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Space, Aesthetic Power, and True Falsity in The Known World

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 638-654 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0005

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On the wall of a small jail in Edward P. Jones’s fictional Manchester County hangs a map of “The Known World.” Florida does not exist on the sixteenth-century map; North America is too small, and nameless. But the map’s owner, local sheriff John Skiffington, is satisfied with the “Known World” as he knows it, flawed or not (Jones 174–75). Skiffington is holding together a flawed world of his own in Manchester, where wealthy landowners control the law, vindictive slave patrollers flout the law, and black slaveholders severely complicate the law. It is this last group, the black slaveholders, who confound and fascinate both the characters of Jones’s 2003 novel and its readers. One slave overseer, Moses, “[takes] more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man,” Henry Townsend, “two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made” (8–9). Most critics and scholars have centered their work around this issue of black slaveholders,1 along with the book’s long view of time, which allows readers to see what the future holds for many of Manchester’s large cast of characters (as well as the fate of the doomed county itself).2

Sheriff Skiffington’s out-of-date map, however, also points toward a type of geographical rubric at play in the novel, which draws attention to a marriage between space and structures of power. Throughout, The Known World highlights the roles of space and place in establishing and perpetuating systems of thought, and when we approach the novel from that angle, we find sketches for a productive action of resistance against those systems that is rooted in aesthetic power and modeled by the novel itself. The key form of resistance Jones’s novel will position against the categories and boundaries that insist we can “know” the world—and the form of resistance that has been little discussed beyond reference to its climactic instantiation on the book’s final pages—is an aesthetics that resists linearity and the idea of space as stable, truthful, and natural.

It is this aesthetics I will describe as insisting upon a “true falsity” that reveals and reinscribes the systems of thought that underlie, manufacture, and disguise the arbitrary nature of the boundaries and borders with which we construct and assign meaning to space. Systems of power tend to benefit from a double move—a “false falsity”—by both constructing space and disguising its constructed nature. The true falsity modeled in and by The Known World reinscribes systems and spaces while highlighting (in fact, celebrating) the impermanent and arbitrary nature of inscription. That is, a true falsity is a falsity that is not disguised. In this view, productive action insists on staying in-production: a permanent productivity demands a permanent instability and a never-fully-known world. Productive action, then, cannot be defined as following one specific trajectory or philosophy. Productive action must be action that refuses the convenient stability of closure or definition.

For all its radical refusal of closure, however, this model functions happily in an apparently stable (intricately-plotted, in fact) novel. The Known World is coherent and comprehensible to a degree not often seen in works with such a postmodern agenda. This coherent instability is perhaps among its most important contributions to the contemporary novel. It illustrates and demonstrates the work of art that does more than simply expose or explode our conceptions of truth and art. It holds the ideas of time, space, and structure up for interrogation while utilizing the productive possibilities of such restricted forms as the novel and the sculpture. In this way, it refuses surrender or submission to anarchy as options in a world where unchallenged systems of power create real-life horrors. Productive art, in this model, straddles the same line as productive action: it exposes the realities of artistic space and then reinscribes that space in a way that insists no inscription is permanent. The most frequently cited of the novel’s fictional artworks—a series of artistic maps I will address in more detail below—defies the boundaries of linear time while somehow...

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