McKay, DuBois, and Hurston On Art, Politics, Propaganda, and Culture During the Harlem Renaissance

Three of the largest writers of the literary and political movement known as The Harlem Renaissance comment in their writing implicitly and polemical works explicitly on the role of culture, art, politics, and propaganda. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most famous writer on black intellectualism during The Harlem Renaissance, writes in his polemical works about the social position of black people in aspiration of and argument for equity. This equity, for Jamaican exile Claude McKay, is one of socio-political or tactile action. As affiliated with the international communist party, McKay sought international social change and progress through art and revolution. Du Bois, as a public intellectual, however, promotes a quieter revolution, one of thought. Whereas Du Bois is concerned with historicizing the displacement of black bodies from equity and presenting the black intellectual as an identity brought into equity, McKay, as an artist, is concerned with the visceral representation of black life and thereby an acceptance into equity of a more ordinary, Everyman blackness by the white left. Finally, Zora Neale Hurston’s words on propaganda combine McKay and Du Bois both by suggesting art itself, as machinery of vivid life, performs an action-based propaganda. This paper seeks to explicate these intellectuals’ work in order to understand their intersections, dissonances, and ultimately to problematize any normative notions of the constellations of thought that come out of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1922, Claude McKay gives a speech at the Comintern in which he says white communists in America must “emancipate [themselves]” from their preconceived notions of blackness (16). Slavery’s descendant, he says, is “wage slavery,” the stagnant socio-economic position of blacks in America (17). He argues the very laborer revolution of the Marxist fight is the same of the black man in America, encouraging therefore communists to recognize that any talk about critical revolution can only come to fruition in America through black Americans’ hardship and experience. McKay’s political views exist explicitly for historians. Perhaps his connection to the communist party has deleted him from the canon of American letters, his name only uttered in the classrooms of African-American fiction. The Jamaican exile’s anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles come through in his fictional character of Ray, who appears in his first and second novels, Home to Harlem and Banjo. In each of his novels, Ray represents the despair of the black intellectual given the horror and inequity for his social position. In Home to Harlem, in an opiate-induced dream sequence, Ray questions race altogether and talks through color’s social representation (Home to Harlem 151-155). The novel itself is aesthetically concerned with color in many ways, often pinpointing specific shades of black and brown to describe the characters’ diversity of color.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes Black Reconstruction thirteen years later and begins his book with an explication on the black worker. This chapter historicizes the social position of blacks in America, particularly focusing on the fomenting of racism in the wider American consciousness. The capitalist need for domination, Du Bois seems to argue, not only creates socio-political plight in post-Civil War America, it also creates the systemic oppression of blacks by whites by pitting working class whites against newly freed blacks. The economic system ‘disrupted’ by the emancipation of slavery is stabilized, Du Bois argues, by poor whites placing themselves above blacks in the economic hierarchy. Their systematic creation of this social, political, and economic stature reinforces what had been known as slavery. In other words, slavery had merely been transformed into socio-political hierarchy based on race in the economic structure of America after the Civil War. The exploitation of black bodies for the gain of white control of the market and wealth was done so by pitting poor whites against blacks. This process foments a hatred of the black race in America (Du Bois).

Where Du Bois and McKay agree, therefore, is that the social and political position of black Americans can be historicized and therefore changed. Their prognosis for this change is, however, different. While Du Bois would go on to attack McKay’s work as “dirt” and “filth,” filled with “drunkenness,” “fighting,” and “lascivious sexual promiscuity,” McKay would argue his work does so to show the vivid actuality of ordinary black life  (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). McKay, in other words, understands Du Bois arguments toward equity to be uppity and lacking in the viscerality of the ordinary black man. McKay has his characters Jake and Ray struggle side-by-side in Home to Harlem, Lee M. Jenkins argues, as a means to explain this quarrel between elitist black intellectualism and ordinary black life (Africa 743-745). McKay addresses his critics in “A Negro Writer to His Critics,” and suggests the difference between propaganda and art is that the task of propaganda is much clearer whereas art may present itself as ars artis gratia, art for art’s sake. The “lonely, homely things” of everyday life can be represented in art and is left out of his critics’ elitist polemical movement. Finally, in a letter to Du Bois himself, McKay goes as far as to says “No where in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent or qualified to pass judgment upon any work of art” (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). Thus, prognosis for change for Du Bois’ art is to present art as elevated. For McKay, it is to present it as truth and therefore as ordinary. McKay and Du Bois therefore also disagree on the position of art in culture.

Zora Neale Hurston did not write much if any literary criticism, yet her anthropological work and fiction does represent blackness in the public and private sphere, particularly black femininity. Hurston “dissolved the opposition between art and propaganda” that McKay drew explicitly in “A Negro Writer to His Critics” and which Du Bois drew implicitly in his criticism of Home to Harlem (Litz 178). African-American dialect and speakers have the ability to create “vivid and actual” stories such that they become propaganda by becoming action (ibid. 178). Hurston’s formulation of social action “raised criticism to the highest level, until it was in a sense synonymous with the verbal culture of the race” (ibid. 178). In other words, while Du Bois finds McKay’s vivid dialect and representation of ordinary blackness too filthy to bring about change in the social position of blacks, and while McKay grants art its own place as the platform for a debate on representation and politics, Hurston’s formulation combines them. She combines the dialect and representation of the ordinary man from McKay’s and her own work with the desire for socio-political equity that she, McKay, and Du Bois all share.

Works Cited

  • Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, edited by Noelle Morrissette, and Richard M. Juang, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: an Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, 1935.
  • Litz, A. Walton, and George Alexander Kennedy. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. vol. 7, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • McKay, Claude. Letter from Claude McKay to W. E. B. Du Bois, June 18, 1928. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
  • —. “Report on the Negro Question: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.” International Press Correspondence, v. 3, Jan. 5 1923, pp. 16-17.
  • —. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. Northeastern UP, 1987.

“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

The Female Gothic

In the introduction to a special two-issue cycle of Gothic Studies on the female gothic, Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace historicize and define the term as Ellen Moers in Literary Women did: “coded expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body,” especially a fear of childbirth (Smith and Wallace 1). Since the publication of Literary Women in 1976, Smith and Wallace note, the term has been problematized and challenged, bringing forth a large body of criticism itself. This ‘coded expression’ points to the elements each author employs in their use of the gothic in service of a female or feminine fear. In defining a particularly female or feminine fear, one can (and should) come up against critique. This, of course, is the body of criticism introduced by Smith and Wallace for the special issues of Gothic Studies.

Also in this introduction, Smith and Wallace trace some of the terms associated with the ‘female gothic’ tradition, including ‘gothic feminism,’ ‘lesbian gothic,’ ‘women’s gothic,’ ‘erotic gothic,’ and even ‘male gothic’ to “contextualize their discussion” (Smith and Wallace 1). One of these is particularly relevant: gothic feminism, which Smith and Wallace define using Diane Long Hoeveler’s 1998 Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Gothic feminism is “female power through pretended and staged weakness,” and a gothic feminist work is one whose “heroines masquerade as blameless victims of a corrupt and oppressive patriarchal society while using passive-aggressive and masochistic strategies to triumph over [it]” (Smith and Wallace 2). Such pieces as The Maids by Jean Genet and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood come to mind. For Hoeveler, the creation of the gothic does not only serve feminism in pieces classified as gothic feminist, but the opposite is also true: feminism serves to create the gothic.

In the same issue of Gothic Studies, Diana Wallace writes about ghost stories and the female gothic. “Uncanny Stories: The Ghost Story as Female Gothic,” argues that ghost stories present a particular opportunity as a non-mainstream genre. By being a non-dominant form in the Nineteenth Century, ghost stories offered a rhetorical space for critique of male power and violence that contemporaneous mainstream domestic novels with marriage plots could not. She argues as well that ghost stories “explore how patriarchal culture represses and buries images of the maternal” (Smith and Wallace 4-5). The ghost story, according to Wallace, and more generally the gothic genre itself offers “especially fertile and sophisticated explorations of women’s dreams and desires, fears and terrors” (Wallace 66).

In a self-proclaimed “corrective” to Greg Johnson’s 1989 essay “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Carol Margaret Davidson places the genre ‘female gothic’ retroactively onto “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The female gothic mode, Davidson argues, is “a form that is generally distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood” (Davidson 48). Davidson goes on to argue that Gilman’s use of gothic elements is toward a more political end, echoing in some ways the motive of Hoeveler’s ‘gothic feminism.’ This is to say that for both Hoeveler and Davidson, while the female gothic may thematically follow a female and her fears of what it means to be female/feminine, the female gothic concerns itself with employing gothic elements to serve a feminine and/or feminist political agenda.

Sacrifice and Liberation in LES BONNES by Jean Genet

“I see death, I smell death, it moves the hair on my face but

I don’t know where it blows from. And in its sources is my power.

The nonsense of me is the nonsense of death”

Ana Božičević, from “Death, is All” in Rise in the Fall

“You don’t have wings, and you don’t fly or sting. You don’t buzz or bite your boss. You just squirm and pick on your own rot and death. And the root of the problem is that you don’t fly, you don’t walk, you don’t pass by like I pass by—I pass by everything—from an inferior state of squirming like a canned sardine to a superior state of spreading my wings of steel and flying.”

Giannina Braschi, from Yo-Yo Boing!


Jean Genet’s first drama, Les Bonnes, involves two servants named Solange and Claire performing a ritualistic role-play game where Claire takes on the identity of their Madame while her sister Solange takes on the identity of Claire. In so doing, the two maids, Solange-as-Claire and Claire-as-Madame, are able to subvert their roles as servants and the positional power structure that binds them to each other and places them under their Madame’s jurisdiction. When their Madame’s lover is released from jail, the two maids are at risk of being discovered as having been witnesses in the trial against him. The two plan to poison their Madame with barbiturates, but when Madame refuses to drink the poison tea, the maids perform one final ritual to sacrifice Claire-as-Madame and thereby liberate Solange and Claire both.

