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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 285-313



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Zora Neale Hurston and Modernism at the Critical Limit

Brian Carr and Tova Cooper


Modernism and modernity are [. . .] mortal antagonists, not blood brothers.

—Tony Pinkney, "Editor's Introduction: Modernism and Cultural Theory."

In his introductory comments to Raymond Williams's The Politics of Modernism, Tony Pinkney emphatically reiterates modernism's own fantasy of broken kin: modernism is not a kindred affiliate of modernity, and it is not, so Pinkney repeatedly avows, suffocating hopelessly within modernity's cognitive grip. One wonders whether such avowals of disaffiliation do not themselves misrecognize the problem from the outset, confusing as they do aesthetic and political oppositionality with notions of purity and definitive externality. Pinkney, who is representative on this point, imagines that modernism is for or against modernity, in turn abandoning the more pressing problem of how to theorize the fact that modernism is in and of modernity. By turning to Zora Neale Hurston, specifically her ethnographic fiction Mules and Men, we question the logic of Pinkney's familial metaphor for an understanding of the critical difference [End Page 285] modernism asserts against the force of modernity. Hurston, occupying a social, disciplinary, and critical position that is oblique to the dominant coordinates of high modernism, is thus our occasion to draw out the shortcomings of the willfully heroic narrative of modernism's break with modernity upon which critics such as Pinkney habitually insist.

By paying special attention to Hurston's ethnographic practice, her engagement with the Harlem Renaissance, and her indebtedness to white capital, we recast modernism's impulsive critical purity against both textual and extra-textual evidence that betrays a mutual contamination of Pinkney's "mortal antagonists" (5). It is not by manifestly avowing modernism's willful break with modernity that critical practice adequately proceeds, according to Hurston's counter-intuitive line of reasoning, but by acknowledging the impurity—the kindred "blood"—at work in any oppositional knowledge and practice. By the end of our discussion, modernism's definitive difference from modernity will hopefully be under a new kind of critical pressure, at the same time that postmodernism, modernism's other "mortal antagonist," will have to be thought anew as well. If Hurston shows us that modernism's critical difference from modernity is no guarantee, then postmodernism, insofar as it signals for so many thinkers a pseudocritical practice fully immersed in postmodernity, will have lost its conventional coordinates as well.

Unwittingly enough, the critical work surrounding Hurston itself begins to force into productive crisis many of the dominant conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Let us begin with a paradox that pervades the critical work on Hurston's ethnographic fiction, Mules and Men. Those who situate it in an ethnographic tradition tend to read it as an unacknowledged precursor of the "postmodern" turn in ethnography, one that, as James Clifford writes, "demand[s] new forms of inventiveness and subtlety" that are "fully reflexive" (23). Critics in this vein have located this incipient postmodern gesture in Hurston's refusal to erase her own subjectivity from the scene of knowledge production in Mules and Men, a move they say enables her to discredit the scientific objectivity that had hitherto governed ethnographic convention. 1 In what at first appears to be a contradiction, those who read Mules and Men primarily within a literary tradition have remained curiously silent on the question of the text's "postmodern" qualities, preferring instead to locate it, however differently, within the coordinates of modernism. These [End Page 286] critics call attention to the ways in which Hurston foregrounds the figurative potential of language; dramatizes a dispersed, rural African-American voice; and, in Henry Louis Gates's words, "constantly shifts back and forth between her 'literate' narrator's voice and a highly idiomatic black voice [. . .] signify[ing] her full understanding of modernism. Hurston uses the two voices in her text to celebrate the psychological fragmentation both of modernity and of the black American" (294-96). The divergent critical gestures that characterize Mules and Men as either postmodernist or modernist—terminological...

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