A case of identity: literature and identity politics

This happened some twenty and more years ago now, but it sticks in my mind. I was at some social gathering, and a young lady to whom I had only been introduced a few minutes earlier asked me if I had been to see Bombay Dreams, a West End musical featuring Bollywood music that was, at the time, rather popular. There was no particular reason why she should ask me this, other than that, very obviously, my appearance indicated that I originated from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. No, I replied politely. Was I planning to see it? No, I replied again, Bollywood isn’t really my kind of thing. She seemed a bit surprised, as I remember, but didn’t say anything. Much later in the evening, we bumped into each other again, and this time she asked me why I had turned my back on my own culture.

The first thing that bothered me about this was her assumption that she knew what my culture was. Actually, she didn’t: if “my culture” indicates the culture in which I had grown up, Bollywood films and Bollywood music weren’t part of “my culture” at all: these were most certainly not things I had grown up with, either at home or outside. But something else bothered me: it was the implication that, whatever my cultural background may or may not have been, it was somehow wrong for me to have moved away from it – that my identity was somehow pre-determined by the circumstances of my birth, and that for me to deviate from it was somehow reprehensible.

This was, as I say, a long time ago, and at the time, the term “identity politics” did not have quite the currency it has now. I think I was barely aware of it then. Now, of course, one can hardly get away from it: “identity” is one of those terms – like “political correctness”, or “multiculturalism”, and all those other things that people get so hot-under-the-collar about – that everyone seems to use, but no-one ever thinks of defining. This allows X to define “identity” and “identity politics” in one way, and argue for their reasonableness; while Y defines them another way, and rages against their unreasonableness. And given their respective definitions – implicitly assumed, though rarely stated – they are both right.

Even “trigger warnings” – a rather hot topic these days, one I ranted about here rather intemperately only quite recently, and which my more reasonable friend Mark Dietz then commented on with characteristically greater circumspection: despite the demands that were made for “trigger warnings”, both the nature of these desired warnings and the reasoning behind them seem to me curiously unclear. Three quite different things seem to me to be conflated in these demands. The first is simply a request that teachers guide their students sensitively through issues likely to prove distressing, or contentious, or difficult, or, indeed, any mixture of these three. Such a request does seem quite reasonable, I suppose, and if we are to take, as Prof. Aaron Hanlon does, the benign view that this is all that is being asked for, there is, I guess, little to complain about – although one may reasonably ask how a general reader, who does not have the benefit of a teacher’s guiding hand, can be expected to deal with the difficulties that the poor darling little rosebuds of students need so gently to be led through. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that these cornerstones of literary traditions are read only by those who have to, and that the rest of us, very sensibly, keep away from them; and that those of us who don’t really deserve all we get. Which is fair enough, I suppose. But, leaving that aside for now, if demands for “trigger warnings” go no further than this, I think we can all live with them.

The second aspect we may also view charitably: it concerns those students who have suffered some sort of trauma in the past, and are now suffering from PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, I most certainly would not wish to belittle this issue, although I would insist that this is the provenance of the therapist rather than of the English teacher. The best we can do here is to ensure that the teacher is aware of this issue, and refer the student to an appropriate therapist should it raise its head. Certainly, in the incident cited by those demanding “trigger warnings” – of the lack of concern for a student who had previously been sexually assaulted – the teacher’s insensitivity is clearly unacceptable.

But there is a third interpretation of these demands, and it is this third interpretation that particularly troubles me. And this interpretation concerns “identity politics”. Since I have been censorious earlier in this post about discussing concepts without adequately defining them, let me, if not define, at least try to characterise what I understand by that term, based on my own observations.

I personally would characterise “identity politics” along the following lines:

“Identity politics” is a loose term describing a set of ideologies that views each individual’s identity in terms of such signifiers as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, nationality, and so on. It further considers the feelings and emotions that are direct consequences of identity, as determined by such signifiers, to be of the utmost importance, and any attempt to deny the validity or importance of these feelings and emotions, or even any attempt to question or to challenge them, or to look beyond them, is perceived as oppressive. This is particularly the case when it comes to identities the possessors of which are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against in some way. Protection of these feelings and emotions is then given the highest priority both in public policy, and in private interactions.

Now, this is merely how I, personally, understand “identity politics”: I would welcome other perspectives.

If this is, indeed, what “identity politics” is, then there are, I think, a number of very legitimate objections to be made against the concept. The first is that it subsumes personal identity to the identity of a group, thus denying, or at least refusing adequately to acknowledge, the variety of identities that inevitably exist within any given group. It further denies individuals within the group the freedom to dissent – the freedom to disagree with the core values of the group they have been born into, and also to the freedom to adopt values not belonging to the group: adherents of identity politics frown on such dissent. I have, personally, experienced such disapproval frequently, from all sorts of sources: that incident, though fairly harmless in itself, of that young lady insisting that I should, being of an Indian background, enjoy Bollywood music, was but a prelude to what has followed in the years since. The belief that one’s values should be determined by the accidental circumstances of one’s birth, and that to deviate from them is somehow a betrayal, though to my mind an invidious belief, is extraordinarily widespread: I have heard it expressed in various forms over the years, from the fairly innocuous to the downright malicious and nasty, from people of all ethnic backgrounds, and from right across the political spectrum. Those who follow these matters on social media will be more than familiar with such pejorative terms as “Uncle Tom” and “coconut” – terms referring people with dark skins who have, quite unaccountably, exercised their freedom of choice to choose for themselves values other than those that Identity Politicians insist have been pre-determined for them. Recently, in what purported to be an academic conference, a comfortable professor of media studies from a prestigious American university described as “native informants” those Muslims who no longer believe in the religion into which they were born. So much for freedom of thought.

(As an aside, if what applies to Muslims applies also to Hindus – and why should it not? – I think I too, going by the good professor’s formulation, and despite the disapprobation I am bound to attract for not identifying myself as an adherent of the religion of my forefathers, should declare myself to be a “native informant”. I’m not entirely sure, though, what I am meant to be informing on, to whom, or, for that matter, how much the job pays.)

There are, it seems to me, a great many attributes that combine to create any individual’s unique identity. Some of these may indeed be innate and immutable – such as race, or gender, or the religion practised by the family into which one is born; but there are also many that are acquired by choice – tastes, opinions, politics, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), lifestyles, and so on. The ability to choose for oneself one’s identity may be limited – I cannot choose to be Chinese, for instance; nor can I choose to be, say, an operatic tenor, much though I’d love to – but all choices are necessarily limited to some extent or other: that in itself does not invalidate the fact that we have a choice. And, despite such obvious limits, the scope we have to determine our own identities is, it seems to me, actually very broad – far more so, I think, than is generally reckoned. And for all the attributes that combine to create an individual identity – whether innate or acquired – any individual is, or should be, at complete liberty to decide the weighting he or she chooses to give to each. To deny any individual this choice is to force the individual to accept an identity that has been pre-determined; and this seems to me at least as oppressive as any of the other oppressions that proponents of identity politics claim to oppose.

The pre-determined view also seems to me to see identity as something that is fixed rather than fluid, and, once again, this is surely erroneous. I am not, for instance, the person I was thirty years ago; or even twenty, or even ten years ago: my identity, as with so many other things, is something that has evolved over the years, and will surely go on evolving. Through experience, one’s perspective alters, one’s values change. Identity politics, by focussing on those attributes that are essentially immutable, seem to me not to recognise this fluidity: “finding one’s self” is seen as a process of discovering what one already is – or, rather, what Identity Politicians think one should be, given one’s background – rather than exploring the potentials of what one may become. Such a view of identity merely impoverishes us.

A final fatal flaw of “identity politics” – and one that makes identity politics inimical, I think, to the study of literature – is its implicit assumption that our feelings and emotions are triggered primarily, or even solely, by the nature of our identities. I strongly – indeed, passionately – believe this to be wrong. For me, perhaps the greatest gift we possess as humans is our ability to empathise – or, as Auden put it, our ability to “weep because another wept”; that, regardless of what our own background may be, regardless of our race or gender or sexuality or of any of these things, we can make a leap of the imagination, and enter into the minds of people whose identities are very different from our own. To deny this greatest of gifts is to deny all that is finest in humanity. It is to see the mass of humanity as but a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe enclosed within its own space, unable to communicate with any other. These enclosed spaces may be what Identity Politicians refer to as “safe spaces”, but one doesn’t go to literature merely to be enclosed in these “safe places”: study of literature requires us to venture into “dangerous spaces”.

Indeed, this venture into dangerous places is what literature demands. It puts before us perspectives other than our own; it urges us, challenges us, to absorb these different perspectives, and, in the process of so doing, broaden our own. Sometimes, these perspectives encountered are profound and original, and in such cases, absorbing these perspectives into our own enriches us to an extent far, far greater than I think I have the ability to articulate. But none of these wonders can happen if we were merely to cower within our pre-determined “safe spaces”, as Identity Politicians seem to demand we must.

So what exactly is being demanded by the Identity Politicians – those brave warriors who urge faculties of literature to issue trigger warnings because, as they put it, “identities matter”? That teachers should teach sensitive subjects sensitively, and be aware that some students may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or are these demands, as I suspect, going further – that we tailor the teaching of literature, or, indeed, choose the texts to be taught, in view of the identities, or the perceived identities, of the students? If so, that is simply the end of literature. Better not to teach literature at all than to teach it under such conditions. Such a demand implies a denial of literature itself.

It is not surprising that this demand to incorporate identity politics into teaching has reared its head so prominently in the teaching of literature. For literature is, it seems to me, more perhaps than any other branch of learning, a powerful denial of the basic underlying assumptions of identity politics. Literature tells us that we are not prisoners to the circumstances of our birth, that we are not stuck inside our pre-determined “safe spaces”. It broadens our mental horizons; it makes us realise that the world we inhabit is a big world, bigger than we’d ever imagined; it blows away all those putrid little tribalisms that so diminish us in the name, of all things, of freedom.

And no, I still haven’t seen Bombay Dreams. As I say, it’s just not my kind of thing.

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44 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on June 18, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    If a “Professor of Literature & Identity Politics” were to come to my house and peruse my private library, I imagine they might say, “I see you have a serious interest in gay writing.” And it’s true that I do have a great many books by gay and lesbian writers, not merely the usual suspects – Wilde and so on – but also many pretty obscure ones,. I’m on the mailing list of a couple of specialist gay bookshops and buy from them regularly. Even the tiny number of erotic novels I own (blush) are chiefly by gay writers. In my study hangs a large framed self-portrait by the English gay writer and painter Denton Welch (a reproduction sad to say). My favourite novel by him was once described by filmmaker John Waters as “so precious, so beyond gay”. A well-read gay friend visited recently and said, “God, you’ve read way more gay books that I have.”

    The truth is, however, that I really don’t think of myself as having a defined interest in “gay writing” at all – and I’m pretty suspicious of literary taxonomies of identity. What does prim and chaste Denton Welch have to do another gay writer I read, a living American writer, who writes about, say, having rough sex with homeless men? Denton Welch wrote slender, poetic novels grounded in acute acts of lonely perception. The other writer I mention, the American writer Samuel Delany, has created a sprawling body of work that moves across genres, fiction and non-fiction, and is often highly experimental. He’s written about Wagner and he’s written about randy aliens. Both he and Denton Welch are gay, but, really, so what? They’ve almost nothing else in common.

