Double Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth Century Black Literature.
Theodore O. Mason, Jr. Kenyon College
Sandra Adell's Double-Consciousness/Double Bind is an extremely important and (thankfully) iconoclastic work. This is not a book for those inclined to look for assuring and comfortable answers to the problems confronting African American literary study. Rather, Adell's collection of related essays asks pointed questions concerning some of the central theoretical issues in twentieth-century African American literature, from the positioning of Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, to the problematic of academic feminism, to the role of vernacular theory in literary criticism. In all instances Adell turns her attention to the vexing moments of discontinuity, fissure, or rupture that negate the possibility of constructing seamlessly integral visions of African American literary production, ways of reading that do more to contain things literary and less to explain them.
In Double-Consciousness/Double Bind the field of African American literary discourse is represented as always connected in some significant fashion to European modes of thought, such that constructing a purely culturally specific positioning for African American literature is always at the very least difficult, if not impossible. As Adell observes from the first pages, "What has emerged from this problematic is what is most often ignored or forgotten by an increasing number of critics and theorists of literature written by and about blacks; namely, that black literary criticism and theory, like literary criticism in general, relies heavily on the Western philosophical tradition. This reliance on the Western philosophical tradition has important implications for black-specific theories of writing, for . . . this dependency calls into question the very possibility of such specificity." Adell devotes considerable attention to this connection between African American writing and European philosophy and criticism as it is evidenced in a variety of different texts and different writers.
For instance, in Adell's reading Du Bois's articulation of double-consciousness is far less warping and tortured than it is in some other interpretations. Rather, Souls of Black Folk richly and finally affirmatively "foregrounds the very complex system of interrelationships that makes up [its] (con)textual field." Du Bois affirms the value of the connection between things European and things African, even as he recognizes the potential dangers of such connectedness. Similarly, Negritude, though aiming at a certain level of cultural purity in poetic experience, also "is dominated by the already established Western . . . interpretation of nature, the world, and beings in their totality."
Some of the more important sections of Adell's analysis fall toward the end of the volume, where she takes on the positioning of African American feminism in the academy and the role of vernacular theory in African American literary criticism. Each of these "movements" finds itself similarly vexed. African American feminism attempts to speak for the excluded Other, but that Other is a woman who does not appear anywhere in the academy. Nor does African American academic feminism seem capable of reaching her, so that speaking for the Other woman too often becomes a "social mythology" that does more good for the academic critic than anyone else. Something similar occurs in the case of vernacular theory as represented in the work of Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, since the vernacular is almost immediately transformed as it is appropriated into "formal" literature and as it is analyzed by deploying poststructuralist critical strategies. Further, Adell constructs their work as "inherently conservative" insofar as any search for tradition constitutes a nostalgia for the past, for something that remains, in her words, "the Same." This charge may seem, perhaps, too strong, but one should point out directly that Double-Consciousness/Double Bind evidences an equal skepticism of critics who would seek another kind of integrity and tradition in a fashion informed by an oppositional Afrocentrism, since that position suffers from an equally crippling nostalgia.
As a general proposition, the central and informing critical error Adell's analysis explores is a fascination with a pure cultural specificity. This specificity is more often than not "racial," though it is frequently attached to gender and class. Likely motivated by the inclination to search for totalizing explanatory schemes, the emphasis on distinctiveness moves us toward ever more complex taxonomies. At nearly every turn Double-Consciousness/Double Bind argues that the search for phantom purity or integrity is so vexed as to be nearly impossible, in part because variance from integrity and purity is more constant than integrity or purity itself.
Also informing Adell's perceptive analysis is a fundamental motivating suspicion, one worth taking very seriously. This suspicion has to do with the relation between literature and literary criticism, on the one hand, and the positioning of the academy as an upperclass site, on the other. The real demon here is likely an uncritical reading of literature's centrality and of criticism's importance as well. If the actions of writers and critics are linked to vaguely (if not expressly) liberatory projects, then what proof is there that these projects effect the sort of liberation claimed? Put another way, to what extent are the presumed liberatory capacities of literature and criticism primarily a dream of the academic imagination (of whatever avowed ideological persuasion), born of a desire to rationalize or legitimate the position of the academic herself or himself? This last formulation simplifies for the sake of argument the nuances of Adell's various readings. Yet in each instance she sees complication and paradox, where others see simple and rather straightforward presentations.
To be sure, one need not by any means arrive at the conclusion that literature or the Academy has no useful role in relation to the excluded or dominated Other. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that few academics pose the question or take seriously the subsequent answers to this and related questions. What Adell's valuable book points toward is a potential reorientation of our conception of the political in relation to the literary - if not a reorientation of our conception of the political, then at least a reconceptualization of what we imagine literature or literary criticism does or can do.
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|Author:||Mason, Theodore O. Jr.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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