Invisibility Embraced: The Abject as a Site of Agency in Ellison's Invisible Man

By Jarenski, Shelly | MELUS, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Invisibility Embraced: The Abject as a Site of Agency in Ellison's Invisible Man


Jarenski, Shelly, MELUS


In Invisible Man (1952), Ralph Ellison presents an unnamed narrator who cannot be seen. General readers and critics of the novel have understood this narrator to have been rendered invisible by the impositions of a highly racist society. (1) While this understanding is certainly valid, it ignores an intriguing possibility embedded in the novel's closing chapters, as the narrator contemplates what it might mean to "plunge out" of history. Although Ellison's narrator initially has invisibility imposed upon him, as he tells his story, he comes to embrace that invisibility and claim it as a site of power.

Because Ellison reconceives the marginalized position of invisibility as powerful, he raises questions about which cultural forces make invisibility a viable, even desirable, choice. The nature of dominance in American culture necessitates an interdisciplinary perspective to answer these questions, one that takes into account the intersection of sexuality, gender, and racial constructions in the novel. An intersectional approach is also important because Ellison situates his discussion of visibility within the matrix of racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity by structuring the novel around the narrator's encounters with white women and around sexualized encounters with white men. Furthermore, because Ellison establishes his interrogation of power within the concept of (in)visibility, a full analysis of intersections in the novel must consider the politics of sight both in the text and in the culture that produced it. The "invisibility as disempowerment" argument overlooks the fact that matrices of power are rooted in the visibility of bodies rather than in the erasure of agency that "invisibility" implies. Ellison's novel appears at a key moment in the racial history of the US, as a crossover music industry fused with the emergence of television. This fusion created a context in which visibility was possible for black bodies only when they performed the role of "other" for white culture. Even more often, "seeing race" acted merely as a conduit for white culture's appropriation and commodification of black cultural forms. This moment, most frequently symbolized by Elvis Presley and Amos 'n' Andy, illustrates how psychosocial and economic forces inflect the visual signifier we call race. Ellison advocates invisibility as a powerful cultural space, a space from which the interrelated matrices of dominance and, in fact, the concept of the body are deconstructed.

In the novel, invisibility allows Ellison to create a black male subjectivity that is fully outside of visually constructed white, hetero-male hegemony. I identify Ellison's narrator's invisibility as a personification of what Judith Butler, building on Julia Kristeva, calls the "abject": the realm of bodies that remain unproduced by discourse in order to provide an outside against which dominant bodies (bodies that are male, straight, and white) can be defined. This psychosexual perspective is most effective within the context of a historically grounded consideration of the racial discourses of "crossover" economics that preceded the novel's publication. Within the context of these discourses, which rely on a visual commodification of blackness, the possibility of abjection--of invisibility--as a site of power becomes clear. This analysis allows us to reconsider Invisible Man as the narrative of one man's process of embracing that abject alternative. This process is prompted by and enacted through scenes that emphasize sexual experiences with white women as well as scenes that highlight the narrator's resistance to the commodification of black bodies, including the Battle Royal, the narrator's first speech for the Brotherhood, the murder and funeral of Tod Clifton, and the botched sexual encounter with a woman who has called him not black enough (303). These scenes highlight key factors in the relationships among visual power and discourses of dominance-patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, and whiteness--because each one features the juxtaposition of black men and white women as visual objects of America's racial and sexual fantasies. …

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