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“Turning Out” Possessive Individualism:
Freedom and Belonging in Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man

This article examines Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man for the way it revises the ideological tenants of the classical bildungsroman through the figure of the racialized homeless. In particular, it argues that the novel takes up the narrative conventions of the classic bildungsroman in order to unthink the liberal constraints of freedom and belonging established by possessive individualism. By troubling the aesthetic ideas of self-ownership within the classic bildungsroman, the novel not only “turns out” possessive individualism but generates an alternative account of freedom and belonging that reckons with the racialized and gendered history of self-ownership and property.

In their recent book, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou point out how the ideology of possessive individualism worked to simultaneously occlude the subject’s constitutive interdependence and historically rationalize dispossession in settler colonial regimes. Perhaps no other literary genre has helped to promulgate and narratively reproduce this ideology more than the classical bildungsroman. Indeed, as a narrative that traces the development of the subject into an autonomous ethical individual, the narrative arc of the classical bildungsroman has shaped ideas and practices of belonging and freedom quite exclusively in terms of possessive individualism—formal equality, contractual exchange, and property.

In an effort to challenge the dominance of possessive individualism, this article examines Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man for the way it revises the ideological tenets of the classical bildungsroman through the figure of the racialized homeless. In particular, it argues that the novel takes up the narrative conventions of the classical bildungsroman in order to unthink the liberal constraints of freedom [End Page 92] and belonging established by possessive individualism. In doing so, the novel does not negate freedom and belonging as ruses for maintaining class exploitation, racial domination, gendered subordination, or sexual normalization. Rather, it develops an alternative account of possessive individualism for minoritized populations by troubling the aesthetic ideas of self-ownership within the very narrative conventions of the classical bildungsroman. Such an account “turns out” possessive individualism by generating an alternative account of freedom and belonging that reckons with the racialized and gendered history of self-ownership and property.1

Possessive Individualism and the Bildungsroman

In his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, C. B. MacPherson outlines a series of interlocking propositions that form what he calls “possessive individualism,” an ideology that underpins classic liberal political philosophy from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke.2 Fundamentally grounded on the premise that the “individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities” (263), possessive individualism posits a subject whose personhood is defined by his ownership of himself.3 In this way, classical liberal political philosophy transforms property from a socio-historical construct to a natural and defining feature of personhood.4 Yet, the reach of possessive individualism extends beyond definitions of personhood to include a normative political theory of the state, specifically providing both a naturalistic rationale for its legitimacy and a definition of the scope of its powers. As Locke writes, “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property” (qtd. in Hong, “Property” 181). Thus, possessive individualism poses not only a theory of the subject but also a social and political theory that unites a democratic political system with the dictates of an emerging capitalist marketplace through an ontology of personhood premised on self-ownership.

Of course, the historical reality of possessive individualism has never been as universal as its principles claim to be. Rather, from a historical and material perspective, possessive individualism formed out of and came to occlude a series of racial, gendered, and sexual exclusions. In other words, possessive individualism, according to Grace Hong, is less a transparent description of social reality than an ideology that mystifies the contradictions at the heart of private property and liberal humanism.5 On the one hand, property is “discussed as a universal state of being” (“Property” 181), and on the other hand, “property relations have [historically] grown out of [End Page 93] and secured class, racial, and gender hierarchies.” This historical contradiction follows out of the tensions of property itself. As Hong explains, property should be understood less as a relation between a person and things and more as a social relation (that is, a bundle of rights) that enables a person to own things by delimiting ownership of things by others through state power. In this respect, property relations are not the natural outcome of individual will but the historical effect and maintenance of how “the state privileges the will of some at the expense of others.” Put somewhat differently, possessive individualism works ideologically to naturalize the state’s maintenance of unequal property relations by rendering the state’s protection of property as both natural and universally ethical, even though those property relations formed out of histories of dispossession. For this reason, Hong asserts that “in maintaining a conception of citizenship as the universal protection of property rights, [the liberal-democratic state] must erase the way those relations depend on racialized and gendered forms of dispossession” (“Property” 183).

Along these lines, the classical bildungsroman has been a central cultural technology for naturalizing the ideology of possessive individualism. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the classical bildungsroman emerges alongside the formation of possessive individualism. As Franco Moretti explains in his book The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, the classical bildungsroman formed out of and came to ideologically manage the endless revolutionary force of capitalist modernity in Europe by transforming its social chaos into a steady narrative of progress. According to Moretti, it did so by symbolizing capitalism’s socially disruptive force through the figure of youth and then linking youth to adulthood in a narrative of development (5). Through this symbolic and narrative linkage, the classical bildungsroman renders the social unrest of capitalism as a temporary occurrence that progressively leads into social stability in the same way that youth is a temporary moment that leads into adulthood. However, as Jed Esty has pointed out, Moretti’s rich account of the classical bildungsroman leaves the precise social referent of adulthood implicit. That is, if capitalism’s socially disruptive force is symbolized in the figure of youth, what is symbolized through the figure of adulthood? Esty claims that the nation occupies this position (413). As such, the nation functions as the allegorical telos of the classic bildungsroman, operating as the counterweight and stable end to the dynamism of capitalist modernity.

Due to this formal role in the classical bildungsroman, the nation’s substantive ideological function has been to naturalize particular values as universal, and no other values have been historically more naturalized than the norms of possessive individualism. Indeed, the [End Page 94] classical bildungsroman has rendered the national citizen to be coincident with the self-possessed individual.6 For that reason, Hong, in The Ruptures of American Capital, is able to show how possessive individualism organizes national subjectivity and mediates contradictions between US capital and the US nation-state through an analysis of nineteenth-century American narratives of development.7 Indeed, Marx makes a similar point on the coincidence between the national citizen and the possessive individual in his analysis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, when he states, “The right of property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s fortune and to dispose of it as one will; without regard for other men and independently of society. It is the right of self-interest” (“Jewish” 42). Here, Marx’s incisive critique demonstrates that the Declaration masks bourgeois man’s particular interest in property by elevating it as a universal right.

