Monday, April 9, 2012

Marcuse's Supra-Individuality in Ellison

“[A] certain speech…by a certain individual who is (authorized or unauthorized) spokesman of a particular group…in a specific society. This group has its own values, objectives, codes of thought and behavior which enter—affirmed or opposed—with various degrees of awareness and explicitness, into individual communication. The later thus “individualizes” a supra-individual system of meaning, which constitutes a dimension of discourse different from, yet merged with, that of individual communication" (Marcuse 197).

When Ellison’s protagonist gives his graduation speech at a gathering of important local white men, he is representing the whole of the black community in the town. His speech “showed that humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress” (17). According to Marcuse, this speech should interpolate some sort of meaning or essence of the black community for the white folk present. For most of the presentation, however, that is not the case.

The speaker, with his parable about the men in the boat who need the water and obey the other ship in order to get it, is representational not of the black community—remember his grandfather?—but of the black community that the white men want to see, the black community under the finger of the white population. Ellison’s narrator orates eloquently of the importance of humility to success in the community, exemplifying the concept as he speaks, having just been a pawn in their entertainment. He has been pitted against his schoolmates in a battle royal, beat up, bloodied, electrocuted, and yet he does not fight back, protest, or even hesitate in his speech, but continues with the humility that the white men in attendance demand from the black community.

The men “were still talking and laughing” (30) as he delivered the speech he had labored to create. The white men were laughing at the narrator’s naïveté, his willingness to go along with the culture they have created for the black people. That is to say that the narrator is not evincing the Marcusian definition of the supra-individual system of the black community, but rather the supra-individual system of the black community as brainwashed by the white community. The narrator is not expressing the views of his people, but the views of his people as colored—or whitewashed, as it were, by the white “masters”.

The entirety of the gathering is in on the joke together. They laugh and chirp at the narrator,
congratulating themselves on a job well done, being able to have created such a well-rounded black man after their own design. Instead of being colored by his own culture, the narrator’s speech is tinged with the oppressor’s rhetoric. That is, until he slips up.

The reader knows that the narrator did not mean to stir up trouble, for Ellison writes that the narrator “made a mistake and yelled a phrase [he] had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, head debated in private” (31). He utters a phrase—social equality—that makes “[t]he laughter [hang] smokelike in the sudden stillness” (31). Whereas the group was merry moments before as the narrator gamely discussed social responsibility, they are caught off guard and consequently try to run him off stage. The white men are angered by and afraid of the chink in the armor of what they considered a perfect specimen of black submissiveness.

The supra-identity of the narrator’s culture—embodied in the memory of his grandfather’s words—peeks through in this moment, although the narrator contributes the slip to being “distracted by having to gulp down my blood” (31). While this may be true, it is also Ellison’s way to say that the narrator needed to swallow the white people’s influence on his culture and accept what is deep down and confusing to him: the assertion of his grandfather that the social responsibility of the black man was not "humility” but to “agree ’em to death and destruction” (16).


  1. I totally agree with your point here, and you back up your paper with very solid quotes from within both One Dimensional Man and Invisible Man. However, I’d like to see how you’d relate this idea of the narrator’s need to “swallow the white people’s influence” to events later in the novel as well. How does that change how we see the narrator’s interaction with Mr. Norton, specifically Norton’s discussion of intertwined fate?
    “So you see, young man, you are involved in my life quite intimately, even though you’ve never seen me before. You are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument. If you become a good farmer, a chef, a preacher, doctor, singer, mechanic – whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate.”(Ellison, 51).
    If the narrator is being subjugated to the ideas of the white man, how does that change the white man’s fate as well? What is the effect of the narrator being part of the “…black community that the white men want to see, the black community under the finger of the white population.” as you said to the white people?
    Also, I’d like to see how you’d connect this event to the event of the hospital machine. Clearly this is a time that the narrator is being subjected to white men without his consent, and it results in a very serious change in his personality. Is this maybe an extreme reaction to the extreme domination of his person resulting in a possible backfire to the white community? Or is it exactly what the white community wanted all along?
    I hope this gives you enough material to further your discussion. This is a solid paper with lots of room for further examination of the novel as a whole should you want to revise it. If you have any questions feel free to get into contact with me.

  2. Katelyn's thoughts are all worth following. My one area of interest is more conceptual, though - which shouldn't diminish anything that she says.

    "That is to say that the narrator is not evincing the Marcusian definition of the supra-individual system of the black community, but rather the supra-individual system of the black community as brainwashed by the white community." I think your analysis of the Battle Royale is good, and I think that your understanding of Marcuse in relationship with it has merit. *But*, especially in the context of Marcuse's text as a whole (Marcuse's *overall* topic is the one-dimensional society, which effortlessly suppresses all resistance, which is exactly what you're talking about!).

    To put it another way: Marcuse is concerned with the unification of opposites. The narrator as spokesman for the black community *should* signify opposite - but he really signifies repression, as you ably discuss. For Marcuse, this is *exactly* how our society works - seemingly opposite things coming together within a one-dimensional context.

    This is a good reading, really - just problematic in the way that you use one quote from Marcuse without reference to Marcuse's system of thought as a whole.