Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A One Dimensional Invisible Man

Throughout history there have been many attempts, wide scale and at the individual level, to abolish the confines of social class. These attempts are usually made by the lower class to either become apart of the upper class or to simply have no stratification whatsoever.  One could say that an individual with the cliché rags-to-riches story is and individual who has successfully transcended their class and has balanced out these class inequalities. Herbert Marcuse would disagree with those who believe this (and I would concur with him.) When one attempts to rise up out of their class by emulating or assimilating with the upper class they are not ridding the world of class distinctions but really preserve them. This claim by Marcuse is also echoed in Ralph Ellison’s work Invisible Man but first we will start with an analysis of Marcuse.

Here, the so-called equalization of class distinctions reveals its ideological function. If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservations of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population. (Marcuse 8)

What Marcuse claims here is that when we try to assimilate with the upper class by living their lifestyle we are simply maintaining the status quo. Instead of equalizing or abolishing class stratification we are actually perpetuating it and showing how important it’s preservation is to the Establishment. By buying the same luxuries that those we admire have we are not showing that there is no need for class or that we are becoming a part of the higher class but rather that class is so important that one must buy these things in order to display their class to the masses. These actions, in effect, perpetuate class farther and therefore are counter productive to their goal. The preservation of class roles through their attempted abolishment is a theme that is echoed early on in Ellison’s work. Ellison uses the narrator to illustrate this same idea that the attempt to transcend ones class by emulating the upper class usually has negative results.

            In the 1st chapter the narrator recounts a speech he gave at his graduation. The speech was so compelling that it was met with vigorous praise and the narrator was even asked to give the speech at a gathering of the towns most prestigious, white, members. The narrator terms this invitation as a “triumph for [his] whole community” (Ellison 17) which one would assume it is without reading Marcuse. Initially the reader does consider this a triumph; in the time of the novel, if a young black, high school graduate was given the opportunity to speak in front the white elite it was considered not only a success but and extreme rarity.  We assume that the narrator is transcending his social class.  His superior intellect has impressed the prestigious members of society and because of this they accept him into their community, and in the beginning we imagine that this is a good thing. However we see shortly after that the narrator was not brought there to transcend his social class, but to highlight it and reaffirm it. Instead of showing how his presence shatters social constructs it proves how important they are to the community.
            When the narrator arrived he was not considered the main event, or the guess of honor as he had hoped. He was not given the opportunity to prove why he deserved to be there or why he was meant to be a part of this upper class at all. Instead the narrator was proposed with something completely different: “I was told that since I was to be there anyways I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment.” (Ellison 17)  This is completely antithetical to the reason why the narrator thought he was invited to the event and exactly what Marcuse was talking about. Rather than getting the opportunity to rise above his class the narrator was told to maintain it and instead of being the triumphant representative for his community his was force to physically fight against them. Here we see the masses using the attempt to balance out class distinction as a way to affirm them. The narrator’s attempt to be come apart of the elite caused him to be placed in a position where he is considered as more of an animal that even a human being.
The narrators attempt to become apart of the elite social class was thwarted by the very same group that he was attempting to emulate. Through out the night he was received with racial slurs, he was berated and harassed and barely given the chance to give his speech. When the narrator did get a chance to talk, he was given no respect and ironically enough, generated quite a few laughs when he misspoke and preached social equality instead of social responsibility. Here and in other parts in the novel we see Marcuse’s argument accurately portrayed. By trying emulate the upper class in an attempt to strip society of class distinctions only helps to maintain those distinctions and show how important they are to our society.   


  1. I really like what you have so far, I think it's a solid argument that you could do a lot with. I think social class, and for that matter, hierarchy, are two subjects that are not only heavily intertwined with each other, but also with a variety of other works that we have read in class. If you were to consider this essay as a contender for your final project and revision, I might recommend that you maintain this general argument (emulating the highest class as a way of maintaining the status-quo) and explore the idea through other works that we have talked about in class, or perhaps look into an alternative to this system as suggested by other books or articles that you can find. For instance, Lilith's Brood seems to focus a lot on hierarchy and how it is a fatal flaw within humanity, and what the Ooloi are trying to do to "fix" it. I'm not sure how you would feel about an aspect like that in your argument, but nonetheless I think those are the types of questions and the type of research you might want to start looking into if you are thinking about using and expanding this idea and making it into your final project.

  2. I think the argument that you are proposing here is accurate and well guided through the use of Marcuse and Ellison. The cited passages that you have here are explained nicely and fit well with your overall argument. The example of the narrator's invitation to the event and later involvement in the battle royal is probably one of the strongest examples to support your argument. You have an excellent focus as this essay does not wonder off into other, less-related areas.

    For a revision, it would be great to see more engagement with both Marcuse and Ellison. The examples you have here are good, but providing a few more examples with more insight would aid this essay greatly. A good example to use may be Mr. Bledsoe's position in the world. While he is in a position of power, he is in a position of servitude to the established white-dominated society. He is not really transcending social status, but merely exemplifying the importance that our society places on it. Also, how Bledsoe aids in the perpetuation of class difference may also be of great importance here. I'm sure Marcuse has a ton more to say about this as well.

    Overall, this is a fantastic starting point. You already have a clear, focused, and supported argument at hand. With more examples and outside research on this topic, I am very confident this will turn into an excellent revision. Good Luck!

  3. I don't like broad generalizations "throughout history..." but you rapidly move into relevant and interesting territory. Ellison is obviously alive to social class as well as race (and the relationship between the two) - it's a good area to focus upon.

    Your reading of Marcuse is good and focused. You have also, incidentally, zeroed in on one of the few moments in Marcuse which directly refers to the sort of shared space of race and class. That might not be important to your argument, but it's a nice touch.

    An aside on the idea that his success is "a triumph for the whole community." The other young men hate his guts - which indicates, at the least, that the triumph isn't universally felt; this seems like it could strengthen your argument.

    I liked your second to last paragraph. What happens here - and happens throughout - is that the narrator is set seemingly above other black men, in a way that reinforces that he is a privileged member of his class, rather than belonging to the "higher" class.

    Jesse's idea to move to Bledsoe is a very good one. If there is someone who challenges your argument, it's him; therefore, a revision would need to deal with him (or your argument would need to shift a little). You would also need to ultimately deal with the Brotherhood, and the question of whether the same process that we see going on at the Battle Royale is happening more subtly in the Brotherhood.

    A good start - your narrow focus on the very beginning of the novel is fine, but any revision would need to expand its scope, and work with that expanded scope. The most obvious criticism of this draft is Bledsoe's absence, which surely would need addressed.