Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Beyond Multiculturalism Invisible Men and Transculturality in the Human Stain and Erasure

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Beyond Multiculturalism Invisible Men and Transculturality in the Human Stain and Erasure

Article excerpt

Introduction

AMERICAN MULTICULTURALISM before 9/11 can be understood as a policy-oriented movement that advocates equality between races and peoples in American society by emphasizing cultural specificity and communication between majority and minority groups. As in many other countries, multiculturalism has been the subject of much debate in the US A.1 In the 1990s, a number of American critics expressed concern over what they saw as multiculturalism's tendency to define culture and cultural identity in essentialist terms and to undermine a sense of national unity.2 In the novels The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000) and Erasure by Percival Everett (2001), multiculturalism is depicted as essentialist and moralistic.

Both novels present black American male protagonists who feel victimized by multiculturalist attitudes and policies. Critics have argued that, through their respective novels, Roth and Everett support a universalist view of American identity that emphasizes the importance of a shared nationality and a shared value-system regardless of race.3 The argument made in this essay, by contrast, is that the critique of multiculturalism in The Human Stain and Erasure is better understood in transcultural terms. According to Wolfgang Welsch, transculturality refers to the increasing interconnection among contemporary cultures that are themselves becoming crossbred.4 Transculturality appears in society both on an individual level, or micro-level, and on a macrolevel.5 On an individual level, transculturality equals cultural hybridity, or being "cast by differing cultural interests."6 Welsch argues that the individual's recognition of the foreign or plural within him- or herself is a first step towards accepting transculturality on a cultural and social macro-level.7

Roth's and Everett's protagonists do not demonstrate any transcultural self-awareness. Instead, they conform to multiculturalist definitions of identity by constructing new identities, which, as the novels demonstrate, cannot incorporate all of their experiences. Indeed, it is only on a meta-structural level that a notion of transculturality makes its appearance in the novels. The metastructures of Roth's and Everett's respective novels question the multiculturalist concept of a knowable and static identity in favour of a more intermixed, changeable, or fragmented notion of identity. As will be demonstrated, Roth juxtaposes characters of different ethnic origins to highlight the complex affiliations that they have, both with each other and with society at large. By allowing one character to speak for another, he offers a response to the question of how experiences that do not fit neatly into multiculturalist definitions of ethnicity and race can be expressed. Everett's novel consists of two texts that are distinguished from one another by their literary style as much as by their distinct content and African-American narrators. As this essay will argue, the appearance of these texts in the novel implies that African-American experience, like all experience, is multi-faceted and contradictory, demanding multiple literary expressions.

According to Welsch, our understanding of culture is an active factor in our lives, in the sense that it determines our cultural activities, including, presumably, our cultural production.8 For Richard Slimbach, "transculturalism is rooted in the quest to defme shared interest and common values across cultural [...] borders."9 In this respect, Roth's and Everett's aesthetic choices can be understood in both biographical and political terms. Both authors have been categorized as ethnic writers and both have rejected the label.10 Rather than seeking the origin of their transcultural stance in the authors' biographies, however, this essay will read The Human Stain and Erasure in the context of a debate, in the 1960s, over the role of literature in the African-American civil-rights movement. This debate focused on the political significance of the anti-social realist form of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, first published in 1947, and a novel to which Roth and Everett make intertextual references in their respective novels. …

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