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  • A Historical Transposition: Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby and Frantz Fanon’s Post Enlightenment Phantasms

Now the scapegoat for white society—which is based on myths of progress, civilization, liberalism, education, enlightenment, refinement—will be precisely the force that opposes the expansion and the triumph of these myths. This brutal opposing force is supplied by the Negro.

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

The perversion of that which, out of joint, does not work well, does not walk straight, or goes askew (de travers, then, rather than à l’envers) can easily be seen to oppose itself as does the oblique, twisted, wrong, and crooked to the good direction of that which goes right, straight, to the spirit of that which orients or founds the law [le droit]—and sets off directly, without detour, toward the right address, and so forth.

—Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx [End Page 403]

In his critique of the white mythologies of enlightenment rationality, Frantz Fanon’s voice breaks in at least two directions (194). In one direction, he sets the reader’s sight on the image of a Negro subject who rejects or resists the desire for enlightenment candidacy, whose oppositional force is made present by the Negro’s resistance to the fictions of a white, European dominance. On the way to the supposed end of this well-trodden path, he takes the reader in another direction, on a detour through a labyrinth of colonial desires and phantasmatic spaces where he shows the eye behind the camera directing the image of the Negro as an oppositional force—a scapegoat figure brought into existence by these white mythologies that, in turn, justify such mythic containment as a necessary political truth. Fanon sidetracks us, tells us to give up on the quest for enlightenment, causes our good intentions to go astray, takes us by the hand into the excursive sphere of a post-enlightenment space, where we might free ourselves from an oppressive nightmare of subjective identification and its one-way dream of rationality. Homi Bhabha’s foreword to the reprint of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, titled “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition,” brilliantly elaborates the diffusion in Fanon’s textual practice:

The awkward division that breaks [Fanon’s] line of thought keeps alive the dramatic and enigmatic sense of the process of change. That familiar alignment of colonial subjects—Black/White, Self/Other—is disturbed with one brief pause and the traditional grounds of racial identity are dispersed, whenever they are found to rest in the narcissistic myths of Negritude or White cultural supremacy.

(113)

Bhabha continues, “It is not the Colonialist Self or the Colonized Other, but the disturbing distance in between that constitutes the figure of colonial otherness—the White man’s artifice inscribed on the Black man’s body” (117).

Fanon’s voice goes astray amid the presumed certainties of enlightenment candidacy; that is, the calling into existence of the rightful subject of the enlightenment—the White European Man—that must also, simultaneously, constitute illegitimate or unenlightened Others such as the Corporeal Woman, or the illiterate or uneducated Colonized Man, the Negro. Within this double field of representation a critical [End Page 404] tension emerges between literal referentiality—the Black man’s body—and the multiplication of phantasms or specters that haunt an enlightenment imaginary—the White man’s artifice. This critical tension between the literal and the “literary” is considered here through a critique of the contest for enlightenment candidacy in Toni Morrison’s novel Tar Baby. My discussion of this text responds to two discontinuous, although interrelated, questions. First, I ask, who obtains the privileges of enlightenment candidacy? In other words, who rejects, accepts, or resists the very idea of an enlightened rational subject? Second, I wonder, whose dream of rationality dominates the phantasms of commodity cultural production?

Tar Baby challenges the constitution of enlightenment candidacy; the homogeneous groups of people and “cultures” that represent its proper object and the exclusions and oppositions that structure desire for and resistance to its vision of an autonomous, universal subject. It tampers with the grand narratives of the enlightenment ideals of progress, civilization, and development, situating...

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