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Stanford Report, June 12, 2002

Reconstructing identity Paula Moya on learning from experience

BY JOHN SANFORD

Literary scholarship never quite recovered its poise after deconstruction dug its heels into the academy in the late 1970s, greatly complicating how people make sense of books.

The theory set out to show how slippery and ambiguous -- even arbitrary -- textual meanings are. It knocked the canon off its pedestal for closer inspection and gave more force to questions about what made the Great Books so great. Deconstruction also provided the burgeoning fields of feminist, queer and African American criticism with a powerful tool for interrogating and dismantling dominant paradigms, whose parts, unexamined for centuries, had in places become corroded by age.

However, for better and worse, deconstruction has been used to argue that race and identity are socially constructed -- in other words, unreal. "The deconstructionist thesis about the indeterminacy and indeed arbitrariness of linguistic reference leads many U.S. literary theorists and cultural critics to understand concepts like experience and identity (which are fundamentally about social relations) as similarly indeterminate and hence epistemically unreliable," Paula Moya, an associate professor of English, writes in her book Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles (2002).

Associate Professor of English Paula Moya practiced the salsa with her husband, Tim Young. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Moya believes that such theoretical formulations are not useful when it comes to understanding the real world. Nor, for that matter, does she think they're of much use to people trying to understand themselves and the things they watch or read. Identity has real-life repercussions, of which racial and religious minorities are perhaps most painfully aware, and post-structuralism's critical tools, like deconstruction, can appear somewhat feckless in comparison.

"Who we are -- that is, who we perceive ourselves or are perceived by others to be -- will significantly affect our life chances: where we can live, whom we will marry (or whether we can marry), and what kinds of educational and employment opportunities will be available to us," Moya writes in her introduction to Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (2000), a collection of 10 essays that she edited with Michael Hames-García, an assistant professor at the State University of New York-Binghamton. "Who we understand ourselves to be will have consequences for how we experience and understand the world."

* * *

Through most of her adolescence and teen-age years, Moya considered herself Spanish. "The music that we listened to" -- banda and ranchero music -- "we called it Spanish music; the food that we ate" -- tacos and enchiladas-- "we called it Spanish food," she said.

Born April 9, 1962, in Albuquerque, N.M., Moya, the second of four children, was a toddler when her family moved to Santa Fe, where she grew up and attended high school.

Two distinct forces helped to shape how many residents of that state came to view themselves toward the end of the Mexican Revolution, in 1920: an influx of white-skinned Americans from the North and an influx of brown-skinned Mexicans from the South. The northern migrants held various racist attitudes toward the Mexican immigrants, and New Mexicans, most of whom were of Mexican or mixed Mexican-European descent, attempted to shield themselves from prejudice by adopting the notion that they were of pure Spanish heritage, Moya said.

"It was a lie," Moya recalls, and yet it was the culture into which she was born. "It made me realize that how you see yourself can lead to an entirely different world view. I always acknowledged that I had Indian blood, but I didn't internalize that. ... I grew up with all the stereotypes about Mexicans. I didn't identify with Mexicans."

That all changed when Moya left to attend Yale in 1980. On her application to the university, she had checked the "other" box in response to questions about her ethnicity. "They had Mexican American but they didn't have Spanish," she recalled. As a result, she did not get invited to a pre-orientation program with other minority students.

Moya enjoyed a Salsa class with her husband, Tim Young. Photo: L.A. Cicero

"When people said, 'What are you?' and I said, 'Spanish,' they would look at me, like, 'You're crazy,'" she said. "So what I realized was that my self-described identity couldn't hold. Identity is part of being seen."

* * *

Moya was 19 years old and a sophomore when she became pregnant. She married her boyfriend, a fellow Yale student, and dropped out of school to join him in Houston, where he ran for political office as a state representative. Only 22 years old, he won the seat in a district that included a large Mexican American neighborhood. "So I spent the next few years being a political wife and a mother, and basically confronting culture shock because the community I grew up in in New Mexico was, even though Mexican American, culturally different," she said. "My family had been in the United States for many generations, but this was an immigrant community."

She helped her husband with his campaign, learned Spanish and took a job as a secretary. As a state representative, her husband was paid just $7,000 a year, and the family suffered constant financial problems, she said.

