Identity is too much with us late and soon, figuring prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters and arrogant elites. It is an irony – perhaps even a tragic one – that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.
The summer issue of The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, features eight essays that focus on our theme of “Identities – What Are They Good For?”
Author and editor W. Ralph Eubanks opens the thematic section with a look at how his mixed race background has informed his life and work.
In “What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White?” Eubanks plumbs the complexities of race and identity: “Under the pressure of this transmogrified racialized politics, questions of identity become difficult to untangle. I am an American, a Southerner, a practicing Roman Catholic, and, by profession, what might be called a person of letters, having devoted most of my career to editing, publishing, and writing. But I am also a man who grew up as part of an interracial family whose members made blackness a conscious choice. … Born in 1957, just three years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, I am a grateful beneficiary of those many successful efforts to overcome racial discrimination and white supremacy. But as a black man, I still feel how contingent and precarious those gains have been.”
In “Do Women Exist?” philosopher Mary Townsend examines the American woman’s existential struggles with the meaning of her own gender: “To take up female-ness as an endlessly changing, essentially malleable thing, in the hope that somehow this will be more satisfying, seems to me weirdly and wastefully contrarian. A disembodied metaphysics of malleability is precisely the sort of metaphysics that will make our crisis of self even worse, and it’s no less frustrating than an eternal unchanging Form of Womanhood that taunts us with its unattainable imagery, whether we’re picturing the career-and-family woman ‘having it all’ or the aspirationally quirky movie or TV heroine of the day.”
Outsiders, outcasts, herds of people proclaiming their individuality – no matter how outrageous they are, most so-called contrarians aren’t quite the disruptors they believe themselves to be. As social critic Steve Lagerfeld relates in his essay “In with the Out Crowd: Contrarians, Alone and Together,” “There is nothing a contrarian crowd hates more than a real contrarian, a person who breaks ranks with the group. If the whole point of belonging to the crowd is to demonstrate one’s superior moral position, an insider’s dissent is an intolerable violation and contradiction. … The contrarian’s great temptation is moral vanity, and what a sweet one it is.”
Economist and historian Deirdre N. McCloskey goes to the heart of the question of identity and the self with her essay “Straight Man to Queer Woman: Untimely Meditations on Transitioning”: “One might ask what the general utility is, if any, of identifying myself as a trans-whatever person in dealing with others. None. You don’t change gender, especially male to female, to advance your career. I want to pass on the street merely as another woman, and a year into my transition, after some surgery on my face, I did. Meanwhile, it was nasty to be read as walking around in the wrong persona. Very nasty indeed, and in, say, a country-and-western bar, dangerous.”
Looking for good tacos? Ask an intellectual, suggests scholar Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in his essay “Intellectuals Are Ordinary.” Inspired by the writings of food critic Jonathan Gold, Wurgaft argues that intellectuals need not be alienated from their culture, even the most popular part of it, as some myths of the type seem to suggest. “To say ‘Intellectuals are ordinary’ is not to say that everyone is an intellectual, or that all culture is intellectual life,” Wurgaft writes. “Nor is it to imply that everyday pleasures offer a safe harbor from the squalls of politics. It is to suggest that the life of the mind is ‘ordinary’ in the sense that you can get there through the gate of everyday life.”
Writer Phil Christman grapples with the notion of modern masculinity – its incongruity, its privilege, and its tragic comedy – in his essay “What Is It Like to Be a Man?”: “Mass culture represents us badly, of course,” he writes. “One is never at a loss for depictions of men qua human beings in art and literature, but when it comes to men qua men, your choices are generally between stick figures, between ‘Death Wish’ or ‘Animal House,’ the Batman of Christian Bale or the Batman of Adam West. But mass culture represents everybody badly, and it represents most people worse.”