    It would, perhaps, be foolish for me to say that I have “no interest” in gay literature and that there is “no such thing” as gay literature – but good luck to anyone who wants to define what it is. A.E. Housman – a gay poet. Hart Crane – a gay poet. Yes, but where do we go from there?

    This is my way of saying that I agree very much with the tenor of your post, Himadri.

    Reply

    • Posted by Mark on June 18, 2015 at 12:39 pm

      In summary: Better to define a writer by their body of work, than the body of work by the writer.

      (Apologies for replying to myself.)

      Reply

  2. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on June 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Very thought provoking – and very good points. I’m Scottish but I hate Scottish Country Dancing – does that mean I’m betraying my culture? And trigger warnings make me a little defensive – we should examine books with an open mind and deal with the subjects we find in them. We should be allowed to be mature enough to make our own decisions.

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  3. Excellently put, all of it. In the old days, a “native informant” was called a “race traitor.”

    It’s a shame that these opposing forces (one where you must live up to the identity I have imagined for you, and another where you dare not expose me to ideas beyond my own idea of myself) aren’t neutralizing each other. I guess they have power or political traction or whathaveyou because they are aimed away from the holders of these beliefs; the ideas have to work themselves out in the actions of others, never in the actions of the person protecting his “own identity.” At least in America, anyway. But I’m going to be charitable and put it all down to responses to fear in some way. Many people would rather die (or yes, kill) than be told that perhaps the way they are is not some ideal way to be.

    I asked my wife why she doesn’t give up one of her bad habits, a habit of hers she herself dislikes. “I would no longer be me,” she said. “But you’d be happier,” says I. “But I’d be different,” she answers with some defiance. As if change of any kind is a betrayal of self. As if self is the greatest treasure we have.

    Reply

    • I’m actually in sympathy with your wife on this matter: the people we love, we love in their entirety! A crooked nosemay not be the ideal of perfect beauty, but if that crooked nose belongs to a person whom we love, then we end up loving its very crookedness!

      But on to other matters: you’re absolutely right – “native informant” is the same as “race traitor”. It drives me to despair that people can even think in such terms!

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  4. Group identity is a very powerful thing. To a greater or lesser degree people define themselves by the people they belong to, whether its a frat house or a community or a gene pool. I think it’s more nature than nurture, the same way some people are more empathetic or musical than others. People for whom Group is a top-level identifier often don’t understand the inclination of others who wander around outside, let alone mingle with Others. This goes for wanderers not only from their own Group but also from other Groups. Horrible things come of this, of course, but that doesn’t mean that being tribal and being humanitarian are mutually exclusive. In places like the US or UK (and South Asia, I would imagine), where you have distinct Groups milling about and bumping into each other, you will have cultural micromanagers with the best of intentions trying to figure out where everybody goes and getting huffy when Group members won’t stay put. Ironically, members of the “dominant” group often feel badly about how all the little Groups have been kicked around and want to make up for it by managing their Identities for them. Your young lady of Bombay Dreams was doubtless completely oblivious of the irony of telling you how to stay within the bounds of your own culture–because her intention was to protect you from being dominated by hers.

    As for trigger warnings, I think the danger is in making too much of them. It isn’t the job of the teacher to play therapist, but I don’t believe this is what including warnings in a syllabus implies. Other than including the warning, and possibly on rare occasions allowing an alternative text (hard to imagine when this would be necessary), the teacher shouldn’t have to do or change anything. Literature is therapy. People benefit from reading insightful works that deal sensitively with whatever ails them, so I don’t think it’s a case of students wanting to shy away from anything that might disturb them. (More likely, the problem is in teachers overcompensating or avoiding certain subjects altogether because they don’t understand what they are supposed to do with this ominously named mandate.) Frankly, I can’t help thinking that kids with real issues would just check out the Spark Notes for assigned readings anyway as a means of getting the heads-up trigger warnings are supposed to supply. I suspect the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, but I can see how this can be considered just another form of paternalism.

    The thing is, some people like paternalism. They want to be watched out for and seek the comfort and security of the Group. There’s a lot to be said for having kin or kind to watch your back and loyalty is part of the deal. Literature (and the arts in general) addresses all of human experience, including ways of thinking and being that challenge Group boundaries. This is why books get burned. It is also why many people who love to read avoid “difficult” literature or read the classics as novelizations of Masterpiece Theater productions or read only within certain cultural boundaries. It is also why many perfectly intelligent people can blithely suggest throwing away great works simply because they were written by dead white men–because Identity can trump other criteria. Literature persists because there are lots and lots of cultural squirrels who appreciate what it is and what it does, though most people don’t really get it and aren’t really worried about it. That’s the way it’s always been and it seems to work. After all, most literature isn’t about people sitting around reading literature–it’s about ordinary, sometimes illiterate, people working and loving and plugging along, deep within or at the periphery of some Group or another.

    Reply

    • Posted by Mark on June 18, 2015 at 7:57 pm

      I must say, I think your comment is excellent, particularly the final paragraph. You write with real insight into the power of Group Identity. I’ve had quite a bit of contact with a group of people who for decades willingly gave themselves over to the influence of paternalism, in the form of a kind of benign, syncretic Christian “cult”, or perhaps “society” would be a better term. Lovely people, in the main, not captives, but happy to arrange their lives loosely around the teachings and guidance of a single charismatic individual. There’s no doubt in my mind that they defer to a collective group mentality to some degree, but that each individual also gains considerable strength from doing so in many aspects of their lives. That said, I have spent years suppressing genuine panic around these good folks (whom I can’t avoid for family reasons). A simple offer of a cup of tea can sometimes seem to me to have a Group subtext. The sad thing about being a member of the awkward squad, suspicious of belonging and collective identities (as I tend to be), is that the awkward squad is not necessarily a “squad” at all. It can be rather lonely. No one ever sets up a club for ambivalent outsiders!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Jonathan on June 18, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating post Himadri. ‘Identity politics’ is one of those terms that I hear often but never really know what it refers to, but as you mentioned it certainly comes across as anti-individualistic. The term has become common at the same time that we have got used to different ‘communities’ all being led by ‘community leaders’, this is usually used with reference to different religious groups who somehow seem to speak up for specific ratial and ethnic groups. I always wonder how these community leaders got to their positions. And who is my community leader? What communities do I belong to?

    But it does seem oppressive to assume that a person’s race, religion, gender etc.is the dominant way to define them and it’s not a way that I think many people would define themselves, by which, I mean these characteristics may form a part of an individual’s identity but there may be so many other more important (for the individual) characteristics that make up a person’s identity – such as favourite hobbies, pastimes, family, career choices, intellectual pursuits….

    I found your ‘Bollywood’ anecdote rather amusing as I’ve witnessed similar events myself. It wasn’t the initial assumption that you liked Bollywood because you’re Indian that was strange, as I also readily make similar incorrect assumptions about people I don’t know, but it was the fact that it was your fault for not fitting in with her preconceptions and that it was down to you to change your ways rather than for her to change her thinking.

    Although you were being pressured into identifying with others of a similar ethnic background, I, as a white British male, often feel pressured into not identifying with aspects of Britishness which must be because being white and British identifies me as being the ‘oppressor’. However, I can get round this by claiming to be working-class which then allows me to take on an ‘oppressed identity’. It is all quite absurd.

    Reply

    • Indeed – there really is no end to this absurdity, is there? I gather that I am part of some vague ethnic community. A community of the Indian diaspora, perhaps, or of the Bengali. Or maybe a Hindu community. I don’t feel myself as belonging to any such community – I don’t even identify as Hindu – and if there are community leaders, all I an say is I haven’t any idea who they are, or why they should presume to lead me given that I have never voted for them. I can assure you that you aren’t the only one who feels alienated by the talk of “communities”!

      Reply

  6. I don’t understand why, Himadri, you insist on calling such a post as that above a rant when the whole of the thing is so pleasant and so very carefully thought out and includes not one single blushing, toe-curling epithet. It’s a very beautiful piece of writing and I very much agree with it. I might also add that I thought the posts you have received quite good as well, but Jane’s particularly appealed to me. I like the way she reduced the trigger warnings to a tempest in a teapot which I quite agree they are.

    I did want to comment on a couple of things. I think you have come close to identity politics, but those who practice it would, I am sure, demur, as you left out the real motivation which comes out of critical theory. Critical theory is what became of Marxism when Marxists in the thirties began to realize that the Soviet Union was a failure. They began to doubt the efficacy of a purely political solution. Instead they decided that the real role for Marxism was that of the societal or cultural critic. Accepting Marx as such a critic they wanted to continue his criticism of oppression and the oppressors. If they could clarify for society how wrong the oppressor was, and we’re able to particularize the acts of oppression so they might more easily be seen, then society would quite naturally turn away from the oppressors and denounce their acts of oppression.

    Now before I go on, I would like to say that this movement has produced much good. I do intend to point out where I think it has failed, but it would be absurd to not recognize the good that has come from a better understanding of societal oppression, or to think that oppression was not defined by critical theorist as being in opposition to individuality and full individual freedom. And it would also be wrong to think that they were opposed to individual freedom.

    The problem with critical theory was largely its belief that criticism alone was sufficient. It had not fully ruled out political action, but it tended to keep such action linked to criticism and not to political advancement, at least not to the attainment of a communist state which the critical theorists were actually opposed to as an unworkable solution. They, also, believed that to participate in an oppressive system would only make one an oppressor oneself — as a result they formed a community of journalists, academics, and professional political activists.

    But their acts of criticism often brought with them demands — and what had been a movement opposed to society’s imposition of moral rules became itself, unknowingly, a creator of a moral system — the system we now call political correctness. I think what we are dealing with here is that those engaged in critical theory and identity politics simply do not realize that they have placed themselves in the role of moral authority for modern culture. And most would wince at the very notion of either morality or authority.

    But there is another error they make. I see that same error in some of what is written here. It is an error we all make, an error of modern liberal society, and, surprisingly common to both left and right. It is the desire for a fully realized individual freedom.

    Now before you react to that let me explain. Individual freedom is not a product of individuality — in other words we cannot create our own individual freedom. We can only have individual freedom within a society. Being outside of society individual freedom is meaningless. Once we have language, our single greatest cultural inheritance, there is no going back. We are, from that point on, members of society.

    In essence what I am saying here is tha Hobbes and Locke worked off of a false anthropology. Imagine if you would a chimpanzee troop, alpha male, the females with their young, the single bachelors. This is a portrait of early human tribes. If you lived separate from this, you were an outcast, and would die alone. Humans were always, from the beginning members of a society. No one, at any point made a social contract giving up his or her individual freedoms in order to gain the benefits of society. To the contrary, individual rights were given to the individual by society. Our human history is one of learning how to balance individual rights with social responsibilities, but both qualities flow from society, not from the individual.

    The critical theorist believes herself to stand outside of culture, outside of society, unaware that there is no such thing. No one, save those suffering from significant aphasia which must include the loss of language, stands outside of society; society is not a physical thing, but a mental thing. If you have language you have society.

    So I like to ask the question should our goal be individual freedom or membership in society? Knowing that we cannot have one without the other, this is, of course, a false dichotomy.

    So we now see the two larger errors critical theory has made: it has pretended to exist outside of culture. (If you are like me you know many people who make the same error.) And it has failed to realize the importance of a balanced goal of individual freedom and membership in society. The second is the harder one. We would be fools to think anyone has solved this.

    But the larger point is that being a member of a group is not a bad but a good thing. The group itself might be bad and have bad values that we probably should want to correct, but membership in groups is necessary and far from being a counter to individuality, it is the only way to achieve individuality. In other words, our desire not to be subject to political correctness is just as bad as the political correctness itself, if we eschew it as a danger to individuality, rather than as a moral system that needs significant adjustment.

    There you go, Himadri, that’s what a rant looks like.

    Reply

  7. Thank you, everyone, for your very thoughtful responses: please do keep them coming.

    And please excuse me if I don’t reply to you right away. I most certainly will respond, though, as these issues are very close to my heart.

    I agree with Janet (and with Mark) that the “triggering” is not in itself a very big deal, but I do think it is symptomatic of a wider malaise, and, lazy writer that I am, it proved for me a convenient way in to discussing the wider issue of identity politics. Perhaps I should have tried a different approach to the subject.

    Reply

    • Posted by Janet Long on June 19, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Lazy!?

      I’m not going to ponder on that assertion–it’s too mind boggling.

      Hamadri, what do you see as a “wider malaise”? My initial reaction to trigger warnings was alarm, but then, these are students. Some are still learning to manage their time and study habits, some have massive reading workloads, some are non-literature majors for whom literature classes are a low-level priority. Quickie warnings can be helpful. I see no harm helping people navigate disruptive encounters–though I see a lot of harm in engineering a world in which no one takes risks. Ideas, of course, are the riskiest things there are–is that the malaise you are concerned about? That people are becoming so coddled and comfy that thinking about stuff that doesn’t plug in or taste good is simply too hard and inconvenient and uncomfortable?

      I worked for a reference publisher for many years, and we had a line of annual literary reviews. When I started in the early 90’s the reviews were thoughtful and well written (mostly by profs). Over the years they became more simplistic, opinionated and slapdash–upscale versions of junior high school book reports. Eventually, we went back to annuals from the 70’s and 80’s to post online, and yikes! They were intimidating. So erudite and insightful and beautifully crafted–these contributors had deep knowledge of their field and brought it all to bear. My colleague and I sat there depressed and dumbfounded for a while. Have people forgotten how to be that brilliant? I thought everyone had gotten dumber and we were all doomed.

      But now I’m not so sure. For one thing, I read a lot of books by dead people, many of them really, really dead. And I keep coming across my world in theirs. Apparently, people have been getting dumber (and more politically corrupt and more immoral, also more skeptical and more rude) since the dawn of time, so unless our earliest ancestors were geniuses, we seem to be at worst treading water. So why the decline in the annuals? It may be because we never raised our contributor rate. It was never very high but became ridiculous toward the end. Why didn’t we raise it and go after talent? Well, because publishing is expensive and people didn’t want to pay for it–that’s the short answer. The annuals were still selling–people wanted them (at a “reasonable” cost)–which, perhaps goes to show that no one noticed the decline. Is that the malaise you’re talking about?

      Here’s the thing. As I understand it, trigger warnings were a student-driven idea. An idea. A way to mitigate a particular kind of human suffering with what seemed like a simple, easily implemented plan. If it turns out it sucks, it’ll just go away because a new round of students will come up and say “The chilling effect of trigger warnings suck. Lets discuss this over coffee (cough) and create a movement to effect a change.” That may be the left-wing liberal establishment trying to micromanage everybody’s lives, but so what? If a Group comes rolling along like the Blob through the streets of your home town, you don’t have to read the trigger warnings, you don’t have to take classes in black studies, you don’t have to stop whistling at women, you don’t have to do or agree with anything, including meeting anyone else’s expectations of how you should behave. Groups are powerful not necessarily because you have to fall in line, but because you feel like you have to fall in line. People often get weirdly disoriented and defensive if they get within the gravitational pull of a Group, even when the Group is not intentionally operating on them.

      On the other hand, there is a difference between being badgered about your taste in films and being told that an occupying military force is necessary because you are too childlike to run your own country. There is a difference in being smacked down for unintentionally treading on the tetchy sensibilities of an insulted feminist and being told that you can’t own property or vote because you’re not made to carry such burdens. Some Groups are more oppressive than others, simply because they are willing to use force to ensure compliance. Oppressive Groups are harmful because they limit individual freedom, in particular freedom of ideas. So as long as ideas, even offensive ones, are being batted around in the open air, I figure we are still at least a week away from doomsday.

      Identity politics can be stifling and even controlling, but that’s because it’s coming out of overstimulated human heads. Academia is a crazy greenhouse where ideas grow rampant and compete for sunlight. The dogs of dogma howl and write impassioned treatises about stuff that seems to make a lot of sense at the time. The kids go in, the kids come out. All those ideas mature or drop away. In the meantime, many of the worst and most oppressive Group practices are no longer generally acceptable. If we are dumber about some things, I think we are also smarter about others. Isn’t there something ever so intriguing about an American professor named Kumar calling ex-Muslims with right-wing leanings “McCarthyites”? Putting this particular twist on The Crucible may be a bad idea, or a half-baked idea, but it’s an idea and as long as it calls for an answer and not a massacre, the discussion itself may eventually bear fruit. Good ideas have to start somewhere.

      Reply

      • Janet, the “wider malaise” I was referring to is identity politics itself, which, in the form that I have described it, seems to me particularly diminishing and harmful in all sorts of ways. I do not want to write about its social and political implications, although I do find these aspects deeply concerning: I would like to keep my focus on the effects of identity politics on the cultivation of literature. My contention is that identity politics are inimical to the cultivation of literature, and this is something that troubles me deeply.

        It is very late right now as I write this, and I am not around all day tomorrow, but I shall try to respond to you (and to others) on Sunday, as this is a topic that is rather close to my heart, and is something I feel rather strongly about.

      • Posted by alan on June 20, 2015 at 8:23 pm

        I guess people have seen contemporary writing, throughout history, as ‘dumber’ than the past, because they don’t acknowledge the effect of the filter of history, the inevitable natural selection and discarding of prior work – the most excellent writing has probably survived and most of the junk has probably been discarded.
        However, in the case of your annuals, if a linear series through time in which nothing has been discarded, it is reasonable to conclude that the contributions have got ‘dumber’.

      • Once again I find myself very much agreeing with Janet. Political correctness is an unfortunate necessity. I think it’s greatest problem comes from not understanding itself. As I’ve said, political correctness is a form of moral authority and regulation, but it is not understood that way by those who promote it (although never under the guise of political correctness, of course).

        I also tend to agree that this is a set of actions coming from students and other ill-trained novices. And when it comes to producing moral systems all of us are novices to some extent.

        I still think the challenge is how to balance communal responsibilities and individual freedom. Oppressive groups, being those who too greatly oppress individual ideas, or too frequently assert dogmatic positions are indeed one danger. But so too are individuals so intent on pressing their own ideas on the world around them that they take it upon themselves to shoot up an old church in South Carolina.

        I don’t mean to be crude with that reference, but ideas are not really an end in themselves. It is not that we must find a way to enable all ideas. It’s not about maximizing any one thing.

        We must ensure that no individual ideas are blocked: No, we don’t need to do that; losing a few ideas because the culture has no way to perfectly maximize the flow of ideas will not hurt us.

        We must ensure that everyone has the absolute of individual freedom: No, because often times that absolute leaves us bereft of those who will perform the absolute of community responsibility — need we talk global warming.

        We must ensure that lives are maximized in length — even at the expense of pain and suffering at the end of life.

        We could look at other aspects of life, maximal aesthetic experience, or happiness, or group acceptance, or health and well-being, etc. But maximal is never the right answer for any of these. Aristotle taught us that. He told us that every virtue was best at its median point, the golden mean between too much and too little. Our age with its almost hysterical desire for some form of absolute individual freedom hasn’t the slightest idea what he was talking about.

  8. I think that what most irritates me about “Identity Politics”, and the labelling of people as “native informants” (or, as someone remarked, “race traitors”) is that, more often than not, the people doing the labelling are the left-wing PC white liberal establishment, who are labelling people of some “oppressed” group for not conforming to the aforementioned establishments idea of what members of the “oppressed” group ought to be. They insist that these “oppressed” groups have the right of Self Determination yet they are the first to lash out when the “oppressed” seek to define themselves in a way not approved by the “Establishment”. This kind of hypocrisy, in fact, does more than irritate me. It infuriates me. Any post I might write on the subject would definitely be a full-blown rant 🙂

    BTW – I remember “Bombay Dreams”. I enjoyed it. The most enjoyable spectacle!

    Reply

    • Hello Shimona, I agree with you fully. (Except for you comment on Bombay Dreams – naturally! 🙂 ) i can assure you that a great many of us within minority groups are every bit as irritated as you are by all these shenanigans about “identity politics”. I have just spent an inordinately long time writing the most intemperate rant i have written yet on this blog on this very matter (see below).

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  9. Hi Himadri,

    By coincidence I recently read “Literature Lost, Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities” by John M. Ellis, a book first published in 1997. Ellis is a professor of German Literature in the U.S. and, I suppose, a cultural conservative. He is characterised as right-wing and reactionary by his detractors (the race, gender, class critics he excoriates, whom I assume are the same as the Identity Politicians you refer to), but I found his arguments persuasive, and expressed with extreme clarity. In fact the clarity of his thinking is enjoyable in itself. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his portrait of American University campuses, having no experience of them, but the general points he makes about the traditional value of literature as itself an experience of diversity seemed to me compelling.

    Best,
    Chris

    Reply

    • Thanks, Chris, for that recommendation. While I am, economically, on the Left, I suppose, I think I am culturally quite conservative as well, and, as is perhaps obvious in this blog, value greatly the diversity embodied in traditional values of literature. I’d be very keen to follow up this reference.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  10. Posted by alan on June 20, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks for that piece, I think I have a faint inkling of how much it means to you, given that you were an immigrant at a time when there were not many immigrants, but I am going to give a very dull response.
    When I was younger, ‘identity’ meant something that was immutable, unchanging. Perhaps, apart from in its facile logical and mathematical usage, it was informed by religion: if you had an immortal soul then you necessarily had an identity.
    Again, when I was younger, I viewed group identity with a sense of horror, the product of totalitarian thinking and the subject of the dystopian novels that I read.
    Since then individual ‘identity’ has become both a more fluid and less immutable concept, where people can choose an ‘identity’. On the other hand group ‘identity’ has become something more immutable, but also celebrated, unless it is the identity of a presumed to be dominant group, and then it is to be viewed with suspicion.
    Not being an intellectual, and not having the working vocabulary of critical theory, I suspect that the group ‘identity’ has in some part just replaced the Marxist language of Class. So, to the group identity theorists, you are, in effect, a Class Traitor.
    Philosophically I find this all rather boring. Philosophically I’m much more interested in what individual ‘identity’ means if I don’t have an immortal soul. Does my ‘identity’ in fact just mean the lump of mobile flesh that remembers certain things badly, gets to own certain things, get jailed or fined for certain actions, is allowed to take money from a certain bank account and sometimes gets bought a beer by people who still recognise me each week? I’d rather spend time on this, but feel forced by current politics to engage with the latest incarnation of class warfare where parts of the left have (amazingly to someone increasingly fossilised like me) started to celebrate, or at least aplologise for, religious patriarchy, if that religious patriarchy is perceived to be part of a non-dominant or opressed group ‘identity’.
    Something else that seem to have changed since I was young: Universities seemed to be places that encouraged creativity and critical thinking, but now they seem like places that encourage the most ant-like conformity.

