Amy J. Elias reviews Madhu Dubey’s second book Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism and gauges the argument that we can locate within literary history a distinctive African American strain of postmodernism.
Madhu Dubey has been an original voice in African American literary criticism for some time. In her first book, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, she examined novels by Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Alice Walker in order to argue that the novels interrogate and negotiate central privileging binaries of nationalist discourse, including individual/community, past/future, and absent/present subjectivity. Madhu Dubey, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 21. Her critique of a “nationalist aesthetic” (and a black nationalist aesthetic) was leveled on two fronts: first, that such an aesthetic was complicit with essentializing contemporary social discourses concerning the black family, and especially concerning black women; and second, that such an aesthetic posited specific, preformulated relations to community, the past, and subjectivity through the privileged genres of poetry and drama, relations questioned by black women novelists who explore the other sides of these binaries. Her feminist claim was that black women writers address African American subjectivity with many of the social and aesthetic concerns shared by black male writers, but that the women also claim a unique female relation to these questions. Her distinctly postmodernist move was to situate black women’s fiction in a relation of negotiation rather than opposition to the essentialisms undergirding the (male) nationalist aesthetic: women’s fiction hesitates between a realist, historiographical mode of representation and an aestheticizing linguistic signification that is both suspicious of essentializing black discourses and of poststructuralist claims to “absence” and “empty signifiers” (a suspicion born of historical circumstance, the fact that absent presence has always been the place accorded by whites to signifying blackness).
Implicit in her study, then, was the claim that African American female novelists were the voice of new black postmodernism, one that refused to ignore the realities and history of black experience in the world but that simultaneously rejected essentializing nationalist discourses about black Being and homogenizing notions of poststructuralist “play.” Implicit also in her study was the claim that while the formal techniques of this fiction resembled that of other postmodernist texts, black postmodernism was different in the specificity of its social conflicts and the history with which it grappled, and thus even its formal techniques had unique cultural valences.
These two claims are continued in Dubey’s lucid and ambitious second book, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism. Madhu Dubey, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003). In this book she continues her critique of the nationalist, racial discourse concerning the “underclass” as it impacts the material lives, self-identities, and aesthetics of African Americans. Her scope has widened to include a more complex context but also narrowed in terms of aesthetic focus. The context is the postmodern city, and the aesthetic focus is the “book within a book” trope (and also the appearance of writing/reading as plot element or theme). She brings these together in an original thesis: that the printed book and notions of urban community traditionally have been tied together in cultural discourses; that both the postmodern city and black literary postmodernism worry and fracture the authority of the book and the cohesiveness of urban community; that reading and writing are both material practices and hermeneutical methods; and that the convergence of these two phenomena is uniquely significant to African Americans as a demographic group and as the producers of a distinct literary tradition.
Since the 1970s, Dubey claims, African Americans throughout the U.S. have become predominantly an urban people, and this affects their ability to construct models of racial representation situated within, or growing from, organic communities. In addition, whatever cohesion that black Americans might have found even within the postmodern state has been further fractured by post-Civil Rights-era developments, such as the expansion of the black middle class, the redistribution of Rust Belt industry to new national and global geographies, and the debilitating sociological discourse about the urban “underclass.”
There are three responses to this fracturing. The first is the creation of a nationalist rhetoric of crisis; in Dubey’s eyes, this rhetoric often in fact undergirds much of postmodern theory. In this rhetoric of crisis, African American urban culture is both the problem and the cure: as problem, it is made to exemplify urban crisis (the crisis of the family, the crisis of agency, the crisis of poverty, the crisis of drugs and crime), while as cure, it is made to represent a reinvigorating, “residual” missing element in postmodern culture (bodily presence, a connection to the Real, political intentionality, orality and performance modes of being).
In this regard, Dubey is unsparing and dead-on in her criticism of postmodern cultural studies: it often falls into the trap of equating material oppression (e.g., poverty) with political opposition (the poor and marginal are, de facto, oppositional); it tends to primitivize African American urban culture by making it signify a “romance of the residual” (understanding everything from hip-hop to sexuality as an authentic alterity); it mines sites of oppression for their cultural capital, fetishizing and aestheticizing the racial other; it often equates aesthetic self-reflexivity with political action, and texts that foreground their status as mediated representations are seen as militating against racial essentialism (e.g., if it’s not realism it’s not racism); and it often celebrates technology as a surrogate for politics (7-10). “Indeed,” she writes, “a synthesis of aesthetic indeterminacy and racial essentialism, allowing us to have our cake and eat it too, may be defining of postmodern approaches to racial representation in literature” (10).
