The central idea that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., provides in this text is to be found in his analysis of black literature's emphasis on and use of SignifThe central idea that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., provides in this text is to be found in his analysis of black literature's emphasis on and use of Signification. Signifyin(g) is a technique that essentially amounts to repetition with a crucial difference, a way of commenting on other writers and their ideas through various sorts of parody and pastiche. This idea sheds new light on the seeming repetition in some black artists' work and on the literary evolution of black writers. Frequently accused of being merely imitative and not original, Gates echoes Zora Neale Hurston's idea that "what we really mean by originality is in fact masterful revision," that "imitation is the Afro-American's central art form." Furthermore, he continues, "For Hurston, the distinction between originality and imitation is a false distinction, and for the black writer to suffer under the burden of avoiding repetition, revision, or reinterpretation is to succumb to a political argument that reflects a racist subtext" (118).
Gates' idea of Signifyin(g) on literary precursors is not entirely unlike Harold Bloom's idea of the "anxiety of influence"; however, where Bloom sees primarily pressure and anxiety in the relation between a poet and his/her precursors, born from the need to distinguish him/herself and do something new and original, Gates sees creativity and possibilities for connections in the relation between a writer and his/her precursors. Whether the writer wishes to counter or affirm the ideas and style of a writer who has had an influence on him/her, in Gates' world of literary Signifyin(g), the countering or affirming will be a creative process in itself. Achieving striking originality and separating oneself from the pack is less important than is finding one's place--through Signification's playful, shifting processes--in the world of literary ancestors and relatives. These literary ancestors and relatives may or may not be other black writers. Gates is careful to avoid essentialism here, instead arguing that "shared experience of black people vis-a-vis white racism is not sufficient evidence upon which to argue that black writers have shared patterns of representation of their common subject for two centuries--unless one wishes to argue for a genetic theory of literature, which the biological sciences do not support. Rather, shared modes of figuration result only when writers read each other's texts and seize upon topoi and tropes to revise in their own texts" (128). Signification thus is a part of the creation of literary traditions, as Signifyin(g) revision "alters fundamentally the way we read the tradition, by defining the relation of the text at hand to the tradition" (124). Traditions are not static, neither are they handed down in a neat package to the next generation of writers; instead, each writer creates his/her own traditions and his/her own place in those traditions by reading and then by Signifyin(g) upon meaningful texts. ...more
If only all literary criticism and theory were as well-written, clear, and concise as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the LiteraryIf only all literary criticism and theory were as well-written, clear, and concise as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison's central argument in this book is a fairly simple one, that "the contemplation of this black presence [in American history and literature:] is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination" (5). She dedicates herself in this book to exploring the ways in which blackness is used within traditional, canonical (in other words, white) American literature, the ways in which it is always present, even when it is not acknowledged.
She names the set of relations and representations that she studies here American Africanism and describes it as "an investigation into the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served" (6).
In the first essay in this book, "Black Matters," she focuses on exploring the reasons behind the omission of American Africanism in literary discourse and, in doing so, presents arguments for the necessity of repairing this omission. One such argument is that "the pattern of thinking about racialism in terms of its consequences on the victim--of always defining it assymetrically [sic:] from the perspective of its impact on the object of racist policy and attitudes"--does not address the complete range of problems that accompany racism (or racialism). In addition to studying the impact of racism on the victims, we must also study "the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it" (11). Looking at the place of blackness in white literature will help with this project.
She also addresses the idea that art is human, universal, and, ideally, apolitical, contending that " criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only 'universal' but also 'race-free' risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist" (12). Race (like gender, sexuality, religion, etc.) will always be a part of a living literature. Sometimes it will be at the heart of a work of literature and sometimes it won't, but as long as we humans think in terms of racial categories, it will be present in some way. So to pretend that it is not present, that it does not color our representations and modes of storytelling, is to rob literature of some of its meaning.
