Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Identity and Exploitation in Percival Everett's Erasure

Perhaps the best way to conceive of cultural criticism—certainly a diverse and flourishing critical approach—is as an examination of culture under capitalism. As this perhaps suggests, cultural criticism was originally an outgrowth of Marxist criticism. It is important that we establish what “culture” means to cultural critics. Often, the term “culture” is used in reference to what cultural critics recognize as the socially-established “high” culture, which, in the Western world, has traditionally been comprised of such things as opera, orchestral music, canonical literature, ballet, etc. When cultural critics refer to “culture” they refer to something much less narrow (and much less socioeconomically restrictive). “For cultural critics,” Lois Tyson says, “culture is a process, not a product; it is a lived experience, not a fixed definition” (296). Further, Tyson reminds us that a culture is not merely created by individuals, nor does a culture produce those individuals. Instead, culture, according to cultural critics, both shapes and is shaped by the individuals within that culture. Certain theorist, such as Theodor Adorno, have focused particularly on this concept of culture as both influenced by and an influence on individuals. Adorno’s conclusions about culture under capitalism have never been particularly optimistic. “Rigid institutionalization” he says, “transforms modern mass culture into a medium of undreamed of psychological control” (Television and the patterns of mass culture, 495).

This idea of culture as a means of dominance is pursued in depth in a book authored by Adorno and Max Horkheimer, their 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment. To Horkheimer and Adorno, “mass culture” is not a spontaneous production of the masses. Rather, it is a an industry controlled by those who own the means of media production, an industry whose goal, aside from profit, is to maintain and perpetuate the ideologies which allow those in power to thrive. In this way, Horkheimer and Adorno conceive of culture in Marxist terms: it is a way for the ruling class to maintain the status quo, to maintain control and to keep things the way they are. Further, Horkheimer and Adorno argue, cultural productions have lost the possibility of innovation. “Under monopoly capitalism,” they maintain, “all mass culture is identical. . .” (1242). That is, what seems to be innovation, is merely a regurgitated version of what the culture industry knows sells. “[T]here is an agreement--or at least the determination--of all executive authorities,” they continue, “not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves” (1243).

Of course, as theorists such as Sut Jhally have noted, we use media to define our selves and our place within our communities. The media is crucial in shaping our notions of gender, race, sexuality, socioeconomic class, etc. In this way, the modern culture industry is not merely losing its drive for innovation, it is limiting the ways in which individuals conceive of themselves. As a rule, those who control the means media production--books, film, television, and the like--are unlikely to produce anything which does not maintain their dominance. In this way, the ideologies the come through in mass media, are largely the ideologies of those who control the media. Surely this has a profound effect on our approach to literature. It both casts a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of media, and offers an opportunity to resist such domination. Here, we will examine the ways in which one novel--Percival Everett’s Erasure,--acts both as a critique of the kind of culture industry described by Horkheimer and Adorno, and as an attempt at resistance to such a cultural system, a system in which identities are bought, sold and prescribed through the mainstream media, a culture in which authentic identities are erased and replaced by identities fully constructed by the ideologies of those who control the media.

Percival Everett’s Erasure is, undoubtedly, a novel very much concerned with identity from the first page to the last. I do not believe it is at all a stretch to say that it is a preoccupation with identity that undergirds and animates the entire story the novel’s narrator, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, has to tell us. “My name is Thelonious Ellison. And I am a writer of fiction,” he tells us sentences into the novel (1). It is instantly clear that Monk has no intention of merely allowing his character to unfold as his story does. Nor is his first concern with letting the reader know what his story is. His primary concern, here and all elsewhere, is with who he is. As we will see, he is very much concerned—for good reason—with maintaining a complex, individual identity. He is immediately unsatisfied with such a brief, simple description of who he is as the one above. He continues, telling us he is also “a son, a brother, a fisherman, an art lover, a woodworker” (1). It is not until the second paragraph that Monk reveals what he seems to view as the most problematic component of his identity. “I have brown skin,” he says, “curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves, and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia and the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race” (1). It is very important to note here that Monk does not necessarily say that he is black. On his list of things he is—writer, brother, fisherman—“black” does not appear. He admits only that society tells him he is black. This work of society telling an individual who they are (and who they should be) is certainly something to which we will have much cause to return as we proceed.

Monk, upon disclosing that he is what society calls black, feels that the reader will inevitably assume certain things about him—those things that society tells us are associated with being black. Monk tells us that he is not good at basketball (there goes that stereotype), what kind of music he listens to (no rap), that he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, that he is good at math, and that he can’t dance. Further, he explains that he did not grow up in the rural south or the inner city, and that he comes from a family of fairly wealthy doctors. Of course all of this stands in opposition to what society and the mainstream media call “black.” At this point, it becomes clear that this is no angst-filled coming-of-age story in which he narrator discovers who he is. Indeed, as will become clear, Monk’s struggle with identity is not solely, or even primarily, internal. His is an external struggle to maintain his complicated, individual identity within a culture that tells him not only that he is black, but what it means to be black.

