Timothy Grundy (Basel)
The Paradise of Slaves and the Tartarus of Maids: Capitalism, Emancipation, and the Question of Ideology in Gregory S. Jay's "American Literature and the New Historicism. The Example of Frederick Douglass"
The promise the new historicism makes is to see works of art not as statements to reinforce a dominant ideology, but rather as sites from which this ideology is being challenged and questioned. At its heart is a new understanding of the relation between the aesthetic and the ideological, yet the conception of the intricate and complex ways in which the two may interact is not free from its own confusions and ideological dead ends.The question that remains, then, and which will be the focus of the following essay, is how does one know if one is bringing ideology into fruitful relation with the aesthetic and not merely furnishing an excuse for confusing or conflating them? My example here will be Gregory Jay's reading of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of an American Slave, specifically his use of the relation between Douglass' text and New England Transcendentalism on the one hand, and his critique of other readings of the Narrative on the other.
1 Introduction: Conflating or Contrasting Ideology
In a world suffused in ideology and competing ideological systems, where the subject is 'always-already' predetermined, there is no such a thing as an un-ideological decision, choice, or statement. Sacvan Bercovitch, in his 'Afterword' to Ideology and Classical American Literature, argues that this is especially true for a culture that dominates not by coercion but by consent, a culture, in which an alliance is formed between utopia and ideology. As he puts it, this "allows the dominant culture not merely to enforce rules of conduct, but to circumscribe the bounds of perception, thought, and desire". Power "depends on myths and values to which all levels of society subscribe, especially the excluded and repressed" (Bercovitch 1986: 43334). Bercovitch concludes his 'Afterword' by laying out the goal of ideological analysis:
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This is unsatisfactory in various ways. Merely being able to 'see the ways of the wilderness' suggests no specific means of changing these 'ways.' This is especially frustrating if one is a constituting element of this wilderness. It effectively means that all one can do is track the forces shaping culture, but not engage and challenge these forces. Indeed, how is one to make a decision of any kind, if every decision is 'always-already' subjected to an ideology? Or, to put it an other way, how can one make a decision that does not automatically reinforce the dominant ideology? How can one present a reading of a text that does not merely confirm one's preconceived notions about the text? In The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics, Brook Thomas suggests turning to the past to furnish a foundation for answering questions of, and in, the present. The emphasis of historicism in this view must be shifted from finding out how the past was in the past, to considering how the past reflects on the present:
The question that needs to be asked is how the knowledge of the past can be used to judge the present. What Thomas calls 'the way' in the statement just quoted implies a choice, a decision to be made between different 'ways'. This decision, as Brook lines out in the opening chapters of his book, is between an 'old' and a 'new' historicism.1
The promise the new historicism makes is to see works of art not as statements to reinforce a dominant ideology, but rather as a site from which this ideology is engaged and questioned. Giles Gunn puts this succinctly in Thinking across the American Grain when he writes: "At its best, the new historicism offers an opportunity to bring the ideological into fruitful relations with the aesthetic; at its worse, it furnishes an excuse for confusing or conflating them" (Gunn 1994: 163). This at least appears to be an option different from Myra Jehlen's and Bercovitch's claims in their respective contributions to Ideology and Classical American Literature. It suggests that the text does not a priori reinforce a dominant ideology. It does not merely allow us to 'see the ways of the wilderness', but rather allows us to engage and cultivate this wilderness. The question that remains, however, and which will be my focus in the following discussion, is how does one know if one is bringing ideology into fruitful relation with the aesthetic and not merely furnishing an excuse for confusing or conflating them?
