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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienned'etudesamericaines Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, pp 133-142 Beyond IdentityPolitics? Michael Nowlin 133 Susan Gubar. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Facein American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii + 327. Elaine K. Ginsberg, ed. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Pp. 298. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, eds. Race and the Subject of Masculinities . Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. Pp. 419. Responding to Norman Mailer's now infamous piece The White Negro (1957), James Baldwin wrote that "the roles that we construct are constructed because we feel that they will help us to survive and also, of course, because they fulfill something in our personalities; and one does not, therefore , cease playing a role simply because one has begun to understand it" ([1961] 1985, 291). Baldwin's maxim here might serve as a healthy reminder that contemporary academic cultural criticism committed to destabilizing conventional and historically motivated identity categories-especially categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation-need not have significant po- 134 Canadian Review of American Srudies Revue canadienne d'etudesamericames litical consequences. As much of this work is performed and consumed in a relatively insular academic context, it can afford to be more or less oblivious to pragmatic issues of belief, or to the tenacity of binary modes of thought or of regulatory fantasies of what is normal and natural (never more operative than in flamboyant styles of rebellion). Susan Gubar's Racechanges and two collections of essays under the banner of Duke University Press's "New Americanists" series, Passing and the Fictions of Identity and Race and the Subject of Masculinities exemplify work that wants to take us beyond identity politics by demonstrating the extent to which identities are performed, constructed in relation to (and sometimes through imitation of) various alterior identities, and always dependent upon specific contexts for their capacity to signify and assume power. It should come as no surprise that the supreme identity (or supreme fiction) targetted for demystification is white patriarchal heterosexual masculinity, which suggests the extent to which these projects still issue from a cultural politics of difference that wants to invest authority in "otherness" and thus privileges alternative identitarian claims. Gubar's Racechanges takes a broad view of racial "cross dressing" in twentieth-century American culture. Unlike most of the authors under review here, Gubar makes no pretensions to being theoretically rigorous, and, to her credit, at least entertains the prospect of a "common reader." For all her voyeuristic interest in things culturally avant-garde (the hallmark of her liberal sensibility), she is but forwarding the agenda of a liberal-democratic feminist multiculturalism that pretty much occupies the mainstream of humanistic discourse. She celebrates what she calls "libertarian" impulses (an odd term of endorsement given its appropriation by the political right), and stakes her faith in the "libertarian" potential of the "racechanges" (in minstrelsy , passing narratives, or transracial fantasies) that have made such a definitive mark on American culture. Gubar undoubtedly helped effect changes in the academic mainstream with the pioneering work on women's writing she co-authored with Sandra Gilbert (Gilbert and Gubar 1987; 1988; 1989; 1994). Racechanges, Gubar's first book-length solo performance, appears at a moment when notions like a distinct women's literary tradition or a distinct African-American literary tradition or a distinct white male literary tradition (the template for all such Michael Nowlin I 135 reactive distinctions), have been rendered more or less obsolete by intertextualist readings that emphasize the interdependency of black and white, male and female, highbrow and popular, literary and nonliterary voices. In American studies, scholarship has caught up with Ralph Ellison's longstanding insights into the miscegenated character of American culture, and first-rate revisionist work has recently been done on the ambiguous legacy of minstrelsy (Ellison [1958] 1964; 1964; [1970] 1986). Not one to miss a bandwagon, Gubar brings to the field her flare for synthesizing an array of disparate perspectives and her ambition to be as comprehensive as possible. The amount of data she covers-from film, advertising, poetry, fiction, autobiography, photography, performance art, popular journalism, history, and current events-necessitates superficial treatment...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 133-142
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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