Converging Modalities of Sexuality, Sexual Conflict and Race: Judith Butler on Nella Larsen’s Passing

Years ago, when as an undergraduate I read Critical Theory with Professor Carla Cappetti at City College, we students complained that the readings were too difficult and why did critical theorists have to use so much jargon. I think we had read Saussure, Bakhtin, Lukacs, Benjamin and Barthes and were moving on to Derrida. Professor Cappetti agreed that unnecessary jargon could be vexing but said that at times, difficult thoughts call for difficult language. So I focused on the ideas the theorists sought to express, and concluded that the critical theorists we were reading with Cappetti were worth reading, and the difficulty of having to get my head around unfamiliar terms was consequently justified. I find that Judith Butler’s chapter on Nella Larsen’s Passing falls in this category of necessary complication; the difficulty of her language is justified by the complexity and importance of her thought.

But for me, it’s slow going! After reading the first two paragraphs of “Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge” twice and failing to retain more than a fuzzy notion of what Butler is saying, I read it a third time very closely and tried to explain what she’s saying in my own words.

Butler describes a sort of diagram. I picture it as a kernel. On the inside we have a normative heterosexuality, and on the outside the convergence of homosexuality and miscegenation. It makes sense that these converge on the outside because they share the distinctive feature of being different from normative heterosexuality. Inside the kernel normative heterosexuality seeks to reproduce itself. Reproduction of the species, which I assume Butler considers our Darwinian evolutionary goal [1], is “the cathected [to cathect is to invest with mental or emotional energy] site of a racialized [to racialize is to reify boundaries and borders along racial lines] version of the species in pursuit of hegemony through perpetuity, that requires and produces a normative heterosexuality in its service.”

The kernel, or, in Butler’s words, the site, is the locus where humans aim to reproduce themselves through their relations with other humans within and without the sites they inhabit. These relations are invested with mental or emotional energy and seek to reify boundaries and borders along racial lines through normative heterosexuality. The goal of these human relations is to keep everything the same.

Heterosexuality is reproduced in different ways, depending on how race and its reproduction are understood. Butler says that while there are good historical reasons to keep “race,” “sexuality” and “sexual difference” in separate spheres, there are also good reasons to converge them, and that there are good historical reasons why at certain sites one can only be constituted through the other. This is not to juxtapose spheres of power or consider differences as separate attributes but rather to converge them, and Butler asks if we can read Nella Larsen’s Passing “to articulate the convergent modalities of power by which sexual difference is articulated and assumed” [123].

In Butler’s reading John Bellew is at the center of the kernel, for he represents normative white heterosexuality. He says he would not associate with blacks but “paradoxically, his own racist passion requires that association” [126]. Bellew needs Irene, Clare and Brian, and he needs them outside of the kernel, but really the kernel is more like a fluid membrane, through with Irene and Clare pass through as they choose. They pass until they are identified as black, at which moment their bodies are marked and those invisible markings set them outside the racial boundaries of normative heterosexuality. But really in Passing these boundaries are blurred. Bellew needs blacks as a foil on which to reproduce his racial purity and he also eroticizes blackness by calling Clare Nig and fetishizing her blackness which he at the same time denies. Race is inextricably linked to sexual desire. Clare is ambiguous both sexually and racially, playing with whiteness and blackness to seduce and lure. Passing, writes Butler, is not “about” race or sexuality but converges these and thus “offers a way to read the racialization of sexual conflict” [128].

Black is not normative. Nor are the women normative, as is made very clear in Irene’s desire for Clare, noted by Butler, and, I also think, apparent in Clare’s pursuit of Irene. Irene is tortured by her desire for Clare because Clare betrays not only the idea of race that Irene seeks to uphold but also the idea of family as a means to uplift the black race [131]. This idea of the normative heterosexual family is at the center of the notion of uplifting race through social mobility, but by ascribing to the normative heterosexual social order it follows a politics of sexual oppression in which the homoerotic relationship between Irene and Clare makes the two women a threat not only to a heterosexual norm but also to the norm of racial purity, because as black women’s bodies, writes Butler, “continued to be sites of conquest within white racism, then the psychic resistance to homosexuality and to a sexual life outside the parameters of the family must be read in part as a resistance to an endangering public exposure” [132]. Butler contests the claim that sexual difference is more primary or fundamental than racial difference, pointing out that

If, as Norma Alarcón has insisted, women of color are “multiply interpellated,” called by many names, constituted in and by that multiple calling, then this implies that the symbolic domain, the domain of socially instituted norms, is composed of racializing norms, and that they exist not merely alongside gender norms, but are articulated through one another. Hence, it is no longer possible to make sexual difference prior to racial difference or, for that matter, to make them into fully separable axes of social regulation and power [135].

By converging the problematization of sexuality and race we start to see the positioning of spheres of power in a wider, more nuanced and more interconnected way. Imagining this convergence feels strange to me, like reaching for networked relationships I don’t fully see, but the impulse to separate concepts into independent categories only obscures what I’m attempting to grasp. I look forward to discussing Butler’s chapter on Larsen in class.

A reflection on the complexity of life by Karina Ter

[1] On second thoughts I wonder if by reproduction Butler doesn’t mean propagation of offspring but instead reproduction or representation of ideated self.

Final Project Proposal: Story Map The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

I want to create a story map of a chapter from Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (2018) as a proof of concept (to map the whole novel would take too long). I don’t know which chapter I want to story map because I haven’t read the book yet. I’m interested in story mapping this novel because its theme – prison – ties in with my final project for DHUM 7000, which aims to develop a DH course to be taught in prison. One of the audiences I have in mind for my story map is incarcerated people.

I want to create the story map with ArcGIS because I was very impressed with the story maps some of my peers created with this platform this semester. This may be challenging because I’ve never used ArcGIS or any other story mapping platform (I’ve never story mapped at all) but I’m confident that I’ll figure it out. A story map that particularly impressed me was The Motorcycle Diaries by Rob Garfield for DHUM 7000. I’d like my story map of The Mars Room to look a lot like that.

I think I need to have a specific critical purpose in story mapping The Mars Room, but don’t have one yet. If anyone has any thoughts about how I may approach this novel please share.

Rachel Kushner interests me a lot because she was born the same year I was born, and her parents were bohemian scientists (mine were bohemian artists with scientific bents), and the New York Times says she and her brother were “dirty ragamuffin children [and that she] spent a huge amount of time by [herself so she] daydreamed and learned how to be alone and not be lonely” (Maria Russo, “Knowingly Navigating the Unknown,” The New York Times May 2013). Kushner intrigues me because my childhood was a lot like that.

While my proposal is still too vague, I think that the combination of personal and academic interests that prompt me to write about The Mars Room will lead to potentially compelling work.


Digitizing Critical Responses to Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Julia Bannon, Kelly Hammond, Patrick Grady O’Malley, Travis Bartley and I joined forces to create an annotated edition of “Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville with the purpose of examining critical responses to this novella from 1855 when it was first published to 2018 and seeing how digital tools inform and transform the annotative process.

First and foremost, annotating digitally made it possible to work collaboratively, showing not only how fluidly technology allows us to add to a text from many angles (and potentially from many fields) but also how easily shared enthusiasm generates compelling scholarship. We had a Google Doc and then Kelly started an email chain which felt effortless and flowed. Part of the reason why the collaboration worked so well was that we had chosen to work with Manifold, a new CUNY and University of Minnesota Project, for us an absolute delight. We had first considered Hypothes.is and then Medium, and would surely been happy working in either, but Manifold immediately outshone both.

Our choice to examine critical responses to “Benito Cereno” over time was interesting because it led us to approach the text from multidisciplinary angles. The historical perspective we sought engaged us in a form of distant reading in which we explored how critical thought chronicles political shifts and how these are reflected in responses to a text at given points in time.

“Thus science may implement the ways in which [a human] produces, stores, and consults the record of the race” (Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, 1945).

Annotation as a tool for historical analysis could, with enough collaborators and time, get huge. The scope of our inquiry seemed to me to beg some qualitative analysis, and I wanted to download all the critical responses to “Benito Cereno” that we added to our annotated digital edition and then upload them to Voyant as a corpus that would quantitatively track how responses changed over time, then add the resulting word cloud and charts to Manifold to see what stands out. Unfortunately, I had to put this foray on hold because I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for 19thcentury responses to “Benito Cereno” which I can confidently conclude are few and far between.

Looking for 19th-century critical responses to “Benito Cereno” without physically going to a research library is a fascinating task because it shows how important the work of creating good searchable digital collections is, and how the choice of what to recover and include in these collections informs scholarship that is increasingly digital, with funding that is always scarce. Searching for something that is not readily there also shows a niche Melville scholars could fill: a searchable database of all of Melville’s correspondence would be amazing. A searchable database of Putnam’s magazine including letters to its editors would also be amazing. These may, of course, exist, and if they do, please share. For my part I found some awesome resources:

Melville Electronic Library (MEL)

Cornell University Making of America Project

Melville’s Marginalia

I also want to mention NINES (Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online) which looks interesting but you have to be a subscriber if you want to explore. Also, the login is insecure.

With the abundance of online material that can be added to “Benito Cereno,” it was at times a challenge for me to stay on track. But this is true in any research. As I worked on our annotated edition of “Benito Cereno” I had to keep stopping myself from adding resources that contextualized the story and instead tell myself to keep focused on critical response. I did upload a video of an Ashanti funeral, mainly because I wanted to see what an uploaded video looked like in Manifold. It looked great.

To say a few more words about Manifold, I love the fluidity and intuitiveness of its back end. I love what Manifold says when you delete a resource: “The resource has been destroyed. [Resource] has passed into the endless night.” Ha, too nice. Long live the spirit of play!  And the spirit of multilingualism; I found that Manifold detects French, which is really cool. Matt Gold told me that it detects many other languages too.

In terms of limitations in my use of Manifold, I would have liked to be able to format the annotations so as to paragraph, italicize, bolden and so on. I would have liked to be able to hyperlink to other Manifold resources and external websites in my captions for and descriptions of the resources and links I create in Manifold. For the purposes of our annotation of Benito Cereno, which looks at critical responses to Benito Cereno over time, I would have liked to color code annotations according to time periods (for example, 1855-1889, and then a color for 1890-1909, 1910-1929 and so on). I think, however, that I should be able to do a lot of these things and just don’t yet know how. I had a look at The Perversity of Things project and saw that things I wanted to do in Manifold, like embedding images in the text rather than adding them as resources whose icons would show up in the margin, or hyperlinking. Hyperlinking! I didn’t know how to hyperlink in Manifold and that really bugged me.

Our assignment was submitted yesterday, and instead of feeling that I never want to think of Benito Cereno, Melville or Manifold again, I’m back in Manifold playing with the text. That’s how good Manifold is. And Melville too.

Massacre on Wall Street

For me, the experience of working collaboratively to create an audiobook of Bartleby the Scrivener, a Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville was an instructive exercise in learning how to negotiate a collaborative project. I found it oftentimes a painful exercise because I had to step out of my comfort zone and muster up enthusiasm for a handling of Bartleby which failed to convince me, namely, the translating of text to speech by automated voice. My inclination was to craft a warm storyteller’s space where we would do our best to translate into auditory terms the beautifully rich, funny and tragic story of Bartleby, but our process was a democratic one so I gracefully set my old-fashioned ideas aside.

After a first discussion of what we could do, Lauren created a Google Doc summarizing our brainstormed ideas and division of labor. I wanted different (human!) readers and sound effects. Everyone else wanted automated voices, an idea that I liked at first but came to see as an oversimplification of the 19th century urban landscape as a totally dehumanized space transformed by the capitalist machine. Maybe this would have worked better for George Orwell’s 1984; and maybe it would have worked better if we had had more time to humanize the machine by annotating our audiobook with human voices, chirping birds, music and other sounds.

My first task was to choose a fifteen-minute sample segment of the audiobook to present our project with, and I chose the part where Bartleby first says that he prefers not to do what the lawyer requests because in this part there is a lively conversation which involves a number of different voices, and the key emblematic “prefer not to” is tossed around a lot. The segment actually could have been one of any number, for the novella engages the reader from start to finish. The second part of my role was to proof listen to the recording and mix annotated tracks into a final version where all participants would have jumped in and added voices and sounds to enliven and humanize the monotonous robotic voice. Had we had more time, we would have annotated more extensively.

As I worked on finding ways to bring the thing we had created, Frankenstein-like, back to life, I forged a deeper relationship with Melville’s text and a greater appreciation of the context of its times. I had said that the lawyer was from the South; I had based this bold assumption on his comparing Broadway to the Mississippi; I realized that his references to canonical white male literature and philosophy – Lord Byron, Cicero, the Bible, Marius at Carthage and so on – were representative of the slave-trading aristocratic South, while the scriveners represented the industrial North. I also – probably because I annotated to push against the automated voice – appreciated how very funny Melville’s tragic novella is. Finally, I came to appreciate the exercise of dehumanizing and rehumanizing the text as a potentially rich conversation that could be a pleasure to listen to.

Humanizing and Dehumanizing Red Peter the Ape

“A Report for an Academy” (1917) by Franz Kafka is a short story told by Red Peter, an ape who was captured on Africa’s Gold Coast (now Ghana) and shipped to Europe, and who learned to act like a human to escape captivity. Red Peter tells the story of his transformation from ape to human to a scientific academy in an undetermined European city, observing that it was only when he mastered human language that he was able to secure a way out of his cage on the ship. He puts a seal of sorts on his humanization by writing his story and telling it aloud to a sophisticated audience. This rhetorical situation makes “A Report for an Academy” an intriguing audiobook, and the voice of Martin Reyto reading Ian Johnston’s unabridged translation of Kafka’s short story for Librivox brings Red Peter close.

