Radical Democracy, African American (Male) Subjectivity, and John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire

By Hogue, W. Lawrence | MELUS, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Radical Democracy, African American (Male) Subjectivity, and John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire


Hogue, W. Lawrence, MELUS


According to Jacques Derrida, meaning in the West is defined in terms of binary oppositions, "a violent hierarchy," where "one of the two terms governs the other" (41). Within the white/black binary opposition in the West, the African American is defined as a devalued Other. One of the aims of many postmodern African American writers such as Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, Clarence Major, Bonnie Greer, Samuel R. Delany, Xam Cartier, and others has been to deconstruct in fiction this binary opposition, unleashing and re-positioning African American subjectivities. To escape but not leave western logocentrism, of which the novel is a subsystem, these writers have turned to certain African American cultural forms such as the blues, jazz, and voodoo to challenge the Eurocentric horizon of the novel. John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire (1990) uses a peripheral, cultural paradigm or technique to challenge the conventions of the novel and to re-represent the African American. This essay examines how Fire contests the traditional, modern novel, as it aims to re-describe African American subjectivity. I also explore how Fire undermines the western quest narrative by giving heteroglossic perspectives on the MOVE bombing. Finally, I examine how Fire shows its heteroglossic limits in its treatment of women.

Contesting the Traditional Novel

In its desire to challenge the traditional novel, Fire plays with instrumental reason and other Enlightenment ideas. Using the concept of radical democracy--a diversity of perspectives and points of view that parallel, intersect, and contradict each other, without the desire for totality or mastery--Fire gives a different perspective on the African American, one that does not construct the African American as experientially monolithic. In an interview with James Coleman, Wideman discusses his conscious, overt efforts to violate the conventions of the modern/realistic novel, which attempts to impose a single, unitary language on heterogeneity, and to unleash differences:

   I don't think that you can write a very meaningful book about a
   culture that's in flux, a culture that is changing all the time,
   and a culture [that] is infused with minority points of view ...
   and [still] use the conventions and traditions of narrative
   fiction. (159)

Fire engages a democratic search for the flux, or multiple meanings. It gives the reader a radically democratic text where African Americans from different socioeconomic, educational, and cultural levels represent the same event/social reality, the bombing of the MOVE row house in Philadelphia. It shows how each station in life, along with its own individuality, affects the construction/perception of reality.

Although the novel is sensitive to the immense plurality of experiences among African Americans, it does not disassociate difference from economic and social inequality. It gives us radical democracy at the narrative and ideological levels, but it remains Eurocentric and hegemonic in terms of subjectivity, except for the masculine, where, theoretically, it affirms difference, but obscures this difference by positing representations of the Selfsame.1 In Fire, the masculine narratorial 'T' of Cudjoe and Wideman the character is never deconstructed. In addition to maintaining a masculine self/Other binary opposition, it fails to engage the reason of the Other, (2) particularly Euro-American women who participate in heterosexual coupling, love interest, or who are the recipient of the male gaze. It thereby erases feminine differences.

Fire uses several textual strategies to push the boundaries of the traditional narrative, opening it up to other forms of speech. Wideman admits that he takes chances with the narrative:

   I like to take chances, and one chance that I have been taking
   lately ... is a chance with the texture of the narrative--letters,
   hymns, poems, song lyrics, thoughts, speech, time present, time
   past, future time, philosophical discourse, scatting, etc. … 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Radical Democracy, African American (Male) Subjectivity, and John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.