“Writers don’t have tasks,” said Saul Bellow in a Q-and-A. “They have inspiration.”
Yes, at the typewriter, by the grace of discipline and the Muse, but here, on Central Park South, in the Essex House’s bright Casino on the Park, inspiration was not running high.
Not that attendance at the forty-eight PEN conference was a task. It was rather what Robertson Davies called “collegiality.” “A week of it once every five years,” he said, “should be enough.” He, Davies, had checked in early, Saturday afternoon, and attended every session. In black overcoat and black fur cap, he had a theatrical, Man-Who-Came-to-Dinner look. (He’d been an actor and worked in Minneapolis with the Guthrie Theater.) In the lobby he made a great impression.
Why not? After all, weren’t writers here to be seen as well as to see each other, to make as well as take impressions? A month before, I’d spent a couple of hours at the Modern Language Association convention. There were thousands and thousands of scholars and critics there. Some of the most noted make a career of squeezing authors out of their texts. An author, wrote one tutelary divinity, “constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, [and] literature….”1 Not content with auctoricide, deconstructionist critics went after texts. “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”2 Since there’s nothing that doesn’t belong to the text, texts are interchangeable. And it’s not that superfluous, mythical being, the author, who decides they are, but his readers, at least those readers capable of erecting on his miserable pedestal—the poem, the story, the novel—a memorable explication.
Ah well, was my thought, for some people a corpse will serve as well as a person. Indeed, for intellectual undertakers, hit-men, and cannibals, as well as for those who suffer the tyranny of authority, corpses are preferable to their living simulacra.
Few authors at the PEN conference were troubled by these critical corpse-makers. They were here to see the authors behind the books they’d read, to swap stories and opinions, and to make clear to each other what splendid thinkers and noble humans they were outside of the poems and stories which had brought them here in the middle of winter and New York. In this city, more than any other in the history of the word, the word had been turned into gold. If one were going to abandon the typewriter for the podium, what better place to do it?
In 1985, Richard Stern was given the Medal of Merit, awarded every six years to a novelist by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is the author of, among other works, the novels A Father’s Words (1986), Other Men’s Daughters (1973), and Stitch (1965). His third “orderly miscellany,” The Position of the Body, will be published in September 1986. This essay is part of a longer work. Stern is professor of English at the University of Chicago.
It was a novel, among other things, which originated the atomic bomb. H. G. Wells dedicated The World Set Free, published in 1913, to Frederick Soddy, a pioneer in the exploration of radioactivity. Using Soddy’s research as a base, Wells predicted the advent of artificial radioactivity in 1933, the year in which it actually took place; and he foresaw its use for what he named the “atomic bomb.” In Wells’ novel these bombs are used in a world war that erupts in mid-century and is so catastrophic that a world government is formed, initiating a new age powered by the peaceful use of the atom. The physicist Leo Szilard, a long-time admirer of Wells, read this novel in 1932, the year before he first intuited the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. The novel seems to have become part of his own mental chain reaction. One that took place at an almost unconscious level during the spring that Szilard spent at the Strand Palace Hotel in London, by his own admission doing nothing. He would only monopolize the bath from around nine to twelve in the morning, since “there is no place as good to think as a bathtub.”1 The theories that resulted from this prolonged immersion were introduced by references to Wells; and Szilard, having realized the atomic bomb, spent the rest of his life trying to realize the world government which, in the Wells novel, was its consequence.
Literature, which was part of the genesis of nuclear weaponry, continues to be an inextricable aspect of its nature. For Derrida, in fact, we are facing
a phenomenon whose essential feature is that of being fabulously textual, through and through. Nuclear weaponry depends, more than any weaponry in the past, it seems, upon structures of information and communication, structures of language, including non-vocalizable language, structures of codes and graphic decoding. But the phenomenon if fabulously textual also to the extent that, at the moment, a nuclear war has not taken place: one can only talk and write about it.2
The linguistic nature of the arms race, of peace talks and negotiations, has been thoroughly analyzed. Likewise there is a growing number of books on the nature of nuclear war. But there is also a growing body of novels, poems, and plays making up a literature of nuclear holocaust. As the example of Wells’ novel shows, this is not altogether unprecedented; nuclear literature predates Hiroshima. But the subject of nuclear war has, up till now, mainly served the purposes of science fiction; only rarely—as in the cases of A Canticle for Leibowitz and On the Beach—have science fiction authors risen above the lowest common denominator of that genre. In the 1980s, every year sees the publication of works which demand serious attention both as literature and as fictive strategies for comprehending a subject that is commonly called “unthinkable.” Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book, Tim O’Brien’s Nuclear Age—these works explicitly preoccupied with nuclear holocaust may be supplemented by other works of the eighties with a persistent apocalyptic undertone, works such as Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s War of the End of the World. And these are only the literary manifestations of a widespread movement in all the arts aimed at expressing the dominant condition of our time.3
1. Leo Szilard, Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts: Selected Recollections and Correspondence, ed. Spencer R. Weart and Gertrud Weiss Szilard (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), p. 19.
2. Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives),” Diacritics 14 (Summer 1984), p. 23.
3. Examples can be found in painting (Robert Rosenquist, Five New Clear Women), mixed media (Robert Morris, Restless Sleepers/Atomic Shroud), opera (Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach), oratorio (Michael Berkeley and Ian MacEwan, Or Shall We Die?), dance (Danny Grossman, Endangered Species), film (Testament), television (The Day After), and popular music (U-2, Unforgettable Fire).
See also: Peter Schwenger, The Masculine Mode
Peter Schwenger is associate professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The author of Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Literature, he is working on a book-length study of nuclear holocaust literature.
Any even cursory examination of what it is to exchange words about X or to exchange views about Y requires hard thought about what it is to exchange, period. How do we invest in what we give out, and how do we get it back? In kind, or differently moneyed? And, more crucial to the topic into which I am about to make a foolhardy plunge, is there such a thing as free exchange? And if so, what is it worth?
How do we perceive worth anyway? What relation does such perception of the invisible system of the initially visible coinage of exchange bear to present visual perception, and then to seeing? And what does perception matter anyway, in relation to writing, reading, and exchanging words? Which is primary?
All these questions—in their institutional setting, or then in their freedom from context—can themselves be related to and gathered up into the notion of translation, or the carrying over from one side to, and into, another. All we can learn about speaking and the ways it is taught, reading and the ways we learn it, seeing and the ways it teaches us is translated and transported from sight and its constraints and choices to language and its own. How we read both is itself a subject of choice and constraint, of freedom and explicit value-placing, of variety and fidelity to certain ends.
Mary Ann Caws is professor of English, French, and comparative literature in the Graduate School, City University of New York. She is past president of the Modern Language Association and the author of, among other works, The Eye in the Text: Essays on Perception, Mannerist to Modern (1981), Architextures in Surrealism and After (1981), Reading Frames in Modern Fiction (1985), and Interferences (in progress).
The association of poetry and femininity … excluded women poets. For the female figures onto whom the men projected their artistic selves—Tennyson’s Mariana and Lady of Shalott, Browning’s Pippa and Balaustion, Arnold’s Iseult of Brittany—represent an intensification of only a part of the poet, not his full consciousness: a part, furthermore, which is defined as separate from and ignorant of the public world and the great range of human experience in society. Such figures could not write their own poems; the male poet, who stands outside the private world of art, has to do that for them. The Lady of Shalott could not imagine someone complex and experienced enough to imagine the world beyond range of her windows, or to imagine her. A woman poet who identified herself with such a stock figure of intense and isolated art would hardly be able to write at all. Or, like the Lady of Shalott preparing her death-ship, she could write only her own name, only herself. For a man, writing poetry meant an apparent withdrawal from the public sphere (although honor and fame might in time return him to it), but for a woman it meant just the opposite: a move toward public engagement and self-assertion in the masculine world. She could not just reverse the roles in her poetry and create a comparable male self-projection, since the male in this set of opposites is defined as experienced, complexly self-conscious, and part of the public world and therefore could not serve as a figure for the poet. (When Elizabeth Bishop makes the reversal in “The Gentleman of Shalott” the result is a very un-Victorian sort of comedy.) We can formulate the problem like this: a man’s poem which contains a female self-projection shows to distinctly different figures, poet and projection; in a woman’s poem on the same model, the two would blur into one.
Furthermore, it’s not really poets that are women, for the Victorians: poems are women. The cliché that style is the man arises more readily and with much greater literalness and force when the stylist is a woman, and it is often charged with erotic intensity. The young lovers in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe describe their perfect love by singing that he is the sculptor and she the clay, he the singer and she the song. Ladislaw in Middlemarch tells Dorothea that she needn’t write poems because she is a poem. Edgar Allan Poe remarks in a review of Barrett Browning’s works that “a woman and her book are identical.” In her love letters Barrett Browning herself worried about the problem of her identity—was she her poems, were they she, which was Browning in love with? “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he had written disconcertingly in his first letter, “… and I love you too.” […] As we can see in Tennyson’s The Princess, the lyric in particular seemed female to Victorians—private, nonlogical, purely emotional—and it is surely no accident that large numbers of English and American women began to publish poetry in the nineteenth century, when the lyric established its dominance. Victorian poems like Victorian women were expected to be morally and spiritually uplifting, to stay mostly in the private sphere, and to provide emotional stimulus and release for overtasked men of affairs.9 All this may have encouraged women to write poetry, but at the same time it made writing peculiarly difficult because it reinforced the aspects of conventional Victorian femininity—narcissism, passivity, submission, silence—most inimical to creative activity. Since women already are the objects they try to create, why should they write?
9. John Woolford points this out in “EBB: Woman and Poet,” Browning Society Notes 9 (Dec. 1979): 4.
Dorothy Mermin is professor and chairman in the department of English at Cornell University. She is the author of The Audience in the Poem and is currently working on a critical study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
During the latter half of the thirteenth century there arose around Tuscany a strange and unprecedented poetry, erudite, abstract, and arrogantly intellectual. It sang beyond courtly conventions about the wonders of the rational universe whose complex secrets the new speculative sciences were eagerly systematizing. Appropriating the language of natural philosophy, Aristotelian psychology, and even theology, love poetry developed a new theoretical understanding of its enterprise which allowed it to redefine love as spiritualized search for knowledge. This intellectualization of erotic desire culminates in the Florentine sitlnovisti, a handful of learned poets who turned love poetry into an eclectic philosophical affair. Guido Cavalcanti’s famous canzone “Donna me prega” was universally considered to be not only the technically most perfect canzone ever written but also a rigorous philosophical treatise. As much as in our own day, exegeses of the poem were forced into the arcana of Scholastic Aristotelianism in order to make sense of its abstract, psychologistic definition of love’s essence. While Cavalcanti lyricized an Averroistic logic of the unified intellect, his younger friend Dante was preparing to put all of medieval philosophy, theology, and science into terza rima. It was in this terza rima that medieval Paris found perhaps its most felicitous expression, for the Divine Comedy represents, among other things, a creative transfiguration of the critical discourses Paris was diffusing throughout Europe.
What recalls that situation today is the way Paris again marks the center of critical thought, while in Italiy a new generation of poets has emerged that translates the lessons of contemporary philosophy into poetry. In this essay I plan to discuss some of the most radical or, by analogy, “stilnovistic” of these lyricists. For purposes of convenience I will refer to them as the “favorite malice” poets. The phrase comes from the title of an anthology of select contemporary Italian poetry, recently published in a bilingual English edition: The Favorite Malice: Ontology and Reference in Contemporary Italian Poetry.2 The title alludes to a passage of Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is my favorite malice and art that my silence has learned not to betray itself through silence.” These words from Thus Spoke Zarathrustra (“Upon the Mount of Olives”) serves as the anthology’s epigraphs and signal the peculiar poetics that brings the poets together in one volume. They are not brought together as a “school” but as a loose convergence of individual practices. The most illustrious name among the group is that of Andrea Zanzotto (born 1921), who belongs to an older generation but whom the other poets call their “youngest traveling companion.” The “older” companions include Nanni Cagnone, Luigi Ballerini, Raffaele Perrotta, and Angelo Lumelli.
