Academic journal article Genders

The Father, the Sovereign and the Ghost: Constructions of Representative Agency in Poppy Z. Brite's Novel Drawing Blood

Academic journal article Genders

The Father, the Sovereign and the Ghost: Constructions of Representative Agency in Poppy Z. Brite's Novel Drawing Blood

Article excerpt

Representative Masculinity and Literature

[1] Clemens Spahr and Philipp Loffler have recently characterized literature as a "laboratory to fathom the possibilities and limits of conceptions of collectivity." Literature, they argue, helps imagine "new collectives, new forms of coexistence that reach across and challenge traditional group designations such as nation, culture, gender, or ethnicity" (2012, 161). This essay engages in the question how a collective's imagined properties influence the ways in which literary protagonists can represent collectivity, and how this affects the construction of protagonists' gender.

[2] In U.S. American literature, the construction of protagonists who stand for a larger collective traditionally draws on Enlightenment concepts of representative agency, a construction of agency that is not gender-neutral but specifically references representative masculinity (Hayden 2004, 51; Schulting 1997). Thomas Hobbes' construction of the state of nature in Leviathan (1651) may serve to illustrate this aspect. Hobbes imagines the state of nature as a state of origin for any legitimate sovereign order. Humanity's properties in the state of nature directly inform "good" sovereign order, good because it takes into consideration the "natural" properties of humanity carved out by the state of nature fiction. Man in the state of nature is, therefore, a constitutive figure to imagine legitimate collectives, and has traditionally been referenced as a backdrop to protagonist constructions in Western literature.

[3] In contrast to earlier medieval formations (Greenblatt 2011 [2012, 200-201]), Hobbes does not imagine man in the state of nature as an atomized individual. Instead, man in the state of nature is already a figure representative of a family collective, and thus a quasi-sovereign ruler in his own right (Eggers 2008, 44). As Wendy Brown has explained, the "prepolitical" members of this pater familias' family (women-and-children) exist only in relation to him, and do not have any access to political representation in their own right. They are characterized by passivity and absolute submission to the pater familias' constitutive will. Representative masculinity, in this sense, means two things: first, the pater familias' legitimate claim to sovereignty regulates family members' conduct among themselves--violently, if need be--and second, that he sovereignly decides on behalf of the family in his interaction with other representative men (Brown 1995, 181). In Hobbes, the male body of the monarch is simply a direct continuation of paternal representative masculinity in the state of nature, as the sovereign represents patres familias in the same way as they represent their families.

[4] In American literature, this basic model has been translated into various constructions of protagonists as "representative" of collectives, although the range of prepolitical entities that can be represented by "man" has been strongly expanded. Not just women and children, but also territories, institutions, nations, "races," movements, subcultures and abstract categories such as "justice" or "humanity" can be constructed as the prepolitical collectives that make a given male protagonist representative, and that assign larger meaning to all of his actions. A good illustration of this notion is Herman Melville's story Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) which systematically strips all forms of representative agency from the protagonist only to position him, in the last sentence, as a representative of humanity as a whole.

[5] Judith Butler has emphasized that, because of the dual nature of the representative man's prerogative to speak for and to use violence against the prepolitical collective represented by him, the most meaningful relationships that emerge from the state of nature model are in fact relationships between representative men, and it is indeed these relationships that American literature often focuses on (Fluck, "Historical Novel"). …

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