Category Archives: Books

Complex Inequality

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A sociological study of the effects of race, gender, and class – and combinations thereof – have on wage difference and economic restructuring. You won’t want to read this unless you have an interest or background in particularly sociological methodologies of economic inequality and public policy. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking study of the material conditions of intersectionality. For me, quantitative analysis and pages of graphs and tables scrambled my mind, but the central arguments are crystal clear: recent structural trends affect different groups in vastly different and often overlooked ways. Her focus is explicitly the US, with firm case studies of postindustrial Dallas, industrial Detroit, immigrant Miami and high-tech St. Louis. She finds that these cities differ more in terms of group-specific patterns of inequality, rather than overall levels of inequality. For example, wage earnings by gender may be relatively equal in one city, but this may mean that wage equality by race may be very low. Statistics may show a small wage gap between women and men in one city, but wage inequality among women may be higher as a result. Looking at different configurations of class, gender, and race is therefore vital.

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White

A book by Richard Dyer.

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A fundamental text of critical race theory and film studies, still ominously resonant. Dyer’s contention that until white people see how whiteness is constructed, represented, and privileged, white supremacy (though he doesn’t use that term) will thrive. The scope of his study is stunning: his own awareness of his whiteness, his privileged consciousness of racial difference, the gradual conflation of Christianity and whiteness, the technology of photography and film, the privileging of a “culture of light,” heroic white masculinity in Westerns and muscle-man action cinema, the representation of white women as divine/destructive, and the associations of whiteness with death in horror and cult dystopian films. There are many vital photographs throughout, both black and white and colour, that illustrate the aestheticisation of whiteness. Dyer’s argument that white people are allowed to inhabit ordinariness, the human race, the standard of humanity, even escaping racial identity, while non-white people are raced, particular, and different, is a simple and powerful contribution to any work interested in power. Certainly, he makes strange whiteness, forcing us to consider why connotations of purity, light, goodness, and cleanness have become attached to a simple colour – or, as he discusses, a non-colour. He unravels so much of what we have taken as read in this white-saturated culture. For example, what does it mean to be “white”? It is surely not a literal skin colour possessed by many humans, yet its slipperiness is part of its privilege. Dyer’s call to examine the unexamined is unfortunately still urgent twenty years after its first issue.

Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction

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How can trauma be written, or read about, when much of the impact of traumatic events is so overwhelming as to debilitate functional emotional, cognitive, and physical responses? Vickroy considers the formal, thematic, and ethical factors at stake in literature that explores trauma, including cultural ideas about identity, relationality, and intentionality. She focuses on Marguerite Duras, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Dorothy Allison, and Pat Barker, among others. Steering away from psychoanalysis towards sociocultural and political causes of and responses to trauma makes this a more interesting work in my view, but often leads to a simplification of how trauma is aestheticised. Similarly, her contention that such literature encourages critical engagement and engages readers’ empathy in a way that is socially reparative is very optimistic. My main problem with this book was none of it felt particularly new and, in fact, much of it felt retrogressive, especially the discussion of the mother/child bond without much critique of such essentialist assumptions.

Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction

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At the intersection of critical whiteness studies and southern literary studies, Duvall claims that cultural blackness has been performed by white writers and their white characters in a way that critiques the myth of southern whiteness. These are crises in representation and subjectivity that ask us to detach blackness from African Americans. Already we are in murky waters: what are the implications for problems of cultural appropriation, ethics, and Civil Rights? This was my constant unease reading this book, yet Duvall makes important inroads in arguing that in work by, for instance, Faulkner and Twain, cultural blackness may reattach itself to racial whiteness. That is, whiteness is not so much a race but a metaphysics of class privilege. Importantly, we are looking at the extent to which race is a cultural construct and attending notions of, for example, minstrelsy, the primitive, and purity, are circulated in culture. Faulkner’s use of primitive discourse, otherness, and “whiteface” poor southerners who are portrayed as inhabiting blackness is certainly problematic in a way that Duvall elides. His discussion of Toni Morrison’s work on white writers’ use and abuse of blackness and black characters is nuanced enough to suggest his understanding of cultural appropriation would be similarly worthwhile. This study would have been more useful if it discussed the ethics of white writers using whiteface and a de-essentialisation of whiteness that never fully repudiates white supremacy. The conflation of class and race in some southern fiction needed to be unknotted much more carefully. However, his ultimately complex exploration of that “powerful social function that is racial identity” makes this worth reading for anyone interested in southern fiction or race in literature.

