BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
Volume 1, Number 1 (Summer 1999)
Jochen Achilles and Carmen Birkle, eds., (Trans)formations of Cultural Identity in the English-Speaking World.
Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 1998. [Anglistiche Forschungen, Band 251]
324 pp. ISBN: 382530565I.
Volumes such as this one -- based on talks given at a 1995 conference by the same name at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat in Mainz -- inevitably offer something for everyone: a variety of essays that treat the theme at hand from a variety of perspectives, in this case investigating the "processes of identity transformation in English-speaking countries which are differently affected by the colonial and postcolonial experience" (3). Unfortunately, such volumes also often display other, less desirable features: the absence of peer review, for example, and a fuzzy conceptual center which leaves the reader continually asking, "What binds these essays together as a whole?" Such is the case with (Trans)Formations. There is much of great interest in this collection. There is also much that ought not to have been included, or that ought to have been more carefully thought through before its publication. In this brief account, I can not address every offering in the volume; I shall confine myself to those offering the most insightful suggestions about cultural transformations as well as those that display the broader weaknesses of the volume most clearly.
The editors attempt to give this volume some cohesion by organizing the chapters into three thematic clusters: political patterns and constellations; gender and identity; and representational modes. Yet the essays themselves rebel against these imposed categories, leaving the reader wondering exactly what the term "cultural identity" -- that entity whose (trans)formation is under examination in these pages -- really means. The essays range in time from colonial New England to the films of Spike Lee and the rhetoric of Bill Clinton. Geographically, similarly divergent foci -- Zimbabwe, Canada, England, the United States, the Caribbean, Native American art -- more often undermine the notion of a coherent center instead of impressing the reader with the wide range of topics the essays address.
As I stated above, there are many pieces of intriguing work in this collection. Jo-Ann Wallace examines the legitimacy of "privileged" feminists engaging in representation or advocacy on behalf of silent or subaltern "others." In "Feminism and the Politics of Advocacy: An Historical Case Study," Wallace attempts to salvage the notion of advocacy while avoiding the patronizing implications the term too often brings with it. She does this by examining a concrete historical example, that of resistance by English feminists to the Contagious Diseases Acts in India and other British colonies. The paradox of advocacy and representation is graphically illustrated when Wallace quotes an exchange between two English feminists and the Indian women on whose behalf they were working. "'We told them, 'We are your sisters'; they replied, 'We are your slaves'" (154-155). To her credit, Wallace does not downplay the difficulty of achieving authentic, one might say "respectful," advocacy: the danger of "maternal imperialism" (156) is always real when one is speaking "on behalf of" or "for" another. But she provides some suggestive reflections, drawing on the work of Habermas and Iris Young, about what such a "reflective solidarity" (158) might be able to achieve.
In "The Feminist Critic and the Woman Writer, or, May the Proper Heroine Still Marry?," Elizabeth Fox-Genovese offers a spirited and incisive polemic against feminist derogations of marriage narratives. One can't help wondering whether we've heard all this before: Fox-Genovese's Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) and "Feminism is Not the Story of My Life": How Today's Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996) amply articulate her dissent from what she perceives as feminist "orthodoxy." (Whether such an "orthodoxy" really exercises the kind of hegemony that Fox-Genovese suggests is yet another question.) In addition, Fox-Genovese's rather breezy dismissal of the many and trenchant feminist critiques of marriage -- not to mention her marshalling of Justice Department murder statistics to "support" her contention that the sexual revolution "has fueled an escalating war between the sexes" (191-192) in which men and women enjoy positions of relative parity -- seems pat and tinny. But the writing in this piece is lively, the argument clear, and the position provocative. Why the essay was included in this volume is less clear: how much light it sheds on "processes of identity transformation in English-speaking countries which are differently affected by the colonial and postcolonial experience" (3) seems open to question, unless one takes each of those terms in its loosest possible sense.
