Todd Gitlin 1943-
American journalist, essayist, novelist, poet, critic, and historian.
The following entry presents an overview of Gitlin's career through 2002.
Former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Gitlin is a renowned historian of the 1960s and the New Left, as well as a media critic who has written extensively on media saturation and the role of television in popular culture.
Gitlin was born in New York City January 6, 1943, to Max and Dorothy Siegel Gitlin, both teachers. He attended Harvard University, where he received a B.A. in mathematics in 1963. He continued his education at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.A. in political science in 1966; and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology in 1977. During the 1960s Gitlin was active in the New Left anti-war movement, serving as president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He was a writer for the San Francisco Express Times in 1968 and 1969 and has since held a variety of teaching positions, including lectureships at San Jose State College and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He worked for seventeen years at the University of California-Berkeley, serving as assistant professor from 1978 to 1983, associate professor from 1983 to 1987, and as professor of sociology and director of the mass communications programs from 1987 to 1995. In 1995, Gitlin accepted a position as professor of culture and communication, journalism, and sociology at New York University. He has served as a visiting professor at Yale, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Iowa, the University of Oslo, and Wesleyan. Gitlin has won grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was awarded the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award in 1984 for Inside Prime Time (1983) and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize in 2000 for Sacrifice (1999). Gitlin married Laurel Cook in 1995. He is currently professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and serves as a contributing writer to Mother Jones magazine.
Gitlin's first published writing was a study co-written with Nanci Hollander titled Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago (1970). He then edited a volume of poetry called Campfires of the Resistance: Poetry from the Movement (1971), and published a poetry collection, Busy Being Born, in 1974. In 1980, he produced the first of several commentaries on American media, The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, devoted to the media's coverage of the rise and fall of Students for a Democratic Society and addressing the media's role in political movements in general. Inside Prime Time (1983), is a critical analysis of the complex power relationships between advertisers and network executives, and the role of the major television networks in setting cultural and political agendas. In 1986 Gitlin edited Watching Television, a collection of essays including Gitlin's own “Looking through the Screen,” which serves as an introduction and overview for the book, and “We Build Excitement,” his analysis of car commercials. A year later, Gitlin published The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), a political and cultural history of that decade as well as a personal account of his own evolution from a child of the liberal middle-class to the more radical SDS activist he became during that era.
In the 1990s, Gitlin turned to fiction writing while continuing to produce cultural histories and media criticism. In 1992 he published his first novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein, a mystery that takes as its premise the potential poisoning of the title character. This was followed by the award-winning novel Sacrifice in 1999. In 1995, Gitlin addressed the splintering of the Left brought about by identity politics and the political correctness movement in The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. Gitlin's most recent works are Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (2002) and Letters to a Young Activist (2003). The first offers a critique of media saturation and outlines various strategies employed by individuals attempting to cope with the all-pervasive quality of today's media; the second offers advice and inspiration to youthful advocates of social and political change.
Gitlin's work is informed by his dual perspectives as political activist and scholar, earning him “widespread respect within and outside the left for both political and intellectual integrity,” according to Don Lazare. Many critics consider The Sixties an intriguing blend of memoir and history that is balanced and fair. Several critics have noted the apparent contradiction between Gitlin's early role as a critic of established institutions, and his later roles as a faculty member of the very institutions he earlier condemned. Michael W. Hirschorn reports that Gitlin is “not the only New Left radical who has returned to the academy, the same academy that served as a spawning ground for the student movement.” Hirschorn claims that Gitlin himself sees no inconsistency in his youthful position as a leader of campus protests and his current position as tenured professor. Winifred Breines has censured The Sixties and other retrospective histories of the movement written during the 1980s, lamenting the heavily male gender composition of the 1960s protest movement. According to Breines, “Today it is precisely those white, male former new leftists who are writing, reviewing, and being written about in books on the New Left, thus eerily reconstituting the male voice that predominated twenty years ago.” One of Gitlin's most favorably received books is Inside Prime Time. According to Gaye Tuchman, the book “presents the richest information ever collected on the inner workings of America's chief culture industry.” Other commentators concur, asserting the book delivers an insightful look at insulated executives within the television industry. Gitlin's understanding of the media industry has provided a basis for his fiction writing, according to Ron Carlson. In a review of The Murder of Albert Einstein, Carlson stated: “Gitlin is at his very best in the scenes involving the media,” praising Gitlin's choice of using a television personality as a narrator within the book. The Twilight of Common Dreams was lauded by Jonathan Alter, who considers Gitlin “especially good in connecting academic fads like Michel Foucault with the descent into absurdity” represented by the political correctness movement. Other critics, such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have claimed that Gitlin's characterization of his opposition is unfair in this work, and that he fails to recognize differences existing within the right wing.
Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago [with Nanci Hollander] (essay) 1970
Campfires of the Resistance: Poetry from the Movement [editor] (poetry) 1971
Busy Being Born (poetry) 1974
The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (history) 1980
Inside Prime Time (criticism) 1983
Watching Television [editor and contributor] (essays) 1986
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (history) 1987
The Murder of Albert Einstein (novel) 1992
The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam [with Tom Wells] (history) 1994
The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (criticism) 1995
Sacrifice (novel) 1999
Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (criticism) 2002
Letters to a Young Activist (essays) 2003
SOURCE: Lazere, Don. “Social Change ‘Framed.’” Commonweal 108, no. 6 (27 March 1981): 187-89.
[In the following review of The Whole World Is Watching, Lazere contends that Gitlin's relationship to the New Left brings together a wide variety of perspectives in a clear analysis of the mass media's role in the Left's demise.]
This book [The Whole World Is Watching] gains strength from Gitlin's dual perspectives as a New Left activist (he was, in 1963-64, the third president of Students for a Democratic Society, the main movement organization studied here) and as a politically committed scholar (he now teaches sociology of literature and...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
SOURCE: Semmel, Andrew K. Review of The Whole World Is Watching, by Todd Gitlin. Political Science Quarterly 98 (winter 1983): 718-19.
[In the following review, Semmel praises The Whole World Is Watching for what he judges as its honesty and high quality research.]
Almost everyone agrees that the mass media shape the world around us, but few can agree on the extent of its influence or the consequences they have on social and political behavior. The lack of agreement stems more from the elusiveness of the subject matter than from inattention or lack of interest; indeed, in recent years, research on the media has become an academic growth industry. But...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
SOURCE: Crook, David. “The Public Images of Private Doubts.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 October 1983): 1, 9.
[In the following review of Inside Prime Time, Crook asserts that Gitlin's book contains powerful insights regarding the corporate culture of the major television networks.]
Like the Kremlin, the Big Three commercial television networks are closed, secretive, often paranoid fortresses. They are places where truth shifts cynically, where power, prestige and ideology filter through descending layers of evermore insecure bureaucracies.
They are places consumed by internal politics—who's in and who's out, who's standing next to...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
SOURCE: Tuchman, Gaye. “Making and Marketing Culture.” Commonweal 111, no. 11 (1 June 1984): 343-45.
[In the following review, Tuchman praises Inside Prime Time as cultural criticism, but suggests that analogies to similar corporate practices in other fields outside the television industry would have been helpful.]
Every now and again, a disgruntled Hollywood writer or producer, whose slightly unorthodox idea for a series has been “ruined” by the networks, bares his soul and tells all: TV chases after money. The television industry is an old boys' network of fellas out to earn the big buck by manufacturing kitsch. They use those shows to sell the largest...
(The entire section is 1249 words.)
SOURCE: McConnell, Scott. “Resurrecting the New Left.” Commentary 84, no. 4 (October 1987): 31-8.
