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Article

Robert Niemi

Proletarian literature (from the Latin proletarius, referring to the lowest class of free Roman citizens) is writing in all literary genres by, about, and primarily for working-class people, describing their experiences and often featuring anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, or revolutionary themes.

Article

As migrants who were drawn to North America to serve as cheap labor, questions of money, economy, and class have been central to Asian American experiences from the mid-19th century, and Marx’s critique of capitalism has circulated almost as long among Asian Americans and anticolonial, nationalist movements in Asia. However, the long history in the communist movement of the subordination of racial and gender inequality to a narrowly defined class struggle alienated many in US racialized communities. Subsequent interventions in Marxist theory leading to non-economically determinist accounts of social transformation have resulted in a post-Marxist Asian American literary and cultural studies. This is a theory, though, that is largely devoid of specifically economic inquiry, and this has led to the marginalization of questions of class, labor, and whiteness that might complicate questions about resistance to domination and capitalist hegemony. These elisions are only exacerbated in the turn to global and transnational frames of analysis, since the complexities of local racial dynamics are often lost in more abstract narratives and conceptual paradigms. The history of Japanese internment provides a case study that exemplifies some of the difficulties of evaluating the multiple forces motivating racial discrimination.

Article

Class  

Benjamin Balthaser

Class is not a term like style that refers to a quality inherent in the literature itself, or genre, that while historically produced, nonetheless is imagined to have formal properties. Class is rather a way of seeing, an analysis of how literature has been constituted by capitalist social relations and also has responded to—and been seized by—working class movements, from the abolition of slavery to the archipelago of movements against neoliberalism in our post-Fordist age. “Class” understands working class literature in a US context, as literature that was once about working class people, from the mediated publication of slave narratives, to the middle class gaze of realism, to its transformation in the 20th century into literature about the subjectivity of working class people themselves. As Hungarian Marxist theorist Georg Lukacs notes, class has both an objective and a subjective quality: workers are both reified as alienated commodities while at the same time perceives their interests as qualitatively different from those of the capitalist who purchases their labor power. Or as Marx put it, “abstract labor” is always in conflict and in contradiction with “living labor,” the real embodied lives of workers whose persons are part of the commodity circulation process. Thus the novels that arose out of the working class revolutions of the 20th century often focus on the first person process of subjectivization, as the working class protagonist realizes their own alienation and strives to transform it in the process of personal and often social struggle. Of particular interest in the US context is the way in which race and class often function as double and mutually reinforcing forms of alienation. At the height of the working class literary movement in the mid-20th century, novels such as Carlos Bulosan’s America Is the Heart and Richard Wright’s Native Son offered engagements with this double question, while Ann Petry’s The Street and Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio furthered this question with the gendering of labor. In the post-Fordist era, the question of class and subjectivity has fragmented even further, without working class parties and large industrial unions to offer a totalized countervision of working class subjectivity. Novels such as Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange offer a fragmented and transnational vision of new working class subjectivities, while novels such as Philip Meyer’s American Rust pose a reification of whiteness as a way to shore up a declining working class control over their labor and fragmenting subjectivity.

Article

Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anticapitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism. As a genre, proletarian literature was formalized in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the cultural arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, amid intense debate about the nature and function of workers’ culture under socialism. Yet its roots run much deeper, coinciding with the development of capitalism, industrialization, and the making of class society itself. In the 19th century, for example, both the slave narrative and nonfiction writing by factory workers can be counted as expressions of working-class life and subjectivity. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, may be taken as one of the first full-length, self-conscious examples of proletarian writing. That Davis’s book was written by a woman is also significant: proletarian literature reflects the disproportionate experiences of women, immigrants, migrants, African Americans, colonial subjects, and other people of color as members of the working class globally. Indeed, because the genre has historically been tied to the development of communist and socialist movements worldwide, proletarian literature is necessarily a global phenomenon, and an insightful indicator of the relationships between workers in different nations and colonies yoked together by global capitalism. Thus, proletarian literature should be studied as corollary to the development of capitalism across time and space; as an index to the lived experience of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and as one of the most important expressive forms and historical records left by members of the working class as a whole.

