- Identity and the Failure of America: From Thomas Jefferson to the War on Terror
Many academic books add new perspectives to old discussions, while others apply established insights to newer debates. John Michael's Identity and the Failure of America is of the latter sort. Michael takes the approach that literature can help promote a better world and applies it to the question of identity's importance. As Michael describes it, American studies is dominated by two mutually exclusive versions of identity: a pluralist critique "that dissolves the implicitly universalizing and abstracting tendencies of the nation into particularities of race, gender, class, and ethnicity," and a universalizing critique "that calls identity itself into question by exposing the belief that any prescribed identity . . . has salient [End Page 205] characteristics incommensurable to the realities of material existence" (2). Fairly weighing both sides of this debate, Identity and the Failure of America enters the fray by claiming that "lived experience, the stuff of literature, politics, and ethics, seems more complex than either embracing or rejecting identity can allow" (2-3). The complexity Michael adds to the seeming deadlock between those working to specify identities' particularities and those questioning identity altogether is "a crucial aspect of identity in the United States: its intimate if often conflicted relationship to justice" (3).
Identity and the Failure of America compellingly argues that justice in the United States bears a unique relationship to identity for two main reasons: firstly, the country's self-proclaimed commitment to "justice for all," and secondly the nation's marked history of failing to live up to this promise. As Michael presents it, the connection between identity and justice is both constitutive and always in tension. This tension is a productive one, representing "both the failure of the nation and the persistent force of its promise" (5). Crises of national identity arise when failures to achieve justice are met by calls on behalf of identity to address injustices.
The connection Michael posits between justice and identity is more than just a tensely constitutive relationship; they are linked by a similar logic of weighing universals against particulars and prompted by the same imaginative capacities. Justice, for Michael, "requires the acknowledgement of and imaginative identification with demands made from and for identity positions" (18). Whether one terms such imaginative capacity "negative capability," like Keats, the Kantian imperative, or, like Rawls, the deliberations of the "original position," the imaginative capacity invoked here denotes Michael's approach to read justice and literature as sharing "common ground" (18):
Justice emerges, if at all, through the recognition of identity's particularity; justice requires each to assume the other's place to do justice not just to the other but to the difference that the other represents. This justice can only begin when the individuals and the nation, in their self-interrogation and public discourse, confront the threat of their failure that the other's demand embodies. Considering these demands often depends on an aesthetics of negative capability and a poetics of imaginative projection. For this reason literature, so frequently concerned to represent the difference of the other as an object of identification, often becomes a crucial site for just deliberation.(26)
Michael's equation here between identity and justice, and justice and literature, is stated early and argued persuasively throughout. Though identity may itself be, as Walter Benn Michaels has repeatedly argued, a mistake, Identity and the Failure of America justly demonstrates its historical and continued importance to American studies and literary criticism.
Identity and the Failure of America is more than just literary criticism though, as Michael reads a number of "discursive acts—scientific reports, novels, speeches, and essays" (11). The book is structured in three main parts. The first part, "Failed Virtues," examines "the ideal identification of the nation with virtue—both just principles and democratic ethics" (35) through close readings of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and [End Page 206] Herman Melville's Moby Dick. "Failed Sympathies," the second part, reads the novels of...