Follow by Email

Monday, January 6, 2014

Advice for a young Chinese scholar

Revising “Self-discovery in Racialized Space: Comparative Study of The Outsider and Invisible Man”

Commentary for a young Chinese scholar


Your comparative study of novels by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison is a worthwhile project, especially in light of an intertextuality between Invisible Man and The Outsider that is not immediately apparent. Despite his denial of artistic indebtedness to Wright’s novella “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Ellison did elaborate some features of Wright’s story.  Use of the underground or the underworld as a location (or space) for gaining knowledge that is unavailable on the surface of the earth is a very old strategy in world literature.  Ellison made good use of the strategy to create a frame for his nameless narrator’s journey of discoveries and a site for reflection on the episodes that constitute the journey. Although Wright and Ellison both use urban space, the city, for African American male characters to make self-discoveries, it must be noted that Ellison employed a rural space to begin discussion about race and abuse of power in Invisible Man. That choice was necessary, because the consequences of South to North migration are so important in his novel.  Wright, on the other hand, used a less iconic form of migration (Cross Damon’s flight from Chicago to New York) as a background for his main character’s existential quest for “absolute freedom” in shaping his identity and destiny against those imposed upon him by racialized American society.

The vastly different intentions Wright and Ellison had in writing their novels must be accounted  for through close reading of their texts, careful structural analysis, and interpretation that is informed by knowledge about the diverse ways African Americans negotiated their “space-time experiences” in racialized and segregated spaces. I stress the importance of close reading of the text prior to selecting any theory as a guide for interpretation. You have claimed in your abstract that you endeavor “to analyze black people’s self-discovery in racialized space from the perspective of Foucault’s space theory, in an attempt to revel the black writers’ effort of seeking identity and national cultural way for the black through the struggle of power in spatial practices.”  Your claim is based on a dreadful belief that theory can do what it cannot do. African Americans like Chinese peoples  are tremendously diverse; they are not a unified group that can be explained by one theory or another. Provision conclusions about how individuals from an ethnic group arrive at “self-discovery” have to be derived by using reliable methods from the domains of psychology and sociology not from methods employed in literary and cultural studies.  Moreover, literature may engender ideas that people use in making “self-discoveries,” but literature does not give us directives for resolving the entanglements of the human condition.  Your claim is in need of radical surgery.

 Efforts to use identity theories  (the Self and the Other) and space theories as articulated by Michel Foucault and others can produce blindness rather than desirable insights about how Wright, Ellison, and other African American novelists have fictionalized the historical experiences of black people. And when such theories are yoked with DuBois’s now much abused and outdated theory of “double consciousness,” the probability of producing dazzling nonsense is increased. It is crucial to refer to how in his book The Practice of Everyday Life,  Michel de Certeau challenges Foucault’s thinking about space.  It is even more crucial in dealing with Ellison and Wright to know what Valerie Smith “theorized” in Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative (Harvard University Press 1987), what Farah Jasmine Griffin said about navigating the urban landscape in “Who Set You Flowin’?: The African American Migration Narrative  (Oxford University Press 1995) , what Abdul R. JanMohamed explored in The-Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (Duke University Press 2005) and what Robert O’Meally  revealed about Ellison’s narrative techniques in The Craft of Ralph Ellison (Harvard University Press 1980). Attention to Eurocentric theory without giving notice to what African American scholars have contributed to our understanding of Wright and Ellison is tantamount to asking a chicken to plead for its life in a court in which the judge and the jury are foxes.


In a 1977 interview on truth and power, Foucault himself said something we need to keep in mind as we engage in scholarship and criticism.  Referring to the questions raised by “the political status of science and the ideological functions which it could serve,” Foucault said “…a whole number of interesting questions were provoked.  These can all be summed up in two word: power and knowledge.” He then commented on why dealing with theoretical physics or organic chemistry and “ its relations with the political and economic structures of society” might invite one to pose “an excessively complicated question.”  The question, he proposed is easier to resolve if one focused on “a form of knowledge (savoir) like psychiatry.” (See Foucault,  Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980).  Foucault was talking specifically about science in general and  his planning as he prepared to write Madness and Civilization. There is a noteworthy lesson to be learned from what he says about questions.


 I urge you to concentrate on “self-discovery” in a literary work as a form of knowledge rather than trying to deal the impossibly large problem of “racialized space in America,” which requires empirical investigation and which ought not be reduced to a simple black/white binary.  For several hundred years, indigenous peoples (Native Americans), European Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans have negotiated space both separately and jointly, and space theory is an afterthought about what they were doing historically. Theory has to be corrected by history.  Or, how could one talk about racialized space and ignore that women function in those spaces?  Generalized discussion of “heterotopias” casts dim light on gender issues.   Both Ellison and Wright wrote masculine fictions that, according to feminist thinkers, keep women in the shadows or objectify them.  We can’t talk about Ellison and Wright and ignore gender. Remember that Foucault warned us to avoid the “excessively complicated question.”


Rethinking what you need to say in your abstract


First, if you focus on the use of space in the novels by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, you must understand that Ellison refers to action in rural space (an imagined Alabama) and urban space (the city --New York) and that Wright deals exclusively with urban space (the cities of Chicago and New York).  It is unfortunate that you do not know enough about African American novels and space to detect that Ellison’s book reminds us of what Paul Laurence Dunbar did with rural and urban spaces and the matter of migration from the South to the North in The Sport of the Gods (1902). The discussion has to focus on how the two authors use real, historical, American racialized spaces as opposed to the theorizing about the abstract concept of space promoted by Foucault and others.  Despite all the shortcomings that have been noted about Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), that book describes American cultural geography (racialized spaces) in terms which were a part of Wright and Ellison’s lived experiences. One of the dangers of theory is its power to seduce thinkers and make them forget history.


 In your abstract, you need to specify very concisely what is your research question. How to frame and refine the research question is handled with precision in The Craft of Research (1995) by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, the book I use when I offer research seminars at Central China Normal University. The research question usually takes the form



I am studying (X)


because I want to find out (Y)


in order to help my reader understand better  (Z)


If “X” is African American Self-discovery in Racialized Space, you have to be aware that conclusions about self-discovery in The Outsider and Invisible Man apply only to Cross Damon and the nameless narrator. Any conclusions that you reach do not describe the behaviors of real African American males.  What is depicted in novels is merely a refraction of real actions not a reflection of what has occurred in real time to real human beings. An attempt to argue or  suggest otherwise is a confusion of literary representation with vulgar, imprecise sociology. Literature generates questions that have to be answered by non-literary disciplines.  I leave identification of what is Y and Z to you.


 I urge you to attend very carefully what is being said about “heterotopia” in the following commentary, as you analyze the texts of the novels.  It is important that you match the various spaces referred to in the novels with the types of heterotopia they may represent.  Doing so will help you with formulating a new outline for your chapter.



Heterotopia (space)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (January 2010)

Heterotopia is a concept in human geography elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.
A utopia is an idea or an image that is not real but represents a perfected version of society, such as Thomas More’s book or Le Corbusier’s drawings. Foucault uses the term heterotopia to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible (like a prison).
Foucault uses the idea of a mirror as a metaphor for the duality and contradictions, the reality and the unreality of utopian projects. A mirror is metaphor for utopia because the image that you see in it does not exist, but it is also a heterotopia because the mirror is a real object that shapes the way you relate to your own image.
Foucault articulates several possible types of heterotopia or spaces that exhibit dual meanings:

·         A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space like a boarding school or a motel room where activities like coming of age or a honeymoon take place out of sight.

·         ‘Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, cemetery).

·         Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments with plants from around the world.

·         'Heterotopias of time' such as museums enclose in one place objects from all times and styles. They exist in time but also exist outside of time because they are built and preserved to be physically insusceptible to time’s ravages.

·         'Heterotopias of ritual or purification' are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. To get in one must have permission and make certain gestures such as in a sauna or a hammin.

·         'Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space--a space that is other.


Human geographers often connected to the postmodernist school have been using the term (and the author's propositions) to help understand the contemporary emergence of (cultural, social, political, economic) difference and identity as a central issue in larger multicultural cities. The idea of place (more often related to ethnicity and gender and less often to the social class issue) as a heterotopic entity has been gaining attention in the current context of postmodern, post-structuralist theoretical discussion (and political practice) in Geography and other spatial social sciences. The concept of a heterotopia has also been discussed in relation to the space that learning takes place in (Blair, 2009). There is an extensive debate with theorists, such as David Harvey, that remain focused on the matter of class domination as the central determinant of social heteronomy.

Foucault's elaborations on heterotopias were published in an article entitled Des espaces autres (Of Other Spaces). The philosopher calls for a society with many heterotopias, not only as a space with several places of/for the affirmation of difference, but also as a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression, stating metaphorically that if we take the ship as the utmost heterotopia, a society without ships is inherently a repressive one, in a clear reference to Stalinism.
The geographer Edward Soja has worked with this concept in dialogue with the works of Henri Lefebvre concerning urban space in the book Thirdspace.

In Utopia and The Village in South Asian Literatures, Anupama Mohan extends and reworks Foucault's concept of heterotopia as a way to understand the impulses of 21st century literatures of South Asia that are focused on the village or the rural as a literary trope. Mohan revives the conceptual ambivalence latent in utopia as good-place and no-place in order to theorize key ruptures within Foucault's explanations of heterotopia. For Mohan, heterotopia helps to recuperate as well as distinguish utopia from what she calls homotopia, or visions of social collectivization whose claims to utopia are built on homogenizing features or bases such as a common religion, language, or culture.
Heterotopian Studies is a website launched May 2012 and devoted to exploring Foucault's ideas on heterotopia.

Rethinking your introduction and discussions of the novels

It is no surprise that Foucault does not enable you to define “racialized space.”  You will find a model for creating the definition in Chapter 3 of Griffin’s “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African American Migration Narrative.

I find that the current organization of your chapter can be much improved by not trying to talk about Other, self-discovery, and resistance as subtopics.  Instead, I recommend that  after presenting an introductory discussion of the focus on cities or urban spaces in African American literature and the challenges one might find in the novels of Wright and Ellison, you should write about each novel separately and then write about your tentative conclusions in a third segment.  The new organization might assume this form----

I.                     Introduction

II.                   Self-discovery and racialized space in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)

III.                 Self-discovery and racialized space in Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953)

IV.                Unanswered questions about integration and nihilism generated by Ellison and Wright

V.                  Conclusion


 Your chapter should analyze (1) how Ellison frames his narrative with the underground prologue and epilogue, but situates the unnamed narrator's quest to understand who he is rural and urban spaces and (2) how Wright depicts Cross Damon's existential journey from Chicago (where he has a defined identity in the spaces of home and labor) to New York (where he uses lies and deceptions to fashion a new identity for himself in the arena of radical politics; it is relatively easy to fashion multiple identities in a space where one is virtually unknown ). After the discussions of Invisible Man and The Outsider, the third segment of the chapter must deal with the two novels as catalysts for continuing exploration of race, new forms of segregation in the United States, and space.



January 5, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment