Fooling Invisibility - A Bakhtinian reading of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"

Applying Bakhtinian theory to Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"

Master's Thesis 2009 109 Pages

American Studies - Literature




Chapter One Time-space and space-time: Consequences of the Chronotope in Invisible Man

Chapter Two The (Black) Grotesque Body

Chapter Three Memory and Identity Formation




There must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.

- Ralph Ellison

[…] the study of verbal art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract "formal" approach and an equally abstract "ideological" approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon - social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning.

- Mikhail Bakhtin

In the process of preparation for this MA thesis I was on the verge of abandoning the project. I was afraid Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man would become far too intimate for me, the subject too tense, the motifs too disturbing, the language too intrinsic. I feared that the novel would keep concealed and invisible the wealth I suspect between the lines. I did not, and I still don’t like Ellison’s Invisible Man. It felt uncomfortable and disturbing the first time I read it and with every additional reading the ambivalence I felt increased. I sympathize and fully share Ross Possnock’s sentiment on Ralph Ellison’s novel: “Ellison makes reading a ‘gymnast’s struggle’” (6). Despite all efforts, reading Invisible Man remained an uncomfortable and exhausting struggle until the very end. Eventually Invisible Man provided many experiences all adding up to some very disturbing revelations about my own “racialized” positionality. I began to scrutinize, my thought process pertaining to race, trying to expose any possible racist notions. The challenge was and still is painful and at times causes my mind to go blank in speechlessness. Words evaded me more than once.

It was an essay by Chris Cuomo that kept the project alive. Cuomo opens her paper with a powerful plea for help against her own whiteness.

“Could somebody please help me with my whiteness – that elusive form […] Whiteness is so fucking unfair, so boring, so overdetermined and fake, so tight, so ridiculous. I am sick of going to work where the professors are white and the custodians are black, […] most of the students are criminal justice majors, and everyone thinks that’s a big victory for diversity. I hate this racist world” (Cuomo in Yancy 27).

I will try to locate my own voice within Cuomo’s powerful plea as it challenges a racist world, which I am part of and that I have contributed to.

Locating my-“Self”

My reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man often left me perplexed, ridiculed and most certainly revealed to me my “fucking unfair” racist notions. The protagonist’s traumatic experiences are linked to whiteness - my own whiteness?! Ellison’s novel led me to scrutinize my thought process pertaining to race, trying to expose any possible racist notions.

This thesis is an extension of my scrutiny triggered by my desire to remain shaken in my “German-white-identity”. Chris Cuomo’s essay was an encouraging read, giving me reason to believe that my attitude would help me discern and encourage cracks in white supremacist identity and society. “When the foundation is cracking it’s best to avoid denial. […] Isn’t that what white folks need to allow? Must we not crack up in order to be something new?” (Cuomo in Yancy 30). By providing a Bakhtinian reading of Invisible Man I hope to conceptually disrupt white privileged identities and thereby deepen the cracks in supremacist structures.

Still, as a white person approaching Black-American culture and writing about it is fraught with white racist uncertainties. Thus, entering the African-American realm is problematic. Especially, since I am not socio-ontologically or existentially linked to any of the subaltern voices and bodies constituting the social environment of American (Black and White) society (I am German and I am white). Due to this fact, certain questions about my interest in the field of African-American studies arise and I am well aware of the fact that my interest in the field of African-American popular culture combined with my possible inner racist attitudes may arouse suspicion. However honorable my intentions, if one was to accuse me of being racist he may not be completely wrong. My interest in this field and my

fascination with something that differs so strongly from the cultural environment I grew up in could be racist in and of itself? Still, I hope not to be confused with those who show their admiration and interest in the subjects of African-American culture through emulation, perhaps better described by the term “Negrotarian” as coined by Zora Neal Hurston (qtd. in Strausbaugh 192).

White American writer Crispin Sartwell faced a problem very similar to mine. In his African-American studies Act Like You Know Sartwell cites Houston Baker: “For a white person to write about African-American life and popular culture would be colonializing and disingenuous” (7). This quote evoked in me feelings of guilt and apprehension – an anxiety that in the process of analyzing pieces of African-American (popular) culture, my white voice might eventually assume and exert oppressive powers over black Americans again. Thus, I want to be careful to put my voice into a place that processes, digests and exposes cultural phenomena like racism, supremacy and hegemony. I will follow Sartwell’s advice and try to remain visible in the text by fostering a rather autobiographical voice, instead of disguising it with a particularly divine academic tone (5-10).

Monique Roelofs argues vehemently against this approach stating that, “white self- declarations […] keep whites solidly ensconced in the center, causing pseudo-relationality and pseudo-reciprocity that must be analyzed and exposed” (Roelofs in Yancy 112). Roelofs’ doubts about white self-declaration, as reasonable as they may be, are in direct contradiction to their own subject. If it was no longer necessary to verify the color of voice in racial discourse, the discourse itself would be over. If color and descent would no longer matter then finally a liberating answer to W.E.B Du Bois’ crucial question to racialized identity, “How does it feel to be a problem?” could be an utterance of incomprehensiveness, a simple, profane “Huh?”!

Roelofs’ own contribution to George Yancy’s philosophical study on blackness and whiteness (white on white / black on black) proves that race discourse has not yet been received with disbelief and or incomprehensiveness. A “culturally neutral” etic account seems hardly possible (if not highly unsolicited), when it comes to entering the strenuous field of African-American studies from a white perspective. Hence, entering race discourse requires clarification of viewpoint and voice in order to level and create a common ground, on which exchange (scholarly and cultural) can be staged exhaustively by transparent (self-) identities.

