Enikő Bollobás is Professor of the Department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. She has published seven books on American literature, including monographs on Emily Dickinson and Charles Olson, and a history of American literature. Email:
Abstract: The topic of this paper is the conceptualization of “America,” especially its tropological and epistemic aspects—in literature and in American studies alike. I claim that in American literature, “America” and “Americanness” have been typically conceptualized by two tropes: metaphor (for example, Thoreau’s “different drummer”) and catachresis (for example, Philip Roth’s Coleman Silk). I also claim that a comparable move can be observed in the epistemic changes that American studies has been informed by in the past decades. While “Old American studies” was framed by the modern episteme and as such by a metaphorical understanding of “America,” “New American studies” is framed by what we might call, after Michel Foucault, the postmodern episteme, and as such, by the conceptualization of “America” and “Americanness” as catachresis.
Keywords: America as metaphor, America as catachresis, The Ballad of the Sad Café (Carson McCullers), The Human Stain (Philip Roth), New American Studies
I. America as metaphor and catachresis: some literary examples
From the moment the first settlers arrived, America has been conceptualized as metaphor. I have in mind such well-known topoi as “city upon a hill,” “transparent eyeball,” “different drummer,” “leaves of grass,” Paterson, or Maximus—those that are supposed to capture some representative aspects of Americanness. As all metaphors, these conceptualizations are grounded in human experience and confirm some “correlations in experience,” as Zoltán Kövecses puts it (79), some “perceived structural similarity” (81) between the already existing and the phenomenon considered analogical. In each case, metaphor assigns new analogies to an existing concept.
- By claiming that Massachusetts Bay Colony will become a shining “city upon a hill,” John Winthrop laid the foundations of a particular metaphor: America as example, as the New Jerusalem, a true model offered to the Christian world.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” will stand for the faculty sought to be newly realized and practiced by Americans in American nature: the physical eye’s potential for seeing symbolic meaning; for merging inner and outer vision.
- Henry David Thoreau’s “different drummer” metaphor activates the idea of non-conformism; this concept is given a new instance, that of the drummer stepping to a different beat.
- Walt Whitman’s “leaves of grass” metaphor turns on a similar transference of meaning: a structural analogy is established between the grass and American multitudinousness—democracy: separateness and equality.
- William Carlos Williams’s Paterson establishes an analogical relationship between man and city, or man and river, and uses this structural analogy to say something about diversity, change, growth in America, making Paterson the man-city-river stand for the nation as a whole.
- Similarly, Charles Olson’s Maximus—using the historical figure of Maximus of Tyre—establishes an analogical correspondence between the largeness and inclusiveness of the 2nd century neo-Platonist philosopher and the similar intellectual (and, obviously, physical) largeness of the American poet, this “archeologist of morning” attentive of the multitudinousness of history, America as polis and communitas.
But there is another rhetorical trope that has informed other conceptualizations of America: catachresis. Let me start with an example. Circumference is a concept created by Emily Dickinson specifically to capture a particular a particular state of mind formerly not conceptualized: the state of being taken to the edge of space and time. She creates this concept by extending the meaning of circumference from “rotundity, outer surface, periphery,” or “the line that forms the encompassing boundary of a circle or other closed curve” (OED), to a state of consciousness, when one occupies the dividing line between finite and infinite, the known and the unknown. In poem 633,1 for example, she defines circumference as the moment when time is suspended:
When Bells stop ringing – Church – begins –
The Positive – of Bells –
When Cogs – stop – that’s Circumference –
The Ultimate – of Wheels.
In poem 378, circumference is the place which allows her to step out of both time (to go “Beyond the Dip of Bell”) and space (to touch the universe from an Earth with reversed hemispheres):
I saw no way – The Heavens were stitched –
I felt the Columns close –
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres –
I touched the Universe –
And back it slid – and I alone –
A Speck upon a Ball –
Went out upon Circumference –
Beyond the Dip of Bell –
In all its instances, circumference acts as a concept which Derrida calls heliotropic: one that “cannot be properly known” because there is “too little knowledge” of the term (“the sensible sun” for Derrida, the helios) (“White Mythology” 52). Neither the physical experience of stepping out of time and place can be known for her, nor that particular state of consciousness which the new extended meaning attempts to evoke. The concept gets defined catachretically—and not by reference to the physical experience itself.
