Modernity, Postmodernity, Social Marginality


Modernity, Postmodernity, Social Marginality

Phillip Bryan Harper,
Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture
(New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994).

Paul Gilroy,
The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1993).

Only a black person alienated from black language-use could fail to understand that we have been deconstructing white people’s languages and discourses since that dreadful day in 1619 when we were marched off the boat in Virginia. Derrida did not invent deconstruction, we did!
– Henry Louis Gates1

Habermas, Lyotard, Jameson: the triad has become familiar to us by now, as familiar as any distinct grid established within the logic of professional “debates”. Modernity is the unfinished project to be given newly firm foundations after centuries of misuse; modernity is the discourse of violence, the first and last metaphor of imperialism, a narrative at last being interrupted; modernity is a stage necessary to capitalist growth and a reflection of it (though of course capitalist growth is itself a reflection of modernity). (Me? I’m an unreconstructed dialectician. You need to know this in order to make sense of why I’m reviewing these books.) What one believes about postmodernity is, of course, likely to be dependent on one’s simultaneously established assumptions about modernity; thus the postmodern condition will be described as “bad”, “good”, or merely “true” in terms of this same triad. Yet, “whatever their differences, Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson all recognize fragmented or decentered experience as a constituent of the postmodern condition”.2

A reinterpretation from the margins of these three now central positions is under way, and has, I believe, been under way for a few years:

Though I say above that I find “generally convincing” the notion that postmodernism is characterized by the presentation of a decentered human subjectivity, I am not convinced that most theoretical or critical accounts adequately engage certain key sociopolitical factors in that decenteredness. It is also clear, too, that to expound on those factors — as I seek to do in this study — is necessarily to revise the received idea of what constitutes the subjective fragmentation that characterizes the postmodern era. Rather than conceiving that fragmentation as deriving solely from the various technological, economic, and philosophical developments that I cite above as reorienting our idea of human subjectivity in the late twentieth century, I would like to suggest that postmodern decenteredness may actually be a function of the increasing implication in the “general” culture of what are usually thought of as socially marginal or “minority” experiences.3

To what extent is postmodernism simply the already present modernism of the socially marginal? Why is it that as early as 1903 the United States’ first well-known black intellectual, indeed, the country’s first sociologist of note, W.E.B. Du Bois, was able to posit “double consciousness” — “the special difficulties arising from black internalization of an American identity”4 — as the fragmented space from which intellectual work is necessarily conducted?

Double consciousness emerges from the unhappy symbiosis between three modes of thinking, being, and seeing. The first is racially particularistic, the second nationalistic in that it derives from the nation state in which the ex-slaves but not yet citizens find themselves, rather than from their aspiration towards a nation state of their own. The third is diasporic or hemispheric, something global and occasionally universalist. This trio was woven into some unlikely but exquisite patterns in Du Bois’ thinking.5 The collective project of these two books, as part of a critique that is happening far more widely, is to interrogate the extent to which the multiplicity and fragmentariness of black (as one example — Harper uses African descent as only one example of social marginality, among gender, class, and sexuality) intellectual theorization all this century has presupposed ideas that, with an irony that cuts many ways, have become “central” for intellectual thought today. In asking such a question, both Harper and Gilroy clearly imply (following Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance6 at least this far) that modernity itself always looked different to those artists and writers whose marginality has been socially imposed rather than sought, striven for, or self-chosen.

If Gilroy’s argument primarily addresses issues about black diaspora consciousness, it is because he sees his project as the creation of certain key concepts for those of us in pan-African studies. Thus he develops the idea of diaspora to provide an “anti-anti- essentialist” description of the meaning of blackness, which no longer depends on race as the already given content of an individual body but rather suggests that race is produced by the geographical circulation of diasporic bodies. Black modernity is then described as a matrix of cross-cultural links that is in no sense “traditional” or “authentic”, but is nevertheless significant and ongoing enough to support the adjective “black” in the title. In making this argument, Gilroy provides new ways of inserting the discussion of modernism into contemporary black studies. If (by contrast) Harper refuses to stick with a specific marginal group/adjective, and chooses, nearly at random (but always bounded by the United States) multiple forms of social marginality (reading working class Nathaniel West, female Anais Nin, and lesbian Djuna Barnes, as well as black Gwendoline Brooks and Ralph Ellison), it is because he imagines that his audience is first of all framed by its theoretical interest in the triad of positions on modernism, rather than its interest in black studies. For this audience he inserts the general category of social marginality into a discussion that has otherwise ignored it. If he can demonstrate that the same issues that our triad sees as fundamental to postmodernism have been present in socially marginal writers for most of the century, Harper will be able to posit socially central writers like Coover, Pynchon, and Barthelme (often cited as privileged practitioners of the postmodern) as themselves of marginal theoretical interest for being unlike their predecessors who first explored the potential meanings of marginality, doubleness, and fragmentation.

If like me you are convinced that such arguments provide a necessary corrective and supplement to contemporary theorizations of the postmodern, two theoretical challenges remain unmet.

What is the epistemological status of the forms of determination (or overdetermination) implied by a notion like “social marginality”, or in the multifaceted, matrix-like description of blackness as a diasporic metacommunity? What, precisely, is “the social”, such that it has been able to determine multiplicity and fragmentation in different groups at different times?

What is the effect on communities or individuals which possess “double consciousness” when large numbers of intellectuals from central positions become multiply conscious without bringing an end to, let’s say, statistically significant forms of marginality (segregation, comparative income levels, IMF/world bank monetarist neo-colonialism). What does a double consciousness of postmodern fragmentation look like?

Though neither writer explicitly answers these questions, it would appear that Harper’s leanings are strongly Jamesonian, implying some sort of dialectical folding back, in which presently the socially marginal are forced to maintain the relative integrity of categories (insisting on continuing to define “the difference that difference makes”, in Michael Eric Dyson’s turn of phrase7). Thus Harper concludes his book by arguing that the film The Commitments, by explicitly juxtaposing the marginalization of Irish in Belfast with the production of soul music in the United States, fails to address the specificity of either location and as such obscures “the relative positions of key social constituencies”,8 a failure that can only lead to political ineffectuality. Gilroy, by contrast, would probably (though it is unclear) lean toward a politics of the subversion of identity like that laid out in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, in which case the establishment of locational narratives can only be for the purpose of subverting or unfixing the solidity of the given location — surely his detailed undoing of notions of “authentic” blackness and his citation to Butler as analogously anti-anti-essentialist would suggest this. But I’m not sure. If the general political tendencies of the two books are as I’ve laid out, one would certainly wonder why Harper has constructed the overarching category of “marginality” in the first place, and why Gilroy insists on the positive value of blackness (where Butler insists on the nonpositivity of “woman”).

I would suggest that only some notion of determination which is multiple (since causality never runs in only one direction, or evenly) but also dialectical (since social determination necessarily implies materialist categories) can give meaning to terms like “social marginality” and “blackness” without reifying them. Jameson may remain valuable even after he has been thoroughly criticized for what he ignores.


1. “Authority, (White) Power and the (Black) Critic; It’s All Greek To Me”, in Cultural Critique 7 (Fall 1987), p. 34.

2. Phillip Bryan Harper, Framing the Margins: On the Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994), p. 8.

3. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

4. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1993), p. 126.

5. Ibid., p. 127.

6. Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987).

7. Reflecting Black (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 141.

8. Harper, Framing the Margins, p. 195.

Kenneth Mostern is working on a manuscript titled Autobiography and Community Identity: On the Meanings of Race in Black Intellectual History. He is a graduate student in the department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley.