The Conspiracy of Masculinity in Ishmael Reed

By Strombeck, Andrew | African American Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Conspiracy of Masculinity in Ishmael Reed


Strombeck, Andrew, African American Review


Those who believe that major world events result from planning are laughed at for believing in the "conspiracy theory of history." Of course, no one in this modern day and age really believes in the conspiracy theory of history--except those who have taken the time to study the subject.--Gary Allen, None Dare Call it Conspiracy 8

To some if you owned your own mind you were sick, but if you possessed an Atonist mind you were healthy.--Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo 24

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Published a year apart, Gary Allen's anti-Communist screed None Dare Call it Conspiracy and Ishmael Reed's gleeful Mumbo Jumbo seem to have little in common. Allen, a collaborator with the John Birch Society, writes a singularly paranoid work that more than one commentator finds reactionary, if not visibly anti-Semitic, in its coded language of "international bankers." Reed's work is a postmodern, freewheeling Black Arts celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and its supporting musical subculture. But despite differences in their content, both works share a common form; both feature a secret society that conspires to control history, and both establish fixed, knowing subjects, in Allen's words, "those who have taken the time to study the subject," and in Reed's words, "those who own their own minds." In supporting such fixed subjects, these narratives produce oppression in their form while decrying it in their content. Arguably, Reed's satirical use of the secret society conspiracy theory should challenge its ideological assumptions, but if, as Fredric Jameson argues, form itself retains ideological assumptions, form challenges the capacity of postmodern works to function as apolitical pastiche.

Since the mid-eighties, a consistent question marks Reed criticism: how to reconcile the gleefully postmodernist "early" Reed with the bitterly anti-feminist "late" Reed. Famously, critics champion Reed as a fulfillment of a postmodern aesthetic project. Variously, they claim that Reed employs pastiche, destroys meta-narratives, deconstructs binaries and, in general asserts an aesthetic challenge to both modernism and late capitalism. Furthermore, as an African American postmodernist, Reed receives special attention, both as the realization of a specific African-derived aesthetic--what Henry Louis Gates describes as "Signifiyin" or James Snead identifies as "circular time"--and as a special racially rooted genre of postmodernism that avoids the movement's problematic, apolitical "dissolution of the individual" by rooting its critique in a "critically self-revising tradition" (Mikics 3-4). Linda Hutcheon, for example, notes: "Ishmael Reed's consistently parodic fiction clearly asserts not just a critical and specifically American 'difference' but also a racial one. And, on a formal level, his parodic mixing of levels and kinds of discourses challenges any notion of the different as either coherent and monolithic or original" (134). A short list of Reed's satirical targets in Mumbo Jumbo includes Afrocentrism, literary journals, Marxism, Warren Harding, and black power. Reed's later work, though, has fared less well critically. Robert Eliot Fox, for example, calls Reckless Eyeballing "an instance of the diminution of power his work of the 1980s has manifested, compared to his truly innovative work of the 1960s and 1970s" (78). Similarly, in his introduction to The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed, Bruce Allen Dick notes, "The criticism surrounding (Reckless Eyeballing) has caused many to overlook Reed's best fiction" (xxxi).

Advocates for Reed's later work defend it through claims that it merely reflects the imbalanced gender roles of its time, or that Reed lodges a heavier critique against males, or that his characters, not Reed, exhibit misogyny. Patrick McGee provides a good example of this trend: "While all of (Reed's) books contain misogynist representations, they also negatively deconstruct machismo, patriarchy, and Western imperialism" (58). …

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