What importance does “race” have as a meaningful category in the study of literature and the shaping of critical theory? If we attempt to answer this question by examining the history of Western literature and its criticism, our initial response would probably be “nothing” or, at the very least, “nothing explicitly.” Indeed, until the past decade or so, even the most subtle and sensitive literary critics would most likely have argued that, except for aberrant moments in the history of criticism, race has not been brought to bear upon the study of literature in any apparent way. Since T. S. Eliot, after all, the canonical texts of the Western literary tradition have been defined as a more or less closed set of works that somehow speak to, or respond to, “the human condition” and to each other in formal patterns of repetition and revision. And while most critics acknowledge that judgment is not absolute and indeed reflects historically conditioned presuppositions, certain canonical works (the argument runs) do seem to transcend value judgments of the moment, speaking irresistibly to the human condition. The question of the place of texts written by the Other (be that odd metaphorical negation of the European defined as African, Arabic, Chinese, Latin American, Yiddish, or female authors) in the proper study of “literature,” “Western literature,” or “comparative literature” has, until recently, remained an unasked question, suspended or silenced by a discourse in which the canonical and the noncanonical stand as the ultimate opposition. In much of the thinking about the proper study of literature in this century, race has been an invisible quantity, a persistent yet implicit presence.
This was not always the case, we know. By mid-nineteenth century, “national spirit” and “historical period” had become widely accepted categories within theories of the nature and function of literature which argued that the principal value in a great work of literary art resided in the extent to which these categories were reflected in that work of art Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois considered a culture’s formal social institution as the repository of its “guiding spirit,” while Giambattista Vico’s principi di una scienza nuova read literature against a complex pattern of historical cycles. Friedrich and August von Schlegel managed rather deftly to bring “both national spirit and historical period” to bear upon the interpretation of literature, as W. Jackson Bate has shown. But it was Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine who made the implicit explicit by postulating “race, moment, and milieu” as positivistic criteria through which any work could be read and which, by definition, any work reflected. Taine’s History of English Literature was the great foundation upon which subsequent nineteenth-century notions of “national literatures” would be constructed.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is professor of English, comparative literature, and African studies at Cornell University. He has edited several books and has written Figures in Blood and The Signifying Monkey.
Contemporary biologists are not agreed on the question of whether there are any human races, despite the widespread scientific consensus on the underlying genetics. For most purposes, however, we can reasonably treat this issue as terminological. What most people in most cultures ordinarily believe about the significance of “racial” difference is quite remote, I think, from what the biologists are agreed on. Every reputable biologist will agree that human genetic variability between the populations of Africa or Europe or Asia is not much greater than that within those populations; though how much greater depends, in part, on the measure of genetic variability the biologist chooses. If biologists want to make interracial difference seem relatively large, they can say that “the proportion of genic variation attributable to racial differences is … 9 – 11%.”1 If they want to make it seem small, they can say that, for two people who are both Caucasoid, the chances of difference in genetic constitution at one site on a given chromosome are currently estimated at about 14.3 percent, while for any two people taken at random from the human population, they are estimated at about 14.8 percent. (I will discuss why this is considered a measure of genetic difference in section 2.) The statistical facts about the distribution of variant characteristics in human populations and subpopulations are the same, whichever way the matter is expressed. Apart from the visible morphological characteristics of skin, hair, and bone, by which we are inclined to assign people to the broadest racial categories—black, white, yellow—there are few genetic characteristics to be found in the population of England that are not found in similar proportions in Zaire or in China; and few too (though more) which are found in Zaire but not in similar proportions in China or in England. All this, I repeat, is part of the consensus (see, “GR,” pp. 1-59). A more familiar part of the consensus is that the differences between peoples in language, moral affections, aesthetic attitudes, or political ideology—those differences which most deeply affect us in our dealings with each other—are not biologically determined to any significant degree.
In this essay, I want to discuss the way in which W. E. B. Du Bois—who called his life story the “autobiography of a race concept”—came gradually, though never completely, to assimilate the unbiological nature of races. I have made these few prefatory remarks partly because it is my experience that the biological evidence about race is not sufficiently known and appreciated but also because they are important in discussing Du Bois. Throughout his life, Du Bois was concerned not just with the meaning of race but with the truth about it. We are more inclined at present, however, not to express our understanding of the intellectual development of people and cultures as a movement toward the truth; I shall sketch some of the reasons for this at the end of the essay. I will begin, therefore, by saying what I think the rough truth is about race, because, against the stream, I am disposed to argue that this struggle toward the truth is exactly what we find in the life of Du Bois, who can claim, in my view, to have thought longer, more engagedly, and more publicly about race than any other social theorist of our century.
