The Polemics of Andrew Piper’s ENUMERATIONS

This is in response to Andrew Piper’s new book Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Univ of Chicago Press, Aug 2018).

Piper’s characterization of literary studies does not hold up to contemporary literary studies (of which he is a part). He only uses examples from Auerbach and Barthes. While both of these are mammoth names in literary criticism, there are many useful counterexamples to Piper’s claims about modeling, which he places in a false binary against literary criticism. What Piper seems to say is that literary criticism is bad at doing what it sets out to do because it fails to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it,” which is something he suggests models do inherently (9). However, I’m not sure this is so. An important counterexample to this inherent quality of modeling can be found in the critical genre of new historicism, which Piper particularly damns as failing its own premises, a “great [paradox] of intellectual history” (8). Susan Sontag is one critic who comes to mind that would remind Piper that models, like images and other cultural creations, only reveal their processes/biases of creation when they are presented with this in mind. In other words, models will only “implicate us within them” if they make explicit these means of presentation (11).

Models, though, are tricky because, as Piper points out, “much of the language of empiricism that has surrounded the initial rise of the field” centers a notion of equivalence between numerating and objectivity (ibid). This is to say that modeling may actually be a place at the bottom of a steep hill where each step is marred by the weight of the societal perception that when something is in a graph it is scientifically proven and thus objectively true. Models, therefore, do not fundamentally make explicit their biases or constructedness because they are also produced in a culture that associates modeling with objective truth. This critique of modeling is, of course, a new historicist one. I am obviously skeptical that modeling inherently prompts a hermeneutic analysis of the data it models. On the contrary, I think the perception is that when data is modeled, its conclusions are fixed truths. In the same way Piper argues against Auerbach’s misuse of anecdotal evidence, models can be and are used as anecdotal proof of ideological claims. This is what I mean when I say he sets up modeling and literary criticism (particularly new historicism) into a false binary. They need not be battling. A better argument for Piper’s book would be that modeling and new historicist methodologies ought to be employed to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it” by disassociating societal claims that models showcase objective truth.

Piper thinks criticism is “magic,” whereby “the imperious pronouncements of the literary critic who is only ever right” disseminates knowledge but this is not inherently so (11). Many critics, including those who study gender and sexuality and those who do cultural studies, seek as their onus the revealing of the proliferation of structures of power like that of the “magic” “imperious” critic. Critical University Studies does so within academia itself. Piper caricatures criticism as a big bad wolf-type villain, which frames his intervention as a vive la revolution stick-it-to-the-man. But neither of these things are true. Critical processes are developed over decades and centuries, are constantly reflexive, and are thus not fixed truths. They can make “the study of literature more architectonic and less agonistic, more social and collective” (11). For examples, a critic interested in doing cultural studies must first understand the precedent methodologies of critics like Grascmi, Althusser, Leclau, and even Marx because cultural studies did not up-and-go like the Big Bang. On the contrary, it was developed out of many questions posed by different critics using different methods and data as well as out of the critiques of previous systems of criticism in much the same way empirical science developed. The glaring difference, of course, is that only one of these things is ripped to shreds by Piper.

Piper does acknowledge that his processes are “in many ways no different from the critic’s approach,” though this is only after setting up a polemic against criticism (17). I actually agree with much of Piper’s conclusions about the ways digital computation modeling can reveal how “context is never fixed, but always perspectival” (ibid). My friction is in suggesting that modeling inherently does this without first making it an explicit goal, acknowledging that modeling exists in a system of empirical-centrist dogma that frames the conclusions of numerating methodologies as objective truth. “Focusing on the implicatedness of modeling,” in Piper’s words, “helps us see the intersections…rather than the mutual exclusivity” of “nascent empiricism or residual subjectivity surrounding reading” (19). Piper’s presentation of repetitive, implicated, distributed, and diagrammatic reading may shift contemporary studies away from binaries like “distant/close, deep/shallow, critical attached” reading. His book may, indeed, “[mark] out an end of a particular tradition, in which the technologies of the book and the photograph have been used as the exclusive tools of understanding those very same media” (21). Why, though, does Piper begin the book with a polemic against the very criticism he wishes to employ via computation modeling? In other words, Enumerations may actually be the most recent formulation of new historicism, not its enemy.

