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"E Pluribus Unum": Identity Politics and the Construction of Ethnicity in Contemporary US Fiction

Šesnić, Jelena
"E Pluribus Unum": Identity Politics and the Construction of Ethnicity in Contemporary US Fiction 2005., doktorska disertacija, Filozofski fakultet, Zagreb

"E Pluribus Unum": Identity Politics and the Construction of Ethnicity in Contemporary US Fiction

Šesnić, Jelena

Vrsta, podvrsta i kategorija rada
Ocjenski radovi, doktorska disertacija

Filozofski fakultet





Grgas, Stipe

Ključne riječi
Ethnicity; race; nation; identity; gender; representation; cultural nationalism; borderlands; diaspora

This thesis identifies four broadly conceived models as matrices for generating readings and interpretations of contemporary US ethnic literature (the 1960s-1990s). The term “ ethnic” is used here to conveniently mark texts by self-proclaimed ethnic authors and/or texts which feature ethnic themes. Questions of various identity formations, as these get refracted through ethnicity, “ race, ” gender, and nationality are also addressed. The four models, namely, the cultural nationalist, the ethnic feminist, the borderlands/contact zones, and the diasporic model, are meant to be inductive— proceeding from the reading of the representative texts as well as more encompassing and as such potentially applicable to the larger ethnic corpora. The methodology used in this study avails itself of the interdisciplinary drift in American studies, which is supplemented by procedures and concepts drawn from cultural studies (specifically various psychoanalytic models of interpretation), postcolonial studies, feminist criticism and anthropology. The idea is that ethnic corpora in the past 40 years have come to represent an essential contribution to post-WW II and especially post— Civil-Rights US literature and culture, but that they have often been approached in a somewhat piecemeal fashion and taken as separate strains of literary production mostly as a result of the logic of the emergence of different ethnicities during this period. In the first chapter I try to show how two prevailing paradigms of nation formation in the US as identified in traditional ethnic studies— namely, the immigration paradigm and the black-white paradigm— have been supplemented by a third one, which Nathan Glazer designates as the southwestern paradigm. Crucial concepts in this study are defined: ethnic and ethnicity, (ethnic) identity, identity politics, the nation, representational forms, the allegories of the nation. I address the politics of the United States census especially as it affects the mechanism of ethnicity construction with respect to the nation and then focus on the problem of troubled imbrications between the proscribed concept of “ race” and its more appropriate counterpart, “ ethnicity.” This difference can be observed also in the way Sollors’ s binary consent/descent as applied to ethnicities in general has been complemented by Wong’ s equally compelling pair, extravagance/necessity, in the context of Asian American ethnicity, by the national minority and diasporic models of ethnic emergence. The last section deals with the concept of the emergent literature/culture as it is played out notably in some ethnic corpora (Chicano). In the second chapter the first interpretive matrix has been laid out and is exemplified by an array of political, mixed-genre, largely non-fictional texts, such as manifestoes, statements, political speeches and polemic literature. Thus cultural nationalism in the Civil Rights period and its aftermath is shown as a specific form of affective discourse, which has managed to redeploy this powerful affective capital into strategies of establishing what, following Benedict Anderson, might be called “ imagined communities.” Cultural nationalism, with its deft mixture of the political, the personal, and the cultural stands as the first important discourse on ethnic identity within the national sphere. The principal site of annunciation of these new trends is the discursive construct of ethnic masculinity, which through various procedures outlined in psychoanalysis and cultural studies engages in complex relations with, on one hand, normative, white, “ Anglo-Saxon” masculinity, and on the other, various forms of culturally constructed femininities (white and ethnic alike). Remasculinization, the working-through of demanding affects, the abjection of the woman’ s body (especially the mother’ s) counteracting the symbolic castration and racialization affecting the ethnic masculinity— these are processes which inform, sustain, and permeate fictional and non-fictional texts in this section. The authors represented here are notably the Chinese American writer Shawn Wong and the Chicano writer, lawyer, and political activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. The third chapter follows up chronologically and conceptually on the lessons learned from the first generation of immediate post-civil rights intellectuals. Cultural nationalism has opened up a space for the fantasmatic and material recuperation of ethnic identity, but has failed in large part to address the issue of gender as it comes to bear on race. Given the impetus provided in the late 1960s by the fledgling feminist movement, there arises at about this time and especially