “corporate university” has undertaken a certain agenda of cultural uplift that it finds compatible with unchecked capitalist expansion, and the avidity with which humanities departments have succumbed to the invitation is, for some writers, deeply troublesome.
In Lila Jacobs, José Cintrón, and Cecil E. Canton’s The Politics of Survival in Academia: Narratives of Inequity, Resilience, and Success (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), Eugenia D. Cowan, in her chapter “Hanging In: The Journey to Good Enough,” writes:
Reality has it that the dynamics of the academy are such that it is easier for me to doubt myself than to disparage the institution. It is designed that way. It is a mainstream, dominant-culture institution, to which no minority cultures have historically had equal access. The point is to keep it that way. Getting in and surviving is usually a complex process of moving forward and jumping back, of demanding entry and pleading for acceptance. It usually requires that the member of the non-dominant culture who wants in meets certain standards for entry that go beyond academics and experience. And then once I was in, I wasn’t sure I was welcome. I’m still not sure that I am. (p. 33)
For Cowan and the other scholars in the book, the academy’s status as a bastion of white, male, heteronormative, cisgendered, Anglo-Protestant privilege means that even after the academy has embraced them, they still feel excluded. Though insiders, they see themselves as outsiders.
What happens, then, when writers become part of the academy? Do they end up viewing the literary canon from the same perspective? Junot Díaz, in an interview with Matt Okie following the publication of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, remarks:
It is telling and also in some ways really tragic, how disconnected even the cultural workers are in the white community, how blind they are to their privileges, but also how, in some ways, stupendously damaging their blind spots are. Jesus, last year, [the National Book Award jury] couldn’t find—with all the tremendous books written by people of color—one person worth nominating.7
He goes on to say:
Again, it goes to the question: there’s always been a reflex in the United States of celebrating the new and the strange and the other, but there’s also been a tendency of making sure that whilethe celebration is going on: white privilege is not in any way undermined. I think it’s not so simplistic that it’s like, “Oh, this is a white-only country.” You know? It’s by having both strategies that you’re able to obscure how the prerogative of white privilege has been maintained, despite what appears to be on the surface, an opening and a multi-culturalization of what we call our society.
Both scholars like Cowan and writers like Díaz are to my mind making existential statements about identity. Whether the National Book Award committee or some other organization recognizes them or not, whether the canon is broadened further to include even more minority voices, or whether the number of minority students in universities reflects or exceeds their proportion of the overall population, a certain existential angst remains that can never be assuaged.
In Transforming the Ivory Tower: Challenging Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in the Academy, edited by Brett C. Stockdill and Mary Yu Camico (University of Hawaii Press, 2012), various contributors, strategically positioned in the American academy, hold to the viewpoint that before true diversity can be achieved, the hidden biases of “power and difference” must be exposed; false consciousness, as interpreted by identitarians, must, in other words, be rooted out. Scholar after scholar testifies to feeling left out, regardless of their accomplishments in academia, because of their minority status.
I find here a contradiction that is noticeable in almost all identity-politics discussion today: those who conceive of their entire academic or literary motivation as telling the story of their marginalization subsequently resent it when the academic and literary communities treat them as exemplars of that marginalization. At what point does self-declared marginalization, if it leverages identity as a personalized brand, turn into prestige? Before the current trend, feminism used to rebel against “essentialism,” but now the emphasis seems to be on constructing essentialist identities, recruiting literature and art as tools in the process. Choice itself is taken to be a sign of privilege, even the choice of participating, because the white male heteronormative person has the freedom to decide. Minority writers have no choice but to tell their stories, whereas white writers not only engage in privilege but commit aggressive acts of cultural appropriation when they exercise the choice to tell stories other than their own. The white writer attuned to identity politics may as well embrace existential silence. As Michael Armato notes in the same volume, in a self-purging chapter called “Striving to Be Queer: Challenging Inequality from Positions of Privilege”:
After all, one of the marks of privilege is that the privileged get to choose when to engage in social justice practice, if we choose to engage at all. Men’s uncertainty about how to participate is itself a reflection of our collective privilege of not really having to be bothered with such thoughts. It is not surprising, then, that when confronted with an event that is patently racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise unjust, men (and other privileged group members) are often paralyzed by uncertainty. (p. 79)
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) is arguably the most lauded poetry book of recent years; she was the keynote speaker at the 2016 Association of American Writers & Writing Programs conference and has been gathering all the awards in the poetry world. Here is an excerpt from Citizen:
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s
buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed? (p. 63)
What I find remarkable is that there is no way to distinguish between microand macroaggressions in this book, which is more or less a compendium of racial assaults against the black body. Citizenship, in Rankine’s book, is what follows from one’s positionality—strictly that, and nothing but. It should follow that citizenship is contingent, that it responds, actively, to the forces of political economy, but in Rankine’s work it doesn’t:
And so it goes until the vista includes only displacement of feeling back into the body, which gave birth to the feelings that don’t sit comfortably inside the communal.
You smile dumbly at the world because you are still feeling if only the feeling could be known and this brings on the moment you recognize as desire. (p. 147)
Of course, it could be argued that Rankine is trying to construct an ideal of citizenship that works against such passivity; but if that is the case, the message is muted indeed, because to accept the body as it is is much less difficult than to address and alter the body politic—which really means political economy, social and class arrangements, the interpretation and dissemination of a history where everyone is a victim. If you separate, categorically, victims from victimizers, can there be history—and learning, and literature?
Or perhaps the whole notion of literary freedom is a ruse to enforce unearned privilege—such as the privilege this essay of mine represents on so many levels— and those who dislike cultural appropriation have it right after all?
From within the politically correct community (the members of whom we might as well call communitarians), there is some dissatisfaction about the degree to which categories are hardening.
In Meg Luxton and Mary Jane Mossman’s Reconsidering Knowledge: Feminism and the Academy (Fernwood, 2012), M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty write, in a chapter called “Cartographies of Knowledge and Power: Transnational Feminism as Radical Praxis”: “Ultimately, these [cartographic] rules promote a spatial segregation that constructs the ‘community’ as a hyper-racialized homogenous space; and it is usually not just any community but one that has been subject to forced dispossession” (p. 47).
