Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory

Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory

by Houston A. Baker, Jr.

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Relating the blues to American social and literary history and to Afro-American expressive culture, Houston A. Baker, Jr., offers the basis for a broader study of American culture at its "vernacular" level. He shows how the "blues voice" and its economic undertones are both central to the American narrative and characteristic of the Afro-American way of telling it.


Relating the blues to American social and literary history and to Afro-American expressive culture, Houston A. Baker, Jr., offers the basis for a broader study of American culture at its "vernacular" level. He shows how the "blues voice" and its economic undertones are both central to the American narrative and characteristic of the Afro-American way of telling it.

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Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature

A Vernacular Theory

By Houston S. Baker Jr.

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16084-9


Figurations for a New American Literary History: Archaeology, Ideology, and Afro-American Discourse

The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Henry Adams, The Education

Relics of by-gone instruments of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic forms of society as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. Karl Marx, Capital

(The bluesman Big Bill Broonzy sings:

I worked on a levee camp and the extra gangs too

Black man is a boy, I don't care what he can do.

I wonder when—I wonder when—I wonder when will I get to be called a man.

Big Bill's stanza signifies American meaning embedded in rocky places. Archaeology employs tropological energy to decode such meaning. It foregrounds voices raised at the margin of civilization, at the very edge of the New World wilderness:

The first time I met the blues, mama, they came walking through the woods,

The first time I met the blues, baby, they came walking through the woods,

They stopped at my house first, mama, and done me all the harm they could.

Little Brother Montgomery's stanza implies harm's unequivocal conquest by a blues voice rising. From piney woods, sagging cabins, and settling levees vernacular tones rise, singing a different America. Archaeology foregrounds and deciphers this song, and when its work is finished what remains is not history as such, but a refigured knowledge. Louis Althusser makes explicit the distinction betweenhistory as suchandhistorical knowledge:

We should have no illusions as to the incredible force of that prejudice, which still dominates us all, which is the very essence of contemporary historicity, and which attempts to make us confuse the object of knowledge with the real object, by affecting the object of knowledge with the very "qualities" of the real object of which it is knowledge. The knowledge of history is no more historical than the knowledge of sugar is sweet.

The result of archaeology's endeavors is: "A mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words." The song is a sign of an Afro-American discourse that strikingly refigures life on American shores.)


In 1822, Gideon Mantell, an English physician with a consuming interest in geology and paleontology, made a routine house call in Sussex. On the visit, he discovered a fossilized tooth that seemed to be a vestige of a giant, herbivorous reptile. Since he had nothing in his own collection comparable to his find, he traveled to the Hunterian Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London and spent hours searching drawers of fossil teeth attempting to find a comparable specimen. When he had nearly exhausted the possibilities, a young man who was also working at the Hunterian, and who had heard of the Sussex physician's quest, presented him with the tooth of an iguana. The match was nearly perfect. On the basis of the similarity between the tooth of the extant iguana and his own fossil discovery, Mantell named the bearer of the older tooth Iguanodon ("iguana tooth"). In 1825, his paper "Notice on the Iguanodon, a Newly-Discovered Fossil Reptile from the Sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex" appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London.

As the nineteenth century progressed and the fossil record expanded, it became apparent that Iguanodon was but one member of a family of reptiles that, in 1841, received the name "dinosaur" from Sir Richard Owen. By mid-century, it was possible to construct a feasible model of Iguanodon. Available evidence (including assumed homologies with living animals) indicated that the prehistoric creature was a giant, quadripedal reptile with a small triangular spike on his nose. The concrete and plaster model that was built on this plan in 1854 can be seen in England today.

The story of Iguanodon does not conclude at mid-century, however. The fossil record was substantially augmented later in the century by a splendid find of Iguanodon fossils at Bernissart, Belgium. Louis Dollo, the French paleontologist who oversaw the Bernissart site, was able to revise all existing models. Through cross-skeletal comparison and ethological inference, he concluded that Iguanodon was, in fact, bipedal. Moreover, he persuasively demonstrated that the triangular bone that had been taken for a nose spike was actually a horny thumb spike peculiar to dinosaurs.

The mode of thought implied by the Iguanodon example is similar to the mode of descriptive analysis which Michel Foucault has designated the "archaeology of knowledge." Foucault writes of his project: The archaeology of knowledge "does not imply the search for a beginning; it does not relate analysis to geological excavation. It designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said [i.e., a family of concepts] at the level of its existence" (p. 131). He defines a family of concepts as a discourse (p. 56). To analyze the mode of existence of a discourse (e.g., medicine, natural history, economics) is to engage in archaeological description.

The aim of Foucault's analysis is to accomplish in relationship to families of concepts what Dollo and others accomplished in relationship to Iguanodon. Beginning with limited fossil evidence, nineteenth-century investigators eventually arrived at an informed model of Iguanodon that contextualized the prehistoric reptile and rendered a descriptively adequate image of his living presence. The process through which this model was achieved is known to anthropologists as "descriptive integration." It stands in contrast to archaeological excavation designed to unearth the remains of ancient life.

A more explicit definition of Foucault's project enables one to grasp its usefulness and effects in the study of American literary history. As a method of analysis, the archaeology of knowledge assumes that knowledge exists in discursive formations whose lineage can be traced and whose regularities are discoverable. Hence, the mystery and sacrosanctness that often surround "bodies of knowledge" or "disciplines" are replaced, under the prospect of the archaeology of knowledge, by an acknowledgment of such bodies as linguistic constructs.

Rather than attempting to determine the nature of the human subject's access to, or generation of, knowledge, analyses conducted under the prospect of Foucault's project are designed to plot the line of a family of concepts from its origin in the statement to its full-blown manifestation within a constellation of families. In the analysis that follows in the present chapter, for example, the movement is from American historical statements such as "religious man," "errand," and "wilderness" to a consideration of American History as a discourse situated among kindred families such as Natural History and Economics. The goal of the archaeology of knowledge as project is to advance the human sciences beyond a traditional humanism, focusing scholarly attention on the discursive constitution and arbitrary figurations of bodies of knowledge rather than on the constitution and situation of human subjects (traditional concerns of humanism). The analytical work begins with the minimal, meaningful unit of discourse: i.e., the statement.


For Foucault, the "statement" is the fundamental unit of discourse. He defines the statement as a materially repeatable (i.e., recorded) linguistic function. A chart, graph, exclamation, table, sentence, or logical proposition may serve as a statement (pp. 79–87). Statement thus seems to occupy the status of those linguistic gestures (even ones so minimal as letters or sounds of the alphabet) to which we refer when we say, "that makes a statement." Moreover, statement seems to imply a variety of enunciative positions rather than a unique utterance by a determinate speaker. The distribution and combination of statements in a discourse are regulated, according to Foucault, by discoverable principles or laws (p. 56). These laws of formation are referred to as a "discursive formation" (p. 38). They make possible the emergence of the notions and themes of a discourse.

Foucault's concern to set his archaeology in nonsubjective terms leads him to talk of statements and laws rather than of, say, speakers and intentions. His method is thus opposed to explanatory accounts that regard human knowlege as the "majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject" (p. 55). He insists, instead, that the locations and authorities for discourse are more productive analytical considerations than the motives, intentions, or transcendent subjectivity of individual speakers. In medicine, for example, doctors, researchers, and clinicians are authorities. But they must speak from institutional sites such as hospitals, laboratories, medical schools, and clinics if their statements are to count as official. Moreover, they are confined to a particular succession of statements and a particular group of objects if their statements are to count as official medical discourse. Hence, discourse—its sites, objects, and enunciative positions—conditions the speaking subject rather than vice versa. Foucault's archaeology is statement centered: "We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrence; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes" (p. 28).

In his attempt to address such matters, Foucault insists that an explanatory model for any family of concepts must be based on a penetrating analysis of the primary conceptual structures of a discourse and the "discursive constellation" (i.e., the group of contemporary or related discourses) of which it forms a part (p. 66). He writes: "Archaeology, may ... constitute the tree of derivation of a discourse. It will place at the root, as governing statements, those that concern the definition of observable structures and the field of possible objects, those that prescribe the forms of description and the perceptual codes that it can use, those that reveal the most general possibilities of characterization, and thus open up a whole domain of concepts to be constructed, and, lastly, those that, while constituting a strategic choice, leave room for the greatest number of subsequent options" (p. 147).

To survey the discursive family of "American history" from the perspective of the archaeology of knowledge is to discover certain primary linguistic functions that serve as governing statements. "Religious man," "wilderness," "migratory errand," "increase in store," and "New Jerusalem" are, in my estimation, essential governing structures of a traditional American history. The first—"religious man"—signals a devout believer in God for whom matters of economics and wealth are minimal considerations. "Wilderness" refers to a savage territory devoid of human beings and institutions. "Migratory errand" connotes a singular mission bestowed by God on religious man, prompting him to sail the Atlantic and settle the wilderness. The "New Jerusalem" is the promised end of the errand; it is the prospective city of God on earth. It represents the transformation of the wilderness into a community of believers who interpret an "increase in store" as secular evidence of an abiding spiritual faithfulness.

The graphics of most school history texts—with their portrayals of bleak and barren Pilgrims' landings on New World shores and a subsequent "increase in store" and Thanksgiving—offer ample representations of these primary conceptual structures. The mode of dress, physiognomy, and bearing of the foregrounded figures in such graphics normally suggest seventeenth-century European man as the epitome of religious man. Generally in such pictures non-Europeans are savagely clad, merging with the wilderness. In their proximity to the wilderness, non-Europeans are justifiably interpreted as less than human. The written accounts from which such graphics derive establish quite explicit boundaries of what might be called ethnic exclusion. Describing the Pilgrims' arrival in the wilderness, William Bradford writes: "It is recorded in Scripture as a mercy to the Apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians [Native Americans], when they met them ... were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise."

Traditional American literary history is a branch of American history. As a kindred body of concepts, it reflects its parentage with rigorously derivative logic, reading the key statements of the larger discourse onto the ancestry of literary works of art. The literary texts included in Robert Spiller's influential model of American literary history, for example, are arranged and explained in terms of an immigration-and-development pattern of events. And in a recent essay, Spiller clearly implies that his literary-historical model, like the discursive family of which it forms a branch, is characterized by boundaries of ethnic exclusion:

We can ... distinguish three kinds of ethnic groups which were not parts of the main frontier movement. These are the immigrant groups which came to this country comparatively late; the blacks who were brought to this country under special circumstances; and the Jews who in all their history have mingled with, but rarely become totally absorbed into, any alien culture. All three are of great importance to the American identity today as expressed in its ever-changing literature, but only immigrations from European countries other than Great Britain followed a course close enough to our model to suggest inclusion here, even though the the remarkable achievements of the Jews and the blacks in contemporary American literature suggest that—given a slightly different model—their contributions to our culture would lend themselves to similar analyses, [p. 15]

If one were to produce graphics for the history implied by Spiller, they would consist of a foregrounded European author (or a succession of such authors) turning out ever more sophisticated literary works of art. Spiller's notion of a "basic evolutionary development" of American literature (p. 15) is equivalent to the larger historical discourse's notion of European, or Euro-American, progress toward the "New Jerusalem." Within the larger discourse, God's divine plan is assumed to reveal (and, ultimately, to fulfill) itself only through the endeavors of religious, European men. And just as such men are considered sole builders of the New Jerusalem, so, too, they are considered exclusive chroniclers of their achievements in the evolutionary phases of an American national literature.

A secularized Hegelian version of the framework implied by traditional American history would claim that the American Volkgeist represents the final form of absolute Spirit on its path through history. The millennium, the self-awareness of Spirit, the prophetically augured "fullness of time" are all embodied, in other words, in that primary conceptual structure of American historical discourse—the New Jerusalem. Similarly, the world triumph of an absolute literary creativity finds its ground properly prepared in the evolutionary labors of American writers. In his brilliant study American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch demonstrates that American authors repeatedly conflated New World literary and spiritual missions by adopting the prototypical, scriptural form of rhetoric known as the jeremiad. According to Bercovitch, such authors not only spoke of a divine destiny in America but also employed a divine form modified specifically for American ears.

Given the Providential framework of American history and literary history, it is not surprising that the authorities for the enunciation of historical statements have been ministers and college professors. The institutional sites guaranteeing the official status of such statements have been pulpits and academic classrooms. From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, ministerial and lay professors of the white American academy have been official spokespersons, working as teachers, scholars, critics, editors, and so on. Their ranks have been confined, for the most part, to European or Euro-American males. The early Providential aura of their instruction has been secularized through time, but one still receives the impression on reading their works that lay ministers are at work, taking account of and perpetuating literary workers and works of art that manifest adherence to the original errand—securing a New Jerusalem.


Excerpted from Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature by Houston S. Baker Jr.. Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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