    Reply

    • Posted by Janet Long on June 20, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      Alan, I think the can of worms is right there where you wrote: “I’d rather spend time on [this other thing], but feel forced by current politics to engage with the latest incarnation of class warfare where parts of the left have (amazingly to someone increasingly fossilised like me) started to celebrate, or at least aplologise for, religious patriarchy, if that religious patriarchy is perceived to be part of a non-dominant or opressed group ‘identity’.”

      What is this compulsion to engage in this stuff?

      The Left engages because it is an interesting question: Should people from one culture be forced to adopt the virtuous principles of the dominant culture? It’s easy to say some humanitarian ideals are immutable and the West has the upper hand when it comes to justice and human dignity. How can you not get behind girls wanting to go to school? But the Left, being the Left, plays devil’s advocate to itself (as it did when it defended the rights of Nazis wanting to march through Skokie). Point: The West used the same we-know-best argument to “save” the heathen inhabitants of the Americas and Oceania, not to mention the favor of carrying out the White Man’s burden in Africa and lending a helping hand in Vietnam. So. In a triple back somersault of logic, outward bound movement of any kind may be seen to undermine the cultural wholeness of non-dominant Groups, which for some reason must be the fault of the dominant Group, because, well, it controls everything.

      Consider hot and cold running water. Who doesn’t want it? I wouldn’t want to do without it. But if you have an indigenous tribe deep in the Amazon, nearly unspoiled by Civilization, do you tell them they can’t have hot water or send their kids to school or read Shakespeare because it will ruin them for posterity? Do you keep the knowledge of hot water from them so they never know what they are missing? If they find out about hot water and say, yeah, I want that, hook me up, is that Seduction by Civilization–because it will change things forever for these people. No matter which way it goes, the “dominant” Group has the greater power. Either it paternalistically denies access to its resources, or it absorbs the less powerful Group with waterlines and sanitation and books.

      Personally, I think there is a bright, broad line between conquest by coercion and assimilation by contact, but I appreciate that somebody out there is parsing obsessively through the finer points. I don’t think it’s a bad exercise to wonder whether Shakespeare is considered a great universal writer only because his culture has crept across the earth, subjecting and recontextualizing everything in its path.

      I wont go further than that, because I’ve gone on too long already again, and I’m eagerly waiting to read what Hamradi has to say.

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on June 21, 2015 at 6:10 am

        I have a problem with the categories being used. Who draws the boundaries around groups or cultures? Who decides if someone is allowed to leave a group and join another one?
        When we talk about individual human beings, the idea of personal autonomy or independence may be a fiction, but it is a practical fiction: I can easily identify individual people walking around and see what they have done or have had done to them.
        If we subsume ourselves into groups, it may be more intellectually valid in some way, but it produces enormous practical difficulties: responsibility for actions becomes smeared out and the Nuremburg excuse becomes valid. Do we then begin to believe that it is OK to punish groups rather than individuals?
        As to Shakespeare, which brings the discussion back to something that the author of this blog is interested in: the advantage of drama is that it can arguably be interpreted and played in many more variations that a novel can. I think that part of Shakespeare’s success is due to the difficulty of hearing an authorial voice in his work. Himadri once threatened to produce a piece on Shakespeare’s authorial voice, but I don’t recall it appearing, this might be a good opportunity to remind him of it.

    • Posted by Mark on June 21, 2015 at 10:55 am

      I agree with Alan – the Left has lost its way, especially in relation to religious identity. I also agree that the more interesting questions relating to identity pertain to the individual. As someone who is sceptical about the existence of free will and is drawn – albeit critically – to pessimist thought, I have often found myself thinking about the possibility that almost every notion I entertain about myself is a delusion – and that the same applies to others. The philosophical implications of this are enormous and far more engaging to me than questions of group politics and identity. And on a more mundane, day-to-day level, I’d rather find out who someone is without having to navigate through a group gateway.

      Reply

      • In Ralph Ellison’s wonderful novel “Invisible Man”, the unnamed narrator, a black man, refers to himself as “invisible” because people don’t really see him, they see merely his colour. It was written about 60 years ago, and, if anything, things have become even worse in this respect since the publication if this book. And, as Ellison presciently depicted, all this is in the name, supposedly, of liberalism!

  11. First of all, thanks everyone for your contributions: they really are much valued. As Janet and Mark D (I’ll refer to Mark Dietz as such to avoid confusion with the other Mark) have said, these are issues that are open to discussion, and we should discuss them. And I trust that we have been doing just that – discussing. But before I go on to address some of the points that have been made, I’d like to make two preliminary points myself. The first is that although I would, as I said earlier, like to limit the scope of this discussion to identity politics only insofar as it affects literature, it is not possible to ignore political and social aspects of it: so, inevitably, I have to address some of these aspects. Secondly, I would like to request your forbearance should I at any time appear intemperate: I was, as a child, an immigrant in UK at a time when there weren’t too many immigrants here, and I have grown up very much at the receiving end of overt racism (racial abuse was an everyday thing, and something I had simply to learn to live with); and, having also experienced what identity politics means in practice, I have found it to be just as ugly in its own way as is racism. As a consequence, I find it hard always to remain dispassionate in discussing these matters: they touch me too closely for that.

    Firstly, I fully accept fully that I am inevitably a part of a wider society, that I cannot – and nor would I want to – disengage my individual self from that wider society. I also agree, as Janet says, that the need for society is innate rather than acquired: even my setting up this blog was motivated by my desire to find a society of like-minded enthusiasts of the various things that I am enthusiastic about. But to be part of a wider society raises the question: which society? This becomes a particularly pressing question as, in the modern world, peoples from various different backgrounds and cultures find themselves living physically next to each other on a scale that is unprecedented.

    I would contend that there is not a single feature that contributes to any individual’s identity that does not link that individual to some wider group. An individual’s identity is unique not because it consists of unique features, but because it occupies a unique intersection of a variety of different group identities. Speaking for myself (and I will speak for myself not because I am solipsistic, but because I am the person I know best), I have a wide variety of different identities, to each of which I assign a different weighting: my identity as a married man and father is vitally important to me; my identity as a keen lover of whisky, though still part of what I am, is far less important; and my identity as a wearer of Size 8 shoes is not important at all (except when I buy shoes, obviously). In other words, I get to choose which aspects of my identity are important, and which aren’t. Each of these aspects of my identity relates me to a group: as a married man and father, I am part of a wider society of married men and fathers; as a whisky drinker, I belong to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society; even as a wearer of Size 8 shoes, I belong to a group of other Size 8 shoe-wearers … each of these identities places me in a group with other fellow human beings. But who gets to choose what these different aspects of my identity should be? And who gets to choose the relative importance of these different aspects of my identity in determining my overall identity? For if these choices are down to people other than myself, then I regard that as an intolerable limitation of my individual free will. And I repeat once again, I do not wish to be outside society: that would be impossible even if I were to want it. I want the freedom to choose which societies to align myself with; and to deny me this freedom is to me as great an oppression as the racist abuse I have had to put up with as I was growing up. To me, the question “Should my identity be determined by people other than myself?” is no more up for debate than the question “Should I have to put up with racist abuse?”

    Given my characterisation of identity politics in my post above, what proponents of identity politics seem to demand is that people’s identities be viewed, and that people view their own identities, in terms of the immutable features that they had been born with – race, gender, religious background of the family, sexuality, and so on. What they appear not to consider is that individuals may acquire other features that may also define their identity – tastes and preferences, cultural interests, lifestyles, and so on; and that they may choose to see these acquired aspects as more important than the immutable features that they had been born with. Now, I was born with a brown skin, but I choose not to see that as a defining aspect of my identity: this is not because, as some may think, I am ashamed of my colour, but because I do not see that my colour defines me as a person, any more than say, my shoe-size does. My choosing to be a married man and a father; my love of Shakespeare and of Mozart; my supporting the Scotland football team; etc. etc. all say far more about what kind of person I am than my colour does. And each of these other identities that I have chosen for myself links me to many other fellow human beings: recognition of our interlocking identities, so many of them acquired of our own free will, broadens our range of human sympathies, and the range of those fellow-humans with whom we feel kinship. Focussing only on those aspects with which we are born with has quite the opposite effect.

    I am, in short, not proposing that an individual is entitled to identities that are outside the acceptable limits of society: I am proposing that an individual has the right to choose from within the immense range that society offers, and that this is a healthy thing, both for the individual, and for society. And I am saying further that to deny an individual this choice is a form of tyranny.

    I had started my post above with a fairly innocuous example of someone deciding on my behalf what my identity should be: the instance of the lady insisting that I had to like Bollywood music was, even then, more amusing than offensive. To avoid appearing self-pitying, I had withheld examples that were downright nasty and vicious. But let me offer a single example of this. Recently, I had blocked a couple of comments (for reasons I need not go into here) from a commenter on this blog, and, soon after, I received an e-mail from this person containing the following:

    I spent more than a year in Britain studying a technical subject in a British University. I had the opportunity to know people like you – the victims of diaspora. I feel very sorry for you. You may go on taking dips in the Thames but you won’t be able to change the colour of your skin.

    There, ladies and gentlemen, is the authentic face of identity politics. This is the sort of thing you get when people believe that your identity has been pre-determined for you, and any individual choice you may make to the contrary marks you as a “native informer”, or a “race traitor”, or some such. Not pretty, is it?

    (In case anyone is wondering why I am quoting from a private e-mail, my correspondent also posted the entire contents of that mail as a comment on my blog. Since it reflects on him more than it does on me, I have not deleted it: you may see it among the later comments at the end of this post.)

    For Professor Kumar to describe ex-Muslims as “native informants” is more than merely engaging in legitimate debate and discussion. I am not denying her right to say what she did; but just as she is free to say these things, so am I free to express my revulsion at what she has said. (She claimed later that she was referring to only “right-wing” ex-Muslims, as if this made her position any better: my own politics are to the left, but are people of Muslim background really not entitled to espouse politics of the right if that is what they genuinely believe?) Now, even now, apostasy from the Muslim religion is in many countries a capital crime. And even in other countries where it’s not a capital crime, and even in pockets of the diaspora in the West, exercising one’s freedom of thought on these matters can be beset with serious consequences – social ostracism, abuse, and even more extreme, murderous violence. In this context, what can we say about Professor Kumar’s stance? That it is no more than legitimate intellectual enquiry? Really? I would like to describe exactly what I feel about it, but I doubt I would be able to do so in a sufficiently dispassionate manner, so let us move on.

