Modernity on a Global Stage: Hurston's Alternative Modernism

By Sorensen, Leif | MELUS, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Modernity on a Global Stage: Hurston's Alternative Modernism


Sorensen, Leif, MELUS


Zora Neale Hurston's work has been the subject of numerous re-evaluations since it emerged into prominence. Among the features of Hurston's corpus that keep bringing critics back to it are its vacillation between hostility to identity politics and celebrations of black folk authenticity; its theorizations of black folk forms as either products of carefully distinguished local cultures or of transnational black aesthetics; and its ambivalent depiction of modernity and modernization. The multiplicity of positions on identity politics, globalization, and modernity that Hurston takes in her work has given rise to many competing critical versions of Hurston. A survey of recent criticism yields accounts of a purely literary genius who chafed in the confines of ethnography, a radically experimental anthropologist, a critic of identity politics, a misguided dupe of primitivist ideology, and a champion of black transnational cultural identity. (1)

Each of these arguments addresses an important aspect of Hurston's cultural project. I maintain, however, that the larger scope of that project is lost in these accounts due to an incomplete theorization of the interimplication of discourses of identity, globalization, and modernity. In this essay I use Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) as a test case, and show how the text that is most identified with the literary Hurston participates in a critical interrogation of the discourse of modernity from the point of view of a subject on its margins. In so doing I show Hurston's novel to be a part of a larger project that includes the ethnographic works that Hurston published before and after it: Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938).

My understanding of the connection among the discourses of modernity, globalization, and identity owes much to Malt Louise Pratt's global and relational analysis of modernity. Especially important to my project are Pratt's contention that the discourse of modernity is the identity discourse of Northern Europe and North America and its resulting corollaries that call our attention to "the diffusionist character of modernity" and "the centrism of the metropolitan discourse on modernity" (23, 28). The impulse to spread modernity across the globe might seem antithetical to the project of retaining ultimate authority over what and who counts as truly modern. Pratt shows, however, that these two characteristics of the discourse of modernity grant interpreters of culture located at the center "a huge capacity for absorbing or creating otherness, according to the argument he or she wants to make" (28). That is, the interpreter may pick and choose which aspects of a lived modernity on the periphery to recognize as symptoms of full participation in modernity and which to label signs of pre-modern survivals.

I read Hurston's work as the result of a peripheral interpreter's unauthorized attempt to appropriate the discourse of modernity. The inconsistency and ambivalence of Hurston's work as a whole then becomes a series of negotiations with and contestations of this discourse. The end result of these struggles, in my view, is Hurston's creation of an alternative mode of modernism that, instead of dramatizing the perils or pleasures of a particular totalized modernity, creates a discursive space in which multiple claims to modernity compete with one another. In her ethnographic work on black folk culture in the southern US, Hurston challenges the monopoly of interpretive power that Northern Europeans and white North Americans hold on the category of modernity by positing black folk culture as a rival alternative modernity, not a partial, lacking, or failed modernity. This strategy reaches its limit, however, when Hurston's experiences of gender discrimination in the Caribbean show her that such an alternative modernity may replicate the structures of exclusion it rejected in the dominant model. It is the totality of this experience, I argue, that gives rise to Hurston's creation of an alternative modernist novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which she simultaneously shows the destructive influence of class, gender, and ethnicity on black southern rural culture and expands the codes of that same culture to critique itself. …

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