I will first, in a very general fashion, sketch the development from 'old' to 'new' historicism, and how ideology is related to either. For this I will mainly be relying on Brook Thomas' The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics and on the chapter 'The Kingdoms of Theory and the New Historicism in America: A Pragmatist Response' in Giles Gunn's Thinking across the American Grain. Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism. Against this background I read Gregory S. Jay's American Literature and the New Historicism: The Example of Frederick Douglass. My aim is to read his text with an eye on the relation of the aesthetic and the ideological and look for moments where, contrary to his claims, the two are conflated.2
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2 Ideology and Aesthetic
2. 1 Old Historicism
Brook Thomas makes a very useful distinction when he describes the relationship of text and culture in old and new historicism by drawing on the rhetorical figures of synecdoche and chiasmus, respectively. For Thomas, the move from old historicism to new historicism must be read as a shift in the relationship of text and culture from a metonymical realation (synecdoche) to that of an inverted opposition (chiasmus) (Thomas 1991: 10). What does this entail? The use of the synecdoche stresses the production of unity while the chiasmus supposedly creates difference and variation. Underlying the older historicism is the notion of a unifying whole behind all of cultural production. Culture in its entirety could be inferred from a single artefact, be it a book, a painting, a religious statuette. This is a continuation of the notion that a single blade of grass testifies to a unifying being, to God. It is also the basis for the Heilsgeschichte, the idea of a teleological narrative, a narrative of progress that has at its end the redemption of mankind. But if everything testifies God, then all work of art merely reflects this unifying, teleological story. It also entails thinking about history from a goal, from a point of achievement. This goal has generally been something called the Spirit of Man. A Spirit that has usually been "male, European, and middle or upper class" (Jay 1994: 212). The notion that we write history from a point of achievement and impose our contemporary and contingent values on this history subverts Ranke's aim of writing history 'wie es eigentlich gewesen.' However, as Thomas points out, even Ranke's attempt of viewing all ages as equal in the eyes of God succumbs to a moral progressive linear story when Ranke describes the emergence and the existence of (German) national consciousness. Thus, this sense of writing history from a perceived point of achievement in the present can only result in, a "history of the victors ," as Thomas points out with Walter Benjamin (Thomas 1991: 33).
The work of art, to put it in Althusserian terms, reflects the ideology of the dominant ideological state apparatus. The individual subject becomes the material production of ideology, or better, in Althusserl's (in)famous expression, which has become a postmodern credo, "individuals are always-already subjects" (Althusser 1993: 50). In contrast, Thomas sees the rise of poststructuralism and deconstruction itself as a historical response to a crisis in historicism, a response based on a profound mistrust challenging the "notion that history is a chronological development through linear time, a notion of history assumed by narratives of progressive emergence" (Thomas 1991: 35). The new historicists focus more on the constructedness of history, on history as a story told from many different points of view, with breaks and ruptures and contradictions.
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2. 2 New Historicism
This resistance to a linear chronology of historical events lies at the base of Thomas' use of the rhetorical trope chiasmus. The notion that the work of art reflects an ideology, for instance, a narrative of natural progress, is cast aside. Rather, the work of art is regarded as a site of cultural production. As Gunn succinctly puts it: "The new historicism can be differentiated from the old by virtue of the way it construes the text as the site of a particular kind of production rather than a specific kind of reflection" (Gunn 1994: 163). The work of art is no longer confused and conflated with the dominant ideology, but becomes a site where this ideology is negotiated and contested. The linear development subjected to a totalising and unifying culture is marred by the production of difference, breaks and disruptions. "Rather than an organic model in which literature relates to a cultural whole, we have a model in which literature is placed in relation to other concrete disciplines, thus creating networks of relations that resist totalization" (Thomas 1991: 10). The different cultural, social, and political institutions are placed "within the material sites of their textual production, representation, and appropriation" (Gunn 1994: 154). A dynamic notion of historical development results that does not depend on a central myth, ideology, story of coherence, continuity, and progress. Historical development progresses through a series of breaks, ruptures, and struggles where the outcome is always open and always being redefined. History is not read as a development towards an ideal suitable for present politics. Rather, present politics are seen as the result of these developments, developments that cannot be subsumed under an ideal unity (Gunn 1994: 155). The relationship between text and culture, as in Thomas' figure of chiasmus, always works both ways. Rather than being told what to say, literature enters a conversation with the various institutions forming culture. Or, to speak with Stephen Greenblatt, the work of art enters into negotiations with the network of institutions it is placed in. Writing against the notion of art as a "pure flame" lying at the "source of our speculation", he describes the work of art rather as
The work of art is thus firmly placed in a network of discourses, some of these occurring when the work was first created, some of these being brought into play by the viewer looking back from the present. In Greenblatt's view, the work of art is not the speaking tube of the 'creators or class of creators', but it is the result of negotiations taking place on this cultural site encompassed by the work of art, between these creators and the 'institutions and practices of society'. These negotiations are historically contingent, making for a shifting quality in the meaning the work contains.
