'Beloved': Ideologies in Conflict, Improvised Subjects

By Keizer, Arlene R. | African American Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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'Beloved': Ideologies in Conflict, Improvised Subjects


Keizer, Arlene R., African American Review


My father, by his nature, as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skil[l]ful mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common among slaves. My brother was a spirited boy; and being brought up under such influences, he early detested the name of master and mistress. One day, when his father and his mistress happened to call him at the same time, he hesitated between the two[,] being perplexed to know which had the strongest claim upon his obedience. He finally concluded to go to his mistress. When my father reproved him for it, he said, "You both called me, and I didn't know which I ought to go to first."

"You are my child," replied our father, "and when I call you, you should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water." (Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl 9)

Introduction

This excerpt from Harriet Jacobs's narrative is a striking depiction of dual interpellation under the slave system. Under North American and Caribbean slavery, slaves were being "called" by at least two competing systems: European American, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and the broken system of communal West African(1) cultural beliefs and practices. Slave traders and slave masters were attempting to re-interpellate as slaves the already interpellated subjects of West African social, political, and religious systems - in other words, to transform subjects into slaves. At the same time, they were attempting to interpellate from birth those of African descent born into slavery. In both cases, West African cultural mores and practices also operated, fostering a culture of resistance within the black community. By reading the conflict of interpellating systems in Toni Morrison's Beloved, I hope to show how the novel intervenes in current debates about black subjectivity, helping to define a position for the black subject between essentialism and postmodern fragmentation.

Because Morrison is explicitly concerned with the formation of black subjectivity, both individual and communal, it is appropriate to compare her representation of this process to contemporary theoretical writings about subject formation. If one examines Morrison's representation of subjectivity-in-process in this context, it is clear that her work bears a resemblance to Louis Althusser's influential theory of ideology and interpellation, but it also challenges two significant assumptions which underlie Althusser's theory: the assumption of cultural homogeneity and the belief in most subjects' tacit consent to ideology's demands. Morrison's representation of slave/black subjectivity-in-process shines a light through the cracks that appear in Althusser's theory as soon as it is applied to an actual social formation. Thus, after discussing Beloved, I close this essay with a critique of Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" and a discussion of improvisation as a model for human agency-in-resistance.(2)

In Beloved, the capitalist, racial-caste system of American slavery operates by dismembering, both figuratively and literally, the body and spirit of the slave. The subjugated system of West African beliefs and practices, in which family members who have died are kept alive in memory and through ritual observances and in which nature is an aspect of the Divine,(3) continues in its claim upon kidnaped Africans and also reaches out to their enslaved descendants. The sites at which these two systems come into conflict are the sites at which black identities are formed, maintained, and transformed.

It is through improvisation, a common element of West African verbal and musical styles infused into black New World culture by African captives and their descendants,(4) that the characters in Beloved integrate themselves as whole beings in the face of the white-supremacist, capitalist system which threatens to pull them apart. Morrison invokes the practices of verbal and musical improvisation as signs and expressions of African American selfhood and agency.

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