The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death

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Overview

During the 1940s, in response to the charge that his writing was filled with violence, Richard Wright replied that the manner came from the matter, that the “relationship of the American Negro to the American scene [was] essentially violent,” and that he could deny neither the violence he had witnessed nor his own existence as a product of racial violence. Abdul R. JanMohamed provides extraordinary insight into Wright’s position in this first study to explain the fundamental ideological and political functions of the threat of lynching in Wright’s work and thought. JanMohamed argues that Wright’s oeuvre is a systematic and thorough investigation of what he calls the death-bound-subject, the subject who is formed from infancy onward by the imminent threat of death. He shows that with each successive work, Wright delved further into the question of how living under a constant menace of physical violence affected his protagonists and how they might “free” themselves by overcoming their fear of death and redeploying death as the ground for their struggle.

Drawing on psychoanalytic, Marxist, and phenomenological analyses, and on Orlando Patterson’s notion of social death, JanMohamed develops comprehensive, insightful, and original close readings of Wright’s major publications: his short-story collection Uncle Tom’s Children; his novels Native Son, The Outsider, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream; and his autobiography Black Boy/American Hunger. The Death-Bound-Subject is a stunning reevaluation of the work of a major twentieth-century American writer, but it is also much more. In demonstrating how deeply the threat of death is involved in the formation of black subjectivity, JanMohamed develops a methodology for understanding the presence of the death-bound-subject in African American literature and culture from the earliest slave narratives forward.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Abdul JanMohamed reworks the concept of ‘social death’ to read Richard Wright in comprehensive and provocative ways. At the same time, he offers a new account of slavery, rewriting Hegel and psychoanalysis along the way to rethink ‘lordship and bondage’ as the ‘death contract’ and to discern the precise and various ways in which autonomy and freedom are asserted. This book is enormously impressive in its sweep, its detailed consideration of Wright’s corpus, its theoretical ambitions, and the new and compelling paradigms it offers for rethinking slavery, death, and resistance.”—Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley

“This is a path-breaking, imaginative, comprehensive, indeed magisterial, analysis of the ways in which death functions in the construction of black subjectivities in Richard Wright’s fiction, autobiographies, and journalism. It both expands our understanding of Wright’s achievement and models a way in which the spectre of violence, lynching, and death may be seen to shadow and shape a trajectory of African American cultural production.”—Valerie Smith, author of Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334880
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2005
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 838,178
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Abdul R. JanMohamed is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa and a coeditor of The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse.

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Read an Excerpt

The Death-Bound-Subject

RICHARD WRIGHT'S ARCHAEOLOGY OF DEATH
By Abdul R. JanMohamed

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3488-0


Chapter One

Introduction

THE CULTURE OF SOCIAL-DEATH

Richard Wright's first published short story, "Big Boy Leaves Home," consists of a rite of initiation in which the protagonist, generically named Big Boy, reaches his "manhood" by being forced to witness the shooting of two of his friends and the slow, gruesome lynching of another. In Wright's last published novel, The Long Dream, which revisits the "same" scene (the parallelism of which will be explored in detail in chapter 7), a similar initiation requires Fishbelly, the young protagonist of this bildungsroman, to reach his "manhood" also by watching a lynching, less gruesome, but no doubt more traumatic: not only is he forced by the white chief of police to watch his father, who has been shot by the police, bleed to death slowly, but he is also prevented from summoning medical help, thereby being compelled to share the guilt of his father's death. In between these two fictional events, Wright complains-at about the age of eleven, when, after a very traumatic childhood, he is caught up in the frenzied white riots and numerous lynchings in the South that followed the First World War-that, though "I had never in my life been abused bywhites, ... I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings" (Black Boy, 72). Though all the evidence available to us strongly suggests that Wright was a gentle, loving man, the evidence is equally clear that his fiction is replete with gruesome, deathly violence: lynching, murder, and violent struggles to the death are the leitmotifs that tie his novels and short stories together into a coherent body of work. Wright was clearly obsessed with death and lynching. For instance, his first three fictional works, a collection of five short stories and two novels, contain a total of twenty violent, gruesome deaths, including those of all but two of the protagonists. Though critics have commented on the ubiquitousness of violence in Wright's work, it is curious that no one has yet fully articulated the fundamental ideological and political functions of death in his work and life.

