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Reviewed by:
Madhu Dubey. Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. ix + 284 pp.

Dubey begins by noting that while "we would expect African-American literature to form a vital resource for debates about postmodernism, it is conspicuously missing, even when these debates are launched in the name of racial difference" (2). Too often, when African-American literature is invoked in such discussions, it is in an effort to separate African-American writing from any association with the postmodern. Still, the gap Dubey offers to fill is not quite as wide as the publishers suggest on the book's cover, where they tout Signs and Cities as "the first book to consider what it means to speak of a post-modern moment in African-American literature." The fact that Dubey's own text makes reference to earlier books that undertake just such a consideration should serve to remind us that marketing departments are generally the final arbiters of jacket copy. Dubey's concentration on fiction brings about a further elision of preceding books on the subject, but Signs and Cities will be recognized, most particularly by its grateful predecessors, as a major statement on the subject as well as an invaluable addition to fiction studies, offering both broader and more acute comprehensions of postmodern moments. [End Page 767]

Dubey follows Wahneema Lubiano in pointing out that the "decentering of Western cultural authority" should hardly be regarded as a crisis for African-American cultural studies (21), pointing to a long-standing black skepticism regarding Western metanarratives of the modern. Black critics raised telling questions about traditional views of agency and subjectivity in the West long before other black critics raised suspicions about the timing of poststructuralist critiques of subjectivity, and Dubey's acknowledgment of Toni Morrison's assertion that New World Africans faced the dilemmas of postmodern existence long before those dilemmas were named such by philosophers points in its turn to a long history of writings, most notably by W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James, asserting the modernity of African peoples and the contributions of New World Africans to emergent modernism.

I find especially useful the ways in which Dubey addresses issues of the urban, anatomizing at the same time the curious turn toward the rural South and the past that has marked the growing popularity of a certain nostalgic reading of African-American culture in the years following the revolutionary 1960s. Dubey traces some of this to "the desire for a mystical encounter with the 'nonrepresentable' or 'naked' face of the other," which is but "the inverse side of claims about the decline of reality in postmodern times" (193). She effectively ties these phenomena to a mode of privileging of the voice that proceeds under the demonstrably false assumption that vocal signs are somehow less mediated, not in need of interpretation in the same way that is required by technologies of writing. Sutton E. Griggs, though he appears on few syllabi of postmodernity, cautioned as early as 1916 in Life's Demands that African Americans "must move up out of the age of the voice" into succeeding technologies, and succeeding generations of black technophiles have been not only "early adopters" but major innovators. This is part of what Dubey is getting at in her discussion of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, a novel that "undertakes a critical excavation, revealing African Americans to be the hidden architects of modern cities" (238). The critical assertion that black culture is in so many ways the hidden architect of the modern is, of course, an assertion that can only be made from the standpoint of a post in the after-modern, and Dubey's book is a veritable blueprint of the contemporary racial spaces of the cityscape.

There are occasional oversights due to the exclusive focus on fiction. Dubey's masterful discussion of John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire usefully locates a real-life model for the character of Richard Corey, but shows no awareness of the character's literary model. While it could be that readers of Wideman's generation may know the character first from the Simon and Garfunkel...


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