restricted access Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Laura Doyle. Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 268 pp.

For some time literary critics have analyzed the crucial role the mother plays in modernist representations of gender acculturation and identity. In Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture Laura Doyle sets out to expand this narrow focus. Arguing that “the mother figure or role represents complications not just in gender identities . . . but in the racial, ethnic, or national identities of the characters and narrators,” Doyle finds that “mother-entangled complications of identity determine the unorthodox narrative practices of experimental novels.” Doyle reaches this conclusion by examining, on the one hand, the links between modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and, on the other, the discourse of eugenics, which she both traces back through the nineteenth century to the Romantics and locates more generally within a discussion of “racial patriarchy,” the kinship system that depends upon the maternal body as the site of the reproduction of class, racial, and ethnic boundaries. Drawing upon the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and a wealth of cultural, anthropological, and historical materials, Doyle forges an eclectic methodology that permits her to read through the mother-focused narratives of writers as diverse as Jean Toomer, James Joyce, Ralph Ellison, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison.

Bordering on the Body begins with a detailed analysis of the figure of the mother in nineteenth and twentieth century British and American thought. In the twentieth-century discourse of eugenics, Doyle locates a “cult of racialized motherhood” which yoked the “science” of [End Page 909] sexuality to the “science” of race in order to reproduce ethnic, racial, and class boundaries. This racialized mother “becomes an instrument in the formulation of crucial categories of difference: fit or unfit, black or white, Nordic or Mediterranean, wayward or eugenic.” Yet, Doyle insists, “despite her crucial and central function as generator of liminality and difference, the mother herself remains a borderline figure. Her doubleness, even as it secures cultural boundaries, also vexes them.” Thus while the “race aesthetic” of Wordsworth and Scott and later nineteenth century biological “science” exhibit the need to control and delimit “the boundary-making and boundary-crossing position of dominant-race women,” traces remain of an alternative narrative, an “undercurrent of intercorporeality.” That undercurrent finds explicit positive expression in Merleau-Ponty, whose notion of decentered subjectivity functions for Doyle as a useful antidote to Derrida: “Because ‘I start from outside myself and open to the world,’ I come to myself from outside myself, through that body through which others come to me. . . . The difference of oneself from others in body which also generates one’s vision of and difference from oneself is an enabling condition—perhaps the enabling condition.”

Three structural strategies develop out of modern writers’ attempts to come to terms with the boundary-threatening, boundary-defining function of the “race-mother.” The “late Romantic” strategy of narrative practice, found in Joyce’s Ulysses and Toomer’s Cane, mocks the “pure” mother and celebrates a “race-transgressive” mother but eventually returns to a “symbolic mother. . . for the text’s final moment of transcendence.” The practice of “interruptive” narrative is one of excision and narrative gaps: the “race mother” disappears from the narrative, taking with her “an entire history and set of memories embedded in the protagonist’s body” and thereby exposing even while repeating “racial patriarchy’s alienation of embodiment.” Ellison’s Invisible Man exemplifies this type of narrative practice; the suppressed portions of the novel depict the protagonist’s ambivalent desire for the “black mother [who] evokes attachment, enacted and felt in the body.” Doyle’s third category, the “intercorporeal” novel, begins from the position of the mother only to move outward to the material world which she inhabits with others; the novel points to the autonomous powers of the material world as it gestures toward “non-mother-centered positions of embodiment.” Doyle locates this kind of practice [End Page 910] in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Morrison’s Beloved: “Woolf’s narrator tends to move from body to body through the objects and space between them,” she observes...