In the second essay of the book, "Romancing the Shadow," Morrison discusses Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in order to examine the use of whiteness in conjunction with blackness (as occurs, for instance, at the end of Poe's novel, as well as in Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway, all acknowledged giants of American literature). She writes, "These images of impenetrable whiteness need contextualizing to explain their extraordinary power, pattern, and consistency. Because they appear almost always in conjunction with representations of black or Africanist people who are dead, impotent, or under complete control, these images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is companion to this whiteness--a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing" (33). If the American dream is to be free and the immigrant's dream of American is to have a clean slate on which to begin again, Morrison argues that the black bodies of slaves provided a counterpoint to these dreams, something against which to more clearly define those dreams. It is something that cannot be explicitly acknowledged, but it is something that permeates American literature and ideology. She writes, "It was this Africanism, deployed as rawness and savagery, that provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity" (44). She concludes this essay by writing, "If we follow through on the self-reflexive nature of these encounters with Africanism, it falls clear: images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable--all of the self-contradictory features of the self. Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say" (59).
In the third and final essay, "Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks," Morrison attempts "to observe and trace the transformation of American Africanism from its simplistic, though menacing, purposes of establishing hierarchic difference [as described in "Romancing the Shadow":] to its surrogate properties as self-reflexive meditations on the loss of difference, to its lush and fully blossomed existence in the rhetoric of dread and desire" (63-4). She also re-states her purpose in writing this book: "Studies in American Africanism, in my view, should be investigations of the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanist presence and personae have been constructed--invented--in the United States, and of the literary uses this fabricated presence has served. . . . My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served" (90).
Since the publication of this book in 1992, the field of literary studies has actually opened up in this direction. Critical studies of whiteness and its construction have flourished, which prevents the racial subject, the describers and imaginers, from remaining invisible and unmarked and which also thereby makes it possible to imagine and create a world (both fictional and real) in which people of color are not limited to being the Other and are not the only people imagined to be affected by racism....more
This is quite seriously one of the best books of literary criticism I have ever read. The language is complex when it needs to be and clear when complThis is quite seriously one of the best books of literary criticism I have ever read. The language is complex when it needs to be and clear when complexity would be merely confusing; the ideas are meaningfully embedded in debates about African American literature (and literature more broadly), identity politics and race consciousness, philosophy and political theory, and the relationship between theory and praxis; and the argument is a fascinating one, one that has actually affected the way I think about my own life and not just about literary texts.
Kawash's argument is fundamentally bound up in the relatively recent turn (accompanying postmodern theory) toward hybridity and fragmentation in analysis of race. She writes, for instance, that "within the critical community at times it seems that invoking something like hybridity serves as an inoculation against the dreaded essentialism. One stakes one's claim in hybridity and points one's finger at 'those bad essentialists,' secure in the knowledge that having discovered hybridity in and for itself, essentialism has been effectively banished" (4). However, she states, "It is impossible to effect an unambiguous, absolute move beyond the 'false' representation of the color line to a 'true' representation of heterogeneity, hybridity, creolity, or cultural diversity" (22).
She illustrates and explores this possibility by analyzing 19th century and early 20th century African American literature and the ideas contained therein about the color line. In "Freedom and Fugitivity: The Subject of Slave Narrative," she examines slave narratives (most notably those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs) and their representation of fugitivity as a space outside of the binary opposition of slavery and freedom. This space is not livable, however. Some critics envision this "'outside' that cannot be reduced to either term" (80) as a freedom itself, but Kawash counters this by saying, "Reading the corporeal topography of the space of fugitivity, one becomes increasingly skeptical of the blithe, celebratory invocations of the subversive powers of boundary-crossing, nomadism, or excess--all figures that might be mobilized to describe the space of fugitivity. The fugitive cannot in any way be read as representing some idealized absolute freedom of fluidity or boundlessness. . . . The fugitive body does not escape the violence of order; what it does do is expose on its surface the violence necessary to preserve order, hierarchy, boundedness, propriety, and property" (82).
Kawash goes on to make similar, thoughtfully detailed and nuanced arguments from Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition and passing narratives like James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen's Passing, focusing on the ways in which the color line is a material part of life and the ways in which it is troubled by mulatto bodies and by practices such as passing. She writes, "While the mulatto challenges the myth of racial purity, the figure of the passing body goes a step further, challenging the stability of racial knowledge and therefore implicitly the stability of the order that has been constructed on that knowledge" (131). In her discussion of Passing, Kawash pushes her argument regarding the illusion of certain even further: "the text seems to insist that there is nothing more than what we are told, that this is all knowledge can be, an unreliable, scattered filtering of events and artifacts that refuse to add up to a truth" (165).
In "Community and Contagion: Zora Neale Hurston's Risky Practice," Kawash provides the fullest expression of her ideas about risk, chance, and the possibilities that accompany them. She sees in Hurston's ideas about nationalism an opening for a new kind of community: "Hurston's adamant refusal to implicate herself in this choice of one violence or another [white supremacist or black nationalist] points toward another strategy of resistance: not the opposition of one good order to another bad order but the refusal to choose any order at all. Hurston's refusal to choose an order does not, however, mean that we must conclude that she has chosen chaos instead. Rather, I would suggest, she seeks to refuse the violence of order that follows on the determination to exclude and prevent chaos, the determination to eliminate accident, ambiguity, and disorder" (178). In other words, Hurston refuses to embrace the "totalizing tendencies" (180) of enforced order in favor of remaining open to chance and connections that cannot be predicted through identity politics or race consciousness. This way of remaining open creates a space for a new kind of community, one that is not built on the liberal subject but that is built upon contagion, or "together-touching" (200). Kawash writes, "The you and me of contagion are neither joined by essential identity nor separated by agonistic difference. We are rather singular and touching, together in our singularity. We cannot choose contagion; contagion is what happens to us. Equally, we are what happens in contagion" (205). She builds this argument from the events of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and from Hurston's political statements in her autobiography, but this argument reaches outward from the text and into the real, modern world. She writes, "What is needed, perhaps, is an openness to this contagion, a willingness to recognize and respond to contagion rather than attempting to restore purity and autonomy. This openness to contagion is an ethical posture, a way of being in the world. But this is not the ethics of the modern subject, the ethics that takes as its supreme object the realization of the inner being, the authentic self of the subject. Rather, it is an ethics that begins from together-touching, from the condition that we exist only in our togetherness and that therefore our first responsibility is to and in terms of that togetherness. . . . It is, in fact, always and precisely a question of response, of responsibility, of responding to the other otherness that erupts in contagion. This is the only possibility of responsibility or of justice: to respond and be responsible to rather than seeking to destroy, control, or contain the other otherness, the singular, that which is unknown, unpredictable, uncertain, uncontrollable" (208-9).
Kawash concludes her book with "Speculations: Hybridity and Singularity," in which she draws together the threads of the text and returns to the initial claim that hybridity, etc., cannot merely replace the color line or identity politics: "The demands of fixity, knowability, identity, and authenticity given form in the figure of the color line are constantly exceeded by something else, by a force we might call hybridity. But the hybridity that has emerged in the course of this book is not another substance, however socially constructed, that would displace the essentially conceived notion of blackness. The individual is not hybrid; rather, hybridity constantly traverses the boundaries of the individual. . . . This hybridity cannot be positioned as a goal or an end; it is therefore not subject to the teleological narrative of the beyond that would rescue us from error" (217).
Where Kawash really speaks to me is in her discussion of contagion and Their Eyes Were Watching God and in her concluding pages, where she emphasizes (yet again) the risks attendant upon this move toward contagion and uncertainty. She insists that this uncertainty and even perplexity "demands our attention, not as a puzzle to be solved, but as a condition to learn to inhabit" (218), but she does not allow this to remain the kind of postmodern idea of openness that is detached from politics and from ethics. Instead, she pushes this postmodern concept of indeterminacy and hybridity into the realm of politics: "Perhaps the introduction of perplexity into the various struggles by which we enact politics may also be political, insofar as perplexity demands the suspension of the standards of right and authority by which any particular interest or position becomes unassailable, self-evident, or commonsensical. In the face of perplexity or hybridity, 'we cannot be sure that we have judged justly or committed the right political act. . . . There are no assurances, and for that reason we are more not less responsible.' Without absolute assurance of the right or the just, we are faced with the continual, and necessarily political, demand of responsibility not just for one time or for one decision but at each instant, in each relation. This means more political engagement, not less, more challenging, more questioning, more struggling to expose and counter the violence disguised and justified in the name of self-evidence, nature, justice, or common sense" (218).
I find myself not only intellectually convinced but personally affected by her move to bring together theory, politics, and ethics in this idea of contagion and hybridity. What she describes is indeed a difficult thing, but being aware of the responsibility we carry in our daily lives and interactions, the violence that is built into our lives, and the structures of power that surround us is necessary in order for us to build a better, more just world. And, finally, unavoidably, an analysis of what is meant by a better, more just world and a refusal to take the easy way out by just accepting the definitions we are given must accompany our growing awareness and our actions. We are, in the end, responsible for all of these things, not just as individuals, but as individuals in relation to one another. ...more