Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Native Son and Counterpublics
"Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this had to be," says Bigger Thomas to his lawyer (Wright 415). The novel Native Son appears to be espousing a rather depressing nihilistic tone in this section, going on to eventually argue that Bigger's motive to murder a white woman was created completely through an intrinsically racist social system in which black and white, segregated by class and skin, are fundamentally unequal. The hegemony of white people exerts an inexorable pressure upon individuals, the lawyer argues in his epic speech. This scene, in which Max mobilizes a long and affecting defense of Bigger Thomas, is an address to a specific public rather than the public. Essentially, Max is undertaking a complex introduction of a counterpublic, individual black people, into a larger unwelcoming public of white people. In this post, I will deploy Michael Warner’s theory of publics and counterpublics in order to affirm the deterministic ideology hinted at by Bigger Thomas. That is to say that Bigger Thomas’s acceptance of how it should be has been determined by the creation and circulaion of a public and a counterpublic, organized by unequal social divisions based on race.
First, it is worth laying out Warner’s theory of publics and counterpublics and thus we must lay out some important groundwork. Warner’s paper, “Publics and Counterpublics”, was published in 2002, but has its roots in Warner’s previous books. For this theory, Warner is updating Habermas’s book Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In this very post, I am addressing a specific public rather than the public as a social totality. A singular public is not the sum total of interested agents operating within all of a polity. A public can be “a concrete audience” with a sense of a totality, bound up by the event (this post) and by the shared physical space (Blogger) (Warner 50). A public can also be a public created by its being addressed. In this sense, when I am reading this essay, “the concrete audience of hearers understands itself as standing in for a more indefinite audience of readers” (50) and thus a public is created by the engagement with the discourse of the seminar paper. In Warner’s theory, a public is self-organized in that it is created by virtue of being addressed; it is a relation among strangers; it is both personal and impersonal in that it addresses a collective of specific discrete individuals; it is constituted through mere attention, which is similar to Althusser’s interpellation; it is a social space created by the circulation of discourse; it directs by specifying in advance its target. A public is stranger sociability in a pure form because it selects members based on the only relatable criteria: the members’ unfamiliarity with each other. Since a public can be directed using stranger sociability and relatability, it is fundamentally a political entity, even if the address itself is not political.
A public, as we have seen, is ideological in that it depends on an arbitrary social closure. In the case of Native Son, the criterion is colour of skin. It also depends on the institutionalized forms of power with the ability to realize the agency of the specific public. The publics with the discourse most widely circulated tend to more misrecognized for the public.
Warner was interested in publics and counterpublics as being created through the written word, as in a “concatenation of texts through time” that create and sustain them. Only when a pre-existing discourse can be assumed and a future discourse predicted, can a text create a public by address. Wright’s Native Son creates a public by addressing a collective of unknown readers, by assuming familiarity with a past and with the present, and finally postulating a responding discourse that addresses the topic of the social condition of African Americans. Because there is a continuum of discourses, there is a link and thus an interaction. This interaction is usually conceptualized using metaphors of conversation. Publics answer, talk back, respond, argue, shout, etc. The “interactive relation postulated in public discourse” expands past the binary metaphor of speaker and listener because of its intrinsic citations and circulatory power (64). In this way, a public is meant to undergo circulation. Its existence is temporal in that a public only exists in the moment of address as well as in its supposition of a future circulation. Thus, a public in this formulation can be read similar to a Foucauldian discipline. One of its major interests is its self-sustainment and dissemination through the manipulation of bodies, or in this case, strangers.
Public address, while superficially specific to the individual, is addressed to a multitude of strangers for the purpose of persuading, educating, directing, or manipulating. Strangers are categorized and organized by virtue of coming within range of the address itself. Because the public address is structured for the individual, any character or trait the address depicts “typifies a whole social stratum” (75). A public, then, is constituted of individuals shaped into a collective whole. In Native Son, a public is being addressed and assembled by the media, which provides misinformation and the misrecognition of Bigger Thomas as a rapist. However, as the thesis of the text seems to imply, a public is being sustained through institutional and systemic measures that simply circulates the discourse that enables the media to perpetuate the misinformation.
I will now argue that Native Son is exposing the existence of a larger hegemonic public through the logic of negation, which is to say, by the proof of a counterpublic. I would contend that Bigger Thomas, and other African Americans of Chicago’s South Side ghetto, are assembled and concatenated into a counterpublic that is sustained by a public, or as aforementioned, a systemically racist and unequal social organization.
A counterpublic can be quickly defined using Nancy Fraser’s phrase, “a subaltern counterpublic” or a parallel discourse that includes and addresses subordinated social groups that circulate oppositional ideologies. While alternative publics (such as Christians in a secular society) are still ultimately a subpublic, a counterpublic is always aware of its subordinate status. It defines and organizes itself by what it is not, which is to say the dominant public (again, which is not necessarily the public). A concrete example that Warner provides is the queer counterpublic. The address of this counterpublic does not assume the general heteronormativity that the dominant publics assume. Any speech that addresses queer individuals will circulate until it meets resistance from an individual who does not want to be misrecognized as queer. Thus the queer discourse will circulate in non-dominant avenues by virtue of the members not being constituent parts of the dominant.
In Native Son, one counterpublic is the Communist party, its constituent members misrecognized and vilified by the dominant public. During Mr. Britten’s interrogation of Bigger, he asks if Bigger ever heard Jan call anybody “comrade” (Wright 220). The address of “comrade” has complex signification within the dominant public and within the text. Comrade immediately marks and organizes the addresser as belonging to a counterpublic of the Communist party. The addressee, when confronted with such a formal address, has two choices: either accept membership into the discourse of the counterpublic, or refuse participation by virtue of membership to the dominant discourse. In the text, members of the counterpublic are referred to in disparaging and distrustful terms, such as “those Reds” or “Commies” (187). The dominant public circulates a discourse in which the subordinate are marked essentially as subordinate, which both affirms the subaltern status of the countepublic and confirms the dominant status of the hegemonic public.