The second response to the fracturing of postmodern urban community is by literary and cultural African Americanist critics, who attempt to refurbish “models of community and of racial representation developed earlier in the century” by nationalist cultural politics (5). Dubey identifies two dominant critical paradigms in this African American literary and cultural criticism and shows how they have shifted in the discourse of postmodernism. The modernist “uplift paradigm” shifts to a postmodern populist paradigm, and the modernist print paradigm shifts to a postmodern “vernacular paradigm.” In discussing these paradigms and particularly when discussing their shifted forms, Dubey takes to task nostalgic attempts to essentialize black culture in the interest of finding a bedrock for new black urban community. Cornel West and bell hooks fare badly here, but so at times do Toni Morrison, Robert Stepto, Henry Louis Gates, Ishmael Reed, Houston Baker, and the black aesthetic.
For example, in her fourth chapter “Reading as Listening: the Southern Folk Aesthetic,” Dubey examines the return by black writers such as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor - but also Alice Walker, Houston Baker, Addison Gayle, John Oliver Killens, Kiarri Cheatwood, Toni Cade Bambara, and other scholars such as Carol Stack and Eugene Genovese - to “the rural South of the days of racial segregation” in order to recover a version of coherent black community, born out of oppression but nonetheless resolving in many ways the problems created by postmodern urbanism. The Southern folk aesthetic, celebrating orality (listening over seeing), presence, magic/conjuring, feminine epistemologies, and nonmediated communication, is nostalgic to the core and creates an “antimodern, anti-urban, and antitextual model of community,” but its “harmonious, crisis-free acts of knowing, speaking, and listening” are logical responses to the lack of social stability and cognitive dislocation of mediated urban realities (170). It also counters the “glib embrace of multicultural rhetoric” characteristic of scholarship on postmodern urbanism (which Dubey discusses in chapter 3), a rhetoric based in scopic regimes that erase the real material and political divisions within urban contexts for a “culturalist” model based on discourse practices (185).
This is all very smartly done, and it is a brave counter to easy acquiescence of reigning critical shiboleths. Yet because of her (perhaps necessarily narrowed) focus on African American contemporary literature, Dubey also does not explore how her claims are mirrored in criticism of other U.S. literatures. While she insists on the historical and cultural specificity of African American culture and literature, virtually all of the problems (and attempted solutions to those problems) she identifies in contemporary African American literary criticism have surfaced in Native American contemporary literatures and cultures as well - the problem of postmodern urbanization, the problem of writing/reading as mediated acts, the return to nostalgic or essentializing notions of unmediated race, past, tradition, or orality; feminization and magic as responses to technologizing, alienating (male) presents. These responses also have surfaced in new Southern literary studies and in Latino/a literature and theory, and in criticism of the “magical realist” mode there has been some controversy over their desirability or social efficacy. Dubey’s argument centers on the cultural specificity of African American postmodernism, yet how are these cross-cultural similarities then to be explained? Is there something structural in academic discourse of otherness, or simply in human cultures, that promulgates these critical solutions to problems of urban alienation?
Dubey identifies a third response to the fracturing of community and identity characteristic of postmodernism, and this is the poststructuralist celebration of anti-essentialism, becoming, flow, absence, and nonidentity. This option is basically just thrown out by Dubey, but in an interesting way. First, she acknowledges that this approach does nothing for oppressed peoples who from the get-go struggle to create identity, maintain community, and satisfy material needs; black postmodernism that goes down this path supports the aesthetics of absence that have always been the marker of African American identity in the eyes of the white majority. Dubey also, however, observes that this theory of postmodernism often attempts to construct reality as both unmediated experience (as in the flows of Deleuzian schizoanalysis or the celebrations of WWW or the postmodern city as experiential “webs of information”) and hypermediated experience (as in theories of Baudrillardian simulation or spectacle). She responds, in solidarity with other Marxist critics of postmodernism, that “some notion of the real is a necessary fulcrum for oppositional political visions” (192). It is odd that Dubey does not make central to her argument the many Marxist critiques of postmodernism that surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Alex Callinicos’; Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (St. Martin’s P, 1990), Christopher Norris’s What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford and MA: Blackwell, 1996), or Fredric Jameson’s magisterial Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989). But she also astutely notes that rhetorics of hyperreality, simulation, and poststructuralist “flow” in fact often solve the problem of simulation and lack of grounding by positing physical proximity: “the way out of the labyrinths of the simulacral city lies in face-to-face contacts with others” (192). She doesn’t buy this desire for a metaphysics of presence: “This desire for a mystical encounter with the ‘nonrepresentable’ or ‘naked’ face of the other is the inverse side of claims about the decline of reality in postmodern times; both exemplify reactive responses to an environment so thoroughly mediated that the technological frames themselves have become invisible” (193).
