Disturbing Calculations

Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912-2002

Melanie R. Benson
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 280
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    Disturbing Calculations
    Book Description:

    In Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, Margaret Leonard says, "Never mind about algebra here. That's for poor folks. There's no need for algebra where two and two make five." Moments of mathematical reckoning like this pervade twentieth-century southern literature, says Melanie R. Benson. In fiction by a large, diverse group of authors, including William Faulkner, Anita Loos, William Attaway, Dorothy Allison, and Lan Cao, Benson identifies a calculation-obsessed, anxiety-ridden discourse in which numbers are employed to determine social and racial hierarchies and establish individual worth and identity. This "narcissistic fetish of number" speaks to a tangle of desires and denials rooted in the history of the South, capitalism, and colonialism. No one evades participation in these "disturbing equations," says Benson, wherein longing for increase, accumulation, and superiority collides with repudiation of the means by which material wealth is attained. Writers from marginalized groups--including African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and the poor--have deeply internalized and co-opted methods and tropes of the master narrative even as they have struggled to wield new voices unmarked by the discourse of the colonizer. Having nominally emerged from slavery's legacy, the South is now situated in the agonized space between free market capitalism and social progressivism. Elite southerners work to distance themselves from capitalism's dehumanizing mechanisms, while the marginalized yearn to realize the uniquely American narrative of accumulation and ascent. The fetish of numbers emerges to signify the futility of both.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3672-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction The Fetish of Number: Narcissism, Economics, and the Twentieth-Century Southern Ego
    (pp. 1-26)

    Moments of mathematical reckoning like these are ubiquitous in the literature of the twentieth-century South. In works by white and black, male and female, rich and poor, and native and immigrant southerners, these calculating fixations impart critical lessons about southerners’ tendencies to measure, divide, and value themselves and the Others against whom they find balance. While many of these writers have little to connect them by race, class, gender, or even geography, they consistently—if variously—fetishize the numbers, figures, and calculations that come to signify their most personal equations of self-worth. As we see throughout Disturbing Calculations, this phenomenon...

  5. Chapter One The Fetish of Surplus Value: Reconstructing the White Elite in Allen Tate, William Alexander Percy, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe
    (pp. 27-58)

    Images of the modern South have long featured conservative white gentlemen in Sunday best whose genteel breeding and humane values starkly oppose the crass materialism of northern industrialism and finance capitalism. Such fictions tend to attach themselves to antebellum idylls and the cataclysm of Civil War; when they do engage the twentieth-century context, it is often to dramatize how the Old South’s befuddled descendants navigate a coldly calculating, inimical modern economy that operates on the principles of competition and ascent rather than natural aristocracy and automatic privilege.¹ As a counterpoint to the unscrupulous mechanics of market capitalism, the antebellum myth,...

  6. Chapter Two Stealing Themselves Out of Slavery: African American Southerners in Richard Wright, William Attaway, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston
    (pp. 59-93)

    In his “Economy of Manichean Allegory,” Abdul JanMohamed describes the perverse, exploitative energies that keep colonial subjects locked in a narcissistic struggle with their oppressors:

    By allowing the European to denigrate the native in a variety of ways, by permitting an obsessive, fetishistic representation of the native’s moral inferiority, the [Manichean] allegory also enables the European to increase, by contrast, the store of his own moral superiority; it allows him to accumulate “surplus morality,” which is further invested in the denigration of the native, in a self-sustaining cycle. (23)

    While it is not his primary concern in this passage, the...

  7. Chapter Three The Measures of Love: Southern Belles and Working Girls in Frances Newman, Anita Loos, and Katherine Anne Porter
    (pp. 94-128)

    In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s polyvocal narrative of the death and burial of the poor white matriarch Addie Bundren, Addie ruminates on the measures of her domestic sacrifices: “The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a …. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now…. I gave Anse the children…. That was my duty to him, and that duty I fulfilled. I would be I” (165–66).

    The most illustrative moment in this passage, and perhaps in all of...

  8. Chapter Four Contemporary Crises of Value: White Trash, Black Paralysis, and Elite Amnesia in Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, and Walker Percy
    (pp. 129-163)

    Fractional, contingent, and impoverished spiritually, the modern southerners of the previous chapters would have found the contemporary South a dazzling scene of plenitude and possibility. Or would they? “By the mid-1960s,” Pete Daniel recounts, “both the rural and urban South had changed in ways that frustrated, astounded, and often upset southerners” (Lost Revolutions 2). So much had changed that by midcentury “southern distinctiveness appeared to be doomed. In quick sequence the region encountered the bulldozer revolution, the urban breakthrough, the civil rights movement, and the disruption of the Solid South” (Tindall 3). Following the economic crises and Depression of the...

  9. Chapter Five Re-membering the Missing: Native Americans, Immigrants, and Atlanta’s Murdered Children in Louis Owens, Marilou Awiakta, Lan Cao, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, and Tayari Jones
    (pp. 164-201)

    In Edward L. Ayers’s sardonic glimpse into the soon-to-be future South we meet a young narrator who cannot fathom how his ancestors could “lump people together into two big groups,” even though “they could see that people they called ‘black’ and ‘white’ were in fact all different colors”; the baffled speaker himself proudly claims a “genealogy from Scotland, Ghana, Honduras, Korea, and the Cherokee nation!” (“Inevitable Future” 89). Yet the biracial, black-white narrative that has long occupied southern letters and criticism remains prevalent in both critical treatments and popular perceptions of the region. Attention to work by southern African American...

  10. Conclusion Disturbing the Calculation
    (pp. 202-206)

    As we have seen, the crisis of transition to market capitalism and industrial progress in the twentieth-century South prompted intense regional reflection on the catalog of dispossessions the region had incurred during emancipation, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and finally desegregation. In this accumulation of losses, southerners register a profound sense of foreclosure at the same time that they hunger and strive for restitution and recompense. Throughout Disturbing Calculations we have witnessed various examples of narcissistic, fetishized calculations in the service of allaying this sense of regional, spiritual, and personal destitution; but faced with the inequities of colonialism, capitalism, and racism...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 207-232)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-252)
  13. Index
    (pp. 253-264)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-265)