Framing Muliticulturalism

  • Sneja Gunew
    Framing Marginality: Multicultural Literary Guides. Melbourne University Press
  • Ella Shohat and Robert Stam
    Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. Routledge
Reviewed by Herb Wyile

In these times of conservative retrenchment in the West, as one witnesses the growing backlash against a distorted, even demonized multiculturalism, one is reminded of Martin Luther King’s observation that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Fortunately, paralleling this backlash has been the appearance of more constructive and less totalized approaches which set multiculturalism and reactions to it in a larger critical context.

Despite its broad title, Framing Marginality is a fairly focused project. Sneja Gunew has been a central force in drawing attention to the work of non-Anglo-Celtic writers in Australia and in addressing the problematic place of multiculturalism in Australian writing. In Framing Marginality, Gunew draws on a fairly broad range of theory to address issues of multiculturalism and literature and to break down some troubling borders within the study of Australian literature.

Gunew gives her book a specific purchase by reflecting on the rise of multicultural literary studies in Australia, a rise in which she has played a large role as an academic, critic, editor and anthologist. Her introduction thus serves as useful preamble by conveying some of the critical debates about “NESB” (non-English-speaking- background) writers and their tenuous position in the development of an Australian literary canon.

Gunew then broadens the scope of the discussion by drawing on post-structuralist, post-colonial, and feminist responses to the essentialism and universalism of European modernity in order to theorize multiculturalism in Australian writing. Because of the tendency to describe the work of ethnic writers in Australia as “migrant” writing—with all its associations of the transitory and the foreign—Gunew opts for “ethnic minority writing” as the most workable term, a usage which furthermore ensures “that cultural majority groups no longer remain invisible.” An important gesture Gunew makes, therefore, is to denaturalize the majority culture, foregrounding its own ethnicity.

Gunew delves into contemporary critical theory in her examination of the dynamics of multiculturalism in Australian literature, and she is careful to delineate the differences between this specific context and multiculturalism as it has taken shape in other largely Anglophone countries like Canada, Britain and the United States. At the same time, Gunew’s exploration of literary multiculturalism has clear implications for those countries as well, as she addresses question of ethnicity and community, the relationship between ethnicity and subjectivity, ethnicity and race, and the role of ethnicity in the national imaginary.

The second half of the book is in large part a response to critics’ tendencies to read ethnic minority literature as uncomplicated, almost sociological studies—the equivalent of oral testimony rather than written artifact. Gunew demonstrates the centralizing impulses behind such reading strategies and argues for more sophisticated readings of these texts. She supports her position and fleshes out her theorizing of marginality and multiculturalism by approaching Rosa Cappiello largely through Bakhtin and Kristeva, and by reading Anna Couani’s work in the context of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, with another chapter devoted to poets Antigone Kefala and Ania Walwicz.

Given the book’s relative slimness, Gunew’s treatment of ethnicity is fairly nuanced, though the lack of a conclusion leaves the two halves of the book sitting somewhat uneasily together (it may well, however, have been Gunew’s intention not to “frame” the discussion of the texts in such a fashion).

Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media is much more substantial than Framing Marginality, providing a wide-angle lens take on multiculturalism. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam make a case for the need to understand multiculturalism in relation to the history of Eurocentrism which is as compelling (though for some reason not as frequently articulated) as viewing feminism in relation to the history of patriarchy. At a time when multiculturalism is being critiqued within majoritarian and minoritarian discourses as a problematic ossifying of ethnic boundaries, Shohat and Stam provide a complex and acute discussion of the dynamics of culture and ethnicity that serves to dispel various myths associated with multiculturalism and to illuminate its role in both local and global politics.

. . . what we have been calling polycentric multiculturalism is not a favor, something intended to make other people feel good about themselves; it also makes a cognitive, epistemological contribution. More than a response to a demographic challenge, it is a long-overdue gesture towards historical lucidity, a matter not of charity but of justice. An answer to the stale, flat and unprofitable complacencies of ethnocentrism, it is part of an indispensable revisioning of the global politics of culture.

Their conclusion makes some large claims, but it is a fair reflection of the achievement of Unthinking Eurocentrism. In keeping with their position that multiculturalism must be viewed in the context of a dominant Eurocentrism, Shohat and Stam proceed to reveal the prevailing Eurocentrism of 19th century colonialist, early 20th century imperialist, and postmodern discourse in the First World. The authors focus predominantly on film, but their discussion has an engaging interdisciplinarity as they highlight the subtle and not-so-subtle writing-out of the non- European, from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to media representations of the Gulf War.

The corollary to the unthinking of Eurocentrism, which is the prevailing concern of the first half of the book, is rethinking of multiculturalism, in which Shohat and Stam develop a carefully modulated view of “ethnicities-in-relation,” a model which negotiates between (and intelligently theorizes) an essentialist view of ethnicity on the one hand and a paralyzing deconstruction of it on the other. This rethinking of multiculturalism involves an exploration of film in the Third World (such terms are not, of course, used uncritically) and of anti- or counter-Eurocentric work in the First World. The appeal of Unthinking Eurocentrism is that it compels readers to view the dominant media (and of course Hollywood gets a lot of attention) in a more resistant way but also addresses a lot of interesting, less-publicized and less-discussed work (as well as the reasons for its marginality).

Which is not to say that Unthinking Eurocentrism is simply a revisionist, alternative film studies primer. The larger purpose of the book is to provide an enabling perspective (for the marginalized and not- so-marginalized) on the politics of cultural interaction which keeps in focus the damaging history and damaging present of Eurocentric thinking and also the need to develop a more relational and polycentric approach to cultural difference. In the process of theorizing multiculturalism, Shohat and Stam perceptively synthesize a series of larger cultural debates; their criticically nuanced but also politically astute approaches to race, political correctness, syncretism, representation and stereotyping, and post-colonialism help to give the book broad appeal.

This review “Framing Muliticulturalism” originally appeared in Women and War. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 151 (Winter 1996): 199-201.

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