Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Will It Ever End? Of Racism and Responsibility

If the subtitle doesn't make it clear, my title is a reference both to my "Old News" blogging and the question of responsibility I take up in this part of Chapter Two....


The claim I have advanced in this chapter is that we should stop ignoring Hawthorne’s scandalous perspective on slavery, just as we should stop trying to explain it away or averting our eyes from its effects and consequences. Instead, we should try to understand it, with all the “critical sympathy” David Levin calls on us to muster. And I contend that the best place to begin is with the acknowledgment of Hawthorne’s racism. How, then, does our view of one of antebellum America’s preeminent moral and intellectual historians change when we explicitly bring issues of race, racism, removals, slavery, supplantation, manifest destiny, and the Civil War into focus? I want to suggest that if we are to take Hawthorne’s moral historicism seriously, we should not exempt him from the kind of searching questions he posed to the Puritan past. How, then, should we evaluate claims that Hawthorne’s moral and intellectual historicism has a kind of exemplariness--that it deserves to be a model for contemporary Americanist endeavors?

I allude here, of course, to Michael Colacurcio’s argument that “some generalized form of [Hawthorne’s] inquiry offers the best rationale for our own efforts at a distinctive American Studies.” Colacurcio’s Hawthorne is less the source out of which all American literature flows than the origin, inspiration, and high-water-mark of what is best about the American Studies project: “to consider, even if only to problematize, what [we] find distinctive in [our] own national culture” (17), even as we continue to discover reasons for persistently making “significant denial[s] of the separate moral existence of America” (16). To Colacurcio, Hawthorne is an exemplary intellectual historian insofar as he dispassionately, often ironically, and never in a celebratory manner, marks what is American about the United States. He is an exemplary moral historian in that he denies the “American ideology,” denies, that is, any kind of American moral exceptionalism.

There are worse examples to follow than Hawthorne’s (and Colacurcio’s), I concede, but if my chapter accomplishes anything, it will be to problematize Colacurcio’s vision of Hawthorne as exemplary moral historian. A step further: if this book accomplishes anything, it will be to problematize Colacurcio’s vision for American Studies in the next century. This chapter has been something of an extended quarrel with Colacurcio’s granting of exemplary status to Hawthorne’s moral historicism. To be clear, I have not tried to argue that Colacurcio’s commitment to Puritan origins has blinded him to the significance of race and racism. In fact, the great achievement of The Province of Piety was not only to demonstrate the interrelation of the “matter of the Puritans” and the “matter of the Revolution,” but also to imply that both are linked indissociably yet indirectly with “the matter of the Indians.” Colacurcio implies that Hawthorne saw the “matter of the Indians” through the lens of the “matter of the Puritans” and “the matter of the Revolution,” so that he tended to reenact rather than analyze his age’s view of what was “the matter with the Indians,” even as he carefully, subtly, and sensitively explored what was “the matter with the Puritans” and “the matter with the Revolution.” Furthermore, Colacurcio’s work implies that Hawthorne, like too many of his contemporaries, had little to say about “the matter of slavery,” a matter that only the abolitionists were claiming was what made the United States “America.” Still, my point in this chapter is to emphasize that Hawthorne’s exemplarity extends to his limitations as well as his achievements.

Colacurcio’s own willingness to broach moral issues in scholarship leads me to wonder what impact, if any, the understanding of Hawthorne’s racial politics I have been advancing might have on Hawthorne’s literary and intellectual reputation. I want to caution against one inference that might be drawn from my argument. Some might conclude that because Hawthorne may well have been racist in a manner similar to his narrator in “Old News,” our only recourse is to repudiate him, to stop reading his works. Such a move, I believe, would be to reenact rather than to analyze the limitations of the traditional stories we have told about Hawthorne’s racial politics. In this day and age, we take for granted our transcendance of both nineteenth-century racial science and nineteenth-century literary criticism. But why is it that most of our best analyses of race and Hawthorne almost precisely reproduce some of their most troubling assumptions? Twentieth-century Hawthornists have by and large been just as troubled as Hawthorne’s contemporaries by the question, “Why not slavery?” Of course, we no longer mimic George Curtis’s and Edward Dicey’s appeals to Hawthorne’s nature, his mental constitution, his genius--in short, his white-but-not-quite-Anglo-Saxon racial identity--to explain why he didn’t directly confront the question of slavery in his romances. That is, we are less likely today to naturalize ethical issues, to make the question of responsibility and inheritance a matter of nature. We are more likely to appeal to Hawthorne’s racism, though. And if this appeal has the formal function of the earlier appeals to Hawthorne’s race--to shut down further inquiry so as to allow us to move on to what we like about Hawthorne’s fiction--then it will be no advance from, much less transcendence of, the racialist presuppositions of our earliest literature and criticism. What if instead of aiming for transcendance of these presuppositions we were to immerse ourselves in them so as to better understand their incredible and troubling persistence? What if instead of assuming that writers have a responsibility to write directly and realistically about the political issues of their times we were to take responsibility for recognizing how their fictions are shaped by and intervene on their times in necessarily indirect and mediated ways, and that there is no substitute for reading them?

