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Thread: The Minority Spotting School of Criticism

  1. #1

    The Minority Spotting School of Criticism

    It seems that modern criticism and schooling has become totally obsessed by playing ‘identify the offended minority’ to almost the complete exclusion of everything else. Why are we constantly applying 21st century politically correct baggage to art and literature? To what purpose does it serve, other than offering an interesting aside? It shouldn't take centre stage all the time.

    How much longer must we punish the Victorians for being sexist/homophobic/racist? Discussing the role and representation of women in…? Or considering whether Conrad was a racist or not? These are the wrong questions.

    In seven years of doing literature I don’t think I had faced a question regarding the actual quality of a text. So obsessed by ‘correcting’ the past, such things are often neglected and works are often selected by the issues they raise, not necessarily because of the works themselves. To me this is just crazy.

    In a recent interview I had to select a text for a class of 12 year olds. Without even realising it I found myself choosing a book from which I could challenge negative attitudes towards the disabled. Why? Was I applying as a moral guidance councillor or some form of modern ethical spokesman? No of course not, but I have become subconsciously fed to think this way. It is also a fact that all teachers in the UK must tick the box that challenges negative minority attitudes to qualify in the first place! Similarly, I stumbled across a thread the other day comparing Milton with another writer, fair enough, but one of the points of comparison was their attitudes to minority figures – what? What the hell, for what reason? Such thinking has become so embedded, evidently.

    I am not, for one second, suggesting that we return to the late Victorian aesthetic movement and I’m all for opening up a text and discussing all manner of things, it’s just that I think I have had just about enough of the ‘minority spotting school of criticism’ to last a lifetime, besides it has become such a distraction. To take a hobby horse of mine as an example, I can’t think of how much merit and wisdom has been missed in the works of Wilde to the endless pursuit and criticism of Victorian attitudes of sexuality – what a waste I think. This is the danger of leaving the text aside in pursuit of such side issues.

    It is also not possible to portray misguided characters, by which I mean racists, sexists etc, in any modern work, unless they are ‘bad’ characters who are ‘punished’ for exhibiting that attitude in the works conclusion. Imagine a character who is openly racist and gets away with it. Imagine the complaints if this were to air on a popular TV series for example. I don’t know about other countries, but here in the UK the number of complaints would get that programme off air overnight. Why is this? Can a writer not portray such ‘faulty’ characters openly without the need to punish them in a neat conclusion or are they no racists/sexists/homophobics left in Britain? This is once again a case of morality stepping on the toes of artistic licence.

    Of course, I am not suggesting for one second that a writer/director/artist should promote such behaviour, but they should be free to paint realistic characters if they so choose, all the same. Not content with punishing the artist for such expression however, the ‘minority spotting school of criticism’ has for a long time taken it up with the Victorians, the Elizabethans and every other custodian of every other age, for not having followed 21st century rules of morality.

    OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little here and there, but in my view there is still far too much focus on such issues to the neglect of other matters and I think it is about time we put things a little more in perspective and returned to such things as the actual text; the quality of the writing, the historical context and biographical detail etc, etc. Biographical detail is particularly frowned upon in some circles of literary studies, in my experience anyway. Again this to me is just ridiculous.
    Last edited by LitNetIsGreat; 04-14-2012 at 12:52 PM.

  2. #2
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Depends, in terms of academic criticism, only on the lowest level. The people who do so are primarily those who deal with contemporary and modernist authors - basically nothing before 1900, and generally nothing before 1950. Their goal is to carve niches, and find "minority voice" which is true, yet does not represent the bulk of critics, and only exists in certain spaces. For instance, England (primarily London) and the United States have it eternally present, because they have large populations that exist in minority positions - places like Norway, I would wager, can wiggle out of it in their national literature, since they are intensely mono-cultural.

    This tendency manifests itself differently then in terms of how each space understands the nature of its minorities in their relation to a general fabric. In the US and England, you have similar yet slightly different attitudes - primarily seen in African American literature as a counter-trend, with history and significance, and Indian-English authorial traditions within British, and even Indian letters.

