MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 357-358
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Sharon Holland. Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. xi + 235 pp.
Near the end of Sharon Patricia Holland's Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, she writes, "Much like the unknown soldier and the anonymous cadaver, master discourse is both the tomb at which we pay our remembrance and the body offered up to us for examination" (150). The chapter in which Holland makes this claim interrogates feminism's relationship to "master discourses," but the double bind she identifies—whereby master discourses of many kinds are supposedly defunct, offered up as though they no longer had agency and, simultaneously, preternaturally alive, enshrined as perpetually unchanging—runs throughout Raising the Dead. Holland is also focused, however, on a parallel, and ultimately more promising, duality. Raising the Dead centers mostly on those who have been precluded from shaping master discourses: both the dead and those subjects (invariably black, native, queer, and female) relegated to the space of the dead. From one perspective, the (literal and figurative) dead are made to speak, to provide a comforting cohesion for the living, who are able thereby to define themselves against the abjection of death. From another, however, the dead are unruly subjects who perpetually threaten, with dispersal and fragmentation, the coherence and dominance of the living subject. Holland weaves this double consciousness for the twenty-first century through provocative readings of a range of texts, including Toni Morrison's Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, and Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits. Although most chapters of Raising the Dead provide close readings of these literary texts, Holland also includes analyses of the 1993 film Menace II Society, the hardcore industrial band Consolidated's album Business of Punishment, [End Page 357] feminist theories of marginality, and (briefly, in an epilogue) Bill T. Jones's dance "Still/Here" and the rap music of Tupac Shakur.
Holland's text was published a year before September 11, 2001, but her analyses of death and black subjectivity could be seen as indispensable for cultural critics attempting to understand the world we now inhabit. Those of us who remain alive following September 11 know all too well that we are living through a period of (supposedly) incredible national consensus and that the dead have been deployed to assure us of this. The mythology that has grown up around United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Somerset, Pennsylvania, provides only one example: although we cannot know for sure what happened on that flight, the mythology suggests that "American Heroes" (now dead) thwarted the hijackers' plan to crash the plane into the White House or the US Capitol. As the dead are made to speak in this way, the living have rallied around the ubiquitous and banal assertion "united we stand." True to Holland's analysis, however, unruly (black) subjects have also emerged in the wake of September 11. And because those subjects have attempted to make the dead speak differently, or to hear a different message from the space of death, they too have been relegated to an abject position: Representative Barbara Lee, the sole member of Congress voting against the war in Afghanistan; Representative Cynthia McKinney, critiquing former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's lack of attention to the concerns of poor people; actor Danny Glover, publicly opposing the death penalty, even for alleged terrorists; Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, who lost their son on September 11, requesting that war not be waged in his name; Aaron McGruder, constructing critical black perspectives (which were censored by various newspapers) in his Boondocks comic strip.
Because it encourages us to attend, continuously, to such unruly subjects, Raising the Dead is incredibly timely. It will be useful to anyone seeking to make sense of our contemporary cultural moment and to resist zombielike consensus, wherever it threatens to terrorize us. If, as Holland asserts, it is "the task of contemporary literary theory to move into marginal space and...