Monday, March 15, 2010


A juxtaposition of remarks by two writers I really admire and respect:

Tony Judt, "Edge People"

"Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In Britain, the mandarins of New Labour—not satisfied with installing more closed-circuit surveillance cameras than any other democracy—have sought (so far unsuccessfully) to invoke the “war on terror” as an occasion to introduce mandatory identity cards. In France and the Netherlands, artificially stimulated “national debates” on identity are a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment—and a blatant ploy to deflect economic anxiety onto minority targets. In Italy, the politics of identity were reduced in December 2009 to house-to-house searches in the Brescia region for unwanted dark faces as the municipality shamelessly promised a “white Christmas.” In academic life, the word has comparably mischievous uses. Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine... and outside interest is actively discouraged.

Craig Santos Perez, "Teachability, Pedagogy, and Why You Can Easily Find My Book at Used Bookstores"

my first book was published in 2008, and since then it has been taught in about 20 courses that i know of in universities throughout the pacific and the u.s. i’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of these classes in person, blogging with them, skyping, and engaging with students via email & facebook. (the pic above is a Native American Studies course at UC Berkeley that read my first book last fall; as you can see, only the two over-acheivers in the front row managed to stay awake during my class visit).

what’s been surprising to me is how many different contexts there are for poetry. so my first book has been taught in courses called “Literatures of Oceania,” “Asian American Studies,” “Native American Studies,” “Poetry and Politics,” “Writing in Place, Writing as Place,” and “Ecology and Poetry,” to name a few.

two really interesting courses teaching my first book this year are called “Decolonizing Narratives: Indigenous Literature and Culture in the Age of Sovereignty” (Kansas University) and “Discontiguous States of America” (St. Thomas University). Here are the descriptions of the courses:

1) Course Description: This course takes as its premise the decolonizing potential of indigenous literary and cultural productions. It seeks to both answer and explore such questions as: How can literary and cultural texts such as novels, poetry, music, and film from world indigenous communities function as decolonizing tools? Can decolonizing methodologies be applied to such texts? How do such texts contribute to and strengthen indigenous political, intellectual, cultural, visual and rhetorical sovereignty? These are some of the questions we will attempt to answer throughout the semester as we read indigenous literature and view films and documentaries from North America, the Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand.

2) Course Description: This course examines ideas and examples of American literature in light of territories outside the forty-eight contiguous states. We will begin by considering more typical accounts of American literary history that rely on the relationships between geography, region, and cultural contact in creating a sense of American identity and literary production. Moving from historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis of American character through westward continental expansion, we will consider writing by authors such as Willa Cather and Zitkala Sa that sketch out visions of an expanding America from the perspective of settlers as well as displaced indigenous peoples. We will then turn to explorations of American imperialism that leads to the incorporation of Alaska, Hawai’i, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico through the literary imaginations of writers like Jack London, Haunani-Kay Trask, Craig Santos Perez, Jose Garcia Villa, and the Nuyorican Cafe poets.

In addition to reading literature about and from these spaces that lie outside the contiguous United States, we will study legal and cultural claims to the peculiar status of these lands and peoples to the American landscape and body politic. While these places are often effaced and the inhabitants forgotten in the national imaginary, their incorporation into the country has led the US Supreme Court to define some of these areas in a series of early twentieth-century rulings called the “Insular Cases” that turn on the question of whether citizenship and the protections of the Constitution necessarily follow the reach of American military might. We will read these legal discussions along with literary renderings of the complicated status of such people and places. This course fulfills the Diversity Literature distribution requirement for English majors.

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

This was my comment under Craig's post :

"As I understand it, anyway, the liberal arts curriculum of a university education is (or used to be) based on a few principles :

- universality of knowledge
- objectivity of rational inquiry
- independent scholarship
- creative freedom of imaginative literature

And this set of principles has been threatened in recent decades by the following forces :

1. the displacement of philosophy by scientific positivism (determinism) &/or ideological relativism
2. the displacement of imaginative literature by “theory” (as the hegemonic mode of discourse)
3. the displacement of intellectual independence by political interest (as the hegemonic mode of rationality)
4. the displacement of literary scholarship and education by “creative writing”

As I see it, this is the intellectual context within which “teachable” poetry & literature reside. & the question is not, how many people are discussing my books in class? But rather, how does poetry (& how do I, as a poet) respond to/react to/reflect this context?"

Nobody seemed interested in taking this up. Maybe because the juxtaposition you pose here seems to hark back to the "culture wars" of the 90s. Back then, we had "theory" for the theorists & "identity" for the people; but now that "theory" has abated, there is no debate about "identity" anymore, either.
It's just something to celebrate (as long as you have one).

Did you fill out your census form today? Did you identify your ethnicity? Don't worry, it will all work out - as long as we know where to find you & how to place you. Somewhere each of us has a number; & somewhere there is a politician/censor (maybe Emperor Augustus!) adding them up for us.

"I'm nobody - who are you?"