That Hawthorne probably shared many of the racist attitudes of his times is only the beginning of the story. I have tried to show in this chapter that his racism was no mere personal prejudice, not simply a set of attitudes or ideas that are easy to separate from what he does best. On the contrary, his racism contributed to shaping his very aesthetics and his conception of American citizenship and nationhood. But there is a way in which my decision to read “Old News” replicates the very problem I have tried to diagnose: our tendency as critics to attack the question of Hawthorne’s racism in isolation and by piecemeal, focusing almost obsessively on the same half-dozen individual works, the same dozen passages, and bringing it all down to our interpretation of a few choice words. I still think this step is a necessary one. But it certainly is not sufficient. Hawthorne was partially right when he claimed in the preface to The Snow-Image that we will have to study the whole range of his characters to decide this question, but the task is actually much larger than this. It involves rethinking our sense of the shape of his career, reading the full range of his race writings, considering his relations with his contemporaries, and contextualizing the discourses he drew on and revised. In other words, there are limits to conceiving of an author’s racism as a purely individual matter, as a question of an individual’s intentions. Clearly, there is much more to the issue of authorial racism than stereotype-hunting, for merely identifying a stereotype does nothing to analyze how a given stereotype is embedded in a narrative and how it is being deployed--whether is being critiqued, transformed, or simply reiterated. This word “deployed,” in conjunction with “narrative,” brings the author back in a non-expressivist way--it emphasizes the importance of reading if we are to come up with a plausible, non-reductive account of authorial intent. Yet there is a way in which too firmly linking the issue of racism with the issue of intentionality ensures that we will absolutely miss the most insidious ways white supremacy works. For if we set our standard for identifying a racist literary utterance as a strict version of “with malice aforethought,” we will have capitulated to an ahistorical, decontextualized, individualist conception of what is at stake in racism. Unless, that is, we understand that questions of race and racism are inseparable from questions of ideology and history, and that none of these questions can be answered without careful reading, we are likely to continue avoiding an engagement with Hawthorne’s perspective on slavery.

One legacy of our New Critical distrust of intentionality means that most efforts to identify authorial racism through reference to authorial intention will be half-hearted at best. At the same time, our efforts to defend or vindicate Hawthorne can be just as problematic and just as reliant on discovering authorial intent. They often smack of the strategy of the defense attorneys in the beating of Rodney King case; it sometimes seems that, like them, we slow down Hawthorne’s narrative flow into “super slo-mo” and then stop it and display a series of freeze-frames, inscribing them into our own narrative of Hawthorne’s intentions in the process. But if defining racism or anti-racism strictly by an individual agent’s intentional acts is problematic, jettisoning the category of intentionality altogether guarantees that we will miss the question of responsibility. As I showed in the previous chapter, even in those very approaches that seem to have rigorously excluded them, appeals to authorial intention uncannily return. My solution to this problem has been to attempt to produce the most sophisticated reading of authorial intent that I could on a specific sketch and to make some preliminary contextualizing gestures. Moving from moralizing on an individual’s lamentable prejudices to identifying the racial projects with which individuals align themselves in a given racial formation is the way I have tried to refigure the problem of racism and intentionality.

A brief look at how Jacques Derrida has dealt with the scandal of Nietzsche’s appropriation by Nazism can be instructive here. Contrary to the popular stereotype of deconstruction’s celebration of the “death of the author” and of the “free-floating signifier,” Derrida is most concerned with preventing Nietzsche scholars from letting Nietzsche and themselves off the hook by rejecting the Nazis’ use of Nietzsche as a “falsification of a legacy and an interpretive mystification.” That is, Derrida criticizes the notion that intentional readings (“Nietzsche meant this; the Nazis misread him”) are the final word--“the effects or structure of a text are not reducible to its ‘truth,’ to the intended meaning of its presumed author, or even its supposedly unique and identifiable signatory” (28)--precisely in order to emphasize, not dissipate, the question of responsibility. Derrida ventriloquizes a possible response to this line of thought:

One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness. If one does more than extract certain short sequences, if one reconstitutes the entire syntax of the system with the subtle refinement of its articulations and its paradoxical reversals, et cetera, then one will clearly see that what passes elsewhere for the “same” utterance says exactly the opposite and corresponds instead to the inverse, to the reactive inversion of the very thing it mimes. (30)

Derrida’s response to this objection is absolutely crucial:

Yet it would still be necessary to account for the possibility of this mimetic inversion and perversion. If one refuses the distinction between unconscious and deliberate programs as an absolute criterion, if one no longer considers only intent--whether conscious or not--when reading a text, then the law that makes the perverting simplification possible must lie in the structure of the text “remaining” . . . . Even if the intention of one of the signatories or shareholders in the huge “Nietzsche corporation” had nothing to do with it, it cannot be entirely fortuitous that the discourse bearing his name in society, in accordance with civil laws and editorial norms, has served as a legitimating reference for ideologues. There is nothing absolutely contingent about the fact that the only political regimen to have effectively brandished his name as a major and official banner was Nazi. (30-31)

This is not as formalist an answer as it may first appear, for later in his essay Derrida links the possibility of Nazi rearticulations of Nietzsche to the uncanny and to ideological apparati, including the educational system and other institutions. But Derrida’s response does insist that reading is crucial to all these questions. And as it turns out, one of his protocols for reading Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, Thus Spake Zarathustra and especially On the Future of Our Educational Institutions is that “one must allow for the ‘genre’ whose code is constantly re-marked, for narrative and fictional form and the ‘indirect style.’ In short, one must allow for all the ways intent ironizes or demarcates itself, demarcating the text by leaving on it the mark of genre” (25). The risk of Derridean deconstruction, however, its wager, is a refusal to reduce “responsibility” to “intentionality” and a refusal to avoid reading for authorial intention nevertheless: “the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from that place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance.”

Obviously, the example of Nietzsche and the Nazis has its own limits; there have been no state-sponsored mass extermination projects in the name of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to say the least. But the most successful defense of slavery this country has ever seen relied on precisely the same rhetoric and discourses that Hawthorne’s narrator deployed in “Old News.” This is a more significant finding than the question of Hawthorne’s racism, as urgent as that question is. However we determine the relation between author and narrator in “Old News,” the question of Hawthorne’s and our responsibilities remains.

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