[In the following essay, McConnell discusses The Sixties, along with other histories addressing the rise of the New Left, finding that Gitlin's account of the formation of SDS and its offshoot, the Weathermen, helps dispel some of the myths associated with those groups.]
Wrapped within the current boom in 60's rock-and-roll, and within the more elusive nostalgia for a time when drugs and promiscuous sex seemed there to be enjoyed without consequence, lies a movement to bring about a resurrection of the 60's in their specifically political aspect. The movement...
(The entire section is 7335 words.)
SOURCE: Marquand, Robert. “When Youth Rode ‘A Wave of Privileged Vision.’” Christian Science Monitor (8 January 1988): B3.
[In the following review of The Sixties, Marquand maintains that Gitlin has illuminated aspects of 1960s history not covered in the mainstream press.]
The 1960s in America were not “history as usual.” Vietnam, Freedom Rides, assassinations, sit-ins, the Summer of Love, women's liberation, student revolt, Apollo 11, the Rolling Stones—all ran together, creating a time that seemed to exist outside “normal history.”
As Todd Gitlin's excellent new work [The Sixties] shows, nowhere was this more true...
(The entire section is 1103 words.)
SOURCE: Hirschorn, Michael W. “A New-Left Challenger Comes to an Uneasy Peace with Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education 34, no. 42 (29 June 1988): A3.
[In the following essay, Hirschorn examines The Sixties, contrasting Gitlin's relationship with institutions of higher education during that period with his role as a member of the University of California, Berkeley faculty in the 1980s.]
For Todd Gitlin, a self-described “movement intellectual” of the 60's New Left, the academy has never been the ideal setting for his work.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University and a graduate student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mr....
(The entire section is 1506 words.)
SOURCE: Breines, Winifred. “Whose New Left?” Journal of American History 75, no. 2 (September 1988): 528-45.
[In the following essay, Breines compares several histories of the 1960s and claims that Gitlin's narrow male viewpoint in The Sixties overlooks the accomplishments of the women's movement and the gay rights movement.]
Most former participants who write about the movements of the sixties consider themselves wiser now than they were then. And most who write about the sixties are former participants; almost all are men. Certainly many are more cynical. James Miller freely acknowledges this: “Analyzing Rousseau, Marx and the French existentialists. …...
(The entire section is 8245 words.)
SOURCE: Hausknecht, Murray. “Generational Conflict and Left Politics.” Dissent 35, no. 4 (fall 1988): 497-500.
[In the following review, Hausknecht compares the views of Gitlin with those of two of his contemporaries regarding the generational clash between the New Left and the Old Left during the 1960s.]
The subtitle of Todd Gitlin's book about the sixties, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, echoes the famous tag, “the best of times, the worst of times.” It was an intensely political time and for some the memory shines with nostalgic glow; others remember it as quite the worst of times. Each memory suppresses the other, and what is needed, but...
(The entire section is 3234 words.)
SOURCE: Meyrowitz, Joshua. “Peering Back.” Journal of Communication 38, no. 4 (autumn 1988): 134-39.
[In the following review, Meyrowitz discusses Watching Television, maintaining that Gitlin has made a convincing case for his argument that the medium deserves more careful scrutiny than it generally receives.]
On reflection, the phrase “watching television” is as rich and complex as it first seems banal. It trips from our tongues and enters our ears dozens of times a week without much conscious thought, its meaning apparently too transparent to require elaboration or analysis. Yet hidden within it are multiple layers of potential significance....
(The entire section is 2441 words.)
SOURCE: Collins, Randall. “Searching for the Structure of the Sixties.” Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 6 (November 1988): 729-33.
[In the following review of The Sixties, Collins claims that the book suffers from a slow start and an overemphasis on the activities of the Students for a Democratic Society.]
What was the meaning of “the sixties”? More precisely, what was the meaning of those intertwined social movements in the United States that, with typical overestimation, we used to call “the Movement”? Todd Gitlin, a core activist in SDS across the decade, is exceptionally well qualified to attempt an answer. Gitlin is now a sociologist, but the...
(The entire section is 2997 words.)
SOURCE: Carlson, Ron. “Was Einstein Poisoned?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 October 1992): 4.
[In the following review, Carlson discusses Gitlin's novel The Murder of Albert Einstein, a work of suspense involving a television journalist.]
What if Albert Einstein had been murdered? What if one of the greatest minds of this century, the man credited with tearing the veil from the mystery of physics, had not died relatively peacefully in a hospital in Princeton in 1955, but had been poisoned?
Such is the premise of Todd Gitlin's first novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein, and it opens a Pandora's box of questions: Who would have...
(The entire section is 917 words.)
SOURCE: Alter, Jonathan. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. Washington Monthly 28, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1996): 55.
[In the following review, Alter discusses the excesses associated with radical multiculturalism and how such excess contributes to the decline of the Left's power.]
My idea of hell on earth would be life as a lefty professor at Berkeley in the 1980s and early 1990s. A conservative could oppose the politically correct idiocy, but as a liberal professor I would have felt obligated to uphold the basic values of my creed, while quietly enduring the most appalling manifestations of multiculturalism. Some of that is receding...
(The entire section is 783 words.)
SOURCE: Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “What Happened to the Left?” Commonweal 123, no. 6 (22 March 1996): 22-3.
[In the following review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, Fox-Genovese suggests that the main weakness of the book is Gitlin's effort to reclaim the moral high ground for the Left by dismissing the complexity of its opposition.]
Like many today, Todd Gitlin mourns the eclipse of common dreams and deplores the narrow identity politics that fuels our escalating culture wars. But, unlike many who express similar concerns, he unflinchingly writes as a man of the Left, which, notwithstanding the admirable values he defends, occasionally draws him into blind...
(The entire section is 1510 words.)
SOURCE: Bell, Elizabeth S. “He's Relatively Familiar: Albert Einstein in Contemporary American Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 19, no. 2 (summer 1996): 119-25.
[In the following essay, Bell compares Gitlin's The Murder of Albert Einstein with Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.]
Perhaps one of the truest gauges of a person's impact on culture is the limerick. With that in mind, we should check on the state of Einstein's:
There was a young lady named Bright, Who traveled much faster than light. She started one day In the relative way, And returned on the previous night.
Clifton Fadiman attributed that to Arthur Buller in...
(The entire section is 5342 words.)
SOURCE: Browning, Frank. “Identity Crisis.” Tikkun 11, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 86-9.
[In the following review, Browning compares Twilight of Common Dreams with William Connolly's The Ethos of Pluralization and finds Gitlin's text less theoretical and less practical in terms of its potential to effect social and political change.]
The time was spring 1969, the place, Paris, a year after “the events of May” when student revolutionaries had seized the streets in renewed calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was my first journey abroad and I was the guest of a generous revolutionnaire I'd met at an American conference the...
(The entire section is 3004 words.)
SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Dispatches from the Culture Wars.” Georgia Review 50, no. 3 (fall 1996): 575-83.
[In the following essay, Pinsker compares three books on the culture wars, among them The Twilight of Common Dreams, and claims that Gitlin's critique of both Left and Right is balanced and well-grounded historically.]
The marketplace of ideas has never been a refuge for the intellectually timid nor a safe haven for those who imagine that what the academy vigorously debates has no consequences beyond its ivy-covered walls. Yet one would be hard pressed to think of a time before now when the professoriate has been more divided, its squabbles more...
(The entire section is 3885 words.)
SOURCE: ETC. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. ETC. 53, no. 4 (winter 1996-97): 472-73.
[In the following review, the critic finds that The Twilight of Common Dreams offers “sensible suggestions” to both those on the Left and the Right.]
Can Whites, Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Gays, Jews, Christians, Feminists, Fundamentalists, and a host of other identity category groups get along with each other and work toward achieving justice for all? Maybe, says Todd Gitlin, a president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the Sixties, a professor of sociology at Berkeley for 16 years, and the author of...
(The entire section is 368 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, David D. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 4 (summer 1997): 433-34.
[In the following review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, Cooper summarizes Gitlin's arguments against identity politics.]
[In The Twilight of Common Dreams,] Todd Gitlin joins a small circle of public intellectuals who have managed to enter onto the battlefields of the contemporary culture wars and not come away spattered by the rancor and righteousness that too often stain debates over culture, identity, and the struggle to define an America on the threshold of a new democratic millennium. He achieves a level of...
(The entire section is 587 words.)
SOURCE: Evans, Nicola. “Identity in Question.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 1 (February 1998): 94-109.
[In the following essay, Evans takes issue with Gitlin's criticism of identity politics in The Twilight of Common Dreams.]
The quest for an identity is turning into an imperative. Since the end of the Cold War, identity has become a new way to do politics, and something new to do politics for. Nations are said to be in search of one; individuals nurture theirs; collectives of all kinds are encouraged to seek rights for their identity and defend it from the imprecations of others. More than a self-help fad or fashionable neurosis, identity talk is the language of multiculturalism and seems poised to become the currency of the public sphere. Philosopher Charles Taylor writes of a new demand for “recognition” driving contemporary social movements, a demand based on the idea that because identity “is partly shaped by recognition or its absence … nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression.”1 But the demand for recognition of distinctive identities is sending liberal ideals of a disinterested citizenship into a tailspin. Does not a working democracy require that we respect people regardless of their differences, rather than because of them? And if identities are secured by cultural attitudes and practices, is this properly a political issue at all?
In a speech given by President Clinton at San Diego University, June 14, 1997, a speech billed as the most important pronouncement on race relations of his administration, one could hear echoes of the struggle to reconcile diversity with unity.2 While supporting Martin Luther King, Jr.'s desire for a color-blind society where children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Clinton nonetheless repeatedly invites us to celebrate the visible signs of race and ethnic diversity: “Look around this crowd today. Don't you think you have learned a lot more than you would have if everybody sitting around you looked just like you?” Clinton is in search of a particular face—the face of what he calls “the real America” that he has “seen over and over again” but that we still, paradoxically, “have to make real.” Yet despite his quest for the face of unity, there is an obsessive flavor to the persistence with which Clinton remarks the variety of races assembled before him, bidding the pessimists acknowledge “how far we have come … I cannot believe they have ever seen a crowd like you.” “When I look at you,” Clinton tells the crowd, “it is almost impossible for me even to remember my own life.” The attempt both to see and not see racial difference entangles Clinton in contradictions. We should not, Clinton stresses, see race when people commit crimes—even apparently, crimes motivated by racial antagonism. If white teenagers beat up a black teenager, Clinton says, condemn the act, not the white majority. We can, however, acknowledge racial differences when they have cultural goods to offer, as Clinton, a “Scotch-Irish Southern Baptist,” professes himself “enriched by the power of the Torah, the beauty of the Koran.” Clinton tries to make identity safe for politics by removing it from the political, shunting it off into the cultural domains of festivals, food and religion. He looks forward to an America “bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.” Note the placement of “respect for differences.” It comes at the end of the sentence, once the important work of identifying “shared values” has been accomplished. Yet do not (and should not) our different identities and cultures have a say in decisions about values and aspirations?
Wherever identity or difference is voiced, it seems automatically to foreground the vexed relations between politics and culture. Consider the two criticisms most often made about identity politics. The first claims that attention to identity has driven out politics: “Identity Politics is all the rage. Exploitation is out (it is extrinsically determinist). Oppression is in (it is intrinsically personal). What is to be done has been replaced by who am I. Political culture has ceded to cultural politics.”3 Concerted action towards social change gives way to endless, fruitless marches around the identity borders, policing who comes in and out, who is really black, or authentically lesbian. Once you stretch the category of oppression to encompass cultural forms of discrimination, the critics say, you sink the term altogether, losing the ability to distinguish between a petty insult and an injustice worth fighting: “a friend could oppress with a joke, an advertisement could oppress by omission.”4 Typically some of the blame is apportioned to the postmodernists, who reduced the world to a text, producing an “overinvestment in discursive gestures, the often fatuous assumption that an alteration of textual style or nomenclature … sends shock waves to the heart of social domination.”5 From both left and right critics reproach identity politicians for a failure of nerve, a retreat from politics to the safe confines of the academy and squabbles over classical canons.
If the first objection refers us to the disappearance of politics into a series of vacuous culture wars, the second complaint against identity politics, as frequently heard, argues almost the opposite. Rather than politics collapsing into culture, culture has been subsumed by politics. Formulations of this argument range from the crude assertions of a George Will, lamenting the threat to “our” national identity posed by a Chicano Studies program, to the more liberal sentiments of Frank Lentricchia who mourns the passing of close textual criticism now that assessments of aesthetic value have given way to the knee-jerk judgments of the PC brigade. Lentricchia cites the example of a graduate student who declared authoritatively that the “first thing” to know about Faulkner is that he was a racist—which turned out to be the last thing to know also, short-circuiting any discussion of Faulkner's literary achievements.6
The assault on identity politics demands an answer from scholars of both cultural studies and rhetoric and reveals in the process many points of convergence between these two transdisciplinary fields. Cultural studies is engaged because the reaction to the perceived blurring of lines between culture and politics is often to try to redraw them. Nancy Fraser, for example, criticizes identity movements for their pursuit of social and cultural recognition in place of economic justice.7 As Iris Young notes, such reproaches renege on a fundamental insight of cultural studies, “that political economy … is through and through cultural without ceasing to be material.”8 Rhetoricians, meanwhile, find their activities challenged by the attempt, evident in both of the camps critical of identity politics, to retrench on the power of the text. Thus proponents of the culture-swallows-politics school think that we are making too much of language, overestimating its political reach. Supporters of the politics-is-destroying-culture line think we are making too little of language, but would similarly urge that we confine our attentions to its aesthetic properties, narrowly conceived, a project clearly opposed to the lifelong efforts of Kenneth Burke to make salient the sociopolitical import of categories like “imaginative writing.”9 The study of rhetoric is bound to conceptions of identity in other ways too. John Bender and David Wellberry connect the demise of classical rhetoric to the refashioning of identity by the Romantics whose vision of creative, original individuals made the very idea of rhetorical precept and precedent anathema. The return of a revamped, modern understanding of “rhetoricality” is tied to the dethroning of this magnificent ego and its replacement by shape-shifting “rootless beings” held in service to language strategies that escape conscious control.10 An even stronger case for the interdependence of rhetoric and identity is made by Edwin Black. Societies that base their identity on convictions rather than on blood lineage are likely, Black argues, to have more need of rhetorical activity since a conviction, unlike the brute fact of heredity, is something from which one can always be dissuaded.11 Here is another occasion to insist upon the need for dialogue between cultural studies and rhetoric. Aside from new technologies of reproduction like surrogate births and in vitro fertilization, that have at the very least introduced more uncertainty into biological determinations of kinship, the disclosure of the cultural codes that underwrite what is received as a brute fact and what is perceived to be man-made and therefore malleable suggests that the scope of rhetoric may be broader than Black suspects. The downgrading of anatomical proofs for race and gender has reached the point where it may soon make sense to ask, paraphrasing Richard Sennett, “when did you become black?” and “how gendered are you?”12 If culture and politics are no longer quite where we thought they were, neither is culture and nature a dichotomy on which we can continue to depend.
