Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

„Race“ in der US-amerikanischen Literatur und Gesellschaft des letzten Jahrzehnts

Dr. Eva Gruber


Since the 1950s, race had been discredited not only as scientific term: The decades after the Civil Rights Movement witnessed its deconstruction from a social and cultural perspective as well. Race as a category was declared invalid and obsolete (although its persistence in terms of social consequences was readily acknowledged). Since the turn of the millennium, the issue attracts renewed attention from both social scientists and American writers.

Novels such as The Time Of Our Singing by Richard Powers, Black Girl, White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates, Danzy Senna's Caucasia or Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, to name but a few examples, build on yet transcend the common consensus of race as an "empty signifier," a cultural construct devoid of meaning. They serve as metadiscourses on race, critically scrutinizing the validity and testing the limits of constructivist notions of race and identity which dominated the critical discourse of the preceding decades.

While not heralding a return to essentialist paradigms, such novels nonetheless show characters severely struggling with notions such as "construct," "choice," or the proclaimed fundamental "unreality" of race in a world which confronts them with race's palpably real consequences. In an almost seismographic manner, they seem to detect proclaimed and actual shifts in the conceptualization and significance of "race" in American society, implicitly raising the question whether the United States can truly be said to have arrived in a post-race era (a claim frequently made in the context of the Obama presidency).

Intriguingly, literary inquiries into a race's renewed meaningfulness often rely on narrative modes in which (neo-)realistic representation supersedes the typically postmodernist "endless deferral of meaning." The current project thus pays close attention to potential connections between the decline yet continued presence of race as a concept on the one hand, and the poststructuralist/postmodernist elision of the referent yet simultaneous persistence (or return) of realistic tendencies on the other. It explores whether a renewed emphasis on referentiality in literary representation – referred to under headers such as "the return of the real" – and the increasing acknowledgement that race can never be without meaning might actually inform one another.