Catachresis is generally understood as a metaphor—albeit a forced and excessive one—without a literal referent. Lacking a structure brought about by duplication and replacement, catachresis is not a proper metaphor; changes in meaning come about by extension, not substitution.
Classical rhetoricians such as Du Marsais (1757) and Fontanier (1827) define catachresis as the trope of abuse, abusio, adding that what catachresis actually abuses is the figure of metaphor informed by substitution (substitution being the operation informing figures in general), and instead makes up for the absence of a sign. Moreover, catachresis has served as the most general trope of innovation and imagination. Indeed, it has been termed as “the most free and powerful of the tropes” by Renaissance rhetoricians, as the “source of invention” and the “expression of imagination” (qtd. in Herman, et al. 47), and posited—by Du Marsais, among others—as the “form of all invention,” which “reigns over all the other figures” (Herman et al. 47).
Modern rhetoricians explore catachresis as a trope of de-realization, claiming that indirection and extension are the governing operations at work in the figure. J. Hillis Miller stresses indirection, whereby “‘something’ that can be named in no direct way” is named indirectly (ix). Derrida emphasizes the element of semantic extension as replacing duplication and substitution, which propel the metaphor. In catachresis, however, “[t]here is no substitution,” he claims in “White Mythology,” “no transfer of proper signs, but an irruptive extension of a sign proper to one idea to a sense without a signifier” (57). It “does not want to duplicate the reality of another world,” as Michel Foucault puts it in connection with Raymond Roussel (Death and the Labyrinth 16). It consists, Derrida claims, in the “imposition of a sign on a sense not yet having a proper sign in the language” (57).
Catachresis has been considered the vehicle of imagination: a trope which can, Paul de Man explains in “Epistemology of Metaphor,” “dismember the texture of reality and reassemble it in the most capricious of ways,” whereby the speaker of a language will be allowed to invent “the most fantastic entities by dint of the positional power inherent in language” (21). As such, catachresis has proved most helpful when constructing some intellectual or philosophical concept—much like Dickinson’s circumference—formerly unrepresented or incomprehensible. As explained by Foucault, in this trope we have a linguistic displacement by which some order of things can be altered or subverted as the author “wants to discover an unexpected space, and to cover it with things never said before” (Death and the Labyrinth 16).
I would like to offer some literary examples for this trope whereby “the most fantastic entities” are being invented “by dint of the positional power inherent in language,” as de Man puts it (21). I claim that catachresis is being employed when “Americanness” is given new meanings: when inflected identities are destabilized.
In Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe gender is constructed as catachresis: fluid and mutable, multiple and transgressive. Not only is woman “unwomanly” and man “unmanly,” but gender constructions are relative, dependent on how power relations are sexually re-negotiated. In other words, gender is evoked here as a relative term, as one construction interlocking with, and dependent upon, projections of sexuality and power. Formed, in each case, intersectionally out of a space of ambivalence which opens up differently in the three nexus relationships, gender has only vague suggestions of femininity and masculinity. With the three main players taking different gender and sexual positions in each of the three combinations, both gender and sexuality emerge as relative terms, critiquing gender and sexual essentialisms.
The story centers on Miss Amelia Evans, a peculiar woman in her thirties, who—by her mere presence and then later by running a cafe in the small Southern town—brings life to the dreary place. She is a “manly” woman, brought up as a boy by her father, inheriting his wealth too. A hard worker, skilled in farming, carpentering, and other jobs fit for men, she operates a still in the swamp and serves liquor from her own house to men (the only people she associates with) in the evenings. Defying all biological and social norms of womanhood, she is built like a man, “somewhat queer of face” (206), with a height “not natural for a woman,” and is dressed in overalls and gum boots.
She was a dark, tall woman, with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cult short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed. (198)
Not only does she not have a woman’s looks in terms of her body and way of dressing, but even when she puts on a dress, as she does on Sundays, it “hung on her in a most peculiar fashion” (214). Hers is not a “docile body,” in the Foucauldian sense (Discipline 138), which the techniques of gender stylization could convert; in her case, Virginia Woolf’s contention about dresses wearing us (Orlando 171) seems to be refuted. Amelia has habits that are “manly” too, like tightening her fist every now and then, especially after meals, to feel her muscles; or sitting with both elbows on the table and knees spread wide apart. Her manliness shows especially in the lack of interest in men: she “cared nothing for the love men” (198). A lonesome person, she lives by herself most of her life, except for the time of her “queer marriage” at the age of nineteen to the dandy of the town, Marvin Macy. But this too only lasted for ten days and, as we learn later, did not get consummated. Her life changes drastically, however, with the arrival of Lymon Willis, her second cousin: Cousin Lymon, a hunchback only half Miss Amelia’s height, is taken in by her, to be treated with fostering devotion by the woman. Their attachment seems complete already the first night: walking up the staircase, the odd couple throws “one great, twisted shadow” on the wall behind them (204).
