Category Archives: News

Walter Benn Michaels

Race into Culture,” from a 1992 Critical Inquiry was an important article and still is. Here are some key sentences for me, now; they are not a summary of the piece. The United States was also creating a cultural identity that was racial but hid race behind a curtain (so to speak) in the 1920s. Black people were the other over and against whom whiteness and Americanness was constructed in this period, so they had to be an anti-nation, as it were.

The nation was to be mestizo but this mestizaje was among Europeans. There would be a cosmic white culture, the expression and communion of a race. (I have of course come to this conclusion before: white is mixed, and black is mixed, just as “Latin” is mixed even if Latin is still more mixed.)

For Progressives like Dixon, however, citizenship in the “new nation,” pro-
duced out of resistance to an “African” empire, became essentially racial;
the legitimacy of the state (its identity as nation rather than empire) was
guaranteed by its whiteness. (This is why in Red Rock, where whiteness
doesn’t yet have any real meaning, the state cannot be legitimated-the
choice there is between the illegitimate government and the “tribe.”)
Then in the 1920s, as whiteness becomes a culture, the Indian and the
family reappear, first as models for a nativist Americanism (Willa Cather)
and second as models for a pluralism of native cultures (Oliver La Farge,
Anzia Yezierska). It is through this pluralism that what I will describe as
the rescue of race by culture is made possible. Thus, I will argue first that
anti-imperialism promoted racial identity to an essential element of Amer-
ican citizenship; second, that this promotion made possible the emergence
of a new cultural and multicultural Americanism; and, third, that our cur-
rent notion of cultural identity both descends from and extends the ear-
lier notion of racial identity. (658)

“In a moment the white race had fused into a homogeneous mass of love, sympathy, hate and revenge. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the banker and the blacksmith, the great and the small, they were all one now” (LS, p. 368). This “fusion” involves to some extent the blurring of lines that might in other contexts seem to divide whites racially among
themselves; thus the speech that wins Gaston the gubernatorial nomination characterizes his fellow North Carolinians as descended, “‘by the lineal heritage of blood,”‘” not only from the “Angle” and the “Saxon” but also from the “Roman,” the “Spartan,” and the “Celt” (LS, p. 442). Out of several possible races, “fusion” creates one “white race.” (660)

But if identification with the Indian could function at the turn of the
century as a refusal of American identity, it would come to function by the
early 1920s as an assertion of American identity. Perhaps the most power-
ful literary instance of this process is the production of Tom Outland as
the descendant of Colorado cliff dwellers in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s
House (1925), but Cather’s earlier novel A Lost Lady (1923) provides an
even clearer outline of how the old regionalist resistance to the American
state could begin to be transformed into the defence not of that state but,
instead, of what might provisionally be called an American culture.’1 The
Indian-identified “aristocratic” family that in Page resisted subsumption
by the Progressive American “nation,” in Cather provides the technology
enabling an Americanism that will go beyond the merely national Ameri-
can citizenship offered by the state. But to provide this technology the
family must itself be altered; it must in particular cease to be the site of a
certain indifference to racial difference (the family “black and white”) and
must be made instead into the unequivocal source of racial difference. (664)

Now that the difference between businessmen and scoundrels is dis-
appearing, the difference between white men and “niggers” must be pre-
served. The reason that Ivy Peters can’t properly succeed Captain
Forrester is that he’s more like a “nigger” than he is like an Indian. (665)

In The Great Gatsby, published two years after A Lost Lady, Gatsby’s
relation to Daisy seems, at least to Tom, a kind of miscegenation, a threat
to the difference between white men and “niggers.” (665)

But if, as I have argued, our culture can only function as a justification of our values insofar as it is transformed into something more than a description of them, then the question of which culture we belong to is relevant only if culture is anchored in race. Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race, but part of the argument of this essay has been that culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought. (684)

This is a very smart article, with a good analysis and a great deal of amazing information.

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A dispatch from the neoliberal university

“You need not feel commanded to evaluate the course right now. Indeed, the faculty would much rather encourage you to reflect on the nature of this course, carefully considering things like: its design and execution, as well as the extent of your commitment to making the course and your education a success. Don’t forget too to reflect on the material commitments that the university made to the course. Since the university values rigorous critical analysis above all else, please feel free to take your time in crafting your evaluation, and get back to us when you’ve had a chance to think rigorously about what you would like to say.”

This is part of an interesting discussion of student evaluations and more, in the context of the privatizing university. The university is not actually interested in teaching (and you can tell because it does not invest in this) is one of the takeaway points.

#OccupyHE

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Giving

I just lost a lovely post on giving, that recounted my dream of the coffee pot, and I will not attempt to reconstruct it now. But the meditation of the week is on giving, giving too much, more than one has or should give if one wants to be in a position to keep on giving.

This Christmas I am giving myself stillness and attention. In the dream, I am making coffee (energy, nurture) for the wounded, although it will not cure their wounds and the one who really wants coffee is this servidora. The coffee (creativity, nurture) spurts wildly from the machine but will not go into the pot.

I will concentrate so that in fact the coffee goes into its vessel.

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Hector de Crèvecoeur

Here is a good, basic piece on the fantasy of the white race. The term Caucasian was created to trace the origin of “white” people to the Golden Age of Greece and the ancient Near East. These populations were not, of course, “white,” and this “Caucasian” race is an invention.

Americans were strong and vital because they were a mixture of different northern European nationalities, and as I have been reading elsewhere, whiteness as this kind of melting pot was truly consolidated in the 1920s … interestingly enough, the era of négritude and many other kinds of cultural nationalism. Latin America wants to be a brown mixture and the United States a white one, yet still a mixture. This is very interesting indeed.

A telling detail: Crèvecoeur’s 1781 text implies that the invention of [whiteness] confers upon the American a “new rank”. The American is a border-crosser and transcends narrow European nationalities. He has also closed ranks with other people deemed white, and has a government that responds to whiteness and not to noble lineages. This, too, is very interesting.

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Notes for next time

When I have to give that pesky Spanish class again, I will have grades recorded all the time in a gradebook they can see electronically, with comments. Grade structure will be very easy to average at the end, because everything will be worth 10%.

Four quizzes or tests taken online outside class time, that include “objective” questions and an essay graded on one grammar point only, 10% each. The essays will be the ones from the workbook that we did not assign.

Two in-class essays, where they have to read something ahead of time and then come in ready to do reading comprehension exercises on it (vocabulary, short answer, essay), 10% each.

Recitation in class, i.e. quality of spoken Spanish as noted through class participation, 10%

Workbook, 10%. If it is done electronically, the essays will not be assigned, but the videos will.

Reading together in class, week of Thanksgiving.

Oral presentation, 10%, last week of class, on reading.

Final exam, on the format of the in-class essays, on reading just done or a related reading, 10%.

#OccupyHE

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Vallejo first got to Paris in 1923, and I first got there in 1964. What we have in common is having seen it without the Montparnasse skyscraper. Now it is 2014 and I have celebrated the 50th anniversary of my transatlantic voyage, and more time separates me from it than does it from Vallejo’s arrival.

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L’hiver

It was a beautiful winter day of the kind we can have here: weak sun, slight warmth, white sky. The night will be starry and cool.

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