- Six Feet Under, Above, Beyond
What do an infanticidal fugitive slave, a free black woman who turns would-be slave grooms into trees, and a pair of queerish white Harvard roommates obsessed with family history have in common? Christopher Peterson’s answer is simple and striking: all of these figures produce “kindred specters,” presences that — by challenging notions of mortality and immortality, body and spirit, life and death — trouble “conventional” American conceptions of kinship (16). Reading Charles W. Chesnutt’s Conjure Woman, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Peterson critiques normative American conceptions of kinship, arguing that in attempting to deny mortality, they echo oppressive social structures that guarantee the life of the (dominant) self through the death of the (marginalized) other.
Beginning with an illuminating analysis of the opening sequence of Alan Ball’s HBO series Six Feet Under (in which the image of a “family tree” is connected both to the joined hands of presumed family members and to the hands of a mortician at work), Peterson argues that mourning is a defining presence within kinship and other social relationships. Building on theories of death and sociality offered by Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Orlando Patterson, and others, Peterson argues that American kinship is structured around a disavowal of mortality that relegates racial and sexual others to what Patterson calls “social death.” In Patterson’s model, by denying slaves’ kinship ties, slavery bars slaves from civic and social recognition. Peterson reads social death along with what Butler (borrowing from Julia Kristeva) calls “social abjection,” arguing that both are “initiated by the white, male, heterosexual’s denial of his own being-toward-death” (10). What Patterson and Butler miss, for Peterson, is that the denial of the other’s “ontological certainty” is prompted by a “generalizable” desire to disavow death and is thus not limited to “socially dead” racial and sexual groups. Rather, he argues, “no kinship relations — even those [End Page 174] of the socially alive — can claim immunity from the spectral” (9 – 10). Attention to this inevitable spectrality, Peterson argues, opens up new social relationships that acknowledge alterity and death as central both to kinship and to “being” at large (10).
Through a reading of The Conjure Woman, Peterson’s first chapter, “Giving Up the Geist,” positions spectrality as a way to resist both the slave master’s ownership and discursive constructions of black embodiment. Chesnutt’s conjure woman develops “goophers” that transmogrify the slave body to protect slaves’ social bonds. Taking up Butler’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, in which “the master forces the slave to be his body for him,” Peterson argues that, in Chesnutt’s text, spectrality allows the black American slave to escape the master’s legal and figurative possession (49 – 50). Chapter 2, “Beloved’s Claim,” reads the ethics of maternity in Beloved, critiquing models of slave social formations like those offered by Patterson and Hortense Spillers, which, Peterson argues, position kinship in opposition to slavery (69). Using Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical separation of self and other, Peterson reads the maternal relationship as violent in itself and argues that it is only as a ghost that Beloved escapes the ownership of both enslavement and a possessive maternity that imagines her as her mother’s “best thing” (77). In Beloved, Peterson argues, spectrality offers a more ethical social relationship, forcing both characters and reader to be “enslaved to the other/ghost” and insisting on a “responsibility to the other that precedes our own freedom” (71).
Peterson’s third chapter, “The Haunted House of Kinship,” examines queer and interracial kinship in Absalom, Absalom! Peterson argues that miscegenation undermines conventional kinship’s project of immortalizing the (parental) self by making material the alterity of the (child) other. He examines the networks of incestuous, interracial, and same-sex desire that operate within Faulkner’s Sutpen family, and reads Quentin’s and his roommate Shreve’s retelling of the Sutpens’ story as a discursive “intercourse” through which the young men “produce their legacy by sublating...