Translation, in plain English: the university granted us recognition, and now we feel boxed in.
In an essay by Ailish Hopper8 on poets trying to exorcise white privilege, the only conclusion one can draw, after reading Hopper’s analysis of white poets ranging from Martha Collins to Tony Hoagland, is that purging privilege, or even dealing honestly with race, is impossible for white poets. This is typical of the kind of discourse one encounters these days toward the fear of cultural appropriation:
White dominance can even hide behind the guilty, silenced, personal defeat that examined whiteness often expresses (read: “I’m so stuck!”), doubling down on white privilege, as, once again, white problems are presented as central, “unique,” and not merely the expressions of an oppressive group. The selfcensoring and sense of futility that white people may experience are not disruptive, but part of race’s design, a narrative policing that preserves roles and power by not presenting, which is to say suppressing, information that runs counter to race’s claims. Far from exceptional, it’s a constraint that is reminiscent of other post-conflict groups—the Poles, for instance, after World War II, described by Ed Hirsch as profoundly distrustful, “haunted by guilt, initiated in the apocalyptic fires of history.”
Let us consider the demand that institutions truly support faculty diversity, that they not just make a rhetorical gesture but really put their muscle behind it. The claim is that if universities make their environments more receptive to minority scholars and faculty, then diversity in scholarship—including literary diversity—will follow. If the structural deconstruction of privilege seems so much an issue in the literary world, the same is true of the internal restructuring that is going on at academic institutions: by granting epistemic privilege or superior claims to knowledge to women and people of color, academic communities attempt to effect real change. Aside from literary disciplines, across the board interdisciplinarity is seen as following from the communal spirit of marginalized groups, who will not be content to pursue autonomous scholarship. Whites, on the other hand, necessarily perform race (i.e. whiteness) by simply inheriting the material benefits that have come their way because they are white.
Writing by minorities has lately wanted to explicitly articulate latent racism and sexism, thereby making of itself an interdisciplinary (we would call it “intersectional” now) communal activity that one performs in the full glare of audience criticism—in contrast with white literary performance, which is said to take place silently, without notice. In other words, the white male writes solitarily, doesn’t need tribal community, as minority writers or scholars do, and is under no pressure to engage across disciplines because of his privilege; minority writers are supposed to face exactly the opposite compulsions.
The origins of the term “political correctness” go back, in most readings, to the Stalinist regime of the 1930s, when deviationists from the “party line” were harshly punished or purged. The punished individuals ceased to matter as public presences. Mao Tse-tung enunciated the doctrine in the 1930s as well, but its expression in Chinese culture really occurred during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The privileged elite were sent against their will to reeducation camps on a mass scale, devastating Chinese intellectual resources for a generation, as the urge to eradicate incorrect political thought reigned paramount. In America, the New Left took up the idea in the 1960s and ’70s, sometimes in an ironic way (so as to suggest excessive earnestness toward feminist or egalitarian goals), and later it was taken up as a pejorative term by the New Right (D’Souza et al.) in the early 1990s, at the peak of the first wave of the contemporary culture wars. Many on the left denied then, and continue to do so, that political correctness on the left even exists; they depict it as a fantasy of the right, which permits it to mount an assault on advances made by marginalized groups. Just as in the earlier wave, when, in The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (1995), John K. Wilson denied that political correctness, as described by the right, existed on American campuses, in the wake of Trump’s election Moira Weigel has dismissed the substance of the anti-PC argument, reducing it to cover for white racists to fight an enemy (political correctness) that does not really exist.9
In Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, and the American New Left, the term “politically correct” was not used disapprovingly. On the contrary, to call someone “politically correct” was to offer praise. When Paul Berman edited his important book Debating P.C.: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses (Dell, 1992), all the questions we see at the forefront of literary debate today emerged into public consciousness. One reason why the controversy in the teaching and writing of literature keeps recurring, according to Berman, is that after the revolution of consciousness of 1968, greater credence was given to language as a primary determining structure than ever before: “We imagine that language is our tool, but it is we who are the tool and language is the master. Therefore we should stop deluding ourselves with foolish humanist ideas about the autonomy of the individual and the hope of making sense of the world.” (p. 8) The relative worth of the traditional canon was of particular importance at that early stage in the fight, as were the emergence of speech codes and the development of the idea of hate speech. If the privileged-white-male perspective in literature could be replaced with the perspective of marginalized peoples, then would we not get a truer picture of reality? Then as now, semantics were a huge part of what political correctness meant—again, going back to the Maoist idea of toeing the correct line, falling in with doctrinal fealty.
Each incident of hate speech (or free speech, if you’re in the conservative camp) gives rise to a hardening of the discourse on either side, the partisans of diversity and multiculturalism standing in pitched battle with the patrons of Eurocentrism and othering. In the ensuing quarter-century, the academy has been transformed, so that its core agenda seems to be the conveyance of politically correct attitudes rather than hardcore immersion in knowledge that can be psychologically or politically disturbing. In the same manner, both the study of and the writing of literature have been transformed, as this activity has been incorporated into the semantic struggles brought on by the clash of doctrines. A quarter-century ago, those advocating restrictions on campus speech had to resort to the concept of “fighting words,” the standard for the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence. Today, with the contest having moved to the more nebulous territory of literature and away from actual direct speech addressed to individuals and posing a possible physical threat, we don’t hear so much about “fighting words.”
A related concern that began to emerge around the same time (the early 1990s) was the extinction of the public intellectual. Today, this worry translates into the extinction of the literary writer. I think that both worries derive from the same root anxiety about the tussle over semantics. Public intellectuals enter the arena to define the terms of discourse, as do writers; if the semantics are predefined, then these individuals have no role to perform.
Geoffrey Hughes, in Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), explores the origin and development of numerous politically correct terms that we take for granted today as the foundations of liberal public discourse. Hughes reminds us of the various compendiums of terminology that have appeared during the culture wars, taking on such emergent terms as ableism, acquaintance rape, genetically oppressive, lookism, etc. In the first phase of the culture wars, it was definitely liberals who were advocating conformity to the prescribed vocabulary, in a reversal of historical patterns, while conservatives stood up for free speech.