1. Masatoshi Nei and Arun K. Roychoudhury, “Genetic Relationship and Evolution of Human Races,” Evolutionary Biology 14 (1983): 11; all further references to this work, abbreviated “GR,” will be included in the text.
Anthony Appiah is associate professor of philosophy, African studies, and Afro-American studies at Yale. He is the author of Assertion and Conditionals (1985) and For Truth in Semantics (forthcoming). In addition, he is at work on African Reflections: Essays in the Philosophy of Culture.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 seems to have broken, for the first time, the immunity from sustained criticism previously enjoyed by Israel and its American supporters. For a variety of reasons, Israel’s status in European and American public life and discourse has always been special, just as the position of Jews in the West has always been special, sometimes for its tragedy and horrendous suffering, at other times for its uniquely impressive intellectual and aesthetic triumphs. On behalf of Israel, anomalous norms, exceptional arguments, eccentric claims were (and still are) made, all of them forcibly conveying the notion that Israel does not entirely belong to the world of normal politics. Nevertheless, Israel—and with it, Zionism—had gained this unusual status politically, not miraculously: it merged with a variety of currents in the West whose power and attractiveness for supporters of Israel effaced anything as concrete as, for example, an Israeli policy of rigid separation between Jew and non-Jew, or a military rule over hundreds of thousands of Arabs that was as repressive as any tyranny in Latin America or Eastern Europe. There are any number of credible accounts of this, from daily fare in the Israeli press to studies by Amnesty International, to reports by various U.N. bodies, Western journalists, church groups, and, not least, dissenting supporters of Israel. In other words, even though Israel was a Jewish state established by force on territory already inhabited by a native population largely of Muslim Arabs, in a part of the world overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, it appeared to most of Israel’s supporters in the West (from which Zionism increasingly drew its greatest help) that the Palestinian Arabs who paid a large part of the price for Israel’s establishment were neither relevant nor necessarily even real. What changed in 1982 was that the distance between Arab and Jew was for the first time perceived more or less universally as not so great and, indeed, that any consideration of Israel, and any perception of Israel at all, would have to include some consideration of the Palestinian Arabs, their travail, their claims, their humanity.
Changes of this sort seem to occur dramatically, although it is more accurate to comprehend them as complex, cumulative, often contradictory processes occurring over a long period of time. Above all else, however, no such process can be viewed neutrally, since for better or for worse there are many interests at work in it and, therefore, many interests also at work whenever it is interpreted or reported. Moreover, while it is worthwhile and even possible to reduce and curtail the gross pressure of those interests for the purpose of analysis or reflection, it is useless to deny that any such analysis is inevitably grounded in, or inevitably affiliated to, a particular historical moment and a specific political situation.
Edward Said, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, is the author of, among other works, The Question of Palestine (1979), The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), and After the Last Sky (forthcoming). He will give the 1985 T. S. Eliot Lectures, on Culture and Imperialism, at the University of Kent later this year. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community” (September 1982) and “On Professionalism: Response to Stanley Fish” (December 1983).
Despite all its merits, the vast majority of critical attention devoted to colonialist literature restricts itself by severely bracketing the political context of culture and history. This typical facet of humanistic closure requires the critic systematically to avoid an analysis of the domination, manipulation, exploitation, and disfranchisement that are inevitably involved in the construction of any cultural artifact or relationship. I can best illustrate such closures in the field of colonialist discourse with two brief examples. In her book The Colonial Encounter, which contrasts the colonial representations of three European and three non-European writers, M. M. Mahood skirts the political issue quite explicitly by arguing that she chose those authors precisely because they are “innocent of emotional exploitation of the colonial scene” and are “distanced” from the politics of domination.`1
We find a more interesting example of this closure in Homi Bhabha’s criticism. While otherwise provocative and illuminating, his work rests on two assumptions—the unity of the “colonial subject” and the “ambivalence” of colonial discourse—that are inadequately problematized and, I feel, finally unwarranted and unacceptable. In rejecting Edward Said’s “suggestion that colonial power and discourse is possessed entirely by the colonizer,” Bhabha asserts, without providing any explanation, the unity of the “colonial subject (both colonizer and colonized).”2 I do not wish to rule out, a priori, the possibility that at some rarefied theoretical level the varied material and discursive antagonisms between conquerors and natives can be reduced to the workings of a single “subject”; but such a unity, let alone its value, must be demonstrated, not assumed. Though he cites Frantz Fanon, Bhabha completely ignored Fanon’s definition of the conqueror/native relation as a “Manichean” struggle—a definition that is not a fanciful metaphoric caricature but an accurate representation of a profound conflict.3
1. M. M. Mahood, The Colonial Encounter: A Reading of Six Novels (Totowa, N.J., 1977), pp. 170, 171; and see p. 3. As many other studies demonstrate, the emotional innocence and the distance of the six writers whom Mahood has chosen—Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Chinua Achebe, R. K. Narayan, and V. S. Naipaul—are, at best, highly debatable.
2. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question—The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,” Screen 24 (Nov.-Dec. 1983): 25, 19.
3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York, 1968), p. 41.
Abdul R. JanMohamed, assistant professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. He is a founding member and associate editor of Cultural Critique and is currently working on a study of Richard Wright.
Aghribat al-Arab, “crows or ravens of the Arabs,” was the name given to a group of early Arabic poets who were of African or partly African parentage. Of very early origin, the term was commonly used by classical Arabic writers on poetics and literary history. Its use is well attested in the ninth century and was probably current in the eighth century, if not earlier. The term was used with some variation. Originally, it apparently designated a small group of poets in pre-Islamic Arabia whose fathers were free and sometimes noble Arabs and whose mothers were African, probably Ethiopian, slaves. As the sons of slave women, they were, by Arab customary law, themselves slaves unless and until their fathers chose to recognize and liberate them. As the sons of African women, their complexions were darker than was normal among the Arabs of the peninsula.
Both themes—servitude and blackness—occur in some of the verses ascribed to these poets and, in a sense, define their identity as a group. Professor ‘Abduh Badawī of Khartoum begins his book on the black Arab poets—the first serious and extensive study devoted to the topic—with this definition:
This name [the crows of the Arabs] was applied to those [Arabic] poets to whom blackness was transmitted by their slave mothers, and whom at the same time was transmitted by their slave mothers, and whom at the same time their Arab fathers did not recognize, or recognized only under constraint from them.1
See also: Jens Hanssen, Kafka and Arabs
Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and has been a long-term Member of the Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent books are The Muslim Discovery of Europe and the Jews of Islam.
The image of the Moor in Spanish literature reveals a paradox at the heart of Christian and Castilian hegemony in the period between the conquest of Nasrid Granada in 1492 and the expulsion of the Moriscos by Philip III in 1609. Depictions fall between two extremes. On the “vilifying” side, Moors are hateful dogs, miserly, treacherous, lazy and overreaching. On the “idealizing” side, the men are noble, loyal, heroic, courtly—they even mirror the virtues that Christian knights aspire to—while the women are endowed with singular beauty and discretion.
Anti-Muslim diatribes are fairly common and predictable: they are flat and repetitive in their assertion of Old Christian superiority over every aspect of the lives of Muslims or crypto-Muslims. Any sign of cultural otherness is ridiculed; the conquering caste, insecure about its own lofty (and, more often than not, chimerical) standards of limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”), laughs away whatever trace of old Hispano-Arab splendor might remain in the Morisco. Or, conversely, the uneasy master recasts wretched Moriscos as ominous brethren of the Ottoman Turk.
The truly vexed problem, however, consists in determining the meaning of idealized Moors in historiography, ballads, drama, and the novel. Roughly speaking, modern criticism divides into two camps in attempting to explain this curious phenomenon of literary infatuation with a cultural and religious minority subjected to growing popular hostility, Inquisitional hounding, and economic exploitation. I will call one camp “aestheticist” and the other “social.”
Israel Burshatin, assistant professor of Spanish at Haverford College, is currently preparing a critical edition of Pedro del Corral’s Crónica sarracina.
If the discourse of manners and customs aspires to a stable fixing of subjects and systems of differences, however, its project is not and never can be complete. This is true if only for the seemingly trivial reason that manners-and-customs descriptions seldom occur on their own as discrete texts. They usually appear embedded in or appended to a superordinate genre, whether a narrative, as in travel books and much ethnography, or an assemblage, as in anthologies and magazines.6 In the case of travel writing, which is the main focus of this essay, manners-and-customs description is always in play with other sorts of representation that also bespeak difference and position subjects in their own ways. Sometimes these other positioning complement the ideological project of normalizing description, and sometime they do not.