    As for "spotting" though, that is very much, to me at least, a product of a British, and more so, American university system. The Italians, Germans, and even the French are of a different tradition of criticism and theory all together, even though they are now coming to terms with their complicated relationships to the world. Canada also is on a fringe, so we get strange manifestations that have been fluctuating for the past 40 years or so, with the current trend now going against such "minority spotting" and with authors claiming they want to be recognized as non-fringed and non-minority, despite where they come from, especially given our population and book buying base is far smaller to begin with, that Canadian literature in itself is a form of "minority literature".

    As for the second level though, this represents a criticism of contemporary, and near-contemporary times. The Anglo-Saxon scholar will not need to deal with the same non-sense as "minority spotting" though perhaps different trends, like feminist literary interpretations will inflect the scholar's reading.

    As such, those that do not deal with a late-colonial to contemporary body of literature never end up addressing minority issues, unless they are trying too hard - Chaucer specialists will not bother, since Chaucer is writing for a pretty singular audience primarily.

    Beyond that too, there is the new trend that is emerging - minority spotting to me seems to be on the way out, and theory is certainly being dimmed in comparison to history, and, ironically, a relapse of close-reading and "aesthetic criticism" in a strange sense. From theoretical perspectives, ethical studies, environmental studies, Darwin studies and cultural-historical studies seem to be dominating the contemporary scene. Post-Colonialism seems to have died off C. 2005 with the primary theoretical work done early 90s at the latest. Gender inflected, and performativity seems to be remanifestic itself strangely with Darwinian attributes, but the hard-core adherents to Judith Butlerism are on their way out as well.

    This is from a particularly North American perspective, the Continent has behaved strangely and so does England at times, which goes back and forth from History to theory with the changing seasons.

    In all, there are two camps of criticism and critics - historians, and theorists. For the past 40 years, the theorists were winning, within the past 5, I would say the Historians have made a comeback, and are on top again. Somewhere like the German tradition (which also is the foundation of musical, and artistic criticism of a sort) the Historian has always been on top, with theory working as a complimenting force behind historians. Somewhere like France, theory was given a lot of credit in the 60s and 70s, and ended up weirdly breaking down the American academy, and polarizing it.

    With that background, minorities play a very strange place in the debate. Theorists try to redefine literature based on minority positions (with marxist appropriations of these poor "Subaltern" individuals who are used for certain critic's own career advancement), and historians doing something similar with drawing parallel (or contrapuntal) historical diagrams for literary studies. This allows for new critics to "discover" other people, and therefore claim them for their own career advancement.

    This doesn't determine the academy though - Shakespeare, and the canon are still there. Specialists in non-contemporary literature, in non novel-based research, in non-minority-accountable literature still dominate our perception, tastes, and understanding of literary history, culture, interpretation, and criticism. The minority camp was enfranchised for a time, but it has supersaturated itself, to the point where nobody will ever get a job doing anything related to contemporary, modernist, or post-modernist fiction in the next 20-30 years - the whole body of scholars, critics, and intellectuals working both in the public and academic spheres on these subjects is saturated with people around the age of 50, who will not be going anywhere any time soon.

    Now, on the whole, that represents the first layer of critical work. Then there are the real fringe groups - those who are actually not English writers, minority or not. There is so much effort, ink and funding poured into studying minority literature in English that it is an ironic joke that something like Sanskrit literature is less funded and studied, even though it constitutes the foundation of a tradition itself. Chinese literature is still barely studied, and to the West, even the Persian, Arabic, or Indian literatures that make up its colonial diagram of history are barely touched, poorly translated, and seldom read. Every wannabe scholar spots the "poor marginalized Persian voice" amongst American fiction, but how many spot the Persian voice amongst Persian fiction? How many take the time to learn foreign languages, or even to delve deeper into their own tradition? Very few, and that's why those people who don't will never get any productive work.

