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. …