How labor issues are expressed through assimilation and exile, in fiction and in real life.
Illustration from 'The immigrants guide to Texas giving descriptions of counties, towns and villages, with valuable historical and statistical information...' (1888).
Image from Flickr user Internet Archive Book Images.
By Virginia Konchan
“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angel’s hierarchies?” Rilke wondered, in the Duino Elegies, despairing over being one nameless soul among millions, too trifling to merit the attention of an other, let alone a seraphic being, or god. Under so-called cyber capitalism, labor is not just abstracted, but etherized. This alienation occurs in language, too: debtors’ prison as a literal place has been replaced with requisite flexible labor in a capitalist economy of debt, and wage slavery, and, in the media, corporate scrubbing. It is an amnesiac superficiality of pop culture and political oppression, wherein words such as “exile,” “slavery,” and “rape” are appropriated (to hasten their end?) as metaphor.
The burden of the precariat is survival: moving to a new country, learning a new language, and generally existing. Nathan Glazer’s 1993 article made arguments for and against assimilation, as distinct from acculturation—the former suggests radical integration; the latter, familiarity. Glazer argues that while assimilation no longer carries the stigma of a policy objective, it remains a meme of social currency. This was followed in 1997 by Peter D. Salin’s sardonic theory of neo-imperialism: Assimilation, American Style. Definitive tomes on these themes are scarce, since contemporary texts on the politics of assimilation tend to be localized, such as New Destination Dreaming: Immigration, Race, and Legal Status in the Rural American South by Helen Marrow (2011).
Code-switching regularly between languages allows for double-consciousness and fluid thinking.
Identity politics continue to fuel US culture wars, in an attempt, perhaps, to map out the tensions between “sites” of language in the mind and body. For many writers, this cognitive dissonance is an extension of their ethnographic displacements. Theorist Julia Kristeva, for example, is Bulgarian, and has lived and taught in France since the 1960s; deconstructionist avant-la-lettre Jacques Derrida was an Algerian-Jew born in France. Their trans-genre, elliptical writings (Derrida’s Glas, Limited Inc, On Grammatology; Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Desire in Language, Crisis of the European Subject) bear poignant witness to the fissures of homeland, territory, place. Novels about the immigrant experience abound: How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov; Call It Sleep by Henry Roth; The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. Code-switching regularly between languages allows for double-consciousness and fluid thinking. And happens organically in the polylingual city of Francophone Montreal.
Called a “little Paris,” the port city of Montreal is home to large immigrant groups of Irish, French, Portuguese, and Jews, is divided by a mountain: Cote-des-Neiges, to the west, and the Plateau (upper and lower) to the east. Mural art and graffiti create a textual impasto to the city’s punk, indie, and fringe scenes. There are traces of the Québec Liberation Front (FLQ), a Marxist-Leninist paramilitary group founded in March 1963 by two Québécois and a Belgian in the 1970s. Their separatist and resistance efforts culminated in the 1970 October Crisis, which was the first occasion in the history of Canada when its citizens were deprived of their rights and freedoms during peacetime. The FLQ was stimulated by international factors such as the decolonization of Algeria, but deflated after kidnapping the British Trade Commissioner James Cross and murdering Vice-Premier Pierre LaPorte. Québec did not want independence via violent means.
Is the class war in America a kind of exile, as well?
Parti Québécois took power in 1976, and citizen activism has remained a vital dimension of Quebecois politics since then. In February 2013, the Collège d’enseignement general et professionel (CEGEP) was the first to protest tuition hikes; the strikes grew into a province-wide movement that led in part to the fall of the Liberal government in a general election that September. Since WWII, nationalist politics smack of autocratic or Nazi regimes. Québec projects hostility to non-French speaking citizens and University graduates whose value to the local economy is next-to-nill. Being able to speak and write French fluently could keep you employed, even if you never join the inner circle of native-born Quebeckers, or “Québécois.”
Such an urgent need for new skills, as described in Quebec, can affect one’s personal integrity and identity. This applies even in Montreal, which is known for its eco-sensitivity and progressive, far-left politics. Niche markets are created not just by supply and demand, but cultural separatism; not as ideology (American exceptionalism or isolationist politics) but as tightly controlled imports and exports. However one defines “homeland”—as nation-state, city or town, physical address, or para-military body—what does it mean to take refuge in a new culture, after sustained military violence, capitalist and marketing aggression? Is the class war in America—the reason why many able workers seek employment outside the country—a kind of exile, as well?
“My assumption was that the feeling of longing would no more gain mastery over my spirit than a vaccine does over a healthy body.”
Whether in Greek poetry and historiography, or Medieval Latin literature, diasporic, immigrant, and exilic writings question “exile” as a distinct literary genre. Along with post-exilic Jerusalem texts, ancient and medieval authors perceived it in accordance with pre-existent literary paradigms, to express estrangement, elicit readerly sympathy, and question political power structures. For someone like Walter Benjamin fleeing the Nazis, power is equated not just with language and representation, but religion, expression, rights of resistance, freedom from and of the press, and remunerative labor. “It became clear to me that I would have to bid a long, perhaps lasting, farewell to the city of my birth,” Benjamin wrote in 1938. “I deliberately called to mind…images of childhood. My assumption was that the feeling of longing would no more gain mastery over my spirit than a vaccine does over a healthy body.”
Who am I? Who are my kin? Where do I come from? In what language can or do I signify, and are the powers of representation granted from without, or within?
These questions are too-often relegated to the slag heap of Philosophy 101 by jaded millennials caught in the frenzy of capitalist production. But they precede Rilke, have passed through Benjamin and Glazer, and are now being asked by Canadian university students, and residents of Midwestern cities. They are indeed critical, amid unprecedented current ecological and social cataclysms. Only such questions dare to (re)negotiating our relationship to those in judicial and economic power, people more dubious and shifty than ever before.
Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (forthcoming). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse. Her criticism is featured in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, and Boston Review. Her fiction can be found in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.