La ciudad literaria de Julio Ortega

Identity, Diversity, and the Humanities

Posted by jortega@brown.edu on February 7, 2006

The project of a School of Theory in the Humanities in this current post-theory period of discourse saturation, new cultural and political demands and end-of-the-century incertitude, probably should start by reaffirming the hypothetical quality of theoretical debate as well as the intrinsic quest of the humanities as an archive of questions, as a matrix of questioning. The question is now how to pose new hypothesis (working, tested, operative ones) capable of renewing pertinent inquiry and productive exploration. After all, this period accounts both for the desconstruction of theory as master narrative and for the articulation of a critical internationalism vis a vis the claims of globalization posed by hegemonistic politics.
The hypothetical equation of national identity, diversity, and the humanities, then, could start between “post” and “theory,” let us say at the hyphenation. This can allow us to start with a subject situated in-between, at that border that could also be a threshold. In fact, our subject should have to speak as a resurrected entity because not long ago, in the name of theory, the death of the subject was decreed (and for that matter of the author, writer, identity, subjectivity and so forth). Its death was probably exaggerated, but it was largely documented nonetheless. Now we read that the death of the subject has died. Not surprisingly, this new coming-out started not within discourse but inside social practices, in the civil society and the public sphere.
It also started as a new theory of the margins, putting into question the notions of self-perpetuating centers, and advancing the idea of sequences of centers and margins in displacement, reshaping one into the other. This return of the subject opened up its own spaces, between all sorts of frontiers–disciplinary, institutional, linguistic– in a cross-bordering practice of debate and negotiation.
To articulate these open-ended social and cultural practices (that are evolving into new strategies of citizenship, participation, and aggiornamento) with new theoretical frameworks, is probably the challenge of today. Cultural studies is trying to document some of these articulations of socio-political material to forms of representation. But what we know for sure is that this time there is not going to be one dominant theory, nor one leading theoretician, not even one mapping of the field. This time we will have to deal with the ultimate consequence of relativism: the relativism of theory itself, that is, the fragmentary and operative character of theorizing in a positioned identity, from a cross-bordering perspective, within an inter-discursive open file.
Here is where the humanities can provide not only the disciplines that are crossing over but also the tools to explore cultural identities and national co-formations, subjectivity and economies of representation, differences and translation, canon formation and aporia, as well as the recent cultural strategies of resistance to compulsive globalization. It can be argued that the very notion of borders in the humanities has been periodically revised, not to enlarge or redefine it as much as to accommodate dialogue and bridging. That was the case with the social sciences, and still is the case with the borderline studies of “life stories,” oral literature, and film. And that is the case now with the natural sciences as well. At times the humanities have advanced the project of its own formalization as a valid scientific way of knowledge; more recently, it has acknowledge the relativity of old certitude inside the sciences as a proof, if nothing else, of shared views. Of course, after linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, critical theory, ethnology, semiotics, gender studies, new historicism, deconstruction, and ethnic and cultural studies the field of humanities has been redrawn once and again with little regard for tradition, authority, or the canon. Even now some politicians and members of the press are accusing the practitioners of theory of radical relativism, lack of faith in truth, national unity or family values. But the humanities are a pedagogical enterprise, not necessarily characterized by the catchy titles of new courses and MLA sessions. This disciplinary enterprise gives each area its methodical course and frame of operation. Research is its main activity, and its didactic scenario goes beyond the class room. The community of criticis has become a community of cultural mediators.
The after-theory current situation proves that the best legacy of the hegemony of theory is the multiplication of theoretical self-searching as common language and shared experience. The good news is that any theory has enough time to become historical–despite the convictions of some neighbors. On this rich soil the debate could agree on a new agenda.
Probably theory as hegemonic discourse was passé when students thought it natural to choose a different theory for each chapter of their dissertation project. This proves the old eclectical quality of academic work but not and necessarily of research itself. The theoretical will of our Ph.D. candidate has a precedent in the young professor who used to read theory with the utilitarian gaze of its immediate application. Shopping for theory, so to speak, was of a double sign. First, of publication as dated reading; second, of theory as literary history. The well-known case of Social Text being exposed to a parody of their discourse illustrates this anxiety of endings–precisely because of the editors’ lack of humor in conceding their own demise.
The question, then, is how to speak in this situation of the humanities as evolving archive or matrix of knowledge. The first lesson is to do it from a margin of its monumental tradition–it is not possible to confuse the humanities with a list of major books, even with a list of major new books. This is the irony of Harold Bloom’s digression on the Canon: every practitioner can write his/her own canonical (or for that matter Anti-Canonical) reading will. Moreover, each supplement to the canon is going to differ. The second lesson is to speak at the borders of the academy. That is, beyond disciplinary and departmental compounds; not to increase the proliferation of seminars but to advance experiments of team-teaching, curricula participation, and new forms of cooperation in research and exchange. A major concern regarding research is that the computer is replacing field-work: students can do their research work at the screen, and at least in the U.S., a good part of research is done in what we can call neighbored scholarship, within local sources, most of the time the students’ mentors. I hear that some dissertations are even based on one book discovered at the campus library!
Again, the question of the subject arises. Being a marginal subject–the one debating identity and diversity–, and a subject that reconsiders sub-alternity as pluri-alterity, our research agenda for the immediate future would have to deal with the following,
a) national culture as a reserve of identity, survival and accommodation–not only as collective memory but as a system of exchange, capable of processing violence and dispossession, and to repair its networks of communication, feedback and recycling. In the era of so-called globalization–that upon closer look has produced a large degree of a international regionalization-, notions as “national culture,” cultural identity,” and “identity politics” have been dismissed as products of nationalism and equalitarian liberalism. But that is probably an outdated debate. The challenge now is to explore “nation” as multinational (made of many crossing nations) and “culture” as pluriculture (made of the bridging into new liminar spaces). This doesn’t result in mere multiculturalim or bare advocacy; on the contrary, it calls for the antagonic terms of an ongoing negotiation–one on the name of a subject in the works, a multiform identity.
b) nation as communal reconstruction and identity as individual choice of becoming, can be correlated not in the old authoritarian notion of national unity, integration and interest, but in a more democratic sense of participation, reform, and co-formation. These three stages account for the construction of identity as a creative force in the public sphere and the re-imagined community.
c) cultural diversity, in this agenda, is problematic because it moves through “identity politics,” usually understood as access to the bureaucratic system (to the ever-growing committees on race relations), and sometimes is assumed by advocacy confused with social research. All the self-perpetuating speech of empowering has little to do with culture as agency of resistance and with identity as a practice of bridging. In fact, very probably “ethnic studies” will have to document the extraordinary dynamics of difference permeating dailylife; from Walt Disney movies to TV sitcoms. On one hand, difference is a matter of hybridization both “racial” and cultural in the central metropolis and their narratives, to the point that without difference both the market and the system would lose–first its public, then its consensus. On the other hand, difference is our last chance of being meaningful about community, public life, and education. Society is made of difference, but its control is made of bureaucratized diversity. In short, we do not know yet what to do with this current excess of difference–an excess of being still searching for a better discourse, for its proper representation. One first step probably will have to do with the conversion of “ethnic studies” from a ghetto of the already convinced into a syllabus of shared learning. That is, we need to include the Mexican-American novel in the English curriculum, the Hispanic vote in political sciences. the saga of migration and citizenship in the social sciences and history, and so on and so forth.
d) every theory has become social theory, but the humanities –a relevant territory when situated in the current debate– can also become the textuality of present time and overcome the philological tradition of belonging to a discipline, to a master narrative, to the magister dicta. In this hypothetical agenda such a proposition is controversial. How to introduce the old texts into the new approaches without losing their texture, and, conversely, how to introduce our views into the past without imposing what Gillian Beer has called our tendency to “presentism”? In short, how to account for literature (or for that matter history and philosophy) in cultural studies, representation studies, and semiotics of culture?
And so the question for the subject comes back as a question as to its place in reading.
In Spanish we say YO as the locus of self-reflective affirmation, truthful confession, and accountability–I say I and my word is proof enough in any court. This is evident from the old romance and traditional narrative: it is truth because I say so, or as a Mexican song put it, “because my word is the law.” The word of honor is the ultimate identity. Nevertheless, in Spanish you can split the “I” by introducing a break: Y/O; that is, the “I” becomes this and that, this or that–it is copulative (a series) and disjuntive (an alternation). I, then, as serial alterity, as the same and the other. In English, the I seems not only a sign but a statement. “I” resounds “Eye”.
It suggests a point of reference and a central witness. An organ that verifies my place in the world. In French, “Je” or “Moi” require another proposition: they refer to other parts of the phrase. I am a grammatical property, the principle of organization that accounts for the logic of the world in the syntax of the words.
And yet, the subject is not only the “I”, it includes the “you”. The subject is this co-presence of both pro-nouns, or pre-names, which occupy the empty space of a permanent substitution–the I is exchanged by all the other names, but also by its contradiction: I am but I don’t know who I am. The vicinity of the Other moves the I beyond grammar. Thus, the statements “Who am I?” or “I only know that I don’t know,” are the ultimate confirmation of the humanities’ central question – that of a subject in permanent reconstitution.
Following Weber, A. Giddens tells us that the subject is constructed as “agent” in the social process of his own “agency.” Following Lacan, E. Laclau tells us that the origin of the subject is in the experience of “lack,” and that identity stems from the need to answer this vacuum. But the subject of this end-of-the-century (let us say, resurrected over the ashes of theory) refuses lack and trauma as narratives of origins (there are too many to be explained by way of reduction), just as it refuses the bare practicality of dailylife transactions as all evidence (there are too many different agencies as to be explained by only the one). Moreover, this subject knows that all theories didn’t give a full account of its sagas, and precisely in this margin of not-knowing is where the subject explores its own power of significance.
This subject of margins and borders still requires its own social theory, a comprehensive hypothesis that includes the subject’s reshaping of means of participation, opening of networks of negotiation, reaffirming of regional traditions, and on-going strategies of cultural reappropiation.
Literature and the culture of migration offer here some distinctive answers. Contrary to the old pattern of pact assimilation, new migratory waves are settling not only with their own languages and traditions but also into new strategies of mobility and networking. Lately, even nationalization or naturalization doesn’t presuppose surrendering original citizenship. A different kind of cultural citizenship is opening paths of communication, to the point that this new way of living in the margins has somehow influenced all migratory groups, which seem more ready to explore their cultural identities. The current contention that national-states and sovereignty are exceeded by globalization and institutional networks, has here a micro-narrative of inverse directions, from regional to supra-national, from nationality to the identities of bi-nationality.
A community founded on death (Nancy) implies this “I am” situated in the begining of a common time. In the borderlands, in the outskirts, mutuality means that “You are the part of the self present in my-self” (Bakhtin). As Ricoeur has eloquently explained identity includes both “sameness” and “difference”–in migratory discourses the I is always a force of difference, and even the subject moves into different functions and identifications, exposed to the ascription of roles, redefined once and again, making his way through intense processes of negotiation.
This negotiation organizes a complex network of intermediation. The new identity made in such social flexibility redefines the notion of exchange, its political stand, moral options, and workable narratives. Here is where students of the humanities will be required to develop new tools (in bilingualism, translation, hybridity, border-culture, popular arts, and so on) in order to fulfill the role of cultural mediators that academic institutions, the information technology, and society at large, will expect of them. This probably will be the challenge of the new century to the humanities and the university. The intellectual character of this challenge is still uncharted and experience proves that it is not going to be replaced by advocacy or political agenda. In fact, perhaps the politicization of theory explains, in part, its demeaning pertinence. Political correctness, bureaucratized representation, mandarinistic authority, account today for the entrenched politicization in remote campuses. All things considered, the political accomplishments in academia are, in the end, a classical liberal agenda, no more than that. But current intrincate ethnicity, migratory narratives, and civil border-society are moving into different patterns of representation, beyond the constraints of committees and programs, towards a revision of the rationality of communication. Their subjects probably will prefer to be represented not in a minority program but in the general syllabi, in order to document a larger view of the subjectivity of cultural sagas.
Once I asked Toni Morrison if black folks flying in her novels came from García Márquez. “No,” she replied, “they come from the fields of Ohio”. She had researched the legend and found out that it started to disappear when approaching a urban center. This rural fable had its source in African folklore, and from that same source it made its way through the Caribbean and into Garcia Marquez’s fiction. This, maybe, is an example of magic realism but also of migratory representation . Slave, servant or worker, the conception of a flying body going back to its own lore is a sign of social control and extraterritoriality. Perhaps Caliban knew that his very name has the stigma of his Caribbean origin–that is, the meaning of ultimate otherness: cannibalism; and in answering Prosperus that he, Caliban, had learned his master’s language in order to curse, he was also implying the use of language as a workable map. That is, he was moving from his representation in order to reshape his own story.
After all, the reshaping power of reading is at the base of any interpretation. But perhaps at the end of many versions of reading, instead of a new one we need a shared one. A model of reading that we have been sharing is that of the Archive. According to this practice, the reader looks to retrace the process and origin of a given discourse or text– its family tree of references. This supposes a reading backwards, with the illusion that in the archive everything has already happened as pre-textual representation. We probably will need to move from this melancholic reading into another perspective: the reading ahead–the reading of the signs of the new. This could account not for sanctioned explanations but for open-ended processes, not for codification and canonical representations but for the shifting strategies, spaces in the making, and discourses of interaction. It will suggest also that not everything is readable, that there are opaque areas and even resistance to handy verbalization. This virtuality, this aporia, should open up horizontal prospects of verification, dialogue, projections. That is, the challenge of following the movement of human responses beyond master discourses of authority. Reading could very well be the evolving space of the virtual– the writing of a forthcoming community
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Position paper for the First Conference of the International School of Theory in Humanities, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.
July 29-August 2, 1997.