Both of the novels we’ve read thus far dramatize the issue of nationalism, though it seems to me our approach to that concept remains under-theorized. The most influential writing on the nation and nationalism includes the work of Benedict Anderson, Ernst Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm. (In a US context, we could also consider the thinking of Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, whose political commitments led him to reject even broadly anti-establishment ethnic and cultural nationalisms as a species of fetishizing chauvinism which he disparaged rather cuttingly as “porkchop nationalism.” Angela Davis notes this distrust of Afrocentric cultural nationalism was based, in part, on these ease with which it was commodified.)
“The days run away like wild horses over the hills,” wrote Chas. Bukowsi– and he was right. The end of the semester functions as a caesura, a gap between phonemes, the white space separating words. Which is one way of saying that our lives– my life– are syntagmatic: a sentence begun not long ago headed inexorably toward some final punctuation, whether a modest, dignified period or mysterious ellipses. It’s cheap philosophy to say so, but crossing from one event into the next sometimes forces us to a minor crisis of indecision:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
I am learning to appreciate silence uncluttered by the vain compulsion to always speak. As much as I love the cursive of voices, most especially my own, a moment is revealed when the only sounds audible are the words that have not been said. What did we not say to each other? What did we forget?
In California Culture we didn’t come to terms with the fact that the subject of our study is legend: a vision the world once had in a dream– ultima thule, the western isles, a terrestrial paradise promising repletion and knowledge, a myth that led Ulysses (according to Lord Alfred Tennyson)
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
We can hear the echo of an ancient impulse in the rhetoric of American expansionism from Bishop Berkeley’s “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” to Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go West young man.” Berkeley’s famous line comes from his poem America, or the Muse’s Refuge: A Prophecy written before either California or the United States existed. Emanuel Leutze, a German immigrant, borrowed the phrase to title a painting completed during the first year of the Civil War. The West, California included, thus served as what we might think of as a ‘third space’ or an ‘other scene’– a place where sectional antagonisms would be worked through, as in Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian.
The world is as simple as we are. Common sense– sense that is held in common, as opposed to good or bad sense– dictates to us that things are pretty much as they seem to be. For this reason it is obvious, as Terry Eagleton once wrote, that the sun revolves around the earth. We can see that it does every day.
In our discussions on The Gangster We Are All Looking For, we will have occasion to think about the common sense of national identity. We will engage with that venerable model of society the melting pot and more recent responses to it such as the tossed salad or the mosaic. We will examine just what those paradigms seek to do and what ideologies they promote.
Roughly, the melting pot is predicated on the idea of cultural assimilation, the notion that the nation is best served if all its inhabitants share certain values. An earlier version of the melting pot theory emphasized citizenship for particular groups. Some immigrants were held to be assimilable while others were viewed as incapable of fully integrating into American life. Legislation around the turn of the 20th century limited the numbers of Asians, for instance, including “immigration exclusion acts and laws against naturalization of Chinese in 1882, Asian Indians in 1917, Japanese and Koreans in 1924, and Filipinos in 1934” (Lowe 3). The tossed salad thesis, on the other hand, corresponds to multiculturalism, a belief in the power of racial and ethnic diversity. People of varying backgrounds ought to be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural features, the logic goes, because the friction and ferment of difference vitalizes social life. Students in ‘mixed’ classrooms learn about each other in addition to whatever content the course is intended to teach. Both of these models have their limits and it is my own personal sense that while our culture at large pays lip service to the latter, there are still many Americans who embrace the former. Luckily, we are not forced merely to choose between the two. Armed with a capacity for critical thought, we can push the often very banal public dialog on immigration, race and American identity into more interesting and productive directions.