    So yes, there is a minority spotting school, but it is contradictory and silly at best, and detrimental at worst. At the same time, I would argue it is already on its way out, and certainly has been heavily criticized in Canada primarily from Minority Authors themselves, who do not want to be marginalized or appropriated anymore.


    What makes me most sour, however, is the place that fiction seems to get within this diagram. It is hardly a movement to find "minority poets" or minority playwrights even (then again, the new world has always had a problem with playwrights in general) nor is it even to find other traditions outside of a national one (and we all can admit that the novel is the most nationalist of genres). In fact, it basically brings people up never being able to read poetry, never being able to read a play, or see one, and never being able to sit down with an essay (the good kind that don't need some stupid racial profiling in the background, and just meditate and discuss, like those of Virginia Woolf or more traditionally, Bacon or Montaigne). As for writing, or education for the reader, this fictional minority spotting doesn't really develop anything critical or interesting.

    It's strange though, since I had a particularly good anthology of literature in my high school education, and I got lucky that I by-passed much of the bull**** of English academic life. My Chinese education was far more nuanced, and less theory based (in many ways I think I had a more European education in the least European of institutions), yet I can vouch that it isn't easy to not embrace these trends, especially sitting on a fringe that is Canadian academic life.

    Still, I read all the critics and historians I like (lets just say the ones working in English), and they all sort of have the same thing in common. They are brought up within a tradition, with a close focus on traditional methods of education, primarily within a Germanic tradition of scholarship. They have a general sense of traditional theoretical works, of basic philosophy, some philology, and a pretty good command of rhetoric, and rhetorical studies, which have been out of favor in the west for the past 80 or so years. They are quite Aristotelian, and do not find it necessary to draw borders, or to discuss the "We do, they do, therefore they are legitimate" arguments that weak critics feel necessary. In short, they are better-informed New Critics, with an interior vocabulary and a lack of national consciousness. They are basically critics who are trapped in the 70s world of academy, minus the politics.

    At the same time however, such movements are making a strong comeback. Conservatism in its new form is in fashion in the academy. It is the new "revolution" in the sense that old Marxist nonsense has become a fringe in itself. The Oxbridge model is coming back, without its leftist societies. That's my general feeling of how things are heading. My friends who are doing graduate work in Political Science say that seems to be the trend there too. Post-Modernism is dead, and we have a revival of a strange form of Modernism going on right now.

    On another note though, I think the term "Nature" is the key word for current theoretical understandings of literature. It is strange that the most pressing issue of our time right now is the environment, and that is even beginning to inform poetry, literature, and criticism. Minority spotting doesn't work, unless it is a celebration of the environment, and man's nature within the environment.

  3. #3
    Registered User Insane4Twain's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Neely View Post
    Why are we constantly applying 21st century politically correct baggage to art and literature? To what purpose does it serve, other than offering an interesting aside? . . . How much longer must we punish the Victorians for being sexist/homophobic/racist? Discussing the role and representation of women in…? Or considering whether Conrad was a racist or not? These are the wrong questions.
    You've touched on an issue that frequently emerges in media. The most glaring example I can think of is the NewSouth bowdlerized version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But that only affected a book that might still be actually read.

    Years ago I found myself teaching a reading improvement class at a middle school. I looked through reader after reader and found nothing that would be of interest. No wonder none of them wanted to read. The books were put together, as all textbooks inevitably are, by committees dominated by a politically-correct mentality. Nothing good could possibly survive that gauntlet.

  4. #4
    A very interesting read JBI, thanks. It is interesting in particular, and hopeful I find, that you consider there is a shift away from theory to history, let's hope so. I am out of the loop of it all but this is a positive possibility. It will take some time for that to filter down in the universities (in the UK at least). Maybe I'll go back in ten years and find out? Though perhaps not.

    Yes Twain, you highlight why art and PC mentality should never mix.

    Wilde and other writers like Hardy were outspoken in regards to the constraints of Victorian morality. Personally I don't think they would be much happier writing today.

