- Crossroads and Cross-Currents in Invisible Man
In an interview published in Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison recounts a telling story from his childhood. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood with few friends, Ellison discovered radio-building, a hobby that led him to rummage around through discarded items for materials. Searching for “cylindrical ice-cream cartons which were used by amateurs for winding tuning coils” brought him into the company of a similarly isolated child, a boy named Hoolie. Hoolie, Ellison explains later, “was tutored at home and spent a great deal of time playing by himself and in taking his parents’ elaborate radio apart and putting it back together again, and in building circuits of his own” (4). The friends would soon part, however, as Ellison later moved and became interested in music, while Hoolie stayed and continued to delve into the world of radio technology. Nevertheless, Ellison recalls the experience of knowing Hoolie as meaningful: “for me to know a boy who could approach the intricacies of electronics with such daring and whose mind was intellectually aggressive [. . .] led me to expect much more of myself and of the world” (5).
Several critics have noted that Ellison’s developing interest and training in music would leave an indelible mark on his novel Invisible Man, but few have addressed the manifold presence of electricity in the same novel. 1 As the Hoolie story suggests, electricity played a role in [End Page 887] the author’s developing consciousness, and a close examination of the novel reveals the presence of electricity as more than a prop or a “morally neutral force,” as Tony Tanner views it (52). Rather, it functions as a trope that provides new aesthetic possibilities, as well as a means of accessing discourses of power and productive strategies of resistance. A new image of Ellison’s novel emerges, one highly pertinent to present-day circumstances, in which the boundaries between the human body and technology become increasingly difficult to define. In their introduction to Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life, Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert define “technology” in terms of “machine/human interface” (4). Such a definition, the authors note, might allow us to investigate “why technology is designed by particular humans under specific historical, political, and economic circumstances, with specific interests and intentions in mind, reflecting and embodying relations of power” (4). In addition, this definition might help reveal “how machines and systems are appropriated differently than their original design intended and creatively extended or subverted by particular users under particular historical and political circumstances” (4).
Ellison’s novel depicts a specific set of cultural circumstances where the subversive appropriation of technology—or more specifically, electricity—signifies an act of sabotage upon social norms and conventions. Technological systems in this novel often signal the more subtle workings of social systems of domination and power, even as literal networks of electricity reinforce the social networks that maintain a disenfranchised body of people while sustaining the empowerment of a privileged white middle class. 2 This equation speaks to contemporary circumstances, where “plugging in” to the Internet and even basic telephone service increasingly determines one’s presence within an everexpanding global community. A recent assessment by Jorge Reina Schement reveals that even basic telephone service has not become universal, a condition particularly affecting those already rendered invisible because of their gender or ethnic identities. According to Schement, the “continued existence” of such groups “at the margins of the telephone service contributes to their isolation from the mainstream of the evolving information society” (478). B. Ruby Rich also links technology to visibility and power, noting that today “it’s an accumulation of presences (on the Internet with a web page, on the street with a pager, on the road with a car phone) that signifies wealth” (227). [End Page 888]
Ellison portrays a similar predicament within the context of race, sensing that access to networks determines status, presence, and ultimately even visibility. Accordingly, electrical networks provide a frame for Invisible Man, with the narrator mastering them in a way that contrasts with his youthful naiveté concerning the other networks—both technological and otherwise—that dominate his early...