restricted access The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death (review)
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Abdul R. JanMohamed. The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 327 pp.

Via a sustained engagement with the entire arc of Richard Wright's career as a writer of narrative prose, Abdul JanMohamed's The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death implicitly retrieves the moment when Western political philosophy articulates the ideological grounds for slavery and, through its critical reappraisal, rigorously works through "the agency of death," thus clearing the way for—as the title of the book's conclusion declares—"renegotiating the death contract." Although JanMohamed never points to John Locke as an explicit reference point, preferring instead to stick closer to Hegel and Heidegger, his project clearly situates itself on theoretical terrain that was laid out by Locke in his 1690 Second Treatise. Regardless [End Page 731] of where one stands on the question of Locke's philosophical position on actually existing slavery, his phenomenologically accurate description of slavery as a coercive institution sketches the basic structural outlines for a "death contract" theory of slavery that would rest upon the passive consent of the enslaved. In Book IV, Locke writes,

Indeed having, by his fault, forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his Power) delay to take it, and make use of his to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his Slavery out-weigh the value of his Life, 'tis in his Power, by resisting the Will of his Master, to draw on himself the Death he desires.


It is precisely this structure of slavery as a living under a conditionally commuted death sentence that JanMohamed will take up as the necessary precondition for both slave and Jim Crow societies. Of course, he does so with a difference, however; for whereas Locke claims that "no injury" is suffered by the slave under these conditions, JanMohamed's reading of Wright rigorously demonstrates how these conditions in their social embodiment violently produce a death-bound-subject. For such a subject, JanMohamed argues, a certain desire for death is the ineluctable result of the psychopolitical process of the subject's formation precisely because such a subject "can gain access to the potentiality of his life only via his willingness to risk the actualization of his death" (283).

The central conceit of The Death-Bound-Subject is that with each successive work of fiction and autobiography Richard Wright excavates another layer in the psyche of a subject forged through a dialectic of death. JanMohamed plots the dynamics of this dialectic through a triad of terms: actual-death, social-death, and symbolic-death. In short, the ever-present threat of actual-death for both the slave and the black American in the Jim Crow South induces a terrorizing fear that results in a social-death, a condition in which the subject is denied any sociopolitical standing, including protection from the arbitrary execution of the suspended death sentence. By contrast, through confronting this fear and wielding the threat of actual-death on its own terms, the death-bound-subject undergoes a symbolic-death, which is a dialectical negation of social-death that confers a measure of agency that is otherwise foreclosed. The Hegelian resonances of this dialectic are duly noted, but JanMohamed argues that Wright's dialectic of death, with its emphasis on symbolic-death as a political and existential moment of sublation, constitutes a significant revision of Hegel's "uncritical valorization of 'work' as the singular avenue through which the slave can supposedly find his salvation" (13). [End Page 732]

The unfolding of Wright's dialectic takes place in stages over the course of his career, and JanMohamed's book traces its coming to consciousness through a series of chapters, each devoted to an individual work and arranged in chronological order. According to JanMohamed, the dialectic initially comes into view over the course of Uncle Tom's Children, but the critical moment of symbolic-death begins to receive focused examination with Native Son. While the possibility of symbolic-death emerges...