Signs and Cities Black Literary Postmodernism
by Madhu Dubey
University of Chicago Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-226-16726-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-16727-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-16728-2
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Signs and Cities is the first book to consider what it means to speak of a postmodern moment in African-American literature. Dubey argues that for African-American studies, postmodernity best names a period, beginning in the early 1970s, marked by acute disenchantment with the promises of urban modernity and of print literacy.

Dubey shows how black novelists from the last three decades have reconsidered the modern urban legacy and thus articulated a distinctly African-American strain of postmodernism. She argues that novelists such as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed, Sapphire, and John Edgar Wideman probe the disillusionment of urban modernity through repeated recourse to tropes of the book and scenes of reading and writing. Ultimately, she demonstrates that these writers view the book with profound ambivalence, construing it as an urban medium that cannot recapture the face-to-face communities assumed by oral and folk forms of expression.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Madhu Dubey is a professor of English and Afro-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0001
[African–American fiction, racial representation, urban community, postmodern era]
This introductory chapter sets out the book's purpose, which is to offer a historicized account of why problems of racial representation take the specific forms they do in African–American fiction since the 1970s, why these problems are magnetized around issues of urban community, and why tropes of the book have become a chosen literary vehicle for exploring these problems. It draws on a wide range of materials from urban geography, history, sociology, political science, literary and cultural criticism, and media and technology studies to substantiate the claim, central to this book, that problems of racial representation are taking exacerbated forms in the postmodern era. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented. (pages 1 - 16)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0002
[postmodernism, African–American literature, racial representation, black community, Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman]
This chapter spells out what exactly it means to speak of a postmodern moment in African–American studies. Selectively examining key texts from various disciplines, it sketches the lineaments of a widely registered crisis in the idea of black community and specifies the problems of racial representation sparked by this crisis. To distinguish postmodern from modern projects of racial representation, it looks closely at exemplary efforts to forge new forms of community suited to the changed realities of the post-Civil Rights period. These entail a shift from uplift to populist and from print to vernacular paradigms of black intellectual work. It is argued that even as they stress their critical distance from previous models of black community, postmodern cultural critics find it difficult to legitimize their own claims to racial representation without reanimating the cultural politics of 1960s black nationalism. In the domain of print literature, antirealism and textual self-reflection are generally identified as the unique elements of postmodern black fiction and said to disable essentialist constructs of black culture and community. Such assumptions are disputed through a comparative analysis of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and John Edgar Wideman's Reuben. In their common effort to incarnate the black urban writer in the image of Thoth, Egyptian god of writing, these novels explicitly engage the difficulties of resolving postmodern problems of racial representation through the medium of print literature. (pages 17 - 54)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0003
[African–American literature, print culture, postmodernism, modern humanism, John Edgar Wideman, Octavia Butler, Sapphire]
The modern legacy of print literacy has come under fire in the postmodern era because of its presumed irrelevance to new social conditions and constituencies. The more powerful sway of electronic technologies has sparked a crisis for writers of print literature, which seems at best to occupy a residual space within the postmodern cultural domain. The postmodern attack on print culture is symptomatic of a wider disenchantment with the career of modern humanism, in which print literacy has been thoroughly implicated. Nowhere has the humanist legacy been interrogated as sharply or deeply as in African–American literature, which has long been demonstrating that the dehumanization of African–Americans was essential to the definition of universal humanity in print modernism. Yet the archive of African–American literature is never consulted in postmodern debates on modern humanism and print culture. This chapter focuses on literary texts—Philadelphia Fire (1985) by John Edgar Wideman and Parable of the Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler, along with Sapphire's PUSH—that continue to be profoundly invested in the modern idea of print literacy as a vehicle of social critique and advancement. (pages 55 - 98)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0004
[postmodern urbanism, cities, race, urban space, John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morrison]
Accounts of postmodern urbanism often posit a sharp break between the visual regimes of modern and postmodern cities, celebrating the cultural heterogeneity and spatial fluidity of contemporary cities against the rigidly hierarchical structure of their modern variants. This chapter qualifies such claims of rupture, arguing that the postmodern city reinforces the spatial divisions as well as the mechanisms of visual surveillance associated with the modern city. The visual semiotics of postmodern urban space look far less free-floating when viewed through the lens of race. John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison expose the contradictory presence of black bodies in modern and postmodern visual media—as objects of desire and fear, objects that are both fetishized as tokens of sexual presence and policed in order to secure normative notions of urban community. (pages 99 - 143)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0005
[African–American literature, rural South, postmodern literary imagination, urban literary representation, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, magic, oral tradition, black community]
This chapter examines the ways in which the rural South works as a stimulant for the postmodern African–American literary imagination and the kinds of resolutions it yields to problems of urban literary representation. It focuses on Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, because these two novels admit, often self-reflexively but sometimes inadvertently, the difficulties plaguing their own use of the rural South as a device of literary resolution to postmodern urban problems. These difficulties become manifest in Morrison's and Naylor's contradictory treatments of two interconnected systems of cultural value—magic and oral tradition—that are embedded in the rural South and presented as the distinguishing marks of an integral black community. (pages 144 - 185)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Madhu Dubey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.003.0006
[technology, urban form, cities, Samuel Delany, science fiction, technological determinism, imaginary contexts]
Electronic technologies of information are profoundly transforming perceptions of urban form in the late twentieth century. Many of the terms used to describe postmodern cities—such as netropolis, teletopia, or cyburbia—are inspired by these new technologies, suggesting that cities are being reimagined less as visible territorial structures than as virtual circuits of information. This chapter focuses on Samuel Delany's novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) because science fiction at its best can point a way out of technological determinism by prompting historical understandings of technology. It shows that Delany's novel takes up certain problems of representation specific to postmodern cities conceived as webs of information, and entertains a range of possible solutions to these problems by materializing them in multiple imaginary contexts. (pages 186 - 234)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Afterword

Notes

Index