Although Librivox does not categorize this audiobook as “Dramatized Reading,” Reyto throws himself into his role, and I imagine Red Peter clad in a red satin dressing gown (he has become a music hall star) seated in his heavily upholstered apartment (I wonder if Reyto recorded his voice in a closet) deep in the ancient streets of Vienna or Prague, sheltered from the inclement weather, drinking a strong cordial and perhaps smoking a cigar. At first it was not easy to reconcile my idea of Red Peter with Reyto’s audiobook. For one, I thought Red Peter was younger because he says that he was captured five years before, and Reyto’s voice is clearly the voice of an older man. Secondly, I did not imagine Red Peter so weary. My first impulse was to reject Reyto’s reading of “Report for an Academy” because it seemed counter to how I had imagined the tale, but I listened on and as I did, Red Peter changed in my mind. Reyto’s reading is convincing; his cadence is fittingly mournful, and the harrowing last two sentences of the second to last paragraph are delivered with an awareness of the horror they admit:

When I come home late at night from banquets, from scientific societies, or from social gatherings in someone’s home, a small half-trained female chimpanzee is waiting for me, and I take my pleasure with her the way apes do. During the day I don’t want to see her, for she has in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal. I’m the only one who recognizes that, and I cannot bear it. (Franz Kafka, “A Report for an Academy”)

The sound quality of Reyto’s recording is excellent. There is no echo, and no sound of breathing or background noise (the absence of background noise is good for this story; other stories would be better with background noise). Altogether, listening to this audiobook was not unpleasant but for now, I find that listening to a novel or short story requires more effort than reading it would do. However, humans are adaptable creatures and I trust through practice listening gets easier.

Note: as I explored Librivox in search of an audiobook I wanted to write this blog post on, I was impressed with the great variety of recording qualities, voices and styles. To be honest, most of the audiobooks I started listening to bothered me in one way or another, but one that struck me as an inspiring model – I find I like to hear a variety of narrators – is Wuthering Heights (version 3 dramatic reading).

Cognitive Shifts from a Global Perspective

“The printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution” announced Matthew Kirschenbaum in DH Debates in 2012. Five years earlier, N. Katherine Hayles had observed that a generational shift in the way people produce, distribute and interpret knowledge was taking place and causing cognitive shift (“Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes”). The ubiquity of television, cell phones and computers in the United States and in Europe bear both Hayles and Kirschenbaum out, but digital technologies have replaced the printed word to a much lesser extent in more economically challenged hemispheres. In Colombia, for example, although television and cell phones are probably the main channels through which people consume current news, institutions of higher education and government agencies still rely heavily on the printed word. I understand therefore that Hayles and Kirschenbaum frame their posthuman subjects within geopolitical and socioeconomic boundaries particular to the technologically equipped world but do not specify these boundaries in the cognitive shifts they discuss.

In twenty-first century North America, technologically driven changes in modes of thought are most pronounced in the younger generations, wrote Hayles, predicting that the full effects of the “generational shift in cognitive styles,” would probably be felt when kids who were twelve in 2007 got to college (187). Eleven years later, these kids make up the most part of undergraduate classes in the United States today. To respond to the different approach to knowledge new generations of college students would take, Hayles warned that we needed to be aware of the shift that was taking place and devise new strategies appropriate to new cognitive styles (187). Have we done this? I think we can find some answers to this question in Cathy Davidson’s The New Education, which examines the forces that shaped North American higher education in response to the mechanized industrial revolutions of the 19th century, argues that these educational methods/models no longer serve our transformed needs and calls for a revolution in our approach to teaching and learning.

Again, my mind goes to Universidad del Atlántico in Barranquilla, Colombia, where I taught for two years. Universidad del Atlántico is one of the largest public universities in the Caribbean, and it is overcrowded, underfunded, and low-tech. Most of its students are from the lowest economic “stratas” (Colombia has an institutionalized caste system allegedly based on the value of one’s home) any many do not have cell phones. Neither faculty nor students multitask like we do here. In the university the printed word – usually in photocopied books – is the main medium for knowledge production and distribution. Outside the university private television and radio stations dominate the information pond. The Colombian Ministry of Education is directing funds for technological development in public universities (sadly, a lot of this funding is stolen before it gets near where it should go) and private universities are investing heavily in technology, so I think we can safely say in Colombia too technology has caused and is causing generational cognitive shifts. As we devise new strategies for responding to the shifts we see in North America, we should also think of how such strategies can be implemented globally, in universities with very little means, and how we could help people with less means recycle hardware we no longer use.

Works Cited

Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” DH Debates, 2012

Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” PMLA, 2007

Cathy N. Davidson. The New Education. New York: Basic Books, 2017.