Robert P. Harrison is assistant professor of Italian at Stanford University. He has published a book of poems, The Murano Workshop (1979), and articles on Dante, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and liberal philology. The Body of Beatrice is the title of his work in progress.
This essay enacts a particular instance of the challenge post-structuralism poses to the study of history. In simpler, language, it concerns the difference that point of view makes when people are giving account of events, whether at first or second hand. The problem is that if all accounts of events are determined through and through by the observer’s frame of reference, then one will never know, in any given case, what really happened.
I encountered this problem in concrete terms while preparing to teach a course in colonial American literature. I’d set out to learn what I could about the Puritans’ relations with American Indians. All I wanted was a general idea of what had happened between the English settlers and the natives in seventeenth-century New England; post-structuralism and its dilemmas were the furthest things from my mind. I began, more or less automatically, with Perry Miller, who hardly mentions the Indians at all, then proceeded to the work of historians who had dealt exclusively with the European-Indian encounter. At first, it was a question of deciding which of these authors to believe, for it quickly became apparent that there was no unanimity on the subject. As I read one, however, I discovered that the problem was more complicated than deciding whose version of events was correct. Some of the conflicting accounts were not simply contradictory, they were completely incommensurable, in that their assumptions about what counted as a valid approach to the subject, and what the subject itself was, diverged in fundamental ways. Faced with an array of mutually irreconcilable points of view, points of view which determined what was being discussed as well as the terms of the discussion, I decided to turn to primary sources for clarification, only to discover that the primary sources reproduced the problem all over again. I found myself, in other words, in an epistemological quandary, not only unable to decide among conflicting versions of events but also unable to believe that any such decision could, in principle, be made. It was a moral quandary as well. Knowledge of what really happened when the Europeans and the Indians first met seemed particularly important, since the result of that encounter was virtual genocide. This was the kind of past “mistake” which, presumably, we studied history in order to avoid repeating. If studying history couldn’t put us in touch with actual events and their causes, then what was to prevent such atrocities from happening again?
Jane Tompkins is professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1985) and editor of Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (1980). Her current work concerns the construction of male identity in American popular culture.
Literary criticism at the present moment seems ready to open its doors once again to the outside world, even if that world is only a series of other academic disciplines, each cloistered in its own way. For the reader of black African literature in French, the opening comes none too soon. The program for reading Camara Laye, Ahmadou Kourouma, and Yambo Ouologuem should never have been the program prescribed for Rousseau, Wordsworth, or Blanchot. If one is willing to read a literature that might not be a rewriting of Hegel (or even of Kant), and if the negative knowledge of recent theoretical criticism is questioned in the universality of its applications, then what is really open to a Western reader of non-Western literature? Claiming a break with his/her own culture and critical upbringing, can he/she the Other, the African, as if from an authentically African point of view, interpreting Africa in African terms, perceiving rather than projecting?
The goal of breaking through the nets of Western criticism, of reading African literature in a nonethnocentric, nonprojective fashion, will remain both indisputably desirable and ultimately unattainable. No matter how many languages I learn or ethnologies I study, I cannot make myself into an African. The Western scholar’s claim to mastery of things African, albeit motivated by xenophilia rather than xenophobia, risks subjugation of the object to a new set of Western models. J. P. Makouta-M’Boukou rightly scolds Western critics who refuse to take into account the distance between themselves and African culture, and who read African literature only in function of their own cultural context.1 Wole Soyinka, more forbiddingly, complains: “We black Africans have been blandly invited to submit ourselves to a second epoch of colonisation—this time by a universal-humanoid abstraction defined and conducted by individuals whose theories and prescriptions are derived from the apprehension of their world and their history, their social neuroses and their value systems.”2
1. See J. P. Makouta-M’Boukou, Introduction à l’étude du roman négro-africain de langue française (Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 1980), p. 9.
2. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge, 1976), p. x.
See also: David Stern, Midrash and Indeterminacy
Christopher L. Miller, Charles B. G. Murphy Assistant Professor of French and of African and Afro-American Studies at Yale University, is author of Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (1985). He is working at present on a study of francophone black African literature, for which he will have a Fulbright Africa Research grant.
As it stands, Derrida’s protest is deficient in any sense of how the discourses of South African racism have been at once historically constituted and politically constitutive. For to begin to investigate how the representation of racial difference has functioned in South Africa’s political and economic life, it is necessary to recognize and track the shifting character of these discourses. Derrida, however, blurs historical differences by conferring on the single term apartheid a spurious autonomy and agency: “The word concentrates separation…. By isolating being apart in some sort of essence or hypostasis, the word corrupts it into a quasi-ontological segregation” (p. 292). Is it indeed the word, apartheid, or is it Derrida himself, operating here in “another regime of abstraction” (p. 292), removing the word from its place in the discourse of South African racism, raising it to another power, and setting separation itself apart? Derrida is repelled by the word, yet seduced by its divisiveness, the division in the inner structure of the term itself which he elevates to a state of being.
The essay’s opening analysis of the word apartheid is, then, symptomatic of a severance of word from history. When Derrida asks, “Hasn’t apartheid always been the archival record of the unnameable?” (p. 291), the answer is a straightforward no. Despite its notoriety and currency overseas, the term apartheid has not always been the “watchword” of the Nationalist regime. (p. 291). It has its own history, and that history is closely entwined with a developing ideology of race which has not only been created to deliberately rationalize and temper South Africa’s image at home and abroad, but can also be seen to be intimately allied to different stages of the country’s political and economic development. Because he views apartheid as a “unique appellation” (p. 291), Derrida has little to say about the politically persuasive function that successive racist lexicons have served in South Africa. To face the challenge of investigating the strategic role of representation, one would have to part ways with him by releasing that pariah of a word, apartheid, from its quarantine from historical process, examining it instead in the context of developing discourses of racial difference.
Anne McClintock is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation on race and gender in British imperial culture and is the author of a monograph on Simon de Beauvoir. Rob Nixon, in the same program at Columbia, is working on the topic of exile and Third World-metropolitan relations in the writing of V. S. and Shiva Naipaul.
Reading you, I very quickly realized that you had no serious objections to make to me, as I will try to demonstrate in a moment. So I began to have the following suspicion: what if you had only pretended to find something to reproach me with in order to prolong the experience over several issues of this distinguished journal? That way, the three of us could fill the space of another twenty or so pages. My suspicion arose since you obviously agree with me on this one point, at least: apartheid, the more it’s talked about, the better.
But who will do the talking? And how? These are the questions.
Because talking about it is not enough. On such a grave subject, one must be serious and not say just anything. Well, you, alas, are not always as serious as the tone of your paper might lead one to think. In your impatient desire to dispense a history lesson, you sometimes say just anything. The effect you produce is quite determined, but in order to arrive at it, you are willing to put forward any kind of countertruth, especially when, in your haste to object, you project into my text whatever will make your job easier. This is a very familiar scenario, as I will try to demonstrate as briefly as possible.
Jacques Derrida, Directeur d’Etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales 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, “Racism’s Last Word,” appeared in the Autumn 1985 issue. Peggy Kamuf teaches French at Miami University, Ohio. She is the author o Fictions of Feminine Desire.
