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  • Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature
  • Dan Colson
Catherine Rottenberg. Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 2008. x + 180 pp.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the seminal Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, literary scholars and theorists are still exploring the possibilities of Judith Butler’s constructions of performativity, identity, normativity, power, and subversion. Catherine Rottenberg’s Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature builds on Butler’s theories, reading early-twentieth-century novels through “the lens of performativity” (5). In doing so, Rottenberg contributes both to the growing body of works that juxtapose African American and Jewish American literature and to the post-Foucauldian theoretical school interested in discursive power formations, subjectivity, and the potential for resistance. Thus, Performing Americanness functions as an exercise in literary analysis and as a supplement to Butler’s theory of performativity, though these two elements are never fully integrated.

Rottenberg’s text is structured around four key hegemonic discourses—gender, race, class, and ethnicity—and ultimately focuses on the ways in which they overlap to generate complex subjective forms that are almost always the simultaneous site of privilege and subjection. Each of her first four chapters, however, isolates one [End Page 414] of these discourses as it appears in an African American or Jewish American novel. The author discusses gender in Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, race in Nella Larsen’s Passing, class in Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements, and ethnicity through a comparison of Cahan’s novel to James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. By addressing each discourse in turn and by admittedly restricting her discussion to “the hegemonic level” of power that deploys overarching “regulatory ideals,” rather than a more complicated exploration of multiple “counterdiscourses and alternative norms” (35), Rottenberg narrows her focus enough to allow for her two major theoretical interventions: a recognition of the often ignored distance between identity (or “identification”) and the “desire-to-be” (10) and an argument that “privilege” appears when the two are collapsed (4).

According to Performing Americanness, identity emerges at the moment of interpellation, when the normative discourse inscribes a subject (as boy, as black, as lower-class). Identification may be fraught, but initial interpellations locate the subject within each of Rottenberg’s hegemonic discourses and establish performative expectations: you are a girl, act like a girl. To this Butlerian understanding of subject production, the author adds a “desire-to-be” that is not coextensive with identity. For example, while the black American subject may be interpellated as black, the normative discourse of race sets whiteness as the ideal. Therefore, the black subject must identify as black—and will be discursively reinscribed as black throughout her life—but will be “encouraged to privilege and consequently desire to live up to attributes associated with ‘whiteness’” (12). Rottenberg’s examination of the ways in which each of her four hegemonic discourses structure the subject’s relationship between identification and desire is one of her text’s strengths. Positing the importance not only of interpellation, but also of desires that may transcend or transgress normative subject positions, adds an important layer to theories of performativity. Performing Americanness seeks to extend a theory closely associated with gendering to other hegemonic, oppressive discourses.

At times this strategy is very successful. Rottenberg’s second chapter, “Passing: Race, Identification, and Desire” is the book’s highlight. In it the author uses Larsen’s novel to support an argument that race is performative, but that its mechanisms of power and the subjective experience differ substantively from the gender discourse. Whereas “heterosexual normativity functions by creating two disparate and ideal gender identities,” in the racial discourse of “a white supremacist society . . . blackness is not . . . constructed as desirable” (37). In other words, while both discourses produce [End Page 415] identification through interpellation, hegemonic race discourse generates desires that conflict with one’s subject position: you are black, but you should strive to emulate whiteness. Unfortunately, Rottenberg’s application...


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pp. 414-417
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