Article

The South has generated a unique set of myths, which are often at odds with the dominant Puritan-bred tales of American exceptionalism. If the North had to downplay vertical visions of the social, class stratifications have always been recognized more readily in the Southern regions. Rather than disentangling race from class, however, these categories were seen as closely connected in the antebellum slave-holding South. Even after the end of slavery, class was never solely an economic category; surprisingly close to notions of caste, class dynamics came fully entrenched with cultural distinctions, which more often than not were cast in the language of blood ties—the rhetoric of race. As a result, strong values were attributed to these distinctions. And although the North, too, assessed the rich and the poor in the stern moral vocabulary, the influence of pseudo-scientific Eugenics studies and other factors added a new dimension to this moralizing of the hierarchic order in the South. This had repercussions on the way the poor were perceived. The allegedly chivalrous planter aristocracy at the top found their counterpart at the low end of the stratum in a form of abject poverty. Some poor whites were located just a notch above the black citizenry whose exclusion dramatically exceeded went beyond economic hardship. It proved to be a proximity structuring the cultural imaginary to come. Intricately linked to the logic of racism, a slur such as “white trash” introduced a categorical difference into whiteness—the good, reformable poor were pitted against the hopeless “dirty” poor—thriving on stereotypes similar to the dehumanizing depictions of African Americans and begging the question of reciprocity between “them” and “us.” From the Old South to the New South, literature has fulfilled a variety of functions in this regard. Often, it was complicit in maintaining the biases of this peculiar culture of poverty, by revitalizing the stock of stereotypes of poor whites, or by downplaying the terror of the plantations and naturalizing the hierarchies between the classes. At times, it also subverted the household representations and created ambiguous tales of class and life in poverty; at others, writers aimed at a more truthful account, or tried to tell tales of solidarity. The literary history of white poverty is only the most consistent tale to be told when it comes to Southern writing. While not unrelated, another tradition has come to the fore when African American writers were able to create and publish their own accounts of black life. Ever since Jim Crow laws created a black underclass in the Reconstruction period, depictions of their life experiences included economic hardships as well. Tied to different genres and poetological interests, black writers engaged in a reflection of the twin exclusions of race and class. Finally, in the so-called Postsouth era, the literature of poverty has been rejuvenated by a more self-reflexive aesthetics that moves beyond the earlier concerns of Southern literature.

Article

Sean Metzger

How are race and performance implicated within one another? Performance understood as theatrical practice extends back to antiquity before modern understandings of race emerged. Moreover, performance as a larger field of inquiry extends far beyond theater and includes embodied spatial practices, live events that hinge on communitas, patterns of behavior, as well as the presentation of certain abilities ranging from sports to rhetoric. Given such broad associations, performance can become a vehicle for the instantiation of race. Race—as psychic, material, and social processes of human differentiation—reveals in turn certain dynamics of performance; for example, the recourse to and privileging of human agency in discussions of performance frequently leaves uninterrogated the very category of human often thought to animate it. What are the relationships among humans, animals, objects, and technologies? What performs and what can be made to perform? Any attempt to think about how race and performance are bound together raises questions about populations and identificatory actions and feelings. Race in performance suggests how individuals and groups take shape within larger structures of power and suggests the kinds of contradictions and improvisations that might be enacted within said systems. Such dynamics hinge on efficacy, pleasure, and/or discomfort.

Article

Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional. In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse. Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.

Article

This article explores evolving representations of the Dominican colloquialism and concept tíguere in academic scholarship and Dominican national and diasporic culture. Phonetically, the word tíguere is a “Dominicanized” pronunciation—with one extra syllable added in the middle—of tigre, the Spanish word for tiger. Instead of purporting an exhaustive analysis of every utterance of tíguere in the vast archives of Dominican culture (a Quixotic affair for a single encyclopedia entry), this article observes how scholarship in the last forty years has approached the “tíguere” as a Dominican cultural expression. While academic books and articles on Dominican culture vary insofar as their discussions of the origins of the term and to whom it applies (whether they be men or women; “straight” or queer; black, white, or mixed), they also show continuity in reinforcing the basic characteristics of tigueraje (wit, grit, and resourcefulness; cunning, confidence, and showmanship; stoicism, style, and fierce determination) as expressions of dominicanidad, or Dominican-ness. This article does not pretend to be an exhaustive study but rather shows some of the ways in which authors and academics have spotted and studied tígueres in the milieu of Dominican cultural production. While the growing fields of contemporary Dominican scholarship, media, and literature have gradually deconstructed and adapted the tíguere within critical, queer, gender-inclusive, racially conscious, and transatlantic methodologies, in doing so it has also played a role in reinscribing the tíguere’s place in Dominican culture, both at home on the island and across oceans.