“The line is, you’re not black enough,” Monk’s agent, Yul, tells Monk when his new novel is rejected for the seventeenth time. Monk is the author of dense, postmodern retellings of ancient Greek texts. At conferences he delivers verbose presentations on such theoreticians as Roland Barthes. We get no sense that Monk is resentful of black society (at least no more than he is of non-black society) nor ashamed of being black himself, but we do certainly sense that being black is not a major concern of his in his writing. As one reviewer comments: “one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience” (2). Of course Monk is likewise lost to understand what his work has to do with the African American experience. When he enters a Borders bookstore he is “irate” at finding his books in the African American Studies section. “I found a section called African American studies,” he tells us, “and there . . . were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph” (28). Clearly this illustrates the kind of resistance American readers feel toward works of this nature by an African American man. Since African American’s began publishing in America around the late 18th century, capturing and exploring the “African American experience” has been an important part of African American literature. The writers who first come to mind when one mentions “African American literature”— Wheatley, Morrison, Hughes, Wright, Ellison, Hurston, Walker, and of course, others—have traditionally been concerned with the experience of being black in a white society. I certainly do not intend to argue the validity or importance of such a concern in African American writing. What is important to note here is that, given such a tradition in African American letters, a writer like Monk, who does not write about the African American experience, is met with confusion, as in the case of the reviewer above, or with hostility, as in the case of Hockney Hoover, who asks Yul “who wants to read this shit?” (42). That is, readers expect black writers to write about being black (and as we will see, they expect “being black” to appear a certain way).

Of course, given such reader expectations, writers who meet those expectations are inevitably more commercially successful and profitable for publishers. In discussing the unpublishability of his most recent novel with Yul, Monk asks, “What, do I have to have my characters comb their afros and be called niggers for these people?” (43). Yul is, presumably, not an artist himself. He is an agent, of course, a business man. “It wouldn’t hurt,” he responds. At this point in their conversation, Yul refers to a current book by Juanita Mae Jenkins, a best-seller called We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. Jenkin’s novel is written in a very “black” vernacular and concerns a young girl who is a prostitute, her drug addict mother, and her basketball-playing brother. As one reviewer notes, “the real strength of the work is its haunting verisimilitude” (39-40). The book is wildly successful, at least in a commercial sense. The paper back rights alone go for five hundred thousand, Yul tells monk, and the movie rights go for three million, Monk’s sister says. The nation loves this book. Monk, though, definitely does not. “She’s a hack,” he tells Yul. He continues: “She’s not even a hack. A hack can actually write a little bit” (43). “Yeah, it’s shit. I know that,” Yul agrees, “but it sells. This is a business, Thelonious.” Monk, as the novel continues, becomes ever more aware of the nature of such a business.

After being rejected so many times, and being told repeatedly that his writing “isn’t black enough,” Monk writes a novel, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, in which he adopts an authorial personae similar to that of Juanita Mae Jenkins, the kind of personae American consumers have come to expect and celebrate from a black writer. The novel, titled initially My Pafology, and later changed simply to Fuck, is written as a parody, a veritable middle finger to the publishing industry. Monk certainly does not expect the novel to be met with such incredible enthusiasm in academic and popular circles alike. It is an instant success, achieving a notoriety surpassing that of the novel Monk so despises: Juanita Mae Jenkins’ We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. Monk receives quite a substantial advance from Random House for the novel and an even greater sum from the studio that buys the film rights to the novel.

Here it will be instructive to turn our attention to an aspect of Everett’s novel we have heretofore not discussed. The novel is surely quite non-traditional structurally. Of course the novel in the form of a journal has been done many times, but Everett’s (or perhaps Monk’s) insertion of episodes that seem, at least initially, unrelated to the rest of the story is not only innovative, but incredibly revealing. Often these insertions take the form of a presumably fictitious (and of Monk’s invention) dialogue between two people, usually artists. I will not here attempt a discussion of all the work these insertions do in the novel. For our present purposes I will focus on one such dialogue.

Immediately preceding the scene in the novel in which we meet Wiley Morgenstein, the film executive buying the film rights to My Pafology, the following brief dialogue appears:
D.W. Griffith: I like your book very much.
Richard Wright: Thank you. (193)
Richard Wright, of course, is a black American author who—unlike monk, at least at the beginning of the novel—is usually considered to focus, in his fiction, on the black experience. D.W. Griffith was also concerned with African American’s in his work, though we can assume, I think, that Wright would perhaps have more to say to Griffith than “Thank you.” Griffith, a pioneer of early American film, is best known for his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, in which “blacks are portrayed,” according to Sut Jhally, “as irresponsible drunken buffoons, and as out of control, lust-filled rapists of white women” (Dreamworlds). The film has been infamous since its release for its overt support of white supremacy and the Klu Klux Klan, and, as Jhally is right to point out, its terribly inaccurate depiction of African Americans. Nevertheless, the film was a major success, and Griffith, a white man, got rich off of selling the white public an image of African Americans that was compatible with the hegemonic ideologies of the time. In this way, the joke above (and I think we can consider it a joke) is on Wright, not Griffith.