    It’s easy to say that those holding to these values of “identity politics” are just “kids”, or that ’twas ever thus. I cannot hold with either. Now, even as I write, “kids” from Britain, from across Europe, across the world, are leaving home and joining up with barbaric death-cults because they have a grotesquely twisted vision of their identity: it is because “kids” are so powerfully affected by the issue of identity that we need to be so careful about how we present it to them. Now, you may say that this is but an extreme manifestation of identity politics, and you’d be right, but not only are these extreme manifestations sufficiently numerous to cause grave concern, its less extreme manifestations are also pretty nasty. In societies where, increasingly, people from different cultural backgrounds are living cheek by jowl, it is unhealthy, both for the individual and for society, to view identity as pre-determined and immutable: for the individual, it offers little prospect if any for individual growth and development; for society, it creates merely cultural ghettoes, with neighbouring ghettoes unable to interact positively with each other.

    And are university students really “kids”, or, as Mark D describes them, “ill-trained novices”? I thought they were representatives of the intellectual elite of the emerging generation. And yet, here we have the UK National Union of Students refusing even to condemn ISIS because such a condemnation, they think (if “think” is indeed the word I’m looking for here), would be “Islamophobic”. In what way is this acceptable, even from “kids”? In what parallel world is this merely an instance of “kids” who will some day grow out of their immaturity? We are not talking here about abstract ideas being debated as an intellectual exercise: we are talking about adherence, on the basis of grotesque views of identity, to ideologies that oppress, mutilate, enslave, and kill. We are talking about someone who still, I believe, describes herself as a “feminist”, justifying the most horrific mutilation of the genitalia of young girls, because that is their “identity”, don’t you know.

    (I could easily write a much longer post here filled with references to comfortable Western commentators who would describe themselves as “liberal” justifying the vilest cruelties and outrages perpetrated by people of other cultures because, well, that is their “cultural identity”, and who are we to judge, and so on and so forth. But this comment is long enough as it is, and I will leave that exercise to interested readers.)

    As for the argument that “’twas ever thus”: no, it wasn’t. I was a student in the late 70s and early 80s, and I have some awareness of what student politics was then, and no, ‘twas not ever thus. It was by no means perfect then, but ‘twas not “thus”. I have been involved in anti-racist campaigns: in my day, we campaigned against segregation – we wouldn’t even have thought of organising events solely for black and coloured women, with any male or anyone of a white skin instructed not to attend. Neither would we have held to the ridiculous argument that members of ethnic minorities cannot by definition be racist. ‘Twas definitely not thus.

    Once again, I could write a much longer post filled with references to various idiocies of today that were not “ever thus”. We did not have authors who had taken on responsibility for encouraging children to read warning us that black children would be put off reading if they didn’t encounter characters of their own ethnic background. We did not have teachers telling us that there’s little point teaching Shakespeare as children who are not white will not be able to relate to his works. We did not have research fellows at prestigious Western universities characterising Shakespeare’s plays as tools of colonial oppression. It would be tedious to wade through more instances of this: there are many others – once again, the interested reader won’t find much difficulty in finding them. Each one may appear pretty minor in itself, but the cumulative effect is substantial.

    Of course, this may well be, as Janet says, a question worth asking:

    I don’t think it’s a bad exercise to wonder whether Shakespeare is considered a great universal writer only because his culture has crept across the earth, subjecting and recontextualizing everything in its path.

    I’d say in answer that Shakespearean culture hasn’t “crept” across the earth – it has marched triumphantly. And as for “recontextualising” – all literature “recontextualises”, insofar as different times and different cultures will find different ways of looking at great literature. But if we are to ask ourselves “Is Shakespeare’s reputation due to its being forced on other cultures as a tool of colonial oppression?” than that is a question that may safely be filed under “Questions to which the answer is NO”. Even during the bitterest years of the Indian independence struggle, no-one referred to Shakespeare in such terms; not a single voice, was raised against Shakespeare: even those who fought for independence, and suffered terribly in the course of that struggle, respected Shakespeare; even those who were best placed to feel this alleged cultural oppression most conspicuously did not feel it. After Independence, when streets and places were being renamed so as to remove the names of colonial administrators, one major street in Calcutta was changed to honour a Westerner : Theatre Street was renamed Shakespeare Sarani. The story of the Complete Works of Shakespeare in Robben Island prison during the days of apartheid is too famous to be repeated here. And this Shakespeare was a tool of colonial oppression? Really? Fair enough – the question is worth considering, but now that it has been considered and the answer is “no”, let us move on. Let us not try to set up an entire school of studies predicated upon the absurd notion, entirely without empirical foundation, that the answer to this question is “yes”.

    Of course, some may nonetheless insist that Shakespeare really was a tool of colonial oppression, and that I am “native informant” or “race traitor” or whatever for having chosen, of my own free will, to place my reverence for Shakespeare as a key aspect of my personal identity. I doubt I have sufficient common ground with people who would say this kind of thing to engage with them in any meaningful discussion: I find the very suggestion deeply and personally insulting.

    Mark D refers to the recent shootings in the church in Charleston, and refers to the perpetrator of this atrocity – whose name I choose not to remember – as someone acting on the basis of an individual perception of his own identity. Quite the contrary, I’d say: he may have been acting on his own, but in seeing himself as, first and foremost, white, and allowing that innate identity to override all others he may have acquired that may have connected him with more of his fellow human beings, indicate that his depravity was very much consistent with the principles of identity politics. For his identity, as he saw it, was determined by his birth, and was fixed: he was, first and foremost, white, and no subsequent acquired identity could override in his mind this basic immutable fact. This is indeed an extreme manifestation of identity politics, but there is no doubt that it is identity politics – again, as I have characterised it – that is at the base of this monstrosity.

    Now that have written nearly 3000 words, I see that I haven’t even touched on identity politics as it relates to literature. Perhaps that is for the best: I have little to add to what I had said in my initial post – that identity politics is utterly inimical to the cultivation of literary culture. I stand by that.

    Reply

    • Well, I’ve not done very well with what I’ve written here. I actually thought Janet was referring to me as a latter-day Margaret Mead — what a delightful comparison, but I assume she was referring to the fellow who told you you could not wash away the brown. I am very afraid I may end up telling you the same, although certainly not with so blustery and impertinent an intention.

      So first let me, if I may, throw away what I have said before, particularly the very bad reference to the South Carolina racist, — as you say, less said about him the better, — and I would like to start again if I may.

      I want to look at identity, as you have, and ask what it is — and most particularly to ask the question you ask: who determines my identity?

      Well, let’s begin with your position: I think all of us would like to be able to make such determinations for ourselves: that is to say we would like to determine our own identity, and surely nothing is more sincerely an expression of individual freedom, than the freedom to determine one’s own identity.

      Now I’m going to throw out a rather unpleasant caveat to begin with. It’s strictly a matter of logic, but what I do not know about myself, I am not very likely to be able to make decisions on. This includes small habits of speech, dress, gestures, the use of certain words, how often we smile, how we smile (lips open/lips closed), how erect we stand, when we make eye contact, when we don’t make eye contact, what thoughts occur to us under certain conditions, and on and on.

      So here is the problem: I suppose I can choose to be identified by my size 10 1/2 shoes (size 8 — what tiny feet you got), but can I choose to be identified by the habit I have of avoiding stepping on lines as I walk, or even choose not to be identified by that. Can I really direct people to those things I want to be identified by?

      Well, to some extent — yes. Had you said nothing of it I would have known the pride you take in your whiskey. You post on it every so often, — and you like to talk about whiskey. Would you have known I don’t drink at all? Nothing. I don’t know if I ever said anything to you about that, — and, although, it has been a sizable part of my identity, I seldom speak of it, unless the situation demands — not as likely to come up in a virtual relationship like ours. [For those who don’t know, Himadri and I have known each other for twenty-some years now, although we’ve never met in person.].

      On the other hand I know you would see me as an artist, because I make a big deal out of it and am very proud of my drawing skills. I know that part of your sense of identity comes from your love of music and your pride in your son’s musical skills.

      As we get to know others our sense of their identity becomes more complex; superficial qualities by which we may at first have sensed identity fall away, and new, more subtle qualities come to the fore. One of the delights of reading novels lies in the degree to which an author can circumvent the superficial with the greater depth of identity characteristics, even to the point of the creating identities that approach to uniqueness. I just finished reading a pulpish novel (a science fiction classic I know you would go no where near: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Triology). Not a single character that moves much beyond cardboard, but it was fun to read. If I want a character approaching to an extraordinary uniqueness — well, one could hardly find better than the heroine of James’ Portrait of a Lady.

      There I got us to literature, but I don’t think you are going to be happy with the conclusion I draw. Did you notice that I shifted the process? I began with how an individual tries to determine their own identity and how it should be read. I undermined that with the realization that we cannot control that part of our identity to which we our blind. Then I shifted us completely away from the rhetorical gesture, “Look, this is who I am!” — to the reader’s act, the hermeneutical act of — who we are is how we are read by others. That is the literary connection; identity is a text, both authored and read, — and the author has minimal control over the reader.

      Is our identity what we choose to say it is? Or is it how others read us? Or is it some sort of bastard beast — an odd mixture of both?

      Damnable world we live in. It won’t even allow us to fully decide who we are, or even who we want to be. We can’t change it. We’re a walking text. People read us. We can make a few odd adjustments, change a few risible habits, but since we don’t even know the full text we carry around with us, we are forever at the mercy of the dubious misprision of unqualified readers. What can you do? Print a placard and wear it in your back — saying all those who wish to judge my identity, please read this first? (I suspect that’s why printed t-shirts are so popular.)

      But notice, I haven’t even gotten near the issues of race and religion and such. Identity is a complex thing. And those who practice identity politics (the novices I was referring to were not the students, but the faculty) have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into. Not a one can calibrate the complexity of identity at the level of Henry James, and yet that is the game they are playing.

      As much as all of us would wish it were true, we really don’t get to determine our own identity, let alone have the capacity to project an identity of our choice. Who makes the choice? Not the identity police, although they think that’s what they’re doing. Not all the advocates for this and advocates for that. Not the hegemony, which in no way exists at the caricature level the identity police believe in. Not anyone individual or recognizable group. Who makes these choices? We do. Unconsciously, carelessly, every day, when we think those thoughts that we assume our own, but which we share with the rest of the hoi poloi (because we are, all of us, even those who think themselves above it, a part of the common crowd).

      The best we can do is try to change what feels wrong, and stop fighting the unwinnable wars. Stop pretending that we are all self-made and accept as good that we will find an interesting and valuable part of ourselves in the people around us. Stop demanding a false isolated self and focus on balancing our personal sense of self with the reality of our communal identity.

      It’s a balancing act, as I said before.

      Reply

      • Hello Mark, and thanks for the response. Yes, of course, identity is a tremendously complex thing, and this is one of the reasons why Identity Politics is such a harmful thing: it simplifies the concept of human identity, and hence, reduces. But before we go on to consider the Jamesian intricacies of identity, let us first of all recap on the basic points of my post and my long comment above, for, basic though these points may be, they seem to me of vital importance:

        – Human identity is intricate, and Identity Politics, taking as it does a very reductive view of what is essentially complex, is harmful both at an individual and at a wider level.
        – We all have multiple features that determine our individual identities; some of these features are innate and some acquired, and our overall individual identity is an intersection of these.
        – We are entirely at liberty to decide for ourselves how important or otherwise we consider each of these features to be.
        – It is harmful, both to the individual and to society, to view either one’s own identity, or anyone else’s identity, as pre-determined and immutable.
        – Literature cannot be cultivated under the constraints of Identity Politics, as literature demands that we look beyond our own personal identities.

        If we are agreed on these points, we may continue to explore the greater intricacies. Indeed, sometimes I think that is the essence of the cultivation of literature – to look out from our own necessarily limited standpoint, and to explore human identities in all their messy and intricate glory.

        It is true that we are not in complete control of our identity. Some, as you say, we are simply not aware of. Others are indeed immutable. And, no matter how we may see ourselves, or present ourselves, if others misread us, or see us through the lens of their own preconceptions, there is little we can do about that. But this is not, of course, to say that we have no control over our identities. I could have chosen to see myself primarily as Indian; as a “person of colour”, as I believe the term is nowadays; as a Hindu; as an Indian Bengali; and so on. And I could have presented myself primarily in such terms. And I could have insisted that these particular features override everything else. If I had made these choices, I would have been a very different person from what I am now, and most people would, I think, have seen me differently.

        (And incidentally, I haven’t turned my back on Indian or on Bengali culture – or, more accurately, cultures, as these things are not monolithic. Indian cultures are far too rich and varied either to be accepted or rejected completely. As with everything else, I demand the right to pick and choose for myself which elements I would like to adopt, and which I would prefer to reject.)

        In one of the comments above, I referred to Ralph Ellison’s wonderful novel Invisible Man. It is a novel that is very much about the question of identity. The narrator is black, and is deliberately unnamed. He refers to himself as an “invisible man”, because when people see him, they see merely his colour: they do not see him. I think it touches on questions that are very important in our times. How should we see ourselves? How should we view others? Are we all to become invisible men and women, defined only by such things as colour? For I am afraid that is where we appear to be heading. It is a very dangerous path to tread, and my contention is that it must be resisted with the greatest of force. Indeed, not to resist Identity Politics is to allow an insultingly reductive view of our selves to sweep away all complexity and intricacy, and that would be the surest way to desert the middle ground.

      • Himadri, yes, I suppose I generally agree with your five points. As I’ve told you, I am increasingly unsure that the points I am making are worth trying to communicate. Or if I am even capable of doing so. It would appear I am not.

  12. Posted by Janet Long on June 21, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Hamadri, as to the commenter you quoted, well, I guess, everybody wants to be Margaret Mead. I do just want to be clear, though, that when I said I didn’t think it was a bad question (re: Shakespeare and colonialism) that I didn’t think there were any bad answers. Picking an idea up and turning it over and looking at it from all angles is a good thing–it’s what literature does–though the object is to arrive at a good answer. I don’t know how anyone can fairly look at the question without first arriving at some well informed conclusions about Shakespeare’s works. If you don’t understand what they are, how can you ask whether they spring from a particular subset of the human venn diagram or from the superset? It might get me into trouble in some quarters, but I kinda suspect some people don’t know what they’re talking about. My point in bringing up the decline in our literary annuals was that there are people who read and study literature and have not only degrees but also faculty affiliations who do not have the ability to explore the merits, meanings, context and so on of a literary work with anything like the clarity of your 3,000 word “rant.” They are able to judge for themselves whether Shakespeare appeals to them aesthetically–or not–and their tastes may be highly refined, but don’t ask them to go much beyond that. With such limited criteria, Shakespeare as a technician or a propagandist might rightly be assigned to some slice of English pie, but that would be narrow, or immature, thinking. I didn’t say misguided, though as far as I’m concerned it is, because I’m sanguine enough to hope that once begun, such ideas keep brewing beyond university, through babies and mortgages and whiskey and creaky knees, hopefully to jell into an understanding of meaningful truths.

    The “kids” are not children, no, but they are at a stage of brain development in which the world looks very different to them than it will a few years hence. They’re excited and expect apocalypse at any moment. It takes a certain enthusiasm combined with lack of life experience to think any girl should have a right to be sexually mutilated. “Other” is an abstraction they can grasp; “other people” is harder. They have enough difficulty navigating their own roommates, let alone people half a world away. That’s why people this age are more easily recruited for all kinds of things–even whacky stuff can make sense at the time when you don’t have the tools to turn even a bad argument on its head. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying or won’t get there.

    Now the tricky part. When a comfortable Western student rallies for cultural autonomy for groups that mutilate their own, they aren’t arguing for mutilation but for (as I understand it) the right of the group to work it out for themselves. For some people, this means throwing up a wall so that people can’t get out and must either resist or capitulate within their own borders (whatever they may be); for others, it means throwing up a wall so that people from the outside can’t go in (and interfere). The inclination to just move in and take over used to manifest as colonialism. Now that everyone’s agreed colonialism is bad, the problem is what to do that inclination, which has not gone away. The wall, or cultural chastity belt, is one way of dealing with it, although that is in itself a paternalistic approach. The alternative–a permeable membrane where people are present in multiple groups and able to move between them sounds like a pretty reasonable idea, but it sure freaks a lot of people out.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, and thank you for your response. Just a very quick couple of points: the person who was justifying Female Genital Mutilation is by no means a “kid”: she is Germaine Greer, veteran feminist writer and campaigner. The sort of thing I am objecting to is by no means limited to, or even I think correlated with, the young. However, this was my fault as I put up the link referring to Germaine Greer in the same paragraph as the one where I was discussing student politics.

      As for the “right of groups to work it out for themselves”, in the first place, this would become much easier if we were to encourage the idea of seeing ourselves as belonging to a variety of different groups, rather than predominantly to one pre-determined by race or gender or whatever. And in the second place, the reforming voices from within these groups tend to be sidelined by large sections of the Liberal Left as “unrepresentative”, or “inauthentic”, or even, as we have seen, “native informants”. On this matter, this article is well worth a read.

      As for being freaked out by belonging to multiple groups, I’d say we all belong to multiple groups already: this is already a fact. The point is to recognise it as a fact, and to recognise further that the identity bestowed on us by our birth – race, gender, religion, etc. – need not be seen as our primary identity, as we all have so many other to choose from, so many rewarding directions in which we may grow and develop.

      Your point on Shakespeare, by the way, and on the annuals, is well taken.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  13. This is a thoughtful post for a lot of reasons.

    I completely agree that much of what you refer to above are excesses. In particular the choosing of texts and entire teaching methods based upon so called “identity.” I commonly see of arguments for this type sort of thing. In fact I have come to know a few adherents of this.

    I myself have recently been saying something to the effect that this will lead us to intellectual and cultural bankruptcy. You said it so well above I have little more to add.

    With all that, I would just point out that there are a lot of moderate voices out there. As you allude to there are many who are just saying that lots of folks have experienced violence and abuse and that teachers should be conscious of this. There is also, what in my opinion is a moderate argument, that there is some room in our reading of the classics for the inclusion of a few more worthy but diverse writers.

    I have seen the other side of this, where these moderate voices are labeled as being “politically correct,” or divisive, or radical.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, it is an unfortunate feature of debate that its essentially confrontational nature tends to drive us into extreme positions. I regard myself as Liberal-Left, but I find it hard to disagree with Mark and Alan above that the Left has in many respects lost its way very badly. Identity Politics is something the Left has to rid itself of: the “excesses” you refer to are not marginal effects only seen at the extremes, but are very much present right in the mainstream. Only when unimpeded by the baggage of Identity Politics can the Left fight effectively for social justice. Otherwise, we end up with the grotesque sight of avowed feminists – mainstream figures, not some lunatics on the fringes – actually arguing in justification of Female Genital Mutilation, or refusing to stand up for basic women’s rights because the women in question are perceived to be from some other culture.

      I am all for examining and re-examining which texts we study in university, but the criteria of selection should have nothing to do with Identity Politics. That really has no place at all in the cultivation of literature.

      Reply

      • Posted by Janet Long on June 22, 2015 at 4:40 pm

        Oh, dear.

        I have a huge stack of work today and two deadlines. Isn’t there some study that says people make better decisions when they’re in a hurry? Briefly, I blithered away without first reading a couple of your links, Hamadri. 1) My Margaret Mead remark was made based on my impression that Mr. Biswas was not Indian. I still think he was being unnecessarily anthropological, but his comment certainly takes on a different shade of meaning. It seems to me he was both placing you in an out-group (people like you) and asserting ownership of you based on your common origins. While I have no problem smacking down a fellow WASP, I am reticent to reproach Mr. Biswas, regardless of what I may be willing to argue more generally. Every group carries its own baggage, and it isn’t for me to step in and start rearranging other people’s luggage. Which was Germaine Greer’s point, too. I’m fine with throwing women’s baggage around. It’s risky drawing conclusions from short pieces; if a person builds an argument that takes an hour or a book to articulate, distortion is inevitable in boiling it down to a single quote or a 140 word summary. The Whole Woman was published in 1999, and Greer’s point was not to equate traditional female circumcision with body piercing, nor to argue for the right of a patriarchal traditional culture to abuse its girls. That, of course, would be in direct contradiction of everything she ever wrote. Greer was actually opposed to female circumcision, and her remarks on the subject were read narrowly and misrepresented by some at the time. Hence, the old BBC piece that continues to find new life on the Internet.

  14. Hello Janet, I am afraid I don’t share your reticence in these matters: when people say things that I find unacceptable, it really matters little to me what background they come from.

    I am well acquainted with Indian-Bengali culture, having been born into it, and boorish and bumptious behaviour is frowned upon there also. If I prefer not to comment further on this particular sorry episode, it is only because I find it too inconsequential for further consideration: I have, perhaps, already given it more attention than it deserves. I can only say in my defence that I drew attention to it merely to give an example of how downright nasty Identity Politics can be in its attempts to enforce its own narrow vision on everyone else.

    As for Germaine Greer, I am afraid I have lost any respect I may once have had for her. I did not read her book The Whole Woman – I really don’t think I’d have the patience – but I have seen the offending passage, and I found it quite unacceptable. It may well be that I read this passages out of context, but I cannot think of any context within which it would be acceptable.

    You may see the offending passage in full here. (I haven’t yet looked round this blog, and my linking to it here should not be taken to denote endorsement.) Amongst other things, this is how Ms Greer characterises this horrific act of mutilation:

    Looked at in its full context the criminalization of FGM can be seen to be what African nationalists since Jomo Kenyatta have been calling it, an attack on cultural identity.

    Indeed – “cultural identity”: in the world of Identity Politics, that trumps everything else, even common decency. I’m afraid I find this vile.

    I have done quite a few searches around the internet to find any condemnation on Ms Greer’s part of the barbaric practice of FGM, and have drawn a blank. I think it significant that, despite the ample opportunities and incentive Ms Greer must have had to clear up any misunderstanding on this matter, there is not the slightest hint anywhere of condemnation on her part. If she is indeed opposed to female circumcision, she has never said so: indeed, in the passage linked to, she explicitly says the opposite. I can therefore only see Ms Greer’s stance on this matter as yet another grotesque example of where Identity Politics lead us.

