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Writing from the Margins

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Of course such writing–writing that takes human problems seriously, writing that confronts emotions and values without postmodernism’s special sneer–has been produced all along during the postmodern era in the United States. Like postmodernist theory, however, which sought in part to restore relevance to the white male critics whose Marxist beliefs and arguments had been undone by the ironies of multinational capitalism, and who had been obsolesced by the passion and conviction of the Sixties’ identity-based political movements, the hip ironies of postmodern fiction have functioned to provide continued relevance to a group of writers who felt themselves decentered at precisely the moment that previously marginalized writers–women, African Americans, Asian Americans, gays, and lesbians, among others–found a voice. In this manner, the double-edged notion of the “New White Guys” becomes particularly apt, as this group of white male writers imagines itself to have rediscovered affect after its long absence from favor. Alongside the mainstream of postmodern ironizing, however, marginalized writers continued writing, often using the same kinds of formal experimentation as their white male counterparts, but continuing at the same time to take dangerous human emotions, and the sociopolitical problems experienced by disenfranchised groups and individuals, seriously. Jane Elliott, in fact, in a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that cites Franzen’s citation of Wallace’s “tribal writers” comments, argues that the appropriation by mainstream white male writers of the personal and emotional material usually explored by the Oprah-style books that have been ghettoized as “chick lit” serves to accentuate the supposedly marginal status of white men in contemporary culture while simultaneously denigrating the texts produced by those women and “minority” writers who traditionally espouse such forms. “In other words,” Elliot suggests, with reference to Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream,” “by dint of his mainstream status, Franzen was able to spend a 20-page article reinventing the same wheel tribal writers had been using, all the while arguing that theirs wasn’t really a wheel anyway” (73).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The implication that postmodern irony has functioned over the last decades to preserve the relevance of white masculinity in a political and literary environment focused on otherness–and, in fact, to shut down the concerns of marginalized writers through an inability or refusal to take such problems seriously–suggests that postmodernism, for all its putative rebellion against the various oppressions of the modern, including mimesis, rationality, teleology, and hierarchy, is in part that political oxymoron, the conservative revolution. As I suggested in the first chapter, postmodernist theory came to prominence in the contemporary academy to some degree as a reaction to the identity-based political and intellectual movements of the 1960s and 1970s, reevaluating concepts of individual sovereignty just as some marginalized groups gained the political sway necessary to assert and give voice to their individuality, declaring the death of the master narrative in the wake of the articulation and critique of the master narratives of patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonial power. In this way, postmodernist theory functioned to return a group of predominantly white male thinkers to the center of intellectual inquiry while masking the social implications of both the theory’s evacuation of individual identity and the particular identities of its practitioners. One might likewise begin to question whether postmodernist fiction–that too-slippery category–has been similarly marked from the outset by its escape from considerations of the social uses and misuses of power with regard to human difference, and its return instead to the universalized cultural problems of contemporary whiteness, maleness, Americanness.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Molly Hite’s work on the postmodern novel suggests this possibility, even as she attempts to undermine the category’s apparent restrictions. So, however inadvertently, do a number of the critics of obsolescence. As a pathway into the problem, let us consider briefly a passage from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death; in arguing for the degrading effects on contemporary culture of both the sensationalism of television and the suggestibility of the viewing audience, Postman points to the following example: “In New Bedford, Massachusetts, a rape trial was televised, to the delight of audiences who could barely tell the difference between the trial and their favorite mid-day soap opera” (94). One can begin unpacking this comment’s condescension by noting Postman’s use of “audiences,” a term John Fiske argues is ideologically loaded, implying passive consumption by “cultural dopes” (Television 16). Moreover, in positing that the form of entertainment from which these “audiences” can “barely” distinguish the trial is a soap opera, Postman inadvertently reveals the true target of his ire, the feminization of U.S. culture under the influence of television. Part of what is shocking about this slip is that it seems never to have occurred to Postman that women in New Bedford might have had some specific interest in watching a rape trial other than as an escape into lurid “soap opera” fantasy. But beyond this refusal to understand the stakes of such a trial for certain of its viewers, Postman’s ill-submerged concerns about the feminization of contemporary culture through its adoption of modes of discourse accessible to the masses are in keeping with modernist anxieties about mass culture. As Andreas Huyssen writes in “Mass Culture as Woman”:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 the nightmare of being devoured by mass culture through co-option, commodification, and the “wrong” kind of success is the constant fear of the modernist artist, who tries to stake out his territory by fortifying the boundaries between genuine art and inauthentic mass culture. Again, the problem is not the desire to differentiate between forms of high art and depraved forms of mass culture and its co-options. The problem is rather the persistent gendering as feminine of that which is devalued. (53)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Though for Huyssen, the “desire to differentiate” between high and low matters less than the assumption that the low exists in a feminized state, I would argue that the two points are inseparable. In a culture in which the “high” is considered the provenance of an elite, overwhelmingly masculine few, while the “low” belongs to the feminine mass, the act of distinguishing high from low is always an act of gendering and thus is always politically charged. Moreover, though Huyssen argues, along with numerous other postmodern theorists, that these boundaries between high and low, between art and mass culture, have dissolved in the contemporary era, one must ask for whom such boundaries have fallen, if indeed they have. Though it is now clearly possible for “high” artists such as Jonathan Franzen to appropriate the forms of mass culture formerly stigmatized as “chick lit,” is it similarly possible for participants in the “mass”–watchers of television; readers of chick-lit–to partake of the objects of “high” art? As I noted in Franzen’s conflict with Oprah, such popularization appears to represent a threat to the privilege of the elite cultural producer, and as Postman’s concerns further suggest, what Huyssen calls the “anxiety of contamination,” or the concern of the artist and intellectual with “stak[ing] out his territory” by shoring up these crumbling barriers against an infiltrating, infecting mass culture has not diminished. Canonical postmodernist fiction, through its relentless ironizing, works to distance itself from the contaminating otherness of the masses and to retreat into the purity of universal white masculinity.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 One might then question whether novelists working outside the primary trajectories of modernism and postmodernism are similarly stalked by the anxieties of contamination and obsolescence that writers like Pynchon and DeLillo, as well as some of their younger counterparts, seem to exhibit. In defining the anxiety of obsolescence in the introduction to this volume, I connected the postmodern novelist’s anxious reaction to the electronic media to an inversion of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” an Oedipal model in which the poet’s anxiety about his predecessors undergirds his poem. The overwhelming masculinism of this model, in which the poet must “battle” his poetic “father” for the right to possess the Muse and thus full artistic maturity, is almost commonplace.[2] I would suggest, however, that it is precisely this masculinism that most closely binds the anxiety of influence to the anxiety of obsolescence. Bloom argues that “[w]hen a poet experiences incarnation qua poet, he experiences anxiety necessarily towards any danger that might end him as a poet” (58). In the novel of obsolescence, this danger is in part connected to a threatening televisual culture whose overpowering machinery, whose attraction to spectacle, and whose inescapable networks make the humanist, linguistic, individualist technologies of the novel appear hopelessly dated, if not downright obsolete. But the danger is equally the other writers who participate in the novel’s technologies without succumbing to the universalizing pressures of humanism, those whose attention to human hierarchies and their effects on marginalized subjects aligns them with a socially activated postmodern politics. For this reason, it is important to note that, returning to Bloom’s phrase, the poet must first have experienced “incarnation” as a poet, must have been granted a voice, before such threats to his position become effective. This perhaps begins to explain what appears to be a general absence of anxiety on the part of emergent or “minority” writers about the electronic media; television does not represent a threat from the outside to some guarded position for these writers, nor does the popularization that the medium might bring suggest the contamination of an elite preserve. Rather, insofar as contemporary culture holds a threat for marginalized writers, that threat lies in the culture’s failure to take their voices seriously, or even to hear them in the first place. To put it plainly, only a culture that has experienced some form of dominance need fear its obsolescence.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In this sense, postmodernism generally, and the novel of obsolescence more specifically, contains within its rebellion a deeply conservative impulse, an attempt to preserve a position of centrality by dismissing the social interests of writers previously marginalized by the modernist project, and by further claiming that position of marginality or “decenteredness” for itself through its focus on the cultural, and particularly the mediated, aspects of postmodernism.[3] By way of contrast, I want briefly to consider the work of a contemporary of Pynchon and DeLillo whose novels are frequently included on the canon-revising lists of postmodern texts, but who was nowhere included in the originary lists: Toni Morrison.[4] Morrison has an extended, complex, and not untroubled relationship with television and related forms of popular media, briefly represented within her fiction and considered at greater length in her nonfiction writing, but it is important to note that she expresses no anxiety about these media forms as competitors with the novel. Instead, Morrison’s concerns with the media focus primarily on their content, and particularly on the relationship of the mainstream media to the perpetuation of racism in the United States: “Popular culture,” she argued in a 1993 Time Magazine article, “shaped by film, theater, advertising, the press, television and literature, is heavily engaged in race talk. It participates freely in this most enduring and efficient rite of passage [of recent immigrants] into U.S. culture: negative appraisals of the native-born black population” (“Backs” 60). In this fashion, television–accompanied by the mainstream literature of the United States–serves through its representations not to threaten women writers or writers of color with obsolescence but to reinforce the already-existing exclusion of disenfranchised groups from full participation in the culture. Where Morrison’s writing evidences anxiety about television, then, that anxiety stems not from the changes it has wrought within U.S. culture but from its sustenance of that culture, and the ways that television supports a racist, patriarchal status quo.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Perhaps for this reason, Morrison’s writings about television tend to have little to do with her role as a novelist, and more to do with her affective connections to the African American community. This can be seen in her public responses to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the O.J. Simpson trial, the sources of Morrison’s most direct comments about the medium. Here again, television is but one form in a widespread cultural complex that serves to perpetuate the exclusions and marginalizations effected by a racially hierarchized society. In the case of the former, television takes its place as one among many media forms consulted by those interested in the events:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Everyone interested in the outcome of this nomination, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or profession, turns to as many forms of media as are available. They read the Washington Post for verification of their dread or their hope, read the New York Times as though it were Pravda, searching between the lines of the official story for one that most nearly approximates what might really be happening. They read local papers to see if the reaction among their neighbors is similar to their own, or they try to figure out on what information their own response should be based. They have listened to newscasters and anchor people for the bits and bites that pointed to, or deflected attention from, the machinery of campaigns to reject or accept the nominee. They have watched television screens that seem to watch back, that dismiss viewers or call upon them for flavor, reinforcement, or routine dissent. (“Introduction” viii)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Certain aspects of this description of the media’s role in the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings echo the terms of the anxiety of obsolescence: “everyone interested” comes together as a sort of networked mass; the television screen, like that watching Oedipa Maas, seems to possess greater agency than do its ostensible viewers; the news seems to deflect rather than describe the truth. However, there are key differences as well, most notably that “everyone interested” turns to many forms of media, not just the television, in an active search not just for the story but for “their own response” to that story. Television’s mediation of this story does not, for Morrison, necessarily result in uniformity of opinion, or passivity in the face of a technologized culture, in no small part because of the multiplicity of media forms available to the interested, and because, she goes on to note, “most of all, people talked to one another” (viii). The relations among individuals in U.S. culture, she seems to suggest, have not been wholly subsumed by their mediated forms.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Those relations, of course, are heavily inflected (or infected) by the racist legacy of slavery in the United States, a legacy that manifests in the forms of communication and entertainment that dominate contemporary culture. As Morrison writes of the massively popular drama that the media constructed out of the O.J. Simpson trial: “In a culture dominated by images, Mr. Simpson is ideal–already an entertainer with a surfeit of the talents successful entertainers have. Also, he is black. When race culpability or pathology is added to this market brew, profits soar and the narrative coalesces quickly, takes on another form and moves from commodity to lore” (“Official” xvii). While Morrison invokes the terms of the spectacle–the “culture dominated by images”–the crucial element in this particular spectacle is not the images themselves but the national history of race prejudice into which those images play. In this fashion, the media in general, and television in particular, facilitate the coalescing of what Morrison refers to as “a national narrative, an official story” (xv), but the elements of that narrative have circulated throughout the culture in various forms for centuries.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In these readings of both the Clarence Thomas and the O.J. Simpson affairs, Morrison suggests that television is not the cause of U.S. cultural decline but rather one of the sites at which representations of the damage wrought by racism may be found. For this reason, because television becomes in these readings a conduit rather than a force, Morrison seems to maintain some optimism about the medium, suggesting by her relationship with it (a relationship markedly different from those of Pynchon and DeLillo) that the conduit can be used to carry counterhegemonic ideas as well. This optimism bears out in Morrison’s relationship with media other than print; not only has she personally read and recorded abridged versions of her novels for sale as books on tape, but also her novel Beloved has been produced for film and Paradise, arguably her most difficult novel, is reportedly being adapted for a television miniseries, both by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. Those productions further indicate Morrison’s significance for this chapter’s reconsideration of the Franzen/Oprah brouhaha, as she was the novelist whose work was most frequently included during the run of the original Oprah’s Book Club. Three of her novels–The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Paradise–were official selections of the show, and a fourth, Beloved, was the object of a special discussion on an episode of the show that focused on the film.[5] As the Independent points out, in its review of Morrison’s most recent novel, Love:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Unlike Jonathan Franzen, who thumbed his nose at Oprah and her viewers when The Corrections was chosen for her club, Morrison, who teaches literature at Princeton University, was entirely open to selection, never felt like it compromised the seriousness of her work. She is most impressed by Oprah’s transformation of a downmarket show into America’s most powerful bookselling tool. “I think her impact has been positive, really powerfully positive, just lassoing people,” she says. “It’s just amazing to me that here’s a television personality who says, in effect, turn off the television and read a book.” (Freeman)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Morrison, as the article slyly indicates, has all the high-culture status one could hope for–a professor of literature at an Ivy League university, no less!–but nonetheless feels her work is uncorrupted by its brush with the popular. In fact, as John Young demonstrates, her work both as a novelist and, earlier, as an editor at Random House, has been driven in no small part by an “open desire for the market–for there to be ‘such a thing as popular black women’s literature . . . Popular!’ ” (187, quoting Morrison). The idea of such popularity is, quite evidently, not perceived to be a threat to the quality of her writing, to her readerly reception, or to her critical reputation; it presents, instead, the possibility of one’s voice being heard, the necessary precondition for a readership and a critical reputation in the first place. It is perhaps only, as Young argues, for “white-male canonical authors” that some opposition between ” ‘integrity’ and Oprah,” or between the literary and the popular, obtains (186).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Literature is thus, for Morrison, not under threat by television; on the contrary, television can be mobilized by the literary as a vehicle for its coming into being. If literature is endangered, if it dies in the future, Morrison further suggests, writers themselves will be responsible. In her Nobel Prize lecture, Morrison tells the story of an old, blind, wise woman who is taunted by young people, asked to answer the one question they’re certain she cannot: “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.” Her response gives the appearance of a nonanswer but is in fact an accusation: “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison makes the connection of this story to the novelist’s responsibilities clear:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. . . . Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but most as agency–an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. (“Nobel Lecture”)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Those who have been given the greatest powers over language, then–and in this group one must include contemporary canonical novelists–bear direct responsibility for its fate. That language is for Morrison equated with agency– and that the old woman of the story comes to “trust” the young people, at lecture’s end, only once they are able to tell her a story in return–suggests not only Morrison’s belief in the continued importance of writing, despite the presence on the scene of new media forms, but also the kinds of empowerment that storytelling can produce.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Furthermore, Morrison suggests that her particular subjectivity enables the novel’s future in a way that makes plain her distinctness as a writer from the main thread of postmodern ironizing. As a recent magazine article puts it:

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Emerging in an era when black writing was seen as a predominantly male endeavor and women writers were perceived as predominantly white, she redefined the role of a “black woman writer.”

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 “I didn’t want to be an honorary male or an honorary white person,” Morrison says. “When people complimented me, saying, by implication, ‘You’re better than a black or a woman writer,’ I would always counter with ‘I am a black woman writer,’ and that was not a narrow field. Because of those two modifiers [“black” and “woman”], I felt my imaginative world was wider and deeper, that I had access to and some sensibilities about worlds that may not have been available to white men.” (Langer 46)

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Because of this affective, imaginative engagement with the world–with the multiple worlds–of the marginalized, and because of her conviction that the agency that language provides is not a right but a responsibility, Morrison demonstrates a sense of contemporary literature’s continued significance, and particularly of the significance of the voices of the marginalized within it.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 As her Nobel lecture suggests, the affective spaces to which Morrison, as a black woman writer, has a deepened access include the vital, and vitally communal, importance of story. Throughout Morrison’s novels one can see the double-edged effect of stories, particularly stories as the oral history of African American culture. On the one hand, the anxiety revealed in these novels revolves around the burden that history places on the novels’ characters and the cultural damage that history can inflict. On the other hand, and at the same time, Morrison’s novels are filled with the insistence that history–in the form of stories–must be transmitted, for it is in their telling that community is built. But what is most important with regard to the anxiety of obsolescence is that these histories are not, and cannot be, captured by the media. The electronic media, and their attendant technologies, exist almost wholly outside the realm of the stories with which Morrison is concerned. As the mysterious narrator of Jazz insists at the novel’s end, speaking of the characters she has just lovingly brought to rest: “When I see them now they are not sepia, still, losing their edges to the light of a future afternoon. Caught midway between was and will be. For me they are real. Sharply in focus and clicking” (226). The people who inhabit these stories are not photographs, not trapped in the chronic past or future tense of recorded images and the electronic media. Instead, they live; they are present tense–and it is particularly notable that they live within and for the novel, as it is the novel itself that is finally revealed to be its own narrator.[6] It is in the presentness of the stories told throughout Morrison’s novels that the focus on characters is created, and it is because these stories are so present, so real, and so lived that they produce such anxiety about how they could possibly end, about the continuing damage they can inflict.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Where the media does appear in Morrison, it is frequently depicted, as it is in Pynchon and DeLillo, as an illusion, a trap. Thus, part of the tragedy that befalls Dorcas in Jazz occurs because “[e]verything was like a picture show to her, and she was the one on the railroad track, or the one trapped in the sheik’s tent when it caught on fire” (202). But there is in this statement little sense of indictment of film itself; rather this is an accusation leveled at Dorcas, a young girl who allows herself to get caught up in fantasies that do not belong to her. She is not, and cannot be, the damsel in distress, the woman bound to the tracks, the prisoner in the sheik’s tent, at least in part because the damsel is always white. In these melodramatic films, in fact, when people of color are depicted, they are invariably the villains, not the heroes or the ladies waiting to be saved.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 This, it seems, is the sole lesson that Morrison presents about the electronic media: it does not, and cannot, belong to the African American communities with which she is concerned. And the reasons behind this disconnection from the machineries of communication are not bound up in the lies told by images, or the alienating nature of mechanicity, or the destruction of the individual by the network. The separation between Morrison’s characters and the media is instead directly related to the history of racism that structures their society. Television in Morrison becomes a commodity, a luxury whose price closes many black men and women out: “Guitar smiled at the sun, and talked lovingly of televisions, brass beds, and week-long card games, but his mind was on the wonders of TNT” (SS 181). Guitar’s dreams of money, in Song of Solomon, involve television sets, but only as one among many possible luxuries, and the reality of Guitar’s life is far too concerned with the murderous relationship between black and white to be very involved with the fantasy world of television at all.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 It is unlikely, in fact, that television would have anything to offer these characters, as its near absence from Morrison’s novels would seem to indicate. The purpose of the media that do exist in these novels is nothing more nor less than the communication of racism, both the reporting of racist acts and the general dissemination of racist ideology. Thus we find the men of Guitar’s town gathered in the barbershop, listening to radio reports of Emmett Till’s murder, each disbelieving that they’ve gotten the whole story.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 “It’ll be in the morning paper.”

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 “Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t,” said Porter.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 “It was on the radio! Got to be in the paper!” said Freddie.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 “They don’t put that kind of news in no white newspaper. Not unless he raped somebody.” (SS 81)

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 As in the disappointing reality of the movie melodramas that create Dorcas’s fantasies, African Americans appear in the white press only as villains, never as innocent victims. And thus the history that so binds the black community in Morrison, the history of slavery and racism, is closed out of nearly all media representations.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Where these stories do sneak in, they create divisions rather than build the communities forged by oral storytelling. Such is the case for Felice’s father in Jazz, who religiously reads the newspapers even though it “worries his blood” (199), enjoying the arguments he has over the stories they report.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 “Once I thought if I read the papers we’d saved I could argue with him. But I picked wrong. I read about the white policemen who were arrested for killing some Negroes and said I was glad they were arrested, that it was about time.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 “He looked at me and shouted, ‘The story hit the paper because it was news, girl, news!’

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 “I didn’t know how to answer him and started to cry so my grandmother said, ‘Sonny, go somewhere and sit down,’ and my mother said, ‘Walter, shut up about all that to her.’

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 “She explained to me what he meant: that for the everyday killings cops did of Negroes, nobody was arrested at all. . . .” (199)

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Felice misses, in her innocent acceptance of the importance of what the newspaper prints, the real social relations that the newsprint serves to replicate. The black and white of the press renders the complex stories told in African American culture too apparently simple, too cut-and-dried. What becomes important, as Felice’s father understands and Felice has yet to learn, is that an African American encountering the white media must become especially adept at reading not simply what is printed, but the ideologies that lurk between the lines. And thus Morrison repeatedly suggests that an essential relationship to text–a relationship that Pynchon and DeLillo seem to claim has been consistently undermined by the twentieth-century media–is at the heart of the African American community’s successful negotiation of the world. As Macon Dead says about his father, the first Macon Dead: “Everything bad that ever happened to him happened because he couldn’t read” (SS 53). The anxiety revealed here is not, then, that of a turn away from text, a lack of concern in the community for the writer, but rather that of being closed out of textual power in the first place.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The centrality of reading is the lesson acknowledged by Guitar before the role of killer into which he is driven by white racial violence begins to undermine the connections to his own community he is fighting to maintain. He has come to understand the impossibly ingrained nature of U.S. racism through reading, insisting to Milkman that all whites would lynch a black man, given the right set of circumstances:

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 I listen. I read. And now I know that they know it too. They know they are unnatural. Their writers and artists have been saying it for years. Telling them they are unnatural, telling them they are depraved. They call it tragedy. In the movies they call it adventure. It’s just depravity that they try to make glorious, natural. (SS 157)

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Guitar is able to find this depravity, to read this racism, only by getting underneath the media’s–and, notably, the artist’s–representations of “tragedy” and “adventure” and seeing what gets left out, who doesn’t get represented.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 But this racism so indelibly written into the media in the twentieth century seems to take account only of the “white” media, forms of communication and entertainment created, distributed, and imposed by the white in a top-down model of “mass” culture, a form of cultural production and distribution that should be read, according to Fiske’s model, in opposition to the “popular,” which has its origins in the people who create and use it.[7] Morrison reveals in Jazz a decidedly different relationship to the elements of this “popular” culture than that seen in much of Pynchon and DeLillo. Jazz itself, much reviled by the arbiters of high culture–see, for instance, Horkheimer and Adorno, who lump jazz in amongst the products of the “culture industry,” disparaging it in relation to classical music for its “packaged” quality, a reading of this music that suggests a complete misconstrual of the relationship between the mass and the popular–becomes in Morrison, as in other writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, the vivid, passionate musical embodiment of that storytelling community.[8] The only threat suggested in the jazz and blues of Harlem in the 1920s is that sensed by the Christian women who connect the music’s passion to a general moral decline:

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 When Alice Manfred collected the little girl from the Miller sisters, on those evenings following the days her fine stitching was solicited, the three women sat down in the kitchen to hum and sigh over cups of Postum at the signs of Imminent Demise: such as not just ankles but knees in full view; lip rouge red as hellfire; burnt matchsticks rubbed on eyebrows; fingernails tipped with blood–you couldn’t tell the streetwalkers from the mothers. And the men, you know, the things they thought nothing of saying out loud to any woman who passed by could not be repeated before children. They did not know for sure, but they suspected that the dances were beyond nasty because the music was getting worse and worse with each passing season the Lord waited to make himself known. Songs that used to start in the head and fill the heart had dropped on down to places below the sash and the buckled belts. Lower and lower, until the music was so lowdown you had to shut your windows and just suffer the summer sweat when the men in shirtsleeves propped themselves in window frames, or clustered on rooftops, in alleyways, on stoops and in the apartments of relatives playing the lowdown stuff that signaled Imminent Demise. (55″“56)

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 These women, in their evocation of the evil being done by this music, are on the one hand mocked by the narrator for their concerns with “Imminent Demise” and on the other hand revealed by the intensity and physicality of their descriptions to be drawn to the music at the same time they fear its effects. But it should be pointed out as well that these fears are a far cry from the fears about jazz expressed by the (white) protectors of the high-cultural estate: this music is not the threatening sign of the rise of an uncontrollable mass that threatens the preserve of the cultural and intellectual elite, or the equally dangerous manifestation of the control of those mindless masses by a fascistic culture industry, but is here rather an expression of the sensuality, the vitality, the lifeblood of African American culture. This music is the voice of the men in shirtsleeves, a voice that threatens these Christian women through its raw sexuality but that threatens the dominant white culture through its uncontrollable otherness. It is because of this otherness to the dominant mass culture that jazz, like storytelling, is able to fully express the real social experience of Morrison’s characters–something that neither the newspapers nor the radio, movies, or television could accomplish.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Morrison, then, reveals in the various types of writing she has produced across her career concerns about the mass media, including television, but these concerns do not circulate around anxieties about the health of the older literary forms they seem to be displacing; in fact, she repeatedly indicates the power that literature and other modes of storytelling still have within the African American community. On the contrary, where Morrison expresses dissatisfaction with the electronic media, she focuses upon the media’s relationship to the endemic racism of U.S. culture, and the media’s failure to represent and contend with the specific histories of such marginalized groups within U.S. culture. Where those media forms can be co-opted to the retelling of such narratives, however, whether through the adaptation of her novels for film and television or through the inclusion of her novels in Oprah’s Book Club, her career suggests that the contemporary media can be a tool for the promotion of the novelist’s voice rather than a threat to that voice. It is precisely to the point that the writers who most sense a threat from television–whether the threat of being silenced or the threat of being popularized–are members of the very group to and for whom the mass media have always spoken.

  • [2] See, for instance, Nina Baym’s characterization of Bloom’s theory as “defining literature as a struggle between fathers and sons” (139).
  • [3] On the mobilizations of “marginality” by canonical authors (including Thomas Pynchon), see Bérubé.
  • [4] For a full-length comparative study of the postmodernisms represented by Pynchon and Morrison, see Patell, Negative Liberties.
  • [5] For an extended reading of the relationship between Oprah’s Book Club and Morrison’s work, as well as of Morrison’s audiobook releases, see Young.
  • [6] See Young 198.
  • [7] See Fiske, Understanding. Fiske is perhaps overly dismissive of the power of the dominant to determine mass culture but nonetheless argues interestingly for a reception theory”“inflected reading of all culture, including that we label “mass,” as contained via its uses and pleasures within the popular: “There is no mass culture, there are only alarmist and pessimistic theories of mass culture that, at their best, can shed light only on the industrial and ideological imperatives of the power-bloc” (177).
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    Source: http://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-5/writing-from-the-margins/