Editor's Introduction: Reading, Writing, and Recognition

By Cutter, Martha J. | MELUS, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Editor's Introduction: Reading, Writing, and Recognition


Cutter, Martha J., MELUS


R ecognize Aroostook Indians.

E nvelope [sic] all my people.

C hildren, all Indian children.

O pen your hearts to my people.

G ive my people your help.

N one shall be forgotten.

I ndians are people.

T ime has come to change.

I ncome for my people.

O nly change will bring results.

N ations will be recognized. (West)

Of late the term recognition has gained some degree of currency and even notoriety among psychoanalytical, postcolonial, and multicultural critics. Readers read, we are told by some, in order to recognize and validate themselves in a text; other critics contend that recognition itself is caught up in strategies that always involve a denial of subjectivity to the racial or ethnic object or that produce essentialistic identities that are too tightly scripted onto mixed race, mixed sex, multifarious subjects. "Technologies of recognition," argues Shu-mei Shih, "produce 'the West' as the agent of recognition and 'the rest' as the object of recognition" (17). Or, as K. Anthony Appiah states in a slightly less pessimistic vein, "the politics of recognition require that one's skin color, one's sexual body, should be acknowledged politically in ways that make it hard for those who want to treat their skin and their sexual body as personal dimensions of the self" (163). Furthermore, literal acts of recognition--such as granting tribal sovereignty to one Native group--can disenfranchise other indigenous groups, as Siobhan Senier points out in her essay in this issue, whereas more symbolic acts of recognition can have the effect of solidifying oppressive ideologies. Louis Althusser has contended that we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves mirrored in the dominant ideology: "the rituals of ideological recognition ... guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects" (172-73). These rituals of ideological recognition may themselves in turn further oppression and repression of the racial other.

Works of literature, of course, are caught up in rituals of recognition that produce subject and object, recognizer and recognized, and hegemonic ideology itself. However, this issue of MELUS is devoted to the question of whether works of art and writing can change the way we read, write, and recognize racial relationships. Our cover image for this issue by Mihku Paul--a writer, visual artist, and storyteller, and a Maliseet Indian--through its quaternary, collage-like, imagistic structure featuring photos of Natives, Asians, whites, and African Americans, seems to suggest that recognition occurs across multiple poles and plains, and in manifold fields that traverse and undermine a simply binary recognition of selfhood through the othering of a non-self, or a simple constructing of self through and in the prevailing ideology. The essays in this issue take up the question of the complicated ways multi-ethnic subjects have frustrated an othering gaze of recognition by the dominant society in which the racial object is always problematically read as distinct from the (un)racialized subject. As Shih also notes, "Although the West contributes to the non-West's sense of self and the major contributes to the minor's sense of self, however grave and definitive the contribution, there is always room for other relational identifications and identities and even for disidentifications" (17-18). What are the "other relational identifications" and even "disidentifications" made possible by processes of reading and writing within multi-ethnic literary texts? Can reading, writing, and recognition come together to form a nexus of power for multi-ethnic subjects?

Disidentifications and disruptions of recognition can be produced on the level of language itself, through acts of writing, as our first four essays illustrate. In "Rethinking Recognition: Mi'kmaq and Maliseet Poets Re-Write Land and Community," Siobhan Senier examines how a particular act of writing--in this case the writing of poetry--furthers or undermines technologies of recognition. …

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