This is the first relationship that gets heterosexualized in the story. More and more, the woman takes the place of the wooing (male) lover: in her eyes “fastened lonesomely on the hunchback,” there is a mixture of “pain, perplexity, and uncertain joy” in her expression, while her hands are often sweating (213). Their respective masculinization and feminization affect even their supposedly gendered manners of speech: while Amelia likes to talk about interminable, abstract subjects like “the stars, the reason why Negroes are black, the best treatment for cancer,” Lyman is a “great chatterer,” who likes to “interrupt her suddenly to pick up, magpie fashion,” some concrete, unimportant detail (224). Soon enough, he becomes an accomplished performer of (Southern) womanhood. Not only is he feminized in the position of the kept woman, but gets spoilt “to a point beyond reason” (214) by being presented with a piano, a car, and all kinds of other treats. In order to satisfy his “passionate delight in spectacles” (215), she takes him to picture-shows, fairs, and cockfights—wherever his whim demands. To top it all, he comes to perfect a staple instance of Southern womanhood, the art of descending the staircase; each night he “came down the stairs with the air of one who has a grand opinion of himself” (214). Having feminized himself into a spectacle, an object of the gaze, he will perform the role of the Southern belle, who graciously grants his (her?) presence to the townspeople.
Yet the heterosexualization of their relationship does not come about through simple gender reversal. Indeed, Amelia will be the lover subject doing the pursuing and Cousin Lyman will be the beloved object being pursued. Lyman’s feminization and Amelia’s masculinization seem to go counter to their respective empowerment and disempowerment: it is Lyman the beloved who controls this relationship. Of course, given the fact that gender reversal is necessary in both cases for this “heterosexual” game, heterosexuality is portrayed as an attachment of two “inverts.” This operation, as Clare Whatling has demonstrated, is not devoid of its homosexual associations (246–247); here homosexuality is evoked by the suggestion of a butch-femme performance, itself a heterosexual conceptualization of gay relationships, on the part of Amelia and Lyman, respectively.
The genders will become multiple, unpredictable and, unintelligible. The subjectivity constructions seem to disassemble and reassemble some of the traditional ingredients in order to cover those Foucauldian “unexpected spaces” with “things never said before.” Indeed, the gender of Miss Amelia as the wooing male lover, of Cousin Lyman as the Southern belle or of Marvin Macy as the beloved of Cousin Lyman—these are constructions for which no word existed before. With the catachreses constructed in the short novel, subjectivities formerly not conceptualized are being given signs that are brought about by semantic extension.
In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, race is another catachrestic marker which lacks its referent; another signifier which is not only without a signified but is produced out of its differences from other signifiers. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has famously pointed out, “as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences,” race “has long been recognized to be a fiction” (4). Indeed, it is a misnomer and a metaphor. I would go even further and claim that “race,” a catachresis lacking its signified and structured solely by difference with relation to other signifiers, satisfies the definition of Derridian différance: its meaning derives from always differing and deferring. Lacking in concrete signified anchored in biology, it is always constructed and interpreted with regard to its other constructions. Nowhere is this différance more obvious than in the processes of construction; nowhere is it more clearly stated than in instances where performance wholly leaves the body, that is, in race passing. With passing, race ceases to be single and pure; instead, hybridity and multiplicity are taken as the general conditions of human identity, where the limits themselves are constructed, therefore movable and permeable.
In this novel, the protagonist Coleman Silk, classics professor and former dean of small Athena College, full passes from black to white, more precisely, to the ethnically marked version of white, Jewish. A man of colored ancestry, he performs Jewishness when he constructs for himself a catachretic subject which he calls “a heretofore unknown amalgam of the most unalike of America’s historic undesirables” (132). His feat is rhetorical: his identity does not pre-exist the narrative, rather it is the narrative that makes identity.
As in several other novels of passing, the passer will be punished for crossing the color line. But his crime is somewhat different: it is not his race—for he feels no moral obligation to his biological brethren, which is why his brother thinks he is “the traitor to his race” (342)—but his family whom he betrays and for whose betrayal he must die. He can pass exactly because he feels no race loyalty: “[b]eing a Negro was just never an issue with him,” his sister Ernestine tells Nathan much later (325). Running away as far as possible from “the tyranny of the we and its we-talk” (108), Coleman decides to craft and follow his own personal Emancipation Proclamation and thereby make himself into a free individual.
Roth exhibits a tremendous sense of irony when he makes his plot turn on the self-making of a “black” man into a “Jew.” On the one hand, by twice racializing his hero as the ultimate Other, he locks his protagonist the category of “race,” catering, in a way, to what Virginia Domínguez calls “racialist talk” (142) dominant in American public discourse, as well as servicing and reinscribing what again Domínguez terms the “compulsory racialism of [American] nationhood” (153). Silk’s full passing from “black” to Jewish underscores the fact that any member of America’s “racialized Other” has no choice but to accept himself as the “perennially Other-ised ‘non-white’” (Domínguez 153), whether African American or Jewish. Moreover, when Roth gives his readers a “black”/Jewish passer, he evokes an era, pre-World War II, preceding what Jon Stratton sees as “the historical shift of Jews from a racial group to an ethnic group” (348). At this time before the “ethnicization” of American Jews (Stratton 349)—the time before “Jews became white folk,” to adopt the phrase from the title Karen Brodkin’s well-known book on the issue—the traditional alliance still existed between African Americans and Jews. Passing from one to the other, Coleman Silk, who remains locked into “race,” embodies this alliance.
On the other hand, however, Silk’s racial self-reconstruction makes mock of any “facts of biology,” and, indeed, of any effort at social classification based on race. The protagonist successfully passing from one race to the other pulls the rug from under the racialist discourse setting apart “true” Americans from those who are racially marked. While ironically pointing his finger at racialist discourse, Roth exhibits Silk as the “true American,” who, with his previously unconceptualized catachretic identity, will beat the classifiers at their own game.
Narratives of race passing problematize not only the visibility of race, but consequently the issue of biology. Performative racial constructions foreground race as catachresis, a misnomer lacking its referent. Moreover, race is presented in its interaction with other identity markers such as power and sexuality (and/or gender), where the possibility of passing along multiple subject positions suggests that those other markers might similarly act as catachreses. Neither race nor sexuality seems to pre-exist the making of the subject; they are both produced in power relations, where the discourse of power structures the discourse of race and sexuality (and/or gender). Coleman Silk passes purposefully between two marked races, black and Jewish, with the hope that his black traits would make him a “natural” Jew. At the end, however, this Jewishness gains a new meaning when befriended by the “really” Jewish Zuckerman, making race meaningful as a difference, a différance, and not as self-presence.
II. “America” in American studies
In the second part of my paper I would like to explore the metaphor-to-catachresis trajectory in American Studies. Let’s begin with “Old American studies.”
Trying to escape the narrow focus of their own individual fields, the first generations of American studies scholars—coming primarily from history and literature, but also from anthropology, linguistics, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences—were looking for a shared framework and dialogue with those in other fields of inquiry about “America.” This shared framework is basically those grand claims of the “myth-and-symbol school” about which there was consensus: its elements include the “New World,” the “melting pot,” “American exceptionalism,” “nature’s nation,” the “American mind,” as well as figurae such as the “American Adam,” the “Virgin Land,” the “city upon a hill,” the “different drummer,” the “machine in the garden,” or the “errand into the wilderness” developed in various forms in intellectual history. The “myths and symbols” were in fact grand metaphors employed to anchor explanation in a set of narratives, a pre-existing body of myths, as well as to prove the homogeneous, stable, uniform, and universally shared concept of America.
“Old American studies” bears the rather obvious marks of its times: that of phenomenology in search of universal patterns governing appearance and—even more so—structuralism inspired by models of linguistics, with its focus directed to some common deep structure of cultures, where the workings of the surface reflect more significant underlying forces. Humanist authors such as F. O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, Vernon L. Parrington, Henry Nash Smith, R. W. B. Lewis, Leslie Fiedler, and Roy Harvey Pearce all subscribed to what we might call the respect more when they attempted to uncover collective images and symbols that could be used to explain the behavior of all people in the United States. The search for underlying deep structures allowed for the formulation of such metaphysical claims as for example the Leo Marxian pastoral ideal, supposedly embodying the “meaning of America,” or even Barbara Welter’s groundbreaking “Cult of True Womