RECAP: “Ralph Ellison’s Repertoire of Agency,” Colloquium with KICD Postdoc Ferris Lupino

Since its publication in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has been a touchstone for political thinkers, who find in the novel a means—various means—of reckoning with racial impasse. This is as true now as ever, Kinder Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Ferris Lupino pointed out in setting up his January 28, semester-opening colloquium, with competing readings emerging among contemporary theorists of race and democracy when it comes to the novel’s guiding metaphor of invisibility.

On one hand, Afropessimists such as Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton read invisibility as a totally debilitating condition that militates against any action opposed to it. The novel confirms, in this, their interpretation of Blackness as a structural position that gives coherence to the non-Black world by occupying a space—of social death, of non-being, of slavery—outside of it: or, in the case of Invisible Man, a space below it, as the novel ends with the narrator driven underground, without any capacity to redress the displacement imposed on him by the violent, white supremacist institutions of Jim Crow. Any response to the absence of rights—whether that be deviation or acquiescence—leads, Wilderson and Sexton argue, to victimage of one form or another. Ellison, Prof. Lupino noted, anticipated and in some respects gave strength to this pessimistic reading. His depiction of power as taking precedence over democratic principles, for example, renders the narrator not only outside of politics but also vulnerable to violence without any semblance of recourse to legal protection. (Similarly, Ellison’s later essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter,” dovetails with Afropessimism in presenting stereotyping, romanticizing the past, and lynching as operating according to a sacrificial logic that gives unity and order to white communities at the expense of Black victims.)

Running counter, at least in part, to the pessimists is the work of scholars like Danielle Allen, who see in the novel the faint outline of what Prof. Lupino described as a rule of law approach that condemns racial inequality—and its analog, invisibility—as evidence of an institutional failure to live up to the laws that were promised but that still holds out hope for consensus, unity, and the emancipatory potential of the state. The grandfather’s riddle in Invisible Man—in which the narrator is told to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth” and to “overcome ‘em with yeses…agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open”—factors interestingly into such readings. Approached from one direction, it seems to prefigure the nonviolence of the Civil Rights movement and, in this, put forth a martyr strategy for combating racial injustice. The narrator’s suffering of invisibility, here, heightens the contradiction between principle or law and practice, thus modeling a way to bear loss that might ultimately force a moral awakening among white onlookers through emphasis on a healthy, heroic—because subordinate—form of citizenship. Allen would acknowledge, though, that this raises as many questions as it answers. Does invisibility, within this framework, threaten the intelligibility of actions in such a way that capitulates to the state of affairs instead of inducing notions of a shared citizenship? Can we actually assume that martyrdom will find a healthy audience, that suffering won’t be needless?

But what if another strategy or model of protest were in play for Invisible Man’s narrator, one that, even in occupying a position in the lion’s mouth—even in conceding to the fact of being structurally conscripted into such a position—gave in neither to the hopelessness of Afropessimism nor the mandated suffering of rule of law theorists? As Prof. Lupino explained in outlining part of his current book project, he finds such a model in the figure of the trickster, who appears most prominently in the novel via Ellison’s allusions to Homer’s Odysseus. Ellison, in fact, outlines the function of the trickster—if not naming him as such—in his essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” proposing that adding disorder to order can re-render what is possible for Black actors. Specifically, the experience of what is not permitted within the context of what is, he argues, allows one to make exploitative use of oppressors’ weaknesses and thus offers a means not only of escaping violence but also, at best, a means of pressing the law to confront its own unjust application. For example, in his provocation with the (now-blinded) Brother Jack, a very clear calling back to Odysseus’ deception of the Cyclops, the narrator’s invisibility becomes part of the trickster’s arsenal that meets the pessimist’s structural position but then darts away from it by utilizing an evasive capacity for action and choice that likewise dismisses the alternative of martyrdom as being as unpalatable as it is unnecessary. And in the novel’s eviction scene, a very clear summoning of the practices of thwarting evictions common at the time in New York and Chicago, the deliberate unruliness of the crowd occupies a middle ground that is set apart both from fruitlessly appealing to the law for a justness that won’t come and from self-annihilative violence. In drawing on disorder or unruliness to disrupt the habits of injustice—and in refusing, in this, to sacrifice the body to these habits—tricksterism, Prof. Lupino concluded, illuminates a new path toward reciprocity and good will by re-framing democracy as a system of antagonistic cooperation.