Voices from the Collective
Issue #20, April 1995
The last month on the Bad List has witnessed a long and often heated debate about multiculturalism. It began with a discussion of critiques of multiculturalism that have appeared in BS and with commentary on Rena Diamond's piece from our last issue, 'The Allure of Ethnic Eateries.' In the ensuing weeks it went through a series of permutations, never giving way to a new dominant thread. Rather than post just one message from the hundreds that were posted on the topic, we offer instead a series of posts that attests to the diverse sorts of arguments which the deabte inspired. In order to give a better sense of the context in which individual messages appeared, each one is prefaced with a brief editorial comment on its place in the thread. As usual, we reprint the original posts without change. We begin with the post from Allan Benamer that got the ball rolling:
Date: Sat, 18 Mar 1995 09:24:50 -0800 (PST)
From: Bad Subjects <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Multiculturalism and Bad Subjects (fwd)
To: Bad Subjects Mailing List <email@example.com>
Forwarded message Date: Sat, 18 Mar 1995 03:56:35 -0800 (PST)
From: Allan Benamer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Multiculturalism and Bad Subjects
Steven Rubio and I have had a little back and forth about how I feel about Bad Subjects and multiculturalism/identity politics but I haven't really made up my mind about what I want to say. However, I think it would help me out if I opened up my thinking process to people here on the list...
Let me say that I agree with the idea that multiculturalism has limitations especially when it comes to the formation of identity. If the conception of identity as a kind of self-marginalization based on a sense of oppression by a dominant and seemingly unstoppable majority got to the point Bad Subjects thinks it is at now then of course multiculturalisms tenets would be inimical to the creation of a shared community as well as act as an impediment to the discussion of class.
However, I've felt that the argument against identity politics presented in Bad Subjects manifestoes and in the tenor of its latest writings has been an attack on a position that's held by few within the muliticulturalist ranks (whatever those are). Im sorry if I have to argue against this argument by anecdote but really it seems this badsubjectian argument is the kind of argument where you can't bandy statistics about ala Skip, David and Ted. I think its a strawman. When I attended Cal, I was exposed to quite a variety of different groups of people and more or less I've kept in touch with them. Those people of color (gay and straight) I know who were activists then and still are now would never exclude whites from joining their ranks. Who exactly are these 'bad' multiculturalists anyway? And where can I find them? :)
My other line of thinking goes like this: Aren't there times when its crucial to respond to essentialism with essentialism??? When David Duke runs for Senator in Louisiana, it's not as if the average black person is going to worry about essentialism when she or he casts a vote against him. I, being a Filipino immigrant, do not hesitate to vote against 187 when it's clearly not in my interests. Although I agree with you that voting against 187 or Duke can be based on purely ethical notions of social justice and fairness but barring that what else are you going to appeal to?
Another thing...I guess this is a pet peeve of mine...Most of the articles presented in Bad Subjects (the online mag and the mailing list) seem to be composed of the concerns of white middle-class academics. I think you know what I mean. For instance, the article about eating out at ethnic restaurants seems to be preoccupied with discussing the position of a white person at an ethnic restaurant. I guess this is all well and good but perhaps the notion that 'hey, same-ethnicity diners exist here, too...what does that mean for my essay? What motivates them to eat here, too?' should have entered the writer's mind (and maybe the editor's) at some point in the essay.
Now I'm not saying that there needs to be MORE essentialist treatments of BS topics thats not the point of this message. Im just saying that at times, I feel a little excluded because it's painfully obvious to me that Bad Subjects articles tend to recapitulate the very points that it's trying to oppose. Some of the BS articles tend to have this Im X-so therefore I think in Y fashion type of rhetorical organization in the beginning of the articles and that is NOT what I read BS for. I think the Cynthia Hoffman and Rena Diamond articles in particular are examples of this.
I've read other people's entreaties to talk about say, a musical genre that's NOT what is commonly considered alternative rock, such as rap but only to read on that the thread was not picked up. Whats wrong? I thought most of the people on this list are cultural studies junkies? Aren't they interested in a broader range of interests???
Also, I would like to know if there are any BSers interested in attending events like those on Nathan Newman's BAYLEFT calendars. If so, I'd love to hitch a ride (or give someone one) and meet some of you. If BSers wants to make solidarity a real issue, they'd (the Bay Area ones at least) go to some of these events. I know I'll try. I'm planning on covering these events with a videocamera as I'm starting an impromptu video history (as well as getting footage for my online magazine). My magazine is based on the part of BS that I'm pretty comfortable with - it's for people of color and leftist progressives. Yeah, it can and will be shamefully essentialist at times but it's my magazine. You can always post to it... :)
Anyway, that's it. I hope the BS collective doesn't take my comments in the wrong way. I support the BS project fully. I think it's an awesome project and I love the idea of utopia more than anything else. The description of it in your manifesto nearly moves me to tears when I read it. At the very least, the image of it keeps me going.
Peace and respect,
[This message by Sanjay Kharod was a direct reply to Allan's:]
Date: Sun, 19 Mar 95 13:43:36 EST
From: Sanjay Kharod <email@example.com>
Subject: re: Multiculturalism and Bad Subjects
Why Why criticize MultiC? At the beginning of my academic career, I looked to MultiC as the project to advance Leftist politics. It isn't. In fact, I have come to a very badsubjectist position that MultiC is a form of Pomo Racism. For all of its posturing 'from the margins,' 'radical readings,' 'self-empowering' -- multiculturalism is not particularly radical at all. The new obsession with the politics of the multiculture has effaced the politics of wealth, and the very real problems of poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination and sexual inequality. The bottom line of all these academic positions is that an existing consensus in principle has to be reached, about the aims of education in a liberal democratic society. The basic tenets of 'truth,' 'meaning,' 'justice' and 'freedom' are left untouched and unquestioned, as if universal. This reminds me of a PBS panel from several years ago called 'Black and White' where Sister Souljah, ignoring the question posed to her by moderator Phil Donahue about some video footage on the lives of African-Americans, demolished the oh- too-familiar framework of the discussion with a penetrating observation: 'We don't do these little documentaries on white people and what is wrong with them. Can't we refocus the question?' The universal bases for our (multi-)culture are not being questioned.
Have you ever considered the readiness of administrators of major universities to accept what is, according to some commentators, a sweeping overhaul of history, philosophy,literature, and social science curricula? Administrators are not simply buckling under the pressure of student demonstrations nor are trustees accepting some radical agenda that they have been convinced is the way to go. Multiculturalism is simply a big-ticket player in the academy -- as big as the quasi-professional sports programs, and the federally-funded research grants. It's probably more accurate to look at the acceptance of multiculturalism as a diversification of product lines that universities have to offer. It adds to the delicacies in the global supermarket of offered courses. At the same time, economic relationships go on as they have always gone on with little notice, and the exploitation that is inherent in them go unchanged. If the inclusion of 'new voices' and 'diversity' signifies anything, it is not that capitalism is coming to an end (along with all its built-in inequities), but that it is getting its latest second wind. Behind the guise of multiculturalist discourse, what is being pushed is what most benefits the new globalized consumer economy. Just look at the melanin-diverse Benneton ads, or the globalist cheer of Coca-Cola's 'I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.' Moreover, theorizing about the transgressive narratives of a Madonna video threatens no vested interests outside the English department, least of all the record companies who happily sell their products to consumers in the dorm and the classroom.
Multiculturalism is big business; an industry that, if presented properly, can generate profits while providing a fun, educational, family-oriented experience for all (well, almost all). Multiculturalism helps to legitimize whole new areas of consumerism. It does very little to lessen the stubborn 'isms' in society. Reality, however, is elsewhere: outside our academic departments. How can we think that the emancipatory powers of multiculturalism will miraculously materialize while the conditions of life for the non-white, the non-rich, the non- male, the non- heterosexual the Others we now have given 'voice' to deteriorate dramatically? There is something wrong with this picture. Many in the academy remain caught in the multicultural food court of the Diversity Mall, the basement bazaar of difference, or the I. Magnin of identities, just talking and talking and talking.
[With this post, Vicki Rosenzweig initiated an intriguing sub-thread in which participants discussed whether it is good for people to speak as if everybody shared their experiences:]
Date: Thu, 23 Mar 95 10:14:46 EST
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Vicki Rosenzweig)
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: BS/multiculturalism/talking with the other
I think it would be interesting and a possibly useful rhetorical tactic -- if people did write essays that just said 'I' from, say, a Filipino-American perspective, or a gay perspective, or a redneck perspective. Just write, as white middle-class males have been encouraged to, from the viewpoint that of course one is what one is, and ones experiences can be adduced as relevant: it might be intriguing for (say) men to read something that assumes that they remember their first menstrual periods, as women find essays that assume they remember the first time the reader fucked a woman. (Sorry about the language, but no 'synonym' would quite convey the meaning.) After all, if there's any value to an inclusive agenda, it is precisely that it includes -- that 'I' doesn't have to be white/male/middle-class/ able-bodied/etc., and doesnt have to apologize for not being.
Vicki Rosenzweig New York, NY
[This post by Doug Henwood refocused the discussion around issues of class:]
Date: Sun, 26 Mar 1995 17:27:07 -0500
From: email@example.com (Doug Henwood)
Subject: multiculti & class
In my forays into public agitation in and around NYC, it strikes me that the culturally diverse - i.e., people of non-European origin - say things that are virtually indistinguishable from what is usually thought of as classical working class concerns. That is, they worry about incomes, health insurance, government benefits, stupid or destructive work, etc. Of course, the nonwhite working class does suffer special injury, and theres no point in making ones class concern blind to injury based specifically on 'race' or sex. But I think much of what passes for the multicultural agenda is fairly upscale in origin. And then there's bourgeois feminism, far more concerned with the 'glass ceiling' than with the fate of secretaries and Frank Purdue's chicken gutters.
[Doug's post provoked responses by a number of people, including Ted Byfield, who, along with Allan Benamer, probably posted the most messages on the multiculturalism thread as a whole. Jeffrey Levin, in turn, responded to Ted's post:]
Date: Sun, 26 Mar 1995 22:53:58 -0800 (PST)
From: 'Jeffrey P. Levin' <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: multiculti & class
To: 'T. Byfield' <email@example.com> cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
On Sun, 26 Mar 1995, T. Byfield wrote:
>And of course, multiculturalists, for any
>grouses they might make about Marxist/
>socialist programs-are Karl's great-
>grandkids. What's interesting is the way that
>many people who identify themselves as leftists
>(of many stripes) are really resistant to
>multiculturalism-even though, as you note,
>class- and culture-oriented concerns are,
>where the rubber meets the road, nearly
>identical. I've rarely seen a multiculti lay
>into Marxism/socialism without provocation, but
>it's pretty common for adherants the latter to
>set on the former.
Perhaps my own understanding of multiculturalism is skewed, but it seems to me that much of multiculturalism (and the various kinds of 'postmodern,' 'poststructuralist' theorizing that underpin it) is in fact a critique of Marxism; often the critique attacks a kind of straw person Marxism posited as completely Eurocentric, reductionist, essentialist, etc.
>So after all that, here's a Q: You say
>'there's no point in making one's class
>concern blind to injury based specifically
>on 'race' or sex,' which is right hard to
>argue with-but is doubly negative. Is there a
>point in _focusing_ one's class concern on
>injury based specifically on 'race' or sex?
>Couldn't doing so sharpen people's
>revolutionary blade, as they used to say?
For me the interesting questions lie in the areas of the intersection of race, class and gender. And unlike, say Chantal Mouffe, who has argued that 'there is no reason to privilege the discourse of class over the discourse of race, the discourse of gender, or the discourse of age,' I think that THEORY requires precisely that one go beyond merely enumerating 'factors' as explanations, and begin to think hard about the relative weight to give these factors in understanding society.
It is precisely here that I think multiculturalism fails. Marxism has, rightly or wrongly, posited a theory of history grounded in class struggle, included the notion that there are historically distinct modes of class relations slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc. Most theories of racism and sexism tend to have a far more static and ahistorical notion of racial and gender oppression -- even if there is a sense of differences throughout history, there is no notion of what causes those forms to change. I think in particular of certain notions of 'The Patriarchy.'
Now, traditional Marxism certainly has a great deal to learn about the specific manner in which race and gender shape everyday life, including consciousness and political mobilization, although much work in this area was done in the 1970s and 1980s, and Marxist socialists have for the most, in practice, tended to make race and gender secondary issues. Still, Marxism posits the notion of class struggle leading to the creation of a situation in which a classless society becomes possible. Multiculturalism rarely posits a trajectory by which racial and gender oppression would be overthrown, even if such a state of affairs is to be desired. And the whole emphasis on identity and difference makes clear that there is little notion of a 'raceless' or 'genderless' society, as opposed to notions of societies in which difference is celebrated and is not the basis for relations of domination and oppression. Hence the fact that in at least some forms, mulitculturalism seems to be more of an accomodationist strategy as opposed to a revolutionary one.
[Even as we prepare this issue, the muliculturalism thread lives on. Presently, debate is sharply polarized between those who insist that multiculturalist goals must be supplemented by Marxist ones and those who feel that Marxists treat multiculturalism unfairly.]