Mysterious yet ordinary, known but unknown, the identity of the cosmopolite, writes humanities scholar S.D. Chrostowska in “The Man without Identities,” is “a kind of metaidentity, floating above the national ones as an effect of their synergy, a natural consequence of holding more than two valid passports and making use of them. … What makes a cosmopolite, then – if I have these associations and assumptions right – is essentially this freedom to go anywhere and to be at home there.” More than a mere global citizen, the cosmopolite challenges notions of sovereignty, whether personal or national, in favor of something more pluralistic: “Cosmopolitanism does not cancel citizenships, nor the civic responsibilities that come with them, but only throws off the emotional shackles of exclusive identification with a particular nation-state, or with several of them at once, as the case may be.”
“What accounts for white tribalism?” asks scholar James McWilliams in his essay, “White Tribe Rising.” Drawing on literary, historical and socioeconomic sources, McWilliams seeks to understand how a “complex assortment of regional, social, and economic factors has contributed to the formation of a loose-knit tribe that has long felt uneasy about its traditional place and status in a nation dedicated to the principle of equality.” The now-infamous phrase “basket of deplorables” became a flashpoint that galvanized a band of disgruntled Americans into a powerful voting bloc, a group that embraced an identity composed of “a profoundly complicated and deeply self-serving interpretation of our history, one designed to prevent a group of people from becoming politically and economically obsolete in the face of an unknown future.”
Beyond the summer issue’s thematic section, architect and author Witold Rybczynski muses on the passing of what he calls “architectural propriety.” In “The Flasher of the Arts,” Rybczynski challenges contemporary architecture’s penchant for novelty and innovation with an essay that reflects on how modernism has left us with an urban landscape dotted with buildings whose salient qualities are inutility or banality: “A building should suit its purpose not only in terms of functionality but also in terms of architectural expression. Modernism was different. Because ornament was done away with, such nuance was no longer possible. Henceforth, a window was simply a glass pane; a column was just a steel or concrete post, whether it was supporting the ceiling of a cathedral or a carport.”
If you have been binge-watching a lot of television shows about serial killers, you are not alone. Philosopher and literary critic Becca Rothfeld speculates in “Murder on the Installment Plan” that delving into the mind and motives of serial killers touches something deep within our psyches, an insatiable desire to consume, an erotic need to feast. And when satiety occurs, we always come back for more: “So the profiler skims the murderer’s surface, and our gaze only grazes the grisly scenes he stages. … [F]amished for understanding, we become the compulsive consumers of violence that resists consummation. … But we watch – we want – because we cannot touch or taste. No sooner has one episode ended than we start the next. As soon as the end begins, we already long to return to the beginning.”
Prescriptions for improving public education abound, but in “The Strange Afterlife of William McGuffey and His Readers,” historian Johann N. Neem submits that for a better future, we might look to the past, to the 19th-century primers known as McGuffey Readers. The Readers have long had both critics and champions, but, as Neem points out, the books also supplied a critical grounding for a common civic culture: “Throughout his career, [McGuffey] sought to sustain a civic culture that drew from American culture and ideals, including its faith traditions, while rejecting more robust, narrower, and less tolerant forms of religious nationalism. His efforts reflected his belief that education was a public good because every child was equally entitled to it, because democracies needed educated citizens, and because common schools encouraged diverse Americans to see themselves as part of the nation. The McGuffey Readers aimed to bridge Americans’ differences rather than contribute to them.”
We used to signal that we were smart; now we signal that we are good, observes B.D. McClay in our Signifiers feature on “virtue signaling.” “The criticisms implicit in accusations of virtue signaling demand an impossible purity of motive – the assurance that, if you performed this action in a total vacuum, it would be the same. If actions are unavoidably performed before others, and the way we think about them is shaped by our culture, then all actions can be understood to be only performative; you wouldn’t do them if you had grown up in a different place with different parents and a different value system, and you wouldn’t do them if you thought they’d diminish your status or your standing as a good person.”
Books reviewed in this issue include “The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll,” by Randall J. Stephens; “Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession,” by Todd H. Weir; “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?,” by Robert Kuttner; “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money,” by Bryan Caplan; “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” by John Fea; and “Teachers of the People: Political Education in Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill,” by Dana Villa.
The Hedgehog Review is published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The fall issue (due out Nov. 1) will look at aging and end-of-life matters.
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