Simon Critchley’s study of ethics has been prominently reviewed by literary and cultural theorists, though most treatments accept the premise that ethical relations are primarily among people, that ethics depends mainly on intersubjective relations. This review by Daniel Punday resituates “Infinitely Demanding” in a networked context, one that is constructed by “media, by global flows, and by the larger network swarms which themselves take on an identity.” For Punday, an ethics for our time is best found, not by the study of identities and localities, but rather by authors of contemporary fiction such as Jonathan Letham, Susan Daitch, Ishmael Reed, and Toni Cade Bambara.
Middle Spaces: Media and the Ethics of Infinitely Demanding
Middle Spaces: Media and the Ethics of Infinitely Demanding
The novel has long been associated with ethics. This link goes back to F.R. Leavis, but Andrew Gibson has shown that this tradition is alive and well today not only in the work of humanist critics like Wayne Booth, but among postmodernists like Richard Rorty and J. Hillis Miller. One way to interrogate Simon Critchley’s theory of ethics and political resistance in Infinitely Demanding is to set it alongside of contemporary novels and to ask how they respond differently to the same cultural moment.
It isn’t hard to see Critchley’s book as a response to the bleak political moment in which we find ourselves. Until recently, many of us thought that a national debate about whether torture was an acceptable interrogation device was absurd and unthinkable. The bellowing, soulless pragmatism that justifies torture as the only response to an imagined terrorist ticking time-bomb separates what must be done from what should be done. Critichley’s fragile definition of ethics as “the approval of a demand, a demand that demands approval” (16) feels far too light and abstract to change such an ominous and hysterical debate. But nestled within this slightest of demands is an articulation of our own traumatic historical moment in which meeting even such simple demands is beyond us. So it is that Critchley’s theory is ultimately about the trauma of being called to ethical action when all of our historical circumstances mitigate against it: “The ethical subject is defined by the approval of a traumatic heteronomous demand at its heart. But, importantly, the subject is also divided by this demand, it is constitutively split between itself and a demand that it cannot meet, but which is that by virtue of which it becomes a subject” (62-63). A demand that we cannot meet: here is our own political moment articulated into a universal ethical principle.
In asking what the contemporary novel has to say about our conflicted ethical moment, we might at first be tempted to look at those novels that reflect on these immediate political concerns - torture, terrorism, 9/11 - but I think we should take a cue from Critchley and look instead at the way that recent novels articulate the more basic conditions of ethical action: the line between private and public life, between self and outside world. This is the approach that Critchley takes when he describes art in Infinitely Demanding. For him, aesthetic experiences are a form of sublimation, a redirection of a desire that cannot be fulfilled. Art transforms the experience of this excessive ethical demand into beauty: “In sublimation, we are momentarily lifted from the utilitarian world of calculations, the world of our familiar concerns, and allowed a relation to the Thing that does not crush or destroy us. The beautiful artwork sublimes the object, endowing it with Thingly dignity” (73). Although Critchley suggests that humor may be an even more productive way of thinking about this process of sublimating our ethical experience, the framework for thinking about ethics and art is clear here: the artwork is an auratic other, a Thing whose presence inspires a feeling of sublimity that encapsulates the always-excessive demand of ethics.
For all that his ethical theory is timely, Critchley’s understanding of art is rather old fashioned, very much a reflection of life before the age of mechanical reproduction. We can grasp the limitations of Critchley’s understanding of art by turning to Andy Warhol’s riff on aesthetic theory, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Warhol offers a minimalist definition of what it means to be an artist in terms of space: “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he - for some reason - thinks it would be a good idea to give them” (144). For Warhol, the problem of this art is that it takes up space: “When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy. I always want the space to reappear, to make a comeback, because it’s lost space when there’s something in it. If I see a chair in a beautiful space, no matter how beautiful the chair is, it can never be as beautiful to me as the plain space” (144). Warhol is of course famous for his emphasis on producing art - he brags that while Picasso produced four thousand paintings in his lifetime, with silk-screening Warhol could produce four thousand in a single day (148). Likewise, he was concerned with the detritus of everyday life; the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh describes his Time Capsules, comprised of more than 600 cardboard boxes, this way: “Photographs, newspapers and magazines, fan letters, business and personal correspondence, art work, source images for art-work, books, exhibition catalogues, and telephone messages, along with objects and countless examples of ephemera, such as announcements for poetry readings and dinner invitations, were placed on an almost daily basis into a box kept conveniently next to his desk” (warhol.org).
Warhol’s quirky way of thinking about art becomes a lot more powerful when we throw media into the mix. Warhol was, of course, well aware of his status as a star of the artworld, and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is at it sharpest when Warhol turns back to reflect on the relationship between media and art:
Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television. (146)
Warhol’s description of the way that we can “take up more space than the space [we’re] actually in” reveals some problems in the ethical model that Critchley offers. Contemporary media space is not a simple matter of one individual confronting another who is fundamentally exterior to him or herself. Instead, the space in which we encounter others is a hybrid location that others reach out to claim for themselves, extending themselves beyond their physical boundaries. In fact, Warhol suggests that the isolated, alienated image of separate selves is a great indulgence: “I really like to eat alone. I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people who are like me called ANDYMATS - ‘The Restaurant for the Lonely Person.’ You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television” (160).
What does it mean to be connected all the time, and against our will? Critchley’s vision of ethics is based on the voluntary acceptance of ties to others - ties that are recognized as coming from outside of ourselves and consequently subject to analysis and judgment. The spaces that Warhol describes instead are hybrid, complex spaces in which there is no simple “outside” that we can evaluate, and in which being separate from the world is itself unnatural and self-indulgent. In writing about media globalization in a post-colonial context, Arjun Appadurai notes that the specific, local sites that we often assume to be the bedrock of our social (and, by implication, ethical) interaction are in fact very much produced rather than natural: “locality is an inherently fragile social achievement. Even in the most intimate, spatially confined, geographically isolated situations, locality must be maintained carefully against various kinds of odds” (179). In contemporary globalization, these odds are quite high indeed: “It is in the fertile ground of deterritorialization, in which money, commodities, and persons are involved in ceaselessly chasing each other around the world, that the mediascapes and ideoscapes of the modern world find their fractured and fragmented counterpart” (38). Claiming that you simple are somewhere specific and precise is a way of ignoring all these global flows and complex involvements.
We can all think of ways that the contemporary world connects us to others, sometimes against our own wishes. Consider Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker’s new book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, which tackles the difficult question of the nature of power and sovereignty in our contemporary age of networks. As they remark, “Network control ceaselessly teases out elements of the unhuman within human-oriented networks. This is most easily discovered in the phenomenology of aggregations in everyday life: crowds on city streets or at concerts, distributed forms of protest, and more esoteric instances of flashmobs, smartmobs, critical massing, or swarms of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. All are different kinds of aggregations, but they are united in their ability to underscore the unhuman aspects of human action” (41). In what seems like a direct response to Critchley’s theory, Galloway and Thacker describe the way that such a swarm can become the face that seems to confront us ethically as an other. Using an example drawn from the third Matrix movie, where the swarming insect-like sentinels come together to form a face, Galloway and Thacker offer a lesson for how we think about such larger, inhuman networks, where the face is “built out of the substrate of the swarm”: “the swarm, swarming-as-faciality, is a reminder of the defacement proper not only to distributed insects but also to distributed humans; swarming is simply a reminder of the defacement that runs through all instances of ‘facing’ the other” (69-70). Critchley frames the ethical demands raised by political situations in terms of the relation between one self and another: “An ethical politics flows from our constitutive powerlessness in the face of the other” (120). Warhol, Appadurai, and Galloway and Thacker all suggest that getting to the point where we can sense a simple ethical relation to an other is much more complex - constructed as it is by media, by global flows, and by the larger network swarms which themselves take on an identity.
I’d like to return now to the contemporary novel. Warhol has shown us that the challenge of understanding our position within a whole media ecology is much bigger than the issue of specifically computer networks. It seems to me that it is in contemporary novels about media that the struggle to articulate an ethics amid the sort of global flow and fragile locality that Appadurai describes is most consistently and thoroughly articulated. There is a long tradition of these narratives, going back at least to Dos Passos “camera eye” sections of his U.S.A. trilogy in 1930, but I would offer recent interventions into this tradition by contemporary novelists as a reflection on the problem of ethical space that Critchley encounters.