A New Journey Begins

This blog is meant to be a literary discourse between my cousin, Preston, and me. We’ve let it drop off a bit since July when we started a radio show called Write On SC. Then, in August, Preston went to grad school at the University of Miami and has gotten busy with real literary discourse, not just the stuff we prattle about.

But a week ago we lost our Papa. He was 91 and eight months – that extra time matters for old people like it does for babies – and he’d been broken hearted since November 12thwhen his eldest son, our Uncle Howard, died.

Papa was a good man. Our Nana, who passed in 2014, used to say she thought he’d been a slave in a former life. He worked that hard without expecting pay, compliment, or reward. He was a servant to his family, to his community, and to his God.

In the service this past Friday, the minister said Papa was a humble man who put duty first. His phrase was, “Do what you have to do,” with the unspoken admonishment, “before what you want to do.”

He had a sense of right, a moral compass that championed hard work and faithfulness. He was a dedicated cheerleader for all of his children and grandchildren, even if he didn’t fully support the work we were doing.

I remember him at a regatta at Clemson when I was on the crew team not fully understanding the sport but knowing it was important to attend and smile and cheer and encourage. He listened to me talk about everything from graduate school to entrepreneurship to the latest venture, the radio show.

His advice was consistent: work hard.

Not “work hard until…” or “work hard and …” just “Work hard.”

He was not a man of art. I can’t remember him watching any shows or going to any theatre performances or movies or even concerts. He wasn’t much of a reader though I remember my mom giving him biographies on everyone from Harry Truman to Bobby Bowden. I never knew if he had a favorite song or a favorite band or musician. If you asked him, he’d just shrug.

He danced. He and Nana frequently went to the Shrine Club for dancing and drinking. He loved to have a good time. He loved Clemson football and attended ball games religiously for decades. He threw a helluva tailgate.

Papa didn’t play games. Nana loved cards and was a member of two bridge clubs. But Papa couldn’t waste his time on that. He never golfed, either. He used to say he wouldn’t waste time chasing a ball around someone else’s lawn when he could be working in his own.

He kept the most glorious garden. It had cucumbers and squash and eggplant and tomatoes and he was like Farmer MacGregor when we were children – we were terrified when an errant ball tumbled into the garden.

There are so many things Preston and I will take with us through the remainder of our lives that our Papa taught us. Sitting on his couch, listening to his stories, hearing the deep tone of his voice when he was instructing us or the high chuckle he’d let loose when he was teasing us.

He had joy in his life and in his heart. And though he’d gone through tragedies and experienced loss, he believed the life he was leading was predestined by God and in God’s hands. He put himself to service as he was called to do and he remained steadfast until he died.

That faithfulness, I hope, is one we can explore here. As partners in literature and intellectual exploration, perhaps A Book of One’s Own can become an exploration of how life matures in art, how art preserves life, and how we, as artists, can experience art through grief and healing.

It’s a new journey now we’ve lost our Papa. Let us begin.

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.

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.

Hysteria in 1898

I wrote this after reading The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a wonderful ghost story published in 1898.

In his address to the American Medical Association in 1898, Dr. James E. Moore offered advice on female surgical patients suffering from hysteria:

“When a neurotic female presents herself for surgical treatment, and the subjective symptoms are out of all proportion to the objective, we should be upon our guard, for operations under these circumstances are seldom of more than temporary benefit. These patients … by careful observation, the surgeon may satisfy himself that their sufferings are purely imaginary.”

