Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leigh Anne Duck--The Nation's Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, And U.S. Nationalism (2009)


 In this insightful work, Duck looks at the how the “backwards” South not only coexisted with but was a necessary component of the U.S.’s emerging identity as a liberal democracy.  Duck’s use of the term “apartheid” to characterize the state of racism in the South at this point not only calls attention to the separation caused by segregation and racism, but also to emphasize that segregation was not simply a “cultural practice tolerated by the liberal state” but also system codified and enforced by law (4).  Her use of apartheid also brings the text into larger discussions of postcolonialism in general. 
By focusing on work by Erskine Caldwell, Zora Neale Hurston, and William Faulkner (among others), Duck demonstrates how apartheid has been able to continue in a nation which claims to be a liberal democracy.  In each of the chapters, she examines the kinds of chronotypes (or collection of temporally coded traits (5)) posited in these works, and how these authors dealt with a South which was (or at least was considered) to be temporally different from the rest of the nation.  To Duck, identifying the South as temporally different from the rest of the country allowed it to tacitly sanction racial injustice by attributing it to cultural or interpersonal—rather than systemic or structural—relations (6). 
In the first section, “Imagining Affiliation,” she looks at how post-Reconstruction America relied up regionalist writers to offer “amelioration for precisely the damage that U.S. nationality  threatens to inflict: though citizens may justly fear being ‘left out of’ or ‘left behind in’ U.S. capitalist progress, identification with regions is held to be sustained—determined by roots—and, concomitantly, sustaining” (32).  More specifically, “regionalism, as a cultural discourse, has often functioned as a supplement to U.S. nationalism; it serves to suggest that, at the local level, the United States maintains precisely the kid of the cultural particularities that the state ideology of liberalism disavows” (33).  The South has provided the U.S. this kind of supplementation beyond the period of post-Reconstruction local color writing.
In the section section of the book, “Modernist Mappings,” Duck locates different strategies of portrayal and understanding the kinds of (particularly, but not exclusively, temporal) alterity represented by the South in texts from the Reconstruction era to approximately World War II.  Her analysis of Erskine Caldwell’s work looks specifically at his portrayal of southern culture of one of stasis and alternative temporality, and how it was possible that such a region of stasis and alterity could coexist in a nation so heavily invested in an identity of capitalist modernity.  Relying heavily on Kristeva’s theories of abjection, Duck shows how Caldwell’s portrayal of the grotesque, a grotesque particularly situated on the body, aligns this community with the kind of abject which results in reinforcing the larger ideas of order.  Particularly in her discussion of stage version of Erskine’s work, Duck says that “many audience members preferred the belief that, in another part of the country, people routinely killed and slept with their nonspousal family members to the belief that such activity was, at least in this case, restricted to a fictional realm.  The latter explanation would place the abject not only in Caldwell’s imagination but also in their own, thus violating a topographical rule of abjection—that it must be ‘hemmed in and thrust aside,’ not repressed but ejected, perhaps most effectively projected onto another, spatially distanced body” (94).
Turning to Hurston, Duck notes that most critics situate her work outside of modernity (115).  Duck notes that “Even as much African American writing from the 1920s and 1930s suggested that folk culture offered the attraction of an authentic racial community, that allure was often represented as uncanny—a dangerous nostalgia for an experience inaccessible to modern subjects, and, furthermore, inextricably linked to racist exploitation” (116), which is how many see Hurston’s writing.  However, Duck’s emphasis on Hurston’s inclusion of modernization in her work demonstrates Hurston’s more complex and often ambiguous position relative to technology, modernization, and modernity: “In representing this transition, Hurston provides or the preservation of folkloric values by incorporating them into the modern self-fashioning of her individuated protagonist” (116).
Again, what Duck refers to as allochronic time is important in this portrayal of the South.  She discusses Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology (1925), which while it “inscribes a modern national community in which individuals, though unacquainted and spatially distanced, recognize themselves as working together in homogeneous linear time to pursue shared goals” (117), also demonstrated how these individuals may experience time differently.  Compared to authors such as Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer, whose work is much more in line with more temporally progressive ideas of time, Duck notes that “though Hurston’s political beliefs were unquestionably complicated, they comprised not a consistent conservatism, but rather a continuing and dynamic ambivalence concerning the effects of modernization in southern African American communities.  Such ambivalence was partly a result of her work as an anthropologist, which allowed Hurston to see and portray the very real possibility of coexisting temporal differences within a seemingly homogenous geographical/cultural space.  When combined with the pressures of a changing capitalist democracy, Hurston’s work “explored the emotional responses that might emerge from concomitant cultural change” (131).