Let me begin by turning to Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003). I’d like to begin at the end of this novel, with an image that Lethem offers up of an imaginative “middle space.” Lethem’s main character, Dylan Ebdus, has been kicked out of Camden College, and drives home with his father (Abraham) through a snow storm. Dylan puts on a Brian Eno tape, and feels comforted by the sense of space that it invokes: “the middle space [it] conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream” (509). The adult Dylan goes on to reflect on this space as a precarious construction half-way between the utopian and the tough real world that he grew up in, a space of potential that allows one foot to remain in a private dream world, and one foot to rest in its historical moment:
We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris, when “Bothered Blue” peaked on the charts, when a teenaged Elvis, still dreaming of his own first session, sat in the Sun Studios watching the Prisonaires, when a top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station, renovating the world for an instant, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed. (510)
This space between dream and flow, between imaging a relationship and being jacked into an electrical grid, strikes me as a rearticulation of the fragile location that Appadurai describes, and which Critchley misses. This is an imaginative space of identification, where the outside world suddenly calls to you.
In some ways, this description of the call of the world doesn’t sound all that different from what Critchley describes. “[E]thical subjectivity” according to Critchley, “is the experience of being affected by an other in a way that precedes consciousness and which places in question our spontaneity and sovereignty” (121). For Critchley, autonomy is an illusion, a condition for ethical life, and a goal for political action - all at the same time. He explains in this rather dense passage: “My position is that politics as an ethical practice should not assume a pre-given or taken-for-granted notion of autonomy, but is rather hetero-affectively interpellated by a demand that divides it and which impels it into political sequences whose goal would be the cultivation of autonomous spaces” (127-28). Art shakes us out of our belief in a complacent autonomy by insisting on our ethical connection to others. But for these connections to be ethical, they must be accepted freely by autonomous individuals who can “approve” these claims. And even once we have accepted these responsibilities, the goal of political resistance is to cultivate “autonomous spaces” in which a “direct democracy” can flourish (126). For Lethem, conversely, the challenge of ethical life isn’t making connections to others, but instead disentangling ourselves from the world just long enough so that we can see the space between ourselves and the flows in which we are sure to be caught back up. Instead of starting and ending with autonomy, Lethem begins with connection and struggles to find those middle spaces where, just for a moment, we can step back and glimpse a temporary autonomy.
I would like to spend a bit more time with Fortress of Solitude, because the way that the novel gets to this explanation of middle spaces is through an analysis of media and the way that it stages the relation between the public and the private. At the beginning of the novel, Dylan’s family moves to a predominantly black section of Brooklyn, mostly at the urging of Dylan’s mother Rachel, who idealistically embraces the fact that Dylan is “one of three white children in the whole school” (24). Rachel, however, soon abandons Abraham and Dylan, and much of the drama of the novel arises from Dylan’s feeling out of place in the rough, poor, and almost exclusively black public school that he attends. Fortunately, Dylan makes friends with Mingus Rude, the son of a once-famous Rhythm and Blues singer. The black and very cool Mingus provides some protection for Dylan, but as they progress into high school Dylan’s grades earn him a place in the better, more radically-mixed Stuyvesant (220) while Mingus and others from the neighborhood attend the “grim repository” of Sarah J. Hale (202). In time Dylan graduates and goes on to freelance writing about music. Mingus, conversely, gets drawn into a life of petty crime and drug dealing; Dylan finds him at the end of the novel in Watertown prison, incarcerated for life for a series of initially petty but increasingly serious crimes.
Lethem builds this novel around the line between public and private spaces, and does so using media to capture those relationships - something I think happens over and over in contemporary fiction. Dylan’s father is a painter who makes a living throughout Dylan’s childhood by producing surrealistic covers for Science Fiction novels; his more serious work, however, is a hybrid form of painting and film, “an animated film painted by single brushstrokes directly onto celluloid” (9). Mingus’s father, Barrett Rude Junior, is a singer; Dylan eventually goes on to write the liner notes for a collection of his songs. In addition to this work, Dylan later puts together an oddly hybrid work: Liner Notes: The Boxed Set. Later, Dylan tries to sell yet another cross-media project, a film based on the story of the Prisonaires, “one of the great unknown stories in pop-culture history” about a band formed in prison in the 1950s who are “victims of prejudice and economic injustice in the Jim Crow South” (327). Fortress of Solitude makes its most explicit media link to comic books; the title of the novel is a reference to Superman’s secret retreat. Throughout elementary and then middle school Dylan and Mingus collect comic books - a hobby first sparked by Rachel’s interest in them (55).
