Plunging (outside of) History: Naming and Self-Possession in Invisible Man

Article excerpt


In several interviews, Ralph Ellison joins many of his readers in resolving Invisible Man into a declaration of coherent identity. Effectively interpreting Invisible Man as a modem Bildungsroman, Ellison says: "In my novel the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility" (Graham and Singh 12); "It's a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality" (14); "Whatever [Invisible Man] did when he returns ...should be based on the knowledge gained before he went underground. This is a question of self-knowledge and ability to identify the processes of the world" (74); "I do believe that knowing where we are, has a lot to do with our knowing who we are and this gets back to the theme, I hope, of identity with which [Invisible Man] was sometimes involved" (263). This chain of reasoning presents Invisible Man as successfully negotiating a labyrinth designed to rob him of his identity. Once his invisibility is made visible, a preeminent and self-reliant self lifts out of its confusing history in a parousia of self-knowledge and resolves to act or write--conflated by this logic into the same thing--a declaration of coherent identity. (1)

This reading of Invisible Man as an heroic narrative of the ultimate re/possession of a dispossessed self derives out of Aristotelian conceptions of language and subjectivity. The Aristotelian logic of metaphor, in which a metaphor properly resembles the essence of a prelinguistic and determining referent, is compatible with--in fact, constitutive of--the logics of the transcendental Self and instrumental writing. The term Self serves as the literal figure that categorically names the proper transcendental Self that sits behind, as it were, the term. A person's proper name, in this way, is the literal--and, so, most proper--figure of the extralinguistic Self behind the name. The Self is a stable referent that extends itSelf to its proper name; the proper name thus consists of a transference, a carrying over, from the stable referent of the Self. What motivates one's proper name is the Self behind (before, a priori, etc.) the name. A proper relation of transference from Self to proper name ("Self") defines res emblance. The literalizing of the Self (to "Self" or proper name) is the process of naming, of properly rendering into language what exists prior to language. Writing, then, is instrumentalized in the process of naming: The term serves (as a tool, or vehicle) the a priori Self as slave to master. The master Self determines its linguistic presence by using appropriate language to name itSelf. Language does not interfere in the process; it merely serves the Self properly.

Conceiving of a Self prior to and as master of writing provides the conceptual basis for interpreting Invisible Man as a Bildungsroman. By this logic, Invisible Man becomes the stable identity behind the writing of his story: He sits in his chamber, reflects on his life experiences, and writes his biography, the meaning of which is guaranteed by the referential stability and coherence of instrumentalized writing. The guarantee to reference in writing by the transcendental and a priori Self not only allows for the existence of referentially stable biography, but extends to any form of graphein. As long as writing can be mastered, then history can be written.

But Invisible Man does not so neatly resolve into such coherence. Following a different narrator, this essay will argue that Invisible Man "plunges" modem fantasies of narrative coherence and stable identity, and defines history as being constituted by disruption, contingency, and the difference in writing. (2) And while these qualities do not "add up" to the logic of an aporia, I work to show that the relation between Invisible Man and his name is not dialectical but aporetic. …


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