Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading

Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading

Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading

Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading

Synopsis

In Ethics after Idealism, Rey Chow explores once again the issue of cultural otherness that has been so central to her work. At a time when cultural identity has become intrinsic to the way we read our many "others", Chow argues that what demands to be examined critically is no longer identity politics per se but the idealism -- especially in the sense of idealizing otherness -- that lies at the heart of identity politics. Recognizing the necessity for a critique of idealism constitutes for Chow an ethics in the postcolonial, postmodern age. She uses "ethics" to refer to the act of reading that may not immediately conform with prevalent social mores of idealizing others but that, nonetheless, enables such others to emerge in their full complexities.

Chow discusses a collection of materials whose affinities are as surprising as their appearances are diverse. The readings she offers involve multiple cultural forms -- including fiction, film, popular music, poetry and critical essays -- as wellas a range of cultural topics -- including pedagogy, multiculturalism, fascism, sexuality, miscegenation, community, fantasy, governance, nostalgia, and postcoloniality.

Excerpt

The advantage of being situated, since I was a graduate student, in programs and departments where there is a great deal of openness toward critical theory is that it forces me to come to terms with the larger historical implications of "theory" on a day-to-day level, without losing sight of the "resistance to theory" that still persists in many circles. By "theory," I do not mean the comprehensive sweep of philosophy, hermeneutics, and traditions of literary criticism and interpretation that run from Plato to the present day and that continue to be taught in many graduate programs. Rather, I mean what is generally referred to as "poststructuralism" and "deconstruction," terms that stand for ways of reading that have radicalized Anglo-American academic worlds since the 1960s. Needless to say, I am using these terms not in any nuanced, exact sense but instead as a type of widely circulated shorthand, in order to describe the general impact "theory" has had on intellectual work in the past few decades.

The one unmistakable accomplishment of "theory" understood in this restricted sense is what one might call the fundamental problematization of referentiality—a problematization that began, for many, with Ferdinand de Saussure's relativizing of the relationship between the linguistic signified and signifier in his Course on General Linguistics (1916). In part through the works of theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, the general tendency to suspend and destabilize fixed origins that follows from Saussure's structural linguistics has since traveled through the many postmodernist implosions of "the real" (whether the real is defined as language, text, story, author, self, identity, or community) and is currently receiving many echoes in various modes of universalism-critique (through inquiries of gender, race, class, sexual preference, and so forth). And yet, if referentiality—which may be further defined as a presumed transparency between signification and meaning, or better still, as a persistent reflectionism in representation—has indeed been thoroughly problematized and suspended, it has not exactly disappeared. As a theoretical reject loaded with the drudgery of the positiv-

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