In this review I discuss three books that react to the contemporary obsession with identity with strategies for moving beyond some of its most unproductive impasses. The Twilight of Common Dreams by Todd Gitlin gives reasons why identity and culture are obstacles to democratic goals and argues for a wholesale change in the focus of theoretical investigations. Questions of Cultural Identity, edited by Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay features a range of attempts to rework the concept of identity in the interests of making it more theoretically useful. Lastly, The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Miller, offers us, I will argue, a different point of purchase on questions of identity.
STRATEGY ONE: BACK TO THE FUTURE
Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams is the work of a former president of the SDS and noted scholar of the sixties, and has consequently attracted attention as the first full-length assault on identity politics from the Left. For Gitlin, the current preoccupation with identity is a mirage, leading us far afield from the most urgent problem of the day: the accelerating growth in economic disparities. Gitlin prefaces his study with a vivid account of a battle over school textbooks that took place in Oakland. At issue was a set of history books that were deemed to disparage the suffering and the historical contributions of people of color. The critics of these books had, Gitlin acknowledges, many legitimate complaints, such as an account of Thanksgiving that neglected to mention that Puritans slaughtered Indians. Unfortunately these valid objections were intermingled with trivial criticisms reflecting the opponents' conviction that a white editorial board could never do justice to their concerns. The discussion degenerated into vitriolic name-calling and the children ended up with no history textbooks at all. With this account Gitlin ranges himself alongside those who argue that under the auspices of identity, politics has degenerated into cultural pettiness. The opponents of the textbooks could better have spent their energies, Gitlin notes, by protesting the appalling state cutbacks in funding for education in the Oakland region.
When did this obsession with identity arise? Gitlin traces the emergence of identity politics to the demise of universalist Enlightenment ideals that underwrote both the socialist aspirations of the Left, and a nationalist confidence in America as the place where universal equality might be realized. Gitlin's strategy for overcoming the excesses of identity politics involves a journey back into the past to reconnect with these older verities, and thus rebuild the kinds of majoritarian movements capable of winning elections and addressing the economic problems that affect people across identity boundaries. To see why Gitlin would have us journey back into the past we must understand what he believes to be fundamentally different about contemporary identity politics when compared with sectarian movements in earlier eras. What is new about identity politics, according to Gitlin, is that the desire to transcend group differences by establishing a larger community of “Americans” or a global association of “workers” is no longer perceived as a valid objective. Whereas early phases of the New Left could still produce optimistic documents like the Port Huron Statement, brandishing terms like “human brotherhood,” for succeeding movements agitating in favor of blacks, women and gays, the very notion of commonality became poisonous. The dream of a unified America was either “a hoax or a menace,” but at any rate no longer desirable.
The mauling of notions such as “truth” and “reason” by philosophers from Nietzsche onwards added to the growing sense that lofty talk of a universal humanity was a dirty trick played by white males to ensure their continued hegemony. The struggle for common dreams of any scope lost ground, as a series of difference-bound groups hurtled back into their respective histories to find materials for a culture of their own that could restore self-respect and provide a bulwark against the exclusions and inequities they suffered in the public realm. This turning inward to explore cultural identity was further aided by European theorists who affirmed that everything from fashion to shopping was political—a handy excuse in Gitlin's eyes for the “surrogate politics” of campus groups holding Asian American evenings in order not to have to face the real political battles for voting membership: “If the Right held political power, what did it matter? This bad deal felt even better than compensation. It felt like an opportunity to change life—immediate lived life—through direct action. And so the blurring of the line between culture and politics perfectly suited the movements that succeeded the New Left. They had vernaculars, turfs, sectoral music and literature to protect” (152).
Against what he identifies as the too massive equation of cultural practices with political realities, Gitlin would have us shrink the category of “oppression” back to where it refers solely to economic exploitation and racial antagonism. The project of rebuilding a Left that could cement together a majority must recognize that the “deepest sources of social misery” are economic (“it's the economy, stupid!”). It must find ways of appealing to its “natural constituencies … the poor, those fearful of being poor” (237).
The story Gitlin tells is of a nation that once looked ahead and saw visions of equality to a nation of cultural ostriches who dig themselves deep into the sand, and safely ensconced, exchange identity slogans like insults, secure (or trapped) in the illusion that black cannot understand white, male cannot empathize or perhaps even communicate with female, gay cannot teach straight and so on—a presumption that, Gitlin points out, may ironically be the most entrenched universalist premise of all. Identity politics seduces because it offers people, in Gitlin's words, a “still turning point,” a place to hang one's hat, as the certainties once furnished by family, church and blood kinship fade. But this love is a false one and it will lead us, like Merlin, to nowhere but small dank caves.
Gitlin's book is valuable as the first attempt to set identity politics in historical perspective. He offers, moreover many sensible criticisms of the idea that identity is a sure foundation for politics. “How men and women think,” he points out, “is not simply a function of what they have seen or felt in their lives” (200). Identity is not sufficiently stable or singular to offer a firm basis from which to derive a philosophy, or a course of action. Even within a person's life, identities overlap, compete, and change. Yet we should be clear on who exactly Gitlin is asking to forgo their commitments to particular identities. In an affecting anecdote, Gitlin in his role as a professor at Berkeley tells of a white male student who came to ask his opinion on whether or not to join a white student association that was organizing in response to the increasing number of ethnic based groups on campus. The student was “timid, softspoken,” without the “swagger or truculence of a white supremacist.” Sympathizing with his plight, Gitlin nonetheless advised the student on the dangers of organizing around membership in the dominant race and sent the student away “unhappy—possibly less lonely, having gotten his professor's attention, but no better equipped with a hard-and-fast identity” (122). One wonders why the professor did not use this opportunity to alert the student to his multiple identities, to the chance of finding a home in a non-racially oriented group. One may wonder, too, why the discomfort of those who are summoned to question their privilege is so often presented as more worrying than the more-than-discomfort felt by those who continue to suffer from discrimination. Gitlin asserts that there are practical reasons to pay attention to the discomfort of students like this one. Accusations against white men risk alienating a crucial voting bloc, and “a Left that was serious about winning political power and reducing the inequality of wealth and income would stop lambasting all white men, and would take it as elementary to reduce frictions among white men, blacks, white women, and Hispanics” (234). The suggestion that white men should be appeased for the sake of winning elections echoes unpleasantly the “wait until after the revolution” admonitions addressed to feminists, among others, in the sixties, whose unwillingness to wait launched us, according to Gitlin's history, on the road to identity politics in the first place. Could we not envisage a critique of white male institutions (which is not the same as lambasting white men) that might encourage white men to vote for social change? The growing numbers of male feminists and the emergence of “men's studies” interrogating constructions of masculinity across class, race and sexuality suggest that such alliances are not unimaginable.
What I find strange in Gitlin's critique is the failure to acknowledge those scholars of race, gender and sexual identity who have sought to take us beyond a simple doctrinal sense of identity. For example, the perils of assuming identity as a fixed point of departure for political practice, the problem that race, class and other differences between women make activism in the name of “women” suspect, and at the same time the absolute necessity of continuing to invoke gender when people are oppressed on that basis are all matters that have been exhaustively debated by feminists, most often under the rubric of “essentialism” and “antiessentialism.”13 Work that reconceptualizes identity as “process, as performance, and as provisional,”14 an invitation to rhetoric, as Burke would have it, rather than rhetoric's a priori, all bespeak a conception of identities as positions creatively deployed, rather than graves in which we bury the possibility of change. At times this lack of attention to other work on identity leads Gitlin to ride roughshod over important distinctions. For example, Gitlin lumps “queer studies” in with the move to create African American Studies and Chicano programs, ignoring the fact that queer theorizing arose to challenge precisely the kind of monological identity thinking that Gitlin decries.15 The caricature of postmodernism that Gitlin advances (“The whole edifice of postmodern theorizing is topped by a spire flashing a single slogan: ‘objectivity … is only another word for white male subjectivity” ) belies the fact that postmodernists have consistently opposed the reduction of epistemology to simple identity categories.16
Gitlin sums up identity politics as an error: “the recognition of a collective hurt, followed by the mistaking of a group position for a ‘culture,’ followed by the mistaking of a ‘culture’ for a politics” (147-48). Granted that terms such as “oppression” and “resistance” may have been overused, to respond by scrapping all attention to identity and culture seems extreme. In certain locales where legal restrictions on access to resources have been removed, culture may in fact be the key conduit for discrimination, ensuring that no more than lip service is paid to the new legal and policy arrangements, as the recent exposure of racism in the corporate culture of Texaco should remind us. In any case, the idea that we return to politics following this diversionary obsession with culture contradicts Gitlin's own assertion that what is needed to revive the Left is a “culture of commonality”: What might a culture of commonality look like? After this promising start at acknowledging that culture has a role to play, Gitlin has only some weak Habermassian sentiments to offer: what we need, he suggests, is some “sensible conversation.” But as David Simpson points out, conversation is better conceived as the reward for overcoming differences, not the means for attaining this goal.17 If economic equality is the goal that is being overlooked, why are people failing to be seduced by it? Gitlin's argument that identity groups provided a replacement for traditional attachments to kin and nation might explain the rise of identity politics in general, but it does not explain why certain people gravitate to particular identities. Why does one person privilege race at the expense of gender? Why do some ignore both and choose instead to work for the environment? Are these mere diversions from politics, or alternative ways of expressing citizenship? Simply telling such people—however reasonably—that they should be using their energies to develop an economic citizenship is probably not going to tempt the ostrich heads out of the sand.
Throughout his book, Gitlin remains certain of where politics takes place. Real politics is what happen at the voting booth, political issues are economic issues and both are to be clearly demarcated from what goes on in the name of culture. The decision to define ahead of time what identities (American, Left) and what endeavors will count as political is an odd move to make, given the emphasis Gitlin places on looking to the future rather than to the past. A key insight of the poststructuralists that Gitlin indicts is that how power is exercised and therefore what counts as “politics” is not invariable across time and space. For Foucault, the practice of political criticism demands flexibility: “the problem is not so much that of defining a political ‘position’ (which is to choose from a preexisting set of possibilities) but to imagine and to bring into being new schemas of politicization. If ‘politicization’ means falling back on ready-made choices and institutions, then the effort of analysis involved in uncovering the relations of force and mechanisms of power is not worthwhile.”18 One may read Gitlin's final remarks that identity politics has left the “centers of power undisturbed” ironically, as the failure not of the movements to leave the margins, but their failure to budge Gitlin and scholars like him one inch from their sense of what is significant and what irrelevant to disturbing those centers of power.
STRATEGY TWO: CHANGING THE QUESTION
Questions of Cultural Identity is a collection of essays that does precisely what its title promises, treating culture and identity as subjects for investigation, rather than as founding assumptions. The essays are written from diverse theoretical perspectives and cover considerable ground, ranging from Nikolas Rose's Foucauldian prospectus for the study of microcosmic practices of the self to Zygmunt Bauman's historical overview that moves from the premodern to the postmodern era to track the emergence of identity as a locus of struggle. No effort is made to fit the contributions into an organizing architecture; Stuart Hall's introductory essay is less an attempt to plot the territory covered by the authors than a sophisticated account of the kinds of theoretical work the concept of identity is still called upon to do. This means that the reader has to work a little harder to establish connections between the essays. One theme that does emerge, however, is a general dissatisfaction with the way cultural identity is talked about in theory and used in politics. Rather than abandoning the concept, the authors rethink the questions of how, when, and in what forms identity and culture should matter to a progressive politics. This effort resolves itself into two recurring moves. The first move cracks open the categories of “politics” and “culture” and challenges assumptions about what activities and attitudes these labels describe. As several of these essays demonstrate, what goes on in the name of “culture” or “politics” may be radically at odds with the rhetorical work performed by these terms. The second move involves an effort to look past the identities that routinely feature in discussions of culture to uncover more inventive groupings. Instead of essays on race, sexual identity and class, we find a discussion of the “bureaucrat” and the “citizen” alongside meditations on how the experience and conceptualization of time and space form the basis for collective identifications. Both strategies invite us to question what we know about concepts such as ‘culture’, to be more flexible in where we seek evidence of politics, and to be more imaginative in the types of identifications we envisage.
Three essays in particular interrogate the facile opposition of culture and politics in critiques of identity politics. The contributions of Paul du Gay and Kevin Robins remind us that culture has become a preoccupation of state governments as much as grass roots activists. Robins reports on a century of efforts by successive administrations in Turkey to suppress and later resuscitate a collective cultural identity for the Turkish people. Such shifts are situated in the context of Turkey's conflicted relations with Europe, especially the damage wrought by Europe's self-appointed status as the modern destiny of its “less developed” neighbors. Robins's history depends upon recognizing a greater fluidity in the scope and significance of what counts as “culture” or “politics.” Under the leadership of Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, traditional Islamic values were harnessed to a nation-wide project of stimulating economic change, in order to achieve what Ozal called a “mental revolution.” Thus religion, superficially a “cultural matter,” expanded to take on some of the responsibilities of formal political bodies.