  5. #5
    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Post-colonialism is still very popular: it's probably a form of masochism. Gender (well, feminist)-related post-colonialism is even more popular.

    I agree with Neely. As modern readers, we need to accept that many past societies were inherently sexist and/or racist. Yes, their racism and sexism led to some awful things, but it's not the duty of a literature student to pass moral judgement. For example, I'm reading Light in August. As a 21st century reader, I'd be inclined to think that Faulkner was arguing that racism was poisonous. However, almost every character in the novel (except Hightower) is racist, whether they are good or bad. Can we expect a small-town in the Deep South in the nineteen-thirties to be racially enlightened? Whilst people from past societies may have varying degrees of sexism and racism, and there will have been some who denounced them altogether, we have to allow for the fact that they did not live in the way we do.

    Obviously a literature scholar will have knowledge of history and society but there is a difference between discussing social history in relation to the literature one is studying and trying to be both a literature scholar and a social critic.

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    Yet, it is not racism. Much of the PC exageration are falling the consider Twain or even Conrad are in some sense realists, they would not use or represent words that are not there. I can understand much that to a "naive" reader, the lack of perspective will give him a very twisted reading of them and this will be offensive. So, the conflicts on educational level (let's remember the objectives of modern education are unlike the objectives of academic criticism - one is inclusive the other works with exclusion) are just expected.

    Anyways, PC is not something new. Only the concern. There is some elements of it on the Virgil preference over Ovid even. And we must adimity it: there is no rule that says that a coservadorism should not have its place on art. And not all of PC is so low. Ahebe take on Conrad, as biased his view is (which view is not) had a most benefic effect, we must remember anti-colonialism take is not just a PC fashion but a a political need. They are not talking about social inclusion, but an entire need to adapt and vallue a culture as rich as european that was dismissed because didnt "represent" like europe. And in the end, hurt very little Conrad reputation and instead changed the perspective of how african literature was view. Neither Virginia Woolf was low, even if she had some PC view towards women writers.

    I would say, PC in excess causes as much damage as anything in excess. But a little of it, it is almost a critic job, as you must see the work from many perspectives and we have sereval writers having to deal with it while writing.

  7. #7
    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JCamilo View Post
    Yet, it is not racism.
    It's still racism- discrimination based purely on someone's race is racist by definition- but it was socially acceptable back then, whereas now we would not find it socially acceptable.

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    No, it is not. Portraing a character that is Racist is not Racism, no more than taking a picture of a murder is murdering. They do not represent the opinion of the writer or of the work. They are devices to talk about the subject, otherwise we are also being racists here.

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    I think that this is one of the things I dislike most about the inability to differentiate the artist from the art work, and that is the Romantic notion that the characters invented by an artist represent the artist's thinking... and the complete ignorance of the possibility that none of the characters in a given narrative mirror the artist's thinking... or even that the artist intends a given character in a sarcastic or ironic manner.

    Of course I guess an author could invent nothing more than high-minded, morally upstanding characters... although this might result in some rather bland literature.
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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    I tend to agree with JBI in that it is mainly anglo-saxon, the theory thing.

    In Belgium, I found some professors did go too far. Arguing that one little blue pot in a chapter could symbolise X or Y and what implications that had on things that happened later... too much assumption and little quoting from the work even. Quotes were mainly based on other writings about the work by another academic, thus recycling views more or less... But they did not pre-assume things. They never applied 21st century ideas to historic works. Philosophy was about as far as application of that nature went.
    You could remark on things like racism, feminism or those things, I expect, but it was never going to be a decisive factor, apart from when you were in the History faculty doing some express research on it.

