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Neoliberalism and the Information Age Immigrant Family: Subverted Roles in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

The present moment is witnessing a shift in familial relations that is perhaps unique in human history: the traditional mode of parent-child relations is being overturned (Shifflet-Chila 6). Our understanding hitherto has been that parents hold knowledge which is valuable to their children and which will help them navigate their lifeworlds when it is disseminated throughout childhood, adolescence and beyond. But a new generation of ‘digital natives’ are coming of age and stretching into a future to which their parents’ knowledge is inadequate. The natives are lighting the way for their digital immigrant relations.

Shteyngart-sub-articleLarge (1)

‘Meanwhile…the Abramovs keep leaving all these desolate messages on GlobalTeens with illiterate subject lines reading “me and momee sad” and “me worry” and “without son laif lonely”’ (74). Sketching an anxious picture of his mental state which includes a looming financial crisis and fears over his ability to retain the mercurial Eunice’s affections, Lenny mentions his parents in a hasty afterthought. His filial obligation is a problem. Ensnared in the high-speed, technically-challenging world of Post Human Services, coupled with the prospect of negotiating the murky waters of a digitally-mediated relationship, his parents are not only useless to him. They are another thing to worry about.

Shteyngart ‘dramatizes the tension between what Werner Sollors calls “consent” and descent”, between those elements of our identities that we choose and those that we inherit’ (Trapp 56). Lenny struggles to forge a future for himself in the new America, a future which requires him to leave the descent elements of his identity behind. ‘A father should never outlive his child,’ (125) Lenny believes. His plans for eternal life do not include the parents who left Russian life behind to give him a better life. Lenny has only visited their homeland in the works of Chekhov and other literary masters.

‘I have to be a “roll model” according to Mom,’ (168), Eunice tells her sister, Sally. Eunice’s playful/cruel imitation of her mother’s patchy English highlights the scorn she feels for her parents, and suggests her desire to be liberated of the pain of her family’s turbulent daily life, and especially her father, ‘the violent podiatrist’ (35). More than this, she wants to leave behind her ‘unnecessary shell (the human body) and focus on the rarified human essence (its mind or soul)’ (Malewitz 113). Rather than treating her raw historical wounds, she wishes to escape the body which is emblematic of that history entirely. She immerses herself in digital culture.

Eunice’s mocking of her mother’s language use suggests that the native-immigrant gap between them extends beyond the realm of the digital: Eunice believes herself to be better-equipped to meet the demands of American life than her mother, whose language immediately marks her as an outsider. ‘I’ll keep Mom safe,’ (71), her sister repeatedly reassures her. The émigrée has left her life in Korea, rendering her isolated and therefore additionally vulnerable to her husband’s rages. Her daughter feels obligated to protect her.

Ironically, while the daughters hold cultural capital in their savvy knack for America-navigation, they still require their parents for actual capital. There develops a parasitic relationship which complicates the underlying emotional problems Eunice tries to eschew: ‘So because we leave for you everything behind, you now have big responsibility to Daddy and Mommy and Sister. J’ (45) Part of the rhetorical impact of this simply-expressed statement stems from the sender’s glaring misapplication of a smiling emoticon – a promise of financial capital accompanied by evidence of deficient cultural capital. Shteyngart uses Eunice’s dearth of alternative sources of income to dramatize the conundrum to which swathes of the digital native population are susceptible – a kind of status-disorientation stemming from simultaneous feelings of superiority and dependency.

Citing Illouz, Richardson explains ‘emotional capitalism’ (Richardson 76) as the diffusion of market-based logic and language into emotional life. Neoliberalism has seeped into the contemporary consciousness so profoundly that characters shrewdly calculate the potential losses and gains of emotional involvements. ‘Love is great for pH, ACTH, LDL, whatever ails you,’ Joshie tells Lenny (64). Enduring relationships are only useful insofar as they translate into ‘biocomputational success’ (Malewitz 116). Shteyngart asks us to assess our values and subject the motives that underlie our most intimate decisions to greater scrutiny.

neoliberalismo-ideia

When crisis strikes, Lenny, like Eunice, demonstrates ability beyond his parents’ to navigate the complexity of the new American reality. Using his connections to reach them after the economy’s collapse he finds his parents starving and afraid, ‘secretly hurt and ashamed that they could do less for me than I could for them’ (285). The unspeakable truth of their reversal of roles charges the whole encounter with a strange intimacy: Lenny experiences a paradoxical determination to be close to them while retaining his sense of personal liberty, fleetingly indulging in a rare moment of true contentment with his parents while simultaneously trying to escape ‘the burden of the emotional implications’ (Agamben 53). As in Eunice’s family, Lenny’s relationship with his parents is problematized by a delicate tension between directly oppositional affects generated by a subversion of the roles and attributes they expect of one another.