A second essay focusing on the interventions of culture into formal politics is Paul du Gay's analysis of changes in the British civil service. Du Gay observes that current initiatives to improve the efficiency of the service are likely to be framed as “cultural crusades,” an ironic development since the objective of these reforms is to transform the civil servant from a “bureaucrat” to an “entrepreneur.” Gay's chief concern here is whether the new emphasis on profit, and the corollary shift in the identity of the public from “constituency” to “consumers” sacrifices the valuable disinterest that a bureaucratic ethos encouraged. However, his opening remarks make a crucial point. As a concept bearing connotations of choice, pleasure and freedom, “culture” is a useful flag to wave for groups wishing to disguise the authoritarian character of their projects. British theorists are well positioned to understand the dangers of this manipulation of cultural terms, given the infamous success of the Thatcher government in implementing blatantly racist policies under the cover of an appeal to a traditional “British culture.”19
Whereas the essays by Robins and du Gay draw attention to the uses of culture as a vehicle for the pursuit (or disguise) of conventional political objectives, Simon Frith's essay on popular music goes a step further by proposing that culture may be a protopolitical form in and of itself. Frith begins by taking issue with the brand of cultural essentialism that simplistically maps music and other aesthetic forms onto sociological categories, finding, for example, in rap the expression of a purely African American sensibility. The idea is of course not entirely new. Post-Marxists have been working for some time to attenuate relations between base and superstructure and oppose the reduction of aesthetic experience to its social conditions of production. However, Frith makes a valuable contribution to this work by bidding us to attend to the communal values and social interactions that are experienced through the performance of culture: “What I want to suggest, in other words, is not that social groups agree on values which are then expressed in their cultural activities … but that they only get to know themselves as groups (as a particular organization of individual and social interests, of sameness and difference) through cultural activity, through aesthetic judgement” (111). Thus the act of joining a group to listen to, dance to or otherwise experience a performance of music affords an opportunity to rehearse political and social identities. Music offers a workout for the political imagination, fashioning novel collectivities and thus demonstrating that culture can be a force for alliances across identity boundaries, rather than imprisoning us within them.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once observed that for all the talk of differences, it is striking how few tools we have for recognizing the myriad ways in which people differ from one another: “A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions.”20 In Questions, the effort to expand the theorist's toolbox is evident in several essays that explore time and space as bases for cultural identity. Lawrence Grossberg's essay partakes of the increasing enthusiasm among political and cultural theorists for exploring ways in which space inscribes ideology into our daily environments.21 Expressing doubts that identity can continue to “define the appropriate models and sites of political struggles,” Grossberg proposes to distinguish identity from agency, seeing agency as conditioned less by physical characteristics than by the ability to access spaces and places and mobilize within them. Thus “different maps of spatial existence” may be more useful in accounting for the Los Angeles riots than ethnic and racial divisions, “since the ethnic identifications were often mistaken in their simplicity” (101). Conversely, an essay by Homi Bhabha focuses on time as a candidate for charting social divisions. Bhabha addresses what Arjun Appadurai once called the “hegemony of Eurochronology,”22 showing how Europeans use time as a criterion of worth in identifying social collectives and judging between them. In particular, Bhabha gestures towards liberal multiculturalism which, despite its urgent desire to pay respect to other cultures, vitiates the concept of respect by first refusing to recognize as a culture anything that does not meet a certain standard of longevity.23
Bhabha's work points to the popularity of time as a determinant of identity. We have grown accustomed to a terminology that recognizes other societies by their position in the flow of history. Are they postcolonial or neocolonial, upstream or downstream from postmodernism, developing or developed? Such descriptions are governed by a perception of time as a constant stream moving in only one direction. In one of the most original contributions to this collection, Marilyn Strathern offers a reading of kinship that requires rethinking how we talk about time. The context for Strathern's discussion is the new reproductive technologies and their effects on the way we draw on blood relations to establish our identity. If advances in techniques of fertilization have produced innovative family forms, permitting the so-called “virgin births,” they have simultaneously extended the options for creating traditional families, since more couples can have children. Instead of moving us from traditional to modern kinship arrangements, technologies of reproduction and genetic typing have created more tradition and more innovation. Strathern's analysis takes the straight arrow of time and bends it round into the shape of a U, inviting us to imagine that we are at both ends of the continuum at the same time. The beauty of this move is that it promises to halt the debate between those who stress the boom in authentic, stable identities, and those who point instead to the arrival of forms of “symbolic ethnicity” and see a public engaged in opportunistically trading one identity for another, like costumes off a peg. Perhaps, as Strathern suggests, there is simply more of everything.
If people seem to need identities, or at least to need the political capital that accrues to those in possession of the right identity, do theorists need the concept of identity? They do according to Hall, who poses this question in the essay that opens this anthology. Theorists, he suggests, need identity as a placemarker for something we do not know, a missing link between two larger problematics we know quite a bit about. For Hall, this missing link is the relationship between institutional life and the interior landscapes of the self. For other thinkers, identity might stand for what is unknown about the meshings of power and resistance, culture and politics. However this missing link is conceived, each of the essays in this volume do their part to make identity less recognizable, so as to remind us that identity stands for something we do not yet fully understand. Hall's own way of defamiliarizing identity is the deceptively simple suggestion that we shift focus from “identity” to examining the process of “identification,” including both the way people are discursively interpellated into certain positions, and the process by which people are brought to invest in or contest their assigned positions. Turning the noun into a verb has the advantage of transforming identity into something more precarious and variable, making it seem less like a fully furnished house in which we simply take up residence.24 However, the task of putting identity in question cannot rest there. When we identify someone as black or when we self-identify that way, what is it that we think we know or do not need to ask about the feelings, cognitions, cultural preferences and political agendas of that person? What, if anything, are we entitled to presume?
STRATEGY THREE: REVERSING THE QUESTION
Psychoanalysts distinguish between “identifying as,” the act whereby one recognizes persons or objects (including oneself) as a member of a category, and “identifying with,” a mode of relating oneself to other people that spans the gamut from empathy and imitation to wholesale commitment and internalization.25 In the oversimplified terms of identity politics, the act of identifying as African American, for example, is presumed to command an automatic identification with other African Americans and to pose self-evident barriers to identifying with members of other races. Not only does the complexity of people's multiple identifications make nonsense of this claim, but the categories themselves do not always function in ways consistent with their key attributes. Cherríe Moraga, a Chicana lesbian feminist theorist, once wrote that her lesbian self-identification turned her white in the eyes of many Chicanos for whom homosexuality was a corruption introduced by Europeans.26 Here a sexual identification behaves like a racial one. Or take Gloria Anzaldua's description of what it means for Chicanos to talk of being Mexican: “Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul—not one of mind, not one of citizenship.”27 Here we have a territorial, juridical identity experienced in the intimate, poetic terms more often reserved for moral discourse about the self. The problem is that the relatively few axes we use to locate ourselves and others, to predict behavior and intuit attitudes—race, religion, nationality and so forth—are themselves unstable and impossibly simplistic. Using gender to understand a person's political affiliations or cultural agenda is like using a map of the continents to find one's way around a small town in Texas. Supposing we were to reverse the order of inquiry and, instead of starting with identity, start with the ideas, feelings, tastes and behaviors that bind and divide us?
This approach describes the argument developed in William Miller's Anatomy of Disgust. Miller tracks the emotion of disgust across vast territories, from the way it regulates moral domains, to its role in love and sexual relations, to its appearance as a key site of tension between the bourgeoisie and the working classes in the writings of George Orwell. In so doing, Miller offers ways we might learn from culture to do politics, a point to which I shall return later. More profoundly, Miller's work hints that the way we define disgust reveals a fundamental aversion to making connections with other people. Many of the norms of civility that society evolves seem from this perspective designed to keep other people at a safe distance. What Miller uncovers about disgust in social and political arenas is, in other words, a salutary corrective to the assumption that identifying with other people is either predictable or easy.
