Werner Sollors, “Ethnicity” (in CTLS)



It makes little sense to define "ethnicity-as-such," since it refers not to a thing-in-itself but to a relationship: ethnicity is typically based on a contrast. If all human beings belonged to one and the same ethnic group we would not  need such terms as "ethnicity," though we might then stress other ways of differentiating ourselves such as age, sex, class, place of birth, or sign of the zodiac. Ethnic, racial, or national identifications rest on antitheses, on negativity, or on what the ethnopsychoanalyst Georges Devereux has termed their "dissociative" character. Ethnic identity, seen this way, "is logically and historically the product of the assertion that 'A is an X because he is not a Y'"-a proposition which makes it remarkably easy to identify Xness. By the same token, the definition of Xs as non-Ys threatens to exaggerate their differences in such a way that if the Xs think of themselves as human, they may therefore consider the Y s as somehow nonhuman.  (288)



Together with nationalism (a similar phenomenon which, however, stresses territoriality), ethnicity has spread with particular intensity since the times of the American and French Revolutions and remained a powerful force in political history ever since. Whereas the aristocracy organized its rule by direct and personal knowledge and family relationships that notably transcended national and linguistic boundaries, bourgeois power was dependent upon a shared interest among people who might never meet but who could feel connected through literature: hence newspapers, broadsides, manifestoes, popular songs, as well as plays, poems, epics, and novels have played important roles in sustaining feelings of belonging--the need for which the bourgeois era exported to the far corners of the earth (Anderson 1983). Ethnicity and ethnocentrism may thus be described as modern Europe's and North America's most successful export items.



A canonical text illuminates the symbolic processes that help to constitute ethnic contrasts.  While ethnic matter is often associated only with works by writers whose descent makes them members of the respective ethnic groups, the processes of generating feelings of dissociative belonging inform (and are themselves supported by) many literary texts.  Investigating “ethnicity” in literature may thus accomplish more than yielding evidence for the Xness of Xs in texts by writers reputedly descended from Xs, or supporting nineteenth-century purist models of supposedly ethnically based whole cultures.  While often phrased as attacks upon ethnically exclusive canons of the past, contemporary purist approaches may yet replicate their antagonsists’ focus on the authors’ Xness as the basis of literary evaluation and of constructing literary traditions. (303)