From Hurston, Duck moves to Faulkner’s work, focusing on his use of gothic conventions in order to convey the kinds of concomitant chronotypes and temporal fragmentation which existed in his South.  According to Duck, while “gothic tropes were mobilized to represent individuals’ anxieties as they perceive both substantial cultural differences and by uncontrollable psychological responses,” for Faulkner, they worked as “an analytic tool through which to investigate ideas of southern collective memory”: “Faulkner’s representations of haunting memories belie the idea that his characters participate in a shared white southern cultural identity.  Rather, they suffer individualized mnemonic disorders presented in the novels as sources of pain, cultural misrecognition, and ethical failure” (147).  As other Southern writers used gothic tropes for aesthetic reasons, Faulkner’s Gothicism was rather a “reflection of the temporal alterity in which both author and subject matter were submerged” (149). 
She compares Faulkner’s Gothicism to more traditional gothic works—in particular, to that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  In all of these works, there is a distinct tension between an embrace of modernity undercut by temporal and geographic alterity: “Through their confluence of gothic imagery and the logic of psychological trauma, these narratives suggest that the encounter with a temporality perceived as nonlinear might itself be sufficient to detach subjectivity from the time of capitalist modernity, leaving individuals isolated and confused by memories that manifest precisely the sort of temporal multiplicity that they first sought to disavow” (155).  Duck sees Faulkner’s Gothicism as going a step beyond these more traditional gothic narratives, however: “Faulkner’s novels suggest not simply a backward culture but one in which individuals damage themselves and other by avowing an absolute split in time and refusing to engage in more nuanced investigation of the relationship between past and present” (159).
The final section of the book, “The Shifting South,” examines the post war period, in which “polarized perspectives on racial injustice continued to impede recognition that apartheid constituted not merely a recalcitrant holdover from the past but rather a broadly dispersed element of regional national modernity” (174).  The first section, “Provincial Cosmopolitans,” examines the how what in an allegedly liberal capitalist nation might be seen as backward southern culture in fact “exemplified prominent patterns in global modernity” (178).  Duck notes that uneven development is actually a key component of “capitalist spatiality” (179), thus showing that the South’s temporal alterity was not the anomaly it was so often understood to be.  Further, the characterization of the South as backward created a de facto disenfranchisement of all of its inhabitant—not only (though remarkably) its African American inhabitants—in larger national discourses of progress and modernization.
As a part of American exceptionalism, southern exceptionalism (as exemplified by writings by the Agrarians or W.J. Cash) claimed that those in the South were of a different breed from the rest of the country, which made them immune to full rehabilitation to the level of the rest of the country.  In this way, the infallibility of modernity and capitalist progress were able to stand despite what commentary the poverty of much of the South might otherwise present.  In the work of Richard Wright, Duck sees a critical analysis of this situation, again framing her discussion in particularly temporal terms: “Wright’s fiction, particularly, often undercuts or reframes such perceptions describing African Americans’ explicitly modern experience—both the ways in which racial oppression constituted a distinctly modern system of economic and political exploitation, and the ways in which African Americans positioned themselves in time….Like many African Americans and leftists of the era, Wright expressed substantial concern about how such a temporal lag might affect the consciousness of the people it affected” (186).  Duck shows how Wright’s work highlights how by highlighting the South as a culturally different region disavows any political foundation for what were in fact highly political/systemic/institutional acts which reinforced southern apartheid, with lynching as a prime example of such an act.
Duck then looks at James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, focusing on Agee’s words more than Walker Evans’ photographs.  She emphasizes the uncertainly Agee expresses, in his claims of both being unable to fully connect with his subjects and his inability to fully convey the connections he is able to make.  Finally, she ends with a consideration of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, with which she suggests that “southern literature from the 1930s through the 1940s participated in changing understandings of southern time.  Once considered a backward region whose racial oppression was inextricable from its idiosyncratic bounded temporality, the South in this period was increasingly represented, in literature and in political discourse, as a coeval region with strained by undeniable ties to the larger nation” (212).  Even after this period, in a post-Brown v. Board of Education nation, the idea of an anachronistic South became more and more important to an increasingly cosmopolitan world.  In Faulkner’s later work as well as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Duck shows how these writers stage “the problem of how to articulate the political meanings that might emerge from cultural differences”: “minority political beliefs are, variously, embedded in gestures concerning heritage and aesthetics, considered so futile as to be unutterable, rendered through heavy use of figurative or ironic language, or, famously, invisible” (217).
Ultimately, Duck shows how the “slippage” between the cultural and the political which emerges in these novels, these works speak to the current red state/blue state view that “political differences emerge from spatialized cultural difference, implicitly raising the question of whether meaningful exchange can take place among opposing parties” (231).  To Duck, examining how such slippage between spatialized cultural differences and politics emerged in the period of her study is key in disentangling current understandings of their connection.

No comments:

Post a Comment