2004 NEMLA
Figurations of Race and Ethnicity
Session 4.10

Peter Kerry Powers
Messiah College

“My Culture. Their Culture. Whose Culture?”: Culture, Property, and Practice in the Institutions of Multi-ethnic Literature

Stories of the provenance of ethnic literature studies in the academy abound with images of property, property in both the etymological notion of “the proper” and in the more common sense of ownership. For instance, multi-ethnic literature has often conceived of itself in opposition or resistance to received notions of “proper” culture as manifested in the traditional canon of white male European-American authors. Scholars and teachers of multi-ethnic literature have taken it as their task to dismantle, or at least to expand, the exclusive list of proper texts that support and give sanction to oppressive practices of the dominating European cultural other. Similarly, early and continuing resistance to the institutionalization of multi-ethnic literature has drawn overtly or implicitly on notions of the proper. The Cambridge don who smugly asked Henry Louis Gates, “What is black literature?” is saying in other words, “Well, it isn't really proper literature, after all.” Perhaps more common on the academic scene today is the institutional assumption that multi-ethnic literature is all well and good, but it is an extra to be studied after the main line of traditional British and Euro-American literature.

These kinds of images of the proper support and perhaps even inspire a more insidious notion of culture as property, as a commodified domain with a definite and exclusive group ownership. Most obvious, of course, is the phenomenon of nativism on the part Euro-Americans who politically resist immigration and culturally resist the notion that anything other that the European-American inheritance is of any significance. “It's our culture, so like it or leave it.” However, in resisting the exclusiveness of the dominant culture, advocates of multi-ethnic literature have also often rooted their arguments in notions of cultural ownership, seeking to secure the value of “my culture” over and against the dominant culture. This manifests itself most firmly in the development of ethnic studies programs (or courses in ethnic literatures) rooted in forms of group identity and assuming a kind of group ownership: African American studies, Jewish American studies, Latino Studies, etcetera. Even within the theory and pedagogy of multi-ethnic literature, the notion of the “multi” tends to assume identifiably separate cultural phenomena that are being brought into some kind of comparative framework. So deeply ingrained is this assumption in the classroom that students manifest it unconsciously when they speak of “my culture” and “their culture” without being able to clearly specify what they are referring to when using such terms.

This essay interrogates the usefulness of theoretical framework that notions of cultural property seems to generate, giving attention to the both the macro-political consequences—a kind of pluralistic quietism based on mutual but complacent respect—and micro-political effects on students and campus cultures, whether that effect be on students' creative response as reader-agents within culture, or on institutional conceptions of what it means to diversify the curriculum. Metaphor's of property tend to mystify students grappling with literature, on the one hand blinding them to the ways in which elements of a tremendous variety of cultural texts have shaped and moved and traveled in the culture of the United States in a tremendous variety of ways, on the other hand inducing respectful passivity to the cultural texts of those they perceive as others. “After all, it's their culture, not mine.” Similarly, institutions often view culture as a commodity to be placed on an intellectual menu, adding a required course in the curriculum to give students “diversity” while looking past the ways in which cultural practices might challenge and reshape the conceptualization of the curriculum as a whole.

In the essay I argue for a move away from a notion of literature based in conceptions of property. In its place I argue for a conception of literature as a form of mobile cultural practice that moves within and through and beyond cultural locations typically identified as “ethnic groups.” The notion of literature as mobile practice creates a new emphasis on reception and response in the ongoing life of a literary text, a necessary complement to traditional emphasis on the cultural point of origin, the usual emphasis in multi-ethnic studies. In the classroom, this means employing strategies that emphasize reader-response as an element in the construction of meaning from the text, one that should be seen as having equal weight with discussions of cultural contexts, history and sociology that are often at the forefront in discussions of ethnic literature. Such shifts in emphasis reorient students and faculty toward grappling with ethnic literature as part of their cultural existence in the world rather than an object owned by others with limited relevance for their own situation.