Signing off with thanks to all who have participated in our discussions of fiction writing today. I want to leave you with this thought: I think we are facing a new era of censorship, in the name of political correctness. There are forces at work in the book world that want to control fiction writing in terms of who “has a right” to write about what. Some even advocate the out and out censorship of older works using words we now deem wholly unacceptable. Some are critical of novels involving rape. Some argue that white novelists have no right to write about people of color; and Christians should not write novels involving Jews or topics involving Jews. I think all this is dangerous. I think we have to stand up for the freedom of fiction writers to write what they want to write, no matter how offensive it might be to some one else. We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored. We must stand up for freedom in the arts. I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised. It is always a matter of personal choice whether one buys or reads a book. No one can make you do it. But internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all. That’s my take on it. Ignore what you find offensive. Or talk about it in a substantive way. But don’t set out to censor it, or destroy the career of the offending author.
—Anne Rice, Facebook post, August 2015
Those who perform hate speech commit, obviously, hate crimes. A criminal has no standing in the public sphere. Literary discourse today has turned into a prime arena in which correct speech is codified and disseminated, hence the condemnation of freewheeling cultural appropriation and the fear of committing microaggressions. These are said to occur when “stereotypical” language is used to characterize people outside the range of the immediate experience of the author. A microaggressor is also a criminal, although perhaps on a lower level than one who commits a hate crime. If this sounds very much like policing activity, it is, and it follows naturally from the brief excursus we have taken into the Stalinist and Maoist origins of the terminology.
Anyone in the literary realm today is obliged to perform minute and continuous analyses—not only in their reading of others’ works, but in their own writing—of what might constitute innuendo or slur, stereotyping or hate speech. This extends to comments by authors or students of writing, whether they take place in person or online. The publisher of my first book canceled a contract10 with the author Elizabeth Ellen after she launched a public defense of Tao Lin,11 the bad boy of “alt-lit” who had gotten in trouble for using correspondence with his ex-girlfriend in a novel exposing his own shortcomings, including abuse.12 The literary community wished to see him punished not just for the act of appropriation—i.e., taking the words of his girlfriend for his book—but retroactively for any abuse he might have committed toward his girlfriend. In a more ludicrous vein, New Yorker humorist Calvin Trillin, who got his start writing about civil rights in the 1960s, got burned for his poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”13 which made fun of the white bourgeoisie’s inability to keep up with culinary exoticism. Trillin was charged with exploiting the worst tropes of the “yellow peril,” and poetry editor Paul Muldoon was taken to task for not donating precious space in the magazine to a deserving minority writer. Trillin obviously meant the poem as satire, but the logic of cultural appropriation overrules anything other than a flat earnestness when it comes to whites writing about engagement with any aspect of a different culture.
But is there a valid notion of hate speech, and should writers be concerned with it? In Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (University of Nebraska Press, 1994), Samuel Walker elucidates the anti-pornography activist Catharine MacKinnon’s argument that “pornography constitute[s] a form of sex discrimination,” as well as her “discontent with an approach that … [gives] the First Amendment automatic priority” (p. 142). Liberal scholars such as Cass Sunstein have gone on to weaken the First Amendment’s priority by putting more emphasis on the need for individuals to restrain themselves from speech that might be construed as uncivil. As Walker explains, Sunstein holds that “many forms of speech [are] subject to criminal penalties: bribery, fraud, libel, pornography, and more recently certain kinds of sexual harassment. If these forms of speech [have] no social value and [are] not entitled to First Amendment protection, why [can’t] racist speech be prohibited as well?” (p. 143).
When an ideology prioritizes the community over the individual, we call that communitarianism. Both politics and literature have been moving in a communitarian direction for quite some time. As Walker notes, such communitarians as Amitai Etzioni, Mary Ann Glendon, William A. Galston, and Walter Shapiro are associated with the rise of this movement in the early 1990s, and the initial issue of their journal, The Responsive Community, held that “the rights of individuals must be balanced with responsibilities to the community.”
The modern manifestation of hate speech took hold on American campuses in the 1980s and ’90s, resulting in various kinds of speech codes, an idea that has since proliferated. The belief is that hate speech creates a “hostile working environment,” and students operating in an environment where hate speech prevails are deprived of equal opportunity for education. The distinction between this new emphasis on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal opportunity and the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech is an important one.
The issue that is relevant for our discussion is that writers operating in a university environment so sensitive to hate speech, amid a steady erosion of First Amendment rights, have presumably transposed this paradigm to writing. Writers, if they work in a university, live and breathe in a legalistic environment, whether they like it or not. It must affect their work, their very consciousness, in substantial ways. Possibly without even realizing it, they guard against creating a hostile reading environment even as they write and publish their work.
The debate about political correctness in literature is marked by an enormous amount of guilt—white guilt, to be specific—about privilege. This is the cul-de-sac in which every discussion of the subject dead-ends. Could it be that this obsession with guilt owes to the inability of progressives to do much about economic injustice in the wake of the renewed capitalist thrust of the past forty years? As writers embark on “resistance” against the authoritarian personality of Trump’s adherents, we find ourselves asking whether that personality afflicts those on the left as much as those on the right. If literature has been recruited, because of its presence in the liberal academy, as a primary means of molding social attitudes, then it follows that any deviation from political correctness will be judged intolerable. Are we forced to be “fair” and “caring” and “open” according to the definitions imposed by liberal writers?
There is no question that literary discourse today is marked by increasingly subtle inquiries into subterranean prejudice (hence the concept of microaggressions) that occupy so much intellectual space as to allow macroaggressions—economic violence, illegal war and torture, or violence against immigrants—to be ignored without much guilt. For one thing, macroaggressions do not lend themselves to linguistic correction, whereas microaggressions do. In the imminent age of escalated macroaggressions to which the recent neofascist reconstitution of the political arena will give rise, true to form, we are bound to witness an even greater focus on microaggressions.