In this novel, different forms of media reflect different degrees of private solitude or public involvement with others. Abraham’s private paintings in the “Fortress” of his upstairs studio are the apotheosis of privacy. These works are never displayed publicly until the very end of the novel, when Abraham finds a new girlfriend, who “organized my father, and she seemed, in a peculiar way, to make him happy. She made him visible to himself, by her contrast” (341). Ironically, film in its more traditional form seems to represent the exact opposite of Abraham’s extreme privacy. Rachel is obsessed with film: “she had this routine, every time I tried to get her to do anything outdoors she’d say, ‘I wonder what’s playing at the Thalia.’ Like I should know what she was missing, from her life before” (507). Rachel goes on, when pressed to explain why a particular film was so good, to narrate in full detail: “she told me the plot of that fucking movie for an hour. I mean, doing Peter Lorre’s voice and everything, all the lines - she had the whole thing memorized” (507). In contrast to Abraham’s inwardly-turned, almost unwatchable film, the restless and political Rachel embraces the public display (at the Thalia) of a well-known film. These two ways of thinking about essentially the same medium define the extremes of the spectrum between the private and the public.
Between these two forms fall the other major media that the novel addresses: music, comic books, and writing itself. Music appears to be a largely public medium in Fortress of Solitude. Dylan’s story of the Prisonaires, for example, is essentially about the way that public acceptance or discrimination determines the ability of musicians to perform. In contrast, comic books are not publicly displayed or performed the way that film and music is, making them a more ambiguous combination of the public and the private. Comic books are both public documents to be bought and sold, and at the same time fantasy works that often express very private desires and fears. This is particularly well exemplified in the novel by the activity of collecting comics, shared by Dylan and Mingus: “Two afternoons a week, sitting in the dimming light on Dylan’s stoop, never discussing fifth or sixth grade, stuff too basic and mysterious to mention. Instead just paging through, shoulders hunched to protect the flimsy covers from the wind, puzzling out the last dram, the last square inch of information, the credits, the letters page, the copyright, the Sea-Monkeys ads, the insult that made a man out of Mac. Then, just when you thought you were alone, Dean street came back to life, Mingus Rude knowing everyone, saying Yo to a million different kids” (66). This passage, where reading comic books is associated with sitting on the house stoop, nicely captures the threshold nature of the comic book, which is poised between the private and the public. Finally, Lethem gives us few examples of writing in the novel - and all of those occur at the margins of the novel. One important example is graffiti, which is handled in the novel in terms of tagging or marking with name Dose, which Mingus and Dylan both use, creating an oddly hybrid identity attached to the name: “he’s been allowed to merge his identity in this away with the black kid’s, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both Dose, no more and no less” (138). Tagging here is an expression of individual identity, the creation and then making public of a name that not everyone will recognize, a name that works like an almost secret identity: “At thirteen you’d begun to leave traces, occult names and signs proliferating” (191). This form of writing joins film and comic books in striking a balance point between the public and the private.
I have spent so much time on this novel because I think that this analysis of media is typical and explains how we get to the middle space that Lethem describes at the end of Fortress of Solitude. It seems to me that Lethem’s novel is a model for the ethical engagement of the individual in the larger social world. Fortress of Solitude does this not in the ways that we might expect - by making explicit political statements or, as Critchley claims, “naming a political subjectivity and organizing politically around that name” (103) - but instead by helping to define the precarious balance between individual and larger social space. In a surprising way, Lethem’s novel helps us to see that the contemporary novel engages with ethics by positioning itself within the current media ecology. For all of the interest in the theoretical category of the media ecology in books like Tabbi and Wutz’s Reading Matters, Fuller’s Media Ecologies, and the ebr’s own “critical ecologies” thread, this “medial turn” is not usually seen as a fundamentally ethical issue. Critics are most likely to appeal to the media ecology to analyze the novel’s struggle to remain culturally relevant, or perhaps to invoke McLuhan and claim that changes in media transform the nature of subjectivity and perception. Instead of being merely a matter of media history or some abstract change in the contours of the self, Lethem shows that how we engage with the range of contemporary media is a way of defining the space between self and world. And that, it seems to me, is the beginning of contemporary ethics.
Simply listing all of the contemporary novels that use media this way won’t tell us much about how these middle spaces work. Instead I would like to close by offering snippets from three contemporary novels of varying genre and style that suggest some of the range of this engagement with the “middle spaces” of ethical action.
Susan Daitch’s The Colorist
Consider the plot of Susan Daitch’s The Colorist. Julie Greene’s job is to color a superhero comic-strip published by Fantômes and Company called Electra. Fantômes in general and the Electra strip in particular are on shaky economic footing, and shortly after the novel begins the strip is canceled and Julie and her friend Laurel Liu, the inker, are fired. The search for employment carries Julie and Laurel into a variety of artistic odd-jobs, and they eventually end up working for a shady company that makes reproductions of artworks and archeological artifacts for sale in museum gift-shops. Julie’s roommate is Eamonn Archer, a photographer who becomes interested in gun smuggling and piracy, and who consequently tries to use his photography as a form of investigation. Lest Lethem’s use of media in Fortress of Solitude seem quirky and unique, The Colorist shows us that cataloging artistic media - in Daitch’s case, sculpture, photography, cartooning, and writing - is a common strategy of the contemporary novel.
As in Lethem’s novel, the characters of The Colorist are caught in a balance between public and private, between Eamonn’s historical engagement and the exploration of private spaces that Daitch associates with cartooning. After the Electra series is cancelled, Julie and Laurel decide to continue it on their own:
Laurel had no interest in starting a comic business, and she knew I would be content staying at home drawing Electra into spiraling obscurity.
We could make her do whatever we wanted her to do, and the whole enterprise would amount to nothing. Electra was depressing and ridiculous. Laurel didn’t mind rewriting the story for her own amusement but insisted Electra have no political axe to grind. That, to her, made absolutely no sense. (29)
But Electra doesn’t remain simply private. Through the vissitudes of the story that they develop about her (she dies at one point) she moves between private worlds (she is held captive by a photographer for a while) and the public (she is homeless for most of the narrative). Towards the end of the novel they place her in a movie theatre where she has some shelter and the chance to scrounge enough food to eat. This hybrid space is in some ways public and in some ways private, neither the raw street where she lived before nor the prison space where she withered away as a captive. In this sense, this new narrative is an attempt to take greater account of the real world than the original Electra comic did: “If any of [their characters] ventured out of the movie theater to beg or look for food, he or she would risk not being able to get back inside. In the cold, it was a difficult decision to have to consider: sacrificing food for shelter or relinquishing shelter for food. These were circumstances her original publisher had ignored. There had always been money and food in space. At Fantômes, Laurel had never drawn so much as a sandwich or a dime, but it was understood the characters had access to whatever ensured basic survival under ordinary circumstances” (154). Like Lethem’s Dylan, Electra finds herself in a middle space between dreaming and material reality, between isolation and the draw of others. And she gets here because Daitch conducts the same sort of analysis of media forms that we see in Fortress of Solitude.
Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down has long provided an almost perfect example of postmodernist fiction, with its mixed frames of references and its parody of conventional literary forms. And, like Lethem’s and Daitch’s novels, this one is poised between print (the “yellow back” refers to cheap paperback novels) and other media (radio and television in particular). Reed’s novel tells the story of Loop Garoo, who was (as the opening paragraph of the novel explains) “A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bullwacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women. A desperado so ornery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine” (9). This opening captures the style of the novel, which imitates the tall-tale western but mixes in references to the supernatural (a posse of spells) and anachronous contemporary life (phone in sick) that creates a strange layering of traditionally separate frames of reference. Loop plays the role of a western outlaw who uses magic to work against the interests of established government, religion and business. In particular, Loop’s foil is Drag Gibson, the “most powerful of cattlemen” who hopes to drive Loop from the town of Yellow Back Radio, which has been taken over by children. Loop uses magic to call down a “wangol” on Drag; “It will be the strongest malice ever. Never again will they burn carnivals and murder children” (62).