Article

Jayson Gonzales Sae-Saue

Daniel Cano is a Mexican American author of three novels, Pepe Rios (1991), Shifting Loyalties (1995), and Death and the American Dream (2009). Among literary critics, Cano is recognized mainly for his second novel. This work loosely reproduces his experiences as a Mexican American who comes from a proud military family, becomes a soldier who comes of political age while fighting in the Vietnam War and must deal with the trauma of his combat experiences afterward. Thematically and politically aligned with other Chicana/o narratives about the conflict, Shifting Loyalties articulates a staunch anti-war political ethos. It does so, in part, by assessing historical and social grievances of minorities in the United States and then linking those complaints to the historical condition of the Vietnamese against whom they must fight. It further articulates its political protests by narrating the protracted trauma of the war for ethnic Americans and working-class soldiers and their families, including the ordeals these communities faced in fighting for democratic rights abroad while lacking full rights at home. In this way, Shifting Loyalties imagines political protests according to the cross-racial contradictions of class difference across the nation and across the Pacific. Cano’s first novel, Pepe Rios, similarly engages the author’s personal history. It draws largely from his uncles’ oral stories about his grandfather Maximiano Cano’s life in Mexico during the national revolution (1910–1920) and his subsequent migration to the United States. As such, Pepe Rios narrates the experiences of the Cano patriarch, refigured in the image of the novel’s eponymous hero, during his search for justice when the Mexican nation became a battlefield of conflicted and corrupted national ideologies. Yet his figurative identity as a soldier-turned-immigrant also narrates a potential shared point of origin for much of the Los Angeles community. Indeed, the novel locates in the violent and complex politics of the Mexican Revolution a starting point for conceptualizing and imaging modern Mexican American life, including the transnational and politically messy genealogies that generated a large-scale exodus of Mexican immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century. The sequel to Pepe Rios, Death and the American Dream, follows its protagonist’s integration into lower-middle-class life in the United States after his escape from Mexico, including his involvement in early labor movements in California. The narrative begins with Pepe’s arrival in Los Angeles and his investigative work regarding exploitation of Mexican and Mexican American labor in the region. In the course of this narrative action, the novel articulates corporate, state, and union fraud and misconduct on an international scale in the 1920s. Collectively, this criminality and corruption ensured a steady flow of cheap workers from the south to satiate starving US labor markets in the north. As such, the novel provides a rare historical account of the West Side of Los Angeles in relation to labor history in the hemisphere. The novel relates how this area in particular experienced a construction boom in the 1920s, during an era of immigration restrictions for Asian workers, and how the history of Mexican labor immigration and Mexican American labor exploitation made this economic explosion possible.

Article

Ricardo L. Ortiz

Cuba’s historical relationship with the United States predates both countries’ emergence into full political sovereignty and consists of forms of political, economic, and cultural interaction and exchange that have intimately bound the two societies since well before the 19th century. The United States spent the 1800s emerging as an independent nation and increasingly as a regional power in the western hemisphere. Populations from smaller neighboring societies were emerging from colonial rule and often sought protection in the United States from colonial oppression, even as they saw the United States’ own imperial ambitions as a looming threat. Cuban-American literature therefore can trace its roots to a collection of key figures who sought refuge in the United States in the 19th century, but it did not flourish until well into the 20th when geopolitical conditions following World War II and extending into the Cold War era made the United States a natural destination for a significant population of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution. Most arrived first as refugees, then as exiles, and finally as immigrants settling into homes and making families and lives in their new country. This population has also produced a robust literary culture all its own with deep ties and important contributions to the greater US literary tradition. Cuban-American literary production has proliferated into the 21st century, exploring complex themes beyond national and cultural identity, including gender, sexuality, race, class, and ideology.

Article

The social and political conditions actuated by 9/11 have been a major catalyst for new literature, television and film about South Asians and Muslims in America. Stemming from a 2001 speech by then-president George W. Bush, the concept of the “War on Terror” has served to rationalize the domestic regulation of Muslims, while also validating the need for US imperialist and capitalist expansion. Where US government discourse highlights first-person narratives that figure America as a benevolent global protector of freedom and democracy, South Asian American fictional and non-fictional narratives posit critiques of Islamophobia and the US security state. Spanning a breadth of genres and styles, including the paradigmatic 9/11 novel, the bildungsroman, comedic satire, dramatic monologue, magic realism, documentary film, and urban fiction, South Asian American literature and media highlight narratives of interfaith and cross-racial solidarity. The imaginary worlds of these texts confront the injustices of US imperialism and the global War on Terror for Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad. At the same, South Asian American representation engaged with the impacts of post-9/11 politics and society has enriched understanding of the complex lived experiences of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans, as well as those of Indian Americans who are Muslim or trace their ancestry to the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. By centering the perspectives of those communities most affected by detention, xenophobia, and surveillance, post-9/11 South Asian American literature and media reveal how the exigencies of history produce new forms of narrative and cultural practice.

