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Johnson to other contemporary white feminists who theorize fiction written by African American women, see Elizabeth Abel, "Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation," Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 470-98.
37 Johnson, 166, quoting Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Criticism in the Jungle," introduction to Black Literature and Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1984), 4, 8.
38 Johnson, 166.
39 Johnson, 166. The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing and above all remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative. This voice is striking because of what it relates, but even more so because the slave's acquisition of that voice is quite possibly his only permanent achievement once he escapes and casts himself upon a new and larger landscape.
Robert B. Stepto(1)
Rather than a rigidly personalized form, the blues offer a phylogenetic recapitulation--a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation--of species experience. What emerges is not a riled subject, but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole.
Houston A. Baker, Jr.(2)
While the rest of us in the room struggled to find our voices, Alice Walker rose and claimed hers, insisting passionately that women did not have to speak when men thought they should, that they would choose when and where they wish to speak because while many women had found their own voices, they also knew when it was better not to use it.
Mary Helen Washington(3)
What do we call a subject who is both more and less than an individual and stronger and weaker than a free agent? For all three of the authors I have quoted, and for many cultural critics over the past two decades, the answer is a "voice." Voice has become the metaphor that best accommodates the conflicting desires of critics and theorists who want to have their cultural subject and de-essentialize it, too. Fluid and evanescent yet also substantial and distinct, voice appeals to scholars as a critical term because it seems to provide a way of eliding the paralyzing dualisms that plague philosophical accounts of subjectivity. Thanks to its metaphoric flexibility, the term can describe human identity as unproblematically both self-selected and socially determined, both individual and collective, natural and cultural, corporeal and mental, oral and textual. In this essay I want to begin to theorize the conceptual role played by voice in recent cultural criticism by focusing on a line of argumentation that has its origin in African American studies but whose claims are currently influencing work in ethnic and gender studies generally: the move to make Du Boisian "double consciousness" synonymous with Bakhtinian "double voice."
W. E. B. Du Bois's theory that African Americans possess a "double" consciousness is the point of origin for much contemporary criticism of African American literature.(4) According to Bernard W. Bell, for example, the African American novel has
from its inception . . . been concerned with illuminating the meaning of the black American experience and the complex double-consciousness, socialized ambivalence, and double vision which is the special burden and blessing of Afro-American identity.(5)
Yet if Du Boisian double consciousness has been hailed as the central theme of African American literature, another term and another theorist have often been invoked to explain how African American literature represents this theme. To a quite extraordinary extent, that is, African Americanists have glossed Du Bois by way of M. M. Bakhtin, and argued that double consciousness is most powerfully represented in African American literature by the Bakhtinian technique of "double voice." Michael Awkward, for example, has called "double voicedness" the "discursive corollary" to the Du Boisian model of African American identity.(6) He discusses the role of double voice in texts like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as a Bakhtinian "narrative strategy" for representing each author's revised version of Du Boisian double consciousness.(7) Henry Louis Gates, Jr. declares double voice to be a "verbal analogue" for "double experience."(8) So central is Bakhtin to Gates's own theoretical project that he prefaces his introduction to "Race," Writing and Difference with a quotation from "Discourse in the Novel"; The Signifying Monkey opens with two epigraphs, one from Frederick Douglass and another from Bakhtin. And Gates defines the key term of this later work, the African American activity of "signification," by quoting Bakhtin's definition of a "double-voiced word."(9)
For Gates and Awkward the relation between Du Boisian double consciousness and Bakhtinian double voice is even stronger than they often allow. When they describe double voice as a "verbal analogue" to or "discursive corollary" of double consciousness, Gates and Awkward imply that double voice is merely a literary technique, a mimetic strategy for representing double consciousness. Yet both critics believe, and elsewhere explicitly state, that the double-voicedness of African American literature is more than a literary convention. As a strategy of representation, double voice would be controlled and designed by the authors who employ it in their fiction; yet Gates and Awkward speak of double voice as if it were beyond authorial control, a property not just of literature but of language itself. They treat voice, in other words, as the language that constitutes consciousness--or rather, double voice as the languages that constitute double consciousness.(10)