In what follows, I propose to examine this interplay of discourses in some nineteenth-century travel writing chiefly about Africa. While Barrow’s work is not prominent on anybody’s mental bookshelves these days, readers will recognize such names as David Livingstone, John Speke, James Grant, Richard Burton, Mungo Park, or Paul Du Chaillu. During the co-called opening up of central and southern Africa to European capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century, such explorer-writers were the principal producers of Africa for European imaginations—producers, that is, of ideology in connection with the European expansionist project there. What I hope to underscore in these writings is not their tendency towards single, fixed subject positions or single, fixed systems of difference. Rather, I wish to emphasize the multiplicity of ways of codifying the Other, the variety of (seemingly) fixed positions and the variety of (seemingly) given sets of differences that they posit. European penetration and appropriation is semanticized in numerous ways that can be quite distinct, even mutually contradictory. In the course of examining discursive polyphony in these travel writings, I hope to stress the need to consider ideology not only in terms of reductive simplification but also in terms of the proliferation of meanings.
6. Ethnographies would seem to be a counterexample to this claim, but in fact one can fairly easily show that ethnographic writing is inextricably tied to personal narrative. Indeed this tie is a symptom of a serious contradiction between ethnographic methods and ethnographic discourse. See my “Fieldwork in Common Places,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (forthcoming, 1986).
Mary Louise Pratt is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Program in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She is author of Toward a Speech-Act Theory of Literary Discourse and is a member of the editorial boards of Poetics, Signs Tabloid, and Cultural Anthropology.
How can the question of authority, the power and presence of the English, be posed in the interstices of a double inscription? I have no wish to replace an idealist myth—the metaphoric English book—with a historicist one—the colonialist project of English civility. Such a reductive reading would deny what is obvious, that the representation of colonial authority depends less on a universal symbol of English identity than on its productivity as a sign of difference. Yet in my use of “English” there is a “transparency” of reference that registers a certain obvious presence: the Bible translated into Hindi, propagated by Dutch or native catechists, is still the English book; a Polish émigré, deeply influenced by Gustave Flaubert, writing about Africa, produces an English classic. What is there about such a process of visibility and recognition that never fails to be an authoritative acknowledgement without ceasing to be a “spacing between desire and fulfillment, between perpetuation and its recollection … [a] medium [which] has nothing to do with a center” (D, p. 212)?
This question demands a departure from Derrida’s objectives in “The Double Session”; a turning away from the vicissitudes of interpretation in the mimetic act of reading to the question of the effects of power, the inscription of strategies of individuation and domination in those “dividing practices” which construct the colonial space—a departure from Derrida which is also a return to those moments in his essay when he acknowledges the problematic of “presence” as a certain quality of discursive transparency which he describes as “the production of mere reality-effects” or “the effect of content” or as the problematic relation between the “medium of writing and the determination of each textual unit.” In the rich ruses and rebukes with which he shows up the “false appearance of the present,” Derrida fails to decipher the specific and determinate system of address (not referent) that is signified by the “effect of content” (see D, pp. 173-85). It is precisely such a strategy of address—the immediate presence of the English—that engages the questions of authority that I want to raise. When the ocular metaphors of presence refer to the process by which content is fixed as an “effect of the present,” we encounter not plenitude but the structured gaze of power whose objective is authority, whose “subjects” are historical.
Homi K. Bhabha is lecturer in English literature and literary theory at the University of Sussex. He is working at present on Power and Spectacle: Colonial Discourse and the English Novel and is commissioning and editing a collection of essays entitled Nation and Narration: Post-structuralism and the Culture of National Identity. He is also writing the introduction to the new English edition of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.
