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Editors' Picks National Opinion

Junot Díaz, Critical Theory, and Reckoning with #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has metamorphosed from an upwelling of unheard voices clamoring against the abuse and and silence visited upon women in America’s foremost institutions to a greater discussion about the nature of sexism in America.

Much of the discussion has interpreted the American social landscape through a lens drawing heavily from Critical Theory, casting sexism as more than just a pattern of individual behavior, but a real structure which pervades the very fabric of our social consciousness. Advanced by the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, Critical Theory divides society into two spheres: base and superstructure. According to philosopher Raymond Williams, the base is comprised of the “specific activities of men in real, social and economic relationships,” while superstructure is constituted by a “range of cultural practices,” which regulate and determine those activities. The two serve to maintain each other—the superstructure influences activities which then further entrench the superstructure. According to Critical Theory, then, sexism is a component of the superstructure we live in—a popular construct, first synthesized long ago and now sustained by the actions of individuals.

This view offers a lot of explanatory power; we can quickly apply the framework to our own society and see how sexism in practice—part of the base—is perpetuated through cultural narratives that blame victims and defend abusers—the superstructure. But it also paints a fraught picture when considered adjacent to people for whom personal consciousness of sexist structures is fed by the sexual trauma they themselves are a victim of. The superstructure exists only to the extent to which actions perpetuate it, and therefore sexist superstructures must have a much greater presence to those who have suffered sexual violence. Given that superstructures influence and cause certain human behaviors, if we take the Critical Theory foundation underpinning the current national debate to its logical conclusion, we must conclude that those people who have suffered or been in close proximity to sexual violence are to an extent less culpable for their actions. How do we maintain an intelligible notion of the real impact of superstructures on society without simultaneously lessening the personal responsibility of those who sustain those structures through acts of gendered violence? This is a critical tension for the #MeToo debate, and one that has to be resolved if it is to keep its current intellectual foundations.

We can find answers in debate surrounding the work of Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-Prize winning author who on May 4th was accused by fellow literary academics and writers of sexual assault and sexually aggressive language. Díaz, the victim of sexual violence himself and someone raised in close proximity to a machismo culture featuring firmly entrenched sexist norms, is exactly the kind of person for whom personal responsibility may be muddied by the current Critical Theory approach. By examining the superstructure present to Díaz and considering his actions in turn, we are poised to generalize to a solution to the critical tension.

Because a work is to an extent a reflection of its author’s mind, to create the fullest picture possible, we should examine both Díaz actions and his work. However, before doing so, we need to consider the manner in which we should interact with his work. Díaz’s work’s success gave Díaz societal legitimacy and a position of power, and it’s important that we determine a way in which we can consider his work while not lending him undue legitimacy. Two bookstores, Quill Books & Beverage in Maine and Duende District in Washington D.C., have already pulled Díaz’s books, including Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, off of their shelves. As the literary establishment asks itself whether it should follow suit, we must as well.

Díaz’s works are events with historic dimension that cannot be ignored, if we are to appreciate the works of his contemporaries. Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Díaz liberally interweaves Spanish-language expressions and colloquialisms into his works to create the rich picture of Dominican culture necessary to portray authentically the experience of life both on the island and in American immigrant communities. It is a dynamic technique that engrosses the reader, and together with the stature of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a work in which it is featured prevalently, no doubt has shaped the sphere of Dominican immigrant literature. Díaz’s work was selected by the literary establishment as the standard for the literary spheres it inhabits, and years later we must recognize that this position was not held in a vacuum, but rather in conversation with other authors. Just as we could not consider the genre of Cosmic Horror without the foundational works of author H.P. Lovecraft, we would be intellectually dishonest if we ignored works whose prodigious stature, endowed by the powers-that-be of the academic community, allowed them to color their greater literary sphere, affecting not only the history of Dominican immigrant literature, but the works of those who wrote in their legacy.

We cannot ignore Díaz’s works, but we must consider them carefully — doing nothing would only serve to legitimize Díaz personally and institutionally reinforce a narrative in which the personal wrongdoings of an author are without consequence. Zinzi Clemmons, an academic who confronted Díaz at a literary conference for allegedly forcibly kissing her, captured the consequences of doing nothing in a tweet uploaded on May 5th, explaining that it was “pretty hurtful to learn that the room applauded Díaz after I left. I was crying in the lobby while you were clapping for him. Hopefully next time you will think twice about siding with a powerful man over a scared young woman.” Academia cannot responsibly applaud Díaz further. We need to give the accusations leveled by women authors a voice in the discussion, and critically evaluate Díaz’s work in light of this voice.

Díaz’s works are reflections of his life experiences. This is true of many of Díaz’s works, but is particularly telling in Díaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the novel, each of the characters captures something about Díaz’s life story. Oscar’s adolescent struggle with depression and suicide mirrors Díaz’s own; Beli’s repression of a childhood traumatic experience of having a male caretaker pour hot oil on her mirrors Díaz’s repression of the trauma inflicted by his childhood rape at the hands of a male relative; and Yunior’s compulsive infidelity mirrors the behavior that contributed to the ruin of Díaz’s marriage. His stories cry out for us to do precisely what we ought to do anyway in light of his actions — put the life of the author in dialogue with his work.

