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Rethinking the Place of Identity Politics in Canadian and American Literary Criticism – Riley McGuire

2013/10/11

mcguireThis paper interrogates the position of identity politics, both theoretically and in practice, in contemporary Canadian and American literary criticism, to advocate for recognition of the continued value of identarian concerns in humanities scholarship. A definition of identity politics as a “term denominating the strategic use of cultural – or collective – identities in a vast array of forms of social practice,”[1] specifically those related to post-secondary education in Canada and the United States, will serve as the context for an examination of current critiques of the use of identity politics in institutionalized studies of literature and representation. Criticism of identity politics has been virtually co-extensive with the inception of the term, as fears that an emphasis on difference would interfere with potential alliances between marginalized subjectivities, perpetuate essentializing stereotypes, and cause other social damage were given voice. Recently, identity politics have become the target for those who argue for traditional humanities scholarship, dismissing identity politics as justification for self-interest groups to attack the canon, and thereby compromise disciplinary standards. One critic attributes the decline of North American English departments partially to the substitution of “the books themselves [for] a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture)” and the increase of “enterprising students coming from immigrant backgrounds […] with only slender connections to Western culture” and with less interest in studying texts “representative of a special national interest.”[2] Provocatively, the increasingly globalized composition of North American campuses is positioned as a co-conspirator with a problematized interest in identity. These types of critiques and their implicit denial that Western humanities scholarship has predominantly functioned through identity politics—with mainly white males studying other mainly white male authors—belie primarily unfounded anxieties, as exemplified, for instance, by paraphrasing R. Radhakrishnan, who reveals the historical intersection of the decline of authorial authority and the rise of postcolonialism.[3] Dismissals of a supposedly toxic interest in identity require challenging (especially as these critiques are bolstered by calls from more radical factions of academia for a post-identity politics) as identity politics remain pertinent for professional development, pedagogical approaches, and the formation of collectives inside and outside of the academy. A culture of intellectual possibility that acknowledges that the uncritical championing of identity above all else is just as hazardous as the uncritical erasure of identity is necessary in fostering an academic climate that allows for adaptability and diversity in content and constitution.


[1] Kaltmeier, Olaf and Sebastian Thies. “Spectres of Multiculturalism: Conceptualizing the Field of Identity Politics in the Americas,” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 7.2 (2012): 223-240. Web.

[2] Chace, William. “The Decline of the English Department: How it happened and what could be done to reverse it,” The American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa Society. Autumn 2009. Web. 2 July 2013. Emphasis added.

[3] Radhakrishnan, R. “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity,” Callaloo, 16.4 (1993): 750-771. Web.

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