He later adds:

“An hysterical joint occurs, as a rule, in an hysterical patient. The pain is not that of an inflamed joint, but is an hyperaesthesia [excessive sensitivity]. The deformity may resemble very closely that of tuberculosis, but there is a difference. The symptoms are all exaggerated, and the whole condition gives the experienced examiner the impression that the patient is playing a part.”

Thus, while female surgical patients may suffer from excessive sensitivity, their hysteria should, as a rule, be treated, according to Dr. James E. Moore in 1898, skeptically, for they are neuroses, read: ‘purely imaginary.’

This cultural text reveals a very specific prognosis for women suffering from post-operative complications. The speech Dr. Moore gives is about the complications suffered after an operation, as he begins discussing the symptoms of several of his male patients, which describes as “splendid specimen of physical manhood,” in all but their symptoms. He moves on, however, to a discussion of the risks surgeons have when treating “neurotic female[s]” who have the same or similar symptoms, which he claims are “purely imaginary” (Moore).

There is circumstance to believe not just that Dr. Moore would be classified in 2017 as a sexist, but that there exists a distrust in 1898, or at the very least a skepticism, about the ability of a female post-operative patient to recognize abnormal symptoms in her own body. There is, in other words, a questioning in the validity of a female patient’s statements regarding her own experienced symptoms. This skepticism may drive, Dr. Moore warns, surgeons to be aware these patients may “fall into the hands of unscrupulous, would-be surgeons” (Moore). The fear is not necessarily that females are lying but that they may fall victim to surgeons looking for any reason to up-charge and perform surgery on unneeding, naïve patients.

However, despite this performative concern for the well-being of female patients, Dr. Moore still makes clear the skepticism that exists over the autonomy of the female body, namely that she may not understand it regardless of it being her own. This stigma, I argue, regardless of its legitimate place in observance to mental incapacitation that may occur in some patients, exists nonetheless to further alienate a female subjectivity from itself.

The same year Dr. James E. Moore gives his prognoses to a group of male medical practitioners at the American Medical Association, Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is published. In the novel, a governess is constantly haunted by the ghosts that exist in the house in which she is taking care of two beautiful children. These ghosts, she believes, are manifestations of the evils within the children and their reluctance to let her raise them.

Half a century after Dr. Moore’s speech and Screw‘s publication, the novella had become perhaps the most influential piece of short fiction ever written for the New Critics. Edmund Wilson, writing for the Hound & Horn at Harvard, is the first to question the sanity of the governess in James’s novella: “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts” (Wilson 385). He goes on: “The Turn of the Screw, then, on this theory, would be a masterpiece…as a study in morbid psychology” (Wilson 386).

It is my argument that Wilson’s questioning of the mental fitness of the governess is not only predated by the Moorean medical notion that a female autonomy must be met with skepticism when she presents as ‘neurotic’ and ‘hysterical,’ but that it in fact is a part of a through-line of criticism that questions the autonomy of the female body. In other words, I question how much “The Ambiguity of Henry James” relies on his protagonist in The Turn of the Screw being female. (Read: Would critics ask about the integrity of the first-person narrative in James’ novella were the protagonist male? Would Mrs. Grose, whose name Wilson erases and is called simply “the housekeeper” in his essay, be questioning the legitimacy of the ghosts in the story were the governess to be the governor?).

These questions may come as some to be an ahistorical angry rant, I nonetheless point out that other ghost stories may themselves also be looked at as “ambiguous” “[studies] in morbid psychology” yet they are most often not, read instead as legitimate horror tales about the physical detriment a ghost can commit against the living. We must evaluate the through-line that exists of criticism of female autonomy from at least Moore, a doctor of James’s contemporary America, to the first placement of this skepticism onto James’s protagonist. Until then, we are ignoring the ghosts that exist in criticism itself.



Works Cited

Moore, James E., M.D. “Hysteria From A Surgical Stand-point.” American Surgical Association, 27 April 1898. Special Address. AMA 1898 James E. Moore speech.pdf

Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Hound & Horn, vol. 7, no. 1, 1934, pp. 385-406. Wilson on James.pdf