It is important that this dialogue comes right before Wiley Morgenstein—the film producer buying the rights to Monk’s parody/ novel My Pafology—appears poolside, smoking a cigar and contemplating the commercial value of the novel. Morgenstein says to the man with him, “they go to movies now, these people. There’s an itch and I plan to scratch it” (193). Of course the question arises of who “these people” are. The answer seems simple enough: the same people who bought Griffith’s film, the same people who buy We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and, whether he likes it or not, the same people who buy Monk’s (or Leigh’s) novel. This dialogue between Griffith and Wright is a window, I think, into one of the main (if not the main) concerns of the novel. Interpreted this way, it also seems to invite a comparison between Griffith’s film and the two novels within Erasure: We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and My Pafology. Surely Monk would agree that The Birth of a Nation is very racist. He also seems to think that books like Jenkins’, and even his own book, if taken seriously, are racist. Films such as Griffiths, and novels like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and My Pafology, Monk seems to think, do not actually portray the “reality” of the black experience—“Have you ever known anybody who talks like they do in that book?” Monk asks his almost-lover Marilyn when he sees Jenkins’ novel on her nightstand. Rather, Monk seems to think these works (regardless of the race of their ostensible author) merely regurgitate and perpetuate the racist ideologies of the dominant consumer class in America for the financial benefit of the publishers and movie producers.

In his film Dreamworlds, Sut Jhally undertakes an intelligent and illuminating analysis of music videos, focusing mainly on the effect of music videos on our cultures conception of femininity and masculinity. “[W]hile black men in mainstream rap and hip-hop videos are largely presented as violent, savage, criminal, and drunken folk, interested in molesting and insulting any female that happens to be around,” Jhally says, “we have to remember that these representations do not reflect the reality of African American masculinity, but how someone has chosen to represent it at this point in history.” Jhally, at this point, connects the current way in which mainstream media portrays African Americans to a long tradition of similar portrayal, beginning, on video, at least, with D.W. Griffith. “[J]ust as it was a powerful white man who created and controlled these images [i.e. those in Griffith’s Film] as an argument for white supremacy,” Jhally continues, “we have to focus our attention on these contemporary images of a threatening and out of control black masculinity on the role played by the largely white men who control our current media empires. We have to ask, what function do the racist and sexist images in hip-hop and rap perform for the corporations who control our media culture?” Of course the relation of this quote to Monk’s experience in Erasure is obvious. Jhally focuses almost entirely on music videos in his study, but his insights are relevant to other forms of media as well. Like in music videos, much of the contemporary literature about African Americans does not present a “real” depiction of the African American experience. Instead, novels such as Juanita Mae Jenkins’ present a particularly narrow image of African American life. Though, as Wiley Morgenstein has surely noticed, this image of African American life is the image that sells. In this way, it is not African American’s themselves who decide how best to portray their own experience, but those who control the mainstream media. Even though African American’s are the author’s of texts concerning African American experience, the distribution of such texts has historically been—and remains today—dependant on the predominantly white controllers of American mainstream media. This is not to argue that all white people are not concerned with fairly portraying African American’s and their culture, but it would be naïve for us to ignore the fact that some white men have, and continue, to portray African American’s unfairly for profit.

I do not wish to analogize Jhally’s argument concerning the mainstream media’s depiction of women with my own argument concerning the mainstream media’s depiction of African Americans too explicitly. Though it would be obtuse to suggest too strong of a link between the story of women in American and that of African American’s, some parallels can be found. Jhally argues that girls and women in America are constantly presented with a very specific way of viewing femininity. “This way of understanding themselves and their bodies,” Jhally says, “traps them inside a sexual imaginary not of their own making, where they are presented only as sexual beings whose main function is to be pleasing to men.” That is, women in contemporary America much too often do not discover or create their own identities, but, tragically, adopt the identity constructed by the (mostly male) controllers of mainstream media. This concept is very present in Everett’s Erasure, though with respect to African Americans. As the novel illustrates, this system of media-created identity is a self-perpetuating one. Since the mainstream media fixes in societies mind what it means to be “black,” a black artist like Monk is forced to buy into this image of blackness if they wish to succeed. Of course their adoption of such an identity adds only to the normalization of that very identity “not of their own making.” The result of all of this, with Monk at the end of the novel as our perfect example, is the “erasure” of authentic identity, and the adoption of a commodified, culturally produced and largely artificial identity which serves to justify and perpetuate the very forces which work to exploit that identity.

No comments: