The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture.
Christopher Looby University of Pennsylvania
This book joins a distinguished recent trend in American criticism exemplified by the work of Eric J. Sundquist, Toni Morrison, Dana D. Nelson, Werner Sollors, Michael North, Ann Douglas, Kenneth W. Warren, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Robert S. Levine, Eric Lott, and others - that claims it only makes sense to interpret African American literature and white American literature together, as dialectically related parts of a single (if conflicted, heterogeneous, and asymmetrical) literary field. Leonard Cassuto announces frankly in the "Exordium" that his book is in part an answer to Toni Morrison's call for literary critics to study the ways in which "blackness participates in the creation of difference and the self-definition of whiteness." His particular focus is on "racial objectification" as a relatively constant feature of American literature and culture, "the effort, exerted across American history, to try to imagine other people as nonhuman." To this undertaking, in which he participates with the other scholars just mentioned, and many others too, and which might seem fairly familiar to those for whom "the Other" has now been a critical watchword for some time, Cassuto brings several noteworthy and different approaches that deserve attention. Chief among these is his reference to, and reliance on, a biological or neurological theory of the ineluctable anthropomorphism of human perception. Drawing on the work of Stewart Guthrie, who synthesizes various disparate theories of anthropomorphism (drawn from such thinkers as Nietzsche, Freud, Levi-Strauss, Piaget, Hume, Robin Horton, and Ernst Gombrich), Cassuto holds that humans are driven to see the world anthropomorphically, and specifically "to see human faces in the world." Because "humans are perceptually wired to see and respond to the presence of other humans wherever we can possibly find them," it is actually very hard, he says, to dehumanize others; it's against our nature. "Humans just can't see other people as nonpersons for long; the effort goes against our wiring for anthropomorphic perception." In a time like the present of reflexive anti-biologism and anti-essentialist orthodoxy in critical theory, Cassuto's candid profession of a serious and considered trust in theories of anthropomorphic perception is refreshing, even to one who is deeply suspicious of such claims. It can only be good to have the critical conversation broadened in this way.
Perhaps because his attempt is such a lonely and pioneering one, however, Cassuto's performance of this critical project is somewhat unsatisfying in certain respects. Once he has announced his allegiance to the theory of ineluctable anthropomorphic perception in chapter one, it is more or less left behind. That is, Cassuto does not actually argue for it, or find some version of such a theory operating in the literary texts he examines in later chapters. The theory of anthropomorphic perception becomes a tenet that he assumes, an established truth of human existence, and it provides him with a framework for analyzing literary texts. The literature illustrates the theory rather than contributing to it or refuting it. There is no evidence that Stowe, Melville, Douglass, or any other writer held to any version of such a theory; it is just Cassuto's premise, and under its warrant he reads the literary texts. Thus in later chapters he allows himself to refer casually to what are summarily described as "many empirical facts" in the face of which efforts of racial objectification are simply "overwriting": i.e., "the simple fact that the Indians are human," "the empirical truth" that even Indians who are grossly objectified by Puritans "retain a link to their earlier humanity," "the innate personhood of the Indians," "the impossible-to-evade fact that the slave is human in spite of the myriad attempts to objectify him as property," and so forth. This is, to say the least, tendentious: No one will wish to deny that Indians and slaves deserved to be recognized as human, and yet the assertions of simplicity, empiricism, innateness, and "fact" register as mere rhetoric in the wake of the many powerful and influential philosophical and historical accounts of how and why the Western concept of the human (or the person) was elaborated, and its ineluctable requirement (Deconstruction 101) that there be occupied a category of the nonhuman in relation to which it acquires meaning. This is to say simply that Cassuto's insistence on simplicity, empiricism, innateness, and fact is an article of faith or an ethical commitment, an instance of what William James called the will to believe; I try to believe, too, but I think it's best to admit that an ethical imperative should not be presented as a positive scientific truth.
Cassuto is on more persuasive ground when he elaborates his concept of the grotesque: Whether generated by hard-wired perceptual circuitry, as he holds, or historical conceptual regimes, social and political pressures, and structures of feeling, the contradictory imperatives to recognize other humans and to deny some of them recognition as human generates much fascinating turbulence in the literary texts under examination here. According to Cassuto, the "racial grotesque" is the figure of that very conflict, an image in which (as he would have it) an innate personhood is simultaneously affirmed and denied, or as I might prefer to have it phrased, an attribution of personhood is simultaneously offered and withheld. The resulting category confusion - human and nonhuman at once - is the essence of the racial grotesque. Bracketing for the moment the theoretical questions I have raised about Cassuto's grounding of this conceptual apparatus in cognitive or neurological science, it must be said that the idea of the "racial grotesque" generates some fresh and compelling readings of familiar texts, and that, beyond this, Cassuto brings into the ongoing conversation about black and white American literatures a renewed attention to apologetic proslavery, racist literature.
Toni Morrison in her influential and eloquent Playing in the Dark avoided the hard question of whether it was important to attend to the Africanist presence in the proslavery mind, and most of the other critics who join in this undertaking carefully avoid plantation novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, Southern romancer William Gilmore Simms, anti-abolitionist propaganda novelist Caroline Lee Hentz, proslavery socialist ideologue George Fitzhugh, and other antebellum proslavery writers, not to mention loathesome postbellum geniuses like Thomas Nelson Page. It is a singular virtue of Cassuto's book that he doesn't just read Stowe against Douglass, but both of them against Kennedy, Simms, Hentz, and Fitzhugh, as well as the black revolutionary Martin Delany, the nasty proslavery novelist Mrs. H. R. Schoolcraft, the hard-to-place Fanny Kemble, the colonizationist novelist Sarah Josepha Hale, Stowe's other slavery novel Dred, William Wells Brown's Clotel, Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin and other anti-Tom novels, and Poe's "The Gold-Bug," thereby going a great distance toward reconstructing a complex antebellum literary field in which a cacophonous discussion about race and slavery was under way.
Cassuto's field of investigation is what he calls "antebellum American literature and culture," which means in practice, after an introductory theoretical and thematic overview (chapter one), a series of topical chapters on colonial New England and the relations between whites and Native Americans therein, with special attention to the captivity narrative (chapter two), the fugitive slave narrative construed according to Hegel's master-slave dialectic (chapter three), the Sambo stereotype as it appears in Stowe and other abolitionist writers as well as in the writings of John Pendleton Kennedy and other plantation novelists (chapter four), and the relationship between Melville's depiction of racial difference and tattooing in Typee, Moby-Dick, and Benito Cereno and the rise of the freak show as a feature of American popular culture (chapter five). Thus, the book comprises not a comprehensive history of American habits of racial objectification but a series of readings, under the aegis of a comprehensive theory of racial objectification, of exemplary texts from critical moments in that history. In doing so it accomplishes some important tasks, chief among them, as I have said, its recovery of a richer and messier literary field than other critics have tended to see. I think it's important to welcome, even while quarreling with, the novel theoretical commitments that distinguish Cassuto's work from much else with which it can be compared. One thing this book doesn't do is complacently reiterate the commonplaces of anti-essentialist or social-constructionist theory.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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