Still, I hope to avoid passing off my whiteness as more critical than it can actually be. I am in pursuit of a well-balanced approach that does justice to the subject. My thesis is equally dedicated to the “decentering of (my own) whiteness from the grounds of cultural

normativity” (Roelofs 112) on the one hand, and to extending critical self-reflection to my racial self.

Thesis statement

My aim is to create a text whereby readers will be able to compare and engage critically the intersections found within and between the extensive cadre of both Bakhtinian thought and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Aleida Assmann’s introduction to cultural studies (Einführung in die Kulturwissenschaft) will provide the conceptual framework of my intersectional analysis. I have chosen Assmann’s introduction not least because its particular focus is on the latest developments in Anglistics and American studies.

Kein Zweifel: die Kulturwissenschaften haben innerhalb […] der Anglistik Fuß gefasst […] dieser Band strebt eine enge Verbindung an zwischen der Einführung in theoretische Konzepte einerseits und der Einführung in die Literatur […] andererseits. Ziel [des Einführungsbandes] ist es, einige Grundthemen zu identifizieren, in denen sich kulturwissenschaftliche Fragen verdichten, und diese mit literarischen Texten und Lektüren zu verbinden (Assmann 2006, 7-8).

From seven basic cultural issues (Zeichen (Signs), Medien (Media), Körper (Body), Zeit (Time), Raum (Space), Gedächtnis (Memory) und Identität (Identity)) Aleida Assmann derives fundamental questions around which all Anglistic and American cultural studies will evolve eventually.

Five of these seven basic issues will define the scope of this analysis: Time, space, body, memory and identity will be the vertices of this thesis. This framework sets out the leeway in which I hope to establish vivid dialogue and discussion between the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin and the Afro-American novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Since Bakhtin and Ellison worked in two entirely different cultural times and spaces, the question “Why should one attempt to read Ellison’s Invisible Man through the eyes of Bakhtin?” is quite pressing and needs to be posed. The answer to that question is of course closely linked to the works of both intellectuals. Both have exerted profound influence on literature and literates, on critics and on criticism and both were suffering under hegemonic oppression.

Ralph Ellison and Mikhail Bakhtin were both born in 1913. Whereas Ralph Ellison was born into a racist society that would constantly despise him for who or what he was, Mikhail Bakhtin acquired scorn and condemnation for his revolutionary thoughts. Due to his unsolicited mindset and the vicissitudes of Stalinist repression Bakhtin was sentenced to exile in Siberia. “Some of Bakhtin’s writings were published under pseudonyms, many of his collaborators were persecuted or killed” (Stam 2). Needless to say, that Bakhtin was “facing great difficulties gaining access to key texts” (Stam 2). Hence, it all the more astonishes that “Bakhtin uncannily foreshadowed major poststructuralist topoi” and anticipated aspects of:

Lacan’s “linguistic” reading of Freud in Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927), aspects of contemporary sociolinguistics (Pêcheux, Halliday, Lakoff) in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), and aspects of cultural anthropology (Victor Turner and Mary Douglas) and historical ethnography (Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie) in Rabelais and His World (written in 1940). (Stam 2)

Due to Bakhtin’s most comprehensive efforts in many human disciplines it does not seem too daring to apply some of his theory to Ellison’s Invisible Man. In his analysis of media and film Subversive Pleasures Robert Stam resolves all doubts about whether or not it is appropriate to apply Bakhtin to cultural phenomena profoundly different from the environment in which Bakhtin developed his theories.

In a very real sense Bakhtin’s ‘time’, […] is now, not only after structuralism but also after Stalin and after Bakhtin’s death, for his work addresses central issues of language, culture and politics and only now have the discourses emerged which, in dialogue with Bakhtin’s, can fully raise the ‘question of his questions.’ (Stam 3)

I will therefore take some of the concepts from Bakhtin’s works pertaining to the intersubjective constitution of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I am going to explore, respectively, the chronotope, carnivalesque resistance, social identities and processes of memory and identity formation. It is not my aim to reify Bakhtinian concepts by adding comprehensive knowledge; neither will I attempt to discover philosophical sources of the Russian intellectual. It is rather that I want to render visible Bakhtinian concepts in unexpected theoretical (pop-)cultural perspectives.

I am going to bring Bakhtinian thought into the fiercely contested realms between black and white culture. Since the depths of Bakhtin’s concepts delineate a future that reaches far beyond cultural boundaries I have reason to believe that applying them to Ellison’s novel is not simply justified but desirable. “Bakhtin’s work travels beyond its own borders to encounter […]” supplementary concepts (Peeren 8). Many of the interconnected concepts I will introduce, Bakhtin himself has not addressed explicitly. Still, they are implicitly promoted by Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic confrontation: Bakhtin assumes that any literary work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature. Voices and ideas of authors interpenetrate literary fabrics. A text does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by other works. Dialogic literature is in steady communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue is mutually extensive in both directions. Both, the previous work of literature as well as the present one are altered by the continuing dialogue.

