Modernity, Postmodernity, Social MarginalityPhillip Bryan
Harper,Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture
(New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994).
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic:
Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press,
Only a black person alienated from black language-use could fail
to understand that we have been deconstructing white people's languages and
discourses since that dreadful day in 1619 when we were marched off the boat
in Virginia. Derrida did not invent deconstruction, we did!Habermas, Lyotard, Jameson: the triad has become familiar to
us by now, as familiar as any distinct grid established within the logic of
professional "debates". Modernity is the unfinished project to be given newly
firm foundations after centuries of misuse; modernity is the discourse of
violence, the first and last metaphor of imperialism, a narrative at last being
interrupted; modernity is a stage necessary to capitalist growth and a
reflection of it (though of course capitalist growth is itself a reflection of
modernity). (Me? I'm an unreconstructed dialectician. You need to know this in
order to make sense of why I'm reviewing these books.) What one believes about
postmodernity is, of course, likely to be dependent on one's simultaneously
established assumptions about modernity; thus the postmodern condition will be
described as "bad", "good", or merely "true" in terms of this same triad. Yet,
"whatever their differences, Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson all recognize
fragmented or decentered experience as a constituent of the postmodern
- Henry Louis
A reinterpretation from the margins of these three now central positions is
under way, and has, I believe, been under way for a few years:
Though I say above that I find "generally convincing" the notion that
postmodernism is characterized by the presentation of a decentered human
subjectivity, I am not convinced that most theoretical or critical accounts
adequately engage certain key sociopolitical factors in that decenteredness. It
is also clear, too, that to expound on those factors — as I seek to do in this
study — is necessarily to revise the received idea of what constitutes the
subjective fragmentation that characterizes the postmodern era. Rather than
conceiving that fragmentation as deriving solely from the various technological,
economic, and philosophical developments that I cite above as reorienting our
idea of human subjectivity in the late twentieth century, I would like to
suggest that postmodern decenteredness may actually be a function of the
increasing implication in the "general" culture of what are usually thought of
as socially marginal or "minority" experiences.3
To what extent is postmodernism simply the already present modernism of the
socially marginal? Why is it that as early as 1903 the United States' first
well-known black intellectual, indeed, the country's first sociologist of note,
W.E.B. Du Bois, was able to posit "double consciousness" — "the special
difficulties arising from black internalization of an American identity"4
— as the fragmented space from which intellectual work is necessarily conducted?
Double consciousness emerges from the unhappy symbiosis between three modes
of thinking, being, and seeing. The first is racially particularistic, the
second nationalistic in that it derives from the nation state in which the
ex-slaves but not yet citizens find themselves, rather than from their
aspiration towards a nation state of their own. The third is diasporic or
hemispheric, something global and occasionally universalist. This trio was woven
into some unlikely but exquisite patterns in Du Bois' thinking.5
The collective project of these two books, as part of a critique that is
happening far more widely, is to interrogate the extent to which the
multiplicity and fragmentariness of black (as one example — Harper uses African
descent as only one example of social marginality, among gender, class, and
sexuality) intellectual theorization all this century has presupposed ideas
that, with an irony that cuts many ways, have become "central" for intellectual
thought today. In asking such a question, both Harper and Gilroy clearly imply
(following Houston Baker's Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance6
at least this far) that modernity itself always looked different to those
artists and writers whose marginality has been socially imposed rather than
sought, striven for, or self-chosen.
