- The Death of Difference in Light in August
Readers of Faulkner have long agreed that the human community, as defined by kinship relations, is a central preoccupation of such novels as Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury.1 These same readers have far greater difficulty making sense of Light in August, where kinship is conspicuously absent.2 That absence indeed structures the novel, much as an over-inscription of kinship relations organizes the rest of Faulkner's fiction. Light in August begins with what might strike us as the very embodiment of kinship, a pregnant mother—and the unclear parenthood of Lena Grove herself (her parents are dead and unidentified) and of her child has induced critics to search for what went missing.3 But does the novel's lack of kinship imply that kinship is indeed there to be discovered? To answer this question in the affirmative is to fall into the trap of reading the novel as an allegory of race, gender, and the communities formed by the elaboration of such categories. Light in August refuses to take for granted a definition of the human within which such differences can be made. In so doing, I argue, the novel radically questions the human itself.
Anthropology traditionally provides the terms for the differences that constitute human communities, and these are the very terms that Light in August consistently rejects. In The Open: Man and Animal, Giorgio Agamben mounts an argument against what he calls "the anthropological machine" that I find particularly helpful in understanding this novel's resistance to forms of human difference.4 Agamben accuses anthropology of reinforcing a nature-culture binary as the one thing all human communities have in common, thus the basis for drawing comparisons among them. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, to take one influential example, Claude Lévi-Strauss "allow[s] the natural to be isolated from the cultural" so that we can understand "the conflicting features of [these] two mutually exclusive orders."5 To his way of thinking, it is only "natural" for "the great apes" to engage in incestuous activity, where incest among human beings is subject to a taboo or cultural "rule" (8). The ape therefore serves both as a link [End Page 55] between nature and culture and as a way of denying any "illusory continuity between the two orders" (8). What is a natural instinct for the ape is therefore a cultural imperative for the human and consequently what makes us human rather than animal. As Lévi-Strauss puts it, "culture can and must, under pain of not existing, firmly declare 'Me first,' and tell nature, 'You go no further'" (31). By this circular process, he calls on the animal to define the human.
Agamben targets this strategy on the grounds that it denies the instinctual and natural basis of the human so as to disavow our fundamental connection to and dependence on biological life. The modern tendency to understand the instinctive, species-wide aspects of culture as nature is responsible for dehumanizing the biological component of human existence in two related ways. The first form of dehumanization introduces divisions within the species-body. Agamben sees the nature-culture binary as the basis on which we have considered such living beings as "the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner" less than human (Open, 37). Acting as a form of power, "the anthropological machine" distinguishes acceptably human bodies from such alien bodies as the sexual deviant, the primitive, or "the Jew" (37). By introducing the difference between nature and culture into biological life itself, the machine not only induces some living bodies to remain outside and excluded from culture; it also takes other bodies and sets them outside the human community on grounds that they muddy the boundary between human and animal. The nature-culture binary also dehumanizes life by introducing this same division within the individual body itself. Agamben describes what he calls "the physiology of the blessed" as the modern tendency of man to dwell inside consciousness, or spirit, and, from that viewpoint, regard things, including his own flesh, as if they were outside and posed a threat to the purity...