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Racial Blackness and the (Dis)continuity of Western Modernity. Lindon Barrett. Justin A. Joyce, Dwight A. McBride, and John Carlos Rowe, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. 264. $95.00 (cloth); $32.00 (paper).


I’ve forgotten now who phoned, but I do remember where I was sitting when the stunning news reached me one summer day that Lindon Barrett was dead. A victim of foul play that [End Page 251] apparently combined homicide with the motive of theft, Lindon Barrett was one of the most brilliant scholars—perhaps “personality” would be more definitive—of that generation of African Americanists who surfaces near the turn of the century as if in vivid response to the steely ambitions of the Black Studies movement as my generation of culture critics had dared to imagine it three decades before; in short, Lindon, if one thought about it, was not only going to outlive his teachers (as we presume the coincidence of birth and death order) but would also outdo them (as Blackness and Value: Seeing Double1 had already attested). I felt personally robbed—violated would not be too strong a descriptor—as I sat for a long time that afternoon, recalling his marvelous smile and sense of openness to others, and how pleased I was to have had the occasion to dedicate an essay to him in the mid-nineties.2 At the time of his death, he was teaching at the University of California, Riverside after having worked a number of years at the Irvine campus of the University of California system, at which venue I’d last seen him shortly after the turn of the century. An indefatigable scholar and writer with a penchant for argumentative complexity, amply demonstrated in Racial Blackness and the (Dis)continuity of Western Modernity, Lindon was on the verge of the next iteration of a critical inquiry that examines the black situation of culture in the dynamic context of power and its massive sublimations of violence that sum up the dominative modes of modernity’s thought- and life-worlds; no mean endeavor, for sure, this unfolding articulation was tragically cut short in his hands. We regard it, then, as an act of supreme love and respect that three of Lindon Barrett’s closest friends and colleagues, John Carlos Rowe, Dwight McBride, and Justin Joyce, have brought to posthumous fruition a plausible version of the project that he was apparently embarked on at his death: Racial Blackness and the (Dis)continuity of Western Modernity. This review is based on the work that this trio of editors set out to accomplish.

John Carlos Rowe, who was Barrett’s colleague at Irvine and currently serves as the USC Associates’ Professor of the Humanities and professor of English, American studies, and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, explains in the introduction to Racial Blackness how the editing mission fell to him: Relayed to Rowe by Winston James, professor of history at Irvine and good friend of Lindon’s, the manuscript that became the 2014 publication was culled from the printed files of several versions of four chapters, discovered by Lindon’s friends and family in his Long Beach apartment; Rowe believes that the most current chapters of the manuscript had been stored on Lindon’s laptop, but the latter was a casualty of the theft; the initial spade work of sorting the related essays from other projects earmarked for publication elsewhere had already been carried out by James when Rowe received the sheaf of papers in June 2009. He began work on the material in December of that year. Finding no introduction to the work in progress, Rowe is convinced that Lindon was waiting to draft it after he had completed the whole. As it stands, the published manuscript consists of five chapters, the last of which, “Modernism and the Affects of Racial Blackness” (157–91), was not a feature of the table of contents of the project, but in Rowe’s estimation the essay nonetheless dovetails with the conceptual trajectory of the work, insofar as it pursues Barrett’s investigation of the career of black bodies beyond the eras of post-Reconstruction and “Jim Crow” across the threshold of the Harlem Renaissance, usually dated between 1923 and the economic collapse of world markets in 1929, which African Americanists regard as the “symbolic center of African American modernism” (x). Even though this final chapter does not address the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries of African American literary production and other facets of cultural production under the rubric of modernism, it nevertheless signalizes the long temporal arc that Barrett is describing in a conceptual narrative whose aperture opens onto the mercantile and commercial circuits of production and exchange emergent in the market worlds of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Rowe’s conjecture that what he designates as chapter 5 of the text complements the theoretical aims of Barrett’s project appears quite plausible; in any case, the epilogue that follows this chapter is provided by Dwight McBride, Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Provost at Northwestern University, [End Page 252] as well as the co-editor of the series under which imprimatur Racial Blackness is published. Justin Joyce, a postdoctoral research scholar at Northwestern, digitized and copyedited the manuscript while completing his own work for the doctorate. The burden of patience exacted of the researcher is, at best, onerous, but under the circumstances evoked by the production of Racial Blackness, it is agonizing beyond the customary habitude of the scholarly discipline; for going the extra mile of commitment, students and investigators interested in Barrett’s work are inestimably grateful to the editors.


Perhaps the first feature to note about Lindon Barrett’s writing is its persistent and demanding intellectual force. To say that it is, as a result, daring and unapologetic accords well with the overall tenor of his impressive theoretical protocol, and that is to say, to make a determined intervention on the inherited and encrusted conventions of discourse and conjecture that instaurated the concept of “race” as a fixed repertoire of persuasions; Barrett’s reach is wide-ranging, his grasp prehensile, sure in the systematic pursuit of postmodernist and deconstructive stylistic/expository procedure. As he writes in the introduction to Blackness and Value, the intellectual tradition reflected here “is the strand of deconstructive cum poststructuralist thought honestly interested in disclosing the dysfunctions of an Enlightenment legacy both riddled and clarified by its inescapable aporias” (3). It seems to me that Enlightenment legacies remain at the bull’s eye of the work at hand with this difference, or, we might say, with a broader accumulation of spatiotemporal sites and citations. Whereas Blackness and Value is concerned to elaborate its premises across the discursive regimes of the twentieth century, with particular attention to selected instances of fictional production in the work of Ann Petry at mid-century and a symmetrical inquiry into the conceptual ventures of the New Criticism in U.S academic culture, Racial Blackness inaugurates its investigation in “the rise of the Atlantic system of trade on which the articulation of the modern depends” (3). Implicit to the ensuing questions provoked by this emphasis, the puzzles of value hum in the background of the new text. But the way forward is lush with theoretical complications, which I will attempt to briefly sketch.