One might be tempted to blame this apparent confusion about Bakhtinian double voice--the uncertainty whether it denotes a literary technique or linguistic identity--on the interpreters and not the concept; one might be tempted to say that the ambiguity comes either from misreading Bakhtin or from the inappropriateness of using Bakhtin's theory of language to gloss the nonlinguistic description of consciousness offered by Du Bois. Yet, while I will indeed show how influential theorists of African American identity have taken double voice out of context and how Bakhtin's language theory is not easily accommodated to a model of racial identity, my ultimate claim in this essay is that the African Americanists who invoke Bakhtin have in fact been far truer to Bakhtin than they know. Their confusion about "voice" comes not from a misinterpretation of Bakhtin but from a mistake about language that they share with Bakhtin. This mistake is as crucial for Bakhtinian identity theorists as it is for Bakhtin, because it seems to legitimate their shared attempt to theorize social identity by way of literary formalism--a procedure I call "social formalism."(11)
As I hope to make clear, Bakhtin's critique of linguists who abstract language from its social matrix paradoxically leads him to treat the matrix as if it resided within language. Since Bakhtin believes that language specially objectifies and materializes both personal and social identity, it is perhaps not surprising that he ascribes to literature, as an especially self-conscious form of language use, the ability to objectify and materialize the nature and operation of social language. Yet in Bakhtin's theory, language and literature are not the sole agents of meaning and identity; he describes individuals as both "voiced" and able to "voice": a person's identity may be constituted by the social languages that speak her, but she can nonetheless exercise control over her social positioning by "inflecting" the social identities manifested within the languages through which she is compelled to speak. If Bakhtin's social formalism leads him to describe social identity as materialized in and through language, it also encourages him to portray the people who use language as strangely immaterial, or rather materialized only in and through their language use. The ideal human agent for Bakhtin is the novelist who, as the master of linguistic mastery, is able to realize his own identity by displaying the linguistic identity of others, by giving voice to the social voices in language.
Only with a full understanding of Bakhtinian social formalism can we appreciate all that is at stake in reading Du Bois through Bakhtin. In the discussion of Barbara Johnson and Mae Gwendolyn Henderson that concludes this essay, I show how theorists of African American identity import the logic of Bakhtin's social formalism, but in the process make one important change: Johnson and Henderson attribute to the subaltern subject the linguistic mastery that Bakhtin reserved for the novelist. In reading Du Bois through Bakhtin, both Johnson and Henderson imply that the social discrimination that defines subaltern positionality is in fact the necessary condition for an epistemological privilege that in turn brings with it a new possibility for social and personal empowerment. The move from subaltern disempowerment to individual self-empowerment is accomplished in these arguments with the help of an idealized mediating term: voice is nothing less than the authentic de-essentialized self, made manifest.(12)
In glossing double consciousness as double voice, theorists thus attempt to transform the Du Boisian crisis of subaltern invisibility into a Bakhtinian triumph of self-articulation.(13) The pyrrhic victory of this conversion, I will argue, helps us appreciate the Du Boisian terms in which it fails. If instead of reading Du Bois in terms of Bakhtin we read Bakhtin in terms of Du Bois, the emptiness of not just the Bakhtinian triumph but the Bakhtinian subject becomes evident. In the logic of social formalism, the "inflection" of social discourse may make individuality audible, but for all its tonal variety, inflection always signifies the same thing: a speaker's self-consciousness
about the social identity expressed through his language. The Bakhtinian "heteroglot" novelist, like the silent Du Boisian African American, is defined by a negative capability: his self-consciousness about the social identities contained in language allows him to be more than the social languages that define him--but that greater identity, formulated through the activity of distanciation, possesses no positive content of its own.
Although Du Bois has rightly been credited with providing an early account of socially constructed racial identity, if we look closely at the passage in which he introduces the term "double-consciousness," we can see that his formulation of the problem of African America identity is neither as self-evident nor as coherent as critics take it to be. In fact, the passage presents two distinct versions of socially constructed identity: an "ethnic" model that describes African Americans as defined by two (conflicting) cultural essences (African and American); and a "colonial" model that represents cultural identity not as something essential, but as the internalization of a subaltern social position dictated by hegemonic power relations. Du Bois's attitude toward the problem of socially constructed identity--whether ethnic or colonial--is complicated by yet a third model of identity also invoked in this passage: a version of transcendental individualism that expresses Du Bois's attachment to a more traditional and romantic--American ideal of self-authorship.(14)
In the opening pages of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois describes the birth of his double consciousness as the moment when he first …