restricted access Spacing and Placing in Toni Morrison's Sula
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Spacing and Placing Experience in Toni Morrison’s Sula

In Toni Morrison’s Sula, spacing—that is, closing down or opening up distances between things and persons—has extraordinary urgency. Houses and bodies are the sites of hyperactive mechanisms of containment and expulsion working to effect identity and distinction: of inside and outside, of self and other. Spacing, moreover, becomes crucial to issues of representation and meaning in the Bottom, the place in which most of the action of the novel occurs. Houston A. Baker, Jr., has called attention to the importance of place in the novel: “What Morrison ultimately seeks in her coding of Afro-American PLACE is a writing of intimate, systematizing, and ordering black village values,” he suggests (237). Identifying this ordering with female domestic labor and rituals of cleaning, Baker argues that Morrison “places” African American experience by means of “manipulations of the symbolic,” countering conventions of displacement by affording “a mirroring language . . . in which we can find ourselves” (258).

But although the manipulation of persons and things in space can effect a symbolic order, Morrison also uses other means of locating experience in Sula. In my discussion of the novel, I want to distinguish between systematic spacing arrangements, of the kind necessary to a [End Page 1] symbolic order, and Morrison’s placements of experience that orderly representation misses. Two places in the novel that indicate her concern to locate missing experience are “the place where Chicken Little sank” in the river (61) and the place Eva Peace’s missing leg once occupied, “the empty place on her left side” (31). Neither of these is quite what one would expect a place to be, since neither is the present location of anything.

Like the empty spaces in a symbolic order, these places mark an absence. In The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt, Mark Wigley emphasizes the spatial character of representation in Derridean deconstruction: “Spacing is the ‘distance’ of representation: both the spatial intervals between signifiers and the effect of substitution, the production of the sense that the material signifier ‘stands in for’ something detached from it, the sense that space is an exterior domain of representation detached from that of presence, which is to say, the sense of an exterior divided from an interior” (70). Derrida writes, “[s]pacing designates nothing, nothing that is, no presence at a distance; it is the index of an irreducible exterior, and at the same time of a movement, a displacement that indicates an irreducible alterity” (qtd. in Wigley 73). Given the dependence of presence on a spacing that produces presence as it produces absence, any system of representation, Wigley indicates, is haunted: indeed, “a house is a house only inasmuch as it is haunted” (168).

Unlike the haunted presences of deconstruction, the experience of missing in Sula is a particular historical experience. Missing itself takes place in the novel, as particular persons and things are missed from particular places. Although “the closed place in the middle” of the river (118) and the place where Eva’s leg once was have nothing in them, they mark the absence of persons, or parts of persons, once present, rather than “an irreducible alterity.” Morrison can be said to insist on the reducibility of alterity as she converts such unoccupied spaces into places on the basis of previous occupants. She locates missing persons, and parts of persons, in places they have formerly occupied. Locating such occupants is one kind of preoccupation in the novel.

There is a second kind of preoccupation, however, which rather than locating missing occupants who once were present locates missing occupations that never occurred at all. By this I mean that Morrison [End Page 2] identifies both failed possessions of places and failed actions: various connections between occupants and their places that never took place. This second kind of preoccupation is a more absolute form of missing compounded by the prior as well as the present absence of what is missed. It is nonetheless a historical experience, given characters whose past is one in which the overwhelming “meaning” of experience was not positive but negative. Such a history is “missing,” in the sense that...