Race Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Race Theory

Eva Cherniavsky

Let us start with what “race theory” is not. It is not a unified body of analytic work, nor does the signifier race name a singular object of investigation that would remain consistent across different theoretical traditions or schools of inquiry. If we can say anything at all about “race theory” in general, it is that the work of theorizing race remains fundamentally bound up in the effort to historicize the production of race as an epistemological category, as well as to address the centrality of race to the production of modern epistemologies; to situate racial tropologies within the wider discursive fields of modernity (discourses of gender, class, nationalism, empire, and mass culture, for example); and to chart the manifold articulations of racial epistemologies and discourses to institutionalized social practice—to the material conditions of raced bodies and raced subjects. In other words, if there is anything that “race theory,” in general, might tell us at the outset, it is that race is less an object than a field of inquiry—an inquiry into processes of racialization at the center of modern knowledges, discourses, and institutions.

What this means for the student of the novel is that the matter of race neither begins nor ends with the matter of racial “content”—of explicitly racialized themes or characters. The nineteenth-century realist novel, its critics tend to agree, variously engages the conditions of modernity, including the emergence and consolidation of industrial capitalism; the social and political ascendance of the bourgeoisie; the logic of the contract as the central principle of social relations (the Social Contract; wage labor); the effects of urbanization and the stranger sociality of the industrial metropolis; the sacralization of home and domestic relations as the scene of authentic human feeling and sympathies; the emergence of commodity culture and new prospects for the mass dissemination of social norms; and the turn to education and reform (e.g., the public school and the prison) as central institutions of social regulation through induced self-surveillance. Among the leitmotifs of the classic realist novel, then, we number the possibility and limits of individual autonomy and self-determination in a world of material inequality and ubiquitous social constraint; the relations between the propertied classes and the dispossessed as they comprise a (putatively organic) national people; the tensions between progress (civilizational advance) and the atomizing, alienating effects of urbanization and industrial production; and the division of urban space and social life into public and private domains that alternately enable and circumscribe self-interest and mobility on the basis of gender and age. All of these enumerations are partial and fragmentary but intended to sketch the broad social canvas on which the realist novel is drawn, in order to situate, in turn, this essay's main critical preoccupation with the racial grammar of the novel. Rather than locate the question of race in segregated topoi, or in explicitly raced (nonwhite) protagonists, this essay draws on some of the germinal scholarship in postcolonial and ethnic studies to suggest how the defining concerns of the realist novel—with individualism, freedom, property, progress, national identity, domesticity—are inextricably bound up in racialist thought and practice.

Race and European Modernity

Edward Said's watershed Orientalism (1979) in many respects set the stage for the subsequent wealth of inquiry into the fundamentally racialized character of European modernity (see MODERNIS). The organizing contention of Said's study is that the conceptions of “the Orient” and “the Oriental” wrought in the contexts of European imperial expansion and colonial rule are projections (fantasies of an “other”) that bear essentially no relation to Asian peoples as culturally heterogeneous, historical subjects, except—and the weight of this exception can hardly be overstated—insofar as the fiction of the “Orient” authorized and enabled forms of regulation, coercion, and expropriation with all too real, material consequences for the colonized (see IDEOLOGY). Orientalist discourse, Said argues, rehearses a structuring opposition of Orient to Occident, in which the backwardness, the arbitrary tyranny, the irrational customs, and the stasis of the former serve as the screen on which the progress, political emancipation, enlightened reason, and human advancement of the latter are writ large. The stake in Orientalism, then, is the legitimation of modern European national identities, political institutions, legal norms, governance strategies, scientific protocols, moral sensibility, and cultural ethos (see NATIONAL). While Orientalist discourse so insistently associates the racial difference of the colonized with atavism, irrationality, and the retrenchment of human possibility, this version of an Orient is original and proper to Europe, Said contends, and to a specifically modern cultural imaginary. At the same time, his work demonstrates, Europe is not self-contained, as its self-conception is forged along its peripheries, in relation to racially differentiated cultures and peoples.

