Abstract

This article begins by noting that recent debates about the relevance of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to contemporary American culture enact an opposition between historicism (the idea that the novel is a Jim Crow artifact) and universalism (the idea that it transcends the circumstances of its production). The author then argues that Ellison's novel models a contemporaneity that cannot be equated to either the assertion or disavowal of contemporaneousness. At the heart of this account stands the narrator's sense that he “must emerge,” which follows from his perception that he has failed to communicate the nature of his invisibility to his reader, and that his act of writing has therefore disarmed him. The article shows that the narrator's emergence—an event that is necessitated by the narrative but which the narrative, by the very logic of that necessity, cannot itself contain—constitutes the hinge between the textual temporality of his underground existence and the social temporality that abuts it. As such, it offers the possibility that these two temporalities—which may be thought of as referring to the temporality of writing and the temporality of reading, respectively—may be linked, and that this linkage could lead to forms of recognition that appear only at the limit of narrative form.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is an ideal case study for thinking about literary contemporaneity. We might understand the idea of contemporaneity either as a kind of judgment (the declaration that a text is, or is not, contemporary) or as a conceptual framework that takes encounters with literary form as a model for understanding a particular experience of time (the time of the present).1 While these approaches may align, it can be more instructive when there is tension between the two. Such is the case for Ellison and his novel. Ellison was, of course, deeply invested in using literature to confront his own historical moment. To the extent that Invisible Man is widely considered as offering one of the most influential accounts of the African American experience in Jim Crow America, he succeeded.2 The novel, in Kenneth Burke's words, is a “work that, by its range of stories and corresponding attitudes, sums up an era” (350).3Invisible Man has also, however, remained current by virtue of having mediated debates about the evolving relationship between race and literature in the postwar period more generally. Ellison's widely publicized argument with Irving Howe regarding protest in African American literature constitutes one episode in this history, and his tenuous relation with the Black Arts Movement constitutes another. Today, as Jonathan Arac argues, it seems as though many believe that “Ellison can do everything for us: fictionalize, historicize, [and] theorize” (200). Is Invisible Man a Jim Crow artifact? Is it a novel that transcends the circumstances of its production? Is it both, or is it neither?

To answer these questions, we might consider how Invisible Man formally deconstructs the symbolic oppositions of past, present, and future that animate recent debates about this novel's relevance to contemporary American culture. Two general approaches may be discerned. In So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism, Kenneth Warren sets out to resist the conception of Ellison as a general fount of wisdom by treating him exclusively as a Jim Crow writer. For Invisible Man, likened at one point to a patient that has perhaps been kept “too long on life support,” this means that critics should try to “understand” rather than “revitalize” the social conditions that once animated the novel (7). If we are to adequately face the conditions of the present, Warren argues, we must be open to relinquishing the political and aesthetic models that, though they may have sustained us in the past, are no longer capable of doing so. For Timothy Parrish, by contrast, Invisible Man will arguably “last as long as America survives as a nation,” with Ellison “forever addressing an America that is still unrealized” (18, x).4 This is the standard view among most critics of Ellison. While Warren and Parrish agree that Ellison's political vision is essentially a good one, they thus offer starkly divergent accounts regarding literary value, social change, and interpretative method.

In this article, I argue that Invisible Man models a contemporaneity that cannot be equated with either the assertion or the disavowal of contemporaneousness. At the heart of my account stands the relation between the concept-metaphor of invisibility and the idea that the present must always exceed the limits of historical form. The narrator does not, after all, write about invisibility as much as he writes from within it. Like Raymond Williams's structures of feeling, invisibility cannot but exist “on the very edge of semantic availability” (134). Both concepts resist the reification of experience by emphasizing how their “referents” are always in a state of social and temporal reconstitution.

Invisible Man provides a figure for the latent social energies inherent in this dynamic in the narrator's assertion at the very end of the novel that he “must emerge” (581). This decision, which effectively ends the novel, follows a series of critically understudied moments in the epilogue that revolve around the narrator's sense that he has failed to communicate the experiential content of his invisibility to his reader, and that his writing has thus constituted a form of disarmament. It is hard to know what to do with this rhetoric. It fits poorly with the longstanding scholarly preoccupation with themes such as self-definition and self-discovery, as well as more recent readings of the novel that posit textuality as a liberatory space beyond the subject.5 Moving beyond these critical models, I propose that we read the narrator's emergence as a formal manifestation of a contradiction that is at once textual and social: textual, because the novel builds into itself the seeds of its own failure; and social, because these seeds derive from the status of its narrator as a black man living in Jim Crow America. It is an event that is necessitated by the premise of the narrative, but which the narrative, by the very logic of this necessity, cannot itself contain.6

To theorize Invisible Man's contemporaneity, we must therefore consider how Ellison frames the encounter with literary form as a site where formal and social temporalities interpenetrate. This means thinking about both the Invisible Man's act of writing and the reader's unfolding encounter with his “finish[ed]” manuscript (Invisible Man 579). To read the novel in this way suggests that a formal openness to failure and disarmament might counteract the sociohistorical “pattern of . . . certainties” that Ellison associates with a static and naturalized conception of racial hierarchy (581). The narrator's emergence might, on this view, be said to provide a hinge between the textual temporality of his underground existence and the social temporality that abuts it. As such, it offers the possibility that these two temporalities—which may be thought of as referring to the temporality of writing and the temporality of reading, respectively—may be linked, and that this linkage could lead to forms of recognition more attuned to the “chaos” that underwrites all presumption to certainty (576). Moving from a declarative “I” marked by social exclusion to an interrogative “you” that imagines the possibility of new forms of social reciprocity, Invisible Man constitutes what Robert Genter calls “a mode of symbolic action” (4).7 This “you” cannot be specified or historicized. Instead, it functions as a figure for a social potentiality that emerges, like the Invisible Man himself, only at the limit of narrative form.

Symbolic Man

No work of criticism has, in recent years, spawned more debate about the relationship between the literary present and the literary past than Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? Warren's argument, as familiar as it is notorious, centers on the contention that African American literature should be understood as a post-Reconstruction phenomenon specifically tied to the social world of Jim Crow.8 The “representational and rhetorical strategies” that once allowed authors to “disclose various ‘truths’ about their society,” he explains, might well, with the passing of time, come to operate as “practices of evasion” instead (8–9). In this respect, Warren turns against arguments that assert a substantive continuity between current racial inequality and Jim Crow–style segregation. Because it implicitly imagines political identity as if it were a transhistorical property, such a model “misunderstands both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one” (5). Warren believes that activism that seeks to eradicate racism solely by seeking social equality under the current system is not only not good enough but also itself subsumed under a neoliberal agenda and therefore complicit in reproducing forms of inequality and injustice that are endemic to late capitalism.9 This idea leads to an explosive indictment of contemporary scholarship in African American studies as nostalgically bound to now-calcified structures of feeling, to long inert forms of identity politics.