    (Once again, as a proponent of free speech, I am not opposed to Ms Greer’s right to say what she wants – even this: I am merely practising my own right to say that I find her position contemptible.)

    All the best, Himadri

    Reply

    • Posted by Janet Long on June 22, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      Hamadri, in regard to the first instance, my reticence comes from a reluctance to wade into private conversation. Mr. Biswas said something offensive, which you dealt with. From my point of view, that’s how it’s supposed to work. By extension, if Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich get into a kerfuffle (I’m being hypothetical) over American Indian authenticity in literature, I’m not wading in. I’ll listen and probably take sides and may even express an outsider’s opinion, but it really isn’t my business. I’m not well enough informed and can never be well enough informed because I don’t have the life experience, nor are the stakes mine. Trying to determine for Native Americans how they should think and behave has had a very bad record around here. Now, if Alexie and say, James Wood, mix it up over the same issue, then for sure I’ll weigh in, at least as far as to say it’s inappropriate to tell an Indian how authentic he’s being (which I actually don’t think Wood would do, just to be clear).

      Germaine Greer’s argument is complex. She is not saying that fgm is good–quite the contrary. She disapproves of all that sort of thing, including male circumcision and breast reductions/expansions and a host of other elective surgeries. Such things are allowed in the comfortable west because they are culturally acceptable. She asks how people who uphold the rights of Jewish and Muslim parents to cut their infant son’s penises can unreflectingly argue that it is wrong for African mothers to cut their daughter’s genitalia. In this moderated exchange with Anthony Appiah and Seti Atta (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3570412.htm starting at about 10:45), Greer’s views are given a bit more context. At the risk of distorting things by putting them in a nutshell, the gist is this: Appiah argued that the way to end brutal practices is by engaging with villages on health and equality issues, not by coming “down” from our superior sphere and telling them what is allowed and what is not; Atta shared that her parents were educated and did not share the practice, which is more common in the villages; Greer gave her shpiel, which is fairly well laid out in the link you provided; Atta rounds the discussion off by saying that while she disapproves of fgm, as an African woman she “wishes people would leave our genitals alone”; to which Greer adds “I agree.” I can’t find the place in the linked excerpt where she explicitly states that she doesn’t oppose fgm. I found this:

      To be sure there are influential feminists who are fighting to eliminate FGM in their own countries and their struggle must be supported but not to the point of refusing to consider the different priorities and cultural norms by which other women live.

      In other words, you can’t treat grown people like children, as the missionaries did in Polynesia. Sharing health information and concepts about human rights is not the same thing as imposing dominant cultural norms. Greer is commonly faulted for not outright condemning fgm, but she finds such an outright condemnation reductive. She is careful, when she speaks about fgm to place it in the larger context of all sex-based elective alterations and asks people to think about why some are acceptable and some are not.

      And now I’m way behind. I have to stop checking my email when I’m working.

      Reply

      • Hello Janet, I can obviously understand and sympathise with your reluctance to becoming involved with unpleasantness, but, just to make things clear, when one person chooses to post calculatedly rude personal comments on a public forum (such as this blog is), then it is then no longer a private matter. If this had been a private matter merely, I would certainly not have raised it here. And a second point I’d like to make is that criticism of anyone’s behaviour is not contingent either upon that person’s cultural background, or on the cultural background of the person making the criticism.

        On Germaine Greer, what she is saying is, I think, very clear, and I am afraid that despite your eloquent defence, I continue to find it horrendous. If we aren’t entitled to criticise bad aspects of the cultures of others, then people from other cultures would similarly not be entitled to criticise the bad aspects of ours, and we would end up with everyone stuck within the confines of their own cultures, unable effectively to communicate beyond them. This really is not, I think, a world to be wished for.

        Most importantly, human rights are universal: they cannot apply to my children but not to the children of others. If I have to choose between protecting children from hideous forced mutilation on the one hand, and upsetting some cultural sensitivities on the other, I would unhesitatingly choose to protect the children: cultural sensitivities can be important, yes, but they are not so important that they override the welfare of children.

        In short, I see no reason to raise cultural sensitivities so high a level that even the physical and psychological well-being of children becomes a secondary issue. So when Ms Greer says:

        To be sure there are influential feminists who are fighting to eliminate FGM in their own countries and their struggle must be supported but not to the point of refusing to consider the different priorities and cultural norms by which other women live.

        I strongly disagree. I see no reason why we should give any weight at all to “different priorities and cultural norms” that cause so much damage.

      • Posted by alan on June 24, 2015 at 12:06 am

        Janet, I may be wrong, but I think you might be an American.
        If so then we may be separated by a common language and an even less common political culture.
        However, if you are an American then we don’t have to go outside our respective countries to talk about the prevalence of FGM in our countries – there are many cases.
        In the U.K. I know of only one prosecution in relation to FGM and that failed – this related to a post childbirth ‘repair’ of an adult woman, not an assault on a child.
        I understand that in the U.S. there have been successful prosecutions.
        In the U.S. I understand that male circumcision has been normative in all communities – not the case in the U.K. so you won’t hear widespread support – but I really don’t see that the comparison is a valid one – some forms of FGM are far more extreme than anything done to males, and describing this surgery as ‘elective’ only underscores the question of who is doing the electing.
        I think live in a country where the selective application of the law via administrative discretion undermines the rule of law. That administrative discretion has sometimes been governed by a perceived need to consider cultural sensitivities within a ‘multi-cultural society’. I think that this selective application of the law has removed hope from the weak and vulnerable who deserve the protection of the law.
        I bet that most people one meets couldn’t provide a a coherent definition of ‘culture’ or ‘society’, but it’s amazing how many people are comfortable to use the even more abstract ‘multi-cultural society’ in conversation.
        What does it in fact mean? Does it mean that when I hear screams from the house next door that I should check their culture and my privilege before calling the police?

  15. ‘the rest of us, very sensibly, keep away from them; and that those of us who don’t really deserve all we get. Which is fair enough, I suppose.’

    Reminds me of Churchill: ‘They say that Mr Gladstone read the works of Homer in the original Greek, which I think just about served him right.’

    I have so little to say in response to this fine piece because I agree with it so profoundly. I spend so much time arguing these days, I don’t really know what to do with myself when I agree…

    One of the strongest points to hit home with me was your argument that a notion of identity as our immutable starting point, and not what we may become, is utterly demeaning. And I agree profoundly – a problem I have with identity politics is that it turns us all into ethnically determined trash with few horizons ahead of us.

    Classics, which I ended up studying, could not inaccurately be labelled the study of ‘dead white males’. Ancient societies, like almost all societies until recently, were misogynistic and not ethnically diverse (or at least, not diverse regarding whom it educated and taught to write). To study the past output of almost any culture is to study a rather homogenous bunch.

    Where it all falls apart is when the identity politician says that the study of classics is motivated by an ideological desire to study dead white males, and to disregard the other various ethnicities and genders of the world. Because then we’d have to say that if the purpose of one’s study is dead white men, then classics has no particularity – studying *any* part of European history or past culture is to study dead white men, and on the identity politician’s grounds there would be no reason to study ancient Rome instead of Tudor England, or Tsarist Russia instead of Enlightenment France.

    But the fact that people inevitably, almost naturally tend to study dead white men according to these distinct periodizations, even though they are all similarly white, suggests there are distinguishing criteria the identity politician is overlooking. Namely that there were particular things that the ancient Romans, e.g., said, and thought, and did that make them a particular and interesting topic for analysis distinct from (though not superior to) other periods and cultures.

    In fact, human beings generally are interesting inasmuch as they say, and think, and do stuff. Being of an identity is not an interesting action for a person to perform, and it is not a thought, or a statement – it is a property appended to us. To say that it should be the determining criterion for how, in the study of humanities, we make human beings worthy of our interest is an enormous degradation of the value of being human.

    Of all the things we can say, and think, and achieve, our racial and gender identities are trivial non-achievements, and too uncharacteristic of what it is to be human.

    Reply

  16. Posted by Janet Long on June 24, 2015 at 4:10 am

    Alan, you are correct. Though circumcision is becoming less normative in the US and there is movement in the direction of banning it. The question then becomes do you ban it for everybody under the age of consent, or can there be allowances for religious/cultural practices? Here, there must be a compelling state interest in forbidding (or requiring) just about anything.

    Among Jews, for example, circumcision is a big hairy deal and has been for thousands of years. If the practice is banned without exception, the government might be accused of a form of ethnic cleansing because religious (or just culturally serious) Jews would relocate; or, more likely, the practice would be driven underground. Governments, however, do have the right to ban cultural practices–for example, cannibalism or Sati and, yes, fgm according their own standards of compelling interest. Protecting babies is a pretty compelling interest.

    But it is one thing to impose cultural restrictions on immigrants, who by adopting a new country agree to abide by its laws, and to impose new cultural restrictions by fiat on the populations of other countries. Having said that, though, I don’t know that jailing a mother for cutting her infant daughter is a solution that makes sense. Frankly, I’m horrified when I see baby girls with pierced ears, but I’m more horrified by the idea of separating a loving mother from her baby via jail time or intervention by child services because we are uncomfortable with a cultural norm we find abhorrent. The key is preventing the cutting, and the way to do that is to persuade the mother that it’s not a good idea.

    We have also to ask ourselves whether our revulsion is consistent with our own practices or stimulated by prejudices. Some years ago, a santeria practitioner was arrested for sacrificing a chicken. People got real worked up over the gruesome act of wanton cruelty–unlike the ever so humane practices of the poultry industry, justified by our regular ingestion of chicken. Normalization makes a thing okay, even if it isn’t really, and it takes rational argument to un-normalize it. Far be it from me to advocate for animal sacrifice, but people have been wringing the necks of chickens since the dawn of poultry, and the only thing that made the act seem particularly “savage” was the cultural affiliations of man arrested. The point being that while the eradication of fgm is by almost any standard a thing to be striven for, the normalized practice of male cutting is almost never seen in the same light, and it is very hard not to see that as an example of a cultural double standard. Just to go way out on a limb, why aren’t other western countries, where circumcision is not normalized, lobbying for the abolition of male circumcision in the US?

    It is so refreshing to be in a forum where the comments don’t degenerate into “You suck,” “No, you suck.”

    I actually would love to get back to the original post and Wild’s reply, which I kinda suspect was probably more to the point. Hamadri, how do you see your concerns manifesting in a practical sense–the chiseling away of classical education and the Great Works? The dilution of the canon, reading lists, course offerings or whatever with the substitution of Great Works with inferior works by underrepresented groups? Is somebody trying to take down Shakespeare for being dead and white and insufficiently gender fluid? Is there some ripple effect from universities into the wider realm of contemporary literature, such as the vilification of authors like Vargas Llosa for writing contrary things like:

    “The pages of the chronicles of the conquest and discovery depict that crucial, bloody moment, full of phantasmagoria, when–disguised as a handful of invading treasure hunters, killing and destroying–the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Spanish language, Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, the notion of individual sovereignty, and the chance of living in freedom reached the shores of the Empire of the Sun.” (Harper’s, Dec. 1990)

    I’m genuinely curious. However, if you are anxious to move on to a new subject, that is understandable. This one is just so juicy, it’s hard to keep the squirrels tranquil.

