DisForming the American Canon

DisForming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular

Ronald A. T. Judy
Foreword by Wahneema Lubiano
Copyright Date: 1993
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsr8m
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  • Book Info
    DisForming the American Canon
    Book Description:

    Judy offers an alternative interpretation of literacy that challenges traditional Enlightenment discourse’s claim that literacy and reason are the privileged properties of Western culture. Judy argues, on the basis of his readings of autobiographical African-American Arabic slave narratives, that through the production of the Arabic text, the African slave already had all the elements that the West attributes to “reason” before his original introduction to Western culture-a literacy that already mediated between Africa and Europe. “Has the potential to completely remake American Studies while serving as an excellent example of what theoretical informed criticism should be.” --Paul Bové

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8427-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations Used in Citations of Kant’s Work
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Foreword
    (pp. xv-xxiv)
    Wahneema Lubiano

    What concludes this study is Ronald Judy’s declaration that the textual indeterminacy of an African-Arabic American slave narrative allows it to elude the philosophical, philological, historical, canonical, and intentionality readings that would grasp at it and prove its undoing. Unlike the overdetermined Douglass and Equiano narratives, too plainly revealed to us by African American canon-formation gestures or by the imperialism of Kant’s reasoning,Ben All’s Diaryfinally protects itself from corruption by its mysteriousness, its status as enigma, and its impenetrability. Just like a woman; or a dream of the perfect woman: always almost available, always just out of reach;...

  7. Chapter 1 Introduction: Critique of Incorporation
    (pp. 1-30)

    The cue for the title of this book comes from a particular intervention into the corpus of academic American cultural history. Around fifteen years ago, in June 1977, the Afro-American Studies Program at Yale University hosted a two-week scholarly seminar entitledAfro-American Literature: From Critical Approach to Course Design.The seminar was convened under the auspices of the Modern Language Association’s Commission of Minority Groups and the Study of Language and Literature, with sponsorship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In retrospect, this seminar was a propitious event in the institutional history of the humanities in the United States....

  8. Part I. Writing Being:: The Slave Narrative as the Original Text
    • Chapter 2 Critique of American Enlightenment: The Problem with the Writing of Culture
      (pp. 33-62)

      Henry Louis Gates, Jr., concludes his preface toThe Slave’s Narrativewith the remark that “[John] Blassingame’s work relates to our work in [literary] criticism, in an ideal relation of text to context” (vii). This, after already dedicating the book to Blassingame, in honor of what Gates and his collaborator, the late Charles T. Davis,¹ termed “the revolution in historiography ... effected in [Blassingame’s]The Slave Community."² To state the obvious, Gates wants to make a point in emphasizing the importance of Blassingame’s work on slave narratives. Or rather, he wants to make two points. One is that since the...

    • Chapter 3 Writing Culture in the Negro: Grammatology of Civil Society and Slavery
      (pp. 63-98)

      The statement that “the slave narrative represents the attempt of blacks towrite themselves into being” is the motto for a deft and profoundly elegant critique of Western modernity’s insistence on the putting-together of reflection and the grapheme. Its deftness is in making understanding the connectedness of writing and Being a prerequisite for reading slave narratives, and then reading slave narratives as initiating the sustained African American critique of that connectedness. Its elegance is that the profoundness of the critique is in direct proportion to the fundamental profundity of Western modernity’s discovering the authentic trace of liberated autoreflective consciousness only...

    • Chapter 4 Critique of Genealogical Deduction: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the (Dis)Formation of Canon Formation
      (pp. 99-162)

      Reading the inception of a negative history in slave narratives results from a particular endeavor of African American theory to map the ways in which the narratives mediate “the distance between text and reality” (Gates,Black Literature and Literary Theory5), by rigorously engaging in the nature and function of the narratives’ language: that is, by participating in the coding/decoding structures of signification specific to the texts, which constitute the reality of mediation. Such an endeavor, while attentive to the problematic issues of modes of representation, cannot be justified on the basis of a theory grounded in representation. The way in...

  9. Part II. The Indeterminate Narrative of the African American Slave:: A Negative History of Making Time in Arabic
    • Chapter 5 Africa as a Paralogism: The Task of the Ethnologists
      (pp. 165-208)

      Among the first American scholars to grasp the importance of African Arabic was William Brown Hodgson, who was also one of America’s first orientalists and founder of the American Oriental Society, as well as a founding member of the American Ethnological Society. Hodgson had extensive experience in Africa and the Muslim world as an official representative of the U.S. government. From 1826 to 29, he was with the U.S. consulate in Algiers, and for two years, 1832-34, he was the dragoman to the U.S. legation, Constantinople. After that, he returned to Algiers and served from 1841 to 42 as the...

    • Chapter 6 Designating Ben Ali’s Manuscript Arabic
      (pp. 209-227)

      An extreme, and to that extent convenient, example of heterography’s signaling the lawlessness of linguistic referentiality occurs with a somewhat well known New World African-Arabic text which both Hodgson and Dwight make reference to, but in all probability never read. It is the purported autobiographical diary of one Ben Ali, who was an intimate of Couper’s Tom. The first published reference to Ben Ali, of Sapelo Island, Georgia, occurs in the letter that was discussed in chapter 5, which Couper sent to Hodgson in 1839. At the end of that letter Couper writes:

      Mr. Spalding of Sapelo has, among his...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 228-236)
    • Chapter 7 Reading the Sign’s Indeterminate Corpora
      (pp. 237-274)

      The Ben Ali manuscript is enclosed in a small leather bag, secured by an attached leather strap (plates 1 and 2). The bag’s color is a creamy tan, and its untanned side is facing outward, with the tanned side protecting the text. There is no title page or any discernible declaration of a title; neither is there any signature. The text is written on both sides of rather thin paper. The pages of the manuscript are bound together by string. There is no information on the history of the text’s binding; whether it was done by Ben Ali or Goulding...

    • Chapter 8 Critique of Hypotyposis: The Inhuman Significance of Ben Ali’s Diary
      (pp. 275-284)

      What is most threatening about the heterography of Ben Ali’s manuscript is its foreclosing on the displacement of heterogeneity outside of the circuit of linguistic referentiality. Through its signs’ refusal to become transparent, the manuscript exposes the necessity of any arbitrarily definitive reading to be in displacing the indeterminacy of referentiality, and the obfuscation of that materiality it cannot displace. This is the same indeterminacy that provoked Kant to designation and hypotyposis.

      Whichever way the text is turned, Ben Ali’s manuscript confronts its would-be reader with the figure of the reader readingBen Ali's Diary;which is to say, of...

  10. Epilogue Thought After:ThinkingHeterography
    (pp. 285-290)

    The preceding explorations are meant as a summation of what this book is all about. It is an introductory sketch, an outline, by way of examples (viz., African-Arabic American slave narratives), of a particular problem that has bothered me for some time now. Granted, the rise of the intellectual project called “deconstruction” in the human sciences has generated over the past twenty-six years an extensive body of theoretical work. Collectively, that work has produced a sustained critique of a certain Western conception of signification, the Doctrine of the Sign, conferring a new kind of readability on elements of literary texts...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 291-332)
  12. Index
    (pp. 333-343)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)