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The arguments that follow derive from a pair of linked assumptions. This is the first: that reading the "small stuff" in Faulkner is vital in contending profitably with the massifications to which his formalism begrudgingly refers. And this the second: that any attempt to read the "small stuff" in Faulkner demands that new modes of reading--new formalisms--be unearthed. This essay offers a first articulation of such an effort. In it, I mobilize a dialectically predisposed mode of close reading, one attentive to the materiality of the sign in its smallest workings. Presently, literary formalism occupies an awkward, not entirely assured, position in critical scholarship, considered "old" in privileging textuality yet impatiently "new" in disavowing stable, totalizing-isms. Caroline Levine's Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network enunciates a recent turn to formalist praxis. For Levine, forms are epistemologically capacious; as mobile sites of change, forms mutate and shift, exceeding the disciplinary limits of literary discourse. Forms are plastic but, for Levine, essentially shallow; "[c]lose, but not deep" bounds the methodological approach of this emergent formalism (Levine 23). (1) Levine's suspicion of "deep meaning"--that is, meaning understood as the material residue of ideology's workings--gives coloration to the new formalism: politics doesn't structure form, politics is form. The present work kicks back against these assumptions. It seeks, in fact, to rehabilitate the new formalism, providing a firm steer away from poststructuralist reefs and the arbitrarily decentred modes of reading that its organisms ultimately infer. Unlike Levine, who downgrades the potentiality of forms--say capital, self, race, nation--as constitutive and organizing, I take their compulsions entirely seriously, exploring the force with which textual forms--as political, dialectically predisposed units--both contain and bear down upon their subjects. The present work sets out to challenge, duly "rerouting" (18) in Levine's idiom, the tendency within the new formalist paradigm to privilege contingency over the (indeed deep) imperatives of an ideological apparatus that, to my mind at least, leaves nothing to chance. This is not to say that forms cannot--or should not--be broken down, restructured, incapacitated. Indeed, politicized resistance to the boundedness of the forms that oppress us--be they economic, national, racial, technological, sexual, constitutional, professional--materializes, and materializes to our profit, in the lifeworld of contemporary society as much as it materializes in the modernisms of William Faulkner. But, as often in Faulkner as in anywhere else, concerted efforts at political restructuring are, in the Althusserian sense, always--already catered for, anticipated, and becalmed. Indeed, for Faulkner narrative form--as we shall see presently--"folds" its politics back-into-itself, reestablishing through new forms the legitimacy of the old. And in Faulkner, as in anywhere else, these forms, hypostasized by a dialectic of renovation and recapitulation, will not merely endure: they will prevail.

Counter to Levinian formalism, this essay reads close and deep. Its assumptions are structured by a conviction that the bounded, oppressive workings of political "forms"--say capital, self, race, nation--can be understood, in Faulkner, at the level of the word. Less a rebuke of the politics of form than an exploration of how forms, as political events, clash and cross, this essay "gets to" the big stuff by privileging the small. Of all the small forms that proliferate in Faulkner, it is the pronoun, I will claim, that shoulders principal semantic weighting. Read closely and deeply, pronouns might be understood as forms within forms, as "works in miniature" to "reroute" Paul Ricoeur's lithe description of metaphor ("Metaphor" 97). A full case for the pronoun as a semantically generative unit of meaning across Faulkner exceeds the limits of the present work. But what this essay can do is pin the pronoun, conceptualizing its inner workings, to the semantic economy of Faulkner, in a single text. The pronoun is "I"; the novel is As I Lay Dying (1930).

The first-person singular nominative pronoun "I" is the "compacted doctrine" of As I Lay Dying (Empson 39). It functions as the principal grammatical instrument by which Faulkner's fifth novel "com[es] into meaning" in Malcolm Bull's term (5). To claim the primacy of the "I" regarding Faulkner's fifth novel is, of itself, to claim nothing new. Indeed, preexisting scholarship testifies to the opacities that subtend the Faulknerian first-person. Yet, these opacities have occasioned significant critical strife. From Vickery to Volpe, some of Faulkner's brightest readers have withered in the face of the epistemological complexities of the middle fictions. (2) Given the vexed historical interrelationships that underpinned the broad sociality of Southern postbellum cultures, the notion of a (white) "self" autonomous from a (black) "other" is beset with anxiety. Indeed, as the wage-forms of capitalist modernity drew black labor from the stagnant well of the post-plantation South, the veil was lifted on the "conflicted intimacy" (Lott 75) that bonded the white "I" or "dominant first" to its black "them," or "constitutive third." This work will not mine the "social death" that issued from black "leaving" white (Patterson). Rather, it situates the "I" as a site of precarity, as the "most problematical of all shifters" in Faulkner's work (Ross 308).

It is a critical commonplace to situate As I Lay Dying as Faulkner's preeminently existential text. Daniel J. Singal suggests that the novel
   can be viewed as an existential drama akin to the most advanced
   works of Gide, Malraux, or Beckett--its plot a minimalist quest to
   preserve identity under the most trying conditions conceivable. The
   Bundrens, unsophisticated though they may be, are caught up in the
   typical twentieth-century dilemma of defining themselves in the
   midst of an indifferent cosmos, of fashioning a basis of being in
   the midst of nothingness. (148)

Respecting the broad phenomenological contours of Faulkner's novel, Singal's account is intuitive. As I Lay Dying indeed invokes the tragicomic inflections of Beckett, dealing with the cruel, bizarre "I" a fraught referent which survives, despite attempts to die. As an account of the specific "conditions" under which the "I" splits and ruptures, however, Singal's account is insufficient. The habit of reading Faulkner's "minimalis[m]" broadly--via "maximalist" terms ("most trying conditions"; "typical twentieth-century")--is jarring. For "indifferent cosmos" I propose "industrial modernity"; for "trying conditions," "reification," "alienation," and "real abstraction," in Alfred Sohn-Rethel's formulation. Adjusting Singal's terminology does not denude Faulkner's text of its existential inflections: it intensifies them. In As I Lay Dying, the "dilemma" of existence, while tethered to notions of the self, traverses the fault lines of a broader sociality. The fragmentation and alienation of the "I" is an outgrowth of and response to the "lurch toward modernity" (Matthews, Seeing 248). In conceptualizing this "lurch" I engage first with how this problematic "shifter" manifests at the textual level.

The "I" of As I Lay Dying refers, ostensibly, to its lodestar and signifying corporeality, Addie Bundren. Wife to Anse (a truncation of "Anselm") and mother of five, Addie is the subject of and, latterly, the object toward which discussions of being and existence gravitate. A dying mother-wife and, latterly, cargo-thing transported to burial, Addie functions as the text's ontological degree-zero. Her death (or, more exactingly, her dying) provides the standard against which the "being" of the living is pegged. Two reasons, however, undermine Addie's credentials as the cardinal exponent for the problematic "I." The first concerns chronology. Addie spends little time as an "I"; for the majority of the novel she is not an "I" but a was, a "not-I." She "dies"--relinquishing "Iness"--on page thirty-two of Faulkner's text, and is ostensibly excepted from discussions of "being." "Dying," to drill down into a Sartrean lexicon, has "nihilated" Addie's "for itself" (Sartre, Being 34). It is not Addie, then, but those who remain that have to deal with the bruising materiality of the "I." A second reason concerns the infrequency of Addie's narration. Addie "speaks" but once, and posthumously: post "I," as a was. Only one of the novel's fifteen narrators satisfies both of the criteria (present-ness and volubility) of which Addie falls shy: Darl, Addie's second son. Darl is the novel's most vital subject, inasmuch as he tackles the thorny notion of being with the most gusto; and he is its most frequent narrative voice, narrating nineteen of the fifty-nine "chapters"--almost a third (Darl's allocation is almost double that of the second most prolific textual voice, Vardaman, who narrates ten times.) (3) It is to Darl--the novel's most astute and most practiced "I"--that our attention to the "small stuff" should turn.


The "I" poses significant problems for Darl Bundren. In distinction to his peers, who have neither the time nor inclination for extended philosophizing, Darl proves acutely sensitive to questions of self and being. The ontological exercises to which Darl commits imperil what seems an "always-already" shaky subjecthood. Indeed, Darl holds the dubious distinction of having "the most precarious identity" of all the Bundrens (Singal 148). For "precarious," Sartre offers "fragility." "A being is fragile," Sartre postulates, "if it carries in its being a definite possibility of non-being" (Being 32). Aside from Addie, for whom ontic "negations" prove a fixture of being, Darl is the only "I" that "carries"--is haunted by--this grave-load of "non-being." Only Darl evaluates consciousness as "fragility," as (a carrier of) "non-being." The following passage demarcates Darl's fullest engagement with the problematic "I." In it, Darl attempts to control, and subsequently understand, the vicissitudes of an especially slippery phenomenology:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

(AILD 52)

In this beguiling eschatological set piece, the first-person pronoun "I" offers sounding for the amplification of insistently existential reverberations. Situated on the edge of sleep and anticipating the imminent death of his (m)other, Darl gets to thinking through the nature of his being: of what it is to be is. Despite--or perhaps because of--the intensity of his "ontological inquiry," Darl struggles, in Heidegger's idiom, "to clarify the special problem of "I"-hood" (370). Passing through and subsequently passing beyond "[i]ntimately related stages of ontological metamorphosis," Darl's convoluted syntax proceeds circuitously toward an evaluation of the self (Natanson 101). Beginning with and returning to a survey of his own "I-hood" (ichheit), the passage elicits from Darl a commentary on four linked ises: first his is; second, the is of Vardaman; third, the is of the wagon; fourth, the is of his (now dead, "was") mother; finally, Darl sets to theorize how these myriad ises give substantive form to his own "I"

The first phase of Darl's "inquiry" bifurcates. First, Darl ponders the what of his "I"--the phenomenological substance that constitutes his being. Unsurprisingly, the "what-ness" of the "I" proves elusive. Like the "wall" that divides him from the world, Darl's sense of self is "unlamped," opaque, essentially indiscernible. Lacking the "Luminous Detail" (Pound 21) of an operative epistemology, Darl states, "I dont know what I am." Darl's "I dont know" is instructive; moreover, it is existentially derived. For Sartre, this kind of not-knowing affirms one's situatedness as a "non-thetic" subject. The "non-thetic consciousness," Sartre writes, "is not to know" (Being 92). Yet Darl's situatedness as a "non-thetic" subject is improbably thetic: his "I dont know" involves its own kind of knowing. As Sartre points out, "emptiness is emptiness of something" (Being 39; emphasis mine). If Darl knows nothing else, he knows this much: that he does not know what he is.

Secondly, Darl probes the if of his "I," querying his position as an "I" within the phenomenal world: "I dont know if I am or not." Darl, then, not only queries the condition--the what--of his being but evaluates his basic position as a viable empirical subject. As Darl questions the facticity, or "if-ness" of his "I," he troubles the Cartesian relation between the "am" and its "I." That Darl's "I" is alienated from his "am" does not mean that he lacks I-ness. In fact, following Hegel, Darl's "I" might be read "not as [a] Nothing, but as a determinate Nothing" (Hegel 68). Together, Darl's "what" and his "if" become disputed entities; their parsing raises "insoluble epistemological questions" to which Darl seems unable to decisively respond (Hemenway 138). In short, the ambivalence with which Darl greets his own "I" is less significant than his disputing it. Again, Darl seems suited to Sartre: "[f]or man to be able to question" Sartre writes, "he must be capable of being his own nothingness; that is, he can be at the origin of non-being in being only if his being--in himself and by himself--is paralyzed with nothingness" (Being 69). Despite the chronic opacities that issue from this ontic blackout, Darl proves able to state "I am is," duly figuring a more concrete sense of being. The transition from ambivalence ("I dont know what I am") through indeterminacy ("I dont know if I am or not") into positive assertion ("I am is") hauls Darl across some treacherous philosophical terrain.

Heidegger provides a means of negotiating the inner workings of Darl's loquacious--yet simultaneously absent--"I." "The word 'I,'" Heidegger writes,
   is to be understood only in the sense of a non-committal formal
   indicator, indicating something which may perhaps reveal itself as
   its 'opposite' in some particular phenomenal context of Being. In
   that case, the 'not-I' is by no means tantamount to an entity which
   essentially lacks 'I-hood' ["Ichheit"], but is rather a definite
   kind of Being which the 'I' itself possesses, such as having lost
   itself. (151-52)

The Heidegerrean "not-I" does not preclude the presence of "I-hood." It does, however, interfere with it. Conceivably, Darl can "be" and simultaneously be "not-I," yet the proximity of "dont know what" and "dont know if" (the constitutive phases that push Darl toward an unlikely "is") provide his ontological inquiry with dialectical coloration. If the "what I am" unsettles the notion of being, the "if I am" stamps the imprimatur of "not-being" onto Darl's elaborately, negatively charged "is." Effectively, Darl's "am not I" opens up a weird space within which epistemological, ontological and corporeal uncertainties clash and cross. Under Darl's jurisdiction, the "I" is an imperilled referent, a marker of a "fragile" ontology.

Above, I set out to parse the inner turbulences of the first-person as it haunts Darl, As I Lay Dyings cardinal "I"/"eye." I do this by zeroing in on the phenomenological materials of a precarious first-person. That I make so much out of so little is not to say that Darl's ruminations are unimpeachably "private," nor solely "internal" in derivation. In fact, as his reference to the broken wagon/hearse (and specifically its wooden cargo) copiously exemplifies, Darl's "I" can be said to turn out at the point that it turns in. By this I mean that Faulkner's textual forms, while carrying phenomenological freight, are inextricably linked to the social forms of late modernity. Specifically, they are bound to the wagelabor forms that absent Darl and Jewel from Addie's death.

Enticed by a three-dollar fee that they hope will defray Addie's funeral expenses, Darl and Jewel become middlemen in a distributive commodity economy. (4) This fraternal ad hoc distribution "shape[s]" Darl's conception of his "I." Specifically, Darl's "I" is "shape[d]" by (the being-in-the-world of) a "load" of timber that, trussed to the wagon/hearse, reveals the interim nature of (their) distribution; the timber, in Darl's phrasing, is "no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and ... not ours either." Slipping across possessive pronominal locations, the commodified lumber is transient; it has no "fixed" place, no stable identity. (5) We might therefore concur with Richard Godden, for whom the "timber anomaly strikes Darl as an apt equivalent for himself." Indeed, Darl, Godden follows, "adopts lumber as an analytic means to self-shaping" (249). It is in this connection that we might relate the weird corporeality of Darl's "I" with the essential weirdness of the commodity form. Indeed, if we are minded to understand the commodity as a congealed magnitude of social values (a use-value that transcends use, becoming a value for others) we can start to see how the commodity form, constantly shifting, as it must, from one host body to another, mediates the strange fungibility of Darl's own interim, shifting "I-hood." As John T. Matthews notes, "[t]he Bundrens' function as 'middlemen' in this transaction becomes a metaphor for Darl's selfhood--not an end but a means, not property held but property in circulation, not self-possession but severally possessed" ("Machine Age" 73). Despite the inwardness of his linked phenomenological speculations, then, Darl's being-in-the-world is materially sedimented.

The strange fungibility of Darl's "I" might be further socialized by parsing Faulkner's treatment of its homophone "eye." As critics have established, Darl is the novel's eminently eye-minded (not to mention "I-minded") narrator; he is telepathically gifted, if not functionally clairvoyant. (6) Less noted, however, is the dialectic relation between the "eye," an organ for which Darl's "I" provides metonymic reference, and "land," the novel's preeminent site of material exertion. As Anse states prior to the Bundrens' departure for Jefferson, Darl "got his eyes full of the land all the time" (24-25). The image is compelling, situating labor itself as socketed, immanently "eye-minded." Returning to Godden it becomes clear that "[t]he 'land,' owned by the Bundrens, as the means to their substance, and coterminous with their lifework, necessarily fills their eyes, even as it congeals from their sweat" (242). Darl, as "eye-minded," seems uniquely equipped to negotiate the scopic regime of a modernizing South. Yet his eyes can only hold the land for so long. Indeed, as the Bundrens' impending cont(r)act with the commodity economy of the "New South" materializes, the "land" exceeds its limits, "enter[ing] into ebullition," to draw from Bataille (30). As Dewey Dell states, "[t]he land runs out of Darl's eyes; they swim to pin points" (AILD 78). Contracting to "pin points" at the moment of land's dematerialization, Darl's "eyes" register the material contractions of a rural economy that was depleted, if not entirely depopulated, as of 1930.

The dialectic of "eye" and "land" informs the compositional strategies of Faulkner's novel. As Cheryl Lester has written, the Bundrens' movement from farm to town is an extended metaphor for the historically determined shift from agrarian to capitalist modes of production. Faulkner's novel, Lester argues,
   allegorizes this collective upheaval of traditional rural life by
   setting the hapless Bundren family on a journey to town. As the
   family moves toward the unfamiliar landscape and community of
   Jefferson and toward new social identities, they are compelled to
   respond to pressures and limits that emerge in the context of new
   settings and social relations. (28)

As the "I's"/"eye's" ability to register labor as a constitutive fact of Southern modes of production recedes during the thirties, a dialectic tension between existential being and being-as-labor comes into view. Mobilizing "an endless back-and-forth of revelation and concealment" (Taussig, Defacement 3), "land" as the preeminent site of coercive social practices comes into view at the point of its disappearance. Full of--so that they might be emptied of--the land, Darl's eyes register the dematerialization of labor under the rubric of late modernity. Mediated by the land (and the labor which brings land into social realization) the conjunction of "I" and "eye" creates a "semantic impertinence" (Ricoeur, "Metaphoric" 145) which leaves literal "eyes" in ruins.

Darl might not know the what--or the if--of his "I," but he appears, somehow, to know the ontological constitution of his half (br)other Jewel: for Darl, Jewel is. More, Jewel "knows that he is." Paradoxically, Jewel's "knowing" emerges from an overabundance of not knowing. Jewel must be, Darl figures, because he "knows that he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not." Notwithstanding its compacted-ness, elements of Darl's conceivably Rumsfeldian syntax are discernible. (7) First, Jewel's "knowledge" seemingly functions outside of (in spite of) itself. Jewel, according to the ruminations of Darl, "knows" because he doesn't know that he doesn't know (if he is). Jewel, for Darl, is the preeminent Sartrean subject. As Carole Haynes-Curtis notes, "[t]here is for Sartre a sense in which I can know without knowing that I know" (271). Here, "knowing" survives as a constituent part(icle) of not knowing that one knows. Knowledge of something, in Sartre's sense, does not necessitate that one must know that one knows. While Darl's utterance winkles "knowing" from "not knowing," it does not assume that Jewel knows by not knowing that he knows, but, rather, by not knowing that he does not know (whether he is or not).

This is no mere semantic nitpicking. Darl's syntactical contortions and variations pin the precarity of the "I" to the (equally precarious) social forms which, as I argue shortly, underpin Faulkner's novel. Jewel's "knowing" emanates not from ignorance of a knowing but ignorance of an ignorance (of that knowing). Jewel comes into knowledge because of an ignorance of an ignorance. Again, we hit a (unlamped) wall: an ignorance of an ignorance does not amount to a knowing. A Putumayo tribeswoman might be ignorant of her ignorance of IT networks in industrialized societies, but this does not amount to her knowing them. Unlike grammatical "double negatives," which labor to cancel each other out, Jewel's negatives enrich each other; each adds to the other's intensity. But how to (re)solve the impasse of Darl's dasein, or "essential inner," if at all (re)solvable? Darl's final clause, "whether he is or not," (re) complicates the located-ness of Jewel's conceivably knowable, yet implacable "I." Sustained by what Michael Taussig, following Hegel, calls "the labor of the negative" (more of which later), Darl's thinking on--and around--the ichheit of Jewel implements a dialectic of revelation and concealment (Defacement 9). Drawn to grammatical and syntactical opacities, Darl's rooftop ruminations communicate what should be a simple fact: Jewel knows that he is. Yet Darl's "whether ... or not" spoils the epistemological capacities of Jewel's not knowing. No longer a double revision but a revision in triplicate, Darl effaces Jewel's not knowing not once but twice. Having affirmed Jewel's "being-in-itself" (more properly a "being for Darl") as an "original nihilation," Darl proceeds gloriously toward "the intuitive apprehension of a double nihilation" (Sartre, Being 34). Sustained by three linked moments of opacity, the "inner contradiction" (that knowing is not knowing) contradicts its own contradiction.

These existential uncertainties are compounded by the frequency with which Darl is required to offer narration. Given the demands placed on Darl as a textual "I"/"eye," it is unsurprising that his sense of self deteriorates as the novel develops. Indeed, by the novel's end Darl, entirely alienated from his "I," refers to himself in the third person: "Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed" (172). Darl has become "third." What better way to expunge the traces of a problematic "I"? Darl's transition from "first" to "third" is symptomatic of a text that can only come to grief as it deals with its narrative "I." The coming section suggests that the eviscerations and occlusions of the pronominal "I" worm their way into the mediating structures of the text.


As I Lay Dying divides its narrative labors fifteen ways. The "radical segmentation of perceptions" is perhaps the novel's most striking textual feature (Kinney 30). The displacements and dislocations of the narrative "I"/"eye" generate a polyglot narrative community. Faulkner's novel, following Bakhtin, seems "overpopulated--with the intentions of others" (294). The novel's polyphonic profile has proved of enduring interest to critics and readers alike. (8) I, however, am concerned less with its populated-ness per se than with the organizational principles by which its narratives are distributed.

I begin with a nod to Faulkner's other famously formalist text, The Sound and the Fury (1929). Published on October 7th, three weeks before Faulkner began As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's fourth novel provides four consecutive narrative sections: Benjy Compson, the novel's first "first-person," narrates; he cedes to his younger brother Quentin; once finished, Quentin "hands over to" a third brother, Jason, who begrudgingly--and as such, entirely in character--yields to a fourth narrator (its first "third-person") Dilsey Gibson. Each "chapter" begins, matures, and obsolesces before the next can commence. As I Lay Dying is structured altogether differently. Its narrators refuse, or prove otherwise unable, to wait for one narrative phase to "complete" before embarking upon the next. Counter to the four consecutive, protracted textual sessions of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying provides fifty-nine episodic narrations that intersect, drop off and--in most cases--rejoin the narrative "queue." (9) Seven of fifteen narrators report only once--they do not rejoin the "queue"--yet even these marginal narrators constitute a dynamic part of what Fredric Jameson, following Sartre, calls the "serial situation" (249).

The organizational principles of As I Lay Dying satisfy the notion of the "series." For Sartre, the serial situation arises when a collective population is drawn together by an event, phenomena or experience within the social life of a given community. Sartre's most famous "everyday example" concerns subjects queuing for a bus (Critique 256). Each member of the queue has a "common interest," yet this commonality, Sartre suggests, is essentially anti-social: each waits without integrating with--or viewing themselves as part of--the collective gathering. "The bus they wait for unites them" (259), but it does not facilitate their integration: "we are concerned here with a plurality of isolations: these people do not care about or speak to each other and, in general, they do not look at one another; they exist side by side alongside a bus stop" (256; emphasis mine). With the exception, perhaps, of Vardaman and Darl, Faulkner permits scant interaction between members of the textual queue. Figuratively speaking, these queueing "I"s/"eyes" "turn their backs on" the "I"s/"eyes" that surround them. Rarely does one textual "I"/"eye" elicit a response from others in the queue. (10) Autonomy within-the-series is the novel's idee fixe. On arriving at the "front" of the textual queue, each "I" articulates (a portion of) her narrative, and rejoins the back of the queue.

It is perhaps ironic that a novel which attends so centrally to the inner workings of the "I" instantiates a pluralized first person (a first person to the power of fifteen) that labors to dislocate and undermine the autonomy of the "I." Interchangeability, agitation, and substitution are the watchwords of the serial situation, as much as they are of Faulkner's text. As Jameson notes, the "Sartrean system" is "not a form fixed once and for all, but a process of rotating or revolving thirds, in which everyone in turn serves as the unifier of the other members" (Jameson 264; 253). Yet unification comes at existential cost: as Jameson has it, the serial situation lodges an "alien" in the "I"; as a narrative of serialized instants, Faulkner's text is mediated by and through the desires of others. It is in the "serial situation" that the (alienated) reciprocity between "first" and "third" achieves form.


The organizational principles that underpin Faulkner's novel are Surrealistically--as well as serialistically--inflected. Specifically, the text finds a structural analogue in the Surrealistic practice of the cadavre exquis, initiated in Paris by Andre Breton in 1924--the year before Faulkner's French sojourn. The cadavre exquis was a language-game centred on the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous lexical clauses; facilitating chance encounters, the practice sought to reinvigorate the literary text, providing access to new intensities. Breton describes its genesis:

When the conversation--on the day's events or proposals of amusing or scandalous intervention in the life of the times--began to pall, we would turn to games; written games at first, contrived so that elements of language attacked each other in the most paradoxical manner possible, and so that human communication, misled from the start, was thrown into the mood most amenable to adventure.... Surely nothing was easier than to transpose this method to drawing, by using the same system of folding and concealing. (Breton; emphasis mine)

Here is an example, "Revelation Cruelle," created by Breton in about 1924:

This fifteen-line cut up of 1924 scissors extant meanings from their original contexts, reorganizing them in "revelatory," "incendiary" configurations. Mobilizing the "systematic estrangement and coupling of disparate elements in collage," Breton's formal praxis exploited "[r]adical editing as a means of subverting established narratives" (Adamowicz 21; 99). As I Lay Dying incorporates Bretonian formalism, upscaling the cutting and splicing techniques for which the cadavre exquis would become synonymous. Most immediately, the reciprocity between Bretonian and Faulknerian formalisms gain traction at the level of the work as a totality. The cadavre exquis exists in relation to As I Lay Dying as its "work in miniature." For what Breton achieves at the level of the line, Faulkner realizes at the level of the chapter: in lieu of spliced lines come spliced chapters. The consonance between Breton and Faulkner is indeed striking. Like Breton's "text," Faulkner's novel consists of spliced, serialized instants (not into fifteen, as in Breton, but into fifty-nine). And, like in Breton, Faulkner's narrators narrate only to capitulate to the "folding over" that is mobilized by Bretonian praxis: narrators narrate; their "text" is then folded, and "passed to" the next narrator who, in turn, narrates, folds, passes on. (11) Embracing this "system of folding and concealing," As I Lay Dying embodies, quite literally, Faulkner's textual "corpse." Yet Bretonian formalism does more than offer a structure for Faulkner's novel. Indeed, Bretonian influence worms its way into the individual component parts of Faulkner's text.

The most prominent example of Faulkner's Bretonian borrowings emerges as a Surrealistically inflected list which, supplied by Cash, establishes the principles of coffin construction:
Fig. 2. AILD 53


I made it on the bevel.

1. There is more surface for the nails to grip.

2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.

3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water
moves easiest up and down or straight across.

4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time.
So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because
the stress is up-and-down.

5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints
and seams are made sideways, because the stress is

6. Except.

7. A body is not square like a crosstie.

8. Animal magnetism.

9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the
stress come slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin
are made on the bevel.

10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down
on the bevel.

11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress
being up-and-down.

12. So I made it on the bevel.

13. It makes a neater job.

Duplicating Breton's fifteen-line cut-up of 1924 comes another, of 1930. (12) The congruence between Breton's corpse and Cash's "manifesto" exemplifies Faulkner's growing receptivity to international avant-gardes, particularly French Surrealism. That Faulkner was enamoured of French forms across the twenties has been patchily documented, yet the ligatures of transnational influence occasioned an enthusiasm in Faulkner both genuine and long-lasting. During a richly productive visit to Paris in 1925, Faulkner aligned himself with the "numberless young and struggling moderns" with whose work he would abundantly engage (qtd. in Gellman). On August 18th, Faulkner wrote his mother, Maud: "went to a very very modernist exhibition the other day--futurist and vorticist" (qtd. in Blotner 160). Five weeks later, on September 22nd, Faulkner visited "Rodin's museum, and two private collections of Matisse and Picasso" (qtd. in Gellman). Faulkner's receptivity to French avant-gardes undermines the regionalist profile which critics continue to attribute him, in turn discrediting the notion of nationally particularistic modernisms. Yet Cash's aesthetic construction does more than unsettle the autonomy of "nationally" bounded forms. More is at stake than questions of influence. As an aesthetic manifesto and blueprint for construction, Cash's design troubles the borders between form and function: it acts as the connective tissue between "intellectual" and "manual" labor. It is to forms of (and forms as) labor that I now wish to turn.

Determined that the textual "seams and joints" remain square and true, Cash affixes a pre- (or proto-) numerical "cramp" to its top left-hand corner:

I MADE it on the bevel.

Staunchly vertical, Cash's oversized pronominal marker interlocks with a pronouncedly horizontal assertion of making. The tension (or "stress" in Cash's locution) between the vertical marker of selfhood and the horizontal expression of productive labor generates what Darl, the embodiment of "intellectual labor," calls "rapt, dynamic immobility"(49). (13) Providing the "gripping surface" upon which its internal stresses might hold, Cash's "I" exemplifies what Marx and Engels call "practical consciousness" (German Ideology 51); it braces, "like a crosstie," the lines of text that speed horizontally across the page. The pronoun's (en)grave(d) vertical profile infers kinship, even heredity: Cash derives use-value from the teleological abstractions of Anse, for whom verticality and fixity are coplanar principles. This is Anse, on "roads" (and, by implication, on the topographies of modernity itself): "the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man" (24). Road, horse and wagon: for Anse the three lobes of modernity's conceptual trefoil. (14) The fixity of the cramped/cramping "I" satisfies Anse's antimodernism avant la lettre, fixing its thirteen horizontal lines, "each in its ordered place" (SF1124). (15)

As a vertical object, then, Cash's structure makes concessions to Anse's calcified--stubbornly horizontal--relation to modernity, a relation shot through with an avowed objection to lateral stresses (more of which presently). Yet Cash's decision to "ma[k]e it on the bevel" seems informed by psychic as well as practical knowledge. Specifically, it is in Cash's mention of "animal magnetism" that we find a formative context for Cash's modernist structure. Developed in the 1780s by Franz Mesmer, a German physician and amateur astrologist, "animal magnetism" (sometimes "mesmerism") refers to a theory of natural energetic transference between animate and inanimate objects. The psychic capacities of "animal magnetism" are not lost on Cash. As Christopher T. White suggests,
   Cash's reference to "animal magnetism" as the chief rationale for
   building Addies coffin on a bevel mobilizes central preoccupations
   of the novel under the sign of the animal. Sensitized to As I Lay
   Dyings zoosemiotic register, we find in Faulkner's novel a case
   study of the revealing, if sometimes startling, links between
   animality and new forms of communication, representation, and
   literary aesthetics that emerged in modernism. (82)

That Anse "exchanges" Addie Bundren, the mesmeric "fish," for a "duck" at the climax of the text (and that he does so in the shadow of the phonograph, preeminent amongst the "new forms of communication") extends this preliminary discussion of animal magnetism's revelatory, startling formal character. The reader need not wait until the novel's terminal zoomorphic moment, though, to sense that animal magnetism

serves as a ready metaphor for the manner in which, throughout the novel, distances--between here and there, self and other, physical and psychical, life and death, human and nonhuman--are collapsed into disturbing intimacies; in which once inaccessible or blocked information is rendered communicable. (White 94)

If the bevel is a structure upon which "disturbing intimacies" might be mounted, the "I" (for Cash at least) seems a site of solid, practical fixity. That the "I" for Cash, is a use-value is clear: preventing his text from slipping, becoming "slant," it "makes a neater job." Less apparent than the practicality of this positioning are the politics of its boundedness. Understood as a "cramped" form, the "I" structures the text and, consequently, foregrounds its dialectical potentialities. In "Expose of Paris, 1935" Walter Benjamin characterizes historical time as a dynamic, co-planar process, one "held fast" by antagonistic tensions. For Benjamin a properly materialist conception of history sustains generative conflicts between epochs: history, for him, is a site of dynamic tension. More, it is eminently Faulknerian: for "rapt, dynamic immobility" Benjamin offers "dialectics at a standstill" (Arcades 10). Gripped--or "cramped"--by its inner contradictions, Benjamin writes elsewhere, "thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions." It is "[i]n this structure," Benjamin suggests, that one "cognizes the sign of a messianic zero-hour of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past" ("Theses" 263). As an aesthetic "structure" that achieves historical traction by crystallizing--and holding fast--its inner contradictions, Cash's manifesto is eminently responsive to the dialectical mode. As Cash intones, his load-bearing, jointed structure is a built-form beset by tensions. Cash's historicist credentials are impeccable: one notes his specialist knowledge of stresses; and his awareness of how to manage them. As principles 4 and 5 aver, Cash knows about medial stress ("the stress is up and down"); and its lateral variant ("the stress is sideways"). Dialectically predisposed, Cash's labor is strategically invested in--it is gripped by--the historical struggle as delineated by Benjamin. His is a politically responsive structure, one permeated by (or "shot through" with) the grain of the dialectic.

It is tempting, following Susan Sontag, to locate Cash's manifesto as "an aesthetics that yearns to be a politics" (Sontag 54). Certainly, his prose-poem appears stuck between aesthetic and material imperatives: reaching forwards, toward the manifestos of aesthetic modernity, and simultaneously backwards, toward a past of use-value and unified labor practices that are fundamentally incompatible with the ideological underpinnings of industrial modernity. Notably, the tension between old and new is mediated, once more, by the dialectic: Cash "records [erfasst] the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through" ("Theses" 263). That Cash, the novel's "messianic," Christ-carpenter figure, is perhaps accustomed to "splinters" (or "chips" [AILD 49]) is not to say that he "stands for" an unmediated reversion to ancient labor forms. (16) As Cash's Surrealistic inclinations show, his productions maintain a troubled relation to modernity and its forms.

The bevel is the nonpareil space of ambivalence. It complicates Cash's productive processes and, accordingly, the aesthetic principles which underpin them. Applied with the "tedious and minute care of a jeweller" (51), the labor-intensive, bespoke bevel is anachronistic within an economy increasingly predicated on rapid, standardized productivity. Emblematic of older, holistic working practices, Cash's bevel angles toward a recalcitrant form; his is a labor before the clock. Gaining semantic traction as a figuration of inalienable, premodern labor, the bevel provides the "gripping surface" upon which Cash might mount meaningful resistance to the productive processes that would rip through production during the first third of the twentieth century. For many on the left, technological modernity would constitute a "mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination" (Marcuse 414). While seemingly resistant to mechanization, Cash is clearly no Marcusean. Indeed, given the disintegrative inflections of his Surrealistic prose-poem, the bevel is itself a site gripped by ambivalence. As the text's loadbearing structure, the bevel functions as a site of anticapitalist resistance at the same time as it offers the means of ameliorating the stresses to which capitalist production inevitably refers. The revolutionary capabilities of the bevelled edge "flash up in a moment of danger," yet are held fast by a structure which obtains only so as to disperse its inner contradictions (Benjamin, "Theses" 255). Cash may be aware of tensions and their antagonistic potentialities, yet his forms provide the means by which these antagonisms, and the revolutionary capacities attendant upon these, might be soothed. The bevel functions less as an anticapitalist edge than as a surface onto which Cash might offload his ambivalent--conceivably slant--relation to labor and its embodied, alienated forms. It is the "bevel" rather than Cash that bears the dialectic pressure between premodern and modern forms.

As it cuts across the assumptions of technological modernity, the bevel invokes a poetics of edges that blunts the text's ostensibly antimodernist profile. Cash, the Surrealist manque, is not alone in an ambivalence regarding edges and their political capacities. For the "numberless young and struggling moderns" to which Faulkner alluded, the edge was load-bearing, achieving currency by the early twenties as a means of chiselling new expressions from the calcified rock(face) of the old. Within contemporary artistic circles the edge would offer an antidote to what John Dos Passos dubbed "the stodgy complacency of the nineteenth century" (Pizer 32). Cash, of course, may not have had access to the cut forms of Breton, Brzeska or Williams. But Faulkner evidently did. (17) Consequently, Cash's bespoke edge seems entirely ceremonial. It "cuts without cutting": "[c]risp, worked to defeat"; its "laboredness--fragile" (Williams 195).

That the edge is a place of crisis and renovation "sinks-in," belatedly, to Cash's labored consciousness. Three pages after the manifesto appears, its material referent Addie's coffin, is wholly shorn of tactility. In place of labor comes an icon which, delivered by Vardaman is nothing but edge:
Fig. 3. AILD 56-57

They had laid her in it reversed. Cash made it clock-shape,
like this [??] with every joint and seam bevelled and
scrubbed with the plane, tight as a drum and neat
as a sewing basket, and they had laid her in it head to foot so
it wouldn't crush her dress. It was her wedding dress and it
had a flare-out bottom, and they had laid her head to foot in
it so the dress could spread out, and they had made her a veil
out of a mosquito bar so the auger holes in her face wouldn't

Cruelly, given Cash's painstaking creation of "joint and seam" (53), the time-consuming addition of a "bevel," integration of side-, bottom- and end-pieces, Vardaman's representational practices reduce Addie's coffin to a two-dimensional state. No longer a resting place for Addie's "I" but a flatness which presses upon it (its joints, like Addie's are in a rictus, its planes "tight as a drum"), the icon "nihilates" the function for which it was initially conceived: [??] is "use-value estranged from its use" (Sohn-Rethel 64). From degraded use we extrapolate to degraded labor. Stripped of its consciously "worked" attributes, Cash's coffin is jettisoned from the labor which produces it; as labor disappears, so does any (fleeting) resistance to machine modes of production. Bearing "that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin" (S4), [??] is the shape of Cash's labor.

Vardaman's abstraction furnishes geometric signposting for modernity's iconic moment: capital's triumph over a degraded labor. Appropriating the chalked outline encircling labor's corpse, [??] approximates labor power converted into what Marx calls a "social hieroglyphic" (Capital 45). As a form of appropriated labor power, the hieroglyphic connotes a "form" which "steps forth as a commodity" so as to conceal the social relations of its production (42). Structured like a commodity, then, Vardaman's hieroglyphic consolidates the end of labor: as the dead husk of "value," that is, "value" converted into "exchange," qua commodities, [??] masks labor's centrality--as the real equiv alent of exchange value--to the commodity's being-in-the-world. To reroute Sohn-Rethel, [??] is a labor-value estranged from its labor. It is no accident that Vardaman is the one to annul, or "nihilate" Cash's labor. As I show below, Vardaman's "I" and his consciousness in the-world-of-things, proves eminently receptive to the emergence(s) of a national consumer culture. If Cash "stands for" the (messianic) reintegration of the labor process, Vardaman, a half-generation younger, "stands for" its reification. This essay's final pages situate these reifications in historical context.


In the early 1930s, the identity of rural America--its I-hood--was in a state of flux. What people did and where they did it was changing. As Ted Ownby notes, "[t]he percentage of the Mississippi population defined by the U.S. Census as rural decreased from 97 in 1880 to 86.6 in 1920 and 83.1 in 1930" (83). As Faulkner set out to write As I Lay Dying, Mississippi remained predominantly rural, yet significant interstate migration saw many Mississippians swap farm for town. By 1930, the Southern economy had entered an important new phase. Paralyzed by the collapse of the cotton markets, Mississippi would become "town oriented" (Kirby 154). On Mississippi's rural depopulation, Ownby writes: "the number of people living and working on farms decreased in the period from 1910 to 1920, and it increased only slightly in the 1920s" (83). Mississippi's rural communities would continue to constitute a greater part of the state demographic, yet by 1930 the first phase of urbanization had been set in train. Discomfited by the prospect of continual back-breaking labor and curious to taste the fruits of consumer culture, Mississippians were being drawn from rural settings and relocating in urban ones. The transplantation of farming families into nascent urban centres swelled the ranks of Southern towns, articulating the first phase in a shift from premodern to capitalist modes of production. On its own, of course, "being there" was not enough to constitute a significant challenge to the forms and customs of the Old South. A commitment deeper than mere present-ness was necessary if market capitalism was to cement itself as the dominant ideology of the emergent South. It was imperative that those who came had the means to consume. As Wofgang Haug asserts "[t]he working class exists in relation to capital not only as those who are exploited in the production process ... they are also a mass market of buyers" (101). Only by turning producers into consumers could the circuits of exchange upon which Southern capitalism had come to depend perpetuate.

The arrival of money wages provided the requisite conditions under which the South could embrace the shift from use-to exchange-value and, by extension, facilitate the shift from premodern to capitalist modes of accumulation. According to Ownby "the number of [Mississippian] people earning wages increased from 5,827 in 1880 to 57,560 by 1920, and total wages in that period went from slightly over $1 million to $51 million" (83). For a growing section of the rural South, this staggering fifty-fold increase in money wages represented an alluring alternative to the less-than-pulse-raising subsistence modes of pre- or proto-modern Souths. Not only were Mississippians becoming urban, but they were, by dint of money wages, being opted into an entirely new system of exchange. Rural populations were thus unified, in Jackson Lears's term, by "the centrifugal forces unleashed by the market" (84).

According to William Leach,
   the rapid shift of American capitalism from its agrarian base in
   the early nineteenth century to industrial manufacturing ...
   generated a great abundance of commodities for the domestic market
   and created unprecedented distributive requirements. In the short
   space of just thirty years, from 1890 to 1920, American society had
   established the institutional basis for a consumer society. (100)

Notwithstanding America's "rapid shift" from agri- to commodity culture, modernization would come slowly to many parts of the postbellum South. As late as 1950, significant portions of the rural population were yet to experience the sweep of commodification, yet to herald the arrival of modern communications, goods, and services, and yet to experience the division of labor--an event without which industrial modernity would cease to function. As economically marginal figures, the hill-farming Bundrens exemplify a population at a remove, both geo- and onto-logically speaking, from the life-world of market capitalism. In 1930, Jack Temple Kirby notes, "[t]he remote highland South ... was the most 'backward' part of rural America, dramatically lacking--even in comparison with the rest of the South--the infrastructures and amenities of farm and business life" (119). Whether one considers these "remote" regions as pockets of resistance within which extant social formations could withstand the winds of market capitalism, or as zones of primitivism defined by cultural blindness to the liberating potential of modern living, the point remains: many rurally situated Americans escaped (in the first case) or missed out on (in the second), modernity's consumer-driven entitlements. Hindered by "the ideological and cultural heritage of slavery," Mississippi proved sluggish in the transition from "old" to "new" South (Wiener 977). Providing the preeminent example of the molasses-quick advance toward modernity, Mississippi

ranked last in the country in the percentage of its people with radios and telephones in their homes, last in the proportion of people with motor vehicle registrations and homes wired for electricity. In 1937, less than one percent of the farms in the state had electricity. The state ranked last in the country in per capita wealth, with less than half the national average. Even more dramatically, Mississippi was last in the country in per capita retail sales, with a figure 34 percent of the national average. (Ownby 95)

Given the material lag that separated rural Mississippians from many differently situated Southerners, it is no wonder that the Bundrens--the embodiment of a South within a South--seem determined to get to "town" (AILD 13; 28; 92). Anse is particularly anxious that the journey reaches its (commodified) end: "Just going to town. Bent on it" (92). Anse's desire to get to town is no doubt heightened by the fact that it has, as the geographically fluid Peabody disbelievingly states, been "twelve years" since Anse last visited "town." Given that Faulkner sets his novel during the Mississippi floods of 1927, we realize that Anse has been an absentee from town cultures since the mid-teens. The period of abeyance is significant. "In the 1920s," Ewen writes,
   the consumer ethic was projected to sectors of the population whose
   fidelity was seen to be necessary, but in the process much of the
   American populace was ignored. Ads of the twenties, like the mass
   consumer market itself, were not generally directed toward the
   poorest sectors of the population. (19)

Given the exclusionary logic of the marketplace in the twenties, we might reasonably speculate that Anse's prior visit to town, circa 1915, constituted an unpleasant lesson in the discriminatory etiquette of consumerism. As a member of the rural peasantry excluded from the cash nexus, Anse would have been unaccustomed to "the fun and potential romance of consumer spending" (Ownby 70). As of the 'teens, Anse Bundren was not a target upon which the crosshairs of Southern commercialism chose to affix. Fast-forward "twelve years," however, to 1927, and the "logic of consumption" had decisively shifted (Ewen 19). First time as tragedy, second time as farce: Anse squares up to the "town" under more favorable conditions in the dying moments of the twenties. Fun--and no little romance--beckon for Anse Bundren. For Anse, the timing of Addie's death could not have been better. Coinciding with the opening up of the market to the rural poor, Addie's death occasions the perfect subterfuge for a trip to the shops.


It is nine days since Addie's death, and the forty-mile death-drag reaches Jefferson. With "town" in the foreground of the Bundren consciousness, thought of burying Addie's corpse recedes. Conspicuously enough for the townsfolk who watch (and smell) the grim spectacle unfold, Addie's burial is deferred, deemed secondary to the immediate gratifications of consumer capitalism. Jefferson is less a matriarchal resting place than a site of leisure, a place in which the Bundrens might reap the benefits of the harrowing odyssey from farm to town. The payoff differs for each Bundren. For Anse, "town" means two (linked) things: a pair of false teeth (AILD 12; 25; 35; 71); and a "duck-shaped" wife (177), replacement for Addie. For Vardaman, "town" means "train," shining red on the track (170); for Cash it means "one of them little graphophones" bought on "installment" (177). For Dewey Dell, town signifies as a means to terminate--or "negative"--an unwanted pregnancy; seeking an abortifacient, she has to settle for bananas to munch on the buckboard. Excepting Addie, who is too dead to consume, and Darl, who is too "mad" to, Jewel is the only Bundren not dazzled by the "new enchantment" of commodity culture (Leach 100). Ownby is quick to source an airy spot within the seemingly strangulated space of commodity culture. The Bundrens, he claims, enjoy "a sense of freedom in shopping" that they do not experience in their life on the farm (71). A "sense of," perhaps. Certainly, the desire to buy unifies the Bundrens (barring Jewel) under the shared logic of capitalism. Yet the "freedom" of consumption doubles as a kind of death. Whatever commodity Faulkner evokes--be it "teeth," "train," "graphophone," or "banana"--the commodity form is, in Addie's idiomatic phrase, a "shape to fill a lack" (116). Of all the Bundrens, Vardaman falls most spectacularly through the trapdoor of capital. It is to Vardaman, and his love of commodity forms, to which I now turn.


Vardaman's longing for situatedness in the world-of-things manifests as a burning desire for a red toy train "shining" behind plate glass in a Jefferson department store (43). Vardaman learns of the train, thus its "being-in-the-world" of commodities, from Dewey Dell who, unlike her farm-bound father, has recently witnessed the "wonder" of mass-produced forms. Vardaman's desire as a consuming "I" is aroused not, then, by modern advertising but by more traditional means, word of mouth: "it is red on the track behind the glass. The track goes shining round and round. Dewey Dell says so" (142). Vardaman's desire for "train" magnetizes Jefferson; his excitement for commodity capital (and the circuits upon which it circulates, "shining round and round") is palpable, yet is tempered by a reassurance that the commodity will "reserve" itself for him: "[w]e are going to town. Dewey Dell says it wont be sold because it belongs to Santa Claus and he taken it back with him until next Christmas. Then it will be behind the glass again, shining with waiting" (65). The ruse, apparent enough to us, eludes young Vardaman: having been bought by another (richer) boy, the processes of labor are set "in train" to replenish the vacant window in time for Christmas. (18) As if by magic, the commodity, produced en masse but masquerading as unique, returns from the grotto of labor to cast "loving glances" at young Vardaman (Haug 23). For Vardaman, the potency of "train" as an object to be possessed is irresistible, almost too much to bear. Again, Vardaman's diction responds almost intuitively to the gleaming circulation of mobile capital: "It was behind the window, red on the track, the track shining round and round. It made my heart hurt" (AILD 145; emphasis mine). Vardaman's (circum)locution reveals much with regard to the libidinal economies of Faulkner's text, bearing witness to the pulmonary thump with which commodity capitalism, necessarily predicated on perpetual circulations of appropriated labor values, would make itself felt in the rural South. Indeed, Vardaman's response to the "unleashed commodity" amply demonstrates how "human sensuality is moulded by commodity aesthetics" (Haug 45).

The "sensuality" of the commodity form--the shining, always-circulating object--reroutes us back into the surrealistically inflected messages authored by Cash. Certainly for Vardaman, and perhaps too for Cash, the commodity testifies to an "[e]roticism, which touches the very heart of the surrealist message" (Rosemont 65). As the novel's preeminent desiring "I"/"eye," Vardaman glimpses in "train" a new world, a world opened to the possibility of desire. He does not know it yet but this is desire that must be left unfulfilled. Ownership is so near but yet so far for Vardaman. In effect, Vardaman is the form left "shining with waiting"; "waiting" that is, for the "train" that never arrives. What does "arrive," however, is the fetish. Susan Willis notes that
   [i]f the commodity is by definition a fetishized object, containing
   the hidden social relationships of its producers, we have only to
   extrapolate from its production to its use to understand how the
   commodity conveniently fills the gaps in broken and alienated
   social relationships. Under twentieth-century capitalism,
   consumption becomes a means for replacing relationships between
   people and deflecting emotional responses which might otherwise be
   painful and hard to manage. (590)

Congealed within commodity forms, labor acquires what Georg Lukacs refers to as a "phantom objectivity" (83). That is to say, a relation between people becomes a relation between things. But we might resist being so hard on Vardaman. His is not the only "I"/"eye" swimming with commodities. Indeed, Vardaman's pulmonary reaction to "train" signals the growing sense of wonder at the plethora of products that represented a bold, often colorful new world, one that might enliven the jaded lives of the rural poor. "And yet with all this," Du Bois lamented at the turn of the century, "there was something sordid, something forced,--a certain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan?" (82). I conclude this essay with an attempt to locate this groan. It comes not from the eye (the eye-as-"I") but from the mouth (the mouth-as-"I").


For Anse, the journey from farm to town is an unalloyed success. For nine days, Anse has looked forward to burying his wife and getting his hands on--and lips around--a pair of false teeth. Connoting the death and consumption of labor, false teeth are the novel's preeminent commodity forms. And, as a space of display, Anse's mouth is the privileged site of obscenity, the "shop window" within which the commodity can be situated. First, let us attend to the materiality of teeth in the world-of-things. Clearly, Anse's dentures hold sway as transformative objects: they generate tremendous pulling power. Anse's "mouth bling" (Matthews, Seeing 283) not only pulls him from the hilltop down toward Jefferson, but pulls, in less formal terms, a woman who functions seemingly as an upgrade on Addie, the defunct model of womanhood. A grim parody of part-exchange sees Anse trade a corpse for a duck-shaped woman who (as a makeweight, perhaps, for her duck-ness) comes with a "graphophone" as a dowry. The requisite down payment is no more than a bright-white smile (and the safe return of borrowed tools) yet, despite his "badly splayed feet, his toes cramped and bent and warped" (8); despite his "hump" back (33; 55) and "slack" mouth (49; 50), Anse wangles a full set of disposable goods: teeth, duck, and music-machine, replete with "grip" (19) The "graphophone" looms large in this economy of exchange and reproducibility, offering a figure by which we might evaluate Faulkner's immersion in what Julian Murphet has recently dubbed the "new media ecology." Situating the "graphophone" as a nonpareil site of disembodied, mechanistic agency, allows Murphet to align Faulknerian praxis with
   a transformed cultural environment whose new technological
   instruments (radio, cinema, phonographs) cast their audiences and
   spectators willy-nilly into an immediate present tense, devoid of
   the "deep time" available to Proustian or Jamesian prose. (15)

That the mimetic capacity of the "graphophone" delivers Faulkner's reader into the phatic spaces of industrial modernity seems fitting given the present essay's commitment to reading from depth to surface, and, ultimately, back. Certainly, the "graphophone" seems eminently attuned to Murphet's lithe conceptualization: both embodied and vacant, familiar and alien, proximate and removed, first and third. That the device would perform so central a role in the Bundrens' consumer habits testifies to the generative role that new media ecology would have in shaping Faulkner's formal strategies. For Faulkner "does not repel the 'radio voice' so much as he admits it into the inner sanctum of compositional method" (Murphet 27). The mimetic force of the "graphophone" is indeed transformative. Yet it is the teeth that alienate, defamiliarizing Bundren paterfamilias from his sons. This is the novel's closing exchange:
      "Who's that?"

      Then we see it wasn't the grip that made him look different; it
   was his face, and Jewel says, "He got them teeth."

      It was a fact. It made him look a foot taller, kind of holding
   his head up, hangdog and proud too, and then we see her behind him,
   carrying the other grip--a kind of duck-shaped woman all dressed
   up, with them kind of hard-looking pop eyes like she was daring ere
   a man to say nothing....

      "It's Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell," pa says, kind
   of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he
   wouldn't look at us. "Meet Mrs Bundren," he says. (177-78)

Anse's dentures provide pristine memorial to the death and dispatch of the "old" Mrs Bundren. With a mouth like a graveyard and a "duck" for a wife, the canards of commodity culture occasion what Taussig, following Adorno, calls a "shudder of mimesis" (Mimesis 211). Not only does the "shudder" suture an obsolescence ("Addie"), to its mimetic other (the "duck" that replicates it): it also weds (or perhaps better, given "duck," webs) Anse's "I" (that is, his will to consume) to his "mouth" (the means of his consuming). Transformed into a "monstrous burlesque of all bereavement" (AILD 50), Anse exists purely in order to consume. His teeth resonate as the commodity par excellence, metaphorically evoking the slide toward a full-blown consumer culture and perpetuating the consumption for which they stand as synecdoche. Anse, of course, labors to mask the relation between use- and exchange-value. For Anse, "teeth" infer use-values that should not be denied: "me without a tooth in my head, hoping to get ahead enough so I could get my mouth fixed where I could eat God's own victuals as a man should" (AILD 25). Yet, as Anse knows full well, teeth yield "values" over and above (their) "use." For if teeth allow for a seamless transition in Anse's love life, they necessarily double as figurations of surplus. Coming into meaning as the object of (and at the point of) exchange, teeth furnish the requisite values--they are the "profit" that issues from Addie's "exchange"--that Anse subsequently reinvests in the procurement of her mimetic upgrade: duck. Despite Anse's effort to subvert the purpose of teeth (to act as exchangeable value), his complicity in the structural logic of market economy is clear. As "train" buried the congealed labor that worms into commodities, Anse's teeth obscure the social relations that inhere in capitalist production.

But the "shudder of mimesis" is not new. Making him "look a foot taller," Anse's gnashers are atavistically inclined. The ligatures of influence draw Faulkner to Poe, and specifically, to "Berenice" (1835):

The teeth!--the teeth!--they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development. Then came the full fury of my monomania and I struggled in vain against [their] strange and irresistible influence. In the multiplied objects of the external world I had no thought but for the teeth. For these I longed with a phrenzied desire. All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation. They--they alone were present to the mental eye, and they, in their sole individuality, became the essence of my mental life. (Poe 646)

As "train" shaped Vardaman's "I-hood," false teeth shape the I-hood of Anse: they, to purloin from Poe, are "the essence of [his] mental life." Struck by "phrenzied desire" he has "no thought but for the teeth." As with "train," "teeth" are a "shape to fill a lack." Yet as Anse plugs into commodity culture, he becomes "indentured," "beholden" to his dentures. Harnessing the magnetic power of commodities, it is the teeth that plug Anse into the cash nexus, into the gawping face of capital: the "maw of the modern" (Taussig, Shamanism 94). Driving a wedge between farm and town cultures, Anse's "teeth" bespeak an ill-fitting and alienating transition from use to exchange, and from production to consumption. "[A]bounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx, Capital 42), these artifacts of consumptive desire bring into critical relief the defacements that semanticize, and give form to, Faulkner's novel.

University of Brighton


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(1) Levine cites the formulation of Heather Love (375, 378).

(2) See Hoffman and Vickery, Volpe.

(3) As I Lay Dying unveils its narrators in the following sequence (numbers in parentheses signify the volume of chapters provided by each narrator): 1. Darl (19); 2. Cora (3); 3. Jewel (1); 4. Dewey Dell (4); 5. Tull (6); 6. Anse (3); 7. Peabody (2); 8. Vardaman (10); 9. Cash (5); 10. Samson (1); 11. Addie (1); 12. Whitfield (1); 13. Armstid (1); 14. Moseley (1); 15. Macgowan (1).

(4) The class of material that Darl and Jewel distribute is fitting: lying "on a strange roof, thinking of home," Darl thinks, particularly, of his mother, a "bundle of rotten sticks" (AILD 30) for which "lumber" provides consonant materials.

(5) The commodity form, as Marx states, is a congealed amount of labor-time that in relating to other commodities, stands on its head (Capital 42).

(6) See Godden, Lurie, and Murphet.

(7) Regarding post-9/11 state "intelligence," Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, would carp: "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know" (Graham).

(8) On Faulkner as "polyphonic" see Robinson, Burton, and Ross.

(9) The etiquette is not always neatly observed. Occasionally, narrators push back into the textual foreground before the "present" narrator finishes narrating. Darl, for example, is "interrupted" by an impatient ("running") Vardaman (36), and prevented from committing to the period (".") that would complete his syntax. Cash is "interrupted" twice, first by Darl and, later, by Cora (62; 111).

(10) An exception proves the rule: from page 139-56 (seven chapters) the text brokers a "face-to-face" (rather than "side-by-side") interaction solely between Darl and Vardaman.

(11) The verb "to fold" understood as "to file for bankruptcy" (OED). That many businesses were "folding" following the collapse of the cotton markets would not have been lost on Faulkner, who structures his novel on the principle of folding and foreclosure.

(12) Fifteen, if we count the titular "Cash" as its initial locution. One might read Cash's list as a sonnet, here (de)composed of thirteen "proper" lines of text with a cramping "I" as the fourteenth.

(13) Variations on the dynamic-fixity trope recur across As I Lay Dying ("rapt, dynamic immobility" [46]; "rigid terrific hiatus" [9]); and across Faulkner's novels more broadly: "a mounting terrific muscular hiatus" (S 95); "fierce dynamic rigidity" (AA 131).

(14) The trefoil: an adroit metaphor for Anse's conceptualization of modernity and its social foliations. Derived from the leguminous plant of the temperate genus trifolium, the trefoil can also refer to "an architectural ornament composed of three lobes, separated by cusps, radiating from a common center." The "lobes," for Anse, are "road or horse or wagon"; the "common center," as my reading of Sohn-Rethel infers, is labor.

(15) The axial positioning of bodies in relation to the vertical "I" is significant. Darl, the incarnation of "intellectual labour" (Sohn-Rethel), lays prone on the roof to mull over his "I"; Cash, the embodiment of "manual labour," fills his "I" with labor power (his is an upright "I," an "I" that sweats). Anse's predilection for the perpendicular, though, infers sweatlessness: his antimodernist, antilaboring "I" carries antiperspirant properties, and provides ludicrous justification for his fecklessness.

(16) Translators offer "splinters," sometimes "chips" of time. That Cash refers directly to the "chips" (49) that issue from his construction is pertinent.

(17) In A Fable (1954) Faulkner's narrator evaluates a bronze sculpture in the aide's office: "a savage and slumbrous head not cast, molded but cut by hand out of the amalgam by Gaudier-Brzeska" (F 928).

(18) On windows as spaces of commodity display see Sohn-Rethel (25).

(19) Suggestively, the French word for "grip" is "anse."

Caption: Fig. 1. "Revelation Cruelle" (circa 1924).
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