Monday, September 19, 2011


"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Henry James, The Art of  Fiction.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Is it important for a creative writing teacher to encourage his/her students to study critical theory?"

 It is difficult for me to imagine a student in one of the nearly 300 creative writing programs in America (and we only seem to have these in America) not having the requirement of taking a certain number of literature courses. In those courses it is today nearly impossible to escape the interpretative or hermeneutic approaches we gather under the general term "critical theory." 

As a philosophy graduate student in the early 1970s, I was immersed in works by Marxist-oriented authors considered to be the principle theorists of critical theory---the "Frankfurt School" philosophers (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas) Foucault, and Barthes. With my early emphasis on phenomenology and aesthetics, it was also inevitable that my literary studies were influenced by not only the New Criticism of the 1940s and '50s, but also structuralism, feminist theory, and to a lesser extent by deconstruction. Every well-educated student of literature should be acquainted with these approaches.
Lately, or perhaps I should say since the 1980s, I find my interest moving toward certain aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT), specifically toward the area called "Whiteness Studies," i.e., toward examinations that show us how "race" is historically constructed with the intention of perpetuating white supremacy and dominance. Very exciting work in this area is coming our way from philosopher George Yancy. In the brilliant introduction to his forthcoming book, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, Dr. Yancy "flips the script" by inviting white readers to see themselves through the eyes of people of color, to see how "whiteness is the transcendent norm in terms of which they live their lives as persons" and how this recognition is so very "threatening to a white self and a white social system predicated upon a vicious lie that white is right---morally, epistemologically, and otherwise." Look, a White! is a book I recommend for all readers.

But Whiteness Studies is no longer limited to the world of the Academy. A recent article by Jen Graves in Seattle's The Stranger, entitled "Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race," reveals how progressive whites are embracing the Critical Race Theory critique of whiteness and attempting to address it through organizations such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), which meets every month at the downtown Y in Seattle. There, members confront what CARW cofounder Scott Winn sees as the truth that,"Whiteness is the center that goes unnamed and unstudied, which is one way that keeps us as white folks centered, normal, that which everything else is compared to—like the way we name race only when we're talking about a person of color...We can name how some acts hurt people of color, but it's harder to talk about how they privilege white folks...I think many white people are integrationists in that 'beloved community' way, but integration usually means assimilation...As in, you've gotta act like us for this to work."
 Graves says that, "I grew up in a middle-class white suburban neighborhood. Although we never had a black family over for dinner, every house on our street hosted black men doing perp walks through our living rooms on the news. I didn't realize the contradiction until much later—that our seemingly all-white existence was predicated on keeping other people other." And in this lengthy article she shares Mab Segrest's observation that in terms of the lived-experienced of whiteness, "Women are less white than men, gay people are less white than straight people, poor people less white than rich people, Jews than Christians, and so forth." Jen Graves's challenging article can be read in its entirety at

 Needless to say, Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory will not help an apprentice writer learn anything about techne or craft. Furthermore, during the creative process, which is one of discovery, theories and explanatory models should be set off to one side, if a writer hopes to create on the basis of his or her own unique voice and vision. However, an acquaintance with Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory fulfills Henry James's advice to a young writer (see epigraph), and in ways that James himself was probably unaware of. Every writer, student---and citizen---should know something about CRT. For the illusion of "race"----the racial I, self or personal identity---and its everyday construction are difficult to thematize because they are presuppositions so ingrained in our cultural conditioning in the white West that they are almost invisible, and are as close to us in our daily, lived-experience as to go unnoticed like our breathing. The beauty of CRT investigations is that, at their best, they deconstruct such lies, illusions, and fantasies, forever changing---in a true phenomenological fashion (and one also compatible with Buddhist self-examinations)---the way we experience and create moment-by-moment our world.

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