In the intervening decades, a rich and diverse array of scholarship has extended and elaborated Said's critical remapping of European modernity in ways that account for the iterations of European epistemologies, institutions, and discourses within European settler colonial contexts (particularly the U.S.) and that consider as well the wider terrain of imperial and colonial imaginaries, as these encompass Africa, the African diaspora, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific. In Paul Gilroy's influential work, for example, the deportation of captive African labor appears not as an anomaly, not as an exception to the processes of human advancement with which it is oddly and embarrassingly contemporaneous, but rather as a fundamentally modern instance of the large-scale displacement and mobilization of human populations. Gilroy's understanding of the slave's Atlantic passage thereby interrupts the more familiar conjugation of labor migration with urbanization (loss of tradition but also release from traditional social bonds) and industrialization (alienation, but also emancipation from forms of indentured agrarian labor). Rather, in his account, chattel slavery indexes the imbrication of modernity and its metanarrative of progress (emancipation from customary servitude) in institutionalized practices of racial terror: the internment, surveillance, and prostration of racialized human populations.

Race, Gender, and Domesticity

Other important scholarship on race and modernity attends specifically to matters of gender and domesticity in ways especially relevant to the realist novel, as well as to modernist fiction that both defamiliarizes the terrain of the realist novel (shatters its illusionism) and retains many of its preoccupations with the formation of individual consciousness and the scales of interior life (home, psyche), posed over and against mass culture and the alienating conditions of the industrial metropolis (see MODERNIS). For example, in Imperial Leather (1995) Anne McClintock elucidates the relation of the privatized nuclear family to the modern nation as imperial power. In her account, the family resolves a structuring contradiction in the temporality of the nation, which is at once future-oriented (nations develop and progress) and backward-looking (however modern, nations always lay claim to an origin, or essence, expressed in an abiding national character or traditions). Within this fractured temporal scheme, the family embodies the timelessness of national life (a national essence preserved outside historical time) that guarantees the continuity of the nation as a public, political order advancing on futurity. At the same time, the trope of family also functions to secure the progressive character of imperial nations on the world stage by temporalizing racial and cultural difference. Within the discourse of the “family of man” born of comparative anatomy (and other forms of racial pseudo-science), cultural difference is constituted as racial difference arrayed along an evolutionary scale, with “European” man at the apex of this “family tree,” the avatar of humanity in its most developed form, and the “lower” races ranged along the lower branches of the diagram, which represent anterior, “primitive” levels of human development. Thus on the national scene, family appears ahistorical (natural) and continuous, but in the imperial context, British, French, or American family domestic relations, for instance, stand as the mark of progress measured against the backward sociality of “primitive” peoples. McClintock's analysis permits us to understand how family life signifies at once social reproduction and civilizational advance within the national literary traditions of imperial states.

This work has both enabled and been enabled by specifically literary scholarship on the novel that has argued for the centrality of race and empire to metropolitan narratives, which often pay little overt attention to these themes. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's account of Charlotte Brontë's female bildungsroman, Jane Eyre (1847), for example, makes an important intervention into other critical reading practices (feminist and Marxist, in particular) that privilege the novel's engagement with questions of gender and class exclusively (see FEMINIST, MARXIST). Empire appears to dwell on the margins of this novel: in the figure of the planter's daughter, Bertha Mason, whose madness and abandon is only the direst expression of her Creole family's degenerated state; and in the aborted prospect of Jane's attachment to St. John Rivers and missionary toil in India, an environment that would, the novel assures us, swiftly bring on her demise. But the novel's concern with forging a social context for the female individual, Spivak contends, is imbricated in a racialized imperial imaginary. Thus the elaboration of women's identity beyond childbearing and sexual reproduction, she argues, is staked on middle-class women's capacity for “soul-making,” the cultivation of morally advanced human sensibilities, which authorizes women within the space of the bourgeois household but also crucially aligns them with a broader social mission. It is this delineation of social mission that opens the colonies as a field of self-realizing moral labor for British women such as Jane Eyre, and Spivak's point, broadly sketched, is that white women's emergence within the wider discourse of the “white man's burden” enables their self-cultivation as individuals (as legitimated actors within civil society) only insofar as colonized women remain excluded from this gendered norm. The “native female” is both the object of white women's imperial benevolence and the sign of a racialized, gendered atavism (one that can infect even white settlers' daughters, such as Bertha, born and bred in the morally toxic environment of nonwhite populations in the colonies).