Thus, as a consequence of the way that property relations historically formed out of gendered exclusions and racialized dispossession, as well as of the coincidence of the possessive individual and the nation, minoritized writers’ engagement with the bildungsroman has often been critical of this presumed telos. For many of these writers, the classical bildungsroman ends up demonstrating the foreclosure of bildung or its vexed compromises. These so-called failed or compromised bildungsromans often reveal the class, racial, gendered, and sexual norms; social strictures; and geography that preclude bildung. Even successful bildungsromans render the minoritized subject’s community as parochial and naive and, ultimately, as impossible conditions to struggle against for bildung.

Yet when Delany takes up the bildungsroman’s conventions in The Mad Man, he does not pursue this approach to the genre at all. Rather, as I will show, he both disarticulates self-ownership’s over-determined connection to freedom and belonging as well as creates an alternative cultural logic of possession to account for the historical exclusions and violences foundational to possessive individualism. However, in making this argument, I do not want to give the impression that this resignification of the classical bildungsroman is due exclusively to Delany’s artistic brilliance. Instead, what makes it possible in the first place is how the classical bildungsroman has become a “residual” cultural formation (R. Williams 122). As Moretti and others have noted, the classical bildungsroman declined as a dominant literary form at the turn of the twentieth century. As such, it becomes available as a means to “represent areas of human experience, aspiration, and achievement, [namely freedom and belonging] which the dominant culture [of possessive individualism] neglects, undervalues, opposes, represses, or even cannot recognize” (R. Williams 123–24). [End Page 95]

Bildung in the Systems of the World

Nominated for the “Best Gay Mystery” Lambda Literary Award, The Mad Man is often read as a mystery since a major plotline centers on Jon Marr’s investigation into the unexplained circumstances behind the death of Timothy Hasler outside of a gay hustler bar in 1973. Yet, this mystery is nested within a larger narrative frame of Marr’s education. The novel introduces Marr not only as a gay black man but also significantly as a philosophy graduate student under the direction of Irving Mossman, his dissertation advisor. Hasler is notably a major Korean American language philosopher whose philosophical work forms the subject matter of Marr’s dissertation. Thus, less a matter of investigating the truth behind Hasler’s death, the narrative is driven by Marr’s inquiry into Hasler’s philosophical writing and later, after Mossman abandons the project, into his biography. With this focus on such educative projects, the novel follows the conventions of the bildungsroman. But what exactly spurs Marr’s bildung? It is not a social conflict over a closeted gay identity since Marr is quite out and unconflicted by the matter.8 Nor is it a socially and politically marginalized black identity as Marr hails from and seeks, initially, to enter a professional, middle-class life. It is not even a conflict between identities and the impossibility of a queer black identity. Instead, as William Haver points out, Marr’s bildung forms out of the alignment and contradiction between, on the one hand, his vocational training as an academic philosopher and, on the other hand, his erotic training as a sexual subject (353). To be clear, Marr’s erotic training has nothing to do with discovering a stable gay identity to comport with the practices of same-sex desire. Rather, the training is a lesson on fulfilling and comprehending the erotic desires of mainly homeless men whose so-called dirty sexual practices exceed the parameters of normative sexualities (for example, piss drinking, shit eating, sexist and racist verbal abuse, and incest). This undomesticated sexuality thus comes into conflict with the norms of propriety in Marr’s academic training. This tension between academic philosophy and undomesticated sexuality spurs Marr’s bildung, reconciling them with each other by undermining the divisions that render them opposed ethical projects of self-formation.

In this regard, Mossman and Hasler function as possible endpoints to Marr’s bildung, specifically through the way the narrative follows Marr’s differentiation from Mossman and growing identification with Hasler. For the most part, the novel presents Mossman as a narrowly academic philosopher, one who is too committed to professional advancement in academia. Of course, Marr is ultimately nothing like Mossman. In fact, by the novel’s end, when Marr and [End Page 96] Mossman meet briefly after Marr’s turning out, Mossman is made to look rather bumbling and naive, which underscores not only Marr’s distance from him but also Marr’s personal growth and development. Hasler, on the other hand, functions quite differently from Mossman. Rather than embodying an inadequate model for Marr’s bildung, Hasler demonstrates its completion, resolving the conflict between philosophy and undomesticated sexuality. Indeed, the novel makes this quite explicit since Marr’s inquiry into Hasler leads him to replicate his same erotic training with homeless men (one of whom was previously Hasler’s homeless lover, Mad Man Mike).

Through their parallel but distinct roles in the narrative, Mossman and Hasler underscore how Marr’s undomesticated sexuality is not the abandonment of a philosophical life but its expansion beyond the academic and social norms that subtend it. Indeed, philosophy functions as the novel’s central idiom to thematize Marr’s bildung. In particular, the “systems of the world” (Delany, Mad 13) trope works as a cipher that frames the narrative in terms of the classical bildungsroman’s central ideological concerns—the subject’s development in relation to a social order. In this respect, it is worth noting that the novel presents a specific development in the meaning of the trope. Initially, it serves as the title of Marr’s imagined but never completed philosophy manuscript, one that is described as “a six hundred-page tome on psychology, history, reality, and metaphysics, putting them once and for all in their grandly ordered relation” (10). However, later in the novel, the trope’s philosophical meaning shifts after Marr’s engagement with Hasler’s work. As Edwin Schaliapin, a fictionalized Hasler scholar in the novel, writes, “But what is inchoate to Hasler’s work, from beginning to end—what he best represents—is the realization that large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems” (243). At a philosophical level, these two definitions describe the conceptual structures of opposing epistemologies. In the first formulation, the systems-of-the-world trope signifies an epistemology premised on the totalizing unity (that is, a “grandly ordered relation”) of all knowledge, while the second formulation explicitly describes an epistemology predicated on the untotalizable complexity of knowledge. However, I would suggest that this shift in meaning does not simply describe a change in epistemology but, more significantly, a change in how to conceptualize, following Foucault, relations of power and knowledge. In particular, the shift is from a sovereign position characterized by a capacity to stand outside of the world and act with absolute knowledge to an immanent position that is characterized by a capacity to both be subjected to the world and act with finite knowledge. [End Page 97]

In this respect, the changing meaning of the trope seems to describe a development that, in one sense, is no development at all. For, if the classic bildungsroman is supposed to track the subject’s development into an autonomous ethical individual, the shifted trajectory suggests quite the opposite—a move backward into heteronomy. Of course, interpreting this movement as a failed bildung would rely on affirming possessive individualism as the normative aesthetic value of the classical bildungsroman. Instead, this development in the trope’s meaning prefigures both the arc of Marr’s bildung and how that journey will itself come to transform the valences and meanings typically associated with the classical bildungsroman, such as autonomy and heteronomy. Indeed, as the novel progresses, the trope’s meaning follows this course as its network of references moves beyond a purely philosophical register to an exploration of relations of power and knowledge via the representation of Marr’s erotic activity with homeless men in terms of an economy of exchange. Thus, the systems-of-the-world trope becomes concretized as a variety of social, political, economic, and cultural systems, from themes of urban political economy to representations of the economy of prostitution to meditations on discursive representations of homelessness to pornographic depictions of the exchange and consumption of bodily fluid and waste. Taken together, the novel ends up presenting the systems of the world as a complex domain of power relations that Marr and his homeless lovers must negotiate.

However, what is striking about these connections are the extent to which the novel underplays the disciplining of erotic practices and pleasures and the normalizing of sexuality. Marr is not riddled with guilt about his same-sex, cross-class, and interracial desires. The incredibly lengthy descriptions of sex do not find their erotic charge from the transgression of racial, gendered, and sexual norms. Even when erotic practices involve sexist and racist discourse and enact a mode of sexual domination, these scenes are characterized by what Delany calls “good will” (Times Square 111).9 Instead, the novel foregrounds sexuality’s regulation in a biopolitical order through its dual attention to the homeless as a marginalized population and AIDS as an epidemiological crisis and public health discourse. Put differently, the sexual lifeworld that Marr and his homeless lovers navigate, as well as the power relations in which they must participate, are structured less by normative ideals (of course, this is not to say that normalization is absent) and more by innumerable environmental technologies that regulate vulnerability, life-chance, pleasures, and freedom.10 In particular, the epidemiological crisis of AIDS in conjunction with the political economy of urban space function as the predominant regulative structure of Marr’s and his homeless [End Page 98] lovers’ sexual practices. For example, consider the very lengthy letter in which Marr describes his sexual lifeworld to his estranged friend Sam. In one section, Marr recounts to her his most “mystical of mystical experiences” (171), which, as Marr himself admits, is actually a rather average day of cruising at the Variety Theater. However, Marr explains that that day’s significance lies in how it led him to no longer fear AIDS. At its core, we find, Marr’s epiphany came down to him making a cost-benefit analysis in which he compares the benefits of cruising—its pleasures, psychological function, and social comradery—to the costs of cruising—its risks and dangers, including AIDS. He refers to this cost-benefit analysis as a gamble; he states, “Still, within the realm of my own chosen gamble, the obliteration of terror allows me to act as sensibly as I can, given those limits” (177). Clearly, this kind of rationalization indexes a predicament in which power profoundly regulates Marr’s sexual life. However, it is not one that works by having Marr internalize norms of proper sexual comportment; it works through establishing a set of choices that Marr is free to choose from but whose consequences he must solely bear. It is precisely these circumstances and power relations that end up shaping Marr’s bildung and occasioning a different articulation of freedom and belonging from possessive individualism.

The Systems of the World and “Turned Out” Possessive Individualism

Fittingly, the final third of the novel in which Marr climactically achieves bildung works to flesh out the terms of an alternative formation of freedom and belonging. During this extended sequence, Marr meets Leaky Sowps, another homeless man who becomes Marr’s ideal lover, in an alley outside of Marr’s apartment as he is leaving for a meeting. Again, like other scenes of the novel, this encounter quickly becomes pornographic. However, it leads Marr to invite Leaky to his apartment where they continue their sexual relationship and come to know each other further. Through the character of Leaky, the novel completes the mirroring between Marr and Hasler since Marr’s relationship with Leaky parallels Hasler’s with his homeless lover, Mad Man Mike. Indeed, Marr’s relationship with Leaky actually culminates in the exact events that led to Hasler’s murder. Furthermore, their apparent chance encounter was actually a setup, elaborately orchestrated by Tony but facilitated through systems of exchange devised by Mad Man Mike.

Significantly, this entire sequence is explicitly called a “love story” (333). In that respect, the novel once again recalls and echoes [End Page 99] the conventions of the classical bildungsroman since the consummation of love through scenes of romance and marriage symbolically secures the subject within a stable social order and quells the conflict of bildung. Even though Delany’s use of such a narrative device is very much in keeping with the normative trajectory of the classical bildungsroman, he fundamentally shifts the terms of such closure away from possessive individualism. Indeed, he alters its underlying cultural logic of possession to present a turned out possessive individualism.

This alternative is worked out in the culminating scenes of the love story sequence and forms the crescendo of Marr’s bildung. In those final scenes, the novel presents two parallel settings that are described as distinct sexual economies, recalling once again the systems-of-the-world trope. In the first scene, Marr, under the behest of Almira Adler, a renowned poet and friend of Timothy Hasler, investigates Hasler’s death by visiting the site of his murder, the Pit, a gay bar known for male prostitution. Marr interviews several people there and discovers that Hasler’s murder had to do with his involvement in “upset[ting] the system” of prostitution within the Pit (354). Hasler, we find out, was killed in the process of protecting his homeless lover, Mad Man Mike, from a male prostitute who became angry at him for interfering with his clientele. Apparently, Mad Man Mike had upset the system by offering sex freely to the patrons, thus undermining the process of hustling.

In the second scene, there is a formally similar sexual economy to the system of prostitution in the Pit. Occurring sometime after Marr goes to the Pit, the scene begins with Marr agreeing to be turned out by Leaky and his friends. This turning out, in actuality, is an orgy in which Marr submits to the sexual desires of Leaky and his homeless friends. After Marr agrees, Leaky leaves to find participants and returns accompanied by Tony, Mad Man Mike, Big Buck, and Crazy Joey. From there, they go on to turn out both Marr and Tony, which (as many of the other sex scenes do) involves an unbelievable amount of semen, urine, and feces. The crucial moment in the scene occurs when Mad Man Mike institutes a game that structures the sexual activities of the turning out. The game involves Mad Man Mike distributing pennies to everyone in the room. Afterward, the participants convene and discuss their sexual desires, fantasies, and turn-ons. Throughout the discussion, those whose interests have been piqued by the erotic discussions are allowed to buy each other for a single penny, which grants the buyer the power to sexually dispose of whomever he buys as he sees fit. Structured in this way, the scene unfolds with more explicit descriptions of various sexual activities, which has been formalized as a system of exchange through the [End Page 100] use of the pennies. In these terms, the space of Marr’s apartment takes on a similar market organization as the Pit since each place structures sexual practices and pleasures into a formalized system of monetary exchange. In this respect, Mad Man Mike’s game and the system of prostitution in the Pit recall and provide content to the systems-of-the-world trope insofar as each, in their own way, describes a formal system of monetary exchange that emerges from and rests on a “large-scale, messy, informal system” (243) of sexual practices, fantasies, desires, and bodily intensities and pleasures.

Yet, this resemblance, I argue, is only a formal similarity. It might be that in each space, bodies are circulated and sexual practices are structured in a system of exchange facilitated by a purchase and sale. However, their sexual economies are fundamentally different from each other since they are premised on different logics of value. The Pit’s sexual economy is predicated on a logic of scarcity. As Donny, a bartender, states, “[T]he thing that makes this whole place possible is a belief that sex—the kind of sex that gets sold here—is scarce. Because it’s scarce, it’s valuable. And because it’s valuable, it goes for good prices” (353). This logic of scarcity harshly contradicts the premises that undergird value in Marr’s turning out. Indeed, it is precisely this conflict between opposing systems of value that prompts the murder of both Hasler and Crazy Joey. In lieu of scarcity, an overabundance of sex structures value in Marr’s turning out. Or, as Marr states, when reflecting on the cause of Hasler’s murder, “The conflict in the bar that night was over [Mad Man Mike] Kerns’s sexual prowess, or perhaps more accurately over his economic availability” (483). This economic availability of sexual pleasures manifests itself in not simply the bottomless sexual appetites of Marr’s homeless lovers (as in Joey’s compulsive need to orgasm over fifteen times), but more significantly, in the innumerable kinds of sexual practices that make up the turning out. Indeed, Marr describes the infinite forms of sexual practices when he states,

But, as I told my professor, the most impressive thing—and at the same time the scariest thing—about Sade was the obsessiveness with which he managed to work through all the combinations and permutations of everyone hooking up with everyone else. If I were writing about sex, I thought, I just don’t think I could do that. Nor do I think I can do it here. But that’s what the Mad Man’s game essentially was.


Thus, the endless possibilities of different kinds of sexual activity become impossible to structure according to value.11 [End Page 101]

Now, in order to see the way value disappears in Marr’s turning out, we need to examine how each system of exchange is under-girded by a particular conception of sexuality. In the case of the Pit, the basis of value is a “belief that sex . . . is scarce” (353). But that belief in scarcity is founded on a reified understanding of sexuality, which lends itself to commodification. This commodified sexuality is not simply based on people’s ability to buy and sell (since this kind of exchange is done in Marr’s turning out) but rather on the ability to buy and sell sexuality shorn from placements in complex social processes, cultural meanings, power relations, and desires. Put simply, in the Pit, sexuality is narrowly rendered a service.

In the case of Marr’s turning out, value disappears altogether since exchange is facilitated through a strict formal equivalence. Everyone is allotted a penny; everyone is worth a penny. But posed in this way, are we not back to the commodity form? Is this formalism not the imposition of capitalist logic? Is not the penny functioning as a money commodity? This formal similarity between the Pit and Mad Man Mike’s game with regard to systems of exchange should not be construed as identical since their organizing principles are radically different. Unlike the Pit, in Marr’s turning out sexuality is not cleaved from its social relations but presented in toto. Thus, instead of a service being exchanged, bodies themselves are what get bought and sold. Consequently, without this separation between bodies and sexual practices, value disappears due to the lack of a category of abstract equivalence through which both sexual practices can be subsumed and value can be expressed and measured. In other words, there is no distinct principle—no equivalent form—through which a magnitude of value can be measured. Thus, the penny as the universal equivalent that mediates sexual practices only enables the exchange of bodies rather than measures their value. Indeed, this is precisely what is meant when Tony, another of Marr’s homeless lovers, states, “He said that the thing you buy and sell, when you buy some scumbag this way, it don’t got nothin’ to do with what someone can do—I mean, how much he’s worth out there. It just has to do with . . . I don’t know. Owning” (416; ellipsis in original).

Ultimately, these logics of value index different social imaginaries for Marr’s bildung, articulating distinct modes of freedom and belonging. Accordingly, in the same way that the sexual economies of the Pit and Marr’s turning out are opposed to each other but share a formal similarity through their market organization, these social imaginaries are similarly opposed to one another but share a formal similarity through the language of possession. The novel works this out through the social relationships that compose each sexual economy: the client-prostitute relationship in the Pit and the Marr-Leaky [End Page 102] relationship in the turning out. In the Pit, commodity fetishism characterizes the social imaginary in the client-prostitute relation.12 This commodity fetishism renders all social relations between the people of the bar as simply and only a market relation between a prostitute and a client. However, this is not to say that those social relations become completely absent; instead, they get displaced onto the commodity itself. Thus, the second aspect of commodity fetishism is the return of social relations in alien form. Indeed, as alien forms, they are understood as external from those who inhabit those social relations themselves. This second point is usefully seen when Ronnie Apple states, “We come to places like this, to pursue our clean and costly pleasures, looking for the simplest suggestion of some pink-and-gold schoolboy we might have seen or even been, some lean brown athlete we once admired or longed to be or loved” (478). Fetishism is found less in the content of Apple’s “clean and costly pleasures” (his desire for “some pink-and-gold schoolboy” or “some lean brown athlete”) than in the temporality of those pleasures: the past moments (“even been,” “once admired,” “loved”) and virtual moments (“might have seen,” “longed to be”). These past moments and virtual possibilities form the mystical character of the commodity, which, in the case of the Pit, imbues reified sexual practices with the social relations cleaved from the encounter between hustler and client in the market. In this way, the social imaginary of the Pit exemplifies the norms of possessive individualism. Freedom is the freedom of contract and belonging issues out of contractual arrangements.13 Yet, what undergirds this modality of freedom and belonging is exactly the notion that participants have a property in the self that is fundamentally inalienable.

On the other hand, in Marr’s turning out, rather than first possessing a self that then allows for the exchange of fungible sexual services, the possession of other bodies is primary in its social imaginary. The terms of this possession gets parsed out through the figure of the dog collar in Marr and Leaky’s relationship:

“Leaky . . . if we got a dog collar, I should be the one wearing it. Not you. I’m pretty clearly the bottom in this relationship, don’t you think?”

“Shit,” he said. “It don’t matter who wears it—and it would be fuckin’ stupid for you to wear it. You got the money, you got the house, you the one in charge.”

Here, the dog collar embodies the power dynamic of the Marr-Leaky relationship. However, what it signifies for each is drastically different. For Marr, the collar signifies a privatized dominant and submissive [End Page 103] (DS) sexual relationship in which Marr is the bottom to Leaky’s top, while for Leaky, the collar exceeds Marr’s privatized formulation of their sexual relation as it takes into account the wider class dimensions of their relationship. Accordingly, the DS language of top and bottom must be reversed, as Marr’s middle-class position locates him above Leaky within a class hierarchy. Leaky’s retort then disrupts the reification of sexuality into a bourgeois privacy, a buffered space outside of social, political, or economic concerns where they negotiate the terms and relations of their intimacy as private individuals. The dialogue, however, does not dissolve the very distinction of the private and the economic. It problematizes their separation and opposition and opens up their relationship to scrutiny and adjustment. Thus, it is significant that the problematization is not unidirectional. In the other direction, the intrusion of the DS language of top and bottom into an account of class hierarchy personalizes it as no longer an exterior economic reality. The top and bottom designation makes explicit the asymmetrical class relations between Marr and Leaky to be profoundly imbricated in their sexual practices. We find then that this direct appearance of economic relations problematizes their relations of power. Indeed, they become visible as relations of domination unlike the Pit’s “clean and costly pleasures” (478). In that respect, in the Marr-Leaky relationship, domination becomes coincident to those pleasures.

The juxtaposition in the novel of the social imaginaries of both the Pit and Marr’s turning out elaborate what I have been calling Delany’s turned out possessive individualism insofar as it reconceptualizes the basis of belonging away from contractual atomism toward a model of insecure dependency via the resignification of the language of possession. In this case, possession does not signify the autonomy of an individual (self-possession) but rather signifies the dependency of an individual (possession by another).14 We can see this reversal quite plainly in Marr’s various meditations on the meaning of possession brought about by his contact with homeless men. For instance, in a scene just prior to his turning out, Marr is struck by the ethical implications of the valediction to a letter from Alma Adler, which occasions for him further contemplation on the social and historical meaning of the dog collar on Leaky:

What I wondered, to the point it slowed me as I walked barefoot on the hall’s dark and worn wood planks, was: what is contained in that most innocent of closings, “Yours truly”? I am truly yours. I belong to you. And that belonging I mark with the terrible sign of “truth.” Thus you are my owner. You own me. [End Page 104]

I have put a collar on you that allows you to roam and, because the collar is a true sign of belonging, of ownership, of the genitive in its possessive mode, lets you return . . . to what comforts, what privileges, what rights, what responsibilities, what violences?

Historical, political, and bloody, in a land built on slavery, what appalling connections were inscribed within that phatic figure?


As Marr points out, the closing is a phatic locution, a speech act whose function is not the conveying of information but a social gesture. That is, the closing of a letter is supposed to recognize an intimate social relationship itself. Yet, in this instance, what strikes Marr so intensely is the way the constantive dimension of the valediction actually exceeds its performative function. Put simply, the “yours truly” reveals the social conditions of belonging (“the terrible sign of ‘truth’”) that undergirds recognition. In these ways, ethical recognition is not prior to social belonging but proceeds from it; one must belong to be recognized.

Indeed, this understanding of recognition undermines the presumption of autonomy as the condition of belonging. As we see, belonging implies ownership. “I belong to you,” thus, “[y]ou own me.” This reversal of the subject of the sentence highlights the asymmetrical relation between them since we find no equivalent statement—no “you belong to me” and no “I own you.” However, this asymmetry does not mean the loss of freedom but quite the opposite: the founding of freedom. As Marr points out, the collar “allows you to roam” and “lets you return.” Hence, the collar secures the very coordinates of freedom by establishing points of “return” from which to triangulate places to “roam.” Through this ambulatory metaphor, there is a yoking together of freedom and responsibility that renders them constitutive of each other. Comforts, privileges, and rights carry with them responsibilities and violences. Reckoning with their connections is precisely what sends Marr reeling. For unlike the promise of contract whose mediation provides both the figure of articulation between freedom and responsibility and a buffer against their implication with violence, these political principles are immediately entailed in one another.

This reversal of self-possession makes up Delany’s turned out possessive individualism and forms the culmination of Marr’s bildung. Nowhere is this point made more apparent than in the closing scene that caps off the events of Marr’s turning out and its consequences at the Pit. In the wake of Crazy Joey’s murder, Mad Man Mike returns to Marr’s apartment. Overcome by grief, Mad Man Mike rampages the [End Page 105] already disheveled apartment and wakes Marr in the process. In an attempt to quell Mad Man Mike’s rage and sorrow over Crazy Joey’s death, Marr begs him to quiet himself for fear that the police will take him away. Afterward, in a surprisingly nonchalant and, in consideration of the rest of novel, minimalist manner, Marr announces in a single line paragraph, “He raped me before he left,” before adding in an even shorter paragraph, “In the mouth” (481). As the scene continues, this casual assertion opens the scene onto a problematic terrain when Marr states that he cooperated with Mad Man Mike, indeed going so far as to claim that “if Mike ever came to me in the same state, I would service him again” (482). This scene poses a troubling ethical question: How can Marr simultaneously claim rape and also assert that he cooperated? Put differently, how is Marr’s vexed consent to his own rape supposed to be understood?15 For Marr, the answer lies in shifting the scale on which to comprehend it. Instead of grasping the rape at the immediate level between himself and Mad Man Mike, it should be framed by how they both operated in the systems of the world. As Marr elaborates to the reader, the novel’s preceding actions and events—the murders of Crazy Joey and Hasler—were, like his own rape by Mad Man Mike, the outcomes of a system:

It was all of that operating together—as a system. The individual elements only made the system manifest. But the only reason that I can give you or why I went along with the Mad Man’s sexual violence toward me—certainly his act was entirely beyond my own moral boundaries and even any sense of my own safety—is that the world owed it to him, owed it to him for the death of Hasler, for his own life since, for Crazy Joey. I happened to be there.

The systems of the . . . what?

But, yes, I am part of the world.

(482; ellipsis in original)

Once again, the systems of the world are invoked, but now they are far removed from the “grandly ordered relations” (10) of knowledge that made up Marr’s original philosophical project. Marr’s epiphany here is not about knowing the world but about coping with being part of it or, rather, belonging to it. Finally, Marr fully experiences what he only dimly understood during his engagement with Leaky and his homeless lovers. Marr, for perhaps the first time in the novel, experiences the depths of his vulnerability in belonging to others, a vulnerability about which Marr’s ethical stance must be a relation of debt that cannot be fully repaid. [End Page 106]

“Turned Out” Possessive Individualism and Social Death

Following my analysis of Delany’s turned out possessive individualism, we are now better able to assess the novel’s complicated discourse of race. Most apparent is how the novel invokes an extreme form of violent and debased racist and sexist slurs in many of the sex scenes. In this respect, The Mad Man highlights the sexual fetishism of race and gender as erotically charged signifiers in sexual practices.16 Yet, to fully grasp the significance of these fetishized discourses as connected with Delany’s turned out possessive individualism, they must be contextualized within the novel’s other racial discourse—the profound racialization of homelessness. Nowhere is this clearer than in how the novel characterizes it as a form of social death. Orlando Patterson describes “social death” as a liminal status in which all social relationships of the slave are completely mediated through the master (38). In this way, the slave lacks a social identity and position independent from the master, which renders the slave dead from the standpoint of society as a whole. This abjection of the slave from the social order has come to determine the meaning of blackness to such a profound extent that it can be said to form the historical grounds for antiblack racist discourses, devaluation, and violence. Indeed, recent scholarship in black studies has found in the notion of social death the very political ontology of blackness.17

In some ways, social death can describe the condition of the homeless in the novel since, on numerous occasions, Marr reflects on how the homeless are both completely absent from any kind of historical record as well as impossible to track through any social institution. Indeed, an escape from social death forms the fundamental rationale behind Mad Man Mike’s game: “He said that knowing somebody wanted you enough even to pay a penny for you meant you were not in the unenviable position that most of the people he knew . . . living in the parks and the streets were in: i.e., no one wanted them at all and to most people they were worth nothing!” (456).

Furthermore, this racialization of homelessness extends beyond the novel’s thematization of social death to also include a parallel blackening of homeless bodies. I borrow the term from Christina Sharpe, which she describes as follows:

I use blackened to refer to those people (of recognizable African descent and not) who because of a proximity to blackness (specifically a proximity to the shame, violence, etc. that black bodies are made to wear) are covered by the shadow of blackness, are, like the “scalawag” in Kara Walker’s work blackened. Blackened then allows for the [End Page 107] overlap of self-identified and imposed; it is a marker of proximity that positions one as not properly white or non-black. It acknowledges the movement of bodies, the myriad meanings attached to African populations, the residues of raced and class signifiers that locate one within or without (visually) African-descended communities. As well as indicating those whose material conditions and circumstances positions them with blackness, blacken can also mean those African-descended people who have moved away visually from blackness.


This blackening is directed onto the bodies of the homeless men through the novel’s extended focus on the filth, bodily secretions, and excrement that exude from and adhere to the bodies of the homeless characters.18 In this way, the abject materials of their bodies come to embody their very social death. That is, their fusion with bodily waste is nothing but the expression of their social death, indeed its symbolic and embodied correlative. In a physical and social sense, these homeless men are indistinguishable from filth; they are defined by social death. Thus, the homeless are not just covered by excrement; they are “covered by the shadow of blackness” (Sharpe 191).

Yet, in exploring how the racialization of homelessness links it to both blackness and social death—indeed, blackness as social death—the novel is neither simply equating homelessness with social death nor the homeless with blackness. Rather, I would argue, the novel is making a more subtle and complex historical point. That is, the novel’s racialization of homelessness points to the way that slavery and homelessness are historically specific material social formations in contradiction to the ideology of possessive individualism. Indeed, they produce subjects who cannot be self-possessed individuals. In that respect, they are part of a history of property within classical liberalism that the ideology of possessive individualism suppresses through its claim of universality, namely a history of property from the position of the dispossessed. Yet, as material formations, they cannot be fully suppressed but persist in and through race as the “material trace of [the] history” of dispossession (Lowe 26).

This racialization offers a glimpse not only into this suppressed history of dispossession but also, more significantly, into its social and cultural inheritance, one denied by possessive individualism but made accessible through the lens of race. This heritage frames the novel’s overt use of such fetish discourse of race in erotic practices. That is, the novel extends their meaning beyond their function as erotically charged signifiers to also include the way they both index structures of racial violence underpinning property as well as allude to an alternative formation of freedom and belonging within that [End Page 108] history. Thus, it is important that fellatio, coprophilia, urophilia, and mysophilia are the primary sexual practices represented throughout the novel since they are sexual practices that figure simultaneously a process of abjection and recuperation. This figuration, I suggest, forms the conceptual epicenter of the novel’s thoughts on race, specifically as the simultaneous degradation and gift of blackness. As Leaky explains, “Piss, shit, cum, snot, cockcheese—all that stuff: see, that’s like a present, little guy. That’s like a present that comes from inside you. Inside your own body. I mean: how am I gonna give somebody somethin’ more personal than my own cum, my own piss, my own spit, my own shit?” (374). Here, we find a quite literal turning out of the insides of the body. But this process operates as a practice of gift giving, which shapes the trajectory of bodily insides outward to social worlds and networks of belonging. Significantly this gift giving is how “piss, shit, cum, snot, cockcheese” continues to be “piss, shit, cum, snot, cockcheese,” which is underscored by the very symmetry of the passage. Indeed, there is no attempt to try to romanticize them, to associate them with anything but abjection, waste, and ultimately social death. And yet, they are the stuff of gifts. In this respect, this act of gift giving is a profound affirmation of such “shit,” which is to say an affirmation of blackness with its ineluctable ties to social death. But, in so doing, this affirmation comes to turn out social death in the process. In other words, in affirming blackness as social death and waste, this practice of gift giving comes to negate the antiblack world that renders blackness identical with social death. Hence, this acceptance is not filled with pathos nor is it taken as a courageous act but rather, as an act of gift giving, it is the most intimate gesture. As such, and in keeping with the explicit world-building dimension of Delany’s science fiction writing, this practice intimates an alternative world.19 Indeed, it indexes a “dialectic in which humanity experiences a blackened world” (Lewis Gordon qtd. in Sexton).

It is precisely for this reason that Darieck Scott finds in Delany’s writing in general, and in The Mad Man in particular, an alternative formation of “black power,” a power that is not about the rejection of blackness but a power that dwells within blackness in and as abjection (Scott 9).20 Put differently, Marr’s participation in the sexual lifeworld of racialized homeless men and the extent to which their erotic practices are enmeshed with both abject material and racist and sexist stereotypes becomes the opportunity for Marr’s bildung as a mode of self-care and a practice of freedom. In particular, Marr targets his own pleasures as an “ethical substance” (Foucault, Use 26) bound to a racist, sexist, and homophobic history of property in order to become a very different ethical and sexual subject by the novel’s end.21 [End Page 109]

This erotic practice of freedom is not about producing autonomy from the history and persistence of racist, sexist, and homophobic domination but about reorienting Marr—as ethical subject—to his historical conditions of possibility, namely what Patricia Williams refers to as a history of “being the object of property” (216).22 In so doing, it not only opens up the suppressed history of the dispossessed within accounts of classical liberalism but also provides a way to think through the conceptual and political tensions of dispossession that began this article—that is, how to extol the experience of dispossession for the way it belies accounts of the subject’s autonomy and reveals instead the primacy of social interdependence and vulnerability while, at the same time, acknowledging the way this experience is distributed unevenly and with different degrees of severity along lines of social difference. And how might it be possible to develop a political critique of this socially uneven exposure to dispossession without returning to the principle of autonomy as its normative basis?

These are indeed difficult questions. Yet, much of their difficulty rests on the profound extent to which the ideology of possessive individualism frames them in the outset. By positing self-possession as the definition of personhood, possessive individualism makes autonomy the norm and renders vulnerability and social interdependence deviant. In this respect, possessive individualism obscures how, as Butler explains, “Our interdependency establishes our vulnerability to social forms of deprivation” (Dispossession 5). In light of this, Delany’s turned out possessive individualism reverses outright this foundational proposition of classical liberalism, making our possession by others the norm. In this way, critiques of dispossession should be addressed not as theoretical questions but ethical-historical ones. That is, the question is no longer to determine the moment before interdependence and vulnerability but instead to discern the conditions that make the interdependency and vulnerability of life unlivable and unbearable in order to make them anew. For Delany, this would require an intimate examination of the way race and gender index not only the recurrent institutionalization of the violence of property but also the social imaginaries that render freedom and belonging meaningful. Yet, to do so, he suggests that we open up alternative histories, new pleasures, and indeed an entire world for us.

Christian Ravela

CHRISTIAN RAVELA <christian.ravela@ucf.edu> teaches in Humanities and Cultural Studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. His work focuses on issues of identity, US political culture, state formation, and capital. He is currently working on a book-length project that examines the representation of dispossessed populations in US multiethnic literature and political discourses in relation to the development of the US welfare state.


I would like to thank Eva Cherniavsky, Angela Rounsaville, and both anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay. [End Page 110]

1. “Turn out” is a trope used throughout the novel to signify a number of interconnected meanings. First and foremost, it signifies practices of erotic domination. Furthermore, along those same lines, it signifies a pedagogical practice of sexual training that leads the trained from erotic innocence to erotic experience. However, on a figurative level, it refers to an act of redirection, reversal, and flipping of ideas. My use of the phrase draws mainly from the third meaning. Yet, I find it significant in the novel that its reversal of notions of possessive individualism is enabled and occasioned through erotic practices in the former sense.

2. For an account of the significance of domesticity in the development of possessive individualism, see Brown.

3. The gendering here is intentional since, as Pateman has argued, the subject of classical liberal political philosophy was presumed male. Also, for a brilliant reading on the relationship of possessive individualism and racial embodiment, see Cherniavsky’s Incorporations.

4. For an analysis of possessive individualism within nineteenth-century American literary culture, see Hong’s Ruptures of American Capital, particularly chapter 1.

5. For a brief genealogical account of property, see Hong’s “Property.”

6. To be clear, I am not asserting that the classical bildungsroman un-problematically and necessarily reproduces liberal ideologies; rather, this is a historically contingent relationship. Indeed, the aim of this article is to discern alternatives and contradictions within the classical bildungsroman by analyzing Delany’s uptake of its narrative conventions.

7. In The Ruptures in American Capital, Hong notes a significant cultural difference in American narratives of development from the European classical bildungsroman. While the classical bildungsroman reconciles external compulsion with internal impulses, American narratives of development narrate breaks from social constraint as the exemplary social norm of American national culture.

8. With the narrative historically framed by gay and lesbian new social movements of the sixties and seventies, particularly the Stonewall uprising, and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, The Mad Man elicits many readings that can be organized around the rubric of gay identity or queer politics and theory. These readings include a rumination on the politics of sexual knowledge around AIDS; see Woodhouse, specifically chapter 7, and Tucker, specifically chapter 6. It can also be read as an illustration of the impact of political economic transformations on the intimate geography of the city and the public sphere, particularly spaces of public sex; see Harper, specifically chapter 5, and Davidson. Or it can be read as a theorization of queer pedagogy; see Haver.

9. For more on “good will,” see Delany’s discussion of “contact” in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue 123–28. [End Page 111]

10. This can be thought of as a form of governmentality. See Foucault’s Security, Territory, Populations.

11. As Marx states, “However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character of values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity” (Capital 138–39). In the case of Marr’s turning out via Mad Man Mike’s game, value cannot be organized since each particular sexual activity must be the expression of some “identical social substance.” Presumably, this identical social substance would be sex; however, that abstract categorical unity (abstract equivalent) gets systematically undermined by the game itself since it incites a proliferation of sexual practices that cannot even establish a relative form of value and it cannot be confined by a particular normative understanding of sex (particular equivalent).

12. As Marx states,

In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.

13. For a discussion on the way contract mediated political and cultural debates about the meaning of freedom and slavery in the late nineteenth century, see Stanley.

14. This reversal of possession can be usefully seen in Butler’s work on moral philosophy, particularly Levinas. See Butler’s Precarious Life and Giving an Account of One’s Self.

15. The gender politics of this scene is a difficult one to fully settle. On the one hand, the scene’s rendering of rape grants it a symbolic importance that ends up abstracting rape from the sexist systems of rape culture. On the other hand, this criticism gets voiced by Marr’s friend, Pheldon.

16. On pornography and race, see Linda Williams’s “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border.”

17. The notion of social death has achieved significant and contentious theoretical prominence in black studies, most notably in the intellectual movement of afro-pessimism. For a distillation of afro-pessimism, see Wilderson. Wilderson places a number of intellectuals within an afro-pessimist framework: Hortense Spillers, Jared Sexton, Ronald Judy, June Jordan, Gordon Lewis, and Saidiya Hartman, David Marriot, Kara Keeling, Sharon Holland. For debates about afro-pessimism, see Moten and see Sexton’s response. [End Page 112]

18. For a reading focused on the novel’s representation of excrement, see Foltz.

19. As Berlant writes, “intimacy builds worlds; it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation. Its potential failure to stabilize closeness always haunts its persistent activity, making the very attachments deemed to buttress ‘a life’ seem in a state of constant if latent vulnerability” (282).

20. For a brilliant reading of abjection as the counterintuitive condition for an alternative formation of black power, one that stresses blackness, see Scott, particularly chapter 5.

21. For a discussion of Foucault’s analytic of ethics, see Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure specifically section 3 of the introduction.

22. Patricia Williams describes this conditions as follows:

As I reflect on all this, I realized that one of the things passed on from slavery, which continues in the oppression of people of color, is a belief structure rooted in a concept of black (or brown or red) antiwill, the antithetical embodiment of pure will. We live in a society where the closest equivalent of nobility is the display of unremittingly controlled willfulness. To be perceived as unremittingly without will is to be imbued with an almost lethal trait.


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