Academic journal article MELUS

Irreconcilable Differences: "Creative Destruction"(1) and the Fashioning of a Self in Sarah Phillips

Academic journal article MELUS

Irreconcilable Differences: "Creative Destruction"(1) and the Fashioning of a Self in Sarah Phillips

Article excerpt

Over half a century after W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically declared that "[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line," William Faulkner added a level of complexity to this assessment in commenting on the enigmatic and racially ambiguous figure of Joe Christmas in Light in August (1932). As the novelist explained to students at the University of Virginia:

   I think that was his tragedy--he didn't know what he was, and so he was
   nothing. He deliberately evicted himself from the human race because he
   didn't know which he was ... and there was no way possible in life for him
   to find out. Which to me is the most tragic condition a man could find
   himself in--not to know what he is and to know that he will never know.
   (Faulkner in the University 72)

This shift from a coherent "racial consciousness" to a persistent sense of confusion and indeterminacy has characterized current debates about race, difference, and the construction of identity in American ethnic literature. Although black, feminist, and post-colonial critics often isolate the cultural constructions of race and gender as ontological realities in order to examine their effects on individual psychology or inter-race relations, postmodern theorists question the very notions of "identity" and "origin," arguing that such concepts are reflections of monolithic claims to "meaning" that must be continually displaced. While these differences are frequently a matter of focus and emphasis, the nexus between theory and tradition is often obscured by the creation of a false binary: the polemics of essentialism and the indeterminacy of postmodernism. In the end, the ethnic writer often finds that neither is sufficient.

Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips (1984) provides an ideal text for analyzing these tensions between theory and tradition, for the protagonist of the novel struggles to liberate herself from restrictive traditions while she constructs a new identity that better reflects her own subjective experience of reality. But while Sarah desires a more authentic expression of individual identity--one that opens up an entirely different range of perspectives and possibilities--her quest for independence is undermined by persistent feelings of guilt and betrayal; her search for personal fulfillment is tempered by loneliness and a desire for community. Sarah's decisions and commitments often appear to come with a "cost." In many respects, then, her confusion and ambivalence underscore the problematic position of ethnic writers and intellectuals in current debates: while they seek to liberate artists from the arbitrary definitions and oppressive structures of dominant discourses, they must also strive to create identities that can serve as sources of coherency and strength. At the heart of this dilemma are fundamental questions about the role that critics play in the interpretation and analysis of literary texts. If the ultimate task is, as R. Radhakrishnan argues, to combine "the deconstructive attitude, in conjunction with the agential politics of identity," it is never clear how this goal can be achieved in practice (xxiii).

Attempting to address these issues, critics such as Michael Awkward and Radhakrishnan have explored the political dynamics that underlie academic discourses of race and ethnicity. Specifically, they explore the process by which boundaries are drawn--how scholars are granted or denied a voice in discussions on the basis of "credentials" they are perceived to possess or lack. Awkward focuses on the phenomenon of "border crossing," questioning whether "experience" and "authenticity" provide an adequate criterion for evaluating critical statements. In his words: "Does the black face of the Afro-American critic actually lead to qualitatively superior or perceptively different readings of the black text than ones offered by scholars with paler faces?" (28). Radhakrishnan raises similar questions in his discussion of the expectations that confront a scholar of Indian descent. …

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