Thus while sympathetic to all three of these attempts to construct a basis for urban black community (the last, poststructuralist response is her least favorite), Dubey ultimately rejects them in favor of what she sees as a truly postmodern alternative. One of the beauties of this text is that Dubey has done her homework and is willing to state uncomfortable truths honestly: the arguments are complex, tightly woven, and based in indisputable realities of critical discourse. Her prose is imaginative and her arguments are logical in sometimes impressive ways. Unlike much contemporary work in cultural/race/ethnicity/gender criticism, which often suffers from disciplinary myopia, Dubey ranges widely through postmodernist theories of space, cities, architecture, urban development, and cultural studies; central to her study are works by David Harvey, Guy Debord, Edward Soja, Marshall Berman, Hal Foster, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Andreas Huyssen, and others. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990) and The Urban Experience (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989) and Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin, 1982); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994); Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1985); Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). Her own study supports the claims of aesthetic indeterminacy but eschews claims of racial essentialism: she asks, “how exactly do we keep alive a notion of the real without resorting to metaphysics or mysticism?” and answering, against Baudrillardian theory, that we must consider the real “that eschews both organicism and technological fetishism, innocent mimesis and textual inflation” (11). The historical materialist focus of her research base also leads her to some omissions of key texts in both postmodern culture theory and critical race theory. For example, she never cites Linda Hutcheon’s work on postmodernist fiction, yet the claim in Signs and Cities that black postmodernist fiction constructs the book as a compromised, mediated, and self-reflexive response to postmodern reality is very close to Hutcheon’s claim about postmodernist fiction as paradoxically and “fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political.” On the other hand, Dubey could get a lot of mileage out of Hutcheon’s claim that “There is no dialectic in the postmodern: the self-reflexive remains distinct from its traditionally accepted contrary - the historico-political context in which it is embedded.” See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988).
Instead of nostalgia for unmediated reality characteristic of black nationalism or the Southern folk aesthetic, or the celebration of ungrounded pluralism characteristic of postmodern (multi)culturalism or technocratic utopianism, Dubey presents the work of Samuel Delany as an example of a response that acknowledges the potentially positive, cosmopolitan consequences of recognizing and negotiating both a completely mediated reality and encounters with others - also, inevitably, completely mediated (even at the level of visuality, of faces). “Delany’s novel,” she writes, “aspires to an alternate ideal of civility understood as a relation of tolerance among strangers, demanding difficult acts of mediation and incomplete comprehension. This is, of course, an urban ideal” (193).
Dubey’s analysis is indebted to the work of Raymond Williams and aligns itself with the historical materialist branch of theory. Yet this book ends by advocating an almost Habermasian ethic of the public sphere or even a modified Rawlsian “justice as fairness” way of being in the world of strangers. This would not be an ethics of the “face-to-face” but an ethics based on law and public, urban negotiation where trust, familiarity, and community could not taken for granted as givens and where inequality was a recognized reality of the system. As Dubey notes in relation to the Southern folk aesthetic, “Social justice cannot always be immanently derived from concrete, face-to-face relations and often requires mediation by abstract political principles as well as extra-local adjudication” (152).
The book thus ends by calling for something like a race-conscious, materialist version of Liberal cosmopolitanism. This is the place of slippage between all the sociological and theoretical information about postmodern urban theory in the book and all of the close readings of texts that Dubey provides. First, while the former gives a context for the latter, it doesn’t give a necessary context, and second, the marxist tenor of most of the theory with which she sympathizes does not really translate into the “solution” offered at the end of the book. The last chapter does not advocate workers’ revolutions or concrete, materialist solutions to the problems of poverty, race segregation, capitalist urban development, and global postindustrial production. In some ways, it can’t, because of the overall argument’s inherent suspicion of nationalistic, globalizing discourse and because Dubey so desires literature to speak to and for social reality. She instead uses Delany’s fiction and nonfiction as a model and advocates coexistence based on difficult negotiation of difference and law (with metaphors of mestizaje hanging in the perimeters)–almost a pure cosmopolitan ideal. It will be interesting to see if in future books Dubey enters into the emerging theoretical conversation about cosmopolitanism, for while she seems to be advocating a kind of cosmopolitan ethic, she clearly has no sympathy with multiculturalism (or, I suspect, liberalism) and is starting from a markedly different theoretical and cultural standpoint than are most liberal theorists, such as Appiah, currently involved in that conversation.Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Idenity (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005) or Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).
This book is being marketed as the first book to consider what it means to speak of a postmodern moment in African-American literature. This is patently wrong; other studies appeared that have addressed what a black postmodernism might look like. (Dubey in fact cites and takes issue with many of these in her book).Dubey herself cites little work done concerning race and postmodernism, such as V. Lawrence Hogue’s Race, Modernity, Postmodernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), or the substantial work done concerning the intersections between feminist theory and postmodernism. The book also needs a bibliography, and it would have been better if Dubey had analyzed a broader range of novels to illustrate her claims (the same books appear chapter after chapter, and her hero worship of Delany is a bit annoying).
Yet Signs and Cities makes a good case for a distinctive African American strain of postmodernism. One of the real strengths of Dubey’s book is to complicate even this idea, however, so that it doesn’t harden into the idea that there is such a thing as a monolithic Black Postmodernism. Dubey takes into account the diverse nature of the national African American community, as well as diverse approaches to the problem of urban postmodernism, and produces a book well worth reading by any scholar in contemporary studies.