If Gilroy's argument primarily addresses issues about black diaspora
consciousness, it is because he sees his project as the creation of certain key
concepts for those of us in pan-African studies. Thus he develops the idea of
diaspora to provide an "anti-anti- essentialist" description of the meaning of
blackness, which no longer depends on race as the already given content of an
individual body but rather suggests that race is produced by the geographical
circulation of diasporic bodies. Black modernity is then described as a matrix
of cross-cultural links that is in no sense "traditional" or "authentic", but is
nevertheless significant and ongoing enough to support the adjective "black" in
the title. In making this argument, Gilroy provides new ways of inserting the
discussion of modernism into contemporary black studies. If (by contrast) Harper
refuses to stick with a specific marginal group/adjective, and chooses, nearly
at random (but always bounded by the United States) multiple forms of social
marginality (reading working class Nathaniel West, female Anais Nin, and lesbian
Djuna Barnes, as well as black Gwendoline Brooks and Ralph Ellison), it is
because he imagines that his audience is first of all framed by its theoretical
interest in the triad of positions on modernism, rather than its interest in
black studies. For this audience he inserts the general category of social
marginality into a discussion that has otherwise ignored it. If he can
demonstrate that the same issues that our triad sees as fundamental to
postmodernism have been present in socially marginal writers for most of the
century, Harper will be able to posit socially central writers like Coover,
Pynchon, and Barthelme (often cited as privileged practitioners of the
postmodern) as themselves of marginal theoretical interest for being unlike
their predecessors who first explored the potential meanings of marginality,
doubleness, and fragmentation.
If like me you are convinced that such arguments provide a necessary
corrective and supplement to contemporary theorizations of the postmodern, two
theoretical challenges remain unmet.
What is the epistemological status of the forms of determination (or
overdetermination) implied by a notion like "social marginality", or in the
multifaceted, matrix-like description of blackness as a diasporic metacommunity?
What, precisely, is "the social", such that it has been able to determine
multiplicity and fragmentation in different groups at different times?
What is the effect on communities or individuals which possess "double
consciousness" when large numbers of intellectuals from central positions become
multiply conscious without bringing an end to, let's say, statistically
significant forms of marginality (segregation, comparative income levels,
IMF/world bank monetarist neo- colonialism). What does a double consciousness of
postmodern fragmentation look like?
Though neither writer explicitly answers these questions, it would appear
that Harper's leanings are strongly Jamesonian, implying some sort of
dialectical folding back, in which presently the socially marginal are forced to
maintain the relative integrity of categories (insisting on continuing to define
"the difference that difference makes", in Michael Eric Dyson's turn of phrase7). Thus Harper
concludes his book by arguing that the film The Commitments, by explicitly
juxtaposing the marginalization of Irish in Belfast with the production of soul
music in the United States, fails to address the specificity of either location
and as such obscures "the relative positions of key social constituencies",8 a failure that can
only lead to political ineffectuality. Gilroy, by contrast, would probably
(though it is unclear) lean toward a politics of the subversion of identity like
that laid out in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, in which case the establishment
of locational narratives can only be for the purpose of subverting or unfixing
the solidity of the given location — surely his detailed undoing of notions of
"authentic" blackness and his citation to Butler as analogously
anti-anti-essentialist would suggest this. But I'm not sure. If the general
political tendencies of the two books are as I've laid out, one would certainly
wonder why Harper has constructed the overarching category of "marginality" in
the first place, and why Gilroy insists on the positive value of blackness
(where Butler insists on the nonpositivity of "woman").
I would suggest that only some notion of determination which is multiple
(since causality never runs in only one direction, or evenly) but also
dialectical (since social determination necessarily implies materialist
categories) can give meaning to terms like "social marginality" and "blackness"
without reifying them. Jameson may remain valuable even after he has been
thoroughly criticized for what he ignores.
Kenneth Mostern is working on a manuscript titled
Autobiography and Community Identity: On the Meanings of Race in Black
Intellectual History. He is a graduate student in the department of
Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
1. "Authority, (White) Power and the (Black) Critic; It's All Greek
To Me", in Cultural Critique 7 (Fall 1987), p. 34.
2. Phillip Bryan Harper, Framing the Margins: On the Social
Logic of Postmodern Culture. (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994), p. 8.
3. Ibid., pp. 11-12.
4. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double
Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1993), p. 126.
5. Ibid., p. 127.
6. Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance
(Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987).
7. Reflecting Black (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press,
1993), p. 141.
8. Harper, Framing the Margins, p. 195.
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