The internal stratification of language is a prerequisite for the novel. ‘The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions.’ The links and interrelations lead to the novel’s dialogization. (Bakhtin 1981, 263)

Bakhtin’s presumption about any text never being the result of just one mind but a literary process consisting of many intermingling voices, ideas and authors is also acknowledged by Ralph Ellison. “By and large, the critics and readers gave me an affirmed sense of my multiple identity as a writer. You might know this within yourself, but to have it affirmed by others is of utmost importance. Writing is, after all, a form of communication” (Ellison 274).

Thus, I will introduce aspects of intercultural theory, identity-formation-theory, the exploration of cultural memory and religious concepts that have contributed to understanding the cultural entities of black and white.

Many of the issues Bakhtin touches upon are of universal and atemporal quality. Some of Bakhtin’s theory does not only provide openings into the cultural realm of African- America, but expands the spectrum of interpretation and reading of black cultural heritage. Invisible Man, just as the title suggests, is a text that only hesitantly discloses its secrets - a novel full of “gnomic passages […] and unsettling riddles” (Possnock 4). With the help of Bakhtin’s theory I hope to educe some of these secrets, which according to a poll in the Wilson Quarterly was ranked the most important American novel published since World War

II by American Literature professors. I will refrain from, providing further facts or drawing more autobiographic parallels between Bakhtin and Ellison, their time(s) of change and upheaval (many more parallels, and facts will become self-evident in the course of my arguments). In the following section, I will define, consider and explain some terminology that will be essential for my analysis.

Bakhtinian Terminology

Mikhail Bakthin’s thoughts provide a vast armamentarium for my intersectional analysis of Invisible Man. I will place some of Bakthin’s most central concepts in the context of the African-American novel Invisible Man to draw out implications for the ongoing discourse on race, especially concentrating on the issues evolving around blackness and whiteness. Despite the most obvious links between Bakhtin’s theories and African-American reality - i.e. matters of power/ powerlessness, material relations, structured social relations, and valuation structures the Bakhtinian concept of Dialogism suggests transition and interchange between the seemingly extraneous ideas of the Russian thinker and the voice of Black American writer Ralph Ellison. Julian Wolfrey evaporates the concept of Dialogism, explaining it as an indicator of “the polyphonic play of different voices or discourses in a text, without the assumption of a dominant, monolithic authorial position or voice” (32). More extensively Stam adds, that “Dialogism refers to the relation between the text and its others not only in the relatively crude and obvious form of argument – polemics and parody – but also in much more diffuse and subtle forms that have to do with overtones, pauses implied attitude” (14). Both definitions already hint at playfulness as a significant characteristic for Bakhtinian Dialogism. The dialogic vivacity fosters the “active social strategy for interacting with alterity”. This vivacity I would like to employ as a guiding principle for all my argumentations and observations throughout this thesis. Of all Bakhtin’s concepts the concept of Dialogism takes a key position:

Although there is no vertical hierarchy between Bakhtin’s interrelated conceptual categories, it is useful to regard “dialogism” as a category that “horizontally” embraces and comprehends the others. Bakhtin himself seems to authorize the impression that “dialogism” is central to all his work. “I hear voices everywhere,” Bakhtin was fond of saying, “and the dialogical relation between them.” (Stam 12-13)

Thus, this thesis is dedicated to creating a space where Bakhtin’s voice and the voices in Invisible Man can unfold and be heard. A space accounting for Bakhtin’s and Ellison’s discursive diversity, their broad conceptual scope and interrelated philosophical approaches vis-à-vis (racialized) power structures.

In that context I would like to stress that the boundaries of my framework are permeable in both directions; which means that voices leaking in from the outside will be just as welcome (if not desired), as a voice that resounds from within the demarcation lines. Bakhtin’s statement “I hear voices everywhere” can therefore be understood as an obligation to not only hear, but to listen and respond to the voices that might rise in the course of this thesis. The space Assmann’s vertices provide will thus give room to the implementation of Bakhtin’s concept of Dialogism. In a way this entire thesis is an attempt to illuminate some aspects of Dialogism and its relevance to Invisible Man specifically and to cultural studies generally (Stam).

I want to introduce briefly two more transhistorical and transcultural Bakhtinian concepts beforehand. They are of vital importance and due to their interrelatedness will (re-)appear in my thesis quite constantly. The first concept is the concept of Carnival or the carnivalesque. When Bakhtin speaks of Carnival in Rabelais and His World he does not refer to the few weeks of festivity that precede the Christian Lent as early modern Europe has come to know it. As Bakhtin’s work shows Carnival is inextricably linked to popular culture and “exemplifies popular culture as a performative act or event that takes place in the public sphere” (Peeren 172).1 Carnival for Bakhtin means a whole new perception of the constitution of social

environment. According to Bakhtin, Carnival is “complete liberation from seriousness, the atmosphere of equality […]. It is the people as a whole, but organized in their own way. It is outside of and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socioeconomic and political organization, which is suspended […]” (Rabelais and His World [RW] 255-256). Bakhtin’s concept of Carnival (especially when it is applied as a literary theory) is neither to be understood as anarchic proliferation (a connotation that might silently linger in the back of European minds), nor is Carnival a mode of guerilla warfare designed to overthrow existing power structures. “The Carnivalesque principle abolishes hierarchies, levels hierarchies” (Stam 86, Italics added). It is the notion of Carnival being a festive form flattening out all hierarchies to reinforce “joyful relativity of all structure and order, of all authority and all position […]” for a limited period of time (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics [PDP] 124). Carnival transcends political ambitions, since it (periodically) erupts from social disequilibrium. The freedom of Carnival is strongly dependent on the perseverance of a hierarchically structured environment. It even acknowledges the necessity of order, but mocks and parodies the absurd excesses “extravagating” from such strictly organized systems. Thus, Carnival is doubtlessly concerned with change only it does not achieve it by overpowering the gone-astray-system, but by immanently exposing its weaknesses.

The second concept I want to recover is that of the chronotope. Again, I will not be able to capture the many different notions lying therein. For now I will leave it at marking out the chronotope range for my project. The chronotope (literally, “time-space”) is a two- dimensional concept describing the spatiotemporal matrix, governing the ways in which structures in the novel emerge. “The chronotope mediates between two orders of experience and discourse: the historical and the artistic, providing fictional environment where historically specific constellations of power are made visible” (Stam 11). The concept of the chronotope will help to analyze many of the episodic experiences the narrator in Ellison’s novel goes through. From the very beginning of the narrator’s story signature moments are in close connection to a world of transition, slipping back and forth in time, bending time, revealing to the reader a strange perception on action. In the prologue the narrator eases into a “slightly different sense of time,” one in which “you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around” (Invisible Man [IM] 8). Then the reefer smoking narrator recalls memory of how a prizefighting yokel takes out his opponent by “stepping into his sense of time” (ibid.).

This famous passage already implicates all of the aspects I will examine in the following chapters: Carnival and its protagonists (the (black) grotesque bodies of yokel, fool and prankster), the connection between time, space and memory as well as the effect all these aspects have on identity formation. Constantly related to these issues is the question of perception and projection of whiteness and blackness, which is why a few thoughts on color, diversity, race and ethnicity will be useful.

On Race

This analysis partly concentrates on exploring racial implications, therefore it is necessary to evaluate the principal concepts of race, ethnicity and otherness and the way these concepts are related to processes of identity formation in Invisible Man

In their sociological study of Ethnicity and Race Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman define race, ethnicity and otherness as social constructs. By doing so, they already cut the ground from under racist feet, who build their racist belief on the assumption that their white supremacy and superiority is justified by natural force, i.e. genetic and divine determination, and not by social processes. Cornell and Hartmann discredit the belief that “[…] races are genetically distinct subpopulations of a given species” (21). This opinion is supported by Robert Jensen who quotes the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to prove that race as a biological concept is mere myth.

With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge… it has become clear that human population are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics indicates that most physical variation, about 94 percent, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6 percent of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them.” (15)

Now the question is, in which concept of race and/or otherness does the story’s narrator believe? From the very beginning of the story the narrator is profoundly immersed in his struggle to explore his “Self”. The prologue offers the narrators account of his bumping into a white man on the street. This incident provides an astonishing insight into the construction of race and otherness in Invisible Man.

One night I accidentally bumped into a man […] he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me […] I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy […] when it appeared to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was walking in midst of a walking nightmare […] a man almost killed by a phantom. (IM 4)

This passage offers a striking yet enigmatic perception of the nature of both, blackness and whiteness. The incident itself reveals more layers of rather complicated questions about the difference of seeing and “being seen” in a racial encounter. From the narrator’s perspective, the reader has to ascribe the white man’s “insolence” to the loss of one of his foremost privileges. Being bumped into the white man has to face blackness, when in the past he was allowed to deny it. “The white man’s resistance to this presence reminds us that “black invisibility” grows out of dominant culture’s privilege to see or not to see, a privilege substantiated by a history of longstanding material, legal, and social discrimination” (Cheng 65). The metaphor of invisibility thus is a reminder of the long history of a thorough exclusion of blackness from culture, politics and social life.

At the same time, the encounter raises another question: Is the white man really the only one who ejected his vision? The writing is quite ambiguous at this point and Anne Cheng answers it by asking a counter-question: “If the narrator bumps into the white man, is not the white man invisible to the black man?” Cheng concludes:

If we do not take the narrator’s account at its surface value, it is conceivable that the white man cursed the black man for his clumsiness rather than for racist reasons, that masculine rather than racial privilege may be at stake, and that the narrator’s detection of white man’s insolence may itself be a projection […] The issue is […] the realization that because of the historic relation between whites and blacks in this country the possibility of a racist response haunts every racial encounter. A pre-written script compels, if not dictates, this confrontation. (66)

The insight that invisibility, may it be black or white or both, is urged into presence by mere projection of racist prejudices and stereotypes is tantamount to the assumption that concepts of diversity are depending utterly on social and historic construction. The narrator’s encounter with the insolent blue eyes of whiteness also hints at the strategy of forcing otherness into invisibility. In his essay Seeing Blackness from Within the Manichean Divide author George Yancy identifies the “white gaze” as a means by which whites establish blackness (or more generally, non-whiteness) as evil and bestial, and so on.