Gunn has a similar view of the position of the work of art in culture and society. The work of art does not so much reflect culture in its entirety, but rather must be construed as a response to an ongoing 'cultural conversation' (Gunn, 1994: 157). He is more extensive on the relationship of art and culture in The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture. The work of art, in being seen in a negotiatory or responding role, becomes both "mimetic and expressive", as well as "generative and creative."3 For, as he explains,
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The work of art does not merely reflect culture and society, but rather influences and quite decidedly shapes culture. Embedded in this notion is the distinction Gunn makes between the new and the old historicism: "The new historicism can be differentiated from the old by virtue of the way it construes the text as the site of a particular kind of production rather than a specific kind of reflection" (Gunn 1994: 163). And with this we are also returning to Gunn's claim which I quoted in the introduction, namely, that the new historicism 'offers an opportunity to bring the ideological into fruitful relations with the aesthetic.' The shift that occurs from the old to the new historicism lies in the realisation that the work of art is both aesthetic and ideological. From the standpoint of the new historicists, ideology is not something added to the work of art. Rather, ideology is part and parcel of the aesthetic. Ideology, Gunn writes, "should be conceived rather as something inscribed within the aesthetic in a way that makes aesthetic creation, and therefore literary production as a whole, an ideological act in and of itself" (Gunn 1994: 168).
It seems to me that this is precisely the relationship which the new historicism tends to explain as a logic of inversion, i. e. through the figure of the chiasmus; whcih is also the reason for Thomas' criticism of the new historicists. Since in contrast to the logic of the 'synecdoche' offers an attempt to read the entirety of culture through a single cultural product, the inversion of the word order from one statement to the next that marks the chiasmus produces both a tension and difference between the culture and the cultural product. However, the critic must keep an eye on the tension produced between the work of art and culture and, more specifically, on how this tension is maintained. This is to say, when s/he places a work of art into a relationship with a 'cultural conversation' the means by which this tension is maintained must unequivocally be declared. I believe this is what can (and must) be observed in Gregory Jay's discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass and its various interpretations. As Jay declares, he intends to open a gap between the aesthetic and the ideological by placing the text in relation to the contingent social and cultural surroundings. However, Jay neglects to reflect on his mode of analyses. He ignores the difference between class and race issues, and thus, in my mind, implies himself a unifying and unified notion of ideology. To trace this implication the second part of this article will focus closely on Jay's own reading of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Live of an American Slave.
3 The Example of Gregory S. Jay: American Literature and the New Historicism
3.1 Theorising Jay's Reading of Frederick Douglass' Narrative
Jay opens his essay with a clear statement of intent. His intention is to return to history, without returning to it on the premises of the old historicists and the aesthetic formalists, that is without making the "Spirit of Man" the "subject of development, teleology, and progress." Revisionist critics, informed by poststructuralism, have decentred this 'Spirit of Man', demasking it as "male, European, and middle or upper class" (Jay 1994: 212). Within this revisionist return to history, Jay makes out a desire, not merely to deconstruct identities and representations, but rather to affirm the identity and representation of those who have not, traditionally, been included in the 'Spirit of Man' world-image.
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This revisionary return to history, Jay refers to in a "quite general sense" as "new historicism" (Jay 1994: 211) Echoing the direction of Giles Gunn's statement quoted above, Jay describes the promise of new historicism at its best and at its worst as follows:
That is, he is not interested in viewing the text simply as a reflection of culture, society, and politics. Rather, he intends to place the text in relation to a historically contingent social and cultural field. The text negotiates identity and representation by engaging and challenging the assumptions propagated by the social institutions and practices. By positioning a text in relation to a field both historically and politically contingent, he intends to avoid two pitfalls: On the one hand, the ahistorical relativism of all meaning proposed by poststructuralism; on the other, the notion of reading the text merely as a product and affirmation of the dominant ideological system. "Specifically", as Jay puts it, he wants to
In choosing Douglass' texts, Jay makes a considered decision. Douglass wrote with decidedly political interests, for a politically highly charged time and for a political circle of people the abolitionists and the abolitionist movement.
Jay traces this interconnection of text and politics by marking paradoxical moments in the language Douglass uses to represent his own experience in specific and the condition of slavery in general. As Jay notes, Douglass' usage of "conventional artifices of representation to achieve his persuasive effects" (Jay 1994: 213) poses a problem when trying to explain his writing as a product of a unified ideology. The question of what Douglass is referring to becomes problematic. Are these his own experiences and observations he is describing? If not, he must be a fraud. But on the other hand, if they are his experiences and he is recounting them using conventional means of representation, to what extent are they still his own? Has he not been influenced by precisely the political process he is engaged in? More specifically, is his usage of rhetorical and narrative conventions frequently the same as those used in slave narratives 'ghost-written' by abolitionists not a clear indication of how his writing has been appropriated by the dominant ideological system? As such he would become merely the mouth piece of the abolitionist movement in general, and specifically of William Lloyd Garrison, with whom he formed a close alliance. Such a reading indeed sees him again merely as the servant to a white master.