Moya later earned money by working on other political campaigns. Then, in 1984, she was appointed to the Harris County Appraisal Review Board, which was responsible for hearing and resolving protests concerning the valuation of property for tax purposes. "It was a tremendous experience for me, because I learned a lot about politics, I learned a lot about institutional racism, and I learned a lot about real estate," she said.

After roughly four years on the board, she took a job as an admissions counselor at the University of Houston-Downtown and, soon after, began enrolling in some courses there. By 1989 she was a full-time student again. She worked part time and earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1991.


Moya looked at a video of a dance routine with Young and classmates Renée Goumas and Dario Benevides.
Photo: L.A. Cicero


By then, however, her marriage, which she characterized as never having been stable, fell apart. "It was an interesting and ultimately very difficult kind of life to be a political wife," Moya said. "I looked around at a bunch of professions and thought, well, being a professor is kind of cool -- job for life, literature all the time; you know, I think I'll do this. I had a very pre-professional notion of it."

For graduate school, she enrolled at Cornell University, which offered her a two-year full scholarship. "I filed for divorce, packed my kids in the van and left," she said. "And it was the best thing I ever did."

* * *

Cornell University's English Department was a hotbed of post-structuralist theory at the time of Moya's arrival in 1991.

In the United States, post-structuralism was a slowly moving groundswell that attracted approbation and dissension in equal parts. Formalists, whose numbers already were dwindling fast by the early 1980s, were the most vociferously opposed to the movement. Many decried deconstruction as thinly veiled nihilism. (Formalists believe they can study a text and derive a central meaning from it; deconstructionists believe there is no such thing as a central meaning.)

Deconstruction retains an aura of subversiveness and infamy even today. This is compounded by its reputation for being abstruse -- an acquired taste of the cigarette-and-espresso cognoscenti. And yet the aim of deconstruction is fairly straightforward: to challenge underlying beliefs. The French philosopher-cum-literary theorist Jacques Derrida coined the term, a combination of "destruction" and "construction," and did the most to develop the theory, which also owes a lot to the philosophical work of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Derrida argued that Western history was based on a language of binary oppositions -- good versus evil, straight versus gay, rational versus irrational -- which, if scrutinized, turn out not to be opposites at all but elements of a continuum that have been hierarchized somewhat arbitrarily, often on the basis of entrenched cultural beliefs.

The theory's most lasting effect has been to take a sledgehammer to the marble bust of truth with a capital "T," leaving it in shards. But post-structuralism also has been used to broadly critique the notion of identity in literary and cultural studies.

"Broadly speaking, postmodernist scholars in the United States who have been influenced by post-structuralist theory have undermined conventional understandings of identity by discounting the possibility of objective knowledge," Moya writes in Learning from Experience. "Instead of asking how we know who we are, post-structuralist--inspired critics are inclined to suggest that we cannot know; rather than investigating the nature of the self, they are likely to suggest that it has no nature."

This creates a dilemma for people who believe their experience can tell them something pertinent and valuable about who they are. It certainly troubled Moya, who, in graduate school, found she had a bone to pick with the feminist historian Joan Scott. In her essay "Experience," Scott "effectively delegitimizes experience as an authoritative source for knowledge," according to Moya.

"That made me angry," she explained over coffee last winter at the Stanford Bookstore. "Angry" is not an emotion easily associated with the literary scholar, who is 40 but looks at least 10 years younger. Poised and polite, she has curly, dark-brown hair, and her wide mouth turns easily into a toothy smile or a slight frown of concentration.

"How can I go through all of that for someone to tell me that I can't draw on my experience as the base of what I have learned?" she said. "Like, you just wrote a book in which you deconstructed race, and that's all very nice. But if I'm a black man and I walk into Macy's, they're following me around. So Reclaiming Identity was really a kind of reaction to that kind of trend in literary theory: to say, 'There's something real about what is happening here; it's not entirely arbitrary. And we have to acknowledge that if we're going to really get out of this trap.'"

* * *

During her first year at Cornell, Moya took a course with Satya Mohanty, a professor of English who was then developing a literary theory called postpositivist realism that could serve as a riposte to what he felt was the rampant constructivism in literature departments across the United States. (Constructivism is the theory that objectivity and truth are simply social conventions that change over time.)

Postpositivist realism, which may sound like another postmodernist weasel-word, in fact takes its cue largely from American pragmatism, a philosophy put into motion around the turn of the 20th century by Charles Peirce and William James and later refined by John Dewey and, most recently (and somewhat controversially), Richard Rorty, a Stanford professor of comparative literature. Pragmatism, at its root, is interested in the practical function of knowledge; for pragmatists, ideas are tools for living, not ingredients for doctrines, as influential idealists such as Karl Marx believed. In other words, pragmatists believe the meanings of ideas and things stem from their observable consequences.

Similarly, postpositivist realists attempt to make objective observations "as a goal of inquiry which includes the possibility of error, self-correction and improvement," Mohanty writes in his book Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (1997). "On this view, objectivity is a social achievement rather than an impossible dream of purity and transcendence; it is based on our evolving understanding of the sources and causes of various kinds of errors."

The theory is "postpositivist" because, while it does not reject truth or objectivity wholesale (as postmodernism does), it does not accept the naively empiricist or positivist notion that unmediated knowledge is possible. Instead, postpositive realists "endorse a conception of objectivity as an ideal of inquiry rather than as a condition of absolute and achieved certainty," Moya writes in Reclaiming Identity. They are willing to admit that the quest for knowledge is going to include errors but do not "shy away from making truth claims," which they acknowledge will be "open to revision on the basis of new or relevant information."

Mohanty was Moya's dissertation adviser, and he remembers his former student as possessing what he described as a rare "intellectual integrity."

"She doesn't write about things because they would be professionally advantageous," he explained during a telephone interview from his home in Ithaca. "She does it because the subjects jibe with her personal and social values. She doesn't do things because they are popular; she does them because they're right."

Neither Moya nor Mohanty are shy about claiming postpositivist realism as a tool for progressive politics. Like American pragmatism, the theory is tightly bound to -- even predicated on -- the realities of the world.

After arriving at Stanford in 1996, Moya spearheaded a book project, a collection of essays by scholars who shared some basic assumptions about experience and identity, which she co-edited with Hames-García. After Reclaiming Identity was published in 2000, Moya, Hames-García, Linda Martín Alcoff -- a professor of philosophy, political science and women's studies at Syracuse University -- and Mohanty met in Ithaca, where they hatched a plan for a series of conferences based around the theme of the book.

"The Future of Minority Studies: Redefining Identity Politics" was the result. Over the course of 2001, dozens of scholars participated in the five conferences and symposia held at Stanford, Cornell and SUNY-Binghamton, as well as a panel at the Modern Language Association's annual convention.

(Another "The Future of Minority Studies" conference, scheduled for Oct. 18-19 at the University of Michigan, is being organized by Tobin Siebers, director of the Program in Comparative Literature at the university.)

* * *

It has been a big year for Moya. In April, she was named director of the Undergraduate Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and chair of the program's major. She will succeed history Professor Albert Camarillo, who recently was appointed the Miriam and Peter Haas Professor in Public Service, at the start of the 2002-03 academic year. Camarillo gave Moya a ringing endorsement.

"Since coming to Stanford, Paula has been one of the most active colleagues with the center in a variety of ways," he said. "She's able to get along with a huge diversity of people. She's well liked by students and by colleagues, and is clearly going to play a big role at Stanford as a senior faculty member."

Not only did Moya earn tenure in January, but she surmounted another major obstacle faced by many young Stanford professors: She bought a home -- in her case, a campus townhouse -- in February with her husband of four years, Tim Young, a Menlo Park lawyer. They live there with Moya's two daughters, Halina Victoria Martinez, 19, and Eva María Lourdes Martinez, 17.

On a somewhat overcast day toward the end of March, the couple held a house-warming party, which buzzed with the conversation of faculty members and graduate students standing in small groups in the living room and dining room. Moya moved easily among them, greeting newcomers, smiling and nodding. Colleagues have commented on her knack for making people feel comfortable. Her guard never seems to be up, and conversations with her feel unusually -- and refreshingly -- personal.

"She's not afraid to be human," said Alyce Boster, the English Department office manager who served as the staff person for the search committee that brought Moya to Stanford. "With Paula, you always feel as though you're a special friend."

Paula Moya