Archive for June, 2011
Posted in Aesthetics, American radicalism, Black studies, US Left, tagged Against the Current, Barbara Foley, Invisible Man, marxist literary criticism, Ralph Ellison, Wrestling with the Left on June 1, 2011| 13 Comments »
The latest issue of Against the Current has a very interesting review by Nathaniel Mills of Barbara Foley’s new book, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. An examination of the hitherto unstudied drafts of the novel, Foley’s book argues that it actually began its life as a novel of the Black Left. Through a process of careful revision, however, Ellison excised the novel’s radical mooring points (which included various sympathetic Black leftist characters), and transformed its picture of ‘the Brotherhood’ (the radical organization the Invisible Man joins only to discover it is as manipulative as any other institution) from a flawed but well-meaning and decent organization into the totalitarian nightmare it is in the published version. Foley argues, and most readers have agreed, that the Brotherhood is a stand-in for the US Communist Party, with which Ellison was closely associated in the 1930s and early 1940s. As such, the text has become something of an anticommunist classic, using a sophisticated array of rhetorical strategies to link radical politics with white racism and ultimately promote an ideology of American exceptionalism.
While appreciative of Foley’s archival scholarship in interpreting the drafts of the novel, Mills takes issue with her reading of the finished product. His criticisms are, I think, worth thinking about, as they raise a number of issue about form and politics that are at the center of Marxist literary criticism. They run along two main lines. First, he argues that Foley is mistaken in reading the novel’s portrait of the Brotherhood as a mimetic stand-in for the CP, and that the institutions and figures Ellison creates at various points in the novel are, in fact, non-representational generic archetypes. Mills argues that this non-referentiality is politically progressive, as it allows Ellison’s critique to have a greater reach. Second, he argues that Ellison’s insistence on the formlessness and chaos of life is not an evasion of the reality of oppression and domination, as Foley contends, but rather an insight of theoretical value for the Left.
Before considering the specifics of Mills’ first argument, I think it’s worth pointing out that it is a rather strange one for a Marxist to make. Fredric Jameson, after all, declared ‘Always Historicize!’ to be ‘the one absolute and we may even say “transhistorical” imperative of all dialectical thought,’ and while Jameson’s word is not law, it is a sentiment Marxist critics have tended to affirm. Mills’ argument for the progressive potential of de-historicization would read more convincingly if he at least acknowledged that he was, in fact, going against the grain of most Marxist criticism.
More substantively, there seem to me to be good reasons to read the novel as mimetically as Foley has. Mills’ argument is ‘that Ellison doesn’t document a certain historical period, certain historical events, or certain historical institutions like the Communist Party.’ Mills offers little in this essay to sustain this argument, drawing instead on the work of John Callahan, who has written insistently on the need to distance Ellison’s representations from any immediate history. Ellison, Callahan argues, ‘puts as much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel.’
Mills and Callahans’ arguments here are buttressed by the authority of Ellison himself, who frequently castigated critics for trying to link his representations to concrete historical referents such as the Tuskegee Institute or the Communist Party. Yet there are good reasons to believe that Ellison was, to put it simply, lying (a possibility critics of Callahan’s persuasion have curiously overlooked, given their reading of Ellison as trickster). Take, for example, Ellison’s picture of black college the Invisible Man attends in the first part of the novel, which readers have generally associated with Tuskegee. Ellison describes
the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave.
Here is a picture of the statue of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute:
As much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel? Hardly.
The picture of the Brotherhood is similarly laden with referentiality. Mills cites Callahan’s argument that ‘the Brotherhood derives a measure of significance from its similarity in some respects to the relation between American Blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties.’ This is, if anything, even less convincing than the case of Tuskegee. For example, the Brotherhood’s leadership in the book, Jack, is written as a foreigner who poses as an American, whose duplicity is revealed when he is angered and begins babbling in a foreign tongue the invisible man sarcastically describes as ‘the language of the future.’ A few lines later, he refers to Jack as ‘a dialectical deacon,’ a phrase that both symbolically links Jack with the manipulative Black churchmen who were in charge of the college and unmistakably associates him with Marxism, an ideology that, to my knowledge, has not played a large role in either the Democratic or Republican parties. This linkage becomes even less tenable in the epilogue, when after dreaming that Brother Jack leads a lynch mob to castrate him, the invisible man remarks that ‘Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to…well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.’ Here, Jack the foreigner is positioned as a threat to the nation, an operation that renders the invisible man’s position in his dream as metonym for the nation. If the Brotherhood is an archetypal representative of American political parties, these clusters of imagery make no sense – is it Ellison’s contention that political parties in general are gangs of foreigners waiting for the slightest opportunity to castrate Uncle Sam? If the Brotherhood is read as the CP, however, the portrait fits perfectly (to the point that Ellison’s representation can be read as one species of the hysterical anticommunism portrayed in Dr. Strangelove, where the General Buck Turgidson’s reason for starting the war is precisely the threat the communists pose to his virility).
Mills argues that while we shouldn’t read the Brotherhood as a direct reference to the CP, the portrait nonetheless is of value for the Left ‘as a warning against potential tendencies (toward political dogmatism and vanguard elitism, institutional self-preservation at the cost of revolutionary creativity, etc.) that any leftist organization should avoid.’ This is unconvincing. For one thing, Ellison shows no sign in the novel of any sympathy for revolutionary anything, so it makes little sense to assert that his portrait of the Brotherhood is a warning against stifling revolutionary creativity. More to the point, however, is the fact that Ellison’s portrait of the Brotherhood in the published novel is unremittingly hostile – it is totalitarian, racist organization symbolically linked with white racists. In this context, it seems perverse to read his representation as some sort of friendly criticism. Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Pipes, and Bernard Henri Levy make many of the same criticisms of dogmatism and elitism in revolutionary groups. Does this mean their writings should be taken as valuable advice as well?
Mills’ second primary line of argument concerns Ellison’s insistence ‘that American society is more complicated and unpredictable than most established epistemological and political paradigms allow.’ For Mills, this point is an important one for leftists. First, he suggests it evinces an affinity between Ellison’s picture of the United States and ‘theories of social form and process articulated by European Marxists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. Both Althusser and Gramsci revised classical notions of economic determinism in order to identify the complexly overdetermined realms of the social and cultural as potential sites for revolutionary politics.’ This is not particularly convincing. Recent scholarship on Gramsci (I am thinking particularly of Peter Thomas and Timothy Brennan) has shown that Gramsci’s thought was far more a product of Third International debates and discourses than his critical reception has allowed. This work has rendered suspect the cliched image of Gramsci as complicator of a previously simplistic Marxism. One could say more about Althusser’s case, including the fact that his concept of relative autonomy was formulated, in part, to explain the unavoidable fact of Stalinist barbarism while retaining the idea that the Soviet economy was a socialist one, but it suffices here to remark that the two conceptions of cultural struggle I can detect in his work are both deeply unsatisfactory. First, Althusser’s notion of theoretical practice rewrites Marxist philosophy as part of the class struggle. Regis Debray provided the immortal verdict on this theory with his quip ‘all we had to do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy bastards.’ The second concept, that of struggle in the ideological state apparatuses, is even more troublesome, given its provenance as a theoretical justification for the bureaucratic madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well its subsequent use in the hands of Gauche Proletarienne as a reason for regarding reformist trade unions as repressive manifestations of the capitalist state. In short, the analogy fails with Gramsci and leads nowhere good with Althusser.
More important than this Marxological esoterica, however, is the fact that in Ellison’s novel, the fluidity and complication he emphasizes are linked to an ideology of American exceptionalism. We have already seen how the invisible man stands a metonym for the United States in his vulnerability to the castrating fanatics of the Brotherhood. Ellison goes much further than this, however, in his deployment of tropes of American exceptionalism. In his reflection on his grandfather’s words, the invisible man declares that his grandfather, who he concludes was right after all, ‘must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.’ For the invisible man, the lesson of his experiences is that ‘we had to “say yes” to the principle, lest they [Brother Jack and the others who have manipulated the invisible man] turn upon us and destroy both it and us.’ Ellison’s affirmation of American exceptionalism in these pages is directly linked to his conception of America as chaotic and complex. As he remarks, “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it remain so.” This affirmation of American diversity is expressly linked to a repudiation of Jack and his ilk: ‘Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states.’
Finally, it’s worth noting that Mills proposes Ellison’s picture of complexity as a remedy for what is effectively a straw man. He argues that ‘One must recognize the struggles of these oppressed as both literally contained by power and exceeding the grasp of power. Invisibility is both delimiting and freeing, just as oppression also contains within it (dialectically, or what Ellison might call “chaotically”) the potential for freedom.’ The idea that the oppressed are not completely defined by our oppression is one that, as far as I can tell, is universally accepted on the Left today. Indeed, it seems to be axiomatic to any conception of Left politics that oppression is never total and complete, and people will always resist. If this weren’t true, there would be little point in doing anything besides working for Goldmann Sachs. In his argument for Ellison’s utility on this front, Mills ultimately assents to the caricature of the Left that informs Ellison’s novel.
In conclusion, I think it is worth considering the importance of Mills’ arguments in the broader context of revolutionary criticism. Though as the preceding paragraphs indicate, I am quite unsympathetic to the substance of his claims, I think Mills raises crucial issues about the political valences of texts and the ways revolutionaries can relate to them. To my mind, Ian Birchall put this point most succinctly in his review of Terry Eagleton’s work in the 1980s. Eagleton, he said, insists on the subversive moments lurking in all texts, which Marxist critics have been too eager to write off in favor of blanket denunciations of reaction. Birchall noted while Eagleton was right that all texts are contradictory, this did not imply that all texts were politically equal. The French censors recognized as much when they banned Sartre’s work but not Camus’. This seems to me to be correct. Invisible Man is obviously a great novel, and there are numerous moments within it that pose questions Leftists have to answer. But we will most assuredly get the answers wrong if we imagine they are posed in an innocent way. Recognizing the dominant political ideology of a novel is a necessary step in attempting to seize any insights hidden within.