Article

When Victorian writers talked about the home, they invoked a range of contested ideas and complex affects about the material and imagined space where self and society meet. Emerging as a fully developed ideology by the middle of the 19th century, domesticity organized beliefs about the family, gender identity, sexuality, subject formation, socioeconomic class, work, civilization, and empire. As an ideology, Victorian domesticity pivots on two figures: the figure of separate spheres and the figure of the domestic woman. The binary logic of separate spheres identifies a private domain where femininity, leisure, feeling, and an ethic of care coalesce in opposition to a public domain where masculinity, work, industry, endurance, and an ethic of achievement preside. Governing the private sphere, the idealized middle-class domestic woman exercises a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit, a socioeconomic authority in managing a labor-intensive household, and a creative authority in using the materials of private life representing the family’s social status as a matter of financial and ethical respectability. In this sense, the home provided a rhetoric and narrative form for mapping an individual’s accommodation of social categories and economic forces. For better or worse, the image of the family hearth’s comfort, coziness and good cheer—its status as a haven in a heartless world—presided over a large swath of the Victorian imagination despite ripped patches that exposed domestic violence, sexual transgression, gender subordination, and socioeconomic coercion. For every sentimental Dickensian Christmas feast displaying a repentant miser breaking bread with a disabled waif, there were equally popular stories in which children are beaten, wives incarcerated, and households blighted by industrial suffering and bureaucratic indifference. Victorian domesticity thus relied on both mythologizing and demythologizing energies.

Article

Chicano/a literature may not excel in representing labor movements, but the literature itself has been influenced by, and is often a response to, various labor struggles. Of the labor movements that have had an impact on Chicano/a literature, the farmworkers movement has been the most significant. Even though Mexican American farmworkers throughout the 20th century played a significant role in building an agricultural empire in the United States, they have not been properly credited with this accomplishment, nor have they prospered equitably from the economic gains of agribusiness. Historically, Chicano/a farmworkers have been physically visible in the workplace but not socially recognized—needed for their labor, but not always wanted as participatory citizens. The farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) during the 1960s and early 1970s contributed to the emergence of the Chicano movement during those same years. The movement in turn served as a catalyst for the emergence of Chicano/a literature. The farmworker has been a central figure in Chicano/a literature since its inception, but representations of farmworkers in the literature have changed over time—from Tomás Rivera’s groundbreaking novel . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra in 1971 to Salvador Plascencia’s fantasy novel The People of Paper in 2005. One of the reasons for these changes has been the rise of neoliberalism, a politico-economic system that has debilitated, and in some cases destroyed, labor unions. Neoliberalism has also contributed to the deterioration of living and working conditions for the working class, especially for those at the bottom of the economic chain, such as farmworkers. Thus, contemporary Chicano/a farmworker literature tends to oscillate between nostalgia for a time when the farmworkers movement was powerful and cautious optimism that a strong movement can once again be built.

Article

Genders  

Pelagia Goulimari

Feminist, queer, and transgender theory has developed an array of fruitful concepts for the study of gender. It offers critiques of patriarchy, the gender binary, compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity, and homonormativity, inter alia. New Materialist feminists have analyzed gender variance, continuous variation, and continuous transition through concepts such as rhizome, assemblage, making kin, and sym-poiesis (making-with). Feminists of color and postcolonial feminists have theorized intersectionality—that gender always-already intersects with race, class, sexual orientation, and so on—and gender roles outside the white middle-class nuclear family, such as othermothering and fictive kin. Materialist feminists have studied gender as social class, while psychoanalytic gender theorists have explored gender as self-identification and in terms of the relation of gender identification and desire. Queer theory has explored vexed gender identifications and disidentification as well as heterotopias, counterpublic spaces, and queer kinship beyond the private/public divide. Transgender theory has critiqued transmisogyny and theorized transgender and trans* identities. Indigenous feminist and queer theory has theorized Two-Spirit identities and queer indigeneity in the context of a decolonial vision. Theorists of masculinities have analyzed masculinities as historically specific, plural, and intersectional. Gender studies, in all this diversity, has influenced most fields of study—for example, disability studies in its theorization of complex embodiment, its development of crip theory, and so on. Gender studies, in turn, has greatly benefitted from the study of literature. Literature has been indispensable in the genealogy of dominant gender norms such as the 19th-century norms of the angelic/demonic woman and self-made man. In return, gender theory has offered fresh insights into literary genre, for example the Bildungsroman. Since the development of gender theory, it has taken part in an ongoing dialogue and cross-fertilization with literature, evidenced in self-reflexive and critically informed literary texts as well as in gender theory that includes autobiographical and literary (e.g., narrative, figurative, fictional, poetic) elements.