The Form and Politics of Networks in Jean Toomer's Cane
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Form and Politics of Networks in Jean Toomer's Cane

Composed of 13 short prose pieces, 15 poems that include sonnets, ballads, and work songs, as well as a longer piece that nods toward the conventions of drama, Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) presents a number of taxonomic challenges with its form. The dominant trends today are to treat it as a volume or as a short-story cycle, but these rubrics are inadequate for Toomer's formal experiment: "volume" suggests a miscellaneousness that ignores the text's logic of interplay; "short-story cycle" precludes a significant amount of the text dedicated to verse and suggests some narrative conventions—a concrete plot, a common setting, and so on—that Cane does not deliver. Given the interplay of its component texts, along with the interchanges of commodity circulation that take place in the content, Cane may be best understood when read as a network of forms. Indeed, Cane operates on a logic of patterning and repetition that endows its several texts with nodal relationships to each other. I argue that reading Cane in this way alleviates readers' taxonomic struggles by allowing the independence of Cane's texts and simultaneously asserting their interdependence, even as it also helps us understand how these texts illuminate one another as well as the gaps that occur between them. In other words, this model addresses the perceived messiness of Cane by demonstrating the organization of its putatively disorganized composition. In addition to more aptly confronting Cane's formal construction, the network model is better suited for Toomer's major interventions in rendering national space. Through [End Page 658] it, Toomer proposes a new model for race relations in interwar America.

In order to approach the networked aesthetics and politics of Cane, it is important to situate Toomer amid our contemporary network theory and network narrative production. In both cases, Cane stands as an artifact of modernist intellectual history and as a relic of network discourse. Today we recognize different typologies of networks according to the technologies of the Digital Age. For example, centralized networks are understood to originate from one source and weave their way to a multitude of destinations, whereas decentralized networks operate from several points of origin and distributed networks operate from a multitude of terminals and servers. In The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker describe the first form as "pyramidal, hierarchical schemes," the second as "a core 'backbone' of hubs each with radiating peripheries," and the third as "a collection of node-to-node relations with no backbone and no center" (32). In each case, the network emerges from the context of informational technologies, but these mark only the most recent manifestations of networks in intellectual history. Crucial developments in the modern American milieu—the rise of the railroad, the advent of broadcast radio, urbanization's reformulations of center and periphery, revisions of national identity in response to tidal waves of immigration, and so on—provide another archive of network discourses well before the advent of the Digital Age.1 Jean Toomer and his peers obviously would have been unfamiliar with digital vocabulary—and anyway never described their work in even generic "network" terms. Nevertheless, Toomer's work, and that of a great many in his modernist cohort, operates on the logic of a network in their formal experiments that respond to the emergent networks of the modernist moment. In the absence of a proper modernist network manifesto, we can understand their "network" to be an intuitive use of the term in its distributed sense: a system of people, objects, or institutions interconnected by other people, objects, or institutions without any centralization or hierarchy. In the case of Cane, the network is not a critical metaphor for explaining the text, but it is the principle of organization for the text's distributed form.

Cane's formal organization also provides an archaeological record of now-abandoned narrative experiments with networks. By looking at contemporary discussions of network in narrative, we can see just how far we have moved away from the moderns' emphasis on complex form. When scholars discuss the networked properties of texts...