THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
By Scott McLemee
February 13, 2004
Latino academics have begun wondering when a new group of public intellectuals will emerge from their ranks. The help-wanted ad for this position is easy enough to assemble: Charismatic, photogenic, and bilingual academic wanted. Proven record of scholarship on Latino issues a must. Tenure at a major research university preferred.
Paula M.L. Moya, an associate professor of English at Stanford University, could win such a position, if she wanted it. In 1997, Ms. Moya published a subtle but hard-hitting criticism of the way postmodernist thinkers described Chicana identity. Her essay, which appeared in the collection Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (Routledge), became a landmark in recent discussions of multiculturalism and literary theory. It also was the beginning of her work as one of the most visible proponents of “postpositivist realism” – – a school of thought attracting scholars in history, cultural studies, and feminist philosophy.
Sitting over a cup of coffee on the final day of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention in San Diego last December, she delves into both her frustrations with postmodernism’s epistemological dead ends and the tale of her late entry into academe with the same blend of warmth and decisiveness. “I wouldn’t want anyone to reduce my thinking to my life story,” she says. “But yes, there are connections.”
Indeed, there is something almost memoir-like about the title of Ms. Moya’s first comprehensive effort to present her ideas, Learning From Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles, published by the University of California Press in 2002. But Ms. Moya’s prose is, if anything, more cool and measured in its approach than that of many other cultural theorists. She may occasionally cite Michel Foucault, but her own thinking owes far more to Donald Davidson and Hilary Putnam — analytic philosophers who strip concepts down to precise formulations.
Scrutinizing how identity and experience influence one another is the focus of Ms. Moya’s work. Like many scholars, Ms. Moya emphasizes that the way people understand the world is conditioned by (as the formula goes) race, class, and gender. How people describe and interpret their identities is part of the process of making sense of personal experience — and the terms they use to define that identity always imply an understanding of the larger social world beyond their immediate experience.
But the relationship of identity to experience is a two-way street. If one changes, the other may as well. For Ms. Moya, and other postpositive realists, such changes are not primarily a question of individual psychology. Rather, identity claims are, in effect, hypotheses about
the world. We test them in practice. Some understandings of identity prove to be better guides than others. “The way we talk about identity is not just a choice we make about how to describe the self,” she says. “It points outward. It’s a theory about the world.”
Learning From Experience
Postpositivist-realist thinking about identity has attracted diverse followers, but it may have special resonance for a scholar with Ms. Moya’s background. Whether to identify oneself as “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Chicano,” or some other label is often a heated matter. For thinkers sharing Ms. Moya’s theoretical framework, it is by no means a semantic question.
So Ms. Moya herself learned from experience. Growing up in New Mexico, she learned to think of herself, like many other Latinos in the state, as Spanish, rather than Mexican- American. “You knew there were Indians in the family background,” she says, “but that really wasn’t part of what you understood yourself to be.” Filling out her application to Yale University in 1980, she described her ethnicity not as Mexican-American, but as “other.”
As a result, she never went through the university’s freshman orientation for minority students, and found herself puzzled when others in her dormitory treated her with what she now understands to have been racial discrimination. “Never having had much trouble making friends,” she writes in an essay, “I found this experience both troubling and humbling. As a ‘Spanish’ girl from New Mexico, I did not consider race or racism as social realities relevant to me.”
Her dormitory ordeals were soon overshadowed by a life-changing event: pregnancy. At the age of 19, she found herself married to a fellow student, and left college to move with him to Houston. Her husband was elected to the Texas Legislature, representing a predominantly Mexican-American district. Following the birth of a second child, Ms. Moya finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston. But she credits much of her education to being thrust into the middle of political life — becoming aware of practices such as redlining, by which lending institutions refused home loans to residents of African- and Mexican- American neighborhoods.
Her marriage, which Ms. Moya says had always been tempestuous, came to an end in 1991. “I was almost 30, and had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life,” she says. “I thought, well, I’ve always read a lot. Maybe I could become a literature professor.” She sounds a little embarrassed at the memory: “I had a completely preprofessional notion of what literary studies involved.” She was accepted into the English department at Cornell University and began graduate study in 1991.
A decisive moment in her intellectual development came the following year, when she read “‘Experience,'” an essay by Joan W. Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Drawing on poststructuralist theory, Ms. Scott scrutinized how historians studying working-class communities, gay subcultures, and other neglected areas described their work as “making marginal experience visible.” While seeming to offer an alternative to understanding history as a chronicle of the powerful, the category of “marginal experience” always implicitly accepted, and so reinforced, the ideology of dominant groups, Ms. Scott argued. No direct access to “experience” was possible — some theory or other was always already implied.
The effect of Ms. Scott’s essay on Ms. Moya was intense. “I became really angry while reading it,” she recalls. “I had just spent 10 years being a political wife and an activist, raising a family on very little money, going through the upheaval of a divorce and moving my children across the country. All of it taught me to think of myself as a Chicana and a feminist. And here was this essay telling me that, basically, any account I could give of my own experience would be complicit with the dominant order of things. It made me furious. Of course, I wasn’t prepared to offer a theoretical alternative at that point.”
Neither Absolute Nor Arbitrary
It turned out that Cornell was the right place to find that alternative. Satya P. Mohanty, a professor of English there, was developing a critique of many concepts dominating literary scholarship at that moment. Mr. Mohanty’s theory of postpositivist realism draws on work in linguistics and the philosophy of science, and offers an alternative to the prevailing idea that respect for cultural diversity requires moral and epistemological relativism. Mr. Mohanty contends that, on the contrary, moral universalism and the concept of objective knowledge are “compatible and indeed complementary” to multiculturalism, properly understood.
As Mr. Mohanty’s students found teaching positions and published their own work, postpositivist realism began to emerge as a distinct school, culminating in the appearance of Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (University of California Press, 2000), a collection of papers Ms. Moya co-edited with Michael R. Hames- García, an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The theory offers scholars an alternative to two powerful, well-established, but mutually exclusive ways of discussing identity, essentialism, and postmodernism. Thinkers associated with the movement, including Ms. Moya, often begin their essays by criticizing both.
For an essentialist, identity is a fairly simple matter. It is defined by membership in a particular ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or class, and carries with it a strong implication that certain qualities and experiences are unique to this particular group. Postmodernists treat identity as a social construct. Because the roles of women vary from society to society, for example — and since gender is only one aspect of social existence – – the meaning of any particular identity is ultimately arbitrary.
Neither interpretation, says Ms. Moya, can account for the lived experience of inhabiting more than one kind of identity. “I agree that in theory boundaries are infinitely permeable and power may be amorphous,” she writes, but in practice, “people do not live in an entirely abstract or discursive realm.” A Mexican-American living in a neighborhood that has been redlined is not going to be able to get a mortgage by deciding to emphasize some other aspect of her identity instead. Nor will it do her much good to define homeownership as a gringo value. Postpositive realism, then, emphasizes identity as a process that involves learning how to wrestle with actual structures of power.
Reading the work of Ms. Moya and her co-thinkers, it is hard to miss their esprit de corps as a group challenging deeply entrenched ideas. Naturally, they have met resistance. But perhaps the most telling criticisms come from scholars who find postpositivist realism
interesting and useful, without quite accepting the whole theoretical package.
Shari Stone-Mediatore, an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University, has published an analysis of postpositivist realism and participated in postpositive realist conferences. She finds much to admire in the group’s work. “By Moya’s own account, a good theory should grow out of experience and then return to help us understand and confront the factors that condition our experience,” she observes. Ms. Moya’s theoretical framework proves useful, she says, as a way to understand “how specific constructions of identity, such as ‘Chicana,’ provide coherence, albeit a tentative and strategic coherence, to the historical dimensions of people’s lives.”
But Ms. Stone-Mediatore also thinks that scholars associated with the group sometimes overstate the differences between postpositivist realism and other approaches. “Postpositivist realism is least useful,” she says, “when advocacy of the theory becomes an end in itself.”
Another scholar with greater objections to the theory is Ramón Saldívar, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, whose work on Chicano literature reflects a longstanding interest in poststructuralism. “I have some serious questions about the way postpositivist realists speak about objectivity,” he says. But his reservations about the theory do not extend to his colleague. He says that Ms. Moya has a remarkable gift for fostering a sense of academic community. “I sometimes warn her,” he says, “that she’ll end up dean if she isn’t careful.”
In conversation about her own path, even Ms. Moya is willing to test the boundaries of certainty about the confluence of experience and theory. She recalls becoming a “little deconstructionist” as a freshman, when Yale was a headquarters for poststructuralist literary criticism. “I sometimes wonder about who I would be if things had happened differently,” she says. “Of course you never know about that kind of thing.”
It seems, for just a moment, as if she is willing to entertain the thought that identity might be just as fluid and arbitrary as some thinkers would imply. Then her instincts as a postpositivist realist kick in: “I think I would have seen the limits of that way of thinking, sooner or later. Reality would have caught up with me eventually.”
http://chronicle.com Section: Research & Publishing Volume 50, Issue 23, Page A12