    If this is the way things are in the anglo-saxon world, it'll still be one generation of teachers before it completely disappears.
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  11. #11
    Anyways, PC is not something new. Only the concern. There is some elements of it on the Virgil preference over Ovid even. And we must adimity it: there is no rule that says that a coservadorism should not have its place on art. And not all of PC is so low. Ahebe take on Conrad, as biased his view is (which view is not) had a most benefic effect, we must remember anti-colonialism take is not just a PC fashion but a a political need. They are not talking about social inclusion, but an entire need to adapt and vallue a culture as rich as european that was dismissed because didnt "represent" like europe. And in the end, hurt very little Conrad reputation and instead changed the perspective of how african literature was view. Neither Virginia Woolf was low, even if she had some PC view towards women writers.

    I would say, PC in excess causes as much damage as anything in excess. But a little of it, it is almost a critic job, as you must see the work from many perspectives and we have sereval writers having to deal with it while writing.
    Certainly yes, I am not suggesting that feminism should not be covered in literary studies, or any other branch of theory. I am all for allowing anything that may add to the reading of a work. The problem arises when it becomes so central so that things like historical and biographical detail, or even the literary merit of the work, are pushed aside, as you yourself suggest when talking about moderation.

    In terms of selection of material for study, it is a thankful coincidence that Woolf and Conrad are actually any good because I am convinced they would be studied regardless! I'm also not saying that all things studied must possess high literary merit, for example, ground breaking texts, works that add context and so on are obviously beneficial for study as well, but you would hope that some form of literary merit would also be important in selecting what is studied. Sometimes though this is secondary to the theory, especially with more contemporary work I find.
    Last edited by LitNetIsGreat; 04-15-2012 at 02:28 PM.

  12. #12
    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JCamilo View Post
    No, it is not. Portraing a character that is Racist is not Racism, no more than taking a picture of a murder is murdering. They do not represent the opinion of the writer or of the work. They are devices to talk about the subject, otherwise we are also being racists here.
    Sorry, I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying that those societies weren't racist. I agree with you that portraying racist characters, even if they are all racists, is not racist per se.

  13. #13
    Skol'er of Thinkery The Comedian's Avatar
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    When I was in college and graduate school in the 1990s this sort of thing was all the rage. . . . sad to see that it is still so. I remember, especially in undergraduate studies, being turned off by the literature classroom experience because so much of it was, as you describe -- pick an old text, look for racism/sexism, call the (usually) white anglo an insensitive prick (or a member of the "overt participant in the hegemonic patriarchy". . . same thing), ad infinitum.

    I remember too finding a sort of intellectual solace in my philosophy classes: we talked of ethics, of spirituality, nature, human understanding, and the design in the universe that was so distant from the fad-ish ideology of the day that it felt so alive and so driven by scholarship that I nearly switched over to philosophy from literary studies.

    In my own capacity as an instructor of English, I make it a point to almost never discuss feminist/racist spotting. . .so distasteful was my personal experience with this "theory" in my literary studies. It works out for the best, though -- in our department we have another instructor and her primary focus is gender and race, so our students tend to get a very different focus as they move from instructor to instructor, which is really all for the best.
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    Ah, all fine, Kelby

    Now, reggarding PC, it is not an anglo-saxon thing. This happens in Brazil, this happens with Borges in Argentina or you buch forgot he didnt won a nobel because his apparent sympathy towards dictadors? Also happened in France, the whole Modern vs. Classicists in France was a need of afirmation of literary cliques towards the classical canon . You have then, the destruction of Voltaire super-status by the romantics XIX writers who pretty much eliminated Voltaire monarchist views or attacked him due those views. PC happens in the entire world a way old time. In Brazil there is the african studies as well and writers from imperial period are left behind and Machado de Assis dark skin is reinforced albeit there is little on his work that is relevant as representative of african culture.

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    Registered User Delta40's Avatar
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    You know what pissed me off? Anytime I opened my mouth my tutor would reply 'that's a feminist perspective' Why? Because I was a woman who spoke? It was a strategy he used to invalidate anything I said. I and other female students felt forced to produce research on the sociology of men's health and men's employment so we didn't come across as feminists because to focus on women's health and women's employment was fatal. So I guess I had a reverse experience.
    Before sunlight can shine through a window, the blinds must be raised - American Proverb

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