The maids several times, both in and out of the ritual, constantly try to “dominate” one another and argue about who is dominating whom (Genet 48). It is the very existence of the positional power structure (the Madame over her maids) that makes inexorable a constant cycling of one sister submitting and the other dominating not only in their rituals but also within their on-stage relationship outside the role-playing game. Each time the maids partake in the role-play, it is with the goal of ultimately relieving themselves of their positional oppression. They never ‘complete’ the game, either interrupted by a timer they set or by one of the maids getting nervous and essentially tapping out. Just before the final ritual, Claire says, “Solange, you will contain me within you,” insinuating that because a sacrifice will take place during the ritual, Claire-as-Madame’s death will actually mean Madame(’s power) will be sacrificed (ibid. 96). Solange-as-Claire will then exist as liberated maid-ness itself. In order for liberation from their positional oppression to be accomplished – in order for the ritual to be completed – either they must kill their Madame or the maid role-playing as Madame must be killed in her place. It must be one of the maids who “immolate[s] herself” in order for the ritual of their liberation to be complete (ibid. 96). Claire-as-Madame drinks the poison tea and Solange declares, “Madame is dead. Her two maids are alive: they’ve just risen up, free, from Madame’s icy form” (ibid. 100). The two maids have been liberated by Claire’s physical death, which has doubled as the symbolic death of Madame because of the role-playing game.

What Genet’s play makes clear are the power of roles and the theatricality of oppression. As Annette Kolodny notes in “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” it is “literature as an institution, embedded not only within its own literary traditions, but also within the particular physical and mental artifacts of the society from which it comes” (Gilbert, Gubar 447). By invoking different power structures within the play, Genet makes the theatre a place to explore the different ways we each inhabit roles of power or oppression. Further, if we understand Genet’s play as an instruction guide to liberation, it makes revolutionary those who seek to sacrifice themselves in the service of equity. That being said, it also problematizes the notion of liberation by insinuating that liberation from power may only be accomplished literally as a physical death, a martyring or sacrifice for the sake of liberation. While maid-ness may be liberated in the play, it is still true that one of the maids herself has been poisoned. According to the play, then, in order to accomplish equity or liberation from oppression, death is not only a danger but a requirement.

It is the project of this essay to discuss the power structures invoked in Les Bonnes that contribute to a wider feminist discourse on power dynamics, sexual violence, and female sacrifice or death-as-liberation. I will first present a review of relevant literature on Genet’s theatricality and drama, role-playing within Les Bonnes, and the semiotics of theatre and discuss how each relates to my thesis. Then, I will move into a critical discussion of how sacrifice and liberation function in Genet’s play, which I argue is indelibly tied to gendered performance of sexual violence in the final ritual.  I will conclude by discussing the afterlives of the play, particularly how the play helps us to understand the power structures of society and I will attempt to situate Genet’s play within feminist literary theory.


1. Literature review

Most of the early criticism on Les Bonnes and on Genet in general seems to revolve around what Richard N. Coe calls the “dualistic nature of symbol itself” (Coe 213). This is to say that where Coe in 1968, Sartre in 1961, and Knapp in 1968 seem to find interest in Les Bonnes is in the essentialist notion that in Genet’s theatre, appearance trumps reality. It is not the very thing but the performance and appearance of the thing that makes it relevant to the spectator. However, this dichotomy must be understood not as a hierarchy, but rather as a true simultaneity: “the simultaneous awareness of illusion and reality” (Coe 237). What makes Genet’s theatre so unique when compared to the other Absurdists is when creating a surreality or un-reality sidetracks the Absurdists, Genet finds poetic discourse or dramatic tragedy can only exist within the liminal space between illusion and reality – and that liminal space is theatre.

Where theatre can accomplish this simultaneity or liminality is when drama is “unceasingly aware of itself as an illusion” (Coe 214). This comes through for Coe in his reading of the text, where he says all the tragedy must essentially lie. This poses a complication for Coe’s argument that Genet’s theatre inhabits a liminal space between reality and illusion because if the text becomes essentially the place where tragedy occurs, what is left for mise en scène and blocking? This is to say that Coe’s argument for Genet shifting from the novel form to the drama form seems to be that the drama offers this liminal space where the simultaneity of illusion and reality can occur. This notion of drama seems to resist any essentialist notion that all tragedy occurs within the text. If that were the case, there would be no need for the dramatic form at all: Genet might make Les Bonnes into a novel.

Further, Coe’s essentialist reading of Claire’s death seems to also conflict with his overall thesis of Genet’s theatre. He understands that “truth and falsehood become forever indistinguishable in the wordlessness of death” (Coe 239). Yet, what I am seeking to explore in my own analysis of the text is the ways through which the simultaneity of reality and illusion seem to also inhabit the final ritual. In other words, is not the final ritual still a part of the play that seeks to inhabit a place of liminality? If so, then Claire-as-Madame’s death cannot essentially be Claire’s death and nothing more. Might this act operate as both a death for Claire and Madame and liberation for Solange and Claire? This is to say that the death is the literal death of Claire and the symbolic death of Madame as well as the literal liberation of Solange and the symbolic liberation of Claire and maid-ness. The act of simultaneous sacrifice and liberation becomes a space for liminality, where not only Solange but also maid-ness itself, and thus Claire, can be liberated.

Both Coe and Knapp almost make this claim, as well, though not as liberating or rebellious. Knapp goes as far as to say the absorption of Claire-as-Madame by Solange-as-Claire in the final ritual goes to promote the space of liminality so that Madame may be killed while Claire, if only symbolically, becomes liberated with her sister. Where Knapp falls short, though, is in missing the wider ramifications of making such an argument. As Coe says, “Every identity has at least a double significance: the problem is that each half of the double can be aware of itself only in terms of the other” (Coe 240). For Coe, it is the very discovery of the character’s own illusion that allows her to inhabit a space of duality and it is constitutive of this duality that each half be defined in relation to the other. In other words, because Claire and Solange both role-play as other characters, the distinguishing between the real Claire and the role of Claire-as-Madame seems to collapse. What also collapses is the difference between the actresses playing Claire and Solange. This is to say that the play itself, for Coe at least, is intrinsically aware of its own performance. While Knapp may recognize Solange-as-Claire being the symbolic absorption of Claire and the liberation of maid-ness when Claire-as-Madame is sacrificed, the wider institutions that contribute to the oppression outside the space of performance are never taken up nor is there a discussion of the dangers of insinuating by death only is the oppressed liberated.

The power structures outside of the liminal space of the theatre become explored by the maids during their rituals. Where Coe seems to point to betrayal by the inanimate objects in the place, it is the power structures of the real space outside of the theatre that become inevitably a part of the tragedy’s performance. The sexual violence of Solange-as-Claire toward Claire-as-Madame in the final ritual becomes gendered. If Coe is correct, then, in arguing this play is intrinsically aware of its own performance, is it not the very power structures of gender outside the space of the theatre that become a part of the performance itself or is not the very existence of the power structure within the play between Madame and the two maids subverted and asked to be seen as simultaneously real and imaginary?

For Knapp, too, the focus seems to be on the play as invoking childhood fantasy games made perverse by sexual innuendo and bitterness. However, is it not the very “ritualistic game” that is being subverted by being presented as simultaneously real and imaginary (Knapp 116)? This would contribute to the liminality of the theatrical space with which Coe and Knapp seem concerned. Further, Knapp seems to completely ignore the way performance-as-illusion might actually function to invoke as a means to subvert even her claim that the play is a set of childhood games, let alone that Solange-as-Claire’s performance in the final ritual becomes gendered and violent and thus invokes those specific power structures as a means to then subvert them or use them for liberation.

To do justice to Coe and Knapp, though, they seem to have pinpointed a very crucial understanding of Genet’s theatre: that of the duality of the symbolic and the necessary function of that duality as it encourages the audience to participate within it. Coe actually goes as far as to say that “total belief in an illusion which is perceived as an illusion…therefore splits the spectator into a duality” (Coe 214). Thus, for Coe, Genet’s dramatic space becomes not only a liminal place to explore liminality itself in a creative sense but also as a way to repurpose the audience as participants in much the same way Brecht did. This will aid my discussion of the afterlives of the play.

While neither Knapp nor Coe seem to be concerned with revolution in Les Bonnes or in Genet’s work, Philip Thody in the same year, 1968, publishes a study of Genet’s novels and plays, in which he directly reads Claire and Solange as “revolutionaries” (Thody 168). He understands them as representing the wider European proletariat in the socialist revolution prior to the Second World War. However, Thody is still exclusively concerned with the formal patterns of the text and its theatrical symbolism and even when he begins to make a sociological claim about the play’s representation of social realism, he instead becomes preoccupied by placing it in a literary historical tradition with the works of the Renaissance. Where Thody wants to give Les Bonnes its due importance as a worthy critical text, he ultimately ignores the problem of physical death as a danger for revolutionaries and the insinuation that it might be required for the sake of the revolution/liberation.

Fourteen years later, Paul Perron translates for Modern Drama Joseph Melançon’s “Theatre as Semiotic Practice,” in which Melançon argues that the project of theatricality is that of signification via simulation. Melançon’s reading of Les Bonnes is as “a relay, spinning to and fro, from the semiotic to the semantic and vice versa” (Melançon 19). His analysis of the text is as a continuous folding of itself onto itself, constantly invoking different versions of reality as a means to establish and re-establish its own illusion. Specifically, Melançon seems to be concerned with the ways referential illusion is created and lost by the insistence of the play’s illusion. Because the characters within the story-world say they are aware of their own rituals’ illusion, he says, it must also be so that the audience is constantly aware of the illusion of the play before them. This means the referential illusion – by which I mean in the most basic terms the suspension of disbelief – collapses. For Melançon, this creates shifts in the dramatic action of the play and inevitably the spectator’s participation in it. However, where my own reading of the play differs from Melançon is the very real structures of violence and power that are invoked by the simulation, the play, as a means of liberation. Specifically, a play as a simulation becomes actual signification in reality through invoking the power structures of the society that, as audience, partakes in its own performance and existence in the wider sphere, something Melançon seems to deny in favor of theatrical signification.

Jonathan Dollimore points to the very power structures reflected in Genet’s oeuvre Coe and others before Dollimore ignore with “The Dominant and the Deviant: a violent dialectic” in 1986. While Dollimore is exclusively concerned with Genet’s fiction as a precursor to the post-modernists’ intellectual concern with deviance, he offers an early piece of criticism that pairs together Genet and structures of power that offer insight into the gendered performance of sexual violence within the play. Genet was a vagabond and thief for much of his life, an out homosexual in a time when it was still unlawful to be so – he even wrote a highly suggestive screenplay exploring homoeroticism and homosexuality set in a prison. He was also at many times in his life jailed. Genet in his own life, therefore, dealt with the very real power structures that misrepresent, push for internalized suppression, and force sexually ‘deviant’ people into a sub-culture – a group by its very definition below that of the dominant culture. As Dollimore puts it,

Deviancy isn’t just a waste product of society, and nor is it intrinsic to the deviant subject. It is, rather, a construction, one which, when analyzed, says less and less about the individual deviant and more and more about the society—its structures of power, representation and repression—identifying or demonizing him or her. (3)

In other words, for Dollimore, deviancy is constructed by the very structures of power that seek to use it as a means of identification of those it then exploits. It is the invocation of this constructed hierarchy that allows the hierarchy to be recreated and perpetuated.

Dollimore’s reading of Genet’s fiction claims Genet’s own transcendence is gained by transgressive means. This is to say that in order for Genet’s characters to become totally autonomous, they must first dehumanize themselves. “The transcendent subjects in whose name and image inauthenticity, abjection and subjection are both experienced and legitimated, are themselves brought low, made to submit to what they once subjected,” he says (24). Dollimore thus pairs Genet with a cycling of submission and dominance. This also gives reason for the need that Claire and Solange have to kill off Madame. So long as Madame exists, so exists her power over them. To perform what Lara Cox dubs a “feminist reappraisal” of Les Bonnes, it is Dollimore’s pairing of Genet’s work and the cycling of submission and dominance that eventually allows this to occur within a wider critical realm.

Lara Cox publishes “Misogyny, Maids, and Murderesses: Toward a Feminist Reappraisal of Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes” in 2014. Cox focuses on the ways that the text, as exclusively with and about women, offers up positions of female murderers as “artists and aesthetes” when this was traditionally privileged for males (Cox 229). In her words, “the integration of this tradition into [Les Bonnes] is fruitful not because it should be valorized in ethical terms, but because it has, historically speaking, only ever been attributed to male murderers” (Cox 229). However, Cox admits that the final ritual, on which the majority of my own critical work focuses, reverts back to a patriarchal understanding of femininity as essentially non-violent. Cox pieces together a feminist critical reading of the text that incorporates criticism from theorists Jacques Lacan in 1933 and Jacques Derrida in 1974 all the way to Paula Kamenish in 2003. Her reading of the text with Kamenish’s claim that the murder itself is metaphor gets back to Melançon’s understanding of theatricality as signification via simulation and Coe’s dualistic nature of the symbol. In other words, this essay may be in many ways responding to Cox’s. However, Cox is very clear that her exclusive interest is in understanding the agency of the maids by Genet’s making them murderesses. My own intellectual interest lies in the final ritual that even Cox admits reverts back to gendered performance in the service of liberation, invoking the very structures that her claim needs the play to reverse. However, what Cox provides is the critical deference that the final ritual demands – it is indeed different from the others, not just because Claire-as-Madame is poisoned.

The most recent criticism on Les Bonnes is from Payal Nagpal’s study of Les Bonnes, Le Balcon, and Les Nègres: clownerie. However, Nagpal’s work seems to circle back to Coe and Knapp in many ways. For Coe, appearance is the most constitutive part of human reality and in Nagpal’s reading of Les Bonnes, he begins by outlining the functions of roles in performance, which could also be connected back to Melançon. He also looks to define role-play and performativity. He brings in Judith Butler’s understanding of performative gender, giving truth to the gendered sexual violence of the final ritual. Finally, he ends up with the notion that Les Bonnes becomes a play itself concerned with outside power structures, particularly those of class and gender. Much of this essay responds to Nagpal’s critical work while still employing it to make the connection between these power structures and the act of liberation and rebellion via invoking, whether simulated/imaginary or not, the type of transgressive deviancy that Dollimore concerns his work.

2. Les Bonnes

Claire and Solange have one purpose in each ritual: to accomplish liberation via subverting Madame’s positional power over them, which Claire conjures by roleplaying as her. Only one of the rituals is completed: the final one, wherein Solange gives Claire the drugged tea and she drinks it. Solange-as-Claire dominating Claire-as-Madame in the final ritual becomes gendered and sexually violent. Claire’s assisted suicide is not just an escape from the cycling of submission and domination. Her death is liberation, completed. Claire sacrifices herself to liberate her sister and maid-ness itself. Paradoxically, she does so by becoming the Madame in one final ritual, convincing Solange that with Claire’s sacrifice, the two will be become one in Solange and that Claire will become immortalized in their liberation.

In her final speech, Solange says, “Madame is dead,” when it is actually Claire who is dead (Genet 100). To Solange, the ritual is still on. To use Melançon and Coe’s terms, the theatre has become simultaneously simulated and signified, successfully blurring the lines between reality and imagination. The paradox is confirmed with the next sentence: “Her two maids are alive” (ibid. 100). Claire, then, is both alive and dead: alive as a maid and dead as Madame.

Throughout the play, Solange’s subverting of Madame’s power in the rituals becomes not just about that subversion but also about their own liberation. She says in the first ritual, “Madame thought she was protected by her barricade of flowers, saved by some special destiny, by a sacrifice. But she reckoned without a maid’s rebellion” (ibid. 45). Claire both partakes in the liberation and is sacrificed by it; reality and imaginary have coalesced. Claire says to Solange, “Your role is to keep me from backing out, nothing more.” Claire is both the Madame and herself in the final ritual. She is being poisoned by the maids in their rebellion as Madame and rebelling against Madame by partaking in this subverting ritual of her murder. Claire, as Madame, drinks the drugged tea but in her sacrifice, she also becomes Solange, or rather she becomes maid-ness itself. In the same way Claire-as-Madame’s death becomes simultaneously real and symbolic, the real death of Claire and symbolic death of Madame, so too does the rebellion become simultaneously sacrificial. Claire is both sacrificed as Claire and liberated with Solange-as-Claire, who has absorbed her sister in this final ritual “on the sly” (ibid. 97).

Claire evokes Madame’s power when she roleplays as Madame through imperative sentences and insulting the maids’ smell. In so many words, Claire-as-Madame is keenly aware of her higher position in relation to the maids’. Thus, in commanding her to do things and insulting her lack of cleanliness, Claire-as-Madame establishes this position and asserts it. Claire-as-Madame says in the first ritual, “Go! Get my dress ready. Quick!” (ibid. 36) and later, “Fasten it. Don’t pull so hard. Don’t try to bind me. Avoid pawing me” (ibid. 40). Each of these sentences is imperative. They insist on an action, command the subject to do something. In so doing, Claire-as-Madame is establishing the positional hierarchy in her evocation of Madame’s aura. She also says, “You smell like an animal. You’ve brought those odors from some foul attic, where the lackeys visit us at night. The maid’s room! (ibid. 40)” This, too, is to establish a positional hierarchy via insulting the maids’ lack of cleanliness and acknowledging the poverty of their living quarters: “some foul attic” (ibid. 40). In the final ritual Claire-as-Madame brings this smell into more specific affective terms: “[Servants are] a foul effluvium drifting through our rooms and hallways, seeping into us, entering our mouths, corrupting us. I vomit you! (ibid. 86).” Thus, not only is Claire-as-Madame establishing a positional hierarchy via the maids’ lack of cleanliness but also through the way this smelliness affects her. It makes her sick to smell the “foul effluvium” of the maids; it is “corrupting” to have to smell (ibid. 86).

Evoking Madame’s power itself becomes the maids’ small act of rebellion. Solange-as-Claire gets to physically and verbally dominate Madame via Claire-as-Madame and Claire-as-Madame in the role-play gets to subvert her positional power by inhabiting it. The liminality that Coe and Knapp explain exists for theatricality exists in this performance during the final ritual. Claire-as-Madame is simultaneously asserting power over Solange by roleplaying as Madame and submitting to Solange-as-Claire’s power when Solange verbally and physically abuses her as Claire. Further, if Solange-as-Claire ultimately absorbs her sister in order that maid-ness may be liberated in the end, Claire indirectly enjoys the power Solange-as-Claire asserts over Claire-as-Madame.

Role-playing seems to be essentially the safest mode of rebellion the maids have both because they take measures to ensure Madame will not discover them and, more obviously, because in roleplaying, they are not rebelling against the actual Madame. One of the projects of the play, though, is to assert that playing out these rituals essentializes the maids’ liberation. Each ritual becomes more violent and with each ritual, the two get closer to ‘completing’ the ritual – that is, in the total subversion of Madame: killing her. Further, because it is not the literal Madame but rather Claire-as-Madame, liberation of the maids also means killing one of the maids. This makes role-playing dangerous.

The final ritual’s violence is gendered. While it is, at first, unclear whether Solange has become Monsieur, she ultimately performs as a lover of Madame’s. She says “Stand up! I’ll marry you standing up! …groveling on the rug at a man’s feet. What a sorry, facile gesture” (ibid. 88). Just prior to this, though, she speaks in third person. Just after Solange-as-Monsieur strikes Claire-as-Madame, she says “Your lover would hang his head in shame! And are you strong enough? Strong enough to carry his bag?” (ibid. 88). It would seem, then, that the violence (striking of Claire-as-Madame with the whip) may seem to be still Solange-as-Claire abusing Claire-as-Madame. Yet, just before striking Claire-as-Madame with the whip, Solange-as-Monsieur says “Her morning milkman, her messenger of dawn, her handsome clarion, her pale and charming lover. That’s over” (ibid. 87). This is a reference to the milkman, which the maids argue over earlier in the play, unable to figure out whether Madame slept with him or not. Solange argued that even though Claire had fallen in love with the milkman, he had also slept with Madame and therefore did not care for Claire as she did for him. If this is the case, Solange-as-Monsieur now saying “that’s over” seems to point to the violence in the role-play being punishment for Claire-as-Madame being with the milkman. Beyond why Solange-as-Monsieur whips Claire-as-Madame within the ritual, on a fundamental scale the two maids have invoked a gendered performance as a means to perform abuse. How does this contribute to their liberation? The answer lies in Coe and Knapp’s argument for the liminal space of theatre. Invoking the gendered sexual violence becomes a means to both re-establish its power as domination and subvert it by acknowledging its imaginariness. It is during the midst of the gendered performance of Solange-as-Monsieur that Claire-as-Madame breaks character and says, “Solange, please, I’m sinking…you’re killing me” (ibid. 88). This acknowledges the falsity of the performance of Solange-as-Monsieur. However, ultimately Claire-as-Madame is killed. Thus, in a literal sense, the performance is not false at all. The liminality or duality is re-established.

If throughout the play, the rituals’ purpose is to summon Madame’s power by roleplaying as her and subverting her positional power, then the final ritual in its liberation of the maids requires the conjuring of their own maid-ness. Claire literally cannot be both dead as Claire-as-Madame and “with [Solange]” as a maid (ibid. 97). Thus, the maids – in order to accomplish their liberation – must only exist outside the real, outside the physical. This is the impetus for some sort of surreal essence of maid-ness created by Claire’s being both Madame, dead, and herself, alive, in the final ritual. Solange says, “We are beautiful, joyous, drunk, and free!” “We” – together – “are…free.” Claire is “with [Solange]” (ibid. 97). How else might Claire be with her sister if not in Solange’s maid-ness? Solange even mentions this maid-ness, though she calls it “the hellish agony of their names” (ibid. 100). This comes after the maids have “risen up, free, from Madame’s icy form” – after their rebellion (ibid. 100).

The connection between the gendered performance of sexual violence in the final ritual and creating maid-ness as a means of liberation is in their simultaneity as performance and reality. What the play seems to largely assert is the essentially imaginary and real parts of any performance. The creation of maid-ness is both an act of sacrifice and liberation. The sexual violence is both an act of re-establishing dominance and subverting it. Liminality and duality are re-established at every angle.

3. Afterlives

As Dollimore pointed out, deviancy is always in relation to a power structure. Those exploited by any power structure are considered to be the deviants. Those that benefit from and perpetuate the power structures require deviants to understand their own place of privilege. At every level of domination, the structure of hierarchical power must recreate itself. This is perhaps the reason Solange-as-Monsieur invokes the gendered act of sexual violence as a means to liberate – in a sense using the ammo of a gun to destroy the gun itself. However, what remains troubling about this play is its supposition that there can only be a dismantling of the power structure in violent revolution.

With Thody’s placing Solange and Claire as revolutionaries and given our discussion of the liberatory act of sacrifice in the final ritual of the play, we might come to understand the play to be about the success of liberation. And yet, what remains is that one of the maids is dead and the other has seemingly gone mad, dissociating from herself in a several-pages-long monologue (Genet 91-5). Are we to accept a liberation of the oppressed party that requires death?

What remains is theatre as simulation, of course. Yet, what Melançon and most of the critics of the text have refused to discuss is the simulation within the play of actual signified structures of power. Gendered power dynamics are not imaginary, nor are they ineffectual in their performativity. The violence perpetrated in the service of asserting dominance is real. What Genet’s theatricality in his repurposing the audience and what this play seems to ask is how we understand our own participation in different gendered power structures. How do we see ourselves becoming liberated from these different structures that carry-out violence? Finally, if the tragedy of Genet’s play is Claire’s death, we must also ask for a liberation that itself cannot also require violence or death.

Virginia Woolf reminds us in her final chapter of A Room of One’s Own “how much depends on [us], and what an influence [we] can exert upon the future” (Woolf 109). Beyond the play, beyond the performativity of gendered power structures or violence, and beyond the liminality of any theatrical space remains the real world with real power structures that enact violence. We must learn from the tragedy of Genet’s play a way to shape a future that dismantles these structures in peace, using love, for the sake of equity and unlimited prosperity.


Works Cited

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Explaining A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit begins her 2009 book discussing the essential nature of humanity. Not an easy task, Solnit’s argument is framed around critical disaster theory and personal experience and interviews that Solnit herself did while visiting the ad hoc disaster relief agencies after the Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Solnit argues that, despite the moral touchstones within Western society that demand humans are inherently self-serving or selfish beings, something arises that looks like altruism when disaster strikes. In her Prelude, Solnit discusses disaster’s ability to level any socioeconomic divide by quite literally leveling any property or means of centralized aid. Where altruism arises, Solnit argues, is between neighbors–no matter how diverse.

Mainstream media portrayals of selfish violence in times of disaster appear, Solnit argues, as early as Genesis. Solnit points out, “when God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (3). Cain calls to mind one of the most important questions about human nature: “Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” (3). What Solnit argues, of course, is that the question of taking care of one another is fundamentally tied to situations of disaster. What disaster shows is not a commitment to one’s own desires, beliefs, or economic circumstance but rather the ability to find common ground and shape a future that is beautiful, safe, and sturdy. The rupture of everyday life causes community enjoyment, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” (5).

Disaster can even help facilitate something like assimilation, Solnit argues, offering a story about a Native American who was trapped by dense tule fogs that overtook California’s Central Valley had ended up feeling for the first time “a sense of belonging” (4). It is disaster that forms a different touchstone–one of community, Solnit argues. Out of the ashes and dust of mourning and grief comes new relationships with those who participate in disaster relief and between different organizations that may have been founded on adversarial belief systems (or at least partly made-up of people who have adversarial belief systems). The grief and tragedy surrounding connotations of the word disaster are not in their intrinsic or immediate manifestation but rather in what follows. In other words, one can (and perhaps must) decide to change the grief into solidarity, beauty, and love. From this, Solnit arrives at her title: A Paradise Built in Hell. The paradise arises out of the hell of disaster–both in its material tragedy and in the denial of its representation in media that insists humans’ selfish nature. This concept of disaster, Solnit notes, can be revolutionary.

Recent history has blocked solidarity and moves toward communal paradise through intense privatization, something Solnit addresses early to discuss the fallout of W. Bush’s popularity but takes up more specifically in her discussion of New Orleans mayor post-Katrina. Though privatization has an economic connotation, Solnit notes, no “consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers–railways, water rights, policing, education–to the private sector” (9) can happen without also privatizing imagination and desire. The operation of disasters is in undoing this privatization, sending decision-making and impromptu life-saving to community, giving each citizen (which she defines) of that community “participation, agency, purposefulness, and freedom” (9). These “flashes,” as she calls them, of altruism and community building occur through disaster.

In her chapter named after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of “beloved community,” Solnit goes through several different organizations that begin post-Katrina disaster relief uniquely, fit in with each particular community uniquely, and then follows them through to their afterlives. Her first example of happiness from grief is provided by the mother of an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, Cindy Sheheen, who moved herself to protest the war at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to create Camp Casey (named after her son). In the improvised protest camp, Sheheen said it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, something which Solnit notes seemed to prove “grief had hollowed out all usual needs and left her nothing but a purity of purpose” (285). King’s “beloved community” accomplishes just this: an emptying out of adversity that is filled with good social change.

Solnit argues what is so perfect about King’s “beloved community” is King’s commitment not only to vast systemic change, the end of apartheid in America, but in community-building based on breaking down adversarial barriers, something perhaps much more difficult to accomplish. The disaster provides the perfect environment for the “beloved community” to come into fruition because it requires that centralized institutions work well in tandem with grassroots relief organizations, that each side is utilized for its different strengths and that in their cooperation, their nature as adversaries take a backseat. “Antiwar, environmental, social justice, human rights, and other movements generate new communities, often transcending old divides, and in the process bringing something of that urgency, purposefulness, suspension of everyday concerns, fellowship, and social joy also found in disaster,” Solnit says (286). Thus, communities are built by the neighbors that run grassroots organizations and with the wide-encompassing scope of more centralized institutions. This, Solnit’s book argues, is most capable after disasters– when the fundamental human nature is discovered as being compassionate, loving, and neighborly. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.

Different organizations that may have been built around opposing ideologies, who may have in everyday life become enemies of one another accomplish solidarity in times of disaster, Solnit argues. She lists two very good examples of these between organizations like Common Ground, whose founding came out of the same message as well as at least one member of the Black Panthers militant group of the 1960s, and the Rainbow Family, which derived from the hippie counterculture and LGBT rights advocacy movements. Common Ground found solidarity amid the huge socioeconomic racial divide in New Orleans and amid the racist portrayals of looters and criminals in the Katrina aftermath on news media worldwide. The Rainbow Family likewise found solidarity with evangelical Christians in the disaster relief community. Barriers break down and adversarial drawbacks dissolve in the service of fellow citizens when disaster strikes.

Decentralized decision-making and democratic community-building arrive to us, Solnit argues, through the material devastation of disaster. By providing disruption to everyday life, the ruins of disaster have revolutionary potential to thwart privatization and elitist fear. Joy from disaster, love from desperation, paradise from hell has been the major preface to what Solnit throws back out to the readers in her Epilogue. Solnit leaves us with this: “it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable” (308). As climate change accelerates and inflates disaster, the elites will panic and try to privatize. One’s job, then, as moral citizen is to see disaster as an opportunity rather than a damnation.

Explaining “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by Fred Moten

Fred Moten begins his “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by praising Afro-pessimism in the work of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. He moves to agree that scholarship cannot be divorced from a hatred of blackness, yet acknowledges tension remains in his love for Sexton and Wilderson’s work. Moten says he plans to stage his position not in opposition to Sexton and Wilderson’s, but alongside them.

Given critical attention to the ship hold, Moten argues that a point of view from the hold is no point of view or standpoint at all, but is rather “refusal of standpoint” (738). Moten says he plans to explore how blackness precedes ontology and thus is not lived in social death as Sexton would have it, but is irreducibly social. To deny sociality exists within the hold of the ship would be, Moten says, to deny value to the terror of that position (a position which, in being a refusal of standpoint is also not a position). Given this, the black, individual standpoint is impossible and thus blackness, Moten asserts, is nothing—not even social death, as Sexton and Wilderson would have it.

