Recently, I decided to enter into a new phase of this blog. It was a decision that came partly out of necessity. I began a new graduate course and with it came a new blog assignment. This assignment presented me the opportunity to explore some of my primary intellectual interests with a more focused approach than in the past. I boiled these interests down to the broad topics of race, gender, politics, and literature. Looking at my past blog entries, these topics were most prominent. I also wanted to explore my interests in the context of contemporary theory, which is the subject of my course. Trauma theory stood out to me as having the most thought-provoking intersections with race and gender, so that is where I decided to start.
But I couldn’t start. Once I decided on the themes of my next blog posts, I began to experience some powerful writer’s block. How could I do these topics justice? What important contribution could I really make? On reading an essay by Toril Moi entitled “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals,” I decided to look more closely at my writing and the motivations behind it. Throughout her essay, Moi considers the relationship between politics and intellectual work. First, she writes about how leftist intellectuals justify their writing politically in order to defend the intrinsic value of intellectual work and assuage the guilt that derives from their privileged place in society (140). The danger in this tendency, according to Moi, is that it lends itself to absolutism—the fantasy that one particular theory or work can and must be omnipotent in its ethical and political import. The reality is that intellectual work never has absolute value and “we cannot predict the political effects of our writing” (Moi 159).
Like many writers, I strive to create politically effective work. I seek to bring about change with my writing, and more specifically cultural and socio-political change for the empowerment of disenfranchised people. Reading Moi made me realize that these goals, while respectable, are also paralyzing. If I were to wait to write something guaranteed to be politically significant, I would be waiting to write forever. While my work may never be politically effective, I will continue to be politically committed. My interests in politics and social change are rooted in my identity and history as a black Canadian woman of African descent.
According to Moi, the politically committed intellectual is ultimately appealing to the freedom of her audience; all she can do is mean what she says and take responsibility for her words (146). In a memorable passage Moi writes, “What matters is whether the text shows the reader some aspect of the world that she or he can respond to. To respond to a text the reader does not have to identify with it or recognize herself in it, or feel represented by it; she needs to feel stirred, moved, challenged by its appeal” (158). In this series of blog posts I want to investigate the meaning of trauma in the lives of black people, and especially black women. I am writing for people who, like me, are interested in cultural criticism and the study of social inequality. And I hope to inspire empathy, as I am a firm believer that empathy is the root of all progressive social and political change.
My first blog post in this chapter will focus on Tina McElroy Ansa’s novel, Ugly Ways and the intersections between trauma theory and black feminist theory. Following that will be an analysis of psychic trauma in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The third post introduces the graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman to discuss the codification of trauma in American society and its effects on different subjugated groups. Next comes a post on Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined and the sympathetic identification that can bond black women around the globe. Following that is a critique of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and a discussion of the power of nostalgia. Finally, I have a two-part post on trauma and anti-black police violence in the United States, with a piece on the potential for a hypertext Truth and Reconciliation document.
I rely on literature and theory to move from a micro-level investigation of race, gender, and trauma to a macro-level analysis, emphasizing the effects of psychic trauma on both individuals and communities. The literary works I engage with throughout this blog series have been fundamental to my learning process and I hope they provide an interesting way into some of my ideas.
Moi, Toril. “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.” The Legacy of Simone Beauvoir. Ed. Emily R. Grosholz. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.