Friday, December 7, 2012

On the desire for "universal" literature and classroom pedagogy

It's been over two months since my last post, I know. I guess grad school got in the way. I remember thinking, "Hey, I should write up a blog post about this" a few times, but I never actually did it, so I think my next couple will be me trying to remember what I wanted to say in those moments over the past two months.

One of these moments came in an undergraduate class that I audited this semester at Cornell. For one of the weeks of the course we read Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. I had not read this novel before (What?!) and was excited for the discussion we would be having. Unfortunately, we spent most of our time, at the direction of the professor, basically making a list of all the ways in which the characters of Achebe's novel were similar to us and in general folks in out contemporary society. 

Now, I say unfortunately not because I don't think this is a valuable exercise. Indeed, when approaching works of literature that represent people who are outside of a cultural "mainstream" in an undergraduate course it is sometimes a good idea to confront feelings of hyperinvisibility head-on. As someone who works in African American literature, I have seen time and again the performance, "Well that culture is so different from mine I can't possibly relate to what's going on in that novel" or the less tactful "Why can't black writers write about stuff we can all relate to instead of just for other black people."

Granted, Achebe's novel falls within the field of African literature and yet is in some ways part of the literary canon taught in American schools (or such is my impression -- most of my classmates had read the novel in high school). But there is still this "space alien" approach. One could imagine an approach to the novel completely opposite to my professor's desire to list all the ways in which Okonkwo's society is similar to our own and thus not space-alien where instead the class is encouraged to list all of the ways the world of the novel is radically different from the world of the reader in the American Ivy League University. I am thankful that this was not the approach.

But I am still irked at the approach my professor took to teaching the novel. Again, there is value in the exercise he wanted to perform that day in the classroom, but my frustration is with the fact that the entire lesson was singularly focused on that point, on illuminating how like us Achebe's characters are. I did my best to steer discussion towards the particularities of the text and Okonkowo's particular struggles as a subject in a society viewed as already lacking by the centers of imperial power that eventually make their presence known by the novel's conclusion. But these attempts were met with resistance by an instructor who didn't want us to get caught up in differences, but instead wanted insist on the sameness of people from different cultures.

And that's fine, but it can't be the only thing we attend to when we read literature, or even think about cultural identity. In this same class we read Toni Morrison's Beloved, and when someone made the point that Morrison is thinking about what slavery means for African Americans, before the final word came out of my classmate's mouth our professor said "But not just African Americans, she's talking to all of us!" And yes, she is. Yes, these novels do speak to the level of general humanity. But they are also particular novels about particular identity constructions. I think it is absolutely imperative that when we work with literatures from social groups and cultures which have been historically marginalized, we strike a constant and perhaps even tense balance between paying attention to the more general, or what some scholars would call "universal" aspects of the texts and the particularities of the texts, at the same time.

I put "universal" in scare quotes because I am suspicious of it. Why id there such a desire to claim books are "universal?"

Toni Morrison is my favorite author. I have literally read all of her novels and I absolutely love each and every one (though I have my favorites, of course). So I like when other people like her too. But I get very suspicious at the number of folks who praise Morrison by immediately talking about how "universal" her writing is, as if her greatness lies in the fact that she doesn't just talk about black experiences or women's experiences, but all of our experiences.

And again, let me repeat, that's true. Her novels are about love, lust, grief, hatred, property, death, birth, faith, and many other human experiences that transcend particular groups' claims on them. But at the same time her novels are about America's historic commitment to white supremacy, our inheritance of death and slavery, the costs of capitalism, and what it means to be black and/or a woman in a society that is organized according to what Carole Pateman and Charles Mills call the "sexual-racial contract." So I am very irked when in conversations about Morrison's work, there seems to be an imbalance of attention placed on these "universal" dimensions as opposed to what might be race or gender or sex specific dimensions, just like I was irked in the aforementioned discussion about Things Fall Apart by the insistence on such "universal" dimensions as opposed to colonial or imperialistic dimensions.  

And it's really the "as opposed to" that aggravates me. Let me repeat because I know someone will misconstrue what I'm saying: it is valuable to insist on similarities between cultures and for students to get past the "space alien" position in relation to a text. But it is a detriment to inquiry to insist on only this strategy at the expense of honest and critical interrogations of particularities of experience which may be influenced by power relationships based on factors such as race, sex, gender, etc. Because when it comes down to it, all this desire for "universalism" really just reminds me of the desire for "colorblindness" in race relations at the social, political, and economic levels. And I don't need to go into all the ways in which colorblindness is itself a racially charged position masquerading as race-neutral.

If I may close with another moment from a course this semester. During our discussion of Toni Morrison's Jazz in one of my courses, at one point it seemed like person after person was trying to psychologically diagnose Dorcas to figure out why she didn't tell anyone who had shot her, to figure out why she didn't want anyone to call an ambulance for her, to figure out why she died if she only received a non-fatal gunshot wound to the shoulder. One person started speculating that she must have wanted to die and even though Joe pulled the trigger it was really her fault (talk about blaming the victim! But that's another story...or is it?) that she actually died because she told her best friend Felice not to call 911. I was temporarily speechless at how strong the resistance in the conversation to talking about race had to be in order to allow for all of this speculation about why Dorcas died. Because the text tells us that her friend Felice didn't listen to her; she called an ambulance anyway!

"But I did it. Called the ambulance, I mean; but it didn't come until morning after I had called twice. The ice, they said, but really because it was colored people calling."

You can't ignore a line like that. And if seven or eight different people in a conversation all forgot about it until I brought it up, I have to ask what motivates this kind of forgetting? I think it has something to do with the desire for the universal, the desire to approach literature without dirtying ourselves by talking about such grossly particular issues like race. And I think these desires need to be pushed back against in the classroom by pedagogy that attends to both the more general and more particular dimensions of a text without weighing one over the other, not a pedagogy that just wants to make lists of similarities or differences between cultures.