Moten, as if to perform his own relation to the work of Sexton and Wilderson and their relation to Du Bois and Fanon, brings up Orlando Patterson’s work as a bridging piece (an image Moten later picks up) between Arendt, Moten, and the Afro-pessimists. This is to say that while Moten’s diction is closely concerned with the subtleties of word difference—like “social poetics” and “aesthetic sociology” (742), “fugue” and “fugitive” (743), “afro-pessimism” and “optimism” (742), “present” and “unmade in presence” (743), “inside” and “outside” (740), “elsewhere” and “elsewhen” (746), “on hold but not in the hold” (750)—his syntax argues that blackness is not a dialectic, but rather it opens up into a constellation: “I plan to stay a believer in blackness, even as thingliness, even as (absolute) nothingness, even as imprisonment in passage on the most open road of all, even as…fantasy in the hold” (742-3). This substitutive nature of subtly different—or vastly different—words pushes Moten’s argument for sociality further: namely, in suggesting that words in their Derridean form (which is to say, meaning nothing while signifying something) are also social: “What is the nothingness, which is to say the blackness, of the slave that it is not reducible to what they did, though what they did is irreducible in it?” (744). In what Moten explains Sexton and Wilderson see as difference between his argument and theirs is, and this is his term, “apposition.” In other words, their theories are subtly different yet have an inherently social relationship between one another in the same valence that the words themselves in his form have sociality.

Moten points out that by maintaining a position of both non-relationality and non-communicability, Wilderson creates a contradiction in terms, for it is only through acknowledging a possible communicability can its negative (non-communicability) be present. Thus, non-relationality is simultaneously impossible, because communicability (or its negative) recognizes intersubjectivity (748-9). Moten later poses this as the key to understanding the difference between pessimism and optimism, namely that the gap between “an assertion of the relative nothingness of blackness and black people in the face, literally, of substantive (anti-black) subjectivity and of an inhabitation of appositionality, its internal social relations, which remain unstructured by the protocols of subjectivity” (750). Moten, again, distinguishes his own theory and that of Wilderson and Sexton not as oppositional but appositional.

Moten agrees with Wilderson’s seemingly paradoxical notion that between blackness and antiblackness is “the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life” (749). However, he says what remains is the divorce of blackness from blacks and vice versa: “the necessity of an attempt to index black existence by way of … paraontological, rather than politico-ontological, means” (749). Blackness is required to “serially commit” this act of detachment (749). In this detached state, blackness (rather than blacks) is “unsettlement” (750). Moten makes use of Nathaniel Mackey’s mu from Splay Anthem to serially perform the centrifugal and spiral nature of returning to the sociality of the ship hold. The detachment, then, is a repetitive dissociation from subjectivity “so that what’s at stake … is a certain black incapacity to desire sovereignty and ontological relationality” (750). This incapacity either enables or is itself the stage for sovereignty’s brutal materiality, which Moten brings forth after quoting Kitarō Nishida’s “echoing [of] a traditional Buddhist teaching” (750). Nishida helps Moten to argue also that blackness is a place which has no place. This recalls his earlier figure of nothingness, “the rich materiality of … emptiness” (745), but takes it a step further in the direction of the dialectic: “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight” (751). Moten argues that the hold, in being the place which is a no-place, dissolves sovereignty, and in being “the social life of black things, which passeth understanding” allows for blackness and imagination within the hold to become one (752).

After assessing blackness, Moten turns to nothing, which in its fullness (and thus in its relation to blackness) can be called “fantasy in the hold” (752). Before this, though, he returns to mu, from which issues concentration to the “social materiality of no place, of Having No Place,” in the hold (752). Within the hold remains sociality, even via physical touching, but Moten, in reading Foucault and Deleuze-reading-Foucault, understands the inside of the hold as also a fold of the outside of the hold, the no-place that is also a place. Moten insists this rhetorical move is not a dialectic one, but one which opens up the in-betweenness of the passage, of the in-and-outness of the hold. This brings Moten back to the Afro-pessimists and the question of nothing being with nothing again, a question asked to be unasked, he says. This unasking, Moten argues, “is mu … because nothing (this para-ontological interplay of blackness and nothingness, this aesthetic sociality) remains to be explored” (755-6). Thus, Moten is serially performing, almost spirally within his text, the very thing for which he argues: mu, or “repeatedly circling or cycling back” (747). In returning to the question of nothing, Moten also returns to the notion of standpoint or position. He questions whether the sharing of life within and out of the hold can create sociality for the sake of “extra-phenomenological poetics of social life” (756). Out of the emptiness and nothingness comes, in exhaustion, friendship. This life is derived outside of being (given the detachment of blackness from being or the para-ontology of blackness).

On the Through-line of Violence from Slavery to Present

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Charles Chesnutt, who only receives an education because of the Freedman’s Bureau, writes in the Reconstruction Era America, fables of dispossession. The exploitation of blacks in America, we learn from these stories, does not end with slavery. His two characters John and Annie are created, I argue, as critiques of the Northern white capitalists come down to the South to take advantage of the economic destruction that was caused by the war. Slavery transforms into sharecropping whereby the economically wealthy class remains on top while the poor freed blacks are damned to tell their stories for amusement, joy, or if they’re lucky, publication. In Chesnutt’s case, publication only exists as playing into the stereotype of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as we see from the cover of the original edition of The Conjure Woman) or the minstrel shows that came out of these fables of dispossession. The stories Chesnutt presents are stories of witness, witness to the disenfranchisement of blacks by the white capitalists. Instead of the slave master, the white capitalists of the north move in an notice the land is “neglected” as John says in one of the stories. What John notices as neglect is actually Julius’ owning the land. What John calls neglect is no white person owning the land and it is what gives John permission to recolonize the land for his own gain. Julius receives a job out of it as ‘consolation.’ It is in this way that slavery becomes expropriation to make sure blacks stay at the bottom rung of the economic strata.

Hurston’s female character Janie represents the triple exploitation of poor black women in the rural south of the early 20th century. Janie, in an attempt to find her ‘self,’ looks from husband to husband until she finally realizes in retelling her story to Phoebe that the self can only exist after such devastation within one’s own story. Even when she is with Jody, Janie talks about taking her self and putting replacing it with furniture. Or setting her self on a shelf inside herself. This dissociation of the self is, in my argument, Hurston’s attempt to represent what Marx calls our alienation from the self. What capitalism renders is people who have social relations with things and economic relations with people. After Jody opens up a story is when their relationship begins to deteriorate in the novel. At every marriage, it is the financial dependence or the financial insecurity that Janie has that ultimately, I argue, forces further divorce from herself. This is Hurston’s representation of the triple oppression of a poor black woman in the rural south.

What Walt calls Faulkner’s only reflective moment is at the end of Go Down, Moses with the character of Gavin Stevens. There is no reconciliation for the ultimate destruction and complete violation that is slavery. That seems to be the true tragedy of Faulkner’s novel. No matter what Stevens decides to do, obituary or not, money or not, funeral or not, there is no amount of present reparation that can create penance for slavery. This is to say that the economic structure of today is predicated on the economy created by the system of slavery, which means there is only one economic structure that has ever existed in America — capitalist slavery. It is only transformed from chattel slavery to another form of economic immobility.

The biggest moment in Brooks’ poetry that stands out is at the end of “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad of Emmett Till” when the complete horror that is the grief of Emmett Till’s mother just empties out onto a landscape, as if such horror can only be understood as being outside of oneself. It makes me emotional even to type this, because one can only imagine that the biggest tragedy is something that divorces oneself from even being able to look into its direction, the only option being to turn away and look out into a landscape. Emmett Till, the boy beaten for allegedly catcalling at a girl–something she has since admitted never happened–had been beaten so bad, almost beyond recognition. His mother wanted him to have an open casket, to show the world that the horrific violence committed against blacks in America had not stopped at slavery. For every progression, there is a steady response of retaliatory violence.

This transforms into the hoodie on the cover of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. What the hoodie represents is a complete identification, or rather a stripping of individual identity, emptying out onto a landscape of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and ultimately violence. This violence, in 2017, is protested but not condemned in court as unjust. Michael Slager received a plea deal just this week. He will not have to receive a lifetime prison sentence for shooting Michael Scott at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. What may seem as isolated incidents from slavery until now is actually one throughline of violence. The subjection of black people to violence in America has only transformed in nature and name. It is still violence. Literature presents an opportunity to imagine a world that could be better, to call a world that is unjust what it is. Until true democracy is realized, the representation of violence will persist. What Rankine did is considered a political act. It is, therefore, a political act to represent reality. That is what is at stake in the “alternative fact” America.

The Development of Consciousness from James to Robinson

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Henry James, as we read in Washington Square, is a student of the French Realist school of thought. This is to say, according to Standhal, the job of the novel is as a mirror that walks along the road, reflecting back whatever exists in the world. It is only then that criticism can be made. In other words, the project of the novel is in mimesis, or in a performance of a reality. Instead of a plotted reality, James is interested in the representation of consciousness. Instead of the first-person narrative, though, James chooses instead to acknowledge the narrator as an outside entity thinking in on Catherine, who has her own thoughts. This is to say that while we never have access to Catherine’s thoughts (except one brief moment toward the end of the novel), we do have access to the thoughts of the narrator. This access to the thoughts of the narrator means we have an outsider’s view of what Catherine represents within the tapestry of American life at the time. Catherine does not exist as a subjective being in a universe by herself, she exists having been defined by those around here, particularly by her father who is constantly obsessed with finding someone who is worthy of her value — her dowry, her economic value. So, when James sits down to ask himself how he can represent the reality of consciousness for a character, the operation of consciousness seems to be an attempt to represent a subject within the trellis of the economics, which is to say the operation is to call forth economics or social class and history in his representation of reality and of “real” consciousness. This leaves two possible functions for consciousness: If the social classes do not exist, then his representation is generative of the representation of subjectivity within the American economy. If the social classes do exist, then his representation is perhaps an early critique on the reduction of anything or anyone (especially gendered things and ones) to their economic value.

This shifts when we read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. With modernism, the narrator partakes in the action of the story. The only access to reality is through consciousness instead of standing on the outside, as if to stand on the (economic) structure itself like with James. Knowledge about the world is only verifiable for the modernist, for Cather, through a subjective perspective. The critique of one’s complete innerness being reduced to an economic value becomes complete submersion into subjectivity, an outright rejection of an objective understanding of meaning. In other words, there is no other Ántonia other than “my” Ántonia. The narrator’s relationship with the titular character is what brings her into reality. More specifically, it is Ántonia’s existence in the consciousness of the Jim, the narrator, that makes Ántonia “real.” Indeed, Jim Burden’s “burden” is that of the observer, the position from which one can call forth Ántonia’s story, as if without his story–the novel itself–there is no Ántonia. This is obviously a much more heightened version of what consciousness does for Cather’s writing. However, what we gather is the way subjective consciousness can either create–to the nth degree–or fail. There is nothing reliable about subjectivity and there is nothing objective about the representation of reality. That is how consciousness changes with Cather.

With Faulkner–still modernism–the focus is still on submersion into subjective consciousness. However, while Cather (and in many ways Hurston, as well) is interested in the ways naming things from a subjective point of view makes them real or somewhat real (flawed in that there is no objective naming, only naming that exists within the preconceptions of a single consciousness); Faulkner, on the other hand, is focused on the syntactical performance of consciousness itself. Faulkner is interested in the ways sentences are like thoughts. The project of the novel seems to instead of creating a plotted reality or a representation of reality, the representation of the performance of consciousness. Under Faulkner’s model, the reader does not simply understand that everything is subjective, but that subjectivity is so submersive that it is in reading a novel or chapter in its entirety that one gets the feeling that one has thought what is happening. In other words, only after reading the first chapter of Go Down, Moses does one have a sort of feeling of what is happening. Each sentence alone does not itself create story, it is the submersion into each thought, each sentence or as Pound calls the lines “flashing impressions”, into the performance of thought–altogether–that we understand plot or reality. Consciousness, then, is not represented just in its perspective as a subjective point of view, but as performed, as something which itself involves action. That is Faulkner’s innovation.

With Pynchon, we almost return full-circle to Standhal’s mirror from the Jamesian innovation. However, whereas the modernists tried to defamiliarize the process of consciousness (like Faulkner’s syntactical performances), the postmodernists use the over-familiarized commodity to commodify consciousness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas gets caught up in the dendritic mesh of global capitalism. At every stage, she questions whether it is all real or whether the will is a hoax. We never get an answer to this, left to wonder whether consciousness itself has been commodified and sold and rebranded and resold, which is to say whether consciousness itself can be manipulated or is manipulated by global capitalism or deindustrialization.

Finally, with Robinson, consciousness circles back in a repeated spiral, constantly within both past and present. The first two sentences of the novel tell what the rest of the novel explains, first begging the question “why continue to read?” Walter Benjamin reminds us that everything in the present owes something to the past, the past owns part of the present. This is to say that consciousness does not only take place in the present. The final innovation of consciousness is its awareness in both a present moment and a fixed or unfixed past. As the surface action unfolds, it is both indebted to the past itself and the way the past exists in the consciousness of the self.

“‘Vivid in rich, varied colors’: Meta-Black Poetics in HOME TO HARLEM by Claude McKay”

Claude McKay’s poetry is well-known for its use of different poetic forms. His first two collections Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads use ballads and songs in the Jamaican dialect. His most popular collection Harlem Shadows collects songs, ballads, and sonnets. When McKay moved away from poetry, though, and began publishing fiction, first with Home to Harlem in 1928, Banjo in 1929, and Banana Bottom in 1933, he seems to negate form as viable. In fact, the subtitle of his second novel Banjo is “a Story without a Plot” (Banjo). However, in cataloguing of colors and having song lyrics inserted into the prose, the syntax becomes inherently poetic. In this essay, I argue that McKay’s project in fiction, therefore, is in making fiction viable as a poetic form. The interpolated constellation of different colors and lyrics in McKay’s Home to Harlem function to create poetry within the narrative space. Moreover, this poetry informs the explicit conversation on the heterogeneity of blackness particularly as a phenotype of human skin. By introducing characters like Gin-head Susy with “yellow complex[es],” the novel explicitly discusses colorism during the Harlem Renaissance (Home to Harlem 57). I argue that the poetics of the novel (the lists of different shades of brown and black and music lyrics), which are both within and outside of the narrative space, a narrative space that thematically represents colorism in 1920s Harlem, as such function as an articulation of meta-black poetics, “meta-black” a term I borrow from the work of Casey Hayman. They are a structural addition to the narrative and as such function as meta-black aesthetic. McKay, having written Home to Harlem when he was “a hungry, broke, and somewhat desperate writer,” saw fiction as an opportunity to become a part of the movement (Dorman 74). In taking up color in the poetry inserted into the narrative space, Home to Harlem makes a structural argument for heterogeneity in Harlem. The cataloguing of several shades of browns and blacks throughout the narrative space acts, I argue, as a metafictional event that moves an otherwise thematic representation of color into a structural one.

1. Defining “meta-black” “poetics” and “colorism”

In the essay “‘Black Is…Black Ain’t’: Ralph Ellison’s Meta-Black Aesthetic and the ‘End’ of African American Literature,” Casey Hayman defines ‘meta-black’ as a narrative mode with characters that are “living within the black body and within a country and world wherein sounds and images of the black body permeate the collective consciousness” (Hayman 129). It is more than the representation of blackness in narrative. Meta-black aesthetic requires not only that the character implicitly acknowledges his or her blackness, but that other characters and indeed the world around the character acknowledge blackness itself. This “[permeation of] the collective consciousness” may not be a structural event, as I will argue the catalogue of colors is for Home to Harlem (ibid. 129). Indeed, the explanation of Gin-head Susy itself as having a “yellow complex” recognizes both the existence of her blackness and the formulation of blackness in the consciousness of the world so much so that she has developed a psychological complex based on the insecurity she feels about her dark skin (Home to Harlem 57). In the following section, I will argue further that even the cataloguing of the colors to create poetry within the narrative space of Home to Harlem is a “[permeation into] the collective consciousness” (Hayman 129). The difference between the two is in who represents the ‘collective’ and how ‘consciousness’ finds its formulation. In the case of Gin-head Susy, the collective is the people in the story world of Harlem as created and represented by McKay’s novel. In the case of the catalogue, the definition of collective and consciousness is troubled by its position as poetics both outside of the narrative space (because it is not narration, it is cataloguing) and within the narrative space (because it inhabits the same physical space as the narrative, the page in the book).

While the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the second definition of “poetics” as “the writing of poems,” which certainly applies to McKay’s work, what is more pertinent to our discussion of Home to Harlem is the second part of the first definition: “The creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these; a theory of form” (OED). There are several things to unpack here, the first being the creative principles that we are in this essay interrogating and problematizing. The literary construction of interest is the cataloguing of the colors, which open up the discussion of the social and cultural construction of race its “[permeation into] the collective consciousness” (Hayman 129). Most importantly here is the final part: “a theory of form” (OED). It is the form itself in Home to Harlem that prompt the inquiry into how the lists of colors function into the novel and how the narrative space is compromised or altered for the sake of the catalogue of colors. What I have called a poetics in Home to Harlem, a piece of fiction, is the theory of form for the catalogue of colors that ultimately connects to the ‘meta-black’ aesthetic described above in that their existence as formal and not thematic events means they exist metafictionally; that is, they are both within the narrative space and outside of it.

This essay exists alongside all theories of color-bias and colorism in minority communities. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences defines colorism as “the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin” (IESS). As a systemic formulation of colorism, the devaluing of blackness explicitly by processes like skin-bleaching, which has been proven as late as 2011 to be advertised in a manner discriminatory to darker skin complexions, has lead to the economic stratification within black society at large based on complexion (Charles, Keith, Herring). In a 1991 study using data from the National Survey of Black Americans, Verna M. Keith and Cedric Herring historicize the process: “Because of a stratification that provided blacks of mixed parentage with opportunities for training, education, the acquisition of property, and socialization into the dominant culture, mulattoes emerged at the top of the social hierarchy in black communities following the Civil War” (Keith, Herring 763). This stratification continued into The Twentieth Century because mixed-race individuals were a part of the same social crowd and thereby naturally married, “passing on their advantages to their children, continuing their close association with whites, and avoiding intermarriage with darker blacks” (ibid. 763-764). This stratification begot colorism socially by the continued economic privilege of lighter-skinned individuals and disadvantage of darker-skinned individuals in black communities. That “there has been little improvement in this form of discrimination since the civil rights movement of the 1960s” only showcases the relevance of this issue as we both interrogate contemporary fiction and retroactively ask questions of fiction already in the canon of American Letters (IESS).

McKay was not the only writer of the Harlem Renaissance to take up colorism in his writing. Zora Neale Hurston takes up the subject in her short play Color Struck, in which the protagonist loses her daughter after neglecting the sick girl for fear that the daughter’s lighter complexion will attract a former suitor now returned, who she thinks left her because of her darker skin. Wallace Thurman takes up the subject in both The Blacker the Berry and Infants of the Spring. The relation between mixed parentage and one’s own intelligence in Thurman’s work, Shane Hunter argues, comes out of the social darwinist medical theories that stated more heritage of whites in one’s pedigree meant better intelligence and more heritage of blacks in one’s pedigree meant better physical fortitude (Hunter 87). Hunter argues Thurman’s project is “to satirize those ideologies by showing their harmful effect on his characters’ lives” (ibid). In the same vain, Gin-head Susy’s character in Home to Harlem is a tragic character despite being “wonderfully created” (Home to Harlem 56). The most developed female in the novel, she is described as having “carried a hive of discontents in her majestic breast” (ibid. 58). While “she desired a lover, something like her undutiful husband [who was light-skinned and left her very early in their marriage], …she desired in vain” (ibid). She threw parties and had “her guests [consume] her gin” but “when they felt fruit-ripe to dropping, they left her place in pursuit of pleasures elsewhere” (ibid. 58-59).

2. Home to Harlem

a. Meta-black aesthetic

At the start of the novel, we learn that Jake’s impetus is over the race of his comrades in arms. After fighting in the First World War and settling in with a white woman in London, he grows tired of “white folks’ business,” which prompts him to go home to harlem, where “chocolate-brown and walnut-brown girls were calling him” (Home to Harlem 8). It is the “brown flesh” of his first-night lover’s that makes him feel “as if his whole body was a flaming wave” (Home to Harlem 8, 12). Jake references “the curious color” on her cheek twice, the first time calling it “a ravishing chestnut,” distinct from her “brown” skin (ibid. 11, 13). Later, looking for the woman in The Congo Rose club, he describes it as

African in spirit and color. No white persons were admitted there. The proprietor knew his market. He did not cater to the fast trade. ‘High yallers’ [which we can understand to be the lightest-skinned would-be patrons] were scarce there. Except for such sweetmen that lived off the low-down dark trade (ibid 30).

The Harlem of McKay’s Home to Harlem is a world in which blackness is both an integral part of the scenery and the collective consciousness. That no white patrons or ‘high yallers’ were admitted into The Congo Rose reveals this. The proprietor and the narrator recognize the “low-down dark trade” that frequents the club as distinguished from those “white persons” and “high yallers” that were not admitted into the club. If the omniscient narrator, which is such if for no other reason than because it inhabits both the minds of Jake and Ray while Jake is away, recognizes this social understanding about The Congo Rose, this novel qualifies in the Haymanian sense of having a meta-black aesthetic. The meta-black aesthetic requires living within the black body, recognition of that blackness, and the permeation of blackness in the collective consciousness of the outerworld of which that perspective is a part. Not only is Jake described as black and his first-night lover described as brown, the collective consciousness that takes part in inhabiting The Congo Rose club must have an understanding of blackness if the proprietor actively disallows white patrons and “high yallers” from entrance unless they like darker-skinned individuals (ibid).

Moreover, the narrator describes the darker-skinned individuals as “the low-down dark trade” and thereby acknowledges the economic position of darker-skinned patrons as lower than the aptly named “high yallers,” higher not only in their proximity to whiteness phenotypically but economically as well. This is only the first time in the novel that the narrator explicitly names the economic position of darker-skinned blacks alongside their lighter-skinned counterparts. Jake’s living with his lover Rose, who is described as a “mulatress” when she enters the novel, propels him into “a more elegant atmosphere of worldliness. Through Rose and her associates he had gained access to buffet flats and private rendezvous apartments” (Home to Harlem 39, 103). One such private apartment party is that of Madame Adeline Suarez and the company included people who the narrator describes as “carefully elegant …rich-browns and yellow-creams” alongside white patrons as well (ibid 105). Thus, McKay’s piece not only functions as meta-black aesthetic whereby the collective consciousness acknowledges blackness alone. The collective consciousness of McKay’s Harlem is one that acknowledges the holistic view of that blackness, including its color-biased vices that exclude one group for another and prefer one group over another.

b. Poetics

In the Baltimore club, Jake is looking for the cabaret singer that sang to him the first night he was back in Harlem. McKay’s narrative is often cut into by the song lyrics performed by a cabaret singer in clubs, including at this moment. The narrative goes back and forth and then, just before the song ends, there is a catalogue of characters and colors that are in the bar enjoying the song: “Dandies and pansies, chocolate, chestnut, coffee, ebony, cream, yellow, everybody was teased up to the high point of excitement” (Home to Harlem 32). McKay cuts into the narrative not only with song lyrics. As seen in this moment, there are catalogues of colors that cut into the narrative as well. The best example is after the introduction of Gin-head Susy as “spade or chocolate-to-the-bone” (ibid 56). Her status as purely “Ancient black” is described as “victim” to mixing with

new layers of brown, low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost-white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood (ibid 57-58).

This narrative interruption may be brief, but in its section there are no other narrative interruptions, including those of song lyrics despite Gin-head Susy’s parlor having music playing. This interruption is a formal disruption of the narrative. The syntax is neither regulated as a comma-separated list nor are the colors themselves acting as units within a catalogue. After the commas are swapped out for periods, the colors act autonomously and become anthropomorphized as “balancing” “reaching out” and “sucked back down” (ibid). Moreover, this is not a narrative progression but a stasis. This catalogue occurs as a part of an origin story of mixed-races that have victimized Gin-head Susy’s dark-skinned race and therefore Gin-head Susy herself. The catalogue, therefore, not only branches off from its purpose as listing the different agents that mix with “ancient black” throughout history, the very creation of this list is itself an excursus. The catalogue is an excursus within an excursus. This is a crucial point in the narrative because, as a change of form within a change of form, the catalogue of colors here takes place outside of the narrative space two-fold. The poetical ability of this excursus-within-an-excursus ultimately connects back to the ‘meta-black’ aesthetic described above in that the colors call attention to the heterogeneity of color in the black community. The variety of color and the colors ability to anthropomorphize requires the language itself to “permeate the collective consciousness” as Hayman would say (Hayman 129). This is because while this catalogue exists as an excursus within another excursus, it is not completely irrelevant. Gin-head Susy’s complex, Zeddy’s downfall, and later the performance of “an old custom, perhaps a survival of African tribalism” by two women fighting all relate to a meta-blackness that exists in the novel. The characters at every turn acknowledge unapologetically their blackness and, more importantly to this end, the narrative acknowledges their blackness. The catalogue above exists as a formal interruption of the narrative space and thereby occurs within a new collective consciousness, one that outside of the both the story world and the narrative space, perhaps in a collective consciousness that includes the reader. This metafictional event only occurs as a result of the poetics inherent in the catalogue of colors.

3. Conclusion

McKay’s fiction, while different from his poetry in many ways, requires a formulation of poetics. Home to Harlem thematizes a debate around colorism and its relation to economic stratification in the black community in Harlem. More than that, in the cataloguing of colors throughout the novel, which act as narrative interruptions, Home to Harlem has within it a structural poetics that allude to meta-black aesthetic, an aesthetic whereby black characters acknowledge their blackness and the storyworld involves an understanding of blackness. While there are thematic representation of meta-black aesthetic, as a metafictional event, the narrative interruptions (e.g. the cataloguing of colors) call into questions structures themselves and thus crystallize the meta-black aesthetic as a permeation into a collective consciousness that can include the narrative in which it takes place. The novel and not only the storyworld within the novel are a part of this collective consciousness. McKay problematizes blackness and colorism in his Harlem and in his narrative interruptions, demands structural interrogation occur every time one reads. Metafictional events exist by definition outside the storyworld and thereby can include readers in Harlem at the time of Home to Harlem’s publication just as well as those of today.

Works Cited

  • Charles, Christopher A.D. “The Derogatory Representations of Skin Bleaching Products Sold in Harlem.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4 (June 2011), pp. 117-141.
  • “Colorism.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr., Vol. 2, 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 17-19.
  • Dorman, Jacob S. “Back to Harlem: Abstract and Everyday Labor during the Harlem Renaissance.” The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2010, pp. 74-90.
  • Hayman, Casey. “‘Black Is…Black Ain’t’:Ralph Ellison’s Meta-Black Aesthetic and the ‘End’ of African American Literature.” American Studies, vol. 54, no. 3 (2015), pp. 127-152.
  • Hunter, Shane. “Chapter Three: Insane Eyes and Insane Stares: The Pathologized Black Body in the Fiction of Wallace Thurman.” Jazz Epidemics and Deep Set Diseases: The De-pathologization of the Black Body in the Work of Three Harlem Renaissance Writers. Dissertation, University of Nebraska, 2016. ProQuest LLC, 2016, pp. 87-128.
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At the Intersection of Linguistics and Literary Criticism: Objectivist Methodology in the Creation of Metalanguage(s) in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s LA JALOUSIE

In his essay on Robbe-Grillet, “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet,” Roland Barthes says of objectivism in practice that objects exist “without heredity, without associations, and without references, an object rigorously confined to the order of its components and refusing with all the stubbornness of its thereness to involve the reader in an elsewhere, whether functional or substantial…The whole purpose of this author’s work, in fact, is to confer upon an object its ‘being there,’ to keep it from being ‘something’” (Howard 14). In her own analysis, Patricia Waugh in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction calls the repeated objects in Robbe-Grillet’s 1960 novel La Jalousie “clues…clues, however, to a mystery which remains mysterious. No amount of obsessive and exasperated revisiting can discover their significance” (Waugh 83). I put forth in this essay the argument that Robbe-Grillet’s text is metafictional, though ambiguously so. Specifically, I argue Robbe-Grillet’s process of objectivism creates what can be called a ‘meta-language’ or a set of ‘meta-languages.’ In repeatedly offering up the objects, which Waugh dubs ‘clues’ because she reads the novel as a detective thriller, in service of nothing but their existence, or their being there-ness as Barthes might say, “attention,” Waugh concludes “begins to focus on … how the mystery is produced” (Waugh 83). I argue that the creation of a metalanguage or set of metalanguages, languages that take as their signifier other languages, is how said mystery is produced in La Jalousie. La Jalousie, therefore, is a novel operating at the intersection of linguistics and literary criticism.


1. Defining Objectivism and Meta-language(s)


Barthes’ essay explains that in Robbe-Grillet’s novel, objects’ “function is treacherously usurped by [their] sheer existence” in space (Howard 14). This process of objectifying or objectivism, the process that insists on drawing focus to description instead of purpose or meaning, is dubbed so because of its focus on the object itself. The object-ifying process is crucially about the description of the object and necessarily leaves out its function or purpose. Barthes’ words: “[an object’s] apparent function readily makes it a part of the urban landscape or commonplace interior in which it is to be found. But the description of the object somehow exceeds its function in every case…bringing the narrative to a sudden, untimely halt and transforming a simple implement into space. [An object’s] usefulness, we discover, was merely an illusion, only its optical extension is real” (Howard 14-15). While a wine glass, for example, may exist on a table and then have wine emptied into it and then drunk from it, its function as a receptacle of wine into which one may pour and from which one may drink wine is put out of the narrative. Instead, there is only, in point of necessity, the description of the object. This process is the object-ifying of the narrative space.