throughout the 1970s a generation of ethnic women writers, here represented by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston. This section deals with their intervention into salient genres such as historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and life-writing, as they bring it to engage the non-representative ethnic and gendered subject-in-the-making. Their line of attack can be contextualized by the postmodernist sensibility of the redefinition of historical representation (Hutcheon), the critique of the phallogocentric drift of language (Cixous), and the affirmation of the tradition of ethnic (specifically African American) women’ s cultural production (A. Walker). Concomitantly, the novels discussed here, each highlighting an extraordinary woman, address and question standard models of gender identity formation, and, hand-in-hand with some then current feminist redefinitions of the psychoanalytic oedipal plot (Chodorow, later on Benjamin), show how genre (representation) is crucially implicated with gender, and take deliberate steps towards conceptualizing a new nexus among the ethnic, the national, and women. Chapter four continues this time-line, pushing it forward into the 1980s, with another crucial intervention into the national imaginary proceeding from “ alternative, ” minority, subaltern spaces, often subsumed under the heading of borderlands or contact zones (Pratt). This perspective has been articulated within the purview of border studies initiated by Chicano scholars and infused by postcolonial studies, the poststructuralist revision of anthropology and ethnography, and interventions from cultural studies. Gloria Anzaldúa’ s hybrid and bilingual text, Borderlands/La Frontera, a bold autoethnography, charts a site of emergence of this new, provisionally speaking, ethnic subject, but also traces its birth as a veritable existential condition. Frantz Fanon’ s and Homi Bhabha’ s strong reading models, conjoining psychoanalysis and (post)colonial situation, help us to try and disentangle the stakes for a sense of personhood which emerges and is consolidated against a tangled web of identifications (as primary process underlying identity formation) and desires (as derivative processes in this respect) being activated in the process of the articulation of subaltern identity in the contact zone/borderlands. Chapter five carries us forward into the 1990s, registering what I perceive to be yet another telling twist in the representation of ethnic identity. James Clifford, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and Azade Seyhan all approach the cultural and historical concept of diaspora from their respective vantage points of anthropology, cultural studies and literary criticism. It is my contention here that some strands of US ethnic literature, notably Cuban American and Haitian American (interestingly, both deriving from the Caribbean), display a dynamic in their accounts of their minority status in the US nation which can be accounted through structures such as collective memory, informed and transmitted intergenerationally and here transgeographically ; postmemory (Hirsch), engaging the force of a traumatic event to generate a feeling of cross-generational solidarity ; traumatic memory, which is in the Freudian model likened to the mechanism of hysterical memory, thus indicating its compelling impact but also its troubling aspect ; and the possibility to figure historical trauma as analogous to individual, structural, base trauma (Freud, LaCapra, Caruth). Even if this poignant model of the reconstitution of a communal and, consequently, personal identity is largely based on memory-building strategies, they are by and large underwritten by the strong affective structures of pathos, nostalgia, and melancholic (unresolved) longing, and are figured in the texts by two exemplary authors in this section (Roberto Fernández and Edwidge Danticat) as shuttling back and forth between enabling structures of narrative reconstruction and working-through, and, on the other hand, the shattering primal scene of trauma, which must constantly be revisited. A corpus marked by diasporic, thus at least dual, allegiance, shares a strong affective undercurrent with the model of cultural nationalism that is laid out in chapter 2. Furthermore, it pays obeisance to the interventions launched by the ethnic feminist model of gender formation discussed in chapter 3 and avails itself immensely of the questioning of the nation-state paradigm courageously affected by the borderlands/contact zones model in chapter 4, but goes even further in deconstructing the premises underlying the constitution of ethnic identities. Thus it constitutes the bottom line and the final post for the present-day articulations of difference within the US national imaginary. It remains to be seen where the next generation of US ethnic writers will take us from here. Simultaneously, however, these corpora enact a constant vigilant questioning and reinvigoration of the ideas entailed in the central concepts of my project, various identity formations, and thus point to their continuous redefinitions within the United States, and possibly also in other polyethnic democracies.

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Projekt / tema

Filozofski fakultet, Zagreb

Autor s matičnim brojem:
Jelena Šesnić, (236460)