Relatively unappreciated amid Reed’s energetic parody of literary forms is the sophisticated understanding of the way that radio and television transmission transform the space of personal action. When the adults driven out of Yellow Back Radio come to Drag for help, it is specifically in terms of giving him media control of the town; they promise to “give you the hand over of Yellow Back Radio, so that you could adjust all the knob and turn to whatever station you wished” (22). The fight over Yellow Back Radio seems to be an allegory for the control of mass media; Loop struggles to keep these media from being controlled by the large businesses that Drag embodies. His magic seems to involve the Warhol-like ability to be in two places at once, possible apparently because Loop is able to take over the control room of a television station. In this sense, Loop’s struggle with Drag is an attempt to wrest control of media from him, played out in the struggle over Yellow Back Radio.
And yet, like the other “middle spaces” of U.S. fiction, Reed’s transmission network is fragile and temporary. The children that Loop defends go off at the end of the novel and ignore Loop, seduced by the promise of the “late late late show.” When they leave Loop behind, it is specifically because they are offered a vision of a “really garish smaltzy super technological anarchoparadise” that is “as far as you can see from where you’re standing now” (170). Technology itself seems to be a dangerous and seductive undercurrent within the use of mass media - creating a space that promises an ever-receding utopia that flows out from any particular location towards larger networks and the power they distribute. Like the temporary, imaginative location Lethem describes, Loop’s moment of resistance is made possible by a temporary space that becomes a flow outward into networks beyond our control.
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters
I’ll close with a last example that is very different in style from the playful use of popular culture we see in Lethem, Daitch, and Reed. Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters tells the story of Velma Henry, who is undergoing a spiritual healing lead by Minnie Ransom in a community infirmary and struggling to overcome the grievances that she holds against friends and relatives. At times the story moves out from Velma’s mind through flashbacks or shifts to the perceptions of others in the room during the healing. But much of the novel has a looser connection to this central scene, including characters with which Velma apparently has no direct contact. Bambara suggests that the whole novel occurs in the time that Velma remains in the infirmary being healed, but the events that make up the novel exceed Velma’s own point of view, including a musical performance that is apparently going on at the long-closed Regal theatre, as well as an arts festival that looks like it will turn violent until it is rained out by a thunderstorm.
Bambara herself was involved with the Black Arts Movement, and as a result more than any of the novels that I’ve mentioned, The Salt Eaters celebrates the potential of media to build a community. I’ve recently written about the Black Arts Movement as a forerunner to contemporary “multimedia” aesthetics in “The Black Arts Movement and the Genealogy of Multimedia.” One of Bambara’s central thematic and structural references is music. The thunderstorm that ends the novel and washes out the arts festival is musical; characters struggle to distinguish thunder from drums, and the rain itself is musical in its rhythm: “The rain’s music more insistent than the drumming sounding from across the way” (287). Even more direct is the link between Velma’s healing and music. The healing itself is conducted to Ransom’s singing: “Velma caught up, caught up, in the weave of the song Minnie was humming, of the shawl, of the threads, of the silvery tendrils that extended from the healer’s neck and hands and disappeared into the sheen of the sunlight” (4). This healing song occurs in a strictly limited space and time that coincides with the time of the novel: “We can’t stay long now. The loa are setting up to make music for Velma to dance by” (62). Bambara’s use of dance insists that our understanding is all part of a larger way of moving through the world that fuses all of our senses, and that ultimately defines a certain experience of the body. Unlike the alienated body the Critchley assumes, Bambara describes corporeality as a shared experience. Velma’s husband Obie links the personal body and the body politic: “Pressure points of the human body…pressure points of the system…the U.S….pressure” (162; Bambara’s ellipsis).
It is tempting to see The Salt Eaters simply as part of an African-American literary tradition that uses music as a framework for writing - a tradition that we can trace back to DuBois’s citation of Blues lyrics in The Souls of Black Folks and to Langston Hughes’s explicit use of music in The Weary Blues. But the use of music to create a temporary space of the sort that Lethem describes - the time of the healing song that is limited by the time of the novel - seems to me to mark Bambara’s novel as distinctly contemporary. Like the novels of Lethem, Daitch, and Reed, The Salt Eaters frames the relationship between media as a way to think about the line between private self and public community. And, as in these other novels, this line is articulated through a temporary space balanced between both. The ability to move through the ritual between Velma’s mind and the community in which she lives embodies the struggle for the middle spaces that I believe are the basis of contemporary fiction’s ethics.
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—. Narrative Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Narratology. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
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