But this is, to use a tired phrase, merely conflating the aesthetic with the ideological. It ignores the historical and political times Douglass was living in. Indeed, it completely overlooks the fact that in very real terms, Douglass' situation had improved dramatically he was no longer a slave denied free choice. And it also ignores the fact that Douglass quite likely made a conscious decision to appropriate rather conventional modes of representation as the means that best served his end and that of his brethren. The aim he espoused, most definitely, was the abolishment of the slave system and the emancipation of all slaves as free men. To ignore this is to force a unifying ideology on the text, glossing over an impasse between reference and representation in the text and effectively expressing the mind-set of the reader, rather than the intentions of the author. That is to say, to merely focus on the discourse Douglass refers to, ignores the use he makes of these texts to represent himself. To do so would, in effect, take Douglass himself out of the picture.
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Jay uses Paul de Man's concept of aporia to describe this conflict between reference and representation. In an essay on Man in his America the Scrivener, Jay defines aporia as "a term for textual impasses that resist the unifying hermeneutics of formalism, aestheticism, ideology, and onto-theology" (Jay 1990: 84). Moments of paradox trace a 'fault-line' running through the text. This 'fault-line' marks a break, a gap, an aporia between what is perceived and what is expressed, between reference and representation (cf. Jay 1990: 86). Hiding this gap in totalising stories therefore must be regarded as an ideological attempt to impose unity and denying difference.
Jay proposes to read a text and its historically contingent context with an eye open for such breaks. The intention is not, however, to write a unifying story and set up a unifying ideology. Rather, Jay intends to demonstrate the gap between representation and reference in order to show what political, cultural and social work the text is engaged in. Only in noting these ruptures, he maintains, can the single vision the hallmark of a totalitarian power be evaded, the different voices contained in culture be heard, and their individual agendas be made out (Jay 1990: 82). As he puts it in his reading of Frederick Douglass:
I would argue that historical understanding proceeds as an interpretative commentary on the specific character that this aporia between reference and representation takes within a particular work and between that work and the discourses and institutions that condition its production and reception. (Jay 1994: 213 214. Emphasis given.)
3. 2 Reading Jay's Reading of Frederick Douglass' Narrative
Jay covers a substantial amount of ground in his very dense essay. In what follows I want to pick out one strand of his argument to exemplify how he shows what political, cultural and social work the text is engaged in by demonstrating the gap between representation and reference. The fact that I pick out a single strand of his argument goes against the whole grain of his reasoning, which is to place the text in a thick network of discourses. I am very well aware of this. However, the train of thought I will focus on demonstrates, on the one hand, how the ideological and the aesthetic can be brought into relation with one another. And, on the other hand, it allows me to reflect on the necessity of explanation how the tension is being maintained between the aesthetic and the ideological. In other words, the necessity to keep the border between the different 'cultural conversations' in focus, in order to avoid distancing oneself too far from the one and approaching the other too much. In this way, I think Jay most likely unintentionally reintroduces an ideological argument that thorougly undermines his own premises.
The central arena where this 'historical understanding' is fought out is in the language of the text. In the case of Douglass the use of words in speech and writing is probably the central most important issue. "Linguistic power [ ] is more than a negative of disciplinary agency: it establishes and sustains a social group's life and character. Language is enabling, positing, and persuasive as well as oppressive" (Jay 1994: 222). Language is the arena in which social coherence is produced and, conversely, the individual positions him or herself within the social unity through language. Jay, echoing Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, stresses the "dialectic of subjection and empowerment" (Jay 1994: 222) inherent in language, a dialectic which becomes explicitly visible in the black slave's appropriation of the white master's language. Gaining literacy for the slave is at once emancipating and subjecting.
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But Jay resists reading Frederick Douglass' Narrative along the lines of mere "linguistic alienation." For, following this argument was to discount any attempt of the black speaker to gain an authentic voice of his own by foregrounding the "inherent antagonism between black speaker and white language" (Jay 1994: 223). This line of reasoning would thus deny Douglass any agency in forming himself. Instead, he becomes merely a part of the system and a product of the system. As an example for this train of thought, Jay specifically refers to Houston Baker's critique of Douglass' work.4 Baker sees Douglass as knowingly selling his voice in public to gain private possession of his 'voice-person' (Jay 1994: 225). According to this reasoning, Douglass can only gain liberty at the price of alienation from an authentic sense of self.
