Postmodernism, Urbanism, and African American Literary Studies
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Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005) 358-362



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Postmodernism, Urbanism, and African American Literary Studies

Macalester College
Madhu Dubey, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. ix + 296 pp. $60.00; $22.00 paper.

It was only a matter of time before we would have to feel guilty for enjoying the novels of Toni Morrison. In her wonderfully insightful book Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism, Madhu Dubey (rightly) spares no author and no critic in her always astute, always rigorous, and almost always fair analysis of "the postmodern moment" (24) in African American literature and literary studies.

Dubey's argument pivots on the book—both as an object of exchange in a postmodern commodity culture and as a prized vehicle of modernist aesthetics and politics—as it is represented in a number of African American novels from the late 1980s to the present, by Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Sapphire, Gloria Naylor, John Edgar Wideman, Colson Whitehead, and Samuel Delany. To begin with, it is remarkable that so many contemporary African American novelists have explicitly engaged tropes of the book and of textuality. But Dubey goes far beyond such simple, if compelling, observations to deliver powerful original analysis of an extraordinarily rich body of recent literature. Signs and Cities is, quite simply, essential reading for African Americanist and postmodernist scholars.

Dubey categorizes her chosen novels and novelists according to four governing metaphors for the book and for reading and [End Page 358] writing: the book as utilitarian and spiritual tool (Butler, Sapphire) (96), "writing as voyeurism" (Morrison, Wideman) (99), "reading as listening" (Morrison, Naylor) (144), and "reading as mediation" (Delany, Whitehead) (186). In Dubey's view, the first three metaphors reflect "suspicion" regarding "print literature" and a resultant bias toward the mimetic, the oral, and the rural past even within formally postmodern writing (6). Dubey questions the logic and the political efficacy of such a nostalgic stance; her third metaphor—reading as mediation—clearly wins as the one most likely to drive a politically progressive, materially aware, and poststructurally fluent text. Delany, not Morrison, emerges as the hero of Signs and Cities, because he is "committed to a postmodern and decisively urban cultural politics, while remaining sharply alert to the materialist dimensions of culture" (185).

Dubey situates all her chosen novels in a postmodern moment wherein both race and the book are viewed by many as relics of the past. At this dual moment of crisis in print culture and in racial representation, African American culture "lies at the heart of discussions of postmodern crisis and is in fact pervasively summoned both to embody and resolve the sense of crisis" (7). In Dubey's succinct analysis, "cultural critics on the left" find it difficult "to resist romanticizing black culture as the last vestige of authenticity left in postmodern times, at once radically other and viscerally knowable" (9). There are dangers, she reminds us, in holding African American culture apart from either print culture or postmodern commodity culture, in seeing it as an authentic "residual" untainted by capitalist exchange and outside the politics and possibilities of the literary (8). Cornel West, with his ongoing preoccupation with hip-hop, and novelists such as Morrison and Naylor, with their "turn south" (145), are indeed vulnerable to such a critique—and they are not alone.

According to Dubey, so many academics relish Morrison's novels because they offer us "a synthesis of aesthetic indeterminacy and racial essentialism" (10)—that is, they privilege orality and past forms of community even as they take postmodern, experimental form. Thus we can have our cake and eat it too, getting a "fix of tribal values" that is rendered acceptable, even apparently progressive, because it is masked by the literary-aesthetic innovations of a novel like Jazz (237). Dubey resoundingly rejects any such association of [End Page 359] formal innovation with political progressiveness—and, although that same point has been made by other critics in other contexts, none has made it so decisively as has Dubey.

Throughout Signs and Cities, Dubey...


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