The literary realm is arguably the prime arena today in an unceasing process of reeducation, paralleling what was happening in the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Writing is being reconceptualized as the safest of all spaces, because it takes place in language and can therefore be construed as corresponding directly with the rapidly spreading demand for physical “safe spaces” (all the safer for “trigger warnings” to assure that involuntary “trauma” will not ensue among fragile students). If classroom discussions of sexual assault, even in law schools on Ivy League campuses, must be prefaced by trigger warnings or exempt those susceptible to retraumatization,14 then how can literary works continue being published without such warnings? How can literature claim exemption from being a safe space? Indeed, this is not a fantasy, as students at numerous liberal-arts colleges have begun demanding that trigger warnings be affixed to classic works of literature, such as The Great Gatsby (domestic abuse) and Mrs. Dalloway (suicide).15 The generation that seeks protection from triggering words or concepts does so in the name of social justice, of emancipating us from the burdens of racial and sexual prejudice, and has decided that freedom of speech gets in the way of this goal.
History suggests that every such cultural imposition leads to a counterreaction. In politics, the attempt at liberal reeducation has already resulted in a counterreaction of the extreme right, but because in the United States the realm of elite literature is almost completely dominated by liberals, as are the humanities in general, the reaction so far has mostly taken the form of shoddy journalism, such as that dispensed by Breitbart News, which has now gained a direct foothold on political power.
We might view the entire politically correct movement on the left as a therapeutic regime. The kind of reeducation that I am talking about, manifesting in literary discourse, seeks to replace tragic moral choices (those found in classic literature) with a new psychological “normality” (a safe space of the mind, if you will, where nothing traumatic is ever triggered). Because literature is the arena for irresolvable moral dilemmas, creating doubt and anxiety, under the current regime it is literature that faces the greatest pressure to reform. When self-esteem replaces economic justice as a goal, some people will inevitably rebel against the imposition through overt expressions of violence and sadism, a phenomenon particularly noteworthy in the rise of Trump and the concomitant surge in white nationalism. One is either a victim or a victimizer; there is no third option. This is the idea that wants to take over literature.
In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy (University of Missouri Press, 2002), Paul Edward Gottfried does a terrific job of outlining the religious underpinnings of various forms of social control in the managerialtherapeutic state, methods designed to move students toward greater acceptance of diversity, immigration, and lifestyle choices. This is control that comes packaged as empowerment via linguistic effects. Although Gottfried wasn’t as concerned about bullying when he wrote his tract, we may note the absolute primacy that this concept has assumed in the discourse surrounding literature, and this may perhaps be traced back to the experience of economic bullying against actual subject populations. Can and should insensitive or bullying statements be criminalized? That is one question that Gottfried poses, and I would suggest that perhaps the constant anxiety about bullies appropriating illegitimate power in the literary world gives literature the fuel to keep going, as a permanent sense of crisis (since there will always be bullies and those who stereotype or commit hate speech) elevates it into a superior—and ethical—vocation. “Bullying” has become almost the overarching term in the discourse of grievance, so, for instance, Shriver was as much of a bully in attacking the fragile sensibilities of those in her Brisbane audience as Tao Lin was for not being sensitive to the abuse he inflicted on his former girlfriend. Bullies must be called out, and if a literary citizen fails to perform this indispensable duty, he can justifiably be excluded from the community.
Books like Tammy Bruce’s The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds (Three Rivers Press, 2001) present multiculturalism as a danger because it rests on moral relativism, but is it possible that multiculturalism actually rests on a black-and-white view of the victims and the victimizers (so that, for example, it is very difficult for it to come to terms with the idea of white victims of capitalism), and that it’s anything but morally relativistic?
(a) What would it mean today for a literary writer to operate outside of identity—that is, to refuse to adopt a particular identity from which the literary work may be said to have stemmed? Is that theoretical choice even possible anymore? What if I, as an author, want to change my identity from time to time? Am I allowed to do that? If not, why not? Is my identity bestowed on me, or is it mine to select? If identity is frozen, and if literary writing stems directly from identity, does this
explain why niche writing tends to become a permanent condition for writers today, rather than movement into and out of the initial form?
(b) Is it possible that only literature that is desensitized to any programmatic political goals is good? What happens in the process of sensitization? How should we think of Woolf, Forster, Faulkner, Bowles, Nabokov, Plath, Naipaul, Updike, or any other writer, attuned to the weight of history, we care to name? Is writing that lasts so deeply rooted in stereotyping that a sense of non-crisis is the motivating force, an aura of eternal tragedy, rather than the fuel of momentary bullying from which so much present writing seems to proceed? Must literature be hurtful to be powerful? Risk elimination, by definition, leads to conventional aesthetics, does it not?
(c) Despite my skepticism toward linguistic reformation, are there areas where linguistic education might actually help subject populations? Are there areas where literature might help subject populations? I’m thinking about the economic arena. Neoliberalism, our reigning ideology, remains the great unspoken, as cultural sensitivities take up all the space of discourse. Jeffrey Williams put together an important collection of responses—defenses of theory, then under severe attack from conservatives going after postmodernism—called PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy (Routledge, 1995). Has literary writing become more like theory, in its goals and assumptions, and is it therefore bearing the brunt of the attack now, the 1990s assault against theory having run its course?
(d) Diversity has become almost the driving principle of the university today. Is it also the driving principle of literature? Just as the university may quite possibly have overlooked intellectual or class diversity for the sake of cultural diversity, is literature engaging in the same fallacy? Should literature be interested in reinforcing or breaking down identities? Though the academy likes to think of itself as postmodern, identity politics is very tribalistic, to the extent that it focuses on an elemental physical reality and takes it as given, unchangeable, permanent.
(e) Do those who have been teaching in humanities departments for a while think that there is more or less diversity of intellectual ideas than when they first started teaching? Likewise, is there more or less homogeneity among critical approaches? Has the canon been truly broadened? If so, for better or for worse? And which criteria decide what gets included? If there can be no objective standards by which to decide on a traditional work’s canonicity, then does the lack of standards apply to new additions to the canon as well? Are the aims of education the same as or different than they were before the expansion of the canon into new territory?
(f) It will be noted that the body has become the central point of contention in literary and political discussion on the liberal side. This necessarily follows from the nature of identity politics, i.e., that it is the condition of the body, via race or gender or sexual orientation, that becomes the arena for the application of rights or duties and the taking away of unearned privilege (i.e., white male heteronormative supremacy). If literature is also forced to give the body this priority, then what happens to everything that is not the body? Is literature—is writing—broader or narrower than it was before the shift of emphasis to the body? Has the scope of reading—and thereby writing—widened or narrowed in the experience of teachers?
