Saturday, April 7, 2012

Questions on Ellison/Marcuse, Week 2


  1. I find the hospital machine to be perhaps the most perplexing part of this novel thus far. From what I can gather, it is an Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machine. This is intriguing, as most ECT therapy, I thought, was for depressive disorders. In fact, a quick internet search shows that it is rarely, if ever, used for physical injuries. So the placement of the therapy within this portion of the novel seems wildly purposeful. This is, essentially, involuntary ECT therapy, which has questionable legality (its certainly illegal now - I can’t speak for the 1940s). I have a difficult time considering just why Ellison put in this section.

    Arguably, this is a turning point for our narrator. This is directly before he gains his new identity, and arguably splits the book into two halves. It would seem as though Ellison would think that the treatment is somehow responsible for the narrator’s actions throughout the novel. This would make empirical sense: side effects of ECT therapy include memory loss and wide spectra of other psychological alterations. The treatment could be easily read as modifying the narrator’s identity. Yet, why would Ellison have to stoop to such a level?

    Clearly, we have an event already that would justify such a shift in the narrator’s perception of himself or society: he is harmed by an African American, someone who is supposed to be supportive in this era of racial strife. Yet, he is critiqued and judged for his intellectual standing rather than his racial standing. Earlier, Dr. Bledsoe had judged the narrator for his moral/ethical/decision-making standing, again, rather than his racial. Does Ellison see this as progressive? It’s hard for me to say. On one hand, while race has very much to do with the way that Lucius and Dr. Bledsoe treat the narrator, it is not the sole factor by which they judge him. On the other hand, it shows weakness in the unity of the oppressed class and can serve as a critique for the fashion in which the Civil Rights movement was beginning to pan out between African Americans.

    So my question is: does Ellison mean to tell us that the ECT treatment, or rather, the loss of memory and possibly the loss of psychological stability is necessary for the narrator to go on to do what he does in the latter half of the novel (I’m trying not to spoil anything here)? Again, this makes me question what Ellison thinks about leadership.

  2. With Chapter Eleven we are thrust into a scene in which the narrator is in a factory hospital, where the doctors are caring for him while also experimenting on him. Early on he is plagued with a childlike dumfoundedness and fails to tell the doctors not only his name but the name of his mother. One of the “treatments” that these doctors give to the narrators is electro-shock therapy. “I was pounded between crushing electrical pressures; pumped between live electrodes like an accordion between a player’s hands.”(232) This is yet again another reference to electricity and electrical currents, so I begin to wonder what is Ellison try to tell us when using Electricity and electrical power as a metaphors. We have seen electricity many times before: early on when the narrator is getting shocked by the electrically charged carpet while attempting to retrieve coins, when Trueblood describes going through a tunnel towards a power plant in his dream and in the prologue of the novel when the narrator wages his war on the electrical company by having over one thousand lights constantly running, but what do all these things mean. My guess would be that these references to physical power have something to do with social power; the power and authority that some people (whites) have over others (blacks). I think Ellison is showing how these types of power can be used to inflict harm on others. The physical pain that the electricity causes can be thought of as symbolism for the types of pain that can be inflicted when one has authority over another. This is just one of my theroys for this idea but it is still very underdeveloped.

  3. Through my reading thus far, perhaps because it is something that we have discussed about previous novels, but I can’t help but again consider the role of gender. He discusses being an “invisible man” but I am curious as to what he could consider women to be as historically women were another groups (to a varying degree) that were gaining equality roughly around the same time. I think my answer to the question would be that he considers them to be a different substance altogether and does think of them as on the same level as men. In regards to Caucasian women including the dancer in the beginning underground scene and Mr. Norton’s daughter, it seems as if he is intimidated by having a fear of being interested in them in a sexual way. Another mention of a college student and asking him to relay a message to her boyfriend and immediately he interpreted this as sexual. Mary however, is not described sexually but the narrarator does not really describe her favorably either. He says that she talks too much and that he wouldn’t consider her to be a friend: “Nor did I think of Mary as a ‘friend’: she was something more- a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face”(258). From all of these interactions with women, even though they are not all the same, I think that it can generally be said that the narrator does not really relate or understand women.

  4. Through multiple readings of the description of the section involving the machine in the hospital I still struggle to decide exactly what its purpose is. Obviously the narrator is receiving some form of electrical stimulus from the machine, but for what purpose they use this is escaping me. It seems unreasonable to use an electrical charge to solve a physical issue when typically this type of stimulus is for mental disorders. I feel that there is a high probability that Ellison is attempting to use the machine as a reference to something more meaningful, though I can’t quite put a finger on it. First of all this machine is clearly experimental which is bad enough.
    “’Aha! You see! My little gadget will solve everything!’ he exploded.
    ‘I don’t know,’ another voice said. ‘I think I still prefer surgery. And in this case especially, with this, us… background,…’”(Ellison, 189).
    Then, we know that the narrator hasn’t even given them permission to experiment on him until after the procedure is already over. This seems highly unethical. However, it causes me to believe that Ellison wants us to see the narrator as having been molded by the ‘machine’ constructed by white men, and the result of which is the opposite of what the white men have wanted from him his whole life. In fact, after this the narrator commences to eat yams on the street while walking which is something he has been taught very clearly not to do.
    Furthermore, I find the conversation between the doctors to be equally as interesting.
    “’But what of his psychology?’
    ‘Absolutely of no importance!’ the voice said. ‘The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no traumata on his account.’
    There was a pause. A pen scratched upon paper. Then, ‘Why not castration, doctor?...”(Ellison, 190).
    There are multiple points of this conversation that bother me deeply. First is the statement that the psychology is ‘of no importance!’ We know that the integrity of the doctors is not respectable, even if they feel that the patient will be(why should they feel that he wasn’t before?). Either they suspect that all black people are being dishonest to them under the surface (which is what the narrator has been confused about this entire time), or they simply feel that mankind is dishonest. The latter seems unlikely to me. Then, there is the idea that this will benefit all of society by altering this man’s mind. I’m not sure how they expect all of society to be benefited by this man’s split mind. Finally, I really don’t understand what electro-shock therapy and castration have in common. Unless their goal is the termination of a certain lineage (black people) by causing brain damage or by castrating them without permission, which I haven’t written off as a possibility, I don’t see the connection.
    As a side note, I thought it was very interesting that though the narrator could not even recall his own identity that he was able to remember Biblical stories. “Whoever else I was, I was no Samson. I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom not destruction.”(Ellison, 194). Samson, who is famously known for wrestling a lion and killing a whole army with a jawbone after God gave him superhuman powers, obviously has ties with the situation that the narrator is in. However, though I realize the doctors don’t hear the thoughts of the patient, it legitimizes the statement of the doctor who states, “…especially with this, uh…. Background, I’m not so sure that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of simple prayer.”(Ellison, 189).

  5. "This is your new identity," Brother Jack said. "Open it." Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper. "that is your new name," Brother Jack said. "Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that even if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand?" (Ellison, 309)

    After the narrator's traumatic hospital experience, he tells the reader that he cannot remember his name. After this happens he is confused, despondent and feels as though something "alien" is inside of him. After the university, the factory, and finally, the hospital--it appears that the narrator has been wiped clean, ready for a new identity. However, in my opinion, this new identity as a spokesperson is just as bad as his previous identity of a dutiful student/worker...
    Once again, he is blindly following orders and is virtually made into a puppet by this brotherhood. It seems as though through the narrator's nightmares of his grand father and other authority figures in his life, he too realizes that he has once again made himself into puppet--this time just for a different cause.
    In addition to this, once again we are given the image of a machine during the narrator's interview with a magazine. He remarks how the members of the brotherhood are all part of a machine.
    It appears that to me, the machine, the source of power, and the puppetry, the face of the power, are both seemingly interconnected. The machine makes the identity, and the puppet performs the identity. It feels like not only is this relationship reciprocal, but perhaps the puppet is just an aspect of the machine. Using Marcuse's view of the machine, and its negative impacts, could we go so far as to say that the idea of people and societies as a machine are negative across the board? Can there ever be an instance where implying that a unit of people as a machine is in actuality a good thing that does not sacrifice the identity and individuality of those who are a part of the machine? Or is the very act of regarding people as parts of a machine degrading in and of itself?

  6. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through" (Ellison,217).

    Other than its place in the story, what are Ellison's deeper intentions in including the Liberty Paints company in the narrative. I think its fairly obvious that this company represents so much more than just the narrator's workplace. There is a large amount of emphasis put on the white quality of the paint produced. If the paint is not brilliant white, it is considered bad paint. This is no doubt related to the white-dominated culture that is ever-present in the novel. The white is so white that it can absorb and cover up anything. This is similar to how the white-dominated culture controls and masks almost everything.

    "White!Its the purest white that can be found. Nobody makes a paint any whiter. This batch right here is heading for a national monument" (Ellison,202). I found this line very interesting because it seems to be alluding to how the goodness of whiteness remains the national ideology. The whiteness is so great that its being used on a national monument. This white national monument will stand in tribute to the white-dominated society.

    Another aspect of the paint that I found interesting was the fact that a bit of black chemical was used to make the white paint. What are we to make of this? Is this alluding to the conclusion that the white-dominated society relied on blacks to make the culture what it is today? That even though they are discriminated against, blacks are an essential part of the culture and it would not exist without them?

  7. I think there is an interesting moment on page 243 during the discussion of the lobotomy machine where our narrator says “I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine.” I thought this was an interesting moment because I associate the machine as perhaps the government or the general order of things. This is not Ahab’s version of the fight against all the whale stands for; our narrator’s fight is more contained in that he does not wish to sacrifice himself in the destruction of the system or the enemy. This is perhaps why when he rebels he does not go with his Grandfather’s version of yes siring them to death but rebels with individualism or invisibility instead of hiding in the good men of society. I think this is also an interesting moment because the doctors have just mentioned lobotomy and I would be scared to lose more of myself in a lobotomy and losing who I am, while even though our narrator is frightened he is contained by a wish to live. Does he then at this point see life as more important than emotions and personality? He has been disillusioned by Dr. Blodsoe at this point but he still sees himself as in a certain role of educated, sophisticated black-man, superior to those like Lucius until he is goes back to the Men’s House. Does he believe his life and knowledge are more important than who he thinks he is or is he merely controlled by a natural urge to live and survive? And either way what does this say about our narrator? Is he a coward or is he a smart man?