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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 553-574

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Passing, Natural Selection, and Love's Failure:

Ethics of Survival from Chang-rae Lee to Jacques Lacan

Camouflage is the blending of the animal into the pattern, the environment; it is a search for invisibility....With men too, invisibility is an ever recurring desire.
Roger Caillois, The Mask of Medusa

The trope of invisibility has provided a central motif in the literary representations of racial minorities. From Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) to Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970), the metaphor of invisibility has come to symbolize the consequences of racial blindness; it is thus designed to alert us to the repercussions of social and legal exclusion in US history. Yet the nature of racial blindness—and its antidote, social visibility—has never been as simple as the binary terms imply. Involving a restless and often vexing interplay between perception and projection, recognition and disavowal, the values of racial visibility and invisibility can only emerge in relation to one another even as such appearance of meaning almost always immediately problematizes the signification against which it has defined itself. "White visibility," for instance, relies on the invisibility and assumed normality of whiteness, while "black invisibility" acquires its shape precisely through its very visibility as difference. As I argue in "Ralph Ellison and the Politics of Melancholia," the central conceit of invisibility in Invisible Man embodies not the opposition between seeing and not-seeing but a symptom of the dynamic of mutual projection structuring race relations in this country. Thus the rhetoric of "becoming visible" that has energized so much of progressive racial politics often elides the contradictions underpinning social visibility and remains ineffective [End Page 553] in the face of the phenomenological, social, and psychic paradoxes inhering in what it means to be visible.

In a slim volume entitled The Mask of Medusa (1964), social anthropologist Roger Caillois studies a phenomenon that the doctrine of natural selection fails to explain: those instances of mimicry in insect and animal life where survival does not seem to be the primary objective. Fascinated by what appears to be excessive visibility and "superfluous showing" in animal mimicry, Caillois writes, "if we stop projecting our human reactions on to the non-human part of nature we find that an immense squandering of resources is the rule there. It is a world where there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that an ostentatious outpouring of resources, with no intelligible end, may not be a wider and more universal law than the strict vital interest, the imperative of the survival of the species" (40). Caillois's assertion about nature's "squandering of resources" points to the priority of a seemingly arbitrary "aesthetic force" (41) in nature. In doing so, his thesis unveils and critiques the utilitarianism underlying the principle of selection.

At the same time, while mimicry may have no utility as a strategy of survival, it nonetheless does something else. That is, this arbitrary aesthetic instinct, if not an index for survival, does contribute to a significant social function. Caillois continues, "in the world of living things [for both animal and humans] there is a law of pure disguise: that there is a leaning towards the act of passing oneself off as something or someone else...[that is] in no way to be accounted for by any biological necessity connected with the struggle for existence or natural selection" (75). "Disguise" has become a mode of sociability. In short, Caillois's work asks that we reconsider altogether what constitutes an "intelligible end" in life's gambits and suggests that "survival" may be a question that extends well beyond the biological. By replacing the biological and pragmatic motivations for passing with instinctual and social drives, Caillois opens up a whole new dimension to the business of mimicry.

Even more intriguingly, according to Caillois, this "law of pure disguise" satisfies a fundamentally existential desire: "Above, and under 'disguise,'I postulate a fascination with the Other, suggesting this...


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