Wounds of Returning: Race, Memory and Property on the Postslavery Plantation

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How has the southern plantation evolved after slavery? Why the enduring obsession with, even nostalgia for, the physical space of the antebellum South and its Georgian mansions, places where terrible violence and exploitation occurred? This book combines literary analysis, historical research and first-person ethnography to track a genealogy of the conversion of human beings into capital in the US South. Adams posits that consumer capitalism has continued well beyond abolition and the Civil War, in tourism, souvenirs, incarceration and rodeos. She traces Storyville brothels, narratives of turn-of-the-century new Orleans, plantation tours, Bette Davis films, Elvis memorials, Willa Cather’s fiction, lynching, and the annual prison rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Here is a disturbing portrait of the way the slave past, its violent equation of people as property, haunts all American culture. This is a sociological and cultural take on trauma that packs a much bigger punch than a psychoanalytic one. It asks us to question our tourism practices, visiting sites that have been reconstructed in an attempt to elide the violence embedded in their foundations. In this book, slavery’s physical and psychic violence is always alive within scenes and landscapes of nostalgia.

The Female Tradition in Southern Literature

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An effort to redress the pre-90s pattern in southern studies that has excluded non-white male authors. As with all subdivisions of literary canons, women writers and writers of colour have been cast as inferior and special interest, but the canon of southern literature has been especially fraught. This is in part due to the renown of the so-called Southern Renaissance, the accepted wisdom that particular cultural, racial, and political themes marked the tensions of the South post-World War I and this resulted in a literature in which traditional ideas of “the South” were demystified. This collection of essays by women attempts to revive a “feminine tradition” that is hardly radical but offers a starting point for an exploration of the complexity of southern literature. Topics include nineteenth century women diarists, Zora Neale Hurston, orphans, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, interracial friendships between women, anti-abolitionist Caroline Hentz, Charleston poet Beatrice Ravenel, immigrant workers’ strikes, Zelda Fitzgerald, women’s writing as autobiography, and a very outdated heteronormative assessment of queer and genderqueer writer Carson McCullers’ philosophy of love. Unfortunately most of the essayists are white.

New York, New York: The Cook and the Carpenter

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“In Memoriam” to the Fifth Street Women’s building, at a very specific period of US history: the women’s liberation movement. Feminist, socialist, anarchist, it was New Year’s Eve, 1970 and Arnold herself was part of a group who wanted a counterlife and a revolution. Thirteen days later, it was destroyed by police. This book is specific and wide-ranging, a document and a novel about love and difference. It’s formally avant-garde too, especially in its use of non-gendered pronouns – “na” and “nan” – that grate at first on the reader’s indoctrination in a binary system of gender, then feel natural. Arnold unsettles dearly-held ideas of gender, identity, and possessive monogamy. In Texas, before they establish the takeover in New York City, the cook and the carpenter are romantic partners living collectively with children and adults. Another member, Three, joins and complicates their relationship. Through people, Arnold wonders about dualism and dialectics, unity and difference. Remarkably prescient are her questions about the nature of the self: is it fluid or essential? Much of her thinking seems more radical than most lesbian feminist essentialism, but also considers the limits of a poststructuralist concept of the self as fragmented and forever socially constructed. The dialogue, inebriated meditations, and representation of dancing as freedom, are all beautiful. Unfortunately, I was surprised by how wonderfully written this was: I didn’t expect too much from an experimental lesbian long-out-of-print book from the 70s. It’s forgotten because it’s a radical lesbian text, not because it’s badly written or polemical.