Among the collection of emotions we use to record negative reactions, such as fear, horror, irritation and contempt, disgust is a heavyweight because the rejection of the disgusting object is registered in highly physical ways. The first half of Miller's book examines the qualities and substances most likely to provoke such a strong reaction. Sliminess, stickiness, greasiness are disgusting, as are the creatures that embody these qualities—snakes, newts, and the like. Excrement, semen, menstrual blood, skin lesions oozing with pus were as repellent to people in the Middle Ages as they are now. From Miller's fascinating documentation of the visual, tactile properties of disgust's domain, a striking theme emerges. Those things that disgust hold the potential to disturb the boundaries between self and other. Objects that are greasy and slimy disgust because they stick to us, disturbing the body's ability to separate itself from its external environment. Likewise, substances such as excrement and menstrual blood upset the body's intactness from within, breaching the fragile encasement of the skin that keeps our insides from leaching into the external world. Rotting vegetation, a standing pool, a teeming swamp occasion disgust not because they are sites of decay, but because they intolerably mix life with death, drawing attention to the way in which our own bodies may become in death the compost for future life forms. Miller's survey of disgust builds to a bold conclusion: other people are capable of arousing disgust simply by virtue of being other and thereby threatening the illusion of a self-bounded, self-constituted self: “The closer you get to me without my consent or without readily discernible justification or excuse, the more alarming, dangerous, disgusting you become, even without considering your hygiene. … Contamination, pollution and the capacity to disgust are inherent in your youness. You are dangerous simply by being you and not me” (50-51). It may be useful to read this argument alongside Jonathan Dollimore's observation that forms of prejudice against people of a particular identity may be a defense against “an interconnectedness so radical that most societies believing in the Individual, Man and Human Nature have to disavow it.” Accordingly, “discrimination may operate not in spite of our sameness, but because of it; sameness, far from being what (e.g.) the racist or the homophobe simply fails to see—that which, when recognized, will disarm him or her (‘can't you see, we're all the same really, the same underneath?’)—can become the focus of racism and homophobia.”28
In the final chapters Miller considers how disgust enters into social and political hierarchies through a close reading of The Road to Wigan Pier, the book in which George Orwell, a middle class Englishman with socialist leanings, recounts his experiences living with the homeless. An insight Orwell culled from his journey into the slums and back streets of London was that no matter how much the bourgeoisie extolled the proletariat and trumpeted their egalitarian objectives, a fundamental revulsion remained for the working classes' personal and social habits. “The real secret of class distinctions in the West” writes Orwell, “the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort, think of a working man as his equal … is summed up in four frightful words. The lower classes smell” (qtd. in Miller, 240). Hierarchies backed by an embodied repulsion like disgust remain firm in the face of the most enlightened calls for solidarity. “Table manners,” Miller remarks, “are now sufficient to stop political movements dead in their tracks” (241-42).
Why should differences in hygiene or the sight of someone slurping their soup produce such a strong, visceral response in Orwell and his middle class peers—why did such sights not merely irritate or offend? Miller answers this in part by describing an encounter with a builder he hired to work on his house. As Miller returns home, the builder pauses to ask Miller's wife scornfully “Is he a teacher?” before continuing his work with marked indifference. Miller styles this attitude of barely suppressed derision “upward contempt” given that it is directed by those low in social hierarchies at those who are placed above them. The emotion that this encounter generated in Miller was quite different. The author felt disgust for the workman, for his tattoos and his ill-fitting jeans, and it is in exploring his own decidedly improper response that he clarifies for us how disgust operates politically. Miller's disgust is not prompted simply by the class trappings of the builder, but appears when the open contempt displayed by the workman threatens his superior status as a white collar professional. Disgust, then, is engendered less by “inferior” cultural practices than by the perception that the lowly are moving out of place to menace the position of the high. It was not until the advent of democratic principles that questioned the subordination of the working class, Miller observes, that the latter “began to reek seriously” (254). This answer returns us to the theme of the first half of the book. It is the commingling of things that should remain separate that most powerfully provokes disgust, the intermixing of death and generation, self and other, the high and the low.
Before considering the implications of this argument, it is worth stressing what Miller gains by organizing his inquiry to begin with an emotion rather than with an identity. By starting with disgust, Miller produces different maps of the polity and of the body. Instead of the routinely raced and sexed body, we have Miller's taxonomy of various body parts—skin, hair and orifices—in terms of the amount of disgust they are subject to, producing a kind of chart of the culturally charged “hot spots” on the body's surface. Tracking disgust across the body politic may similarly locate the social hot spots of contention, revealing which boundaries, by virtue of the disgust their crossing inspires, are felt to be most at risk. More than this, by beginning with disgust and ending with class, Miller foregrounds the potential discrepancy between the identifications that win our political and moral allegiance, and the identifications we live in practice. Orwell's story of a zeal for equality thwarted by a middle class upbringing is not a new story, but it is one that is not sufficiently registered in theory. Too often, everyday practices are viewed as the behavior that must be brought into line with the theoretical commitments one has made. Yet practice is often a way into (and out of) political allegiances, and not merely the labor that must commence after the idea has been embraced. Practices are themselves a mode of discovering, learning and revising, not simply the drudges that plod after theory, implementing its insights.
Yet we might wonder, after this survey of the misanthropic expressions of disgust, where this leaves us with regard to coalition making. If class hierarchies may be powered by disgust, if other people carry an inherent potential or evoke disgust simply by being other and not self, how are connections, relationships of any kind ever made? And how are we to lift these impressively visceral barriers? Not that disgust is entirely incompatible with connection, a fact that surfaces in Miller's discussion of desire. Because disgust by definition bars us from looking at or even touching certain objects or people, it invests these creatures with all the allure of the forbidden on which desire depends. Translated into the social realm, the symbiosis of desire and disgust may shed light on the practice of “slumming,” the fascinations of rubbernecking, not to mention the kind of repelled fascination for the Orient exhibited by imperialist adventurers like Kipling and Lawrence. Of course, the intertwining of disgust with desire is hardly a good basis for sorties across identity lines, given that the desire to cross the line depends on the other remaining alluringly disgusting. However, Miller goes further. Disgust, he suggests, is not just compatible with desire, it may have a defining role in relationships of love. Entry into a love relationship requires a scaling back of disgust. Whether the loved one is a parent or partner, we tend to grant them special prerogatives to be disgusting and demand that they reciprocate. For Miller, it is precisely these special dispensations that help to confirm the uniqueness of the relationship, identifying it as love rather than something more casual.
Does this mean that the overcoming of a class prejudice might require political connections to take on the semblance of love? A strong version of this claim can surely not be supported. The definition of love depends in part on its remaining distinct from other kinds of relations. We could, however, speculate on the merits of understanding political relations to need a few of the traits that we routinely expect from personal affiliations. Consider that when a person chooses a love partner, we would not anticipate the choice to center exclusively on race or class (although such factors may certainly contribute), because a love relationship, we recognize, requires passion, commitment, and perhaps lifelong labor in close proximity. Yet we continue to talk as though political allegiances could be based solely on a racial identity or a sexual identity, even though such political relations, we recognize, require passion, commitment and very often lifelong labor in close proximity.
In sum, Miller's work offers an opportunity to apply the insights of culture to well-established foci of political attention such as class. Rather than simply abandoning cultural identity as Gitlin would have us do, one can choose to dig deeper into the complexities of identification in order to discover why certain cross-identity alliances are being made and why others seem unimaginable. One might use culture here to reinvent politics (rather than replace it) by allowing us to rethink the elements required of political versus personal connections. A discussion of the finely scaled and intricately overlapping sentiments that are in play in the political identifications and self-identifications we make are not matters likely to enter into the “sensible conversation” that Gitlin sought as a means of getting beyond identity politics. But perhaps they should be.
CONCLUSION: A POLITICS OF SURPRISE
For Burke, identification was the most important political work a critical rhetor could perform. The task of identifying the ways in which discursive actors are rhetorically aligned with hegemonic forces, enrolled in armies they may be wholly unaware of having joined, was a necessary prelude to fashioning counterhegemonic perspectives.29 But identification, or in the current parlance “recognition” of our attachments to social groupings is a double-edged sword. Insofar as to “recognize” means to acknowledge something we have seen before, then the act of recognizing race, gender and the like, seems destined to hold us back from understanding more about how these identities work and in what contexts they are salient. Faulkner is a racist—enough said, because we know what that means. But do we? Does racism not have its own richly diverse repertoire of languages, degrees of intensity, varied rationales, emotions and memberships? An emphasis on recognition limits us to the fixed set of identities already salient to us. Christina Crosby has warned of the risks to theory when its subject matter is determined in advance. When theory is reduced to contemplating the facts that history already seems to have provided us with, “the relationship then between ‘the real’ and knowledge of the real, between ‘facts’ and theory, history and theory is occluded … theory becomes, as Althusser says, nothing but ‘historical methodology,’ a circularity in which only what is already known—differences, for example—can be seen.”30 So what might thinking differently about identity look like? How might we suspend the act of identification and permit what we do not know about identities to surface?