    Reply

    • It is so refreshing to be in a forum where the comments don’t degenerate into “You suck,” “No, you suck.”

      Janet, thank you for that. I really have striven for a forum where we may debate matters free of incivilities, where we may – as my old friend Mark Dietz once put it – “disagree without being disagreeable”. I really am delighted by the commenters this blog appears to have attracted, and by the quality of their comments, although they frequently take the shine off my initial posts.

      But on to other matters.

      But it is one thing to impose cultural restrictions on immigrants, who by adopting a new country agree to abide by its laws, and to impose new cultural restrictions by fiat on the populations of other countries.

      I don’t think the latter is a valid option to begin with, as no country has any jurisdiction over the laws of any other country. What I cannot reconcile myself to is the contention that we have no right to condemn aspects of cultures different from our own. I think that not only do we have the right to condemn practices that contravene human rights – we have the moral duty to do so. Similarly, people of other cultures have the right to condemn any cultural practice of ours that contravenes human rights. We pay too much attention to cultural sensitivities, I think, and allow these considerations to override matters of greater importance.

      As for your other points – such as the story about the animal sacrifice – these are, indeed, well taken.

      The key is preventing the cutting, and the way to do that is to persuade the mother that it’s not a good idea.

      Agreed once again, but education is a long-term solution: it still leaves open the question of what we do in the short term. I am not best placed to answer that question, but once again, I’d reject the idea that we are not entitled to criticise or to condemn.

      And no – of course I am not anxious to move on to another subject: the issue of identity politics as it relates to literature, is one that is very close to me, and I am more than happy to talk, as best I can, about it. (Mr Wild of the firm Wild and Whirling Words has a rather good blog as well, by the way.)

      In terms of culture, Western culture is not the only one worthy of study. I have a cousin in India who has a Masters degree in Sanskrit: she did not study greatly the works of Dead White Men, but she did study quite intensely the work of Dead Brown Men. Similarly, someone studying the writing of Murasaki Shikibu, say, whether in a Japanese of in some non-Japanese university, would have the honour of studying the works of a Dead Yellow Female. In the West, we tend, not surprisingly, to focus on Western culture: hence, the works we study tend to be of people who were White. Due to historic restrictions and injustices (which, sadly, have not even now disappeared completely), they tend also to be Male. And yes, unless we restrict ourselves only to contemporary literature, they are inevitably Dead. But the question “so what?” rather comes to mind. Wild puts this well:

      In fact, human beings generally are interesting inasmuch as they say, and think, and do stuff. Being of an identity is not an interesting action for a person to perform, and it is not a thought, or a statement – it is a property appended to us. To say that it should be the determining criterion for how, in the study of humanities, we make human beings worthy of our interest is an enormous degradation of the value of being human.

      Indeed! Wild has studied the classics, as he said, and I hope he won’t mind my mentioning that he is something of an expert on the Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that had he chosen to study, say, Persian classics instead of Latin classics, and had become an expert on the Shahnameh; or if he had, like my Indian cousin, studied Sanskrit classics and become an expert on, say, the Ramayana; he would have found these equally rewarding. That Virgil is a Dead White Male, or Ferdowsi a Dead Tawny Male, or the anonymous authors of the Ramayana Dead Brown Males, does not detract from the life-enhancing quality of the work they produced. To see these things merely in terms of the authors’ identities, and, further, to see those identities merely in terms of race or of gender, is to focus merely on the “properties appended” to these authors, rather than on the riches these authors produced. It may, of course, be worth studying the ways in which the former influences the latter, but to make that the primary or the sole focus of one’s study seems to me a very narrow and unrewarding way of looking at literature.

      (The Ramayana, by the way, is popularly ascribed to Valmiki, a figure as mythic as Homer, but it is more likely, from what I understand, that it is the work of a variety of writers.)

      Vargas Llosa, in that passage you quoted, was being deliberately provocative, I think. The history of various colonialisms is huge and complex, and I am not qualified to comment on it to any depth. Vargas Llosa knows, of course – indeed, he says so quite explicitly – that the Spanish colonialists had committed terrible atrocities. Any time in history that one people have ruled over another, there have been the most terrible atrocities and cruelties, and European colonialism is no exception to this. Absolutely – no quarrel about this at all: these terrible crimes committed by Europeans against the people they conquered and ruled over should most certainly be acknowledged.

      But nonetheless, the fruits of the Renaissance and of the Enlightenment are of the greatest value to the whole of mankind, and this cannot, I think, be denied – and neither do I see why we should wish to deny it. The reason why different peoples advance in different ways in different times and in different rates; or the reason why Enlightenment thinking happened in Europe rather than elsewhere; are far too great for me to attempt to answer. But whatever the reason, the Fruits of Enlightenment belong to us all: the West does not have a monopoly in striving towards freedom.

      Now that the world is getting smaller, all cultures, from all over the world, belong to us all. We cannot, of course, absorb everything, and we tend as a consequence to absorb what is immediately around us: thus, I am acquainted with English Romantic poetry, but not with classic Persian or Sanskrit poetry. But there is absolutely no reason why British or American people should not, should they be so inclined, study and absorb Persian or Sanskrit poetry; or why an Indian or an Iranian shouldn’t study Wordsworth and Keats. These things really do belong to us all, and the very idea of rejecting anything on the basis of the race or the gender of the author seems to me so unutterably stupid that I barely know where to start in articulating my objections!

      Reply

      • Posted by Janet Long on June 24, 2015 at 4:18 pm

        Hamadri,

        What you say:

        “These things really do belong to us all, and the very idea of rejecting anything on the basis of the race or the gender of the author seems to me so unutterably stupid that I barely know where to start in articulating my objections!”

        seems inarguable to me. I’m feeling very naive, but are there really literate people who have a problem with this?

      • Sadly, yes. The very term “Dead White Males” was formulated as a pejorative, directed against Western High Culture. I have linked to a few examples of this in my comment above (June 21st, 2.45pm) – of teachers claiming Shakespeare cannot be taught to black schoolchildren; of a writer, who has taken on the task of encoraging more children to read, warning us that children will be turned off reading if they do not encounter more characters of their own ethnic identity; of an academic decrying Shakespeare’s works as “colonial texts”; and so on. There are many, many other examples, and I could search out a few more if you’d like. I had written my initial post on the impact of identity politics on literature, but inevitably, gven the nature of the subject, we started discussing its impact on other matters also: I do feel very strongly that the impact of identity politics is disastrous no matter which aspect of our lives it touches.

  17. Posted by Janet Long on June 25, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Hmm. Those all sound like lame excuses. I’m sure at least some of this comes from the frustration of not knowing how to teach difficult material. Teaching is the hardest job, and teaching kids who are staring you down or not even looking at you is crushing in terrible ways. It’s off the mark, though, to blame the problem on a disconnect between Shakespeare and the ethnicity of the student.

    There is a legitimate complaint, or maybe just a plaint, for ethnic children, who look at their own society’s cultural output and come away feeling “invisible.” In the US, this goes back to the old Dick and Jane primers and used to go all the way up through college. I can only speak to the situation in the US, but historically white people here put the Oppression in Cultural Oppression. Personally, I found Dick and Jane annoying with their perfect little watercolor lives–what must the experience of seeing Spot run have been for kids whose moms cleaned Jane’s toilet but weren’t allowed to use it?

    In practice, however, what happened was literacy, which Nella Larsen and Ralph Ellison and many others in a far more difficult era picked up and ran with. Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie (a Coeur d’Alene) are examples of writers who read voraciously growing up, despite the dearth of “ethnic” books, and wrote to fill the absence of their own experience in literature. Morrison says that race is an arbitrary social construct, useful only for putting people in boxes, but experience is real and telling it is the stuff of literature. Morrison and Alexie are at the top of the game in contemporary American lit–which necessarily means that their readers are primarily white. Their works are taught (and banned) in American schools. They wear some pretty impressive laurels, but as towering figures of the literati–they are almost alone. The question that gets batted around then is whether they are really just so much better than all the other ethnic (and to some extent women) writers or if white men still have an edge on genius or numbers or publishing connections or what?

    That would be a separate issue except for the obvious problem of curriculum–if you are going to assign Beloved (to get in some African American lit), do you take out The Scarlet Letter? Is assigning Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, as an example of Native American lit, instead of say, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, dumbing down because it is YA? I have read that many in the UK consider Of M&M itself an example of dumbing down the curriculum and would prefer to see more Dickens–is that anti-Americanism? Is it all a matter of too much to read, too little time?

    Sparing children the onerous task of reading Shakespeare, however, isn’t the answer. Maybe it’s just L.A., but the summer Shakespeare casts and audiences around here are pretty diverse. (One production a few years back even had a woman playing Richard III, yes, as a man, and she was incredible.) Next week we’re going to see an Indian Romeo and a Latina Juliet–both excellent actors who totally own these parts.

    Incidentally, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art has an exhibition running now called The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists. Clearly, somebody forgot to tell the Africans that Dante wouldn’t interest them. In the Purgatory section is an installation called Othello’s Fate.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, it may be that the difficulties attendant upon teaching difficult literature may have some part to play, although I can’t believe it’s a very big part: teaching literature has been around a long time, after all, and this “Dead White Males” issue has come about only relatively recently. And neither is it the case that it’s primarily literature teachers who are raising the issue: indeed, since teachers of literature often care for literature, there are many who are very vocal in their opposition to this sort of thing. No, the culprit here is identity politics, with its insistence that one’s identity is pre-determined from birth, is immutable, and that one cannot escape it; and further, that the emotions and feelings and sensitivities arising from this immutable identity override all other considerations – even, in some cases, as we have seen, the welfare of children (“…their struggle must be supported but not to the point of refusing to consider the different priorities and cultural norms…” – my emphasis).

      Cultivation of literature demands that we transcend the barriers of our identities. But when we bring identity politics into the study of literature, the effect is quite the opposite: literature then ends up as a means of asserting our identities – pre-determined and immutable, as identity politics insist they must be. And it’s nonsense. Literature has nothing to do with seeing ourselves, with feeling “visible” or “invisible”. If any reader comes out of a book feeling “invisible”, they have gone to the book with wrong expectations. When I first read Jane Eyre aged about 12 or so – I was Jane Eyre. There I was, a boy, brown, of Indian birth and parentage, living in Scotland in the late 20th century; and yet, my empathy with this girl, white, English, living in Yorkshire in the 19th century, was absolute. I did not come out of Jane Eyre feeling invisible: I was very much in the novel.

      So yes, let us by all means teach Ellison and Morrison in our English courses, but let us teach these writers because they are good writers, and not “to get in some African American lit”. Ellison and Morrison are far too great as writers to be patronised in this manner.

      One sees oneself in literature not because one finds characters of one’s own gender and ethnicity or whatever; one can see oneself because one’s imaginative empathy has broadened to take in what literature has to offer.

      Shakespeare’s plays depicted kings and queens and bishops and princes and princesses – the kind of people his audiences at the Globe Theatre would not have come close to. There is certainly no record of this being a problem.

      Reply

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