Today, Scott McLemee in IHE had a musing on the recent conference associated with the Future of Minority Studies Project (a horrible title, but what can one do?), that encompassed presentations connected with the emergent school of post-positivist realism. The nature of the theory itself was a bit murky, but some of the tenets of the influential anthology of writings on the subject are described in a link within the piece that is useful, if a bit long.
Post-positivist realism could be understood as an attempt to negotiate the shoals between essentialism and poststructuralism, with an eye on the material, lived effects of identity on subject formation and narrative. In essence, how do we think through the effects of experience (and differences in experience) without falling into a simple essentialism or a dismissal of experience grounded in poststructuralist approaches to reality and objectivity? This project is somewhat exciting for those of us who have felt the need for such a critical enunciation, although I would be hesitant to describe myself as a theoretical adherent, only because in all honesty I’m not sure what school of thinking I fall into (as I was once described at Sadistic College, I am an assistant professor of This ‘n’ That). However, an interesting aspect of McLemee's article was the observation of cross-disciplinary conversation engendered by the project. I would agree that such conversations are crucial in approaching something as varied and complex as racial identity, and the fact that they seem so unusual speaks to both the disciplinary roles within which we are circumscribed, as well as some limitations on how we imagine the disciplines and their function in the university.
For arguably, in the last thirty years, we have all become interdisciplinary on some level. The cross-pollination of thinking, especially between the humanities and social sciences, has enabled (some) scholarship to imagine a greater conversation of knowledges (situated knowledges?) in attempting to achieve understanding of the intricate states of human being. One of the roots of this interdisciplinarity, at least in the study of race, gender, and sexuality, has been the influence of sixties social movements on our thinking, both in shaking up established notions of knowledge and knowledge production (that which is a legitimate area of study), and enabling a certain political value contained within such work.
Interdisciplinarity has a longer, more complex history than I am sketching out here, but suffice it to say that at least for me (and others like me), this sixties history of racial critique coexists and is in conversation with other, disciplinary histories (especially in English, History, and Sociology) of critical approaches to and within the academy. And although the IHE piece does not say this, the scholars of post-positivist realism are responding to some of these sixties political exigencies in attempting to carve out a space of theory that reimagines and recentres identity experience in both theory and practice.
The legacy we inherit from the social movements around identity (race, gender, sexuality) from the sixties is a complicated composition of radicality, professionalism, success, guilt, and guilt tripping. Too often an uncritical mimicry of (the assumed) political parameters of the era (revolution, radicality, resistance) can work to turn off critical thinking in one’s approach to the study of these categories, and the mind games of the graduate seminar room can burn many years later. For some of us who have persisted in trying to critically engage with this history, there is little real, material reward. For all the talk in post-positivist realism circles of institutional marginality in the application and acceptance of the approach, the school has a fairly distinguished pedigree and sponsorship (The conference discussed in IHE was held at Stanford after all, hardly the marginalia of the academy). This talk of marginality may reflect a simple knee-jerk response (“we are oppressed”), which is hard to break, and is reflective of resistance passion plays in Cultural, Ethnic, and Women’s Studies that is simultaneously apropos and at odds with the reality of lived experience of scholars themselves: apropos because scholars of colour are indeed marginalised and tokenised, at odds because there are rewards for both sides of the token coin that work to undermine the oppression Olympics in crucial ways.
Several years ago, at a colloquium on Chicana/o Studies, a very prominent Chicana professor tenured at a top university declared to wild applause her affinity with workers in maquiladoras along the border. It wasn’t just an empathy with their struggle, but an actual identification with their status and state of being. And I wondered what exactly does a tenured professor at a private, illustrious university in the United States have in common with an underpaid, exploited, and illiterate worker in a fabrication facility in Mexico? What struck me most about this moment was the need (on the part of the tenured professor) to close the distance between herself and the object/subject of her political critique (of capitalism, of racism, of gender oppression).
So, for all our fancy talk of theories and appropriate and new approaches to the study of race and gender and sexuality, there is still a need, however inchoate or unconscious, to collapse our (real) differences in class, experience, and training, not only to advocate but to be that which we study or alternatively, represent. This conundrum leads to some strange imaginations and pathways (such as Ms. Tenured claiming identity in common with the trabajadoras in the maquila), which I would argue serve more to undermine ourselves and make us look foolish rather than truly challenge the paradigms of oppression we seek to destabilise. This, in case you haven’t figured out, is the subject of my own monograph, which I am trying to jump start this summer (more on that later), but aside from my own personal musings on the subject, I think that scholars of colour are caught in an unenviable trap between being and representation, a hole that is very hard to climb out of.
As Richard Rodriguez once said, “Success is a terrible dilemma for Mexican Americans,” and I think that holds true for many scholars of colour: sleek and professional and assimilated into the superstructure of knowledge, how do we (can we?) maintain a connection to the social movements of the sixties (and the communal experience they represent, however rightly or wrongly) grounded in a certain alterity and critical position, yet still remain ourselves (or who we have become)? For me, this is also a reason as to why the resistance pathway in Cultural Studies has been so popular among younger scholars of colour, for it gives us a way to resolve this contradiction smoothly. This could be summed up in the following utterance: “I may not be on the streets with the people, but I can represent those radical interests both in my scholarship and my professional being (the old saw of the “activist-scholar”).” Some (but not all) aspects of post-positivist realism strike me as attempting to renegotiate this old struggle with new clothes, which makes me cautious. I am not sure there is any meta-solution to the problem.
For I do think we must leave the house of comfortable things (family, community, experience) into the wide world of, to put it mildly, alienation, and we must do so openly and honestly. “You can never go home again” is the truism, one that works well in our individualist, brutal culture. And while this may be true, that doesn’t mean one cannot imagine new homes, which is what many cultural producers of colour (Moraga and Lorde immediately come to mind) have attempted to do, with uneven effect. If post-positivist realism allows this to happen more cogently, then it may prove to be useful. If, however, it turns out to be the latest coping strategy for scholars of colour looking to salvage their irredeemable, corrupted selves, then I must say no. Because for me, being irredeemably corrupted is the greater glory of what we do in the academy, it is a modus for becoming conscious of the world around us. If I didn’t want to change, I would have stayed home (and “become a mechanic,” in one of my mother’s more famous utterances/critiques of how I had changed through education). And theories (whether new or old, and which by their nature tend to be uniform and hegemonic) are little help for this paradox. This is the difficult work of the self, which while often shared and exposed, is ultimately private, tortured, idiosyncratic, and above all personal.