The reason Jay balks at this criticism put forward by Baker, is that it instigates exactly what he is trying to avoid. It conflates the aesthetic with the ideological and sees the text only as a product of the system. And this, he believes, blatantly overlooks the key factor that "Douglass had no choice but to draw upon the cultural archive of white society and then transform his materials rhetorically" (Jay 1994: 224). For Jay, Baker allows his own agenda to influence his reading of Douglass' text. Baker is attempting to resolve the paradoxical situation whereby Douglass achieves liberty only at the price of enslavement to the capitalist system, by imposing a totalising story, the story that Douglass sold out to the capitalist system.
In contrast, Jay proposes a shift in perspective. He turns to Thoreau and Emerson's critique of capitalism and proposes to read Douglass through the work of these Transcendentalists. Jay picks up on their critique at a system that places materialistic gain over morals and virtues. For Emerson and Thoreau, striving for material goods does not emancipate man, but alienates and subjects man to an external force (cf. Jay 1994: 225). This he contrasts to Douglass' experience of the capitalist system. Where Thoreau and Emerson see capitalism and material possession grinding down the human soul, Douglass describes the opposite effect. He equates economic self-determination with liberation and emancipation. He vividly presents to the reader when he contrasts the deal he closes with his master, Hugh Auld, by which he can contract his own time but must nonetheless hand over the money earned, with his later experience when he works as his own master. Under the deal he makes with Master Auld, Douglass must find work of his own accord, must pay for all his running costs, and on top of all that, he must hand Master Hugh three dollars at the end of every week, or give up his 'privilege.' As Douglass succinctly comments:
He closes with the observation, that it "was a step towards freedom to be allowed to bear the responsibility of a freeman" (Douglass 1994: 1721). The step towards being a freeman was the fact that he made all the decisions and had to bear all his won costs. And it is exactly this situation which also makes the difference to the status of a freeman most painfully clear. As he says earlier: "[ ] I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh" not "because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up" (Douglass 1994: 1719). What is obvious is Douglass' disgust at this institutionalised, daylight robbery: "The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same" (Douglass 1994: 1719).
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Douglass' despondent description of this experience of having all the responsibilities and none of the pleasures of a freeman, stands in stark contrast to his feelings on taking on his first job on his own account:
Economic self-determination is here presented as the means to emancipation and self-fulfilment. Contrasting this evaluation of economic self-determination with the critique of alienation Thoreau and Emerson level at the capitalist system, "one feels compelled" with Jay "to point out the luxury of the observation for these two white men of privileged New England" (Jay 1994: 225). By reading Douglass' narrative through the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Jay gains a position from which to put Douglass' appropriation of capitalism into a historically contingent context. Jay opens up two very disparate perspectives of American capitalism that enable him to show how capitalism seems alienating only from a specific point of view:
Briefly put, for those who have nothing and are denied property, capitalist ownership and possession are liberating and emancipating. Those who have everything and want for nothing are in a materially comfortable position to denounce materialism and possession as alienating and oppressive.
I could not agree more heartily. And yet I also find myself at the wrong end of a nagging feeling that I have been conned by a sleight of hand. This feeling derives directly from Jay's relating of Douglass to Thoreau and Emerson. The move is to a certain extent disingenuous. Jay's usage of prejudices against white, educated and privileged New England men allows him to stifle arguments against capitalism. The choice Jay presents to the reader is a foregone conclusion. On the one hand, the reader can admit that capitalism is good because it allows for economic self-determination and emancipation of slaves. Or the reader can argue the position of 'these two white men of privileged New England' who, from their exceptionally comfortable position, claim capitalism is bad because it is slavery by another name.
The central point is that Jay here mixes class and race issues without declaring the switch in his mode of analysis. His defence of capitalism rests not on the fact that it enables emancipation for Douglass. Rather it rests on the fact that to denounce capitalism one has to be white, male, and privileged. To put it like this, I believe, is to emphasis how Jay equates the question of slavery with the question of class that does not take into account their different, specific agendas. What may be liberating in the context of slavery issues is suppressive in the context of class issues. Disregarding this distinction allows for another totalising narrative to enter the argument which in turn denies the relevance of class struggle. It rather posits a unified capitalist ideology that claims emancipation is possible only by subjection to the free market economy. Jay's intentions and aims predetermine the outcome of this contrast. This dialectical structure of the two opposing representations of capitalism collapses in itself, once it is read through the goal of his argument.
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The scope of this problem becomes clearer when we ask what would happen to Jay's argument if Douglass' text was read against a text that describes the life of wage labour from a rather positive angle. For instance, if we read Frederick Douglass through Lucy Larcom's reminiscences of working in the Lowell Mills as she describes them in A New England Girlhood. Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence?5
In her description of life and work in the Lowell mills, Larcom makes a direct link between the moral improvement that can be gained by working in the factory and the moral improvement that can be gained from the surroundings to be expected in a God fearing home or, indeed, in nature:
Indeed, one cannot help but be reminded of a convent when reading Larcom's description of life in the Lowell-Mill. Francis Cabot Lowell sets up a "corporation boarding system." Individual houses were rented by "matrons of assured respectability" who were also responsible for looking after the interest of the girls as would a parent. Religious worship was of paramount importance, the hierarchical structure itself calls to mind the life in a nunnery:
The Lowell-Mill worked on the basis that the quality of a person was linked directly to the quality of the surroundings. A good working environment makes for a good person. Moreover, the girls were very willing to work twelve hours a day in the mill with two hours of leisure time in the evening. And, in keeping with the Puritan mindset, these two hours were spent in self-improvement, taking courses, singing classes, knitting, sewing, or taking care of sick sisters. At ten o'clock in the evening, lights were switched off. This was to ensure that the girls got enough rest before starting work again at five in the morning (Larcom 1989: 22829).
Larcom sees the Lowell-Mill girls as being pillars of the community, highlighting their their contributions to the church walls and social charities. They were both independent and generous, the "pauper spirit into which women who look to relatives or friends for support so easily subside" being intolerable to them (Larcom 1989: 229). Work and life in the factory, it would seem, enabled these girls to live the New England inheritance, and continue the Puritan mindset of gracing God in work, "living in fear and love of God" as she says (Larcom: 228).
Contrasting Lucy Larcom's assertion of the possibility of emancipation in capitalism with that of Douglass' assertion, does not in itself change Jay's argument. This young girl, who worked in the Lowell-Mill, quite obviously only sees benefits in the system. In fact this pinnacles in the linkage of emancipation of the soul and working in the factory. Her connection of work and emancipation of the soul tallies very well with what Jay reads in Douglass. "Douglass", says Jay, "will represent individual emancipation of the soul as the heart of the quest for freedom, relegating economic and political issues to the margins" (Jay 1994: 225). Douglass and Larcom thus are in agreement that the main concern is the emancipation of the soul, an achievement that can be attained through wage labour.
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While there remains for me the feeling that the owner of the factory gets them coming and going, my point is not to criticise capitalism. My point is rather to show how Jay predetermines the outcome of his argument in the choice of his texts. If we now return to Jay's opposition of Thoreau and Emerson to Frederick Douglass, we find that it makes no difference to Frederick Douglass' cause, whether he is read against the Transcendentalists, or in alignment with Lucy Larcom's Reminiscences. In this way, the gap in the binary opposition between Douglass and Thoreau, or Emerson, and therefore between the aesthetic and the ideological is deconstructed. Jay's argument effectively conflates the aesthetic and the ideological under a unified, singular ideology that makes capitalism a good thing for everybody. Larcom describes capitalism as emancipating for white girls, in the same way Douglass does for black slaves. Opposition to capitalism comes only from the position of the privileged and can therefore be ignored. The point I am making is that the choice of texts the critic relates to one another has a very direct bearing on the outcome of the argument. Indeed, the outcome of the argument can be predetermined precisely by the selection of texts made.
In ignoring the boundary between class and race, I find Jay has effectively silenced a group of voices that deserve to be heard and, I will argue in the concluding chapter, that Douglass himself did not want to exclude in his espousal of capitalism. The point is, that while Douglass' espousal of capitalism serves his end for emancipation from slavery, claiming emancipation in capitalism for emancipation within class structures works the other way around: it is an argument for suppression, subjection, and the denial of rights and liberty. Or, to put is simply, for Douglass, capitalism is a system to escape to, whereas for wage labourers capitalism is a system to escape from. I believe a claim can be made that Frederick Douglass was well aware of this distinction in what capitalism meant for him and what it could mean for wage labourers.