Paradoxically, abolitionism contained the seeds of empire. If we accept the general outline of Eric Williams’ thesis in Capitalism and Slavery that abolition was not purely altruistic but was as economically conditioned as Britain’s later empire building in Africa, the contradiction between the ideologies of antislavery and imperialism seems more apparent than real. Although the idealism that motivated the great abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson is unquestionable, Williams argues that Britain could afford to legislate against the slave trade only after that trade had helped to provide the surplus capital necessary for industrial “take-off.” Britain had lost much of its slave-owning territory as a result of the American Revolution; as the leading industrial power in the world, Britain found in abolition a way to work against the interests of its rivals who were still heavily involved in colonial slavery and a plantation economy.3
The British abolitionist program entailed deeper and deeper involvement in Africa—the creation of Sierra Leone as a haven for freed slaves was just a start—but British abolitionists before the 1840s were neither jingoists nor deliberate expansionists. Humanitarianism applied to Africa, however, did point insistently toward imperialism.4 By mid-century, the success of the antislavery movement, the impact of the great Victorian explorers, and the merger of racist and evolutionary doctrines in the social sciences had combined to give the British public a widely shared view of Africa that demanded imperialization on moral, religious, and scientific grounds. It is this view that I have called the myth of the Dark Continent; by mythology I mean a form of modern, secularized, “depoliticized speech” (to adopt Roland Barthes’ phrase)—discourse which treats its subject as universally accepted. Scientifically established, and therefore no longer open to criticism by a political or theoretical opposition. In The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960, Nancy Stepan writes:
A fundamental question about the history of racism in the first half of the nineteenth century is why it was that, just as the battle against slavery was being won by abolitionists, the war against racism was being lost. The Negro was legally freed by the Emancipation Act of 1833, but in the British mind he was still mentally, morally and physically a slave.5
It is this “fundamental question” which a genealogy of the myth of the Dark Continent can help to answer.
Patrick Brantlinger, professor of English at Indiana University, is the editor of Victorian Studies. He has written The Spirit of Reform: British Literature and Politics, 1832-1867 (1977) and Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture and Social Decay (1983).
This essay is an attempt to plumb the conventions (and thus the ideologies) which exist at a specific historical moment in both the aesthetic and scientific spheres. I will assume the existence of a web of conventions within the world of the aesthetic—conventions which have elsewhere been admirably illustrated—but will depart from the norm by examining the synchronic existence of another series of conventions, those of medicine. I do not mean in any way to accord special status to medical conventions. Indeed, the world is full of overlapping and intertwined systems of conventions, of which the medical and the aesthetic are but two. Medicine offers an especially interesting source of conventions since we do tend to give medical conventions special “scientific” status as opposed to the “subjective” status of the aesthetic conventions. But medical icons are no more “real” than “aesthetic” ones. Like aesthetic icons, medical icons may iconographic in that they represent these realities in a manner determined by the historical position of the observers, their relationship to their own time, and to the history of the conventions which they employ. Medicine uses its categories to structure an image of the diversity of mankind; it is as much at the mercy of the needs of any age to comprehend this infinite diversity as any other system which organizes our perception of the world. The power of medicine, at least in the nineteenth century, lies in the rise of the status of science. He conventions of medicine infiltrate other seemingly closed iconographic systems precisely because of this status. In examining the conventions of medicine employed in other areas, we must not forget this power.
One excellent example of the conventions of human diversity captured in the iconography of the nineteenth century is the linkage of two seemingly unrelated female images—the icon of the Hottentot female and the icon of the prostitute. In the course of the nineteenth century, the female Hottentot comes to represent the black female in nuce, and the prostitute to represent the sexualized woman. Both of these categories represent the creation of classes which correspondingly represent very specific qualities. While the number of terms describing the various categories of the prostitute expanded substantially during the nineteenth century, all were used to label the sexualized woman. Likewise, while many groups of African blacks were known to Europeans in the nineteenth century, the Hottentot remained representative of the essence of the black, especially the black female. Both concepts fulfilled an iconographic function in the perception and the representation of the world. How these two concepts were associated provides a case study for the investigation of patterns of conventions, without any limitation on the “value” of one pattern over another.
Sander L. Gilman is professor of Humane Studies in the Department of German Literature and Near Eastern Studies and professor of Psychiatry (History) in the Cornell Medical College, Cornell University. He is the author or editor of numerous studies of European cultural history with a focus on the history of stereotypes. In addition, he has coedited Degeneration (1985) with J. E. Chamberlin. His study Jewish Self-Hatred is forthcoming.
It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English. The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored. These two obvious “facts” continue to be disregarded in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature. This itself attests to the continuing success of the imperialist project, displaced and dispersed into more modern forms.
