Melodramas of Beset (White) Manhood

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Thus, the novelist of obsolescence turns a concern about the possibilities for the novel’s future into fodder for its continuance, representing and interpreting the functions of the media that appear to threaten him with obsolescence in the manner that will best support the novel’s claims to edification, humanism, and individuality. In so doing, he not only produces new novels but also, and not inadvertently, produces a new rationale for the continuing valorization of the novel as a form, ensuring its privileged position in the pantheon of cultural objects. However, in the process of representing the dangers he perceives in the media, he at times reveals another locus of anxiety–not television itself, but the television audience. In these moments, concerns about technology bleed into concerns about race and gender, about the otherness in U.S. culture that threatens to displace not just the novelist’s productions but the novelist himself from centrality. Television thus serves both as a representation of what has gone wrong with U.S. culture and as a more comfortable site for the displacement of anxieties about human difference. Television provides an easy scapegoat, a safe target for the finger the novelist points at the causes of his marginalization; television makes a safe enemy because it exists at the intersection of a substantive range of cultural discourses already in motion that provide an ongoing dissection of the medium’s deleterious effects. Among those discourses, as I have explored throughout this volume, are the discourses of television as machine, which point to the medium’s dehumanizing effects; of television as spectacle, which point to the medium’s destruction of the power of representation; and of television as network, which point to the medium’s displacement of the individual. This combination of destructions and displacements reveals an anxiety about the role of the novelist in contemporary culture.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But underneath all this lies a concern about the continuing role of the white male subject in contemporary society. It is this underlying fear that John Kucich indicates is responsible for “the single greatest failure of Don DeLillo’s work”:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 it alternates between a suspicion that legitimation through social identity is a problem inherent in postmodern assumptions about language and culture, and an insipid, compulsive whining about the fact that white males are out of fashion. Unfortunately, the whining is often much more obvious and persistent than the analysis. (340)[9]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This whining–a form of complaint that can be read across the postmodernist novel from Mailer to Barth, Nabokov to Barthelme–is part of what has led to the common criticism of the genre as the province of white men, as Molly Hite has indicated. More than simply calling it an insular boy’s club, in fact, “[s]ome feminist critics have gone on to claim that the postmodern novel is essentially masculinist or misogynist, inasmuch as a number of the most famous works, especially those produced in the 1950s and 1960s, are preoccupied with aggressive, often violent male sexual behavior and the denigration of female characters” (Hite 698). But even where the canonical postmodern novel does not demonstrate so baldly its ethnocentric and sexist basis, it reveals ill-concealed anxieties about race, ethnicity, and gender. And even where the anxiety of obsolescence does not serve to mask inadequately repressed fears of the social other, it nonetheless provides the novelist with not only an assortment of writing strategies in the form of the intersecting cultural discourses of the machine, the spectacle, and the network, but also one overwhelming cultural theme, which may appropriately be called, after Nina Baym, a melodrama of beset white manhood.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Baym explores, as the subtitle of her landmark 1981 article indicates, “how theories of American fiction exclude women authors.” Looking at a wide variety of critical texts that key the “American novel” to an exploration of specific definitions of “Americanness,” and in particular response to two writers who set “serious literature” in opposition to the sentimental fiction that they refer to as “the ubiquitous melodramas of beset womanhood,” Baym develops her own theory of U.S. fiction:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I would like to suggest that the theoretical model of a story which may become the vehicle of cultural essence is: “a melodrama of beset manhood.” This melodrama is presented in a fiction which, as we’ll later see, can be taken as representative of the author’s literary experience, his struggle for integrity and livelihood against flagrantly bad best-sellers written by women. Personally beset in a way that epitomizes the tensions of our culture, the male author produces his melodramatic testimony to our culture’s essence–so the theory goes. (130)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 That “the author’s literary experience” is in Baym’s model linked specifically to an encroaching femininity is precisely what makes the model adaptable to the anxiety of obsolescence, for the novelist’s perception of his struggle against obsolescence is unquestionably connected to these earlier authors’ struggles for “integrity and livelihood.” The slippage comes in the shift from “flagrantly bad best-sellers written by women” to television as the mass medium that male authors must struggle against, but, as Huyssen’s exploration of the gendering of mass culture as female and Postman’s inadvertent revelation of his fears about the feminization of U.S. culture through television make clear, the otherness of the electronic media to the “higher” art of the novel parallels the otherness of women and racial and ethnic minorities to the experience of white men.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 But what is most interesting about the novelistic representations of these two related forms of otherness is that the relationship of center and margins is inverted; the white male somehow becomes “other” to the “mainstream” now composed of women and “minorities,” and the novel becomes “other” in a culture ruled so pervasively by television. It is in this light that I’d like to return, here at the close, to a comment by Don DeLillo in “The Power of History,” published within weeks of the release of Underworld:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Ultimately the writer will reconfigure things the way his own history demands. He has his themes and biases and limitations. He has the small crushed pearl of his anger. He has his teaching job, his middling reputation and the one radical idea he has been waiting for all his life. The other thing he has is a flat surface that he will decorate with words.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional re-creation.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate. (63)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I originally introduced this passage in Chapter 3 in connection with DeLillo’s project of “reclaiming” language from the power of the spectacle. What I’d like to look at now is, first, the picture DeLillo paints of himself: “the writer,” who can be no one but DeLillo in an article so relentlessly self-examinatory, becomes a man with a “teaching job,” a man with a “middling reputation,” a man with “one radical idea.” DeLillo, of course, has never been required to hold a teaching job; his claim to “middling reputation” is spurious at best. But the notion of his having one–and no more than one–radical idea makes clear the article’s polemical-political purpose. The novelist is in fact creating “counterhistory,” attempting to use language not only to undo the effects of “conventional re-creation”–for which one must read the most mainstream representational form, television–but also to “redeem” the white male from his historical role as the dominant and to enable his search for “an unconstraining otherness,” a more comfortable sense of himself as the marginalized.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This is, at its root level, the function of the anxiety of obsolescence: the release of the white male author from responsibility through an at times histrionic concern for his own imminent demise, a conversion of the forms and gestures of oppressed cultures to his own project of maintaining his cultural (and social) centrality. Phillip Brian Harper has argued that “the easy appropriability of the signifiers of certain forms of social marginality makes them prime commodities in the mass-cultural drive to market the effects of disenfranchisement for the social cachet that can paradoxically attach to it” (188). Marginality thus becomes, in a literary culture obsessed with fragmentation and decentering, a paradoxical source of return to dominance, a melodrama of beset white manhood. If, as Kucich has claimed, “one need not have suffered to sing the postmodern blues” (332), so one need not be disenfranchised to claim the position of the excluded. And, finally, one need not be dead to benefit from the pomp of an ongoing funeral.

  • [9] It must be pointed out here that Kucich believes the “suspicion” of the first half of this statement to be not simply real but useful, a stand against identity politics that attempts to return white males to the center of political discourse in potentially troubling ways: “The most useful complaint of the novels is that the postmodern discourse of political opposition is dangerously built on a shallow mythology about social origins that limits its own political possibilities. Certainly, within such a discourse, the white male writer who seeks to discover his own political voice will necessarily find his desire for opposition to be unspeakable” (341).
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