Days before accusations surfaced, Díaz published an editorial for the New Yorker detailing the sexual trauma he suffered as a child and the ways in which his socially-enforced repression of that event contributed to mental health difficulties and harmful patterns of behavior against women, specifically compulsive infidelity. Much of the article portrays Díaz’s experiences along strictly Critical Theoretic lines — a personal consciousness of superstructural sexism violently sustained by repressed childhood trauma works to cause the victim to commit sexist misdeeds against women. Díaz’s response to the critical tension is that personal responsibility is indeed diminished by the causal superstructural influence on one’s actions. Confirming this narrative are Díaz’s remarks given in an interview with writer Cabrina Maria Cabreja, where he stated that “I don’t think men can transcend their masculine privilege … Everybody’s belief that you can abjure this just by an act of will is the reason this shit is so powerful and continues to grip us all cause this shit isn’t (about the) individual!”

Undertones of this narrative can be seen throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wherein the objectification of women is cast as modus operandi in Dominican machismo — the narrator explains that Dominican men should “be pulling bitches in with both hands.” Gendered violence is normalized — upon hearing her young son Oscar crying over a girl, Beli exhorts him to “Dale [la puta] un galletazo,” or “slap the bitch.” Sexual violence is encouraged as well — Oscar’s uncle invites him to “grab a muchacha, y meteselo,” or “grab a girl, and put it in.” Sexism, as a superstructure, is alive and well, and often characters excuse away acts of sexual violence against women as products of those structures, and not the will of their agents.

Yet, this narrative is violently disrupted by two of the most revered characters in the novel, Oscar’s grandfather Abelard and his adoptive grandmother, La Inca. Faced with great societal pressure to allow dictator Rafael Trujillo to rape his daughter, Abelard instead refuses, imperilling himself and his family. Living in a society in which domestic abuse against children is prevalent and prevalently endorsed, La Inca refuses to strike her adoptive daughter Beli. In both instances, individuals assert their agency and act contrary to the oppressive structures in which they find themselves. La Inca herself the victim of oppression, pushes away the social forces guiding her hand and embraces individual responsibility. This is a biting criticism of the narrative promulgated by Díaz first, in which superstructures of oppression cause abusive behavior, and lessen personal responsibility.

By putting Díaz in dialogue with his work, we’re not only able to responsibly recognize his work, but also better understand and condemn abusive patterns of behavior. In the wake of the accusations leveled against him, Díaz — in a rejection of his prior-held structural consequentialist view — accepted responsibility for his actions. At the end of Díaz’s editorial, he detailed the extent to which healing found at therapy sessions allowed him to overcome the toxic narrative sustained in his life by machismo and sexual violence. This prevailing message, its assertion of personal responsibility and its biting criticism of structural consequentialist theories — theories that Díaz himself once held and incorporated into his works — that diminish agency and can even serve to excuse bad action has been echoed by many of Díaz’s critics still ostensibly loyal to the Critical Theory approach.

Yet, central to Critical Theory is the idea that the superstructure has a real, causal influence on the base. If we are both to affirm unqualified personal responsibility and continue to rely on Critical Theory underpinnings, we must entertain an untenable doublethink conception of causation, in which problematic behavior is both solely attributable to the agent yet simultaneously caused to some extent by a societal structure of oppression.

Instead, in light of our strong moral intuitions regarding the culpability of abusers, we should see this as evidence in support of abandoning the Critical Theory structuralist framework altogether. To make further progress, we should instead look to a conception of society which holds people uniquely accountable for their actions, a conception that can’t be subverted by abusers to apologize for sexual violence.

By putting Díaz’s work in dialogue with his personal life and stances, while also hearing and incorporating the positions of accusers and women critics, we are able to responsibly consider Díaz’s work in a way that identifies and criticizes bad ideas and avoids exalting the author. Recognizing that we may sometimes want to examine the works of such authors when those works lie at the heart of important intellectual discussions, it’s important that we maintain this standard.

By considering Díaz, we’re able to see clearly the consequences of answering the critical tension along structuralist lines—a rational process kindred to those that excuse sexual violence and apologize for abusers. We recognize that the Critical Theory ideas so foundational to the #MeToo discussion thus far lead to bad conclusions, and should be abandoned.

Moving forward, when considering the validity of social theories in the context of national discussions, we should recognize that any such theory should be doubted if its logical conclusions contradict our strongest moral intuitions. To consider these conclusions in greater fidelity, we should make the somber decision to examine the interplay between an idea and its consequence in the work and life of people whose actions can be clearly adjudicated as right and wrong by our intuitions. Doing so will develop that species of intellectual subtlety which is precisely the kind that we need to make progress in the effort to snuff out sexism—and to develop better theoretical foundations for the national conversation broadly.