Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch


Here's something else I stumbled across in my search through seas of poorly ordered files. It's a short piece I wrote for an issue of Bad Subjects, but which didn't make the cut due to space considerations:
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 93 10:33:21 PST
From: "Charles Leonard Bertsch" <>
To: bad@uclink;,, annaleen@garnet;, srubio@garnet;,
Subject: MY PIECE

Over the past year, BS has devoted considerable space and energy to critiques of the 'ideology of multiculturalism'. The "Manifesto for Bad Subjects" with which we lead off our first issue of this fall (issue #7) forcefully restates the principles of these critiques, noting that "while we are both sympathetic and indebted to the multiculturalist project, and we recognize its historical necessity and value, we firmly believe that it is time for the left left to begin dealing with the limitations of its currently dominant political ideology." Exchanges with people outside our editorial collective about both the manifesto and BS as a whole have made it clear to me that this position on the ideology of multiculturalism baffles or troubles many of even our more sympathetic readers. Often these readers do not understand the stridency with which we assert that the time for this ideology has passed. What I would like to do in this piece, then, is to show how I, as one member of the BS collective, make sense of our position.

One of the most common complaints or confusions I hear about the BS critique of multiculturalist ideology is that its target is far too vaguely defined. What do we mean by 'multiculturalism'? How does the target of our critique differ from that of those right-wing polemicists who bemoan in multiculturalism the dissolution of America's 'common culture'? In brief, what are we so upset about? While I do feel that BS' definition of multiculturalism has been more focused than these criticisms suggest, it can never hurt to provide further clarification. Let me briefly state what *I* mean by it.

When I critique the 'ideology of multiculturalism' I am *not* suggesting that race, gender, and sexual orientation are unimportant. I am not even proposing that we should teach more texts by dead white men. What I *am* doing is voicing my opposition to a multiculturalist project that thinks leftist politics has done enough when it recognizes the irreducible difference that distinguishes one ethnicity in a complex society from another, that believes that we'll all get along just fine as soon as we know our own particular group-identity is 'special'.

I am *not* suggesting that issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation should not be brought up in the classroom. I am, on the other hand, objecting to a situation that I myself and many of my friends and acquaintances have experienced first-hand in UC-Berkeley classrooms: the way in which African-Americans are only called upon to speak about African-American experience, women are only asked to provide a feminist perspective, and homosexuals are only permitted to offer their particular take on a text if the author is rumored to have been gay. In other words, I object to the ways in which a certain ideology of multiculturalism 'empowers' people to only speak of, for, and to themselves while refusing to entitle them to speak of, for, and to 'Others'.

Obviously much of what both the mainstream media and right- wing critics label as 'multiculturalism' does not partake of this project and indeed actively challenges it. There are many people working within fields like post-colonial and ethnic studies who are trying to create a different sort of multiculturalism, one that seeks to relate different groups concerns, to underscore their shared economic oppression, to articulate common interests and goals instead of segmenting society into a series of identity-cells for which only the capitalist jailer has the key. Thus when I personally contribute to a BS critique of the ideology of multiculturalism, I am targeting a 'segmentive multiculturalism' that fails to think and act relationally, *not* a 'relational multiculturalism' that recognizes the risks inherent in assuming an identity that can talk only to itself.

Some people reading this might wonder whether the sort of segmentive multiculturalism I am speaking about is not already a thing of the past, since the hippest trends in contemporary cultural theory are so preoccupied with 'border-identities' and the impossibility of anyone in today's United States ever claiming a 'pure' ethnic or sexual identity. My response to this question is a simple one: look in the classroom, even the *graduate* classroom. I am firmly convinced that the reality of multicultural pedagogy lags far behind the vanguard of cultural theory; I continue to participate in critiques of the ideology of multiculturalism because I want to see that gap narrowed. It's time for the hipoisie to stop assuming a particular problem is passe because they've moved on to something better and no longer have to feel silenced in the classroom of segmentive multiculturalism.
All in all, it was probably better that this didn't appear at the time. I wrote it very quickly. And I was treading on ground that made me feel like I'd forgotten to strew kitty litter across the icy patches. It's interesting to me now, though, because it captures in compact form an argument I was trying to develop back then. I wanted to support the general thrust of the critique of multiculturalism that the co-founders of Bad Subjects had made their primary ideological goal, while adding room for nuances that would distinguish that critique more sharply from its conservative counterparts.
Tags: archive, autobiography, bad subjects

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