To say that when I open my eyes, I “see” the world unmediated and direct, would give credence to the following: “To see” a Black body as lascivious, sexually promiscuous, apelike, physiologically primitive, and criminal, would imply “seeing” the black body

as it is. What is seen is what is known, and what is seen and known is what there is. […] what the colonizer knows about the colonized constitutes what the colonized is. […] the colonialist logic is that what the colonizer/ white is, the colonized/ Black is not. […] (238-248)

The white gaze thus results from involving a series of negations into the process of “seeing”. Very similar to the concept of the “white gaze” is that of Crispin Sartwell’s “ejected aestheticism”: “White Americans practice the purification or the mortification of the body by ejecting the body imaginatively into black persons, who become associated with the physical per se: sport, sex, violence, and dance, for instance” (11). The immediate effects of both concepts on blackness are very similar as well. “ The idea is to get the […] Black to conceptualize his/her identity/being as a bestial, hypersexual, criminal, violent, […]and as a problem” (Yancy 244). Blacks are forced to register the projected images and associations together with their meanings into their consciousnesses. A distinctive process is triggered and all the sudden Blacks have to come to terms with a body that has become unfamiliar, as if it “were taken outside [of them] and phenomenologically returned” as something “hampered and imprisoned by the myths of whiteness” (Yancy 250). Yancy goes on exposing the gaze and its effects as “white colonialist strategy […] to get the colonized Black to undergo a process of epistemic violence, a process whereby the Black begins to internalize all of the colonizer’s myth,” without having the slightest chance to escape it (244). Not even the struggle to self-centre perception, i.e. looking within oneself, would have preserved blackness from internalizing white mythmaking. Fjodor Michailowitsch Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man before the mirror” has to acknowledge the “impossibility of a direct relation with oneself, even in confession” (Dostoevsky qtd. in Stam 5). Bakhtin draws a parallel concluding that every person is suffering from the same phenomenon, that “one looks in and through the eyes of the other; one needs the other’s gaze to constitute oneself as self” (ibid.). The “white gaze” urges the African–American into an area of tension, where he/she is torn between internalizing white mythmaking and knowing about its falseness. In this dramatic situation the black consciousness splits. Or to put it in W.E.B. Du Bois’ terms the Black consciousness “doubles”.

“It is a peculiar situation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, A

Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled striving; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ((Du Bois 168-169)

The colonizing strategies (the “white gaze” and “ejected aestheticism”) and their immediate effects on black self-construction reveal the colonizers perception of race and otherness as an artificial construct that has been reinforced and viciously altered over and over again - always in accordance to white needs. White images of blackness have cured over decades. By projecting and ejecting certain qualities to otherness (white and black) all interracial exchange has become “racial”, “not because a black man and a white man are involved per se, but because of the over-determined history between them” (Cheng 66). Therefore it is safe to assume that race, ethnicity and otherness do neither originate in genetic determination nor in divine force (manifests through selective quoting of scripture). In fact, both are attempts to justify hegemonic and supremacist constructs, which by implication means, that the process of “constructivity” is reciprocal. “The social construction of the Black is dialectically linked to the construction of white […]”. I will return to the effects of “mutual constructivity” on whiteness when I come to analyzing processes of identity formation.

For now it was important to reconsider the concepts of race, ethnicity and otherness in Invisible Man. Having exposed these patterns as historical constructs, results in the necessity to relocate them in spaces of past and present. In the next chapter I will therefore look at chronotope issues in Invisible Man.

Chapter One Time-space and space-time – Consequences of the Chronotope in Invisible Man

Human existence cannot have a relationship with being unless it remains in the midst of nothingness.

- Martin Heidegger

For he has set a difficult beginning over against a confused ending, things which strive with one another that it may be known that not one of them is true.

- Ephrem Syrus, The S econd Discourse to Hypatius

Ralph Ellison’s novel begins and ends in fictional present. From the Prologue the reader learns that the narrator has found shelter in a coal cellar, which he has designed according to his needs. “The point now is that I found a home – or a hole in the ground, as you will. Now don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a “hole” it is damp and cold like a grave; there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole” (IM 6). From this spatio- temporal matrix of the hole the narrator’s voice resounds.

In the narrator’s story time bends, contracts and becomes visible on artistic scale. “Der Raum gewinnt Intensität, er wird in die Bewegung der Zeit, des Sujets, der Geschichte hineingezogen“ (Bachtin [Choronotopos] 7). The concept of the “chronotopos” is one of indefinite semantic value. In his work Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel Bakhtin describes the chronotopos as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (1996, 127). Signs which were thought to contain common meaning fissure and merge only to constitute an entirely new and unexpected nexus.

The chronotope is where the knots of narrative are tied and untied […]. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes

them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins […]. Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel’s abstract elements - philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect - gravitate towards the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (Chronotopos 250)

“The chronotope can thus be said to take the form of what Clifford James calls ‘articulations of tradition,’ defined as ‘generative components of peoplehood, ways of belonging to some discrete social time and place in an interconnected world’” (Peeren 41).

A variety of spatial snapshots will help to examine the texture of different ‘topoi’. My freezing of images does not engender the absence of temporal paradigms. On the contrary, time and history are still very present in the stillstand of the literary picture. In fact, the creative powers of time and history have significantly contributed to bringing the ‘in- between-space’ into existence. Esther Peeren hints that, “in denoting […] time and space as ‘time and space that belong inalienably to the subject, and to which the subject inalienably belongs,’ the narrative subjects and situations are ultimately produced by a particular time- space constellation (36). As a consequence of this reciprocal dependency, I conclude that it is simply impossible to separate time and space. However it is feasible to congeal literary scenery by ignoring the dynamics of time (the motion caused by temporal progression, not time itself). “Space begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (Foucault). Thus, in the following I will approach text passages as if they were still images, in which time is captured but not intervening actively. Within this world-on-hold I will be able to carefully examine the important spatial junctures inside the spatio-temporal matrix. I will focus on analyzing the space from where the narrator speaks and unveil its systematic function for the narrative. In order to seize additional meaning from the spatial consistencies in Invisible Man and its chronotope, ever spinning and rotating universe, it will be helpful to split up Bakhtin’s compound word ‘chronotopos’ into its components (chrono = time, topos = space) and look into the artistic dimensions of ‘time’ and ‘space’ in Invisible Man separately, i.e. is the deceleration of the narrative space in Invisible Man.


The discussion of space in Invisible Man is inextricably linked to the anthropological discourse on the matter. Oneself orientates with the help of spatial paradigms. Man develops his senses, his imagination and his memory in accordance with space. Thus man is socialized within spatial structures (Assmann 150). A more particular form of the anthropological space discourse is that of the ‘space-in-between’. This variant discourse occupies an important strategic role within post-colonial studies. From a minority perspective the ‘space-in-between’ undermines the colonizers hegemonic structuring of spaces. In Ellison’s Invisible Man the narrator withdraws (is forced) into such an ‘in-between-space’. Chased by a gang of hoodlums he falls into a hole in the ground:

"What's in that brief case?" they said, and if they'd asked me anything else I might have stood still. But at the question a wave of shame and outrage shook me and I ran […]. But I was in strange territory now and someone, for some reason, had removed the manhole cover and I felt myself plunge down, down; a long drop that ended upon a load of coal that sent up a cloud of dust, and I lay in the black dark upon the black coal no longer running, hiding or concerned, hearing the shifting of the coal, as from somewhere above their voices came floating down. (IM 565)

In Ellison’s novel the narrator’s enforced refuge is located in the interstices of reality. The narrator’s entering into this world in between is therefore connected to his undergoing a change of perception, or more radically, a process of transition. Much like an ancient Greek hero, who at the discretion of some divine forces finds himself at the border struggling between life and death, Ellison’s narrator can not accept his fate. “I lay beside a river of black water, near where an armored bridge arched sharply away to where I could not see. And I was protesting their holding me and they were demanding that I return to them and were annoyed with my refusal.” (IM 569). The picture this passage evokes is reminiscent to that of River Styx, which in Greek mythology forms the boundary between earth and underworld (Hades). As time goes by the narrator learns to appreciate his cellar and the freedom it offers. Finally, he has a room that allows him to reflect upon his Odyssey, without having to take into account imposed advice and its immediate consequences:

And now I realized that I couldn't return […] to any part of my old life. I could approach it only from the outside. […] Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint. Perhaps that's the way it had to be; I don't know. Nor do I know whether accepting the lesson has placed me in the rear or in the avantgarde. That, perhaps, is a lesson for history […], I try belatedly to study the lesson of my own life. […] And I awoke in the blackness. Fully awake now, I simply lay there as though paralyzed. I could think of nothing else to do. Later I would try to find my way out, but now I could only lie on the floor, reliving the dream. (IM 571-572)

Somewhere between heaven and earth, life and death, dark and light the narrator has found a shelter that can neither be colonized by white supremacy nor by black madness. What at first appears to be a place from which returning would not be possible has profoundly changed in the perception of the narrator. His refusing to cross the bridge into Hades (realm of the dead), as well as his refusing to return to the crude surface has created a “world in between”; a space where the two realms intersect without violating each other. “I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground (IM 571). The coal cellar - to which the narrator refers as “a warm hole” - is a place in which the inconsistencies of celestial and terrestrial spaces are lingering in ambivalent harmony, while outside the hole they appeared violently displaced in unindebted warfare. Now the same irreconcilable inconsistencies find their natural ground and stability in the narrator’s retreat. All racial, social, cultural and political issues are present, waiting for the narrator to mold them. Finally, after having been betrayed by a variety of figures of authority, the narrator now discovers the freedom that lies beneath the ground in complete darkness. “I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out” (IM 571).

It is no wonder that the narrator’s change of perception goes hand in hand with himself taking in a new role. He becomes a hero in an astonishingly traditional sense. In his study The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell develops an analytic model, which he thinks is basic to most stories that evolve around the journey of a character. According to Campbell’s model we meet (prologue) and leave (epilogue) Ellison’s narrator at the climax of his narration, which is equivalent to the narrator’s existential low point. After a troublesome journey the hero has finally climbed down into the underworld where he has found - the magic potion, the trick, maybe he has even found himself - the solution to the great conflict that is raging in the world above. His hesitation to return should therefore not be interpreted as cowardice, but as a need for shelter and recreation.

The point now is that I found a home […]And remember, a bear retires to his hole for the winter and lives until spring; then he comes strolling out like the Easter chick breaking from its shell. […]Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation. (IM 6)

In his digression about hibernation the narrator reveals that it is a temporary condition and that in fact he is preparing for more “overt action”, which implies that he will finally return to the surface and “[…] master the world above […],” just as he mastered the underworld (Campbell 197). It becomes obvious that the underworld, respectively the space-in-between serves as a test laboratory in which strategies for the final battle can be taken to the test. So, before returning to the white realms above, I will take a closer look at the space and the testing procedure at the rock bottom.


In the context of analyzing Invisible Man’s narrative space as a test laboratory, another term offers auspicious access. In his essay Of Other Spaces Michel Foucault develops the concept of heterotopic spaces.

Foucault’s concept focuses on spatial issues entirely, while for the moment it dismisses the relevancy of time. Time as we keep (history) and measure (memory) it is not a prevailing entity for Foucault’s heterotopic space. In the following I will show that even though it is termed differently, the idea of heterotopic spaces is inherent to the concept of Bakhtin’s chronotopos.

