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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 239-263

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The Genuflected Body of the Masochist in Richard Wright

In the spirit of E. P. Thompson's celebrated essay "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" (1967), we will isolate three moments in Frederick Douglass's Narrative, Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and Richard Wright's Black Boy that convey a historical movement, a movement that we will then articulate in more detail.1 In the second chapter of his Narrative, after describing the sleeping conditions of the slaves, Douglass tells us that "they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn." He points out that "Mr. Severe, the overseer, used to stand by the door of the quarter armed with a large hickory stick and heavy cowskin, ready to whip anyone" who does not respond promptly to the "sound of the horn" (Douglass 1977: 31-35). In Up from Slavery, Washington (1986: 286) has high praise for the English, who impress him because "the home life of the English seems to me to be about as perfect as anything can be. Everything moves like clockwork." In the second part of Wright's Black Boy, the narrator works for a while at a medical research institute at a hospital in Chicago. Wright (1993b: 361-62) presents an apparently minor incident that takes place at his job. Some excerpts from the episode follow:

One summer morning, just as I began work, a young Jewish boy came to me with a stop watch in his hand.

"Dr. —- wants me to time you when you clean a room," he said. "We're trying to make the institute more efficient." [End Page 239]

Stripped to my waist, I slung the mop, moving steadily like a machine, hearing the Jewish boy press the button on the stop watch as I finished cleaning a room.

"It took you seventeen minutes to clean that last room," he said. "That ought to be the time for each room."

"You have seventeen rooms to clean, . . . seventeen times seventeen make four hours and forty-nine minutes." He wrote upon a little pad. "After lunch, clean the five flights of stone stairs. I timed a boy who scrubbed one step and multiplied that time by the number of steps. You ought to be through at six."

Never had I felt so much the slave as when I scoured those stone steps each afternoon.

The "driver's horn," the "clockwork," and the "boy's stop watch" correspond to specific regimes of accumulation. The horn, clock, and stopwatch, increasingly sophisticated and finely calibrated chronometric devices, register the changed temporalities of capital accumulation.

The "driver's horn," augmented by the "hickory stick and heavy cowskin," is emblematic of the instruments of punishment. In Up from Slavery, the "driver's horn" has been replaced by "clockwork," and Washington praises the regulation and hierarchy of the "home life," a phrase that stands for the corporealization of discipline. The driver's horn stands in a relation of exteriority to the slave object; clockwork, however, will have to be implanted in the body of the free subject. Implementing this program at Tuskegee, installing the clockwork into the "home life" of his students, Washington (1986: 171) insists that he wishes to impress his students "as their friend and adviser, and not as their overseer." In Wright, the "driver's horn" and the "clockwork" are replaced by the "stop watch." This unassuming mechanical device induces, without physical coercion, a specific motor activity. It is the means by which a set of spatiotemporal coordinates is implanted in the body, which is then made to move "steadily like a machine." This chronometric device also unwinds, more prosaically, in the computational syntax of the "Jewish boy"'s calculations: "Seventeen times seventeen makes four hours and forty-nine minutes." This is not the spectacular figure of the overseer "armed with a large hickory stick and heavy cowskin" but the rather banal administrative figure of a boy with a stopwatch who even invokes the now all-too-familiar justification of...


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