Restrategizing Essentialism (ACLA 11/13/09; 4/1-4/10)

full name / name of organization: 
Kevin Tsai, Indiana University
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Restrategizing Essentialism

Seminar Organizer: Jonathan E. Abel, Penn State; S. -C. Kevin Tsai, Indiana U Bloomington

If essentialist notions of identity can be tolerated as expedient means for political ends, at what point do they become unquestioned categories for academic inquiry? Can identity continue to generate radical moments for ethical criticism when the Other is appropriated as a foil for the Western self; when the rhetoric of identity serves to shield Area Studies from engagement with the world; or when the original impetus behind expanding the canon is replaced by "expansion for expansion's sake"? Encounters with the "brute reality of the Orient" or the "incomprehensibility of the South" often produce new epistemologies revealing the limitations of Western theory. Yet, this strategy can also be its own limitation, too committed to the particularity of the local to have relevance to the global. Indeed, despite valuable attention on the non-European in recent criticism, the asymmetry of "the West vs. the Rest" persists, condemning studies of "the Rest" to a cultural fetishism, bound in temporality, locality, and nativity outside of theory. Is it still possible to invoke the ethical necessity of strategic essentialism when the provisional nature of its strategy has been forgotten? Can criticism employ identity without continuing to risk the reinscription of the very asymmetrical relationship it aims to unseat? Do the new categories of cultural materiality, ecology, and the posthuman constitute a future form of this debate, or do they merely reiterate the old ontological dilemmas? What are the ends to identity criticism?

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