The “Racial Grammar” of the Novel

Toni Morrison pursues a similar line of argument in Playing in the Dark, where she traces the centrality of an “Africanist presence” in canonical U.S. fiction, a black figure lurking on the fringes of realist and modernist novels, less a character possessed of his (or her) own interiority than an icon of what lies beyond the discursive world of the novel—an icon for what the text cannot assimilate. For Morrison, the identities of the novels' protagonists (and identifications of their readers) are formed over and against this mute and peripheral presence, whose exclusion, she suggests, is therefore rightly understood as constitutive of the identities, social formations, histories, and futures on which the novels center. Like Spivak, and in line with other critical work less specifically focused on literary practice, Morrison thus points us to what I call, in a phrase adapted from Hortense Spillers, the “racial grammar” of the novel, by which I mean the ways that the fundamental preoccupations of the novel with gendered personhood, family, generation, progress, mobility, loss of tradition, and new forms of attachment (including, centrally, attachment to one's self, or self-possession) are defined along an axis of racial differentiation in relation to forms of nonpersonhood, degeneration, atavism, and dispossession that are explicitly and insistently racialized within the context of modern imperial and colonial world-making. Thus as Morrison insists, novels where “black” protagonists appear largely incidental, or peripheral to the narrative, fundamentally require such figures as the mainstay of their own coherence: the intelligibility of their characterization, the transparency of their narrative conventions.

Conversely, one might argue, novels where nonwhite characters figure prominently as the subjects of the narrative are routinely split off or displaced into nominally discrete literary categories. As Harryette Mullen provocatively points out, for example, the act of racial “passing,” although conventionally framed as deception, is nothing other than the effort to move from margin to center that reads as the exemplary pursuit of cultural assimilation when performed by European immigrants, who shed their pasts and traditions so as to attain to an authentically (white) “American” identity. From this perspective, the genre of the “passing novel” is narratively indistinguishable from the American bildungsroman, except insofar as it represents the trajectories of racially disqualified protagonists, whose passing recapitulates all too closely the normative employment of the self-made “American.” Mullen's argument further reminds us how the classic American novel, from Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1867) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and beyond, is always and necessarily racialized, that is, concerned with the reproduction of whiteness, or in Étienne Balibar's suggestive phrase, the “fictive ethnicity” of the nation (96).

By thinking in terms of “racial grammar,” I aim to insist at once on the power and tenacity of novelistic convention and on its contingency: grammar is abiding, and challenges to grammatical usage routinely incur the stigma of bad usage, but grammar is not intractable and in point of practice is continuously assailed by the forces of colloquial innovation. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s influential work on the African American literary tradition opens one important critical vantage point on the question of discursive innovation, through his account of “signifyin(g)” as an African-derived practice of repetition with a difference. “Signifyin(g)” mobilizes the instability of language understood as a system of differential meaning (words mean only in relation to other words, to the totality of signifiers in the language), in order to dislodge a particular term from the matrix of related signifiers in which it is conventionally embedded. “Signifyin(g)” thus entails re-functioning familiar idioms and tropes in such a way as to interrupt the meanings that normally accrete to them and, in so doing, to more or less subtly disorient the reader. To cite just one example of literary “signifyin(g),” I note that certain novels of racial uplift, such as Frances Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), signify on American citizenship, recirculating a familiar rhetoric of “good citizenship” but also disrupting its relation to a series of related signifiers, including especially whiteness, in a manner to reposition the African American as the exemplary subject of civic participation. Alongside “signifyin(g),” recent criticism and fiction has explored a wealth of narrative strategies for redrawing the boundaries of family, home, public, private, and nation, and reimagining the kinds of subjects who move within and across these narrative domains (see Lee; Layoun; McClintock et al.). If the defining motifs of the novel are racialized (quite apart from explicitly racial content), then, reciprocally, a rescripting of these motifs—e.g., in novels that rewrite women's relation to nationalism, or that refuse linear temporalities (clean distinctions between past and future, origins and telos), or that dismantle distinctions between authentic and assumed identities, or that trace connections between freedom and terror— is vital to the work of racial critique and to revising, however incrementally, the racial grammar of the novel.

SEE ALSO: African American Novel, Asian American Novel, Latina/o American Novel.


1. Balibar, É. (1991), “The Nation Form,” in Race, Nation, Class.

2. Gates, H.L., Jr. (1988), Signifying Monkey.

3. Gilroy, P. (1993), Black Atlantic.

4. Layoun, M. (2001), Wedded to the Land.

5. Lee, R. (1999), Americas of Asian American Literature.

6. McClintock, A., A. Mufti, and E. Shohat, eds. (1997), Dangerous Liaisons.

7. Morrison, T. (1993), Playing in the Dark.

8. Mullen, H. (1994), “ Optic White,” Diacritics 24: 71—89.

9. Said, E. (1979), Orientalism.

10. Spillers, H. (2003), “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” in Black, White, and in Color.

11. Spivak, G.C. (1985), “ Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12: 243—61.