Deconstructing Eurocentric Representation in Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage"


Research Paper (postgraduate), 2015

12 Pages, Grade: 16/20


Excerpt

Content

Abstract:

Introduction

1-Questioning white utilitarianism:

2-Interrogating the Eurocentric perception of the other

3- The stereotype of black inferiority and Eurocentric power desire

Conclusion

Cited works:

Abstract:

In many ways, Charles Johnson’s novel The Middle Passage(1990) can be considered a subtle rewriting of slavery and a meticulous rethinking of the Eurocentric representations of blacks. Through the journey of an ex-slave, Calhoun Ruthford, stowing away on a ship to escape a forced marriage, Charles Johnson weaves a postmodern slave narrative told from the perspective of a black protagonist to question the tropes of white superiority. In every twist and turn of the plot, Calhoun’s reflective Journey underlies different sites of deconstruction, artistically masterminded to unveil significant moments of self-contradictory essentialist Eurocentric discourse. With a counter-discourse advocating inter-subjectivity, human interconnectedness, subjective mobility and third spaces, the middle passage, as this paper argues, enacts different deconstructive strategies involving anti-Eurocentric cultural politics with rebellious Afro-American poetics

Key words: Counter-discourse; deconstructive; Eurocentric; hybridity; inter-subjectivity

Introduction

In many ways, Charles Johnson’s The Middle Passage (1990) can be considered a subtle rewriting of slavery contesting the Eurocentric representations of blacks. Through the journey of an ex-slave, Calhoun Ruthford, stowing away on a ship to escape a forced marriage, the Afro-American novelist Charles Johnson weaves a postmodern slave narrative told from the perspective of a black protagonist to question the tropes of white superiority. On a clandestine slave ship setting off in 1830 from New Orleans to Africa, Calhoun’s sea voyage involves different encounters with both whites and blacks through the thrilling events of the sailors’ and the slaves’ mutiny, the passengers’ hunger and cannibalism, and the storm wrecking the slave cargo. In every twist and turn of the plot, Calhoun’s reflective Journey underlies different sites of deconstruction, artistically masterminded to unveil significant moments of self-contradictory essentialist Eurocentric discourse. In such an attitude, adopting the African philosopher Appaih’s hypothesis that racial interbreeding has been a fact for thousands of years[1], Johnson, in a vivid postmodern extension of the slave narrative tradition, interrogates the self-assertive representations of white identity to question its binary foundations and to uncover the will-to-power motives of its legitimations. Through a counter-discourse advocating inter-subjectivity, human interconnectedness, subjective mobility and hybrid third spaces, Middle Passage, as the paper argues, enacts different deconstructive strategies.

1-Questioning white utilitarianism:

Allegorically, through Calhoun’s Journey amid encounters with the slaves of the fictitious Almussiri tribe, Charles Johnson deconstructs the universality of Eurocentric representation. Decentering the western worldview, Johnson challenges the colonial homogenizing thesis that humanity’s salvation lies in the hands of the whites. Instead, he postulates that different epistemological and ethical possibilities can emanate from different cultures such as Almussiri’s.

Although stealing enables the ex-slave Calhoun to survive through owning material property, it does not bring him the sense of freedom, since he still subscribes to the instinct of material possession as one of the main pillars of western modernity.[2] Robbed from his cultural capital, he can only enjoy ephemeral physical freedom:

…I hungered - literally hungered - for life in all its shades and hues: I was hooked on sensation, you might say, a lecher for perception and the nerve-knocking thrill, like a shot of opium, of new "experiences (Middle Passage 5).

This leaves him in a continuous desire for a radical emancipation to the extent that he stows away on the Republic to escape from a forced wedlock with Isadora. Believing in change, Calhoun, like Ahab after the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick, unleashes all his potential to hunt for new perceptions of the world, the other and the self. For that, he decides to be a nomad in order to find freedom away from the limitations of a paradigm that enslaves perceptions with a closed structure of superficial and subjugating desires of illusory gratification:

I would stare out to sea[…]wondering if there was[…] a foreign country or island far away at the earth’s rim where a free man could escape the vanities of city folk called self-interst, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom(4).

Significantly, throughout the narrative Calhoun strives against his lust and greed not only as an aspect of his personal flaws, but also as markers of utilitarian thinking to which white slave trade is affiliated. In this sense, staging resistance to pleasure, Calhoun resists, to use Frederic Jameson’s words, what “reinforces …the logic of consumer capitalism” motivating different forms of Eurocentric hegemony (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 125).

2-Interrogating the Eurocentric perception of the other

Likewise, during his experience aboard the ship encountering the Allmusseri slaves and what he thinks to be their god, Calhoun finds the salvation he seeks as he embraces a perceptual consciousness that effaces the boundaries between the self and the other. Against a major premise of essentialist thinking, the protagonist’s spiritual journey across the Atlantic will enable him to neutralize the western belief that material property breeds freedom and perpetuates it. Instead, the ex-slave explores other possible zones of relating to the other on the basis of what Emanuel Levinas calls “a relation of ethics”[3] premised on interconnection and respect beyond profit-making or oppressive domination.

Going through a series of obstacles from Makanda’s bondage to New Orleans as two structured and stratified realms, the protagonist amid the sea waves deconstructs his identity to reach selfless perceptions and downplay his subjugation to the self-interested regimes that invented him as a slave subject. Put in other words, Calhoun aspires to transform himself from a unitary fixed submissive self to a mobile identity that underlies multiplicity beyond the confines of a white-imposed metaphysical self-image. Contesting the Cartesian and western representation of identity as being an entity of sameness with the self and opposition to the other,[4] Calhoun subverts the mythical premises of essentialist ontology to “deterritorialize” his perceptions and nullify the self-other boundaries. Breaking free from the dual premises of essentialism, the protagonist spiritual journey across the Atlantic neutralizes the self-centered and capitalist belief that property breeds freedom and perpetuates power. Through his experience aboard the ship encountering the Allmusseri slaves and their god, Calhoun finds the salvation and liberation he seeks as he embraces open perceptions that enable him “to be reborn, to have another birth, and to break free from [his] carnal birth” (Deleuze, Logique du Sens175).[5]

In addition, encountering the Allmusseri slaves brought from Africa, Calhoun’s appreciate their fluid worldview which inspires him to become inter-subjective in rejection of a Eurocentric paradigm of separateness and otherness. Fascinated by the Almusseri, he realizes that this tribe integrates feelings and reason to engender meaning and interpret human experience. Moreover, The Almussiri’s language structure is open in its interaction within an open mobile reality: nouns or static substances hardly existed in their vocabulary at all …each verb was different depending on the nature of the object acted upon, whether it was vegetable, mineral, mammal, oblong or rotund ”(Middle passage 77).

Constituting a counter-discourse to dualism that legitimates slavery as an extreme form of hegemonic subordination practiced in the name of Eurocentric supremacy, the events aboard the ship impregnates Calhoun with the sense of dynamic multiplicity. Sacrificing himself and offering his body on which flesh the slaves fed, Cringles, the first Mate of the ship helps them to survive their starvation on a stranded ship through an act that utterly subverts the self and other binary opposition. Not only does this altruistic act of Cringles proves that white and black identities can intersect, but also shows how identity becomes involved in multiplicity.

Even more, when Ruthford encounters the “Allmusseri’s God” in his father’s image, he realizes that he has only perceived a simulacrum out of a multiplicity of possible images. As such, he grows aware that this god is an extension of his thoughts rooted in an identity enfolding an imperceptible multiplicity of “mosaic of voices within voices” (171). This purports that he becomes an evolving process of mobility challenging and destabilizing the dominant western concept of identity as a stable category premised on a master-slave dialectics that produces the individual through reducing and homogenizing difference. As Calhoun becomes inseparate from what he is not, he becomes a space haunted by a fluid identity involving plurality and difference, to turn into an unfinished product of a multiplicity that weaves him beyond a transcendental origin of an insular self. In this regard, Deleuze cogently notes:

Underneath the self […] are little selves which contemplate and which render possible both the action and the active subject. We speak of our ‘self’ only by virtue of these thousands of little witnesses which contemplate within us: it is always a third party who says ‘me’ (Deleuze, Difference and Repitition7 4–5).

[...]


[1] Johnson is influenced by philosopher Kwam Anthony Appaih who takes the theory of genetic mixing to argue for interracial interconnections. In an AWP interview, Johnson contends that whites and blacks “are already contaminated by each other . . . culturally as well as genetically . . . if you go back to about seven hundred AD, you will find that we all share a common ancestor because the world was not that populated and racial inter-breeding has been a fact for thousands of years” (Charles Johnson, Interview With Marian Blue. AWP Chronicle 25:4 (1993 February) 3).

[2] As Edward Said claims that“ The main battle in imperialism is over land,[over ]who owned the land” (Culture and Imperialism xiii), it can be extended that the instinct of possession and profit making on a collective European level enhanced the colonial movement to secure economic interests not only through plundering local wealth, but also through owning humans to create unpaid slave labour and promote modernity’s industrial revolution.

[3] In Levinas theorization on alterity, a relation of ethics implies an anti-essentialist relationship between the self and the other founded on affinities and rejecting antagonism(Emanuel Levinas: “The Same and other”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. trans. Alphonso Lingis. (London: Martinus Nijhoff,1979).

[4] While Descartes holds that the self is definite, Derrida, insisting that ‘self-difference’ underlies every identity, claims that ‘There is no culture or cultural identity [for instance] without this difference with itself ’. This is relevant to collective identities in general; for ‘what is proper to a culture is not to be identical to itself’ (Jacque Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, trans. Pascale Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992)9-10).

[5] Translation mine from French : “ renaître, se refaire une naissance, rompre avec sa naissance de chair’’ (Gilles Deleuze. Logique du sens. Paris: Minuit ,1969)175).

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Details

Title
Deconstructing Eurocentric Representation in Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage"
Course
Afro-American literature
Grade
16/20
Author
Year
2015
Pages
12
Catalog Number
V349125
ISBN (eBook)
9783668366794
ISBN (Book)
9783668366800
File size
508 KB
Language
English
Tags
Discourse, counter-discourse, Eurocentrism, intersubjectivity, hubridity, essentialism, anti-essentialism, slavery
Quote paper
Hamid Masfour (Author), 2015, Deconstructing Eurocentric Representation in Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/349125

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