Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Flattening Effects: Composition's Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Flattening Effects: Composition's Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence

Article excerpt

In a now-classic essay, "Towards a Postmodern Pedagogy," Henry A. Giroux articulates a significant "double-bind" in the development of critical multicultural pedagogies that rely on narrative to promote awareness and understanding. On one hand, Giroux argues that "Critical pedagogy needs a language that allows for competing solidarities and political vocabularies [and] an ongoing engagement with a variety of narratives and traditions that can be re-read and re-formulated in politically different terms" (691). On the other hand, he maintains that we should offer "students a language that allows them to reconstruct their moral and political energies in the service of creating a more just and equitable social order, one that undermines relations of hierarchy and domination" (695-96). For Giroux, both modes of multicultural engagement-troubling the master narrative while creating spaces for alternative ways of being-should work simultaneously, with the "politics of voice" deploying "multiple identities" to engage critically a "variety of narratives and traditions" (691). Giroux calls us simultaneously to recognize critical differences in multiple narratives and work toward a language of reconstruction, "offering students a language to reconstruct their moral and political energies" in the pursuit of justice. While we appreciate such an approach in theory, we assert that such a strategy is often extraordinarily difficult to realize in practice. Our experiences as multicultural pedagogues for nearly two decades have shown us that the "reconstructed language" often taught-and modeled in curricula and textbooks-is rather bland, emphasizing commonalities that prevent us from perceiving and analyzing critical differences. We call such emphases on "shared humanity" the flattening effect, or the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) erasures of difference that occur when narrating stories of the "other."

In this essay, we argue that any critical multicultural pedagogy must proceed with both a recognition of our common humanity and a strong critical sense of our radical alterity, of the critical differences that exist among different people's and different groups' experiences of the world. Many versions of multiculturalism circulating in composition classrooms "flatten" or efface radical alterities with which students should be encouraged to grapple. Multicultural pedagogies frequently rely on narratives of inclusion, which often seek to contain difference in order to make it legible, identifiable, and thus acceptable to a normative readership. In the process, the "other" is tamed as a knowable entity. As a gay man and a lesbian, respectively, we are particularly interested in the taming of queerness in the composition classroom. Indeed, when we reflect on our experience as queer pedagogues, we can point to the specific ways in which such narrative inclusion may actually negate a critical understanding that queerness offers us, not only of composition but also of the subjects who are called upon to be "composed."

Inclusive narratives of queerness used in many composition courses engage simultaneously in a flattening effect and a flattening of affect-that is, they elide engagement with material differences in the queer experience of the world, both socially and somatically. The queer body, narratively composed, becomes critically flattened in the process. We can find both the flattening effect and the flattening of affect at work in the inclusion of "coming out" narratives in a variety of composition textbooks, readers, and assignments, and we turn our attention to a discussion of these flattenings later in this essay. Ultimately, we want to move beyond, perhaps even leave behind, the multicultural imperative to "include" queerness as another "difference" in the composition curriculum (as well as in the profession) and explore instead how queerness in its excessive modes-the ways queerness can exceed normalizing categories of identity, even lesbian and gay identity-poses a unique and significant challenge to literacy. …

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