In a recent op-ed, Miguel Samano argues that it is unproductive to argue from identitarian politics if we want ethnic and feminist works to be engaged with seriously. He proposes that we take “the radically imaginative act of giving up on identity” in our engagement with literary works of all traditions.
On the face of it, I feel inclined toward his argument on two points: first, great literature is great for its aim to transcend minutiae of time and place, and second, there is something to be lost when we reduce a work to the context or author that bore it. Perhaps I overstated matters when I said that the protagonist’s experience in “Cat Person” is “rooted” in her social identity in my last op-ed.
Still, I resist the notion that we should cast identity and other local affiliations entirely aside. Because when we do, then it seems that we are ill-prepared to address the obvious: what is the value of reading a “diverse set of works” if we cannot distinguish the “universal” and “the particular”?
An “intersectional” approach to literature is how we ought to approach advocating for including more ethnic and feminist texts into the canon. But we can first abandon understanding “context” in two ways.
The first (an essentialist perspective) maintains that the context of a work is a necessary predicate for the ideas that a thinker comes up with, while the second considers context as a distraction from Universals like Beauty and Truth, that a work tries to convey (Samano’s argument). The first view, Samano shows us, prevents us from understanding a work in its full import.
But in reality — to borrow from a panel-debate on intellectual history moderated by Robert Harrison in 2016 — context and identity, both, are continually “achieved, negotiated, legitimated and constructed through ideas.” They are often concomitant, not determinant, forces for the beliefs of a thinker at hand, and we should recognize that. As Aishwary Kumar offered at the same panel, context is “one of several vectors along which an idea matures or becomes discernible as a rupture or event.”
Take W.E.B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness” as an example that illumines the interplay of the “universal” and the “particular” at work. Double consciousness, as Du Bois terms it, is where one views “oneself through the eyes of others” and lives by the “tape” of a society that looks on one’s being with contempt. He describes this phenomenon as one which black folk continually experience.
Under the “Universals” analysis, though, readers ought to find merit in a work like that Du Bois in distinctly aesthetic terms. Apparently, understanding Du Boisian “double consciousness” as an existential quandary that negotiates his experience of being black is too myopic a view.
This kind of analysis, however, leaves much to be desired.
First, the existential questions that Du Bois writes of — that is, affirming oneself in an environment that denies oneself — bears a two-fold resonance: of being a “particular” (viz., relatable to people whose identities are treated in this way) and of being a “universal” (that is, a permutation of the fundamental, human experience of being a Self among Others). The existential questions that Du Bois raises do not reduce to a “philosophy of existence,” as Lewis Gordon wrote, because “the question of existence, in itself, is empty.”
“Philosophy of existence is therefore always a conjunctive affair,” he wrote. “It must, in other words, be situated.”
Moreover, recognizing the context of a work and the power dynamics that made it so can remind us of the options that “Western canon” curricula miss. A direct appeal from a text (ethnic, feminist or otherwise) to universals has one significant pitfall: It permits staunch Western-canon advocates to believe that works borne from the same context encompass human experience, for they address the universal. In addition, the assertion that authors wholly “shed their identity” emulates how white identity is often understood: as non-existent, unencumbered, invisible and neutral to experience.
This is an ironic twist for an argument like Samano’s, which hopes to persuade readers that there is a great deal to be added when we incorporate ethnic and feminist works into the Western canon.
The reality, however, is that great works (classic, ethnic, feminist or otherwise) appeal to a range of recognizability. All result, to some extent, from the universals and particulars that their authors negotiate.
An example from Margaret Atwood exhibits a similar point but across gender lines. Atwood’s adage, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them,” illustrates a kind of caution that women maintain in co-ed contexts. This is a reality of experience which men, by virtue of living as and being discerned as men, are often ignorant. What shall we deem this gender-based phenomenon then, if we are tempted to deny “identity politics” entirely: a “universal” or a “particular”?
There is something to be gained from considering an author’s identity as a data point to consider for constructing an ideal “Great Works” program — for two important, pragmatic reasons. First, recognizing identity as a part of experience legitimates epistemic equality across traditions where values like family obligations, aesthetics, individualism, community and the like often vary in priority; and second, recognizing authors’ identities and talking about them better positions ethnic-literature advocates to call works by male and white authors out for their limitations: as works where white identity is an enabling concomitant factor to self-fashioning and what one sees as possible — and not neutral and not innocent of real power dynamics, as they often claim.
Works can render power two ways: by ringing resoundly true and by conveying a permutation of human experience for another person, across racial, ethnic, cultural, gender lines and the like, to look onto, “slip into” and gain newfound respect from. It is not contradictory to say that a work can do both.
Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu.