ENG 341 - Prof. Arnold
class presentation: Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: the Afro-American presence American literature."
Morrison's (re)reading of Moby-Dick serves as an illustrative model of the theoretical project she undertakes to utilize in this essay--a project seeking the discovery of unspoken voices, that, while in the faint periphery, or deep in relief, influenced the construction of the American literary tradition in their "absence." "We can agree," she says, "that invisible things are not necessarily "not-there"; that a void may be empty, but is not a vacuum. Her project strikes against the processes of canon formation and the models by which one evaluates a text, some of which are canonical in themselves. Morrisson thus indicts the role of the critic in the construction of the literary canon, and therefore the "national identity" generated by the canon.
"Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature and range (of criticism, of history, of the history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the universality of aesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination), is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested." Morrison recognizes the role of the critic, critics like Mathiesson, who provide the breeding cow for the entire literary tradition but whose politics and race remain to underscore the work the eventually produce. It is thus a question of motive that Morrison looks towards in the process of canon-formation: it is the silent category that remains out of scholarly books.
Allegory, for Morrison, stands as the textual structure which encodes in Moby-Dick the oppositional pair of Ahab-the white whale and serves as model the various, canonical or peripheral, readings of the novel. It is this structure, I think, with its oppositional pair, serves to illustrate the fundamental model by which all groups formulate their interpretation. Allegory, when one of the paradigms is switched, causes an interpretive reverberation to its other pole, shifting the conception of the novel Thus arises interpretations such as indifferent nature, and Ahab the madman; what as the incarnation of "whiteness-ideology," and Ahab as the only misanthropic white American brave enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world.
Morrison's interpretation rests on the second of her three part process for new Afro-American scholarship. This model calls for the call for a theory of literature (the model), the examination and re-examination of the American canon, and the examination of contemporary and/or non-canonical literature. The project recognizes the importance of the locus of theory-production, as Morrison wants to situate its development in "Afro-American culture, its history, and the artistic strategy the works employ to negotiate" (11). This model would afford the search for "the ghost in the machine," the "ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure--the meaning of so much of American literature" (11). This strategy would be applied to her examination of contemporary literature as well. Morrison establishes the fundamental role of language, the language of a race, or a nation, as the "most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural (or racial) distinction." Language serves as the constructive medium for the narratives and novels of the canon as well as the works of both the dissonant, and unspoken voices. In foregrounding language, Morrison aptly leads our focus towards the discourse of the author, the nation, and the unspoken for unmasking the canon.
topics for discussion:
-the seduction of Morrison into her methodology, and the binding it places upon criticism leveled against her?
- the critic as builder of our national heritage
- the models which lead away from acculturated modes of analysis? are there any?
- Morrison's reading of layers in Moby-Dick?
- discourse in Moby-Dick as representative of a manifold society? is there a "space" in the novel of a multi-voiced discourse?