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Reviewed by:
  • Ralph Ellison, Temporal Technologist by Michael Germana
  • Bryan Crable
Michael Germana. Ralph Ellison, Temporal Technologist. New York: Oxford UP, 2018. 247 pp. $65.00.

Michael Germana’s brilliant, fascinating new book, Ralph Ellison, Temporal Technologist, is one more sign of the growing complexity of Ellison studies. Not only does this text aim to take account of the entirety of Ellison’s body of work—nonfiction as well as fiction, short stories as well as novels, Three Days Before the Shooting. . . as well as Invisible Man—but it also seeks to challenge Ellison’s place in our scholarly imagination. For Germana, it is insufficient to regard Ellison as a novelist; we should more appropriately call him a “temporal technologist.” Through the application of this term, Germana redescribes Ellison as a writer who provided an “anticipation of contemporary, post-Deleuzian applications of Bergsonian theory to the problems of minoritarian subjectivity” (6). In short, Ellison’s critique of the workings of race in America, according to Germana, is grounded upon a prescient critique of coercive temporalities and their associated technologies.

Here we see one of the clear strengths of Germana’s text; he generally avoids the trap of drawing stilted, sterile parallels between Ellison and Gilles Deleuze. Instead, Germana identifies their common intellectual ancestry, thereby justifying his use of Deleuzian concepts and vocabulary to draw attention to the neglected threads that suture Ellison’s entire œuvre: “As he interrogates the forms of subjectivity that ‘universal’ time and its historiographical modes reify, Ellison constructs an alternative polytemporal framework in which individuality and democracy, like emergent temporal moments, are always becoming, always immanent and inter-implicated” (2). Given their shared investment in the work of Henri Bergson and [End Page 339] Friedrich Nietzsche, Germana concludes that “Ellison and Deleuze were contemporaries engaged in a common project” (9). This central contention is unpacked over the course of three parts (comprising a total of five chapters), each of which explores a different dimension of Ellison’s proto-Deleuzian meditations on temporality, technology, and race.

The first part of Germana’s book, “Overture,” uses Invisible Man as a way to set up his overall argument. Here Germana makes two claims that are both striking and, I believe, uncommon within the secondary literature. First, Germana dismisses the labeling of Ellison as an Existentialist writer; not only do such readings ignore Ellison’s own ambivalence toward Existentialism, but they also limit Ellison’s theory of temporality to “lived time.” Second, and quite persuasively, Germana distinguishes two different senses of “chaos” in Ellison’s work. Although Ellison scholars typically equate the term with violence and destruction, there is, Germana asserts, another, radically other, sense in which Ellison uses the term: “the chaos without which there can be no creativity, a difference-in-itself that inheres in duration, which the clock obscures” (49).

Germana unpacks Ellison’s second, productive understanding of chaos through a reading of the Bergsonian and Nietzschean themes in Invisible Man. Echoing arguments and phrasing from these two philosophers, Ellison’s novel offers a pointed critique of static or “clock time”: the Newtonian construction of time as a reversible sequence of complete, self-contained moments. This conception of time, in short, assumes that temporality is a “renewed instantaneous present” (70); thereafter, “time becomes extended space and history becomes a spiral groove” (71). For Ellison, this last phrase indicates the political function of static time; its deterministic view of the past is harnessed in support of “a history whose progress is predicated upon and enacted through the stasis of minoritarians” (46). To break from chrononormativity, and from reactionary conceptions of history, is to rediscover the chaos of becoming, of duration—and to thereby recapture the possibility of creative or unhistorical action, the creation of a future from (i.e., not determined by) the past. A radical break from American white supremacy, Germana argues, requires the durational temporality that Ellison reclaims from the hegemonic dominance of Newtonian time.

The second part of Germana’s book, “Vision,” elaborates this argument by engaging Ellison’s meditations on visual technologies. Chapter two offers an insightful reading of Invisible Man, highlighting its juxtaposition of the panorama and cinema. Within Ellison’s novel...


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pp. 339-341
Launched on MUSE
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