The bulk of Native Son is concerned with the existence of a counterpublic made of African Americans. In one sense, the counterpublic of African Americans is assembled through the organization of the different races in physical urban spaces. Bigger Thomas, while not a flaneur in any self-reflexive way, does provide the narrative with many instances of urban navigation and subsequent border crossings. The primum movens of the plot is Bigger’s employment with the Dalton family. After leaving the dark and narrow space of the family’s apartment (1), Bigger walks through the white neighbourhood in which the Daltons reside. There, the narrator reflects that “this was a cold and distant world” where distant would refer to emotional distance, but also to figurative distance for an individual African American. Figurative barriers are described that serve to keep a counterpublic out of the urban space dominated by the white public; Bigger has difficulty navigating the protocol of entrance into the Dalton house, as well as he must go through a fence and a locked gate. While attempting to gain entry, Bigger reflects that if the police were to see him, they might assume he was here to rob or rape somebody (49). In this we can see Althusser’s interpellation. The address of the police concretizes Bigger as subject to a dominant ideology, which is circulated through a public discourse.
This physical transgression of borders at the Dalton residence is merely a microcosm for the organization of the city itself. Much of the urban space is divided into sections based on race, which are then subdivided into sections based on class. Mr. Dalton owns the holding company that owns South Side Real Estate Company which controls property all throughout Chicago. A “line” exists between the property accessible to black renters and to white renters, one insurmountable by Bigger due to the colour of his skin, and thus, due to his status as subordinate. The manifestation of this essential opposition of public to counterpublic comes in the prescriptive nature of the areas themselves. Though Mr. Dalton considers himself supportive of African Americans, he would only rent houses to them in “prescribes areas” (199). The houses themselves become physical expressions of the difference between the public and counterpublic. The houses that are accessible to black renters were once owned or rented by “rich white people,” or the dominant public, while now they are occupied by African Americans or are “standing dark and empty with yawning black windows” (209). Both descriptors, “dark” and “black,” are significant in their evocation of African Americans themselves. Later, Bigger reflects that black people are kept “bottled up like wild animals” because black people had to “live on their side of the ‘line’” (288). The public convinces the counterpublic of their subaltern position through this physical demarcation. One of the reporters, questioning Bigger, remarks that “these Negroes want to be left alone” (246), thus affirming the difference. In another instance, the media reports that affirming the counterpublic discourse can be accomplished by “conditioning Negroes so that they have to pay deference” (324). During Mr. Dalton’s interrogation, he is asked why he refuses to rent houses to black people in white sections and he responds, “Well, I think Negroes are happier when they’re together” (378). Due to Mr. Dalton’s privileged social and economic position, his discourse has better circulatory power than any counterpublic that might dispute such a claim. Mr. Dalton’s opinion as a public is taken to be “the public” and this interaction “invisibly order[s] the political world” (Warner 77) and so, the black people must live in prescribed areas. In the Chicago of the text, the desolated physical spaces the black people live in are representations of the counterpublic discourse.
Moving over the borders from the white area and the black area, the transgression of the counterpublic into the oppositional public, is expressed in Bigger’s awareness of the transgression of taboo. Rather than a super structure of ethics – in which murder is, by default, taboo – this taboo is seen in social awkwardness. When Mary suggests going to “a real place” for food, Bigger is made completely uncomfortable (Wright 78). A restaurant, or a public space, in a counterpublic is not a space for members of a different public. If the counterpublic’s space is assembled through the aggregation of subordinate subjects, then the intrusion of a hegemonic member fundamentally changes the very character of the counterpublic, shifting it, instead, into a subpublic with a different dynamic of relational power. A white person’s very presence in the restaurant changes the dynamic of counterpublic and Bigger’s awareness of this marks his knowledge of his membership to a counterpublic.
Other taboos are transgressed, not just in social and urban navigation, but in ethical situations. The colour of the victim’s skin is irrelevant to the crime of robbery, yet Bigger recognizes completely that robbing Blum, the white storeowner, “would be a violation of ultimate taboo” (14). This awareness of the breaking of taboo is affirmed in the circulatory power of the counterpublic. Early in the text, when Bigger is questioning the unfairness of the city’s organization, Gus tells him to “quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts” (21). As seen before, the counterpublic’s very self-knowledge as subaltern allows for the circulation of the subordinate discourse which assembles itself. Bigger is not merely “mechanically repeat[ing] signature catchphrases” or slogans, but performing them “through social placement” (Warner 73). At other points in the text, Bigger is unable to express his feelings and his motives to white people, preferring to stay silent, or being unable to articulate exactly, as the “telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life” (Wright 356). Only after long conversations with Max, also a member of a counterpublic, but ultimately belonging to the dominant public of white people, can Bigger articulate his hopelessness in the face of such a vast imposing structure of racial inequality.
The hopelessness of the integration of public with counterpublic is expressed in the determinism at the heart of the text. It is inevitably an interaction laden with doom throughout the text. The counterpublic’s existence is precarious, and circulated through counter discourse. Warner writes, “One enters at one’s own risk” (87). The counterpublic that Bigger belongs to, while self-reflexive of its subordinate status, “provides a sense of belonging that masks or compensates for the real powerlessness of human agents” within this fundamentally unequal society (81). In this way, Native Son exposes the existence of a hegemonic public and its opposite, a subordinate counterpublic, as formulated by Michael Warner in his essay “Publics and Counterpublics”.
Warner, Michael. "Publics and Counterpublics." Public Culture. 14.1 (2002): 49-90. Print.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Print.