Silently fuming in a church, surrounded by Eunice’s family, Lenny composes an imaginary sermon:

‘Throw away your ancestors! Throw away your fathers and the self-appointed fathers that claim to be stewards of God…Accept the truth! And if there is more than one truth, then learn to do the difficult work – learn to choose.’ (188)

For Lenny, the pains of family life can be erased by the simple truth of a mutual obligation he and Eunice have formed together. Demonstrating the affective impact of familial role subversion, Shteyngart speculates on whether its presence in the consciousness alongside neoliberalist logic will culminate in a far-reaching renunciation of familial obligation. His novel does not provide an answer – neither Lenny nor Eunice is ever truly able to disentangle the knots that keep their parents close to them. Which forces are most capable of keeping the family together? Which are most valuable as foundations upon which a decent human society can be built? Which of them could erode, and which of them could contemporary American reality already be eroding?

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. Nudities. Translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Malewitz, Raymond. “‘Some New Dimension Devoid of Hip and Bone’: Remediated Bodies and Digital Posthumanism in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story” Arizona Quarterly 71 (2015): 107-127.

Richardson, John M. “The Promposal: Youth Expressions of Identity and ‘Love’ in the Digital Age” Learning, Media and Technology 42 (2017): 74-86.

Shifflet-Chila, Erica D. et al. “Adolescent and Family Development: Autonomy and Identity in the Digital Age” Children and Youth Services Review 70 (2016): 364-368.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Books, 2011.

Trapp, Brian. “Super Sad True Melting Pot: Reimagining the Melting Pot in a Transnational World in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story” MELUS 41 (2016): 55-75.

Images Cited:

Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: The Idea that Swallowed the World.” The Guardian. 18 August 2017. Accessed 11 November 2017.<https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world>

Shteyngart, Gary. “Only Disconnect” The New York Times. 16 July 2010. Accessed 12 November 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/books/review/Shteyngart-t.html>

Neoliberal Demands on the Body in Natsuo Kirino’s Out

In Out, Yayoi Yamamoto strangles her husband in a fit of rage. Her friends agree to help her dismember and dispose of the body – “it was a human being, but now it’s an object” (95). Is this so shocking when we consider the toll that the global city exacts upon them?

In the factory in which they work, these four women are reduced to objects but more specifically to components. If they are injured, even a scratch, they cannot work. If they refuse to perform the backbreaking labour there are plenty more to take their place, in what Sassen refers to as “the informalization and casualization of work” (288). If they wish to go to the bathroom they have to make it known to management hours in advance, neoliberalism prying into the most personal aspects of their lives if it increases profits. Management’s chief concern is productivity, not the wellbeing of the workers. “What the hell are you doing?!’ … How could you have spilt all this?!” (12).

Factory workers at a conveyor belt
Factory workers at a conveyor belt

None of this is reasonable, but we do not live in a reasonable world. Society has them over a barrel; the four need the extra income that the night shift provides, and, by god, Tokyo needs those boxed lunches. Because of this they are all profoundly isolated. Masako and Yayoi pass their husbands in the doorway every morning, both marriages crumbling. Yoshie’s daughters siphon what income she brings in and refuse to help care for a mother-in-law she despises, a task that demands nearly all of her free time. When Tetsuya leaves, Kuniko has nothing left but debt, “the neoliberal self… defined by its capacity to consume” (Davies 1-14). The four grab what sleep they can and each night the cycle begins anew.

Breu notes that “in killing and disposing of Kenji, the woman turn the thanatopolitical violence that the larger society directs towards them momentarily outward” (49). They disassemble him as methodically as they assemble meals on the conveyor belt, Kirino juxtaposing images of food with the process of dismemberment – “watching the blade slip through the layers of yellow fat, she heard Yoshie mutter that it looked ‘exactly like a broiler” (100).  Operating outside the law, operating outside what many criminals (Yayoi included) would regard as sacrilege – how could they be expected to give that power up, when we consider the alternative? Their freedom “[can’t] be assured by institutions and laws but must be exercised” (Brown 8).

Kenji looking understandably upset
Kenji looking understandably upset

Reluctance to give up this power might be one reason why Masako and Yoshie are able to treat Kuniko’s corpse as just another job. “Skipper, set the line to eighteen” (441). Her presence and loyalty while alive helped mitigate the factory’s neoliberal demands on the four, but, once dead, she has no value. She, like Kenji, is categorised as waste, a category that Giroux explains “includes no longer simply material goods but also human beings, particularly those rendered redundant in the global economy” (Giroux 308). This is not an anomaly, Jumonji stating that “there’s a fairly steady supply of people who nobody wants found” (256). Slowly, begrudgingly, but ultimately, Yoshie comes to see her mother-in-law in this light. “Once her daughter was gone, she must have lost all hope, and with it her last reason for hesitating” (491). In a novel brimming with terrible people and terrible acts, Yoshie deserves sympathy. Her belief in family and compassion only brings her pain, and it is only when she abandons these concepts for those of thanatopolitics does she finally get out.

Gender is incontrovertibly tied to the question of the body and its worth in Out. Satake made a business of bodies long before Masako, Yoshie and Jumonji, the girls in his club the product in the neoliberal marketplace that is Kabuki-cho. His empire is predicated on the belief that these women are objects – they are to be enjoyed, consumed, by lonely men. They, like the flagging newcomer on the line, are reduced to components. “They began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman… efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace” (11). Satake too abhors inefficiency on his line – “I don’t mind if you fool around, but you can’t let it get in the way of work” (232).

Kabuki-cho, a red light district in Shinjuku, Toyko
Kabuki-cho, a red light district in Shinjuku, Toyko

When he is released from jail and finds that he has lost everything, Satake snaps. His objectification of women rockets past anything that Kinugasa or even Kenji would condone. He deems Kenji a loser for chasing Anna, but hunting Masako becomes his only purpose. She, in his mind, only exists to fulfil his impossible sexual fantasy. “It wasn’t so much that she’d tried to stab him but that she’d spoilt the sensation he had worked so hard to bring back” (506). Masako despises him in this moment, but what should indicate self and personhood only arouses him further. Satake reduces her and her affect to an object to be consumed. When Masako slices him with a scalpel, killing him, she reduces him in turn. Both Yoshie and Masako get out, but Masako gets out with the money. I believe that is because, unlike Yoshie, she experiences every aspect of what it means to live in a world of objects. ‘If this fellow here’s an object, then so is my mother-in-law. And then we’re all objects – the living and the dead’ (95).

If those you work with are objects, and people see you as an object, and your family view you as an object, then it becomes fair to view others as objects. If we take that to its depressing conclusion, there is nothing remarkable about an individual human life in this unreasonable world. Cheers.

Bibliography

Breu, Christopher. “Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir” Globalisation and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction. Ed. Pepper, Andrew, and David Schmid. Palgrave, 2016.

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, 1995.

Davies, Bronwyn. “The (Im)Possibility of Intellectual Work in Neoliberal Regimes. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26. 1-14.

Giroux, Henry A. “Violence, Katrina, and the Biopolitics of Disposability” Theory, Culture and Society 24. 305-309.

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 1997.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2001.

Images Cited

Factory Workers:

Midaka, Masahiro. “Workers process scallops at the plant”. Bloomburg. 25 August 2017. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-25/japan-s-richest-village-can-t-find-workers-for-its-factory>

Human Anatomy:

“Anatomy of man muscular system – anterior view – didactic”. Shuttershock. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://www.shutterstock.com/image-vector/anatomy-man-muscular-system-anterior-view-109588475?src=sIgqUjBDxwGPHQBlaivqlQ-1-77>

Kabuki-Cho:

Brenn, Moyan. TokyoCheapo.com. Accessed 24 October 2017. <https://tokyocheapo.com/entertainment/things-to-do-in-kabukicho/>

Deconstructing the Body: Identity and Power in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Coates’s letter to his son provides an urgently chastising, thoughtful look at a relationship with the black body alongside power and inequality and how this reports on the way race operates in America. African American identity and the concept of the black body are tragically intertwined through what the residue of slavery has left behind in the form of “body economics” – a fixation on power over the black body is woven into identity, agency and power over your own body, as well as social and political powers over the body. Coates probes at the collective identity associated with the black body in America and how this informs personal identity.

Coates & his son
Coates & his son

Frantz Fanon’s sociogenic principle in Black Skin, White Masks provides a useful lens through which to unpick and sort some these ideas as it theorises physical proof of history and heritage as being manifest in the body. A Western perception of Africa as having no recognisable history/civilisation therefore negates the black body to the Western gaze as being culturally insignificant. So, regardless of origin, the black body becomes sociologically entwined with a metanarrative that simultaneously individualises and multiplies the non-historicity of Africa. Coates’ understanding that ‘serious history was the West, and the West was white’ (43) aligns with this in attributing history to a bodily representation.

‘The god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be’ – Coates (70)

Coates uses “bodies” and “the body” as an ideology, exploring multiplicity of definition as a broader term for representing organisations and systems of power whose influence permeates society. This presents power struggles latent in government, schools, class systems that are all organised into collective bodies. The book itself is organised into three bodies of text, aligning form with content and Coates’s extension of the metaphor of the body builds an inescapable dichotomy of the streets and the schools as ‘arms of the same beast’ (32) – begging the question: what other beasts are there?

920x920

Coates asks the reader to imagine these beasts, to reconsider the power that one body has over another due to the culmination of their individual experiences, class, race, and repeatedly reinforces this inequality through the globally recognised example of police brutality and the murders of unarmed African Americans. Coates’s reader is directed to face the gaze of the uncomfortable truth. Indeed, from a globalised perspective in American news/media, repeated police shootings on unarmed black bodies is so common that it mostly remains un-broadcasted in its ordinariness. Coates equates the ‘plunder of black life’ as ‘an intelligence’ (111) as if its regularity asserts it as a known fact, logical and long-established. This idea of understanding and knowledge as being inextricably linked to power (intellectually and bodily) is reflected in the conception of schools and streets as powerful bodies in their own right – ‘Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later’ (25).
Coates’s defining observation that ‘race is the child of racism, not the father’ (7) shows racism ostensibly as the construction of a Said-like “Other” – a reaction against the black body. This is a principle echoed by other contemporary writers as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in Americanah ‘I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.’ (Adichie, 291). For Coates, this “Othering” acts to distil our own sense of belonging as ‘Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border … We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe’ (60).

‘Is class secondary to race?’ – David Smith, Guardian

The tortured fixation on the murder of Prince Jones shows the inescapability of the black body and the powerlessness of not having control over your own body as two sides of the same coin (or arms of the same beast). The act of murder dehumanised Prince Jones, flouting his untouchable status and rendering him powerless. In Coates’ interview with Jones’ mother, there is a distinct comparison, almost a slippage between Prince Jones and abolitionist Solomon Northup – ‘He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back’ (145). The dislocation of power over your own body and control in your own life negates a basic human right and threatens any notion of safety. As in the case of Michael Brown – Angela Hume theorises ‘the proper name that came to epitomise the problem of police violence against young black men is that of the place, whose history of racial discrimination facilitated the shooting’ (Hume, 93) as even in death these victims are not in control of their own body. George Yancy notes ‘the historical plasticity of the body, the fact that it is a site of contested meanings, speaks to the historicity of its “being” as lived and meant within the interstices of social semiotics’ (Yancy, 216). Jones’ murder shows control over the body in safety and protection as directly correlative with control over social status and the potential for change, providing proof that race trumps class in a bleak outlook of upward social mobility for African Americans.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. Americanah. London: Harper Collins. 2013.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and me. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company. 2015.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. London: Pluto Press. 2017.

Hume, Angela. “Towards an Anti-Racist Eco-poetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine”. Contemporary Literature. Vol 57(1). University of Wisconsin Press. 2016. Pp 79-110.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Modern Classics. 2003.

Smith, David. “Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Laureate of Black Lives”. 8 October 2017. Accessed 16 October 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/ta-nehisi-coates-our-story-is-a-tragedy-but-doesnt-depress-me-we-were-eight-years-in-power-interview>

Yancy, George. “Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body”. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol 19(4). Penn State University Press. 2005. Pp 215-241.

Images Cited

Coates & his son: Lawrence Public Library  [accessed online 16/10/17] <http://www.lawrence.lib.ks.us/2015/08/between-the-world-and-me/>

Black Lives Matter Protest: San Francisco Chronicle [accessed online 16/10/17] <http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Camp-kids-lead-Oakland-Black-Lives-Matter-8402179.php#photo-10627050>

“HE JUST SHOOK HIS HEAD AT ME. SAID SOMETHING TO THE EFFECT THAT MY FATHER WOULD BE ASHAMED OF ME AND THAT I’D NEVER UNDERSTAND. AND HE’S RIGHT. I NEVER WILL” GENERATIONAL DIVIDES AND RACISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY IN PAUL BEATTY’S ‘THE SELLOUT’

Amongst the many boundaries that emerge amongst the characters in Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel The Sellout, a consistent theme of generational division provides the backdrop to a lot of the narrative. It is through this means, Beatty seeks to create a tension between the African-American in modern American society and that of the older generations, with memories of the civil rights movement and segregation along colour lines still fresh in the collective imagination.

From the beginning of the novel, Beatty makes it apparent that he considers racism to be very much existent in modern society, as something that bubbles beneath the radar. Racism has taken on new insidious forms in the 21st century, with a character at the zoo’s “Freudian slip of the tongue” leading to a tragi-comic apology to the narrator that “some of my best friend’s are monkeys” (pg. 5, Beatty). Beatty touches upon these slippages and forms of racism in a November 2016 interview with the New Statesmen, noting how these types of ideas can escalate into something far greater. Beatty uses an earthquake analogy, saying “a little tremor can upset you more than a big earthquake, in a weird way. Little tremors add up. They also signal a big tremor’s coming”(pg. 45, The New Statesman), a fitting comparison of how the rise of white supremacist movements and neo-Nazism has reared its ugly head in modern day America.

paul beatty

A crucial relationship emerges between the narrator and his father. Although occasionally illuminated with anecdotes that suggest of a begrudging respect, there appears to be little familial warmth between the pair. Beatty riffs on racial stereotyping (‘Daddy, like many black men, had lots of kids’ (pg. 36, Beatty)), in the creation of this father figure and depicts him as an authoritarian, repeatedly quizzing his son on examples of racial injustice throughout American history. Yet the narrator appears keen to emerge from the shadow cast by his father, and to be indicative of a new identity emerging in African-American society, typified in the novel by his reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps (pg. 61, Beatty).

The narrator however holds Hominy Jenkins in a much more respectful esteem. Hominy, ‘a sort of Little Rascals stunt coon’ (pg. 71, Beatty), appears intent on restoring Dickens to a society where he felt like he knew his place and, ultimately, meant something to the locals, yet finds his significance on the wane in contemporary society. Jenkins seeks a return to when racism and segregation are played out to their obvious extremes, to remove the veil that disguises pre-existing prejudices.

 

‘Feigned or not, sometimes I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike America has turned the page. That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book-that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.’ (pg. 115, Beatty)

 

By creating a universe where racial segregation has been re-introduced, Beatty ironizes the inherent ridiculousness of the entire situation in some sort of reverse Rosa Parks fashion. When Hominy presents his seat to a white passenger on the bus (‘less an offer of his place than a bequeathal’), the writing is framed with the language of a peasant meeting royalty, highlighting the absurdity of the whole practice in the first place. For a humourist writer such as Beatty, the opportunity to mock and play with the image is too hard to resist.

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

What appears to be less played for laughs is the treatment of Hominy and other black actors during the 1940s and 50s. The characterisation of Buckwheat in the Little Rascals almost defies comprehension, an image made even more harrowing by the realisation that it is not some distorted form of re-imagined history, but is firmly entrenched in reality. Footage can be easily watched or obtained online, and although not limited to the Little Rascals, depictions can be categorised as, at best, stereotypical, to the unflinching reality of being an indefensibly offensive display of overt racism. Maybe this is where The Sellout sets out its challenge to the reader; was it a more comfortable version of society that knew and flaunted its racism, or one that lives in a ‘post-racial’ myth? The comparison is laid out bare when Stevie and Panache reflect on what Hominy had to go through, with Stevie thinking that Hominy and every other black actor is deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award ‘because you guys had it hard’, to which Panache adds ‘Still do…I know what Hominy’s gone through. I’ve had directors tell me, ‘We need more black in this scene. Can you black it up? Then you say, ‘Fuck you, you racist motherfucker!’ And they go, ‘Exactly, don’t lose that intensity!’’ (pg. 282, Beatty)