As this précis suggests, What Was African American Literature? constitutes a logical extension of the work Warren began in So Black and Blue. There are, however, crucial divergences between the two. These are most immediately apparent in how the rhetoric of temporal closure that supports the central argumentative thrust of the former in fact signifies a blockage of the imaginative mode that animates the latter. To see this, we might consider a key moment in So Black and Blue in which Warren asks whether “taking seriously Ellison's democratic hopes may be to imagine a world in which Invisible Man no longer speaks immediately to us or for us as a way of investigating contemporary American identity” (23). There is a lot to be said about this sentence, which rhetorically inverts the famous appeal at the close of Ellison's novel: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581). It seems almost perverse to suggest that the possibility of the Invisible Man speaking “for us or to us” might itself signify the latest frontier of the symbolic stranglehold of the past on the present. Nor is it exactly clear to whom the pronoun “us” is supposed to refer to, or, for that matter, what the difference between the “to” and the “for” is in this context. The injunction to imagine an America where race no longer determines visibility is nevertheless remarkably Ellisonian. And as indicated by the phrase “to imagine,” and other phrases like it, So Black and Blue projects this wished-for future as part of struggles that are still taking place in the present.10

Try as he might, the Warren of So Black and Blue cannot fully escape the contemporaneity of what Ellison himself described as his “most willful, most self-generating novel” (Invisible Man xxiii). This is because Invisible Man ultimately rejects the historical logic on which Warren's thought experiment depends, and which later comes to undergird his claims about African American literature as a whole. Insofar as Warren is unable to truly declare Ellison's novel to be “past,” he affirms the text's privileging of failure as a modality for being in the present. What matters, as we will see, is not the historicizing judgment as such, which Ellison finds deeply suspect anyway, but the space of possibility that necessarily precedes it.

One way of getting at the questions surrounding the relation between identity, politics, and literature that are beginning to take shape here is to consider the neoconservative pundit Norman Podhoretz's twisted version of Warren's argument in “What Happened to Ralph Ellison.”11 The gist of this 1999 article from Podhoretz's own Commentary (which he was editor of from 1960 to 1995) is the claim that Ellison's novel has grown “dated” (56). The argument that follows asserts, in effect, that African Americans are no longer invisible. “If the way of life growing out of their oppressed condition was once dismissed as nothing but a stigma and hence demanded to be brought into view with the undeniable force of conviction about its richness that lay behind the picture painted by Invisible Man,” Podhoretz continues, “this way of life has now become a national obsession at which no one ever stops looking and about which no one ever stops talking” (56–57). Statements like these, as Warren notes in a footnote in So Black and Blue, “tells us much more about Podhoretz's politics and prejudices than about Invisible Man and its current literary reputation” (112). But they also demonstrate how the meaning of literature resides just as much in the symbolic uses it is put to as it does in the practice of textual interpretation.

This phenomenon can be seen, for instance, in Podhoretz's sense that Ellison's novel contains “hardly a trace . . . of the one aspect of that way of life which has done more in the years since the book was published to affect race relations in this country: black violence and criminality, the fear of which has spread even among the most sympathetic white liberals” (57). While it does contain “hustlers and pimps and tricksters and con artists,” these characters are “ingenious and admirably resourceful” rather than “menacing or dangerous” (57). Black criminality has, of course, not produced white fear as much as white fear is responsible for the myth of its genetic pervasiveness. It is thus clear that these comments are designed to stoke the fire of racial fear and resentment rather than demonstrate, through an actual reading, some form of insight into the presumably mutable meaning of Invisible Man. This is what Michel Foucault had in mind when he calls visibility “a trap” (200), and it is indeed the kind of visibility that is inextricable from invisibility in the novel. Ironically, Podhoretz's bad faith attempt to proclaim Ellison's novel to be “dated” serves only as evidence for its ongoing relevance.

The political intentions underlying Warren's and Podhoretz's work could not be more different. Both authors do, however, deploy rhetorics that consign or at least imagine consigning Ellison's novel to the past. Neither is able to fully do so. In Warren's case, this is because he is too good a reader of Ellison. He cannot help but inhabit Invisible Man, even when it is not the primary object of his analysis, and so internalize in his own argument the paradoxes that surround Ellison's attempt to communicate the experiential reality of invisibility. Podhoretz, by contrast, wields the novel as if it were a weapon. In the process, he re-enacts the very logic of making-invisible that the text seeks to arrest through the narrator's emergence.

At stake, ultimately, is what it means for a work of literature to endure over time. For Podhoretz, a truly great novel provides access to “never-changing human realities,” even if—and perhaps especially if—“the social conditions of the world being portrayed, and the attitudes that underlay and supported them . . . are dead and gone” (57). Invisible Man does not, in his opinion, “survive this acid test of greatness” (57). Warren explicitly positions himself against such universalizing rhetoric by asking how literature that “imagines for itself the career of the classic”—and in spite of the occasional false modesty, Ellison surely did imagine his novel this way—may nevertheless be bound by and to its own historical moment (So Black and Blue 35).12 If Invisible Man remains relevant today, Warren argues, we should not take this as a sign that it has transcended the circumstances of its setting, but rather as an indication of “a broader social and political failure that keeps us mired in the racial commonsense of the twentieth century” (So Black and Blue 13). The “timelessness” that is conventionally ascribed to enduring or classic works of literature can, from this perspective, be taken as the mark of an active anti-contemporaneity (So Black and Blue 4).

Ellison himself was, of course, invested in art as an expression of universality—but always through the particular, by means of which literature may function as “a study in comparative humanity” that allows for “universal identification.” In this respect, it is not hard to see how the idea of invisibility might mediate between the inviolable “specificity of the particular experience and the particular character” and the idea that the task of literature “is to remind us of our common humanity and the cost of that humanity” (Collected Essays 539–40). Nor is it surprising that novelist and critic Charles Johnson, in a response to Podhoretz, chooses to meet the charge of “datedness” precisely by affirming Ellison's universality. “Ellison's central thesis is universal,” he declares, because while it is true that “some Blacks may be more ‘visible’ today,” other minorities are not, and thus they may also “make a case for being ‘invisible’ men and women in contemporary America” (Response 12; “Novel Genius” 20).13 Saying this is not saying enough, however, as invisibility should not simply be understood as a generalizable form of minority experience. We are, Johnson explains, all “to some degree . . . ineffable and invisible to one another.” Each of us is “blind to each other's open-ended being,” and all of us “victims of the other's attempts (from the Left and Right and Center) to define and categorize us, to use us as Ellison's Dr. Bledsoe, the Brotherhood and Ras attempt to shape Invisible Man's protagonist as they think best.” These reflections then end with the assertion that “Ellison's novel is not dated, nor will it ever be in terms of its philosophical sub-structure” (“Novel Genius” 20).

It is possible to argue that Johnson's emphasis on invisibility's applicability to essentially all human interaction is structurally analogous to the indignant reframing of the powerful “Black Lives Matter” into the vacuous “All Lives Matter.” This dynamic is furthermore discernable in Ellison's reception by large swathes of the white literary establishment: treating Ellison as a “universal” writer has often been more palatable to some than treating him as a black one.14 Yet Johnson is much too attentive to the epistemological problems that Ellison raises in his novel to completely miss the point in this way. What Podhoretz ultimately fails to understand, he argues, is the fact that “every disclosure that renders something visible simultaneously brings about a concealment that renders something else invisible” (“Novel Genius” 19–20). This observation allows us to see that the politics of visibility is not a zero-sum game, but an algebraic equation where the value and meaning of X is always in flux. From this perspective, it becomes clear, too, that the novel's interpretation of invisibility has very little to do with the historical variation with respect to whom the concept may be said to apply, but is rather tied to the paradoxes that perpetually surround its rhetorical articulation.

History and Invisibility

Before we can turn to the complex relation between writing and invisibility, we must consider Ellison's engagement with forms of agency and being outside ideologically sanctioned forms of visibility, and indeed “outside history” (Invisible Man 306, 377, 439, 499). This perspective is valuable insofar as it attends to aspects of social reality that have been rendered invisible by the dominant historical narratives that so frequently determine our relation to it—to include the dominant narratives that surround Invisible Man itself. To simply argue that an attunement to invisibility provides us with a more comprehensive view of contemporary reality would, however, mean reinscribing onto the social present a binary logic that similarly cannot account for its inherent temporal dynamism. Such an account would rely on a structuralist abstraction in which the elements that make up the social are taken as perfectly synchronic—even if they are impossible to fully enumerate or describe. For Raymond Williams, this is the moment when the temporality of the instant collapses into the analytical grammar of “the habitual past tense,” which treats society and its various processes as finished (128). To avoid this dead end, invisibility must be conceived as inherently mutable, and as holding within it an emergent potentiality that cannot be the object of traditional social (or historical) analysis.

Invisible Man aligns historical conceptions of the present, or the idea that the present constitutes the latest stage on the trajectory of historical unfolding, with the circumscription of social possibility. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is again and again conscripted into regimes of visibility that promise social and historical agency. Generally associated with institutions, these embed Ellison's narrator within modes of perception and understanding that cannot transcend the telic boundaries of the regime in question. The college's ideology of racial uplift and the Brotherhood's “science of history,” most pertinently, are each presented as a kind of “destiny”—whether for “the race” or for “the people”—that is also posited as the narrator's only avenue of self-fulfillment (311).15 Each inscribes a historical totality onto the social present that legitimates itself in the name of historical progress, while being in fact both socially and politically regressive. And each, in turn, depends on temporal rhetorics that are structurally analogous to the ones that have circulated around criticism of this novel.

The college's treatment of Jim Trueblood provides one example of such a logic. A sharecropper who lives close to the college, Trueblood used to be paraded out in front of “special white guests . . . to sing what the officials called ‘their primitive spirituals’” (47). During these moments, Trueblood is enlisted to perform a racial “authenticity” designed to confirm the college's donors’ preconceived ideas about the nature of their philanthropic subjects. The “earthy harmonies,” meanwhile, are embarrassing to the Invisible Man and his peers (47). This practice ends when Trueblood impregnates his own daughter, a “disgrace upon the black community” that transforms “what on the part of the school officials had been an attitude of contempt blunted by tolerance” into an attitude of “contempt sharpened by hate” (46, 47). In a moment of reflection, the narrator notes how he “didn't understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the ‘peasants,’ during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down” (47). There is no longer a place for Trueblood within the politics of respectability that underwrites the college's program of racial uplift, which the Invisible Man so effectively internalizes during his time as a student. Living in the “slave-quarter section,” Trueblood is seen as an atavistic remnant of a shameful past that can form no part of either the present or the future of the race (102).16

This is ostensibly why Dr. Bledsoe is so enraged after the Invisible Man accidentally brings Mr. Norton, one of the college's white benefactors, to Trueblood's cabin. “Your poor judgment has caused this school incalculable damage,” he tells him (140). As this scene unfolds, it becomes clear that what is at stake is not so much the question of “uplifting the race,” in Dr. Beldsoe's words, but rather the preservation of a status quo that enables Dr. Bledsoe to wield power at the cost of performing obeisance in front of men such as Mr. Norton, on whom his position ultimately depends (140). It is a “nasty deal,” Dr. Bledsoe explains: “But you listen to me: I didn't make it, and I know that I can't change it. But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (143). The historical logic that underwrites the ideology of racial uplift is thus revealed to be an agent of social stasis, masquerading as a narrative about progress.

A similar mechanism can be discerned in the novel's engagement with the Brotherhood's vanguard ethos. Take the impromptu speech about dispossession that the Invisible Man delivers early in the novel, when he chances upon an “old couple” in the process of being evicted from their Harlem apartment (270). Subsequent to his escape from the scene, the narrator is approached by Jack, who, impressed by the narrator's ability to engage the crowd, wants to recruit him to the Brotherhood. In their conversation, Jack tells his incredulous interlocutor that the Invisible Man had been “watching a death” (290). “It's sad, yes,” he explains. “But they're already dead, defunct. History has passed them by. Unfortunate, but there's nothing to do about them. They're like dead limbs that must be pruned away so that the tree may bear young fruit or the storms of history will blow them down anyway” (291). “But I like them,” the Invisible Man protests. “I like them, they reminded me of folks I know down South. It's taken me a long time to feel it, but they're folks just like me, except that I've been to school a few years” (291). Jack responds by accusing the Invisible Man of retrogressive sentimentality. “You're not like them,” he asserts (291). “Perhaps you were, but that's all past, dead. You might not recognize it just now, but that part of you is dead! You have not completely shed that self, that old agrarian self, but it's dead and you will throw it off completely and emerge something new” (291). For Jack, the future can only come into being or “emerge”—a word that signifies quite differently here compared to how the Invisible Man uses it later—if the past is completely disavowed.17

The historical calculus that underwrites Dr. Bledsoe's and Brother Jack's respective claims to power is undermined in the narrative by the appearance of Rinehart. Emerging into the consciousness of Ellison's protagonist precisely when he himself desires to disappear, Rinehart is a supreme figure of anonymity simply because he means something different to everyone. Donning a pair of dark glasses and a hat, the Invisible Man is repeatedly mistaken for this mysterious figure, whose full name, Bliss Proteus, further underscores his reflexively euphoric relation to protean malleability, to the “vast seething, hot world of fluidity” he represents (498). Because he lacks a historically grounded identity, Rinehart can be said to exist only in the present. At one point in the text, an astonished Invisible Man asks if he could truly “be all of them”: “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend?” (498). In its breathless heaping of identities, unbroken by any pause or punctuation, this sentence syntactically enacts the fluid laterality the novel associates with Rinehart.

On the one hand, the Invisible Man is deeply fascinated by the possibilities that Rinehart represents. On the other, he is apprehensive. “I was both depressed and fascinated,” he writes. “I wanted to know Rinehart and yet, I thought, I'm upset because I know I don't have to know him, that simply becoming aware of his existence, being mistaken for him, is enough to convince me that Rinehart is real. It couldn't be, but it is. And it can be, is, simply because it's unknown” (498). Rinehart thus conjoins possibility (“can be”) with actuality (“is”) through the modality of the “unknown,” which comes to refer to both the mental state of not knowing and the objective state of not being known. In this way, Rinehart refers to an internal psychological process (“I know I don't have to know him”), as well as an indelible feature of social reality. After the Invisible Man has been mistaken for Rinehart, he visits the theoretician Brother Hambro. Feeling within him a “deep change,” he reflects that “it was as though my discovery of Rinehart had opened a gulf between us” (501). In terms of the narrator's involvement with the Brotherhood, this is the beginning of the end, even as his first intuition remains to “search out the proper political classification” and let “the whole thing . . . roll off me like drops of water rolling off Jack's glass eye” (498). But the possibility of Rinehart's unknowability is unthinkable from the Brotherhood's view of society. Because he cannot be made solid, Rinehart haunts the remainder of the narrative as the antithesis to historical and identitarian modes of thought.

In the end, the Invisible Man comes to reject the existential models provided to him by both the Brotherhood and Rinehart. He declares as much when he asserts that he wants for himself neither “the freedom of a Rinehart or the power of a Jack, nor simply the freedom not to run” (575). The ultimate figure for this rejection, however, is the form of Invisible Man itself. It might seem as if the Invisible Man affirms something like the potentialities of radical fluidity when he claims that “my world has become one of infinite possibilities” (576)—a statement that is usually read as either ironic, naive, or both. Yet Ellison also aligns his protagonist's realization of being invisible with an exuberant sense of vitality: “I myself,” the Invisible Man reflects early in the novel, “did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility” (7). This sense of being “alive” is thus not connected to invisibility as such. It emerges, rather, in the act of its apprehension, which in turn cannot be separated from its consequent appropriation as the basis for his narrative. “Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos,” the Invisible Man writes (576). Rinehart embodies this “chaos.” The Brotherhood pretends it does not exist. By turning to writing, the Invisible Man confronts it.

The Temporality of Emergence

So far, I have demonstrated how Invisible Man's reception history highlights a tension between historical and universal reference, and how the novel itself critiques the political efficacy of the rhetoric that underwrites these debates. In this section, I propose that the narrator's emergence opens into a temporality that is neither historically bounded nor aesthetically transcendent. To theorize this temporality, it is necessary to consider the simultaneous textual and existential crisis that leads up to this moment. That crisis, as I mentioned in the introduction, revolves around the rhetoric of failure and disarmament that follows the Invisible Man's attempt to narrate experiences that, by their very nature, elude narrative structuration. Invisible Man does not offer a symbolic resolution to this problem. Instead, Ellison leverages literary form—or the temporality that form produces—as a site of social possibility.

The Invisible Man initially claims that he has “failed” because he finds himself unable to render the experiential state that first compelled him to write (579). “So why do I write,” he asks himself in the epilogue,

torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside—yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I've set out to throw my anger into the world's face, but now that I've tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I'm drawn upward again. So that even before I finish I've failed (maybe my anger is too heavy; perhaps, being a talker, I've used too many words). But I've failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. (579)

While there is “no escape” from writing, the “very act” that was meant to communicate his anger and bitterness has turned out to defuse and partially negate these feelings. The specific form of invisibility that compelled the Invisible Man to write is, in other words, no longer accessible to him. It can be neither fully present, nor fully past. Yet as the Invisible Man's reversal of the “file and forget” cliché indicates, his writing does not emanate from an already constituted subjectivity as from those “certain ideas” that refuse to “forget” him, and that “keep filing away” at his lethargy. The narrator's perceived failure thus articulates a dialectical relationship between his extratextual, prewriting self and the unstable narrative “I” wrought by the torturous process of writing.

This “I” is the grammatical subject of the sentence stating that “in spite of myself I've learned some things.” There are a number of such reflexive displacements throughout the novel, each of which insists that there is a crucial difference between the “I” as a locus of subjectivity and the reflexive “self” that is at once produced by ideology and an object of self-knowledge.18 This grammatical structure returns as the narrator's rhetoric of failure gives way to a more pointed rhetoric of disarmament. “So now having tried to put it down,” the Invisible Man affirms again, “I have disarmed myself in the process” (580). This profession appears to contradict the narrator's earlier description of his “hibernation” as “covert preparation for a more overt action” (13). There is, however, a sense in which the decision to emerge constitutes that action. On this view, we might understand the narrator's disarmament as the shedding of the ideologies that sustained him in the past, like the college's racial uplift or the Brotherhood's class struggle, as well as those ideologies he instinctively rejected, like Ras's black nationalism, without necessarily replacing them with a new structure of historical self-understanding. To be disarmed in this manner is to be open to productive failures that do not depend on illusory promises of historical agency or the idea of historically grounded subjectivity as such.

An earlier appearance of disarmament rhetoric in the novel complicates this reading. After the Invisible Man spots Tod Clifton on the street selling Sambo dolls, he wonders why Clifton would “choose to disarm himself” by leaving the Brotherhood, “the only organization offering him a chance to ‘define’ himself” (438). At this point of the narrative, the Invisible Man is still devoutly committed to the cause, and he cannot fathom why Clifton would “give up his voice” and “plunge outside of history” in this way—and to peddle a symbol of his oppression, no less (438). To have a “voice” in the Brotherhood, as the Invisible Man knows only too well, means subsuming your individuality to the inscrutable interests of the organization.19 Yet the Invisible Man always felt a kinship with Clifton, a fellow black youth, on terms that the Brotherhood would not and could not admit. After Clifton is shot and the Invisible Man delivers his eulogy, he instinctively refuses the instrumentalizing rhetoric that would politicize his friend's death on terms that ultimately had nothing to do with the life he lived. “It wasn't the way I wanted it to go,” the narrator remarks, thinking about his precarious position in the ranks of the Brotherhood and feeling increasingly desperate: “it wasn't political” (457). Instead of seeking to organize or shape the emotion of the crowd, the Invisible Man repeats Clifton's name over and over, thus emphasizing the absolute senselessness of his death. Clifton was “unarmed,” the narrator eulogizes, literally because he carried no weapon, but figuratively because he has rejected the Brotherhood and everything that it represents (457).

Ellison positions the Invisible Man's narrative appropriation of invisibility as both a response and an alternative to Clifton's seemingly nihilistic embrace of the Sambo stereotype.20 In this respect, one could imagine his turn to writing as an act of constant reinvention, unshackled from any and all social demands in general, and from white society in particular. The return of the “old fascination with playing a role” belies such a reading. This moment might at first appear defeatist, as suggested by the deflationary rhetoric that surrounds it.21 It is important to note, though, that Ellison's narrator is at this point no longer blinded by the personal ambition that was once tied to what he refers to as the “public self that spoke for the Brotherhood,” or for that matter to his future as he envisioned it when he was still at the college (380). “I believed in hard work and progress and action,” the narrator explains in the epilogue, “but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times” (576). Broadly consonant with the narrator's sense of having been disarmed, this stance does not reflect an apolitical indifference as much as the desire to move past the regimes of visibility that structure most social interaction by imagining new forms of social reciprocity.

While the Invisible Man himself cannot imagine what such a society might look like, his decision to emerge nevertheless provides an opportunity for thinking about how it might come to be. The most important moment in this respect comes when the narrator connects his sense of having “failed” with his perceived inability to communicate the nature of his historical predicament. “You won't believe in my invisibility,” he exhorts,

and you'll fail to see how any principle that applies to you could apply to me. You'll fail to see it even though death waits for both of us if you don't. Nevertheless, the very disarmament has brought me to a decision. The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring—I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught my nose to classify the stenches of death. (580)

This passage could be read in conjunction with what Fred Moten calls the epilogue's “frightened attempt to retreat into the etiolated metaphysics of America” (68). When the narrator imputes that his reader will “fail to see how any principle that applies to you could apply to me,” he is not, however, simply asking whether it is possible “to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence” (574).22 Instead, he poses two questions that strike at the very heart of Invisible Man. The first of these concerns what it would mean to “believe” in the Invisible Man's “invisibility” in the first place. The second concerns the logic by which the Invisible Man's ascription of nonbelief to his imagined reader feeds into his sense of having been disarmed, and his subsequent decision to emerge. The word “nevertheless” constitutes an important pivot, suggesting as it does that the “very disarmament” that brings the narrator to his decision to “shake off the old skin and come up for breath” consists precisely in the imagined reader's failure to “believe” or “see.”

In this way, the novel draws our attention back to the meaning of its first sentence: the boldly assertive “I am an invisible man” (3). Brimming with defiance, this speech-act functions both as an empty signifier that carries no meaning except for the force of its own absolute conviction, and as the always already culminating insight of the narrative that is to come. “The end,” as Ellison's narrator puts it, “was in the beginning” (571). The key to this seeming paradox lies in distinguishing between invisibility as a social diagnosis, and invisibility as constitutively tied to a very peculiar kind of identity claim. In the former, the narrator defines invisibility in terms of “a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact” (3). In the latter, invisibility names a mode of perception and understanding that, though partially derived from this interpellated subject position, also significantly transcends it.

To understand the interrelation between these two senses of invisibility, we might consider the narrator's eruption into violence in the prologue. “One night,” the narrator tells us, “I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name” (4). Singled out for insult and degradation based solely on the color of his skin, the Invisible Man reacts immediately, and demands an apology. “Apologize! Apologize!” he yells. The man refuses, and the Invisible Man descends further into his state of frenzied outrage, until he reaches a point where he is prepared to slit the man's throat. At this moment, however, it occurs to him that “the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!” (4). Ellison's narrator then locates the source of the insult inside this nightmare, thus muddying the extent to which the man (or the “dreamer”) might be said to be personally responsible for his behavior. One might, indeed, argue that the Invisible Man's ultimate restraint constitutes the scene's chief expression of agency.

Later in the prologue, the Invisible Man returns to this encounter to further reflect on the nature of his invisibility. This too is a moment of second-person address where Ellison's narrator imputes to his imagined reader a specific attitude toward the narrative material he has just relayed. “I can hear you say,” the Invisible Man writes,

“What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!” And you're right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement. Take the man whom I almost killed: Who was responsible for that near murder—I? I don't think so, and I refuse it. I won't buy it. You can't give it to me. He bumped me, he insulted me. Shouldn't he, for his own personal safety, have recognized my hysteria, my “danger potential”? (14)

As a social condition, invisibility is produced by willful and systematic non-recognition, operating through social, economic, political, and cultural mechanisms—embodied here in the racist stereotype of the unnamed insult—that work in concert to eradicate or render invisible the fundamental humanity of the person of color. The labeling of the encounter with the blond man in a newspaper as a mugging further demonstrates this point (5). This description defuses the Invisible Man's violence by making it legible on socially admissible terms. Robbery, after all, is easily denounced, and can, at least in theory, be policed.23 Invisibility, by contrast, can only be denied—and is, in fact, constituted by that very denial.

It is instructive to compare the narrator's assertion that irresponsibility is a constitutive part of his invisibility to his later belief that he must end his hibernation because there might be a chance “that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). The novel does not and cannot specify what such a role might entail. There does seem to be a connection to the idea that “dreamers and sleepwalkers” alike must all “pay the price,” and that “the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all” (14). Yet it is not clear what this “responsibility” entails. In the epilogue, the narrator proclaims that he is “not blaming anyone for this state of affairs . . . nor merely crying mea culpa,” and that while he had for a long time tried to place invisibility “in the outside world,” he has come to realize that “at least half of it” lies within him (575). We might, however, get a better clue by looking to how Ellison positions “social responsibility” as a historically specific euphemism for a system of racial control that operates on a principle of white paternalistic degradation.24 To be “irresponsible,” it could be argued, means to resist such a society by refusing to acknowledge its implicit regulatory rules and roles. Such a reading cannot entirely account for the Invisible Man's claim that he was “truly irresponsible” not because he attacked the man, but because he “was a coward” and did not follow through and kill him (14). What is important in this passage is how the Invisible Man turns the presumed logic of his imagined interlocutor on its head, thus prompting reflection on the meaning of responsibility. The narrator's sense that he has a “socially responsible role to play,” though underwritten by the rhetoric of failure and disarmament rather than anger, should be understood as performing a similar reversal.

If the reader is to fully understand the twofold reference to invisibility in Invisible Man, then the reader must inhabit this reversibility. This is particularly apparent in those moments of second-person address that again and again raise the question of the relationship between reader and narrator. The real reader who encounters Ellison's words is not, of course, identical to the Invisible Man's imagined one. It is even possible to say that the very act of separating ourselves from this interpellated reader requires a more expansive world than the one the narrator can imagine. It is nevertheless the case that if the reader is to “see” the Invisible Man, the reader would have to recognize that he is, in fact, invisible. We can observe this dynamic in his encounter with the blond man, where the source of his invisibility is clearly external. The same does not hold true for the assertion “I am an invisible man,” which in its insistent presentness refuses such critical distance. We cannot recognize this statement as true without rupturing the coherence of its structuring concept, if only from within the present tense of that communicative context. This does not mean that the Invisible Man is suddenly “visible,” as imagining such a possibility would depend on an overly reductive interpretation of the relationship between visibility and invisibility. Neither does it preclude the Invisible Man from being invisible at other times or in other contexts. It does, however, constitute a point of connection between narrator and reader, even if that connection does not yield stable subject positions for either. It is one thing to read the concept of invisibility as encoding certain truths about the structure of society. It is quite another to consider it as a structure of mediation.

The prologue makes clear that invisibility offers a unique and potentially liberatory perspective on society, and that this perspective is tied to a unique way of experiencing time. Invisibility, Ellison's narrator explains, makes possible a “slightly different sense of time” where one is “never quite on the beat” (8). In the context of my reading, this quotation might be taken as signifying something like the unrelenting “beat” of historical time. On this view, history is the “content” of time, and time is but an empty husk without this beat. The effect is a tyrannical injunction for synchronicity that constitutes a wholesale sublimation of time to history. Ellison's narrator, by contrast, comes to see that time is not an “imperceptible flowing,” but rather made up of “nodes” where time either “stands still” or “leaps ahead.” Invisibility, he continues, allows one to “slip into the breaks and look around” (8). Syncopated and improvisatory, the ensuing sense of time is, as many critics have argued, modeled above all on jazz and other black vernacular forms.25

Rather than extending these arguments, I want to conclude by suggesting that the narrator's emergence constitutes a formal rendering of precisely one such “break,” or an opening to a different mode of envisioning the time of the now. The social and cultural status of blackness is deeply implicated in this process. On an elemental level, the narrator's invisibility follows from the fact that he is a black man living in America. When events of the narrative deposit him in the hole inside which he makes his residence, he vows to “stay . . . until . . . chased out,” and to use his time there to “try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet” (571). This underground space is not simply an imagined space—however surreal—inside which writing takes place as a matter of narrative fact, but also a symbolic space that represents and explores the discursive conditions of that act of writing. “Before . . . I lived in the darkness into which I was chased,” the narrator writes in the prologue, “but now I see. I've illuminated the blackness of my invisibility—and vice versa” (13). Blackness does, in other words, constitute one aspect of the narrator's invisibility. But the novel insists that the opposite is true, too, that invisibility is also an aspect of his blackness. Neither term is privileged over the other.26

Throughout the novel, Ellison intertwines this instability with the rhetorical instability that follows from the narrator's “compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white” (14). In the end, we can only approach this desire through the Invisible Man's sense of vulnerability at the naked absurdity of it all. To recognize the affective logic behind the narrator's rhetoric of failure is itself a form of disarmament. In Invisible Man, failure might thus be taken to articulate the potential transformation of the circumstances that makes the attempt necessary. This is why the Invisible Man has to fail. It is also why that failure, because it signifies that which is in the process of emerging but has yet to fully emerge, can be reconfigured as a site of possibility.

Does this claim universalize the novel by evacuating its historical context, yielding an intriguing but ultimately empty affirmation of “possibility”? To answer this question, we must reflect once more on the structures of desire that are always encoded within our interpretative frameworks. In her recent work on the social uses of literature and the limits of critique, Rita Felski has called for a renewed attention to what she calls literature's “transtemporal resonance” (178). Literary criticism, by Felski's lights, can be divided into two methodological approaches. It is true, of course, that formalism and historicism shade into one another in actual critical practice, if only because form is itself historical. Conceptually speaking, though, the difference is clear: if the former treats the literary object as a self-contained aesthetic entity, the latter considers the ways in which texts are imbricated in the historical context in which they first appeared. Neither can account for how works of art resonate across time. “We cannot close our eyes to the historicity of art works,” Felski writes, “and yet we sorely need alternatives to seeing them as transcendentally timeless on the one hand and imprisoned in their moment of origin on the other” (154).27

My reading of Invisible Man provides one such alternative and thus a vector for approaching the question of literary contemporaneity writ large. Because it aligns formal and historical necessity, the narrator's emergence short-circuits the distinction between historicism and formalism. In going underground, he rejects history. In emerging once again, he rejects formal autonomy. One might argue that Invisible Man's vision of a more democratic America is tied up with the social unmaking of the trope that is at the very center of the novel's formal structure and aesthetic achievement. Ellison did, to be sure, place the fate of what he fondly called “the Negro” at the very core of what America is and has been—and, as he believed even more firmly: what it can be. I have suggested, though, that we should understand Ellison's use of invisibility not so much as referring to a certain social arrangement that might be overcome, but as a narrative aporia that generates the possibility for new forms of reciprocity. We can only understand Ellison's temporality of emergence if we also open ourselves to emergent potentialities in our own present. It is here, in this encounter with the interface between literary form and the social world, that we may locate Invisible Man's contemporaneity.

Notes

1

The question of how we think about and institutionalize the present is explored in recent scholarship on the idea of “the contemporary.” Theodore Martin, for instance, proclaims that we must understand this concept not as a determinable “historical period” but as a “conceptual problem” (2). In this article, I consider how these two discourses interact with one another.

2

This view is perhaps most immediately illustrated by Pulitzer-winning historian Leon F. Litwack's history of black Southerners during Jim Crow, which begins with the statement that “Nowhere is the paradox of black life in the United States more graphically revealed than in Ralph Ellison's portrayal of the black odyssey in Invisible Man” (xi). While Litwack does suggest that many of these paradoxes remain unresolved, he nevertheless places Ellison's novel firmly within a historical register of signification. “No historian,” he concludes, “could have improved on the scene” (xii). For more on this topic, see the introduction to Sundquist.

3

Burke frames these remarks by declaring Invisible Man an “epoch-making” work of art (350). At the conclusion of his essay, he further elaborates on this idea. “The difference between an ‘epoch-making’ book and the day's news,” Burke explains, “is this: The news ceases to be news, but the book goes on reconstituting its epoch. Whereas at the time of the writing it grew out of its background, in being read now it both reconstructs its time and takes on a universal poignancy” (359).

4

Setting out to “restore the urgency and ongoing vitality of Ellison's career,” Parrish premises his book on the idea that Invisible Man has in fact “never adequately escaped the Jim Crow origins of its response”: whereas the white literary establishment “praised Ellison's literary mastery,” and thus tacitly his capacity for assimilation, black writers and intellectuals “expressed disappointment in Ellison's career and worried that he was raising himself in American society at the expense of other blacks” (6, 8). The result is “a lasting and unresolved irony” in that the existence of these factions unwittingly worked to “preserve and reenact the Jim Crow logic that Ellison had hoped his work would destroy” (8). For Parrish, though, it all boils down to a “truth . . . both simpler to state and harder to understand: Ellison was a black writer who happened to write one of the very few essential novels of American literature” (8). In his readings, Parrish then proceeds to argue that Invisible Man not only anticipated the end of Jim Crow, but also grasped something fundamental about the possibilities of an imagined post–Jim Crow era. In a chapter on Martin Luther King, for instance, Parrish argues that “Ellison's novel is not just a Jim Crow artifact or ‘merely’ an aesthetic masterpiece but a living text that helps us understand why King succeeded as a leader and how Ellison's anti–Jim Crow commitment to equality was the basis of what made the Civil Rights movement effective” (40). For a recent collection of essays on Ellison's relation to our time, see Conner and Morel. For more about Invisible Man's status as a “Great American Novel,” see Buell.

5

In the former case, it is not hard to see how poorly the narrator's rhetoric of failure and disarmament squares with accounts of the novel that consider the Invisible Man's manuscript as signifying a triumphant overcoming of adversity. For two prominent examples, see Stepto; and Smith. In the latter case, the narrator's emergence constitutes a grounding that arrests the deconstructive slippage that undergirds accounts that privilege textual surface over psychological depth. For an example, see Bell.

6

In “The Art of Fiction: An Interview,” Ellison describes his novel as structured around “a series of reversals” that, taken together, constitute the quest of his narrator to “assert and achieve his own humanity.” Last in this series, we find the text's epilogue, which, as “the most final reversal of all,” Ellison argues to be a “necessary statement.” “In the epilogue,” Ellison explains, “the hero discovers what he had not discovered throughout the book: you have to make your own decisions; you have to think for yourself. The hero comes up from underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it. He could not stay down there” (Ellison, Collected Essays 220). The narrator's decision to emerge, in Ellison's view, was a necessary consequence of the self-knowledge that his protagonist acquired over the course of writing his memoirs. In my reading, I am not so much concerned with this species of psychological necessity.

7

Genter describes Invisible Man as “a deliberate attempt to use aesthetic form to challenge the choice of lens through which individuals made sense of the world around them and to persuade them that the visions offered by the artist were not merely more poetic but possibly more liberating” (4).

8

All literature written by African American authors during this period was, according to Warren, either “instrumental” or “indexical,” which is to say either written explicitly to achieve “some social end,” or taken as a proxy for “the status or the nature of the race as a whole,” regardless of its author's intentions (12–13).

9

His argument is thus not, as some critics suggest, post-racial. For a good overview on Warren's intervention into the politics of identity, and its relation to the work of Walter Benn Michaels, see Millner.

10

This stance is especially evident in Warren's conclusion. “For as we work to even the odds created by a Jim Crow past,” he writes there, “we are working, no matter what we tell ourselves, to make Ellison's novel more a story of the world that was, and less an account of the world that still is. Success here just might be a bad thing for Invisible Man, but such a success would be a marvelous thing, indeed” (108).

11

It is worth noting that Ellison and Podhoretz have quite the history. When Ellison referred to Podhoretz and his staff at Commentary as “new apologists for segregation” in a 1967 interview, an adversarial back-and-forth followed (Collected Essays 744). For more on this exchange, see Glen Anthony Harris's work on the history of Black-Jewish relations (84–87). For more on Podhoretz, see Abrams; and Jeffers.

12

Critics writing about Invisible Man have often registered a vague incredulity at the quickness of this novel's canonization. Writing for Phylon on the occasion of the novel's twentieth anniversary, for instance, William Walling reflects on the literary reputation of Ellison's novel by noting that though it cannot technically be counted as a “traditional ‘classic,’” it has nevertheless quickly “consolidate[d] its position as the most significant work of American fiction in the postwar era” (4). Robert O'Meally registers a similar phenomenon in even stronger terms in a 1988 book of essays on Ellison: “Published a mere thirty-five years ago,” O'Meally writes, “Invisible Man shares with older classic works the odd quality of seeming to have been in place for much longer, if not forever” (1). Writing some ten years after O'Meally, that arbiter of universal taste, Harold Bloom, declared Invisible Man “a confirmed American Classic” (1). Then, in an editor's note attached to a reprinting of the same volume of essays, Bloom describes his then ten-year-old introduction as “timeless,” on account of the “permanent magnificence” of Ellison's novel (vii). As Walling notes, one of the main criteria of a classic has traditionally been “staying power” (4). In these terms, it is possible to read that odd quality to which O'Meally refers as a rhetoric that imposes temporal distance while also registering a quickened pace of social change. And it is possible, too, to read this self-consciousness in regard to the ever-increasing distance between the critical “now” and the novel's date of publication—marked in the criticism by the invocation of various anniversaries: Invisible Man at twenty; at thirty-five; at fifty—as registering an ongoing anxiety about temporal or historical logic that underwrites the novel's contemporary and future existence.

13

Johnson lists “Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, new African immigrants to America, Native Americans, and especially Muslim Americans before September 11” as examples of minorities that might “make a case for being ‘invisible’ men and women in contemporary America; indeed, well might they argue that ‘on the lower frequencies’ Invisible Man, in part, speaks for them” (“Novel Genius” 20). This quotation is from an article that appeared in the New Crisis on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Invisible Man. That article is largely adapted from a response to “What Happened to Ralph Ellison,” which Johnson submitted to Commentary  after having been cited without attribution in Podhoretz's article as one of the novel's “admirers” (56). The addition of “Muslim Americans” in the above enumeration provides further evidence for Johnson's claims about the historical malleability of Ellison's novel.

14

Lawrence Jackson, for instance, asserts that “following its publication, Invisible Man moved from a tool designed to expose a distinctive kind of Negro humanity and to stimulate the conscience of white America into a novel that commented obliquely on politics and stressed chiefly individuality and self-definition” (173). For more on this, see note 4 and the work of John Wright.

15

The idea that the Invisible Man has a “destiny” appears at a number of points throughout his narrative. After the Invisible Man has fought in the “battle royal” and delivered his speech early in the novel, he is awarded a briefcase containing a scholarship (17). “Keep developing as you are,” he is told, “and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people” (32). In the symbolic fabric of the text, these papers later become the “feeble torches” by means of which the Invisible Man tries to make his way out of the underground space into which he falls during the Harlem riot (568). In addition to this, there is Mr. Norton's sense that his destiny is tied up with that of the campus—a belief for which he is mocked by the vet at the Golden Day.

16

The narrator demonstrates that he has transcended this sentiment when he writes that “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed” (15).

17

Joseph Winters argues that the Brotherhood instantiates a view of historical progress that “often functions in public discourse to downplay tensions, conflicts, and contradictions in the present for the sake of a more unified and harmonious image of the future” (6). This becomes especially apparent in the scene in which Brother Tarp bequeaths to Ellison's narrator the link he wore during the nineteen years he spent as a chain-gang prisoner.

18

One example of this is the narrator's early declaration that “I was looking for myself” when he reflects on the various contradictory selves imposed on him in his pre-invisible days (15). This setup then leads to the claim that “I am nobody but myself,” which the narrator contends is knowledge that “everyone else appears to have been born with” (15). Later, the narrator transforms the statement “I am what I am,” as he wolfs down yams on a Harlem sidewalk, to “I yam what I am,” thus circuiting his identity—at this moment, at least—through the vernacular, and through his Southern heritage (266). Soon, though, he finds that one of the yams had been frost-bitten, thus undercutting his momentary euphoria.

19

The most obvious example here is the Brotherhood's insistence that the narrator give up his old name.

20

Clifton's performance when selling Sambo dolls on the street foregrounds what Sianne Ngai calls the “animatedness” of the racialized subject as “overemotional” and “unusually receptive to external control” (91).

21

This, certainly, was how Addison Gayle and his fellow black nationalists viewed it during the heyday of the Black Arts Movement. With his decision to emerge and thus return to (white) society, Gayle argued in 1975, Ellison's narrator “chooses death over life, opts for non-creativity in favor of creativity, chooses the path of individualism instead of [the path of] racial unity” (212).

22

For more on this topic, see Seaton.

23

The thematic is explored at length by Richard Wright in The Outsider, a novel that in many ways parallels Invisible Man.

24

Here, I am referring to the speech that the Invisible Man delivers in front of his hometown's “leading white citizens” (17). The narrator stages this scene by noting that his invitation to speak constituted “a triumph for our whole community,” and that he at the time “visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington”—and the speech is, indeed, about how “humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress” (17–18). It is not surprising, then, that most important moment of this speech comes when the Invisible Man diverges from his Washingtonian script. This occurs when Ellison's protagonist uses the phrase “social responsibility,” with the uproarious audience yelling at him to repeat it. Instead, the Invisible Man yells out “social equality”—a phrase that the he had often seen “denounced in newspaper editorials,” and that he had heard debated in private (31). The atmosphere in the room turns hostile. At this moment, the Invisible Man's speech teeters on the edge of failure. Swallowing blood, he assures his listeners that he made a mistake, and is told in return that the town's big shots “mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times” (31). After this, Ellison's protagonist pushes through the remainder of his carefully crafted speech, and finishes to thunderous applause.

25

For an exemplary and recent engagement with this topic, see Weheliye.

26

Invisible Man's anti-essentialism is also exemplified in the “Blackness of Blackness” sermon from the narrator's reefer-induced vision in the prologue. In a series of paradoxical oppositions, “blackness” is here posited as an unstable signifier: it both “is” and “aint”; it “will git you” and “it won't”; it “will make you” or it “will un-make you” (9–10).

27

For Felski, historicism “serves as the equivalent of cultural relativism, quarantining difference, denying relatedness, and suspending—or less kindly, evading—the question of why past texts matter and how they speak to us now” (156). For Warren, by contrast, historicism is the answer, not the problem. Both What Was African American Literature? and So Black and Blue may, after all, be described precisely as interrogating the political efficacy of “denying relatedness.” And for Podhoretz, Invisible Man does not “speak to us now” because it fails, in his mind, to achieve aesthetic transcendence—a claim that is paradoxically underpinned by an incendiary diagnosis of present-day racial relations rather than any appeal to literary form as such.

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