There are other gems in this volume; or rather, there are pieces that one suspects could be gems, had they been given more attention by their authors and editors. Terence Brown's "Theorizing the Nation: The Cultural Borderland," for example, puts forward the notion of "borderlands," which the author describes as "transitional zones which, perhaps, have a mental existence rather than a strictly defined territorial reality" (59). His reflections on Northern Ireland as one of these borderlands, and his further suggestions about "the self...as a site of shifting borders" (62) are provocative and suggestive in an age plagued by continuing genocide and unrest as well as tentative movements toward a peaceful coexistence in other long-suffering borderlands. Still, one wonders why, in addressing Ernest Gellner's important Nations and Nationalism (arguably the most important work on the subject in the past two decades), Brown refers exclusively to other scholars' summary and analysis of the work, and never to Gellner's book itself. Has Brown read Gellner? If so, the reader looks for him to turn his own powers of analysis on that important work rather than to rely on the insights of Leerssen or Anderson ("Theorising the Nation," notes 4-13). If not, then Brown really ought not to brand Gellner with such labels as "rationalist and economic functionalist" (61) based strictly on the analysis of someone else. As it is, Brown does not refer to Gellner directly once in his essay.
Gerhard Hoffmann offers some further intriguing reflections on the relationship between dominant and marginalized cultural forms in "Constructed Identity: Genuineness and Cliché in Native American Art." As with Brown's piece, however, one suspects that the close reading of a critical reviewer or editor would have drastically improved the essay, filled as it is with broad generalizations and poorly substantiated claims. Hoffmann contrasts Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern Native Painting: the first of these "came to correspond to white collectors' and curators' expectations" (257); the second was characterized by "the Native artists' endeavor to leave the limitations of the traditional, white-dominated art style behind and to gain artistic freedom by making use of the concepts and techniques of the mainstream" (262); while the third "play[s] the imagination off against 'realistic' and functionalistic thinking" (268). Hoffmann makes a number of interesting observations about the crosscurrents between mainstream American art and that produced by Native painters over the course of the twentieth century. Yet in spite of his celebration of the postmodern turn in Native painting, Hoffmann continually falls back into the language of those styles and ways of thinking he claims to oppose. In describing traditional painting as stereotypical, he explains that they "exclude the present and the 'real,' the pain and desperation of Indian life on the reservations and in the cities" (261). At the same time, he notes, such paintings "transgress the stereotypical and become genuine by representing the spirit of Indian life, its wholeness" (261). This from an author who decried "[b]inary thinking," approvingly citing Linker on the formation of categories and forms of discourse through which power operates (255). Hoffmann's criticism of traditional Native painting for ignoring the "real" (to which he attaches one definition -- the pain and misery of Native American life) is as contradictory as his praise of it for representing "the genuine" (to which he attaches the ambiguous term "wholeness"). If this is not the reification of categories, one wonders what is. Hoffmann's discussion of the paradox of modern Indian painting -- its attempt to appropriate the techniques of the mainstream while maintaining a distinct Native voice -- are some of the best passages in the essay. Still, one wonders whether the postmodern turn has in fact been as liberating as Hoffmann implies -- his first example of the "new freedom" the movement promised consists of a "combin[ation of] Bacon's decorative expressionism with the style of Pop Art" (267), which sounds like more piggybacking of mainstream-influenced modernists. And an author must be challenged when he continues to create straw positions that, if they ever were dominant, are clearly not so any longer, as when Hoffmann decries "the traditional Western assumptions...especially the belief that there are 'universal' standards of quality and relevance" (271). Such a position is certainly not held by any but the most hidebound and reactionary of contemporary scholars, and its status as a "traditional" assumption is open to serious debate. Either way, Hoffmann offers no references to any of these purported traditional assumers, making it impossible to assess the validity of his claim.
Other contributions in this volume offer compelling glimpses of cultural transformations, but often seem truncated. For example, Winfried Herget concludes "A Culture of the Word: Puritanism and the Construction of Identity in Colonial New England" with the following claim: "If, then, there is a contribution by Puritanism and colonial New England to the formation of an American identity, it can be located in the logocentricity of a text-bound culture, based on the written word whose meaning may become contested and must be arbitrated by interpretive authority" (25). This is an intriguing claim. The brevity of the foregoing discussion (less than ten pages), however, leaves as many questions as it addresses. Although Herget might well be right about colonial New England (and, even if this is the case, ten pages seems a strikingly brief space in which to establish such a claim), the argument about the connection between New England and broader notions of American identity remains unmade, save for a brief and vague paragraph about John Marshall, the Supreme Court, and American constitutionalism.
Despite these criticisms, the essays by Wallace, Fox-Genovese, Brown, Hoffmann, and Herget take on important topics and shed new light on the issues of art, politics, and gender. In this, they achieve the lofty (if somewhat fuzzily articulated) promise of (Trans)formations. Most importantly, they point us toward further contemplation of and inquiry into their respective topics, demanding further attention to such cultural transformations as they continue to play out into the twenty-first century.
On the other hand, many of the essays in this collection seem to lack a clear justification of their undertaking and/or the critical influence of peer review. Paul Goetsch, for example, examines tropes of unity and diversity as they coexist in the rhetoric of Bill Clinton. Goetsch claims that Clinton's liberal multiculturalism lent a "progressive air to his campaign and presidential agenda" (37). Bill Clinton as progressive multiculturalist? Thankfully, Goetsch immediately backtracks by considering the middle-class nature of Clinton's rhetoric, as well as his embrace of welfare reform, as evidence that "the president has come closer to Republican positions than his rhetorical multiculturalism might at first suggest" (39).
Certainly any observer of Clinton's second term would be hard pressed to describe it as progressive, but even those observing only his first can raise serious doubts as to how quickly Clinton -- rhetoric or no rhetoric -- coopted the language of his supposed opponents, the Republicans. His actions against Iraq, from the beginning of his presidency, must certainly give the lie to Goetsch's claims that Clinton "keeps his distance from the notion of United States as the world policeman..." (37). According to Goetsch, "Clinton believes that peace and order can be achieved if countries with different cultures or traditions, or different population groups within one country, find ways of cooperating with each other and make a strength of diversity" (36-37). But one would be hard pressed to find any American politician who would dissent from this view -- certainly not in his or her public rhetoric, which is Goetsch's focus in his analysis of Clinton -- and it tells us nothing unique about Bill Clinton. One can easily imagine Ronald Reagan himself, nostalgically longing for the days when the United States was bound together by hard work, faith, and family; when different groups set aside their differences to strive for the common good. Consider these words from Reagan's Second Inaugural: "As an older American, I remember a time when people of different race, creed, or ethnic origin in our land found hatred and prejudice installed in social custom and, yes, in law. There is no story more heartening in our history than the progress that we have made toward the 'brotherhood of man' that God intended for us. Let us resolve there will be no turning back or hesitation on the road to an America rich in dignity and abundant with opportunity for all our citizens. Let us resolve that we the people will build an American opportunity society in which all of us -- white and black, rich and poor, young and old -- will go forward together arm in arm. Again, let us remember that though our heritage is one of blood lines from every corner of the Earth, we are all Americans pledged to carry on this last, best hope of man on Earth." If Bill Clinton is a liberal or progressive multiculturalist, so must be Ronald Reagan.
A number of other essays seem to beg similarly important questions. Indira Ghose writes on the anonymously-published Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman (1934), and takes issue with the text's "avoid[ance of the] possibility of a cross-cultural erotic charge" (45). But it's 1934. Do we really expect such a tale -- which is itself, as Ghose rightly points out, a "sentimental gloss on...colonial relations of power" (44) -- to consider, let alone endorse, cross-cultural eroticism? Kevin L. Cope's "The Heron and the Salamander, or, Cogni-Botanical Maps and the Hermeneutics of Planet X" sets out to examine "an American idea of cultural time and place" that defines itself in terms of decentering and displacement. The essay ranges far and wide over a variety of American popular culture icons, but the best encapsulation of "the interplay of limitlessness, precision , and dark satire" of America, according to Cope, turns out to be taken from a conversation between the announcers of Monday Night football (228). Ulla Hasselstein ("Giving Her Self: Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Problem of Authenticity") views Harriet Jacobs as appealling, not only to contemporary abolitionist audiences, but also to "a black reading public which hardly existed at the time, but which today has discovered the slave narrative...as a communal utterance and a writing back to hegemonic culture" (139). This is a fascinating claim: Does Hasselstein mean to suggest a cross-temporal authorial intentionality? The reader wishes this claim were explored fully rather than appended briefly in the final paragraph of the essay. Can one appeal to a non-existent, or "hardly existent," audience? What sort of appeal would one make? Unfortunately, we are left to wonder.
All in all, one suspects that this volume would shed far more light on its topic if that topic were just a bit more clearly specified, or narrowly defined. The essays display little relation to each other except in the most general sense. Some contain extensive footnotes, others provide only the most rudimentary documentation. (Trans)Formations promises an exciting investigation of an important topic, but unfortunately its lack of focus and the uneven quality of its offerings fail to live up to that promise.