Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944)

From Literary to Feminist Critiques towards an Educational Model

In Hortense J. Spillers essay, “Notes on an Alternative Model –  Neither/Nor,” from Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, she surveys William Faulkner in a study of negation of the Other and gender. Spillers states, “[t]he exterior other in positive identity is, for Faulkner, a female, and in the Faulknerian situation of the female, we gain good insight into the process of gender-making as a special outcome of modes of dominance” (2003, 305). At the heart of Spillers’s context, as with so many other literary critics, is concern with the negation of history, of reality, of gender and race. Ralph Ellision also noted Faulkner’s problematic dualism with African American identity, which combined with the specter of female subjugation, does not outright endorse Faulkner despite notedly being highly influenced by his craft. Ellison offers in “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Mask of Humanity” from The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison that “Faulkner [is] and example of a writer who has confronted Negroes with such mixed motives that he presented them in terms of both the ‘good n*****’ and the ‘bad n*****’ stereotypes, and who yet has explored perhaps more successfully than anyone else, either white or black, certain forms of Negro humanity” ([1964] 1995, 86). Of course, Ellison was a doctrinal universalist and would not utterly push aside what positive embellishment Faulkner could endorse of African American culture and individualism. While feminist criticism would not completely abandon such modes of acknowledgement, there are more axis points from which to critique than style or sociological outcomes of the times, which was disputed in its sense of productivity by James Baldwin. 

Case logic is not without its delegation into symbiotic parts. Spillers expands on Faulkner’s two-fold psychoanalytical play of gender and even as an admirer Ellison notes Faulkner’s situational stance on good or bad fitting form. With voluble diction such analysis arises in which the creator is equally at the mercy of the characterizations. Spillers notes Tzvetan Todorov in her ontological case study, which I find value in quoting at length:

In his Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes three dimensions of the problematics of alterity: (1) the axiological level – “the other is good or bad, I love or do not love him, or ….he is my equal or my inferior (for these is usually no question that I am good that I esteem myself”); (2) the praxeological level – the placing of distance or proximity between oneself and an imagined other – “I embrace the other’s values, I identify myself with him; or else I identify the other with myself, I impose my own image upon him; between submission to the other and the other’s submission, there is also a third term, which is neutrality, or indifference”; (3) the epistemic level – “I know or am ignorant of the other’s identity….of course, there is no absolute here, but an endless gradation between the lower or higher states of knowledge.” (2003, 305) 

As stated above, Ellison clearly notes the axiological level while Spillers contrasts the latter half of the praxeological level from the context of feminist scholarship. Of course, both are concerned with the epistemic level. Elsewhere in Conquest of America, Todorov comments on the praxeological imposition of religion that “to impose one’s will on others implies that one does not concede to that other the same humanity one grants to oneself” (1982, 179). The absence of an Emmanuel Levinas psycho-spiritual emphasis of the emptying of oneself to make room for the Other from within – at the cost of oneself – is notable. A constructive post-colonialist assessment does not disdain the ontological or the situational. Todorov continues, “a thing is not imposed when one can choose another thing instead, and knows one can so choose. The relation of knowledge to power, as we were able to observe on the occasion of the conquest, is not contingent but constitutive” (1982, 180). The formation of power steals representation. It locks and withholds varied forms of the multitudes of play and expression from all who do not identify with the, ultimately inert, placement of that perceived self. Power is stationary. It withholds those in its proximity from unifying principles of the plasticity of form. 

At the risk of contradicting myself on the node of self-importance, to quote myself, “if we were to have a good governance model that emphasized the importance of self-value over inflated self-importance, individual actors would be less in the way of things and this alone would do wonders for communal perceptions of what it means to live together, in this shared space, localized and global” (2020). As Walter Benjamin noted, power exists to impose its own territorial existence. It does so at the expense of cross-cultural expression or matters of shared bonds and shared collectivity of authorization of form. It is worth pointing out that Tzvetan Todorov’s writings have been utilized by other scholars in explicating Octavia Butler’s Kindred (Sarah Eden Schiff) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Steven V. Daniels). Toni Morrison cites Tzvetan Todorov herself in her seminal essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” So, too, have critical authors Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and Frederic Jameson expounded from Todorov. 

Feminist scholar, Susan S. Lanser, in “Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical?” cites Todorov at length from his essay in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s edited 1985 collection, “Race,” Writing, and Difference, (a collection from which I cite Sandra L. Gilman in my post, “Representation and Echoes of Exuberant Liberation in the Word ‘Juba’” (2019)) further commenting from Todorov and then postulating,

Todorov’s mention of writers is a powerful reminder of the particular irony that a discipline devoted to the analysis of writing has been reluctant to examine its own discursive practices. It is worth asking ourselves why some of the most radical feminist theory is being produced in a language inaccessible to some of the most radical feminist activists. The turn toward a wider audience seems to me crucial for a critical literary feminism that could take part in a world-wide intellectual movement for social change. (Lanser 1991, 17)

Power dynamics are not without interpretation, but that must yield down to building up an educational model where the stance is not oblique. I am not disagreement with Lanser when I wrote

First must come the elimination of structural violence, then what must follow is the letting go of violence of the self. The educational model would prepare and sustain a path towards this deliverance, but not complete the work. A new pattern of selfhood must be explored expeditiously. An adroit sovereignty of self awaits those to release their importance over the Other in all matters of displaced rhythms of selfhood and false alliances of ego. To become another is to become oneself. It resolves interpersonal violence as well as spiritual malfeasance and the relenting whispers of arcane retributive glances towards denial of form. (2020)

It is true to form that an educational model pre-revolution, reintegration, and post-violence would need to summarize critical language in accessible and benevolent forms. To say I am in disagreement with Tzvetan Todorov with his momentary comment on a utopianism of violence would be excessive, but I do think he makes too minimalistic a point. 

Perhaps there is a simplistic utopianism in thus reducing matters to the use of violence, especially since violence, as we know, can take forms that are not really subtler but less obvious: can we say of an ideology or a technology that it is merely proposed when it is carried by every means of communication in existence? No, of course not. (The Conquest of America, 1982, 180). 

If colonial power and post-WWI power structures are to be compared, to call the modern forging of oppression as utopian to those in authority would be eye-opening, though I do not think that is the horizontal witness to the motivation or indoctrination of these entities. In A Passion for Democracy, Todorov maintains his distance from commentary on violence, except to say “Freedom of the press is also complete, except for that which harms the integrity of the person (slander, incitement to violence) or of the community (appealing to the population or to a foreign enemy to overthrow the ruling power)” (1999, 43, my italics). Certainly, by these standards, in the contemporary West we have indeed given the press the extended freedom, without liability, to incite violence. The localized formula where this crest is laid out through commentary and conviction is in the home. This returns to Spillers explication of “the Faulknerian situation of the female” and “gender-making as a special outcome of modes of dominance” (2003, 305). Public language (the press) and private language (the home) mimic each other in straights and dominance; in routine and simplistic way-bent edification. From this it is clear that the pre-revolution of a post-violence society requires an educational model according to Lanser’s plea that takes a “turn toward a wider audience” in its erudition of form and emulating the need for critique of invested sociological stations.  

Cross-posted at When de Saints.

Painting: Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944)