If these “facts” were remembered, not only in the study of British literature but in the study of the literature of the European colonizing cultures of the great age of imperialism, we would produce a narrative, in literary history, of the “worlding” of what is now called “the Third World.” To consider the Third World as distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact literary heritages waiting to be recovered, interpreted, and curricularized in English translation fosters the emergence of “the Third World” as a signifier that allows us to forget that “worlding,” even as it expands the empire of the literary discipline.1
In this essay, I will attempt to examine the operation of the “worlding” of what is today “the Third World” by what has become a cult text of feminism: Jane Eyre.2 I plot the novel’s reach and grasp, and locate its structural motors. I read Wide Sargasso Sea as Jane Eyre’s reinscription and Frankenstein as an analysis—even a deconstruction—of a “worlding” such as Jane Eyre’s.3
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is Longstreet Professor of English at Emory University. She is the translator of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie and is presently finishing a book entitled Master Discourse, Native Informant. Her previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “ ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi” (Winter 1981) and “The Politics of Interpretations” (September 1982).
My purpose in this essay is to describe and define the ways in which Afro-American women intellectuals, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, theorized about the possibilities and limits of patriarchal power through its manipulation of racialized and gendered social categories and practices. The essay is especially directed toward two academic constituencies: the practitioners of Afro-American cultural analysis and of feminist historiography and theory. The dialogue with each has its own peculiar form, characterized by its own specific history; yet both groups are addressed in an assertion of difference, of alterity, and in a voice characterized by an anger dangerously self-restrained. For it is not in the nature of Caliban to curse; rather, like Caliban, the black woman has learned from her behaviour of her master and mistress that if accommodation results in a patronizing loosening of her bonds, liberation will be more painful.
Hazel V. Carby is assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University. She is the coauthor of the Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain and the author of Uplifting as They Write: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (forthcoming, 1986).
In preparing to write this paper, I found myself repeatedly stopped by conflicting conceptions of the structure of address into which I was inserting myself. It was not clear to me what I, as a white deconstructor, was doing talking about Zora Neale Hurston, a black novelist and anthropologist, or to whom I was talking. Was I trying to convince white establishment scholars who long for a return to Renaissance ideals that the study of the Harlem Renaissance is not a trivialization of their humanistic pursuits? Was I trying to contribute to the attempt to adapt the textual strategies of literary theory to the analysis of Afro-American literature? Was I trying to rethink my own previous work and the re-referentialize the notion of difference so as to move the conceptual operations of deconstruction out of the realm of abstract linguistic universality? Was I talking to white critics, black critics, or myself?
Well, all of the above. What finally struck me was the fact that what I was analyzing in Hurston’s writings was precisely, again and again, her strategies and structures of problematic address. It was as though I were asking her for answers to questions I did not even know I was unable to formulate. I had a lot to learn, then, from Hurston’s way of dealing with multiple agendas and heterogeneous implied readers. I will focus here on three texts that play interesting variations on questions of identity and address: two short essays, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” and a book-length collection of folktales, songs, and hoodoo practices entitles Mules and Men.
Barbara Johnson is professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author of Défigurations du langage poétique and The Critical Difference, translator of Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination, and editor of The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Rigorous Unreliability,” appeared in the December 1984 issue.
APARTHEID—may that remain the name from now on, the unique appellation for the ultimate racism in the world, the last of many.
May it thus remain, but may a day come when it will only be for the memory of man.
A memory in advance: that, perhaps, is the time given for this exhibition. At once urgent and untimely, it exposes itself and takes a chance with time, it wagers and affirms beyond the wager. Without counting on any present moment, it offers only a foresight in painting, very close to silence, and the rearview vision of a future for which apartheid will be the name of something finally abolished. Confined and abandoned then to this silence of memory, the name will resonate all by itself. Reduced to the state of a term in disuse. The thing it names today will no longer be.
But hasn’t apartheid always been the archival record of the unnameable?
The exhibition, therefore, is not a presentation. Nothing is delivered here in the present, nothing that would be presentable—only, in tomorrow’s rearview mirror, the late, ultimate racism, the last of many.
Jacques Derrida, professor of philosophy at the Ecole des hauts etudes en sciences socials in Paris, is the author of, among other works, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy, and Dissemination. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry, “The Linguistic Circle of Geneva,” appeared in the Summer 1982 issue. Peggy Kamuf teaches French at Miami University, Ohio. She is the author of Fiction of Feminine Desire.