Monday, June 1, 2020
With financial support from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ International Keynote Speakers Support Fund
Paul Beatty, in his way, is declaring in his fiction his outright rejection of the notion of double consciousness, specifically the rejection of its explanatory function. He is saying that, for him, and by extension, for African Americans, the time has passed for explanations and concessions to the viewpoint of the other (the “other” here being members of the ostensible mainstream, who are other to—and have othered for centuries—African Americans), and that one avenue to express this passage of time is through art. He does not presume to “speak” as the “voice of African Americans,” since such a presumption would undermine this rejection of DuBois’s explanatory formulation, at least tacitly lending credence to the impulse toward some totalizing explanation of African American life, experience, ontology, really. Instead his work suggests something more anarchic, more free, perhaps even more utopian.
What we get instead from Beatty is representations of what the African American self- consciousness that DuBois posits as unattainable when he’s writing might look like when rendered artistically in the twenty-first century. This is a self-consciousness that Beatty asserts forcibly and without concern for his work being measured by any tape other than that of his own choosing. Those who “get” Beatty’s work get it not because of any explanatory concessions it makes, for it makes very few, if any. They get it because of their willingness to accept the challenge that his work lays down, on its own terms. In other words, the onus is on his reader at least as much as it is on him as artist.
And by “challenge” I mean something quite specific. I mean that word in the way that Brian Massumi uses it in his “Translator’s Foreword” to A Thousand Plateaus, where he describes that book this way:
The best way of all to approach the book is to read it as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist. Some might call that promiscuous. Deleuze and Guattari call it revolution. (xv)
The roiling sense of dynamism, and infinitude, that Massumi invokes here conjures notions of the unpredictable and revolutionary, as well as suggesting how such revolutions of thought can potentially affect all corners of our lives. To start, though, one needs to be able to imagine oneself on one’s own terms, rather than through the eyes of others.
This event will take place in Eastern Daylight Savings time.
- Anthony Stewart, John P. Crozer Chair of English Literature, Bucknell University