In the excursus left when the narrative is brought “to a sudden, untimely halt” and “usefulness, we discover, was merely an illusion” is the moment at which, in Saussurean terms, signified is separated from signifier. Barthes calls this process one of “transforming a simple implement into space” (Howard 15). There is nothing but the “visual itinerary,” Barthes argues of Robbe-Grillet (ibid. 14). The elimination of the viscerality that acquaints earlier writers’ work, the physical “tactile” existence of objects, is replaced by its description (ibid. 15). This alone could be reason enough for Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre to be a study in linguistics. His focus on description is as matter of necessity on what creates description: language. The process of description is a stacking-up of language. By eliminating from the narrative function, purpose, or meaning of objects, Robbe-Grillet divorces the signified from its signifier, foregrounding the latter. Thus, the process of objectifying is to populate a novel not with visceral objects but with the signifiers of those objects. In Barthes’ words, again, “usefulness … is an illusion, only … optical extension is real” (ibid. 15).

Simply put, metalanguage is “language about language” (Buchanan). Perhaps even this critical essay, under this sparse a definition, is made up of metalanguage. Louis Hjelmslev, however, makes a point in his general theory of language, to explicitly define this concept, which only implicitly exists for Saussure. Like Saussure and, as I argue above, Robbe-Grillet, Hjelmslev believed the language used to express the phenomenal world was arbitrarily assigned. Calling an object made of wood and graphite a pencil in English does not give it an inherent ‘pencil’-ness because it is actually called lápiz in Spanish, Bleistift in German, and crayon in French. Thus, no wood-graphite object (signified) is tied to its being called anything (signifier). Unlike Saussure, though, Hjelmslev was concerned with the connection an object (signified) has in existing in all languages (signifiers). In this general theory of language, he wanted to explain that “the reality of language usage…necessitates a more complex system than traditional linguistics provides” (Buchanan). This system, called glossematics, is a metalanguage. Metalanguage, therefore, as point of necessity has a wide definition.

Theorists after Hjelmslev, most famously Lacan, argue “there is no metalanguage” because there is no language which can be outside of language itself (Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives). However, this aphorism undermines the very foundation of linguistics. Perhaps there need be another term besides meta-language: self-referential language, language about language, linguistic language. Nonetheless, it is the operation of this essay to understand Robbe-Grillet’s use of meta-language given its existence.


2. La Jalousie


La Jalousie is not even a straight-forward name for Robbe-Grillet’s novel, itself a wordplay of the French word for “blinds,” from which we understand the narrator to be observing, let alone is Robbe-Grillet’s novel understood. Yet, the style forces the reader to recognize the process of construction, what Waugh calls an interpretive ‘code’ language (Waugh 83). Whether A… is cheating on her husband with Franck, whether someone is murdered and by whom for what reason are all mysteries left unsolved in the novel. What remains is the “visual itinerary,” an economy of descriptions of objects devoid of humanity or relation (Howard 14). These descriptions, which we have above noted are signifiers divorced from their signified, stack up to produce an effect of objectification. The impact of this effect is our focus now.

Simply put, the process of objectification prompts the creation of a metalanguage or set of metalanguages. Waugh notes that because “the reader is not offered a resolution to the enigmatic dispositions of the text … his or her attention begins to focus on how the code is constructed” (Waugh 83). The process of laying bare the objects themselves creates the separation of signifier and signified. Recall Barthes’ “space” – the moment at which the language itself is made supremely evident rather than its purpose for explaining functionality is  when signified becomes separated from its signifier. At this point is the recognition of linguistics as a concept and therefore of metalanguage, language used to describe this concept. It is a process that defamiliarizes language itself and in so doing, must prompt the creation of a metalanguage to explain it. The metalanguage may actually be the entire novel itself, given that the event is prompted by the process of objectification throughout the novel. Nonetheless, I will venture to describe other metalanguages created within the text.

As a recapitulation, let us turn to Waugh’s definition of a metalanguage: “a language that functions as a signifier to another language” (Waugh 4). She also discusses, just before this, the relation between the “linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers,” saying “language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings.’ Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic, and regulated by convention” (Waugh 3). To combine these two, which she implicitly does by suggesting ‘meta’ terms explicate the relationship between the phenomenal world and the language used to signify it, meta-language is therefore an independent, self-contained system that generates its own meanings about another language, which it signifies. Its relationship to this other language is highly complex, problematic, and regulated by convention, convention established, in the case of La Jalousie, by the process of objectification.

Just before the end of the novel, there are moments when the text references passages within itself, creating a language about language. While this may be an example of Waugh’s definition of language, as it is not necessarily self-contained, I argue it is these linguistic events that, when combined with Robbe-Grillet’s method of divorcing objects from their function, are examples of metalanguage. They also fit the necessarily large definition of metalanguage: language about language.

  • “She has been visiting Christiane, and Franck has brought her back. The latter is sitting in his armchair” (Howard 136).
  • “The route he follows over the flagstones is apparently parallel to the wall and converges with the line of shadow when he reaches the low, round table where he carefully puts down the tray, near the novel with the shiny paper jacket. It is the latter which provides the subject for the conversation” (Howard 137).

These first two examples may seem trivial, but there are several uses of the phrase “the latter,” a phrase that is essentially relational. The function of the phrase is essentially relation in that “latter” can only be used as a reference for the last thing in a list that comes just before it. In the first quotation, “latter” is referring to Franck, as Franck is the last person in the list of people getting out of the car mentioned the sentence before. In the second quotation, “latter” is referring to the novel with the shiny paper jacket, which comes last in the list of objects on the table at the end of the line of shadow in the sentence before. While seemingly a minute and superfluous word, the term “latter” in its relationality is especially metalinguistic in that it requires other language to which it can refer. It remains metalanguage because it is a piece of language (the word itself) about language (its relational completion: the last in a list just before it). The same can be said of any internal reference in a literary text, of course. This is perhaps why Waugh adds the “self-contained” caviat to her definition of meta-language and perhaps why Lacan insists metalanguage cannot exist. However, it is because of Robbe-Grillet’s use of objectivism – a method that strips all objects of their function or relation to meaning and symbolism, divorcing them from their signified – these linguistic events that are inherently relational are metalinguistic. This is because, in presenting all objects void of their relation to function or meaning, the focus is drawn into the linguistic events themselves. As Waugh herself put it, “[the reader’s] attention begins to focus on how the code is constructed” (Waugh 83). The construction is simple: with words, using language. One such example of this language, as noted above, is the relational use of “latter.” Without the objectivist process, one may have glossed over this linguistic event in a text with much more dire focus placed instead on meaning or functionality or metaphor, yet Robbe-Grillet insists objects be without meaning or relation to function. He insists there be, as point of necessity, nothing but the description, nothing but the signifiers evacuated of their signified.

It is also worth note Robbe-Grillet’s use of the article “the” instead of “a.” In the above passages: “The novel with the shiny paper jacket,” “the tray,” “the low, round table,” “the line of shadow” (Howard 136, 137). Each of these linguistic events would seem superfluous in a text that has much more significant linguistic events like metaphors or symbolic references. Yet, in a text like Robbe Grillet’s that requires no object to have metaphoric or symbolic relation or meaning, focus is drawn instead to these other linguistic events that present a language that references intra-textual objects and thus becomes meta-linguistic.

  • “A… and Franck discuss it [the novel] animatedly, while sipping the mixture of cognac and soda served by the mistress of the house in the three glasses. The main character of the book is a customs official. This character is not an official but a high-ranking employee of an old commercial company…” (Howard 137).
  • “Franck, at this point, begins to tell an anecdote about a truck of his with engine trouble. A…, as politeness demands, asks for details to prove the attention she is paying to her guest” (Howard 137).

In the above passages about the book and politeness are other examples of metalinguistic events. The novel is an intratextual object without symbolic or metaphoric meaning. One only knows the novel to be the same novel referenced other places in La Jalousie because of the article “the.” This makes ‘the’ metalinguistic in the sense that without the novel’s evacuated signified function or meaning, it is only made recognizable by the article ‘the.’ There is explanation about the events of the novel, but these remain untied to the signifier “novel” without that article. The novel remains something referenced within the text itself and something that remains indecipherable scribblings without an understanding of the process of objectification in Robbe-Grillet’s work.

The language of politeness in the second quote above is the best example of Waugh’s form of metalanguage in the Robbe-Grillet text. Politeness as an entity cannot have a metaphoric or personified ability to demand anything in La Jalousie because the word ‘politeness’ is separated from its signified by Robbe-Grillet’s process of objectification. Moreover, politeness is also itself a language with its own rules, a self-contained system with signifiers different from the language used in Robbe-Grillet’s novel or in this essay. This means that any reference to politeness in La Jalousie text is a meta-linguistic event. The ‘other language’ from Waugh’s above definition is that of politeness. One may understand ‘politeness’ as a concept in defining it. Yet, within Robbe-Grillet’s text, wherein every object is divorced from its signified, one must ask of politeness’s demands for A… These demands are understood only because of the Robbe-Grillet text, making any reference to politeness in the text metalinguistic because a reference to the rules or demands of politeness references another language.

3. Conclusion



La Jalousie functions not only as a point of inquiry for literary historians. It functions as a space for linguistic exploration. It is because of the process of objectification that there remains linguistic interest in Robbe-Grillet’s work. This process not only better shows the Saussurean notions about language that the signified and signifier are arbitrarily linked, it lays bare the process of the language construction. As a piece of metafiction, Robbe-Grillet’s text insists its readers recognize the process of linguistic deconstruction and therefore the process of writing itself. While the definition of meta-language remains open and up for debate, it is undeniable that Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre functions to serve in some way in this debate. Whether linguists, literary historians, or critical theorists, La Jalousie provides an intellectual space to problematize normative constructions and explanations of language. It is only in the holistic inquiry, therefore, of Robbe-Grillet’s work and the work of theorists like Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Waugh that language and metalanguage may be understood, developed, and created. Perhaps understanding metalanguage requires a meta-meta-language and so on ad infinitum. Nonetheless, its inquiry remains pertinent to the understanding of La Jalousie.


Works Cited