“Racism” is the name given to a type of behavior which consists in the display of contempt or aggressiveness toward other people on account of physical differences (other than those of sex) between them and oneself. It should be noted that this definition does not contain the word “race,” and this observation leads us to the first surprise in this area which contains many: whereas racism is a well-attested social phenomenon, “race” itself does not exist! Or, to put it more clearly: there are a great number of physical differences among human groups, but these differences cannot be superimposed; we obtain completely divergent subdivisions of the human species according to whether we base our description of the “races” on an analysis of their epidermis or their blood types, their genetic heritages or their bone structures. For contemporary biology, the concept of “race” is therefore useless. This fact has no influence, however, on racist behavior: to justify their contempt or aggressiveness, racists invoke not scientific analyses but the most superficial and striking of physical characteristics (which, unlike “races,” do exist)—namely, differences in skin color, pilosity, and body structure.
Thus, it is with good cause that the word “race” was placed in quotes in the title of this issue: “races” do not exist. I am less sure, however, that all the contributors managed to avoid postulating the existence, behind this word as behind most words, of a thing. In his introduction Gates remarks that “race, in these usages, pretends to be an objective term of classification, when in fact it is a dangerous trope,” and he goes on to describe as follows the goal of the special issue: “to deconstruct, if you will, the ideas of difference inscribed in the trope of race, to explicate discourse itself in order to reveal the hidden relations of power and knowledge inherent in popular and academic usages of ‘race’ ” (“Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” pp. 5, 6). Up to a point, I agree with him, even if I cannot help pointing out (cultural difference oblige) the insistent allusions to certain contemporary critical theories (“deconstruct” and “difference,” “power” and “knowledge”)—allusions which furnish proof that the author of these lines possesses a particular knowledge and thereby sets up a particular power relationship between himself and the reader. This, however, is not the problem. The problem arises on page 15, when the same author declares, “We must, I believe, analyze the ways in which writing relates to race, how attitudes toward racial differences generate and structure literary texts by us and about us.” What bothers me about this sentence is not so much that “generate” and “structure” allude to yet another critical theory as that its author seems to be reinstating what he himself referred to as the “dangerous trope” of “race”: if “racial differences” do not exist, how can they possibly influence literary texts?
Tzvetan Todorov works at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. His most recent book in translation is The Conquest of America (1984). Criticism of Criticism is forthcoming. Loulou Mack is a free-lance writer and translator living in Paris.
One legacy of post-Enlightenment dualism in the universe of academic discourse is the presence of two approached to notions of duality championed by two differing camps. One camp might arbitrarily be called debunkers; the other might be labeled rationalists. The strategies of the camps are conditioned by traditional notions of inside and outside. Debunkers consider themselves outsiders, beyond a deceptive show filled with tricky mirrors. Rationalists, by contrast, spend a great deal of time among mirrors, listening to explanations from the overseers, attempting to absorb sideshow language, hoping to provide acceptable analytical accounts. If debunkers are intent on discovering generative and, presumably, hidden ideological inscriptions of a given discourse—its situation on what Amiri Baraka calls the “real side” of economic exchange and world exploitative power—rationalists are concerned to study discursive products, to decode or explain them according to forms and formulas that claim to avoid general views or judgments of ideology. Differentiating the camps also is what might be called a thermal gradient: the heat of the debunker’s passion is palpable. It is unnecessary to command him, in the manner of the invisible man’s tormentor, to “Get hot, boy! Get hot!” Rationalists, by contrast, do not radiate. They appear to have nothing personal at stake and remain coolly instructive and intelligently unflappable in their analyses.
This tale of an Enlightenment legacy, as I have told it, contrasts a debunking body and rationalist soul. As I have suggested in my opening sentence, however, what is at issue is not so much two actual and substantially distinctive camps as two metonyms for dual approaches to a common subject—namely, notions of duality. My claim is that the Enlightenment reflexivity of academic discourse, devoted to, say, “the Other” and conceived in dualistic terms of self-and-other, expresses itself as an opposition. Thos whom I have called debunkers gladly accept the Other’s sovereignty as a bodily and aboriginal donnée; rationalists work to discover the dynamics of “othering” engaged in by a self-indulgent Western soul. The difficulty of producing usefully analytical or political results for either camp is occasioned by their joint situation within a post-Enlightenment field (indeed, one might say, after the manner of deconstruction, a field full of Western metaphysical folk).
Houston A. Baker, Jr. is the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a poet whose recent volume Blues Journeys Home appeared in 1985. He is also the author of a number of studies of Afro-American literature and culture, including the forthcoming Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.
I knew I was in for trouble, that the going would be rough, when I removed the wrapper from the “Race,” Writing, and Difference issue of Critical Inquiry and observed the word “race” in quotation marks. Something deep was clearly brewing. And any doubts were quickly removed when I turned to the opening remarks of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Who,” he asked me, “has seen a black or a red person, a white yellow, or brown?” (“Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” p. 6). There was a question that spelled trouble, a glove in the face if I ever saw one. Here I was, crude, unregenerate, lacking the hypersensitivity that prevents someone like Gates from making such infra dig distinctions; here I was, daring to use words without quotation marks, actually believing that I referred to something identifiable when I spoke of black people, Americans, musicians, and whatnot, and being told that it was all just my own narcissistic and preemptive fantasy. Here I was, faced with the impossible choice of keeping permanently quiet or of perpetuating ruthless violence—of denying the individuality of all of God’s creation—not only by referring to knives, cats, my brother, or Indians, but simply by referring at all. But why, I wondered, was only the word “race” in quotation marks? Why not every single word in the entire issue of Critical Inquiry? For to refer, it seems, is to colonize, to take things over for one’s own brutal use, to turn everything else into a mere Other. There was Gates engaging in the academic’s favorite pastime, épater les bourgeois, and here was I, a hopeless bourgeois, just asking for a put-down.
Harold Fromm is an independent scholar who has taught for many years in university English departments. He has published articles on Leonard and Virginia Woolf as well as on literary theory, politics, and professionalism. His most recent work concerns the Brontës.
Though I doubt it has put a Rolls Royce in anybody’s garage, the criticism industry is a reality not to be overlooked. Academics have a responsibility to stay self-aware and self-critical about their own and their profession’s interests. All academic activity has a careerist dimension, but it obviously cannot be explained by that dimension alone, and in this sense Fromm’s point is simply reductive. But of course it is not all academic activity that Fromm is objecting to, only some and notably mine.
The image of academic colonization suggests one has stepped beyond some legitimate borders and laid claim to territory rightfully inhabited by others. Whose world was invaded by my essay, or by the “Race,” Writing, and Difference issue in general? Mr. Fromm’s, evidently. Fromm wants a world where words stand still and refer, and don’t get changed. In particular, to use his own examples, he wants a world where blacks are blacks, whites are whites, Americans are Americans, knives are knives, brothers are brothers, and Indians are Indians (Is it the wild west? or maybe just Chicago).
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 the author of Toward a Speech-Act Theory of Literary Discourse.
Our decision to bracket “race” was designed to call attention to the fact that “races,” put simply, do not exist, and that to claim that they do, for whatever misguided reason, is to stand on dangerous ground. Fromm understands this all too well, it seems, judging from the satirical tone of his response. Were there not countries in which the belief in racial essences dictates social and political policy, perhaps I would have found Fromm’s essay amusing and our gesture merely one more token of the academic’s tendency to create distinctions which common sense alone renders unnecessary. The joke, rather, is on Fromm: one’s task is most certainly not to remain “permanently quiet”; rather, our task is to utilize language more precisely, to rid ourselves of the dangers of careless usages of problematic terms which are drawn upon to delimit and predetermine the lives and choices of human beings who are not “white.” Fromm’s response only reinforces Todorov’s worry about not bracketing “race” every time it occurs in our texts, because “race” (as each essay subtly shows) simply does not exist.
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 Black and The Signifying Monkey.