The Sellout may be driven throughout by frequent and generous dashes of humour, yet a lot of the ideas and images that are presented to the readers also come back to a very serious argument. The racism of the past will always be present in contemporary society and no sort of discussions about a ‘post-racial’ society can shift that. Yet in trying to carve out a new identity separate from the mould of the generation of his father and The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the narrator is able to question and challenge the position of the contemporary African-American in a post-segregation, post-slavery society: ‘So what exactly is our thing?’. Maybe the answer is just as frightening.

References

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, ed. Beatty (Bloomsbury, 2006).

William E. Cross, ‘The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience’, Black World 20.9 (1971), pp.13–27.

Gatti, Tom. “‘I Invented a Richter Scale of Racism’: The Booker Prizewinner Paul Beatty on Taking Offence, Decoding Trump and Why He Isn’t a Satirist.” New Statesman, no. 5339, 2016, p. 44. EBSCOhost, queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.472988130&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Videos Cited:

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nf9SkLYrWU]

Images Cited:

Paul Beatty image: Alastair Grant/AP http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/10/25/ap_16299789746078_wide-50a021e1f2708e4353f740eed9124fb9f88e2aa6-s800-c85.jpg

Rosa Parks image: United Press photohttp://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Rosa-Parks-an-introvert-w-007.jpg

Countering Neat Optimism: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Despite the author’s name being uncannily attuned to the topic of race, when I began to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad  the language of the novel did not seem to be racially inflected. The voice of the novel is neither ‘black’ nor ‘white’; neither  naively critical nor coolly detached from the history of oppression which it takes as its subject. While the narrative is flush with the situation of black oppression, the narrative voice suggests to me a disavowal of any particular racial identity. This apparent neutrality enables Whitehead to fulfil Nietzsche’s criterion of grasping his own time through “disconnection and anachronism”.(40), a strategy the author utilises to question the narrative of progress that typically underlies reflections on race.

Whitehead selects the abolitionist historiographic fact of the underground rail network to frame the narrative of self-congratulatory liberalism which underlies it. In doing so, Whitehead pungently  draws parallels between recent tensions in America regarding policebrutality and the “Black Lives Matter” movement,and race relations in antebellum America.

April 15th 2017, several thousand people joined in a march to the Seattle courthouse to demand attention for black rights and the police brutality.
April 15th 2017, several thousand people joined in a march to the Seattle courthouse to demand attention for black rights and the police brutality.

The novel is a story of failed liberation. Cora’s escape recalls obvious precursors such as Frederick Douglass, but retropes them. Whitehead implicitly criticises Douglass’ tone of contented liberalism when recounting his escape: “I could, as a free man, look across the bay toward the Eastern Shore where I was born a slave”. Countering Douglas’ neat optimism, Cora’s liberation introduces her to future forms of oppression as she effectively only moves from one “hob” to another in South Carolina. Exploiting generic ambiguities, Whitehead  marks Cora’s escape as only a beginning. Diverging from the traditional realism of the genre, Whitehead draws on a type of science-fiction in order to show that Cora’s journey is not necessarily towards liberation but into an ambiguous future.

While Whitehead acknowledges that the novel feeds parasitically off slave narratives, he produces a freedom narrative in which there is no freedom. The train of the underground railway may lead to freedom or it may not. What it conveys,  if only minimally, is a sense of possibility. The unknowing of what will happen next is shared by Cora and the reader. Both are drawn into the possibly overwhelming task of making sense of postbellum experience

Is our pleasure in the novel implicated in the moral ambiguity at its heart? The epistemic deprivation in the novel is in part exhilarating, matching the prose. This introduces a productive tension between form and content. The vicious reality of the story, against the exhilaration of the prose. The readership is cleverly implicated in the novel’s brutality through the pleasure we take from it, an approach which closes the temporal gap between then and now, and the moral rift between oppressor and the liberated.

