Monday, February 16, 2009

Ethnicity and Class, from a Werner Sollors essay

Regarding the post on Walter Benn Michaels:
One of the frequently expressed axioms in the literature on ethnicity is that ethnicity is not class. Whether scholars view this axiom with sympathy or regret, they still see the relationship of class and ethnicity as crucial… In 'The Case Against Romantic Ethnicity (1974), Gunnar Myrdal argues that the debate about ethnicity 'serves conservative and, in fact, reactionary interests' and explains: 'Its adversarial tone attracts some liberals and radicals, but since it does not raise the crucial problems of power and money, it does not really disturb the conservatives'… 'Ethnicity,' in this view, is nothing but the new clothes for the emperor class provided by conservative tailors: talking about snazzy ethnicity instead of naked class is a symptom of confusion which breeds further confusion… [Yet] Anthropologist Abner Cohen sees ethnicity as part of a power system… as a symbol system operating on all class levels. Cohen first developed his theory at the conclusion of a case study of Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns (1969)… Taking Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot… (1963) as a point of departure, Cohen writes that American 'ethnic groups are not a survival from the age of mass immigration, but new social forms. In many cases members who are third or more generation immigrants, have lost their original language and many of their distinctiveness in different ways, not because of conservatism, but because these ethnic groups are in fact interest groupings whose members share some common economic and political interests and who, therefore, stand together in the continuous competition for power with other groups.
-from "Foreword: Theories of American Ethnicity," Werner Sollors, in Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (1996) xii-xv
The Cohen quote really isolates what I think is missing in Michaels's banishment of immigrant literature and 'historical caretaking' from the future of American literature. Losing this literature would wipe away some truly valuable insights into the ways communities—often organized around ethnic lines—maneuvered to protect the interests of disadvantaged or marginalized individuals. I'm thinking of Toni Morrison, for sure, but also someone like Jhumpa Lahiri, who depicts mainly upper-middle-class South Asians in the Northeast, hardly a recipe for "class-consciousness." Yet her stories seem to me to be extremely sharp sketches of the social forms these families assume in order to succeed economically, socially, intellectually. Class arrangements, accomodations, collaborations, and oppositions are obviously all important parts of these negotiations.

For what it's worth, I think it is quite easy for such sketches to be assimilated into a generic rubric of the "immigrant narrative," a slack canvas on which are smudged unidentifiably the particularities of individual accomodations and resistances to power, the ephemeral networks and strategies created to enable alternatives to the dominant globalizing "neoliberal" culture. Lahiri could glide in next to Thomas Friedman on many a bookshelf (yech!). Yet I do not think the liability to being coöpted or misread makes these works less worthy of study; we don't stop reading Melville no matter how many bad term papers crammed with Sunday School symbolism are written in his name.

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