(g) Whatever our definition of hate speech, can this concept be applied to literature? Social reality is not innocent, to grant a point to the advocates of political correctness; but has political correctness injected new elements of social corruption or unreality into literature? And if so, what are these elements? Just as conservatives voiced uncritical support of such ideas as the sanctity of the Western canon or the verity of “free market” capitalism, are the avatars of identity politics now advocating uncritical support of their own interpretations of privilege and bias? Is the revolutionary power granted to language by those on the academic left misplaced? Does this explain why there is so much sensitivity toward detecting hate speech?
(h) Neoliberalism is everywhere and nowhere; it cannot be located spatially, geographically, cartographically. If literature becomes preoccupied with bodies located in particular geographies, and with articulating the histories of bodies pushed into borders and boundaries, then is it constructing a certain form of territorialized market? Can a territorialized market, made up of writers located in particular places with particular audiences in mind, compete with the nonterritorialized market of neoliberalism? One ironic result of identity politics is the commercial dominance of those we might call non-territorialized white neoliberal writers—such as Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides—for whom the body is fluid and liberated, an abstraction that contemporary criticism, under the sway of identity politics, is unequipped to handle.
(i) Is academic/literary culture growing more or less illiberal? If we can classify much of the new canon as testimonial, then is it sacred text, or is it subject to critical analysis? What has been the experience of teachers in approaching testimonial writing by authors such as June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Said, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and others? Given our postmodern condition—which includes everything from media to the economy—has the social construction of the self, or its non-essentiality, become (ironically) the basis for what presents itself as essentialist, or testimonial or memoiristic, literature?
Another function writers are being expected to perform is the conveying of ideas that might help improve the lot of marginalized communities. There is a direct connection, for example, between the literary presentation of (and discourse around) immigrants and the managerial state’s desire to establish a protocol of behavior for immigrants. Literature plays the game of making concrete, through particular types of novels and poetry, a certain kind of diversity (which does not necessarily seek to undermine economic inequality), and as long as immigrants indicate loyalty to this type of diversity, they earn cultural recognition, which leads to greater elaboration in literary and academic discourse.
The whole point of literature is unpredictability; but the movement we are now seeing seeks to purge it of unpredictability and reduce it to the status of an arm of the managerial liberal state in bringing both subject populations (minorities) and the white population (the privileged majority) into conformity with a linguistic order that pays verbal respect to human rights, a process rigorously enforced with rewards and punishments. This explains the violent reactions against the smallest deviations from orthodoxy or the smallest manifestations of privilege. Disability—or inherited disadvantage, whether historical or biological—becomes the way forward in such a society, the best means of putting forth one’s claim for cultural, and perhaps economic, recognition. Advancing such claims is an extension, in twenty-first-century America, of Michel Foucault’s powerful idea of subject populations setting the terms of their own governance, a notion that has come in for mockery from the right.
One notices the widespread phenomenon of what are by any definition privileged white males in the literary world relentlessly performing Stalinist or Maoist self-criticism (each occasion of public outrage against a politically incorrect error providing them with the opportunity to do so) and then bending over backwards to castigate their own irredeemable white privilege in order to prove their allegiance to disadvantaged groups. In so doing, are these men taking the easiest route available to them to cultural advancement, such as in the example I earlier offered of a white scholar lamenting his inability to see things from the other side’s point of view, a default that for him was an existential given?
I would suggest also the possibility that it was the death of official socialism—i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989—that brought about the upsurge of political correctness in the literary, artistic, and academic worlds. Deprived of the possibility, announced in such tracts as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), that there is any alternative available to us other than the capitalization and marketization of all human functions, we created, perhaps, a socialism of the linguistic sphere, i.e., a political correctness that equalized everybody on the same scale of moral judgment. Deep down, many in the humanities may want to be socialists, but they cannot, given our political and economic arrangements, and so they turn to identity politics as the only available alternative to socialism. Marxists are always searching for “false consciousness,” the deep implantation of harmful structures of thought that prevent the realization of class utopia; likewise, the new literary czars pursue false consciousness through the putative exposure of submerged racism, classism, sexism, etc., as they manifest in language.
Propositions: All literature is forbidden speech. Literature never promotes selfesteem. Literature does not limit itself to language alone.
Are we any closer to bridging the Shriver/Abdel-Magied chasm? Where are we, then, terminologically? Cultural appropriation is a matter of privilege, and privilege is suspicious (because unearned). On the other hand, aren’t identitarians also seeking privilege? Privilege is gained or lost through the placement of the body in particular situations—in risk, in positions of advantage, in situations of scrutiny or lack of scrutiny.
On the website The Public Autonomy Project, one finds an excellent breakdown of competing vocabularies.16 The old lexicon (that of the New Left of the 1960s), which is out the door now, spoke of “oppression, exploitation, alliances, consciousness-raising, solidarity, the people, and liberation.” The new lexicon speaks of “privilege, classism, being an ally, calling out, positionality, folks, and safe spaces.”
Is it any wonder that even those who consider themselves ideologically aligned have such a difficult time communicating? To those in the literary world who follow the old terminology, the new terminology seems incomprehensible, and vice versa.
