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Black Power: Minstrelsy and Electricity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
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Black Power:
Minstrelsy and Electricity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Introduction: Prototype for a Black Cyborg Subject

Several stubborn blind spots manifest themselves in the critical field regarding the nature and origins of cyborg identity, especially with regard to race.1 The problem has many dimensions with none more significant than those which relate to origin and lineage. That is, what are the earliest literary uses of what we today call cybernetics, how do these uses intersect with race, and how does this affect our understanding of subsequent literary and cultural representations of race and cybernetics? Some of these very complicated questions can be addressed by considering Ralph Ellison's 1952 Invisible Man, a novel considered by some to be the most important work of American fiction in its era.2

My argument is that Invisible Man is the first American document (fictional or otherwise) to forge a relationship between cybernetics and race, and that Invisible Man traces the narrator's gradual transformation into a black cyborg as a result of his several exposures to electricity. Each time the narrator encounters the forces of electricity—during the Battle Royal, in the Liberty Paints Factory hospital, and in his hole full of light—he discovers increasingly effective strategies for opposing the dominant system of white, racist power. Through his exposures to electricity, the narrator learns: he must conduct his subversion of the system covertly, as the system's "hidden organ"; how to use the black vernacular strategy of signifyin(g) to undermine authority; that the abject subject position of the Sambo enacts a powerful blackface critique of existing power structures; that recursive architectures multiply power and autonomy; and that electricity is a media interface that can produce race as a network effect and that it can be used to assemble a network of subalterns within the context of a more powerful social apparatus.

In the course of my argument, I use several disparate areas of critical discourse: recent criticism examining the role of electricity in Ellison's Invisible Man, scholarship concerning the concept of the cyborg, and an adaptation of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari pertaining to their notion of the "body without organs."3 I assert that Ellison's Invisible Man explores how electricity, as an interface between organism and machine, mediates blacks (black men) into the American system of capital, a body without organs, and that the novel documents the effects this mediation has upon the subjects so transformed. By the novel's close, Ellison finds a cyborg identity in Invisible Man's narrator who apprehends race as a transdermal effect of network connections. That is, blackness and invisibility are neither ontological conditions (essence) nor behavioral characteristics (performance) but intensities of the body without organs which manifest once the proper conditions prevail and the required connections have been made. [End Page 987]

While the boundary between animal and machine is often construed as an ontological barrier, Ellison's Invisible Man reconfigures this boundary as an interface whose primary substance is electricity. Electricity is a medium that binds humans to other humans and to nonhumans by virtue of its abilities to carry information and to flow through the very (conductive) materials of which organisms and machines are made. As the narrator discovers, electricity is well-suited for improvising networks of heterogeneous elements because it has the ability to couple entities which inhabit disparate ontological orders. Electricity, in other words, operates as a transducer.4

Put another way, electricity is a technical substance through which the 1930s America represented in Invisible Man transduces entities across disparate racial and ontological orders. The process of cybernation empowers the narrator by literally enabling him to manipulate the flow of electricity through his body. In a crucial moment, the narrator discovers he "could contain the electricity—a contradiction, but it works" (27). The narrator is able to alter the flow of electricity in a way that undermines the dominant power structure and gives form to at least one black subaltern. As Douglas Ford notes, despite ongoing critical neglect of the role it plays in the novel, electricity "functions as a trope that provides new aesthetic possibilities, as...