Heterotopic spaces, Foucault argues, are spaces that contradict given norms and function in accordance to their own set of rules. The heterotopic space provides the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and contrast immediate reality. “Places of this kind [heterotopias] are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias”

(Foucault 52). From the several heterotopia Foucault articulates some bear resemblance to the hole into which the narrator has been chased. Thus, the narrator’s “warm hole” is by means of definition such an heterotopia, since it exhibits dual meanings by juxtaposing light and dark, life and death, reality and fiction.

The heterotopia is thus a term spatially specifying the postmodern in-between-space. Both spaces originate from crisis-shaken circumstances which they counteract and circumvent.

In the so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women. the elderly, etc. In our society, these crisis heterotopias are persistently disappearing, though a few remnants can still be found. (Foucault 12)

Foucault’s definition of crisis-heterotopia implies that this kind of heterotopia is only very seldom entered voluntarily, which obviously holds true for the narrator of Ellison’s novel. Being black and therefore being unable to integrate into white supremacist society is what actually forced the narrator into his hole.

Within heterotopic spaces agents can roam freely, they can blur borders and even move them. Laws (may they be written or unwritten) do not exist in these spaces. Inside the hole Officialdom and supremacy have no jurisdiction; this legal and social void defines the hole as “terra incognita” (unknown land). Although, through the narrator’s “invading” the hole, sets of internalized values and rules are introduced into the void with him, they do not have to be integrated into a given (white) system. The contrary is the case, the terra incognita will obey and function in accordance to the narrator’s notions and beliefs. The heterotopia, i.e. the void within the terra incognita, endows the narrator with creative powers. Seizing on Foucault’s idea that heterotopias enfold persistent effectiveness when time is subdued to individual (re-) definition, I will argue that inside the hole the narrator lays down the rules and even defines the course of time.

Inside heterotopic and ‘in-between-spaces’ time has coagulated into an abstract mass. Inside the hole time has passed without notice, consequently time has never been a determining factor. Since the motion of time has not caused any effects on the texture of the

hole, the hole is free of history.2 Thus time can be remodeled by the residents of such places. The deadlock of time and history inside the hole is signified by what the narrator describes as the “darkness of lightness”. In his “underworld” it is he who is in charge of setting the paradigms that define time, i.e. day and night. Which is exactly what brings the heterotopia to function – The narrator breaks with time and inside the in-between, heterotopic place time progresses at his command.

That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. […] In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I've wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I've already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. (IM 7)

In his hole the narrator has cloistered himself away from terrestrial computation of time and has instead assumed powers of divine proportions. In the in-between the narrator has light and dark at his command. The questions evolving around his identity also implied the question for divine guidance. Within the realm of white supremacy these questions and voids were answered deceptively. Instead of receiving advice the narrator is given false names or unsuitable identities throughout the novel. “[…] According to the dictates of others, he loses his autonomy” (Callahan 191). Inside the hole the narrator regains his “self” and fills his

spiritual void by installing himself as a divine power that controls light and dark. The equivalent demonstration of creative force is to be found in Genesis 1: 3-5: “ 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day (King James Version). And even more, by saying “The truth is the light and light is the truth”, the narrator alludes to another famous passage from the Bible. Jesus speaks to his disciples: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (King James Version, John 9: 4-5).

The narrator, by exerting his divine powers by separating darkness from light, i.e. creating day and night he also shifts himself into the position of a Messiah - the Messiah who would rise to become a leader of the oppressed and who will finally free his people. Ellison’s narrator has become the black Christ Countee Cullen speaks about in his poem Heritage.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, So I make an idle boast;

Jesus of the twice-turned cheek, Lamb of God, although I speak With my mouth thus, in my heart Do I play a double part.

Daring even to give You

Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair, Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise

To smitten cheek and weary eyes.

(University of Virginia. Electronic Text Center)

Where Cullen imagines a black Jesus (“Daring even to give you dark despairing features […]”), Ellison boldly establishes his protagonist as Christian deity. Both writers embark on the strategy that by “coloring” the central figure of European-American religion the formerly god given supremacy (King James Version, Eph. 6,5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”) is exposed as ‘whitewashed’ exegesis. By implication of the argument blacks regain authority over their previously determined lives and beliefs. Through these literary depictions of Jesus as a non-white Messiah Cullen and Ellison support Rev. Albert Cleage argument about Jesus’ non-white heritage. In an article by Alex Poinsett from 1969 (published in Ebony magazine) Cleage was quoted with the following provocative assumption:

When I say that Jesus was black, that Jesus was the black Messiah, I’m not saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus was black?’ I’m saying that Jesus WAS black. There never was a white Jesus. Now if you are white, you can accept him if you want to, and you can go through psychological gymnastics and pretend that he was white, but he was black. If you’re such a white racist that you’ve got to believe that he was white, then you’re going to distort history to preserve whiteness. (qtd. in Poinsett 174)

By inverting white Christian iconography and blackening sacred imagery Ellison and Cullen breach taboos and trigger dire consequences. The assumption that the space-in-between can provide creative powers to its inhabitants needs to be proved.