The term “positionality,” in particular, may be the one most antithetical to literature. It means that you can only think authentically from your own position, which, as identity politics becomes more established in writing, becomes more precisely defined for each writer. If one tunes in to current literary discourse (which is often intended to be overheard in its “private” mode), one hears scathing criticism of white writers daring to think that they can write about minority cultures. The animus against cultural appropriation flows, above all, from the worry about positionality. When the white midwestern poet Michael Derrick Hudson adopted the persona of a Chinese writer, Yi-Fen Chou, to get his poem published in the Best American Poetry anthology, the most interesting reaction was not that of the culprit but of his assailants, who seemed to confirm the prejudice that a Chinese author’s sensibility was sacrosanct, following the assumptions of positionality. The anthology editor, Sherman Alexie, explained17 that he had to go forward anyway once Hudson revealed the truth because the poem was good enough to stand on its own, but Alexie’s self-defense involved a disburbing assumption about Chinese American authors that wasn’t deemed worthy of notice at all: “When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery.” In an earlier time, this would have been considered the prototypical racial slur. For his part, Hudson observed that he had greater success submitting under the Chinese pseudonym than under his own name—a claim that unleashed, in turn, an avalanche of counter-claims by minority writers about their lower acceptance rates. For Hudson, deploying imagined marginalized identity offered a leg up in the prestige stakes. The enforcers felt empowered to denigrate both Hudson and Alexie, because for them positionality was synonymous with ethnic identity. But if they were honest enough to recognize class privilege—what we might call cultural capital, in the case of minority writers like Faizullah (and other young poets, such as Ocean Vuong and Solmaz Sharif, who “bear witness” to atrocities) and certainly Rankine—then they would know that this definition of positionality leaves out the majority of one’s actual positions.
The new set of matrices supports and flows from neoliberalism (one of whose cultural manifestations in the 1990s was communitarianism). Terms like mansplaining, whitesplaining, straightsplaining, and no doubt many other kinds of ’splaining follow from the assumption of unearned privilege, or positionality. Again, cultural appropriation is closely connected to various forms of ’splaining, because to splain is to say to a marginalized subjectivity: “Let me tell you what you’re all about.”
The leading weapon that the advocates of identity politics deploy is that of “call-out,” especially through social media. For those attuned to the old regime, calling out writers who offend is ad hoc bullying; for those who grew up in the new regime, call-out is a necessary duty in the social-justice cause.
Call-out, though it may seem terrifying to liberals not steeped in the new protocols, is an indispensable aspect of exposing positionality or privilege. In order for literary discourse to continue and thrive, there must be ceaseless call-out. (It becomes the equivalent of undertaking ethnographic research for a writer, studying various populations to derive material for writing, in the old-fashioned way.) Call-out must then result in definable and definite acts of apology, selfcriticism, and acknowledgment of guilt. By definition, call-out cannot ever be disputed (as the Public Autonomy Project astutely points out), because if one does dispute it, then one is only showing the extent to which privilege (i.e., white supremacy) has become a matter of deep false consciousness. Many in the literary world, used to the old terminology, have initially tried protesting in response to call-out, but it only makes their position less tenable, resulting in stronger calls for boycotts, blacklisting, and censorship.
The most popular overarching term to take in this whole grid is “intersectionality.” (The term originated in 1989 but is only now gaining widespread acceptance.) It is as popular among identitarians as neoliberalism is among old-fashioned liberals trying to understand what happened to make their goal of economic justice unravel so dramatically in recent decades.
Intersectionality addresses the probability that the individual who suffers from a particular physical designation suffers not just from one disadvantage but multiple disadvantages. A woman of color may also be undocumented and not heteronormative. Thus there are now four bonds, instead of just two, to unite her with others. Intersectionality seems to me to be an attempt to step out of the bind of narrow identity niches, suggesting that multiple identity niches afford the possibility of unity, or “finding allies,” as the terminology would have it, across different lines. It is to splinter identity politics yet stay within its rubric.
This, then, is the matrix writing finds itself caught up in. It doesn’t appear that writing is allowed anymore to adopt a posture free from the acknowledgement of positionality. In other words, a fiction writer or poet cannot write from a stance that does not first, and as a matter of determinative priority, place the author in the framework of identity politics, broken down according to all the corporeal elements (place of birth, color, sexuality, physical ability, age, body shape and size, location, etc.), and that the writing must then flow from the acknowledgment of the body in its various grounded manifestations. All writing is, or ought to be, writing about one’s body, ideally intersectional to the extent that it recognizes various body overlaps. If one writes as though positionality does not matter, then the resulting work suffers from false consciousness, it is irredeemable, it goes against the web of interests that unify all those who are victimized by privilege.
So the ideal of literature has become the articulation of intersectionality. Intersectionality is a form of constrained first-person narrative, or, at best, limited third-person; it is not an omniscient Bakhtinian dialogical utopia updated for the twenty-first century, where different voices find equal play in the burgeoning text. In defiance of conventional fictional strategy, the intersectionalist novelist must write from a defined position within the fixed range of possibilities. One is not simply an author in the abstract, one cannot write anonymously, so to speak (note that “Elena Ferrante” had to be denied the privilege of writing behind a screen); one must write as an articulator of “objective” intersectionalities, building an inside and outside world, an authenticity (of the self) and an incomprehensibility (of the other), and let the narrative play out within those dimensions alone. It is a radically new way of conceiving how and why one writes and publishes.
The right is prone to denouncing postmodernist conceptions of power, a dismissal that anyone interested in equality must acquire the intellectual wherewithal to reject; unfortunately, the politically correct games that the creative disciplines are playing today might be weakening a necessary defense against the right-wing assault on theorists who provide real insight into how power works on and affects different populations, both majority and minority.
In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2000), Patricia Hill Collins, a leading scholar of intersectionality, writes:
Although it is tempting to claim that Black women are more oppressed than everyone else and therefore have the best standpoint from which to understand the mechanisms and effects of oppression, this is not the case. Instead, those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. (p. 270)
We are back at the key question of cultural appropriation. Literary authors can articulate authentically only the subject position to which they personally belong; they can make no claim to complete authority over any point of view outside their own particular experiential domain.
One danger to worry about is how easily we can move from the granting of authenticity to particular points of view to the bestowal of empirical certainty. One notes that in claims of victimization in current literary discourse—whether in the form of personal violations, such as sexual harassment or worse, or violations of dignity in writing itself, or the stereotyping of women or gays or minorities—the current position is to grant absolute empirical validity to the claimant and to attack anyone who seeks objective or legalistic verification. It is very strange that we are asserting that everyone’s knowledge must necessarily be restricted to a minute degree (one’s own immediate experience), and yet this knowledge can overrule big-picture thinking of any sort. Only the fact—the incident in question, the event that occasioned the violation—can be treated as objective truth, and nothing outside it.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000)—a seminal, optimistic text for the left—laid out a postmodern conceptualization of empire at the very moment when globalization had reached its peak of worldwide legitimacy. Hardt and Negri’s perspective is one that we must not exclude, because it allows us to see how subject populations are violated in the interests of empire in a way that political correctness, often indifferent to the economic big picture, doesn’t permit.
To the extent that affirmative action in the American academy has been under assault from conservative jurisprudence, the literary world has responded by constructing a utopia that, I think, avoids the hardcore realities of empire that radical theorists like Hardt and Negri—and many others, following from Foucault—take on. To recognize the global network of empire as a new form of sovereignty is also to open up space for what Hardt and Negri call “the multitude” to resist, to discover their authenticity. But identity politics proceeds from the inside out, rather than the outside in, and does not deal in optimistic possibilities of revolutionary economic change.
It can be argued that the teacher of literature or writing has became a close facsimile of the university administrator whose job is to minimize offensiveness to specifically designated minority groups.
To go back to my earlier point about insults and cruelty, literary writing today seeks to bypass the possibility of resilience among victim groups. Failing literary productivity or originality, one can always search for verbal or behavioral offenses, no matter how trivial or unintended, and embark on intervention to correct the behavior of the offender through a protocol of penance, self-criticism, and submission of a performance plan. Thus, the literary writer will never fail to be busy, because there are too many unnoticed offenses going around.
Another arena of great activity is that of punishment, and this is seen most clearly in the realm of sexual harassment, where behavior is sharply codified and enforced. Fiction, poetry, and memoir must now reflect this interventionist activity; the writer, typically established in academia, must serve as an adjunct to the university’s paramount mission of preventing offense. The problem with rooting out unconscious prejudices—false consciousness—is that, inevitably, the search becomes vindictive, and there’s no end to how far it can go. Eventually, everyone becomes suspect, especially the ones at the forefront of the proselytizing mission. This explains why, in recent literary controversies, those whom one would have thought to be upholders of liberal righteousness par excellence have often ended up being the targets of purges.
If prejudice is unconscious, moreover, then somebody must take it upon themselves to engage in some deep psychological probing. University administrators must be vigilant about this, as must writers, whose duty it becomes to examine psychological wounds and injuries, the sufferers putting forth their stories, which cannot be questioned from a political-economy perspective, let alone an ethical or philosophical one. The task of readers then becomes to examine their own hidden prejudices to see whether they are unconscious victimizers.
It should be clear now why cultural appropriation absolutely messes up this paradigm and is utterly unconscionable within this framework. A trial cannot go on if the criminal takes the stand instead of the victim and starts speaking in the victim’s voice. The trial’s objectivity, in that case, will be compromised.
Self-esteem becomes the only valid currency, so that any group’s gains are seen to come at the cost of another’s. This explains the tremendous competition for recognition and the proliferation of niche identities: such recognition represents a quick way of gaining currency and protecting it from other groups.18
Literary writing’s primary function, again, is increasingly to offer narratives that support group identities—at least if said literature is to have any shot at circulating within the academy. In effect, contemporary literary writers are undergoing, in the full glare of social media and public scrutiny, the trial by error that university administrators and teachers underwent a couple of decades ago (and still undergo today) in the form of diversity and sensitivity training. The measurement of harm takes precedence over any peculiarly literary concerns, not that there can be any independent literary values in a paradigm that collapses the distinction between the public and the private. Again, the private behavior of anyone in the literary world is as important to scrutinize as their words on the page.
Defining high-synergy societies as cooperative, non-aggressive, and affectionate, and low-synergy societies as malevolent, pathological, and zero-sum, and launching a critique of both liberal and communitarian philosophies, Michael S. Cummings, in Beyond Political Correctness: Social Transformation in the United States (Lynne Rienner, 2001), offers this classification:
Cross-culturally, this umbrella of prohibition would permit a range of formulas, depending on the relative importance accorded various forms of liberty and equality. For instance, a society somewhat more dedicated to liberty than equality might permit stridently aristocratic forms of literary and artistic expression that bluntly satirized “inferior” modes of living. Another society, leaning more heavily toward equality, might legislate against a wider range of “words that wound” as well as other forms of expression judged demeaning to others. To keep itself honest and vibrant, a synergistic society would do well to permit the full range of free political activity prized by liberals, even including freedom for a hypothetical Entropy Party whose purpose was to replace synergism with entropism. (p. 121)
Is the identity-politics movement in American literature and arts the new entropy party, seeking to abolish high synergy?
Literature is not objective. It cannot be objective. To seek to make it so is to create something that is not literature. If a communitarian choice in literary activity has been made in preference to individualism, then we should acknowledge it, rather than maintain the old individualist veneer. Is neoliberal communitarianism a win-lose game, pitting group against group—a game that, while promoting “diversity,” prevents realization of such goals as healthcare, labor rights, a living wage, or respect for the environment? Does literary narrative, like university administration in general, function in static reaction to the political correctness on the right that is not addressed—i.e., the right’s own prioritization of capitalism, “free markets,” entrepreneurship, the global trading system, and consumerism?
A valid point raised by such scholars as Charles Derber, in Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born-Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good (Paradigm, 2008), is that liberal political correctness emanates from a vacuum of political power, because as a powerless person you are free to be as culturally radical as you wish. But the more interesting question is whether this is a permanent choice—in other words, whether it is safer, or even more desirable, to handle PC radicalism, as opposed to making demands in the economic sphere. If there is a sense of palpable delight in the frequent outrages that erupt in literary discourse, perhaps the exuberant joy in wanting to expose and punish the transgressors has its explanation here.
I have hinted at a number of distinctions throughout this essay, without always fully elaborating on them, and would like to leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions, based on their experience in the literary world:
(a) Is there a distinction between literature with a big L (the kind of successful New York City–oriented writing that we may assume has less concern with academic reception and sensitivity) and the creative writing (CW) component of writing, which, because it is rooted in the academy, is probably more sensitive to political correctness? If such a division exists, then what does it mean that we have two parallel writing tendencies, and how does it complicate my picture of neoliberal education in the humanities dictating the terms of discourse? Or is this division in the process of collapsing?
(b) Is the distinction between literature (English) departments and creative writing becoming blurred, the former assuming more of the creative function, and the latter veering toward the core knowledge functions of the former? To what extent is this the result of identity politics laying waste to abstract (supranational) notions of the canon in English departments, and identity politics constructing an alternative canon (of testimonial writing) that is freely available to studentconsumers in English departments?
(c) Is my model of the neoliberal paradigm determining both academic and creative ventures a viable one? What happens to the apprentice writer (not to mention the established writer) once he or she gets down to the actual business of writing? What happens in that moment to the rules and protocols about what a writer should or should not say? If my presumption of responsibility to group feelings (what we may call the communitarian aspect of neoliberalism) is correct, then does self-censorship follow as a natural corollary?
(d) Is identity politics really as reductive a business as I sometimes seem to have suggested here? The right often denies its complexity, boiling it down to a set of absurd political demands based on unfair insistence on victimization, while the left can be guilty of solidifying and hardening identities to pursue elusive political goals. But in the literary realm, does identity politics add up to something else altogether—not reducible to any political propositions, not manageable in terms of counseling and therapy and administration? Is it possible that identity politics in literary writing merely functions the way all concerns with selfhood have traditionally functioned in art—i.e., they become fodder for transcendence?
(e) What is the evidence, aside from what I have presented here, for the rise or decline of a sophisticated cosmopolitan literary impetus within both the teaching of creative writing and the pursuit of commercially viable literary writing? Are writers more provincial because of identity politics/multiculturalism/political correctness, or are they more cosmopolitan? If writing (like any other art) is after all a subsidiary creative act, following from the larger creative act of reconstituting the self, a disembodied leap of imagination, then the issues raised in this essay, though pitched with a sense of urgency, might be quite beside the point.
1. Lionel Shriver, “Lionel Shriver’s Full Speech: ‘I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation Is a Passing Fad,’” The Guardian, September 13, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad.com
2. Eric Russell, “Sombreros at Bowdoin ‘Tequila Party’ Ignite Controversy on Campus and Beyond,” Portland Press Herald, March 4, 2016, http://www.pressherald.com/2016/03/04/bowdoin-studentgovernment-to-hold-impeachment-hearings-agaist-two-members.
3. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “As Lionel Shriver Made Light of Identity, I Had No Choice but to Walk Out on Her,” The Guardian, September 10, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her.
4. Don Lee, “The Freedom to Mislead,” interview by Anis Shivani, New Letters 79, no. 1 (Fall 2012–2013).
5. Tarfia Faizullah, “Everything Is Near and Unforgotten: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah,” interview by Sean Carman, The Paris Review, February 10, 2014, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/02/10/everything-is-near-and-unforgotten-an-interview-with-tarfia-faizullah. See also reading and interview, Asian American Literature Today, Library of Congress, May 21, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQsHwBwXYOs.
6. Chris McGreal, “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I Wasn’t Identifying as Black to Upset People. I Was Being Me,’” The Guardian, December 13, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/13/rachel-dolezal-iwasnt-identifying-as-black-to-upset-people-i-was-being-me.
8. Ailish Hopper, “Can a Poem Listen? Variations on Being-White,” Boston Review, April 23, 2015, http://bostonreview.net/poetry/npm-2015-ailish-hopper-being-white.
9. Moira Weigel, “Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy,” Guardian, November 30, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-theright-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.
10. “Statement Regarding Elizabeth Ellen,” Black Lawrence Press, October 19, 2014, http://www.blacklawrence.com/statement-regarding-elizabeth-ellen.
11. Elizabeth Ellen, “An Open Letter to the Internet,” Hobart, October 3, 2014, http://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/an-open-letter-to-the-internet.
12. Kat Stoeffel, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck,” The Cut, October 6, 2014, http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/10/doesnt-have-to-be-rape-to-suck.html.
13. By Calvin Trillin, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” New Yorker, April 4, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/04/have-they-run-out-of-provinces-yet-by-calvin-trillin.
14. Colleen Flaherty, “Law School Trigger Warnings?” Inside Higher Ed, December 17, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/12/17/harvard-law-professor-says-requests-trigger-warnings-limiteducation-about-rape-law.
15. Alison Flood, “US Students Request ‘Trigger Warnings’ on Literature,” The Guardian, May 19, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/19/us-students-request-trigger-warnings-in-literature.
17. “Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015,” The Best American Poetry blog, September 7, 2015, http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2015/09/like-mostevery-poet-i-have-viewed-the-publication-of-each-years-best-american-poetry-with-happiness-i-lovethat-poem-je-1.html.
18. On January 25, 2017, Roxanne Gay pulled her TED Book How to Be Heard from Simon & Schuster, because the publisher had paid alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, closely associated with Breitbart News, a $250,000 advance. Gay stated: “And to be clear, this isn’t about censorship. Milo has every right say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be. He doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher but he has, in some bizarre twist of fate, been afforded that privilege. So be it. I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege.” This is the standard move liberal identitarians make when calling for censorship: they grant that the provocateur has every right to be heard, but just cannot be provided the platform to be heard. Note that every major publishing house has a conservative imprint by now, and that the liberal protest would never be against the permanent deluge of books informed by neoliberalism (that is, the current state of our ideology, a mindset pervasive among politicians, bureaucrats, and academics), which cause infinitely more harm than Yiannopoulos could ever create and in fact set, the basis for the very existence of provocateurs like him.
Your poem “A History in Six Couplets” from Subtropics 7 and the two Manoel de Barros pieces you translated for Subtropics 9 display certain miniature qualities: short stanzas, end-stopped lines, clipped phrasing. What attracts you to this mini-ness?Continue reading
There’s never enough of it. The bottle’s full,
The glass is to be filled. Call it a flute,
Call the effervescence joy or love
Or song. Demi-sec’s sweet, and extra brut
Is dry, the ratio of alcohol
To sugar posed as paradox: liquid drouth,
As rising sparkles have a downward pull
That brings the lip of crystal to the mouth.
Hold the stem: it bears a brittle flower,
Calyx of nectar, clear container of
What drains away, the bubble of the hour.
The satisfying heft’s deceptive: lift
The bottle by its throat and tilt it south,
Promise of plenty, though all pleasure’s swift
And evanescent, and no heart’s exempt, the
Vessel seeming heaviest when empty.