Academic journal article African American Review

Black Crisis Shuffle: Fiction, Race, and Simulation

Academic journal article African American Review

Black Crisis Shuffle: Fiction, Race, and Simulation

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, a sense of impending calamity has held sway in African American literary and cultural studies. Cornel West frames this period as one of "postmodern crisis" and laments the "decline in [black] popular mobilization and the decline of political participation and the decomposition more and more of the institutions of old civil society ..." (91). Voicing a related concern, Hortense Spillers observes that the locus of black communal life, the segregated enclave, has itself been so radically changed by deindustrialization, desegregation, and the plight of the black underclass that intellectuals must reconsider their understanding of community as an "object of knowledge" (102). These remarks distill the widespread anxieties generated by rapid changes in black life during the post-segregation era. And while few question the warrants for such disquiet, recent work by Madhu Dubey and Kenneth Warren demonstrates that the same heralding of crisis underwrites nostalgic calls for a return to the traditional cultural practices that defined black life during segregation. Dubey and Warren therefore take issue with those intellectuals who venerate black expressive culture--signifying, sermons, blues, jazz, etc.--on the grounds that this tack proves an inadequate response to the social and political ills of the present. (1) Despite the acuity of these critiques, however, they have not addressed contemporary writing that stages the undoing of communal belonging as a potentially generative occasion. In other words, how do we interpret black literature that neither pines ambivalently for the nationalist past nor positions art as a proxy for a communal wholeness that is nationalism in another guise?

Two novels of the late twentieth century, Darius James's Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (1993) and Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle (1996), usefully trouble existing strategies for reading contemporary culture. Indeed, these texts suggest that the critical discourse of crisis itself might well be outpaced by a disruptive phenomenon that has not been adequately considered. They reveal a blackness that because of its interdependence with commodification is not the authentic ground for communion, but rather a product of mass-culture industries such as cinema, television, and recorded music. The usurpation of racial authenticity by its simulation might have animated nostalgic longing for the substance of group distinction, but instead the texts exploit the possibilities in late capitalist commodity forms. They trade in the surprising aesthetic and political potential made available by racial identifies that are more malleable and recombinant precisely because they have been so thoroughly abstracted from any social context but that of the commodity. What one witnesses in this abstraction is an aesthetic that asks readers to derive pleasure from the disintegration of racial difference as it has been constituted in both popular culture and in such conventional mass political modes as nationalism and pan-Africanism. In this regard, Negrophobia and The White Boy Shuffle depart from a point of no return where blackness as we have known it is at once in its death throes and laden with postmortem potential.

Put another way, Beatty and James write a black postmodernity that insists upon greater attentiveness to the relationship between an evolving political economy and the most fundamental assumptions of the African American literary and critical tradition. It can be argued provisionally that the modern economy that preceded our own, one characterized by increasingly efficient modes of production and consumption as well as the proliferation of what Horkheimer and Adorno term culture industries, also coincided with a literary donnee that privileged the production of black difference. (2) Whether in the preoccupation with folk materials that animates African American texts from Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977) or the privileging of mass-produced music in aesthetic statements like Langston Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), the inducement to produce black particularity was a constant in twentieth-century cultural politics) Alternatively, the work of James and Beatty operates within and against a political economy wherein the productive forces that ushered in American modernity have been substantively restructured. …

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