If we imagine identity as a sliding counter on a continuum stretching between culture and politics, then to date identity has been heavily tilted towards the culture end of that continuum. It is for this reason that Gitlin, defining culture narrowly, finds identity to be out of place in political arenas. However, identity and culture creep back in. Gitlin's quarrel proves to be less with identity per se, than with the threatened erosion of the identities he would conserve: America, and the Left. The contributors to Questions of Identity try a number of approaches designed to move identity closer to the political end of the continuum. In part, this effort involves looking past the racial, sexual and class identifications we recognize to new connections based on time and space that we may not have imagined. In part, the contributors show us that culture and politics are themselves in motion, terms that direct us to varying sets of practices and ideas. Finally, Miller's exploration of disgust shows us that culture still has much to teach us about how we do politics. Returning to the microcosm of daily interactions, his analysis of an emotion adds to our knowledge of how political identifications are enhanced or impeded, and suggests what we still need to understand about forming connections with other people in order to construct lasting, effective political alliances.
When Descartes enumerated the six primitive passions of the soul, he chose to deal first with the concept “wonder,” which he defined as “a sudden surprise of the soul causing it to consider with attention those objects which seem to it novel and unexpected.” Wonder was for Descartes the faculty that made philosophy and the sciences possible; those, he noted ominously, who lack this passion “are usually very ignorant.”31 Descartes's description of wonder as the kind of powerful surprise that can transfix the soul and immobilize the body reminds me of President Clinton, whose confident journey towards the familiar face of a united America appeared to be derailed by the sight of his audience, causing his rhetoric to circle and fixate on the insurmountable fact of diversity. In another context, Stephen Heath speculated that an attitude of wonder and the willingness to concede what is unknown, might be a necessary antidote to the will to power in knowledge.32 In the sphere of identity, one might posit that the willingness to be surprised by what one sees must be retained to balance the homogenizing force of a recognition. If “identity” is not to become a slogan foreclosing on future inquiry, then our capacity to bestow recognition must be paired with a readiness to withdraw it, putting identity back in question.
Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994) 25.
President William Clinton, “Remarks by the President at University of California at San Diego Commencement,” 14 June 1997, online posting.
Jenny Bourne, “Homelands of the Mind: Jewish Feminism and Identity Politics,” Race & Class 24 (1987): 1.
Jennifer Wicke, “Postmodern Identities and the Politics of the (Legal) Subject,” Boundary 2 19 (1992): 32. Note that Wicke is summarizing criticisms of postmodernist work, not endorsing them.
George Will, “Literary Politics,” Newsweek 22 April 1991: 72; Frank Lentricchia, “Goodbye to All That: A Literary Critic Turns in His Badge.” Lingua Franca 6 (1996): 59-67.
Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” New Left Review 212 (1995): 68-93.
Iris Young, “Unruly Categories: A Critique of Nancy Fraser's Dual Systems Theory,” New Left Review 222 (1997): 154.
See, e.g., Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: U of California P, 1950).
John Bender and David E. Wellbery, eds., The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992).
Edwin Black, “Idioms of Social Identity,” Rhetorical Questions: Studies of Public Discourse (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992) 21-51.
Richard Sennett, “The Rhetoric of Ethnic Identity,” The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice 205.
For examples of feminist scholarship interrogating the essentialism of identity politics, see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1991); and a special issue of the journal Differences (1989) on essentialism. For work that tackles the dangers of dismissing identity altogether in an effort to be strictly antiessentialist, see Susan Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism,” Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990) 133-56; Anthony K. Appiah, “African Identities,” Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics, ed. Linda J. Nicholson and Steven Seidman (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995) 103-15; and Tania Modleski, Feminism without Women (New York: Routledge, 1991). An introduction to work on the metaphoric status of “race” and the shifting communities it describes is Henry Louis Gates Jr., Race, Writing, and Difference (Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 1986). See also Kobena Mercer, “‘1968’: Periodizing postmodern politics and identity,” Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992) 424-37; and Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, “De Margin and De Centre,” Screen 29 (1988): 2-11.
Liz Bondi, “Locating Identity Politics,” Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (New York: Routledge, 1993) 97.
Queer politics celebrates vagrancy and a mission to interfere in many of the sedimented frames of identity politics. According to Michael Warner, “For both academics and activists, ‘queer’ gets a critical edge by defining itself against the normal rather than heterosexual, and normal includes normal business in the academy.” Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993) xxvi.
See, for example, Donna Haraway's widely cited essay that critiques attempts to infer a politics or an epistemology from a framework of gender or class, exclusively. Donna Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108.
David Simpson, “The Cult of ‘Conversation’,” Raritan 16 (1997): 75-85.
Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 190.
Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Culture (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1993) 23-29.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990) 22.
For an introduction to work on space and identity, see Michael Keith and Steve Pile eds., Place and the Politics of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy,” The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993) 269-96.
Bhabha's example is Charles Taylor's casual exclusion of “partial cultures” from his discussion of multiculturalism, confining his attention to cultures that have animated societies over long periods of time. See Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984) 66.
Refocusing inquiry on “identification” also places Stuart Hall squarely in Burkean territory. The dialogue that this paper invites between cultural studies and rhetoric might begin with a fuller exploration of this term which appears central to both fields. For further examples of rhetorical approaches to identity, see Christine Oravec, “Kenneth Burke's Concept of Association and the Complexity of Identity,” The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984) 174-95; Michael C. McGee, “In Search of ‘the People’: A Rhetorical Alternative,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 235-49; Philip Wander, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory,” Central States Speech Journal 35 (1984): 197-216; Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the People Québécois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 133-50; and, most recently, Barbara Biesecker, Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997) esp. 40-51.
Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973) 205-6.
Cherríe Moraga, “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 184.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987) 62.
Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 229.
Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983) 148-50.
Christina Crosby, “Dealing with Differences,” Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Jean W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992) 136-37.
René Descartes, Descartes' Philosophical Writings, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1952) 308-11.
Stephen Heath, “Male Feminism,” Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Routledge, 1987) 29-30.
Nicola Evans is Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech Communication, Indiana University, Bloomington. The author is greatly indebted to John Lucaites for his critiques of earlier drafts of this paper, and thanks Diana Pritchard and Leslie Jarmon, for many helpful comments. A special thanks also to the students who took part in a seminar on identity politics and poetics at the Department of Speech Communication, 1995-96.
SOURCE: Weinberg, Steve. “Don't Touch that Dial.” Christian Science Monitor (21 March 2002): 17.
[In the following review of Media Unlimited, Weinberg recounts Gitlin's various approaches to dealing with media saturation.]
Almost all the nonjournalists I know complain about how the media portray their neighborhood, city, state, nation, or planet in a distorted way. Yet those same complainants quote information from the media all the time, as if it were accurate. How else, for example, do most of us know anything about the US military pursuit of Osama bin Laden, except through the media?
This predicament is heightened by the failure of so...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
Bush, Lawrence. Review of The Whole World Is Watching, by Todd Gitlin. Science and Society 46, no. 1 (spring 1982): 100-03.
Considers Gitlin's analysis of the complex relationship between the media and politics as a cautionary tale for future political activists.
Formisano, Ronald P. “The End of Racism? No End to the Culture Wars.” Journal of American Ethnic History 16, no. 3 (spring 1997): 110-21.
Review of five recent books focusing on the culture wars, offering high praise for Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams.
Heller, Henry. “The Sixties in Books.” Canadian...
(The entire section is 466 words.)