Unspeakable Things Unspoken Analysis Essay

Now that Afro-American artistic presence has been "discovered" actually to exist, now that serious scholarship has moved from silencing the witnesses and erasing their meaningful place in and contribution to American culture, it is no longer acceptable merely to imagine us and imagine for us. We have always been imagining ourselves. We are not Isak Dinesen's "aspects of nature," nor Conrad's unspeaking. We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, "other." We are choices. And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to [End Page 755] compare these centers with the "raceless" one with which we are. all of us, most familiar.

—Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature"

To be a subject means to activate the network of discourse from where one stands. Discourse is not a circle with one center, but more like a mycelium with many mushrooms. To be a subject also means to take nourishment from more than one source, to construct a new synthesis, a new discursive ragout.

—Barbara Johnson, "Response"

In the wake of deconstruction and poststructuralism's move into the American academy, our fundamental understanding of the role of language in mediating our "reality" has come to the fore. The advent of poststructuralism, then, has also meant a basic shift in the debate around such categories as race and experience. No longer are race and experience assumed to be stable categories of critical discourse, but rather "race" and "experience" themselves become sites of critical contestation. To use Jacques Derrida's language, as "transcendental signifieds" race and experience are "under erasure." The political and rhetorical impact this move has had on African American critical discourse requires some comment. What has this critical shift meant for the authority of African American scholars doing work in African American Studies in often racist institutions? If not on racial experience, on what grounds do they address the study of African American culture? How do they negotiate the relationship between the discourse of multiculturalism, which argues the need for a culturally diversified academy, and poststructuralist discourse, which makes the sign "experience" a site of contestation? Indeed, what, if not some understanding of their cultural experience, do African Americans uniquely bring to critical inquiry?

These opening observations are what I bring to this reading of Toni Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." The reason I begin my investigation of these concerns with Morrison is because she is, arguably, the most prominent artist-critic in contemporary American and African [End Page 756] American letters, a position that uniquely qualifies her to speak to the variety of impacts that poststructuralist discussions of "race" and "experience" have had for African American artists and intellectuals. It may be precisely this dual role Morrison plays as African American intellectual and artist that allows her to see so clearly the impact of contemporary discussions of race on both imaginative work and critical work. (And this may explain some of the reasons Morrison took the turn into critical work to begin with.) Let me say up front that I believe Morrison's essay implicitly outlines a critique of poststructuralism's treatment of the category of "race." I hope to demonstrate that the essay also enacts a rhetorical strategy African American intellectuals often use to reclaim a racial essentialism based on experience that authorizes or legitimizes their speech in some very politically important ways.

What is simultaneously interesting and difficult about Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" is that while the essay is careful to issue an anti-essentialist disclaimer,2 it does finally argue for, and depend upon, a variety of racial essentialism (grounded in racial experience) that has significant bearing on contemporary debates surrounding the question of essentialism in critical discourse. An example of this, which I will...

Michael Kunichika

ENG 341 - Prof. Arnold


class presentation: Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: theAfro-American presence American literature."

Morrison's (re)reading of Moby-Dick serves as an illustrative model of thetheoretical project she undertakes to utilize in this essay--a project seekingthe discovery of unspoken voices, that, while in the faint periphery, or deepin relief, influenced the construction of the American literary tradition intheir "absence." "We can agree," she says, "that invisible things are notnecessarily "not-there"; that a void may be empty, but is not a vacuum. Herproject strikes against the processes of canon formation and the models bywhich one evaluates a text, some of which are canonical in themselves.Morrisson thus indicts the role of the critic in the construction of theliterary canon, and therefore the "national identity" generated by the canon.

"Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canondebate, whatever the terrain, nature and range (of criticism, of history, ofthe history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the universality ofaesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination), is theclash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested." Morrison recognizesthe role of the critic, critics like Mathiesson, who provide the breeding cowfor the entire literary tradition but whose politics and race remain tounderscore the work the eventually produce. It is thus a question of motivethat Morrison looks towards in the process of canon-formation: it is the silentcategory that remains out of scholarly books.

Allegory, for Morrison, stands as the textual structure which encodes inMoby-Dick the oppositional pair of Ahab-the white whale and serves as model thevarious, canonical or peripheral, readings of the novel. It is this structure,I think, with its oppositional pair, serves to illustrate the fundamental modelby which all groups formulate their interpretation. Allegory, when one of theparadigms is switched, causes an interpretive reverberation to its other pole,shifting the conception of the novel Thus arises interpretations such asindifferent nature, and Ahab the madman; what as the incarnation of"whiteness-ideology," and Ahab as the only misanthropic white American braveenough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world.

Morrison's interpretation rests on the second of her three part process fornew Afro-American scholarship. This model calls for the call for a theory ofliterature (the model), the examination and re-examination of the Americancanon, and the examination of contemporary and/or non-canonical literature. Theproject recognizes the importance of the locus of theory-production, asMorrison wants to situate its development in "Afro-American culture, itshistory, and the artistic strategy the works employ to negotiate" (11). Thismodel would afford the search for "the ghost in the machine," the "ways inwhich the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, thestructure--the meaning of so much of American literature" (11). This strategywould be applied to her examination of contemporary literature as well.Morrison establishes the fundamental role of language, the language of a race,or a nation, as the "most valuable point of entry into the question ofcultural (or racial) distinction." Language serves as the constructive mediumfor the narratives and novels of the canon as well as the works of both thedissonant, and unspoken voices. In foregrounding language, Morrison aptly leadsour focus towards the discourse of the author, the nation, and the unspoken forunmasking the canon.

topics for discussion:

-the seduction of Morrison into her methodology, and the binding it places uponcriticism leveled against her?

- the critic as builder of our national heritage

- the models which lead away from acculturated modes of analysis? are thereany?

- Morrison's reading of layers in Moby-Dick?

- discourse in Moby-Dick as representative of a manifold society? is there a"space" in the novel of a multi-voiced discourse?

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