Focusing on the Wrong Front: Historical Displacement, the Maginot Line, and the Bluest Eye

By Gillan, Jennifer | African American Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Focusing on the Wrong Front: Historical Displacement, the Maginot Line, and the Bluest Eye


Gillan, Jennifer, African American Review


Recent theoretical work has examined the ways that the abstract idea of the bodiless citizen has marked women and non-white Americans as outside the boundaries of full citizenship, because the attention paid to the various markings of gender or race on their bodies precludes them from being categorized as the unmarked, representative norm. Peggy Phelan most clearly explains rhetorical and imagistic gender marking, in the process making a distinction between the invisible marking of abstract value and the visible bodily marking of difference: "The male is marked with value; the female is unmarked, lacking measured value and me.... He is the norm and therefore unremarkable; as the Other, it is she whom he marks" (5). As Deborah Tannen says, corporeally "there is no unmarked woman" because women's bodies and the choices they make in terms of appearance and self-identification in the public sphere always mark them in specific, gendered ways. Examining marking in light of political theory, Carole Pateman analyzes how the language of the Constitution, premised as it is on the idea of the social contract, accords the white male citizen the privilege of abstracting himself into the concept of the disembodied citizen, whereas women, in contrast, can never achieve this state of disembodiment because the sexual contract precedes the social contract. Drawing on such political theories, Lauren Berlant considers the corporeal implications of the theory of disembodied citizenship for racial and gendered subjects. When the abstract, disembodied citizen is figured as white and male, all others cannot embody such citizenship because they are hyperembodied by the racial and/or gendered markings visible on their bodies. Thus, women and African Americans, in particular, Berlant contends, have never had the "sign of real authority"; that is, "the power to suppress that body [i.e., the facts of one's historical situation], to cover its tracks and its traces" (113).

Considered in light of this division between the unmarked and the marked, the disembodied and the hyperembodied, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye can be read as a commentary on the artificial boundaries of citizenship, gender, race, and history. While the theories of Berlant, Pateman, and Phelan enable us to understand the marking of the boundaries of citizenship, race, and gender, the difference between marked and unmarked history needs some explanation. Unmarked history refers to historical narrative that features as its prime actor the deeds of the abstract, disembodied citizen. Once this history is marked as having cultural value, its centrality is soon seen as unremarkable; that is, as representative. In order to centralize this one story, however, others need to be shifted to the periphery and soon become remarkable only in their relation to the center. According to Priscilla Wald, what unmarked history leaves out "resurfaces when the experiences of individuals conspicuously fall to conform to the defini tion of personhood offered in the narrative," and Morrison's Breedloves are certainly conspicuous for their "ill-fitting selfhood." By carefully outlining the history of their exclusion from the "terms of full and equal personhood," Morrison demonstrates that this family's unequal position is a product not of their intrinsic inadequacy, but rather of the systematic reinforcement of a racial and gendered criteria for full citizenship (10). This critique, in turn, disrupts the official stories that feature the United States as a brave defender of democracy and staunch critic of racialized nationalism abroad.

In setting her story of the quest for and repercussions of Pecola Breedlove's desire for blue eyes and the unmarked whiteness they represent against the backdrop of World War II, Morrison recounts the history of this significant year from the vantage point of those who have been marked as peripheral in accounts of this era of American history. …

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