Farid Matuk: Evie, thank you for starting us off. This is all moving very slowly for me, I mean I can only steal a moment here and there to check in with this project. I have a long post that I wrote up over the last few weeks that, I’m afraid, does not respond to Evie’s first post. I hope it serves to add to the initial provocations for the conversation. I plan to come back and respond to Evie and others in the coming weeks. - Farid
Dyer and strategy?
Richard Dyer's claim that "as long as white people are not racially seen and named they/we function as a human norm" is a common place of "diversity work," the types of workshops, encounters, and dialogues I facilitate as part of my work with high school students. I've come to know variations on Dyer's formulation as various definitions for "privilege" as such. Privilege can apply to any identifier, the experience of men becomes the norm in terms of gender, the experience of able-bodied people becomes the norm in terms of physical ability creating ability privilege, and so on. Dyer notes how the particularity of the privileged position always becomes invisible the moment it becomes the norm.
So does this suggest a strategy? Should one's goal in poems about race or in activism on issues of race (or both) be to dislodge the white subject position from the norm, to make it visible? Should poetry have goals at all?
Here's a shout-out to Tim Yu, who, I believe, is in this conversation with us. In his article "Ron Silliman and the Ethnicization of the Avant-Garde" (Jacket 39), Yu explores Silliman's claims about the "new sentence" in relation to his views on left politics and subjectivity in general. Yu writes, "Silliman claims his own position as particular AND universal, capable of registering class, race, gender, and sexuality while simultaneously transcending their limits."
Then we have Hoagland from his response to Claudia Rankine as archived now on the Poets.org website:
"I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother. Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp."
Obviously, this isn't evidence from which to make claims about two white writers' entire work. But, for the sake of our conversation, we can take Yu's reading and Hoagland's statement here as ways to consider a potentially beautiful (to me) kind of protean ranging, a promiscuous variance in the subjectivities they seem to want to claim or explore in their work. Is such subjective promiscuity a bad thing? It seems at least problematic in light of Dyer's concept. If white folks become the norm by having their particular racial identity erased, then it follows folks of color become more visible, more coded, more limited. To put it crudely, Hoagland or Silliman get to be anybody and everybody in their poems because they are nobody (in racial terms) while poets of color are expected to be a recognizable iteration of an essential identity.
If I can move to answer that question about strategy that the Dyer quote brings up for me it begins with my sense of race and identity coming from being mixed race, being bisexual, being an immigrant (from third to first world, from working to lower middle class), so nothing is solid for me. Like most of us, I guess, I want to do two things at once. I want to provoke folks in minority subject positions, folks whose identities are often over-determined, into considerations that self and identity can be more ephemeral and subject to loss than we are often allowed to think. I also want to provoke folks in normative, privileged positions into seeing their identities as more real, more particular, more subject to history, more accountable and culpable than they seem.
In diversity work we talk about the "big eight identifiers," aspects of constructing self that tend to be important across various cultures. The big eight are race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, religion, ability, and age (http://www.daisorg.org/id36.html). It's interesting to me, when thinking about strategy, about political positioning, that most of us occupy both normative and marginal positions simultaneously. Obviously, I can be queer and a man and a member of the lower middle class all at once, never only privileged and never only othered. I imagine for many of us I may be stating the obvious. Forgive me if that's the case. I hope some of these observations help ground more nuanced conversation in the coming weeks.