4 Emancipation in Capitalism: 'The Paradise of Slaves and the Tartarus of Maids'
In his expression of pleasure at being his own master, I believe Douglass leaves a space for those that may not be as satisfied with the working conditions under capitalism. To briefly recapitulate, he says: "I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves" (Douglass 1994: 1726, my emphasis). While not explicitly stating that wage labour is pleasurable only to those who have been slaves, he does explicitly link the rapture he feels to his past experience of slavery. He seems to be acknowledging that what may, for him, be the 'starting-point of a new existence' may, for others, be an existence they need to escape from. We get a vivid image of the downside of this capitalist world if we turn to a text which also acts as a counterbalance to Lucy Larcom's idyllic depiction of factory life:
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My intention in quoting from Herman Melville's The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids is not to show up the evils of capitalism. I rather want to call to attention whom exactly Jay denies a voice when he reduces criticism of capitalism to a mere foible of those well-to-do young men of New England heritage. Indeed, Melville's passage portrays more vividly than anything I can muster what happens to the factory girls, who are their own 'masters' in their process to emancipation in capitalism. They not only become slaves to the machine; they also become products of the machine, literally. They dissolve into oblivion behind the virginal white sheets of paper on which history is written. The question is: whose? The answer may very well be glimpsed in another memorable passage in Melville's text. The seed merchant, in his attempt to find someone in charge, attempts to solicit an answer from one of the ubiquitous pale girls, turning blue from the cold, peeking out from behind a half opened door. The passage reads as follows:
Read allegorically, this scene seems to extend Douglass' argument that capitalism enables the black slave to emancipate himself. The dark-complexioned man here makes an appearance as a repressive capitalist. The white girl avoids confronting the dark-complexioned man, preferring to hide behind the door to the factory, where she continues producing unmarked sheets of paper. She denies her own historical emancipation, producing white sheets of paper on which the black man can write his own history. Realizing the emancipation of the black man the white woman shuts the door on her entrance to history.
I do not intend to overburden Melville's text here. I merely wish to use the passage to illustrate what I believe to be the consequences inherent in accepting capitalism as the means of emancipation as Jay formulates it when he contrasts Frederick Douglass' stand on capitalism with the critique of capitalism voiced by Thoreau and Emerson. Jay rightly points out that Douglass engages the dominant ideology of capitalism and religion as used by the abolitionists and uses it to his own ends. As he says, for Douglass the acquisition of private property is akin to acquiring personal freedom (Jay 1994: 227). But, as I mentioned above, Jay also formulates this capitalist ideology in a totalising manner when he remarks that only in the context of a "different class relation will private property appear to be itself an alienating notion" (Jay 1994: 227). For Jay, the 'different class relation' refers to those who already possess sufficient material wealth. In disregarding the distinction between class issues and race issues, Jay effectively states that capitalism enables emancipation for the white female workers in Melville's paper factory in the same way as Frederick Douglass describes for himself. But this clearly is not the case.
I think Jay could have made a more subtle point if he had trusted Douglass a bit more. Jay argues against Baker's criticism of Douglass' acceptance of the economic system and remarks "that Baker overstates his case for Douglass' knowledge". He continues: "The partly feudal and relatively primitive character of southern slavery as a mode of production dictates that the subject it produces will perceive private property as a desired, if currently prohibited, goal." And a little further: "Never having worked through to the stage of wage labor, Douglass cannot be expected to theorize the contradictions awaiting the worker at that next turn in the dialectic" (Jay 1994: 227). I would argue that Jay can only make this statement by ignoring Douglass' discussion of the use Southern slaveholders make of alcohol over the Christmas break. Over the festive break, the slaveholders would make sure the slaves got well and truly drunk. They would subsequently feel so ill that returning to pressed labour would seem, in comparison, a blessing. As Douglass puts it nicely: "We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum" (Douglass 1994: 1709).
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Douglass seems to have been a man of keen intellect and perception. On top of this he spent the four years preceding the publication of his Narrative in 1845 lecturing extensively at abolitionist and anti-slavery meetings, so it may be presumed that he was politically well informed about current issues, including the wage labour discussion.
It thus may also be presumed that Douglass, even more so than Jay wants to admit, made a conscious decision to pursue capitalism as a first step to the complete emancipation of black slaves, well aware that the capitalist system has its faults. And by emphasising the fact that the rapture he felt can be understood 'only by those who have been slaves.' I believe he is implicitly distinguishing between the meaning capitalism has for his own situation and the meaning capitalism holds for the girls working in the sweatshops and the mills.
In conclusion, I would like to return to Thomas' use of the rhetorical trope chiasmus to describe the relationship of the single work of art to the wider cultural debate. This is not without its problems, as Thomas is well aware. "Chiasmus relates not part to whole, but one particular part to another" (Thomas 1991: 12). And allowing a particular chiastic relationship stand for all of culture is problematic. It effectively reasserts the organic model for history and all its concomitant problems of totalisation. Also, the connections seem to be established by 'sleight of hand' (Thomas).
Nevertheless, I do believe Jay's approach of placing Frederick Douglass in relation to Thoreau and Emerson is valid. Bercovitch, in his statement I quoted in the introduction, sees ideological analyses only as the means for seeing the 'ways of the wilderness more clearly'. But there is no hope or promise of being able to engage and challenge this ideology. It is only by contrasting different ideologies subsumed under the dominant ideology that the 'wilderness' can not only be seen, but strategies can be formulated that enable the individual to shape and form this 'wilderness'. But in contrasting the different ideologies, it is important to highlight the distinction between the different social and cultural contexts in which these ideologies are formulated. In view of this, it might be helpful to describe the relationship in a more oppositional manner. Arnold Krupat, suggested the term oxymoron to bring different positions in relation to one another across a cultural divide, without losing sight of the divide.6 I find this notion of conjoining two contradictory terms to emphasise a statement very appealing. Accepting the notion of emancipation in capitalism as a contradiction in terms heightens our awareness of the difference produced when looking at different contexts. To ignore this, is to establish a totalising narrative that, on the one hand, celebrates the emancipation of black slaves and, on the other hand, turns a blind eye to the suppression of the white (female) workers in the wage labour system. A fitting title for such a narrative might be the 'Paradise of Slaves and the Tartarus of Maids.'
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Althusser, Louis (1993): Essays on Ideology. London: Verso.
Baker, Houston (1984): Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Bercovitch, Sacvan (1986): "Afterword", in: Ideology and Classical American Literature. Hg. von Sacvan Bercovitch und Myra Jehlen. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Douglass, Frederick (1994): "Narrative of the Live of an American Slave", in: The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol 1. Hg. von Paul Lauter u.a. Lexington: Heath.
Greenblatt, Stephen (1989): "Towards a Poetics of Culture" in: The New Historicism. Hg. von H. Aram Veeser. Routledge: New York.
Gunn, Giles (1987): The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture. Oxford University Press: New York.
Gunn, Giles (1994): Thinking across the American Grain. Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jay, Gregory S. (1990):"Paul de Man: Being in Question" in: America the Scrivener. Deconstruction and the Subject of Literary History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 81107.
Jay, Gregory S (1994): "American Literature and the New Historicism. The Example of Frederick Douglass" in: Revisionary Interventions into the Amerianist Canon. Hg. von Donald A. Pease. Durham: Duke University Press, 211-42.
Jehlen, Myra (1986): "Introduction. Beyond Transcendence" in: Ideology and Classical American Literature. Hg. von Sacvan Bercovitch und Myra Jehlen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Larcom, Lucy (1989): "A New England Girlhood. Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence", in: 19th Century Literature. Hg. von M. Thomas Inge. Washington: United States Information Agency.
Melville, Herman (1994): "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" in: The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol 1. Hg. Paul Lauter u.a. Lexington: Heath.
Thomas, Brook (1991): The New Historicism. And Other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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1 Since neither the old, nor the new historicism refer to any unified school, I shall concur with Gregory Jay's assessment that: "[l]ike any label for a movement in criticism, 'New Historicism' serves more as an indicator of associated tendencies than as the proper name for a specific or coherent school. Thus in accord with the accounts of Brook Thomas and David Simpson, I will use 'new historicism' in a quite general sense rather than restrict it to the movement associated with Stephen Greenblatt (and consequently will drop the capitalization)" (Jay 1994: 211).
2 I must here acknowledge my debts to Philipp Schweighauser of the Department of English at Basle University for his comment and criticism.
3 Both Gunn and Greenblatt are drawing on the work of Clifford Geertz, especially as expressed in his concept of 'thick description' (cf. Thomas 1991: 39; Gunn 1987: 103).
5 Lucy Larcom (18241893) wrote her Reminiscences in 1889. She worked in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts in her teens, sometime up to or before 1846 after which she became a teacher. Her text, as it was written only after the civil war, is the odd one out in the group of Douglass and Melville. However, her Reminiscences express her views held at the time of working in the mill and afterwards as a teacher.
6 In an oral presentation entitled "Nationalism, Indigenism, Cosmopolitanism: Three Critical Positions on Native American Literature", held at the International Conference of the Friedrich-Alexander-University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, July 6, 2000. The example that he gave was "patriotic cosmopolitanism" to describe the attempt of a nation's citizen to write about matters the concern different nations, or have global relevance.