This is understandable to some extent: death is an eventuality that none of us want to examine too closely; it immediately, universally, and perhaps "automatically" provokes disavowal of one sort or another. But, if we are willing and able to bracket our fears and anxieties about death and look closely at its political valences and functions in Wright's fiction, something remarkable is revealed. I hope to demonstrate by the end of this study that Wright conducted, partly through a series of conscious and deliberate decisions, but partly through extremely sharp intuitive, often unconscious choices, a systematic and thorough archaeology of what I will call "the death-bound-subject," that is, of the subject who is formed, from infancy on, by the imminent and ubiquitous threat of death. The death-bound-subject is a deeply aporetic structure to the extent that he is "bound," and hence produced as a subject, by the process of "unbinding." The processes through which that aporetic subject is produced by the threat of death constitute the fundamental object of this study. Put in their simplest forms, the cardinal questions posed in the rest of this book are the following: What happens to the "life" of a subject who grows up under the threat of death, a threat that is constant yet unpredictable? How does that threat permeate the subject's life? How far and how finely does death penetrate into the capillary structures of subjectivity (considered here as a psychopolitical construct)? And, finally, once death has percolated into the innermost reaches of subjectivity, what kinds of effects does it have, and how does it manifest itself eventually in the comportment, attitudes, and actions of the death-bound-subject? Though Wright never fully articulated the questions in this manner, I hope to demonstrate that they furnish the underlying teleological structure of his work.

I will be arguing that Wright's pursuit of these questions was unconsciously tenacious to the point of obsession and that each of his fictional works excavates progressively deeper layers of the same site, that on which the formation of the death-bound-subject took place. And what Wright's archaeology of death unearths is neither idiosyncratic nor, ultimately, eccentric; it is, indeed, extreme, but not eccentric. Because it throws everything into stark relief, it is the kind of extremity that better allows us to comprehend the "normal" effects of the threat of death on the formation of subjectivity. And, because it can do this, it opens up a door to the critical understanding of a much larger formation and tradition. My work on Wright has convinced me that there exists a powerful, if somewhat submerged, tradition within African American literature and culture that continually and systematically meditates on the effectivity of the threat of death as a mode of coercion. I say "somewhat submerged" because the tradition's existence-from the earliest slave narratives (Equiano's reporting of slaves being buried alive, Douglass's classic battle with Covey, and Jacobs's equally classic form of resisting slavery by a prolonged sequestering of herself in her grandmother's garret, a space roughly twice the size of a coffin, where she almost dies several times), to the powerful contemporary reevaluations and renewed articulations (a remarkable cluster of feminist novels such as Beloved, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Corregidora that investigate the ramifications of death's invasion of the very site of biological and cultural reproduction, reconceptualizations such as Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying and John Edgar Wideman's The Lynchers, and the lyrics of rappers such as Tupac and Biggie)-is, in many ways, self-evident. While it would be easy to demonstrate that the writers participating in these literary and cultural formations are perfectly aware of the existing tradition and of their continued revision of it, the professional, academic, critical analyses of this tradition, with the exception of some initial forays into the field (discussed below), have not done it much justice.

While there is no space here for even a very rough and preliminary sketch of this tradition, a few remarks are necessary to contextualize my study of Wright. In the first place, it must be noted that this entire tradition is profoundly, if implicitly, anti-Hegelian in its view of the effectivity of "death" and "work" in the formation of slavery. Second, the tradition has remained somewhat submerged also partly because it is articulated in a form that is not adequately appreciated by contemporary "rationalist" and "exegetic" preoccupations in the realm of "theory": I would say that this tradition constitutes, for the lack of a better term, a kind of "wisdom," that is, a form of knowledge that brilliantly combines "practical" and "theoretical" knowledges about the effectivity of the threat of death as a mode of coercion; consequently, this form of knowledge surpasses, in my opinion, both the practical and theoretical forms, but is, for that very reason, less easily discernible via relatively conventional analytic procedures. It is my conviction, however, that, viewed from a somewhat different critical perspective, this tradition reveals itself as an amazing archive of knowledge about the destructive effects of terroristic coercion and the means and effort required to resist and, indeed, triumph over such coercion; if read from a certain angle, the political wisdom contained in this archive can be revealed in a way that would illuminate infinitely our understanding of the psychological, social, political, and economic dynamics of the processes of oppression and resistance. To be sure, the historical analysis of U.S. slave society has done a remarkable job in this area; however, this can be claimed less easily in the field of literary history. The latter gives us access to the process of what Foucault calls "subjection" (i.e., subjugation and subjectification) in a way that the former cannot, and it is the knowledge of subjection at the point of death, to which African American literary history testifies so brilliantly, that we need to theorize more systematically. And I hope that this study of ways in which "subjectivities" are bound and hence formed by the threat of death can play a useful role in illuminating a small portion of the "political wisdom" that constitutes this archive. Finally, I would like to note that this tradition of African American literary meditation about the death-bound-subject evinces a fascinating transformation-from relatively "impersonal" meditations of the early slave narratives, such as those of Jacobs and Douglass, to progressively more "subjective" presentations of the same fundamental experiences. This gradual shift, in which Wright occupies an important median point, reaches its climax generally in the work of Toni Morrison and most particularly in Beloved, which, by focusing so relentlessly and unsentimentally on an instance of infanticide that is fueled by undeniable maternal love, raises that aporetic structure of the death-bound-subject to its excruciatingly painful and profoundly illuminating climax. It is impossible for me not to read and understand the entire tradition retrospectively through the lens of Beloved, and I must confess that I would probably have been unable to understand and analyze Wright's archaeology of death quite in the way that I have without the retrospective illumination provided by Beloved.

Before proceeding to the methodological considerations involved in this study, a note about the historical "cohesion" of this tradition is no doubt in order. I do not mean to imply that this tradition of literary meditation about the deployment of death as a form of coercion and about the most efficacious forms of resistance is totally seamless across the historical watershed that ended slavery. Yet I would argue that, in spite of all the not insignificant differences between ante- and postbellum societies brought about by the legal end of slavery, the one feature that links the two periods is the reliance of both societies on the threat of death and the systematic use of lynching to coerce subject populations. If we examine the sociopolitical conditions in the South after the turn of the century in terms of the three constitutive elements of slavery defined by Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death)-powerlessness, social-death, and lack of honor-the effective practical, if not legal, continuation of slavery becomes readily apparent. Whatever the changes in the status of power or honor or other aspects of sociocultural condition of the descendants of slaves, historical records and subjective testimony leave little doubt that lynching continued to play the dominant role in the political suppression of black Americans in the South. A variety of direct and indirect means-literacy tests, property qualifications, poll taxes (payable months in advance and for several consecutive years), and, finally, purely subjective criteria like tests of character and reputation-were used to disfranchise blacks from equal participation in the hegemonic field (Newby). And the political disfranchisement was enforced by the use of violence in general and lynching in particular.

(The overwhelming reliance of Jim Crow society on the threat of death and on actual lynchings to control African Americans in the Southern states makes it quite similar in certain fundamental ways to antebellum society, in which, as Patterson [Slavery and Social Death] has argued, the slave was effectively controlled by the fact that he lived under a conditionally commuted death sentence. It is the systematic reliance on the threat and deployment of actual-death in both societies that constitutes, in my view, and, more important, in Wright's view as well, a fundamental continuity in the process of coercion. Thus, throughout the rest of this study, I shall use the terms slave and black interchangeably to refer to the black man or woman living in the South between 1900 and the 1950s as well as to Wright's characters. While there are many significant differences between antebellum and Jim Crow societies, from a heuristic viewpoint the bracketing of these differences for the purposes of this study will prove, I believe, quite productive. This is, perhaps, also the place to note that the differences are, in some sense, also very significantly productive. That is, because Wright "enjoyed" certain kinds of freedoms that his slave ancestors did not, and because, in spite of this relative freedom, he felt as if he were a slave, he constitutes the perfect "witness" to slavery: someone who is simultaneously within and outside the experience of slavery.)

Estimates of the number of lynchings vary considerably since no official records were kept precisely because of the extralegal nature of lynchings. According to I. A. Newby, between "1900 and 1910 an average of more than ninety Negroes was lynched each year in the South, and [white] race riots frequently accompanied disfranchisement" (143). White violence increased with black political assertiveness: the return of black soldiers from the First World War was greeted with twenty-five white riots throughout various urban centers between June and December 1919 (Newby, 120). According to Trudier Harris, 4,951 lynchings took place in the United States between 1882 and 1927 (7); however, from the viewpoint of this study, Harris's insistence that lynchings constituted the most powerful determining factor in the lives of black sharecroppers in the South is more important than the figures (95). Patterson estimates "more than five thousand lynchings of Afro-American people in America between the end of the Civil War and 1968" (Rituals of Blood, 173). According to Leon Litwack:

Between 1890 and 1917, to enforce deference and submission to whites, some two to three blacks were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week. That estimate is conservative. In the 1890s, lynching claimed some 139 lives each year; 75 percent of them black; the numbers declined in the next decade, but the percentage of black victims rose to 90 percent. As many if not more black were victims of legal lynchings (quick trials and executions) and private white violence and "nigger hunts," murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers or creeks. (284)

Some recent studies have played varied roles in my overall understanding of lynching as a political disciplinary practice and of the ideological implications of that practice. However, my study of Wright's fiction and autobiographies is not located on the same terrain as theirs; for me, lynching, while supremely important as a starting point, is an "instrumental" phenomenon rather than the primary object of study-instrumental in that it is the occasion that is designed to produce the terror of death. My focus will be on the effects of that terror on the processes of subject formation and, hence, on the intrasubjective structures of the death-bound-subject and, subsequently, on the nature of the sociopolitical relations toward which that subject is propelled by being aporetically "bound" by death.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Death-Bound-Subject by Abdul R. JanMohamed Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction : the culture of social-death 1
2 Uncle Tom's children : dialectics of death 45
3 Native son : symbolic-death 77
4 Black boy : negation of death-bound-subjectivity 138
5 The outsider : patricidal desires 175
6 Savage holiday : matricide and infanticide 210
7 The long dream : death and the paternal function 233
8 Renegotiating the death contract 266
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