In the case of Ellison’s narrator, the question remains whether or not switching on and off light is enough to shift a person into a divine position from where the subversion of white exegesis would be possible? The answer is “yes”. An answer of captivating simplicity, yet the process behind that answer is complex and can only be given on a highly metaphorical plane (which is not to harm its actual relevance). The power behind that light switch, which by mere flipping creates two mutually exclusive realms needs to explored. Mutual exclusiveness requires a sharp distinction; a demarcation line that intercepts and prevents darkness and lightness to leak into one another. It is right here in the contrast of light and dark that a boundary line becomes visible. The construction of this demarcation line, that separates light from dark, suggests an allegorical reading that starts by reintroducing it with a different term.

The Manichean Frontier

The demarcation line that appears or disappears at the narrator’s flick of a switch on the wall is best described by Yancy’s concept of the “Manichean divide“: “The America that I know is an America that paints the world in white and black, good and evil, us and them, civilized and barbaric, peacekeepers and warmongering terrorists” (Yancy 4). Whiteness constitutes an epistemic regime of supremacy according to which whiteness is “good”, while black is “evil”. So, while blackness/darkness becomes connected with instinctive behavior and nature, whiteness/lightness denies its instincts and associates itself with civilization and culture. The “race dichotomy” is therefore a continuation of Manichean division. Both, the dichotomous as well as the Manichaeist bias interpret reality from a polarized view, where each of the opposite sides embodies positiveness or negativeness. Therefore both sides are absolute in nature.

However, the notion of Manichaeism in postcolonial studies is so much concerned with the disequilibrium between colonizer and colonized, that most authors fail to see that Manichaeism proceeds on the assumption that the relative strength between the opposite cores of dark and light is balanced.3The Manichean religion believes in two gods of equal strength. “The good god is the god of spirituality and light; the bad god is the god of matter and darkness, both equally eternal and powerful. They are the essence of power and destruction [Italics added]” (Herrera). Manichean belief identifies itself as a religion based on the

assumption that both good and evil are equal in strength. This assumption requires further consequences. In the following, I will therefore refuse to read Manichaeism as concept that distributes roles of unbalanced power a priori. Instead, I will build my analysis on the assumption that the powers of light and dark are equally strong. I will unveil and discover the concealed strength of the oppressed/colonized and render it visible, i.e. to support the idea that within the heterotopic space darkness/blackness can regain strength, autonomy and authority and effectively transfer them into the outer white realms.

The strength inherent to the narrator’s spatial environment lies in the dynamic of separation. In the hands of Ellison’s narrator the frontier between light and dark becomes an agent. In his renowned study The Significance of the Frontier in American History Frederick Jackson Turner came up with the thesis that at the western border of the American country civilization and the wild would constantly collide. From the contested peripheries of this steadily westwards moving frontier the American emerges. “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” (Turner 1). Turner points out the peculiarity of America as, “[…] the fact that it has been compelled to adapt to the changes of expanding people” (2). Turner ends his thesis by pointing out what constitutes the American character:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. (3)

Turner’s definition of the frontier adds new meaning to the narrator’s pushing the demarcation line between light and dark. In his effort to exert the divine power of separating day and night, lies hidden his ambition to (re-)create man. By bringing light and dark into existence the narrator assumes power over the movement of the frontier divide that delineates civilization from wilderness. Due to the “Turneresque” mobility, which the Manichean divide has experienced inside the narrator’s heterotopia I would like to coin the term “Manichean frontier” in order to do justice to the dichotomous merging of both concepts (mobility, change and racial boundary).

By pushing the Manichean frontier further into the white realm Ellison’s narrator triggers a process of transition and change. “Its tempo of development […] is so rapid that it throws up personalities as fluid and changeable as molten metal rendered iridescent from the effect of cooling air” (CE 343).

Turner’s frontier is not only a place of change but also a point of no return. Neither can the colonizer establish his ideas, values and standards in the terra incognita, nor can he go back to re-assume his old European condition. The European colonizer will be changed inevitably: At the frontier he becomes an American.

In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the


1 I will assent to Hubert J.M. Hermans’ definition of culture. Hermans considers culture as “a set of independent or contextual variables which affect the set basic characteristics common to all members of the species” (Hermans 24).

2 In this case the term “history” is directly linked to the idea that historical events have immediate effects on the development of social, cultural and political environment. The absence of history is synonymous with the power to “make” history by introducing events into the course of time and declaring them as more or less important than others; i.e. making time visible by distorting its even chronological flow.

3 At this point, I am not talking about the direction into which power structures achieve impact. I do not challenge the fact that the colonizer exerts his power from a sublime position, which allows him to fight downhill. The colonizer usually has multiple channels of distribution at his disposal, thus it is much easier for him to spread his message of his own superiority and “their” inferiority. I simply want to stress that the powers of resistance are of equal quality, only not as overtly aggressive. Which is why sometimes (literary) non-white resistance needs to be deciphered, to make it speak to us anew.

4 Such a counter-argument can not be contradicted without risking its original relevance and /or harming the contextual message which it supported.

5 I am aware that by narrowing Hall’s concept of the monochrone to whiteness I become a target of charged with being accessory proliferating racist notions. I hope to confute this accusation by explaining my notion of stereotypes as a pattern of behaviour and thinking that eventually leads to an oversimplification of persons and situations (Reinhold 651). This means that the stereotype for itself does not lead to racism, as it is not motivated by vicious preconceptions. Speaking in sociological terms, the stereotype is more of a structure that helps the individual to orientate within society, although it is very likely that the application of stereotypes will result in racism.


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Bakhtin Invisible Man Carnival identity Black American Studies Ralph Ellison




Title: Fooling Invisibility - A Bakhtinian reading of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"