Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reification of Oppression in Marcuse and Ellison.

“I was thinking of the first person who’d mentioned anything like fate in my presence, my grandfather. There had been nothing pleasant about it and I had tried to forget it. Now, riding here in the powerful car with this white man who was so pleased with what he called his fate, I felt a sense of dread. My grandfather would have called this treachery and I could not understand in just what way it was” (Ellison). Marcuse’s unification of opposites runs rampant within Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison creates and presents racial control and class oppression that takes place through an illusory unification of opposites bestowed to the oppressed class from the oppressor. In this way, the potentiality for protest and therefore revolt are recognized by the oppressing class. These nodes of resistance are swiftly applauded and upheld by the oppressing class – they are given money, education, and attention. Upon receiving this money, education and attention, the node of resistance undergoes a paradigm shift – becoming something other than a portion of the oppressed class and thereby the node is effectively distanced from its identification with the oppressed class and begins to identify with the oppressing class. Once it becomes difficult for the node of resistance to identify with the class from which it transcended, the initial ideology that it first recognized becomes clouded, hazy, and conflated with the ideology of the oppressing class. Thus, a harmonious unification of opposites.   
What is particularly tricky with regards to the bolstering of nodes of resistance by the oppressing class is that the very act which leads to the unification of the oppressed and oppressing can easily be propagated as an act of valor for the oppressed class by the oppressing class. This can create the illusion that progress is being made and that not only is the oppressing class empathetic to the plight of the oppressed class, but, indeed, they have taken a step towards closing the gap. The narrator’s initial speech that gains him attention within the society was concerned with the idea “that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress” (Ellison, ). This idea is heavily grounded in Marcuse’s ideas of the mollification of social protest. A young African American man, a member of the oppressed class, makes a speech during a time of great social injustice and his main idea is that the effacement of the individual would lead to what he identifies with as progress. Within the very next sentence, the narrator scoffs at this idea: “Not that I believed this – how could I, remembering my grandfather? – I only believed that it worked” (Ellison, ). Yet he puts forward the idea, knowing that he would benefit from it. From the start, this is a clear representation of the unification of opposites. The narrator is clearly a member of an oppressed class and he recognizes this. Still, his first speech concerns progress (it is unclear within the text if this initial speech is connected to racial issues or not) by engagement with the established system. Furthermore, the speech itself symbolizes this very engagement, as the ideas contained within the speech are not beliefs which the narrator holds, but which he recognizes as a tool for gaining social merit (which he then may be able to turn around and use for actual progress).
Once recognized as a potentially influential orator, the narrator is presented with a scholarship to attend college. The narrator is essentially being integrated into the very society that oppresses his people and accepts. At the ceremony where he receives his scholarship, he is berated, belittled and beaten by bigoted white men, which eventually allow him to make a speech concerning relations between African Americans and white persons. The speech, again, highlights humility and the ‘social responsibility’ of both classes, yet it is given after the battle royale, after the narrator had been beaten and demeaned. The presentation of the scholarship at the end of the speech completely closes the universe of discourse within the novel. Any initial protest that the narrator had – whether regarding race relations in general or objections to the way he had been treated before his speech – were efficiently squashed once he was given the briefcase. Indeed he claims that he was “overjoyed” (Ellison, ). The injustices of the men (or the society) are somewhat forgotten or at least accepted by the narrator as he is allowed to transcend his previous social stature and become more fully integrated into the established order. In addition, the actions of the men are offered as if they were “in jest,” treating social inequality as inevitable, taking great pride in proving an African American a scholarship, while blatantly taking part in overt racial violence.
The next chapter depicts the narrator driving Mr. Norton around the outskirts of the college. The narrator feels privileged at this point, and the opposites of oppressed and oppressor are unified within the car. They travel outward from the college and witness the countryside to which Mr. Norton takes a fascination. Outside of the realm of affluence and privilege, the oppression of the African American race makes itself readily apparent. Mr. Norton’s fascination with African American struggle and his apparent want to experience their culture seems as his acceptance of proven social roles, given that “renunciation and toil are the prerequisites for gratification and joy, business must go on and that the alternatives are Utopian” (Marcuse,145). Mr. Norton views the social gap between whites and African Americans as something for African Americans to ‘overcome’ – and he believes he is providing them the tools – instead to viewing the bigoted tendencies of the overarching societal structure itself – including all relevant races – as problematic. The narrator’s reluctant acquiescence to Mr. Norton’s request is yet another example of the acceptance of this: although the narrator is clearly made uncomfortable by the exploitation of the log cabin’s scenery and symbolism, he is powerless to refuse Mr. Norton’s demand due to previously determined social roles that with domination.
Mr. Norton’s sickness is perhaps symbolic of a breakdown of this one-dimensional thought. Upon exposure to the poverty and alienation of Trueblood, Mr. Norton becomes aware that the college he had founded and funded only served to perpetrate racial relations between African Americans that were not attending the college. Furthermore, African Americans attending the college were less likely to protest, less likely to seek radical social change, and more likely to conform to the contemporary order. The $100 that Mr. Norton gives to Trueblood is further evidence that he believes the struggle for existence is primary financial and monetary: for Mr. Norton, a $100 gift to an oppressed individual is equal to that of a college dedicated to an oppressed class. The notion that the oppression of a race came from the quality or lack of their education rather than the structure of society is ignoring the core and central issue – or, rather, simply operating in a two-dimensional society.


  1. I think that this is an awesome paper. I hadn’t really made the connection of the gift of money to Trueblood from Norton, but now that you’ve mentioned it I think that they have everything to do with each other.
    I think that there is a lot to be said about the motivations of Norton and his way of thought. You covered a lot of the major details of Norton, but I have been wondering about how his way of thought compares to the narrator’s. You see, when Norton became aware of the Truebloods and their lifestyle Norton becomes very startled. As both the narrator’s grandfather and Bledsoe hinted at, the “white man” prefers to see what they wish, and ignore what they don’t. In this way, Norton was blind to a very crucial part of the black community. On the other hand, our narrator is highly aware of this poverty stricken form of the black community and their way of life. So highly aware actually, that he is afraid that it overshadowing the entire black community. However the narrator is blind to an entirely different community. The narrator only sees the outright expectations that he is meant to live by rather than the unsaid expectations that we have learned from his grandfather and Bledsoe. The black men who are aware of these unsaid expectations are highly powerful within their communities in an almost underhanded way. This underground community is frightening to the narrator as the idea of the poverty stricken black men are frightening to Norton.
    Basically, Norton is blind (by choice due to fear) to any black communities than those he feels comfortable with (those who are passively educated and submissive to their place in life) where the narrator is also blind (by a different form of fear) to the type of black man that would put him in a power position to men like Norton.
    Anyway, I know that’s rather abstract and a lot but I think it has everything to do with your discussion of Norton’s motives.
    I hope this helps, email me if you need me to elaborate more.

  2. the first paragraph is well written and clear. I would have liked to have a particular reference within Marcuse to ground it, though; you are generalizing effectively, but you should still look for ways to make the general concrete.

    In the second paragraph, you have interesting things to say, while skirting around maybe the core issue: that the narrator *identifies* with the white elite, at least ambiguously or partially. There would be interesting ways - easily done using both texts - of engaging with issues surrounding identity here.

    I admire your reading of Norton. I think this reading could be strengthened (but also, perhaps, challenged) by including his conversations with people in the Golden Day - in particular, the Vet himself. I'd also nitpick over your discussion of education - using Marcuse, one could clearly argue that there is a pedagogical problem here: that his education is strictly functional/utilitarian/one-dimensional, with no serious theoretical component. Historically, one could possibly explore this issue through the class between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, although this is well-trodden ground.

    Very good work, with many possibilities for expansion through attention to the particulars of both texts, and to the rest of the novel as it develops.

    Katyln's reading is very good, and *could* be used to develop the essay, but this is a line of thought which could also remain parallel to your own.