"Simply by reacting?": The sociology of race and Invisible Man's automata

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This essay considers Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) from the standpoint of its influential depiction of African Americans as automata. Through Ellison's other writings, including his review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944) and his unpublished drafts of Invisible Man, the essay links the political concerns of the novel with Ellison's and others' resistance to a midcentury ideology of scientism. This scientism, which characterizes both the sociological construction of the so-called "Negro problem" and Ellison's representation of a scientifically oriented Communist Party, takes on its literary expression through Ellison's satirical use of the automaton. The novel repeatedly stages the ethical and ontological dilemma in which viewers are momentarily uncertain whether they are looking at a person or an automaton, which the essay links with Ellison's numerous discussions of African American political views as "reactions" rather than actions in their own right. For Ellison, Myrdal and the novel's Communist Brotherhood share a perspective limited by a "scientific" distance from, and instrumental treatment of, African Americans. This link, the essay argues, recasts the novel's anti-Communism as primarily a resistance to scientism at the same time that it foregrounds a new set of historical contexts through which to see one of the novel's main series of motifs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)571-596
Number of pages26
JournalAmerican literature; a journal of literary history, criticism and bibliography
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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