In the opening chapter, “The Conceptual Impossibility of Racial Blackness,” Barrett situates the Michel Foucault of The Archaeology of Knowledge as his chief interlocutor, but oddly Barrett chooses the work of Alexander Butchart as the means of mediation between his own analysis and Foucault’s theoretical moves; troping on the concept of discontinuity, or epistemic rupture as Foucault delineates it in The Archaeology, Barrett provides what is for him the master terms of Western modernity: “the historical environment that reports the threshold between the materiality of the body and the abstracted force of sociopolitical coordination as the trace of subjectivity—the discursive constituting the relays of these relations” (1; emphasis mine). The contradistinction that adheres between the contending pair in a compound subject, a materiality over and against an abstracted punctuality, stands out as the prominent feature of argumentative design that animates these inaugural pages and much of what follows. While Foucault, according to Butchart, whom Barrett cites, draws a distinction between the body as an “object to be known” and the body as an “object that is its effect,” Barrett, refracting Foucault to his own ends, isolates African and African-diasporic corporealities as everywhere extensive with this regimen of attitudes rather than adventitious to, or outside of, or beyond it. Racial blackness, if viewed through a Foucauldian lens, is grasped here as “fundamental to the cognitive and cultural events recasting Western notions of the body”: once perceived, in Butchart’s words, as “a complex interplay of invisible elements, virtues, and spirits that united it to the irreducible ‘soul’ and inscribed their signatures in the body’s members,” the body, under the impress of Foucault’s age of Classification, is translated into “a collection of overtly perceptible external [End Page 253] organs—noses, teeth, hands, the skin, the feet, the genitalia, the breasts and so on” (2, 3). The stage of modernity, then, might be said to show the enactment of three discrete, yet overlapping, scenic moments: 1) a rupture, discursively registered, at the level of the micropolitical where the theatre of the body is being outfitted in new classificatory dress; 2) the emergence of “disciplinary power,” as Foucault would have it, which defines the productive relationship between method and object-body; 3) the advent, at the macropolitical level, of activity along the Atlantic coastlines of Europe and the “New World” that “forge their exemplary modern profiles by means of the immense surplus values depending on the depletion and disordering of the political jurisdictions along Senegambian, Guinean, and west-central African coastlines as well as the stark regimes of enforced labor in the Americas” (2).

As far as the reader can tell, the “conceptual impossibility of racial blackness” is so enabling and throws so long and grave and supraordinate a shadow athwart Western sociopolitical, geographical, economic, material, phantasmatic, and psychic procedures that Barrett is saying that it far outweighs, ironically, any other repertoire of ways and means. To my mind, two observations clinch a convoluted argument: 1) The commodity as “the principle of economic (and general) rationality” affronts “the already fully animate individual and collective forms—in human proportions—of racial blackness.” In other words, an instance of the human form as commodity (and its obverse) instigates a category mistake; the latter offers one explanation for the “conceptual impossibility of racial blackness.” 2) Another reposes in the following articulation: The perplexity persists “because the impossibility of racial blackness seeming to lie within the limits of the economic fundament of the modern West as well as the limits of modern social and psychic rudiments belies the signal importance of the emergent circumstances of the concept of racial blackness,” and that is to say, the rise of the Atlantic system of trade, which materializes the sine qua non of the modern (2). Racial blackness, in its indexical fullness as the embodiment of limit, bursts through the veil in a fundamental excess of necessity.

Chapters 2 and 3, which examine the life and career of Olaudah Equiano through his own autobiographical writing, as well as a philosophical, ideological, and historical framing of slavery in chapter 3 (to my mind, the most unwieldy chapter of the whole), systematically demarcate the contradictions and aporias engendered by the “conceptual impossibility” that Barrett posits, but these chapters also advance the historical sequence that opens onto the early modern world in the beginning. The particularity of black witness that Barrett investigates in chapters 2 and 3 is ongoing in the book’s fourth chapter, which focuses on the genre of the slave narrative, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and William and Ellen Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom among the exemplars; the fifth chapter, as John Carlos Rowe indicates, moves the investigator over the threshold of Emancipation and well into the twentieth century by addressing attention to satirist George Schuyler’s essay, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” posed in duelistic confrontation with poet Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Between the two of them, the crisis of black culture as it would play out across the entirety of the twentieth century (and remains a fluid and unstable content to this day) is dramatically telegraphed, with Schuyler insisting that the African American (a “Negro” in some quarters in Schuyler’s day) is as American as his or her material culture and its glittering objects will allow, while Hughes maintains that the African American life-world indeed demarks an aesthetic exceptionalism, a spirit apart.

We will never know now how Barrett might have finished his work had he lived to see it through, but from the evidence of Racial Blackness it is clear to me that he at least had in his sights the long arc of African American cultural apprenticeship and its dazzling sweep toward some glorious and unwritten finality. His dreams were big ones, and because of his responsibility to them, we are a lot smarter and more able than we were. [End Page 254]

Hortense J. Spillers
Vanderbilt University


1. Lindon Barrett, Blackness and Value: Seeing Double (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Blackness and Value grew out of Barrett’s doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Pennsylvania; all references to the text come from this edition, page numbers internally noted.

2. See Hortense J. Spillers, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 427–70.