Academic journal article MELUS

Social Constructions and Aesthetic Achievements: Italian American Writing as Ethnic Art

Academic journal article MELUS

Social Constructions and Aesthetic Achievements: Italian American Writing as Ethnic Art

Article excerpt

Raising aesthetic questions about ethnic writing has been opposed by those who associate aesthetic concerns with an elitist betrayal of the social roots of ethnic art and by postmodern critics who deny the claims of heritage on individuals. Both attitudes have obscured how the clash between old worlds of origin and new American lives evident in current ethnic writing can operate to create an innovative, socially relevant aesthetic. Yet it is possible to formulate a conception of the relationship between the historical and formal properties of recent Italian American writing that can serve as the basis for an understanding of an innovative and even revolutionary aesthetic that it may share with other ethnic writing.

Italian American writing helps return history to center stage after postmodern denials of its lasting and ongoing effects. Ethnic heritage is history in action; it subjects the fact of immigration to a scrutiny of its ongoing effects. It not only exposes historical episodes of conflict between margin and mainstream, but also reveals the lasting impact of immigration on individuals who may be second or third generation. Its aesthetic experiment returns a new combination of realism and symbolism to current writing and explores the interactions between public and private worlds. It constitutes a revolt against the devaluation of the past, of heritage, history, and the individual in postmodern critical discourse.

Italian Americans are heirs to two diaspora: the first from Italy (predominantly from the South) from 1880 to the 1920s and the second from post-World-War-II urban Little Italys throughout America. The first transposed Italian lives into the new world; the second preserved Italianita by a process of appropriation or reinterpretation. Both journeys produced narratives of cultural collision and change. Recent writing constitutes an emerging ethnic aesthetic which both draws on and gets beyond the conventions of postmodernism that have guided critical discussion in the past decades. This aesthetic revolutionizes our thinking about current art with a powerful return to realism about the continuities of history, and to symbolism in dealing with the complexity of individual experience. It introduces new approaches to the interaction between America and its ethnics.

The innovative aesthetic of contemporary Italian American writing challenges many tenets of postmodern theory and, by doing so, acts as a corrective and even revolutionary force. The excesses of much postmodern theory include its denial of the force of class, economics, and history as felt effects preserved in individual consciousness, its outsized affirmations of universal unreality and simulacra, its repudiation of the individual subject, its failure to deal with affect, and its de facto relegation of the ethnic "other" to the static role of victim forever without a public voice. An important first step in challenging such excesses is to restore to our awareness the longtime role ethnic art has itself played as an avant-garde in the canon of modern literature. Doing so helps underscore how the empirical energies of ethnic writing encompass concern for those at the margins and incorporate social concerns in the practice of art.

The formal energies of Italian American art cannot be separated from its democratic embrace of the consciousness of individuals as valuable in its own right and as a barometer of the pressures on character and culture. The stature of the ethnic self has been devalued in a general postmodern mistrust of the individual as hegemon: "Enlightenment epistemology ... produced as its most common and worst effect the sense of unity and privilege in the observing self" (Brooker 165). The ethnic self is ruled out by such absolute definitions of the self as simply imperialistic or narcissistic, a view Levi-Strauss may have had in mind when he referred to the self as "the spoiled brat" of philosophy. In their extremism, these absolute views are questionable and have little to do with the actual practice of ethnic writing or the current use of the ethnic self as a site for the intersection of cultural and personal complexities. …

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