Academic journal article African American Review

Traces of Derrida in Toni Morrison's 'Jazz.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Traces of Derrida in Toni Morrison's 'Jazz.'

Article excerpt

Toni Morrison's published work is infused with postmodern themes. For example, Sula is structured around the inter-play between supposed binary oppositions (such as Bottom/valley, white/black, male/female), and Beloved examines the necessary dangers of both memory and its repression. Postmodern themes are also evident in Morrison's published interviews and essays. Repeatedly, she declares her interest in the ambiguity of presumed dualities,(1) and she insists that her novels remain open-ended, not as final authoritative statements but as maps (Morrison, "Memory" 389) or as texts with plenty of "holes and spaces so the reader can come into" them (Tate 125). Thus her texts are deliberately like other African American art forms, such as jazz and preaching, that allow for audience response. Moreover, instead of focusing on the whole or the center, Morrison tries to develop "parts out of pieces," "preferr[ing] them unconnected - to be related but not to touch, to circle, not line up" (Morrison, "Memory" 388). For her what is absent is at least as important as what is present. Her role is not to reveal some already established reality but to "fret the pieces and fragments of memory" and to investigate "the process by which we construct and deconstruct reality in order to be able to function in it" (Washington 58).(2) In short, Morrison requires that her novels be regarded, in Roland Barthes's terms, as texts, not works (Work 74-79).

Thus, throughout Morrison's fiction, her characters are caught in the endless flux of becoming. In their multiple quests for viable identities, they must negotiate within the white/black polarity, and their explorations into their roles and identities are skewed because that pervasive and unyielding polarity leads to the displacement of additional polarities. Her characters have trouble developing fulfilled selves because they lack adequate relationships with one or more others, such as parents, spouse, family, neighborhood, community, and/or society.

Such postmodern tendencies are more explicit in Jazz than in Morrison's previous novels. The difficulties of the characters in Jazz are related primarily to the absence or displacement of parents and children, which, in turn, is related to the lack of satisfactory connection to the past. Such Derridean concepts as the differance, the trace, and the breach are especially useful in understanding the characters in Jazz who, in their displacement, tend to overemphasize one or the other terms of various binary oppositions. Joe, for example, having been deprived of true parents and therefore having had to rely solely on himself, exaggerates the importance of self, to the exclusion of anything else. Violet, on the other hand, has allowed her mother's fate to overwhelm her sense of self. The complex process of recovery which the novel documents is the movement away from such dependence on one face of an opposition and toward a healthier location within the play of oppositions.

More broadly, the novel's postmodernism suggests Morrison's political stance. In Jazz, as elsewhere, Morrison exposes the debilitating effects of white oppression, yet she avoids sentimental praise for African Americans. Instead, she locates her novel in the play between the two races: It is about the African American experience in white-dominated America and about how that experience is defined by African Americans' historical and continuing relationship with whites. Her novel thus mirrors her argument in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination that the concept of "an American Africanism" (38) was created in the imaginations of whites as a way of defining themselves: "The process of organizing American coherence through a distancing Africanism became the operative mode of a new cultural hegemony" (8). If whites have defined themselves against the African American other, the characters in Jazz have no alternative but to define themselves against the white presence. …

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