With that in mind, the relationship between Cora and her pursuer, Ridgeway, is perhaps the most interesting in the story; and an important structuring device in the novel as a whole. As Mabel effectively abandons Cora while Caesar is killed off conveniently, Ridgeway and Cora are novel’s most enduring relationship. Ridgeway endures, even suggestively beyond Cora’s final bid for freedom, and his near death. Ridgeway will of necessity enjoy a rich afterlife, just as the spirit personified in him stalks the neoliberal 21 st century. Ridgeway, like the master in Hegel’s dialectic is also dependent on his slave for his identity which he gains through Cora’s recognition of him. Cora and Ridgeway is an example of an affective relationship produced out of the heart of capital. This would mean then that the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed is the hinge of the book. An analysis of the relationship between Cora and Ridgeway actually enables larger questions, such as those to do with identity. Are identities given or are they produced? Ambiguously enough, identities are often produced through bodily suffering, just as they are fixed for history in violent death.

When Cora moves on from her position as the Anderson’s maid, she becomes a living reenactment of the process of slavery in the South Carolina Museum. The three displays of Darkest Africa, Life on the Slave Ship and Typical Day on the Plantation are a suggestive a microcosm of the novel. Just as Cora is confined to these displays, so is the discourse of white atrocities confined to the novel. The readership is challenged with an accusation of mirroring “the dumb, opened jawed stares of the patrons, stealing her back to a state of display” (125).

The configuration of the display also introduces the novel’s preoccupation with linearity. Cora initially reflects on her preferred sense of historical order: “The progression from Plantation to Slave ship, to Darkest Africa generated a soothing logic. It was like going back in time, an unwinding of America” (125). She agrees to Isis’ request to switch rooms. This sacrifice alters her schedule meaning “she would end the day a slave” (125). By extension, Whitehead asks us to question our own sense that history has been consummated in our own cultural and political dispensation.

 

Although this rumour of reparations is untrue, there is contemporary desire to dismiss and retain restrain the concept of  slavery as nothing more than an historical event.  Even the mention of slavery as a affective to the modern day sparks controversy and uproar.
Although this rumour of reparations is untrue, there is contemporary desire to dismiss and retain restrain the concept of slavery as nothing more than an historical event .Even the mention of slavery as a affective to the modern day sparks controversy and uproar.

In order to draw parallels between past and present Whitehead spatializes history;  juxtaposing historical slavery and the 2012 Presidential election of Barack Obama. With a disruptive narrative, characterised by uncertainty,  we are denied the comfort of reading slavery as a legacy. Instead, we are confronted with an awareness of slavery as a constant contemporary presence.

The novel ends on the question of liberation, but not the promise of it. As Cora emerges from the underground railroad and clambers into a wagon heading West, there is perhaps a crude suggestion of the American myth. It is tempting to think that the trajectory of the novel figures the inevitable cinematic adaptation, in the culture industry with which the west, and its myths, are enduringly associated.

There is a certain sublimity about this novel. It exceeds our categories, and our feelings. It writes about a history which is incommensurate to our understanding, let alone to our feelings. It makes us intimate with the specificity of historical atrocity, at the same times as it disarms us of the tools with which we would understand it. It is also sublimely ambitious, taking as its subject matter, the realities of contemporary neo-liberalism; the penetration of capital into private intimacies as much as public spaces.

In  reference to Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech: “Every morning I wake up in a house built by slaves”, Kelly Clarkson refutes any disassociation of slavery from the present day.
In reference to Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech: “Every morning I wake up in a house built by slaves”, Kelly Clarkson refutes any disassociation of slavery from the present day.

 

References 

Agamben, Giorgio. (2009) ‘What is the Contemporary?’, in (ed.) What is an Apparatus?. Stanford: Stanford Univeristy Press, pp. 41-56.

Colson, Whitehead (2017) The Underground Railroad, London: Fleet .

Clarkson, Kelly (@kelly-clarkson). “Pretty sure the slaves that built it didn’t like it either.” 26 July 2016. 11:00pm. Tweet.

Mikkelson, David. Obama Pushes Reparations for Slavery. 2015. Slave State, New York. Snopes. Image.1st October 2017.

Warren, Ted. Black Lives Matter Protest. 2017. Black Lives Matter, Chicago. Chicago Tribune. Image. 1st October 2017.