Saying what it's about never seems to do justice to my approach, but for brevity's sake I tell people that it shows how to read a series of post-1945 American novels as if they were a kind of political theory.
The hard part is explaining that the project stands both nearer to the novels -- reading them closely -- and further away from them than that description implies. It is, in other words, in several places at once: reading, showing how to read, AND reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of trying to read for politics.
The foundation on which this delicate balancing act rests is the presumption that A) political change depends as much on breaking people out of destructive relationships as it does on encouraging them to forge new ones; and B) that identity is the primary impediment to the former process.
I suppose that makes it sound like some sort of self-help program. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
Anyway, I was musing, as is often the case, on the extent to which my project is itself the product -- some would say symptom -- of the problem that it examines. It is bound to the conviction that identity is the linchpin for politics, just as people are bound to -- or should I say "by" or "with"? -- the identities that pin them inside destructive political relationships.
Sometimes I dream of tackling my project from a completely different angle, one in which the concept of identity won't be so central.
However, since the novels I'm looking at are usually considered either apolitical or anti-political -- opposed to certain modes of politicization -- taking this new tack would necessitate starting from scratch. The only way I can make a case for reading these apolitical and anti-political novels as if they represented a kind of political theory is if identity really is as important as my project -- as it stands now -- indicates.
Basically, the idea is that the novels I'm examining in the project have the potential to do a better job of breaking their readers out of destructive political relationships than overtly political novels. To put this in sexier terms, I argue that we need novels that deconstruct identity as much as ones that seek to construct new identities. And, what is more, we need the deconstructive ones first.
The more I thought about these questions this morning, the more I realized that my desire to start over makes no sense.
When I first started to read philosophy, I was lost. But then, with the help of Julian Boyd, my own love for etymology, and the experience of reading difficult texts in German, I started to realize that the important questions in philosophy can almost always be reduced to something simple. Discerning the humble roots in philosophical terms made me comprehend the humble roots of philosophy. At bottom, philosophy is largely preoccupied with classification: what goes with what, what must be separated from what, what can belong to more than one category. Philosophers group together and push apart. They make one out of many and many out of one. They reorder the world, fitting its infinite complexity into the frame of their terminology.
To be blunt, here, I believe that philosophy is interested in identity above all else. I don't mean "identity" in the psychological sense -- who I believe myself to be, what social groups I feel I belong to -- so much as "identity" in its most basic sense: when two things are THE SAME AS each other, not necessarily in EVERY way, but in SOME way, in the way the philosopher's description indicates.
It's not hard to get from that basic, almost mathematical conception of identity and the more abstract, diffuse notion of identity that means, roughly, "sense of self."
What this means for my project is simply that I'm in good company in putting identity at the center. Mine may be a philosophical approach to politics, but when you consider that the first political theorists tended to double as philosophers, it's eminently defensible.
It would be hard to deny that real-world politics involves grouping people together into blocs that can be used for some end -- like, say, blue-collar union workers or Christians afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate -- while simultaneously trying to break apart or at least disable those blocs that benefit one's opponent.
To use the two examples I just cited, there are probably quite a few blue-collar union workers left in the States who are also Christians afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate. In this case, the political challenge would be to make those people who fall into both categories vote and act on the basis of one collective identity rather than the other.
Legos are a good metaphor to use in this sort of political thinking. Let's say the blue-collar union worker who is also a Christian afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate is a six-hole red lego brick. In order to build something politically useful with that lego, it will be necessary to connect it to lots of other legos that lock it in place, make it part of a structure. Once that happens, it will be a lot harder to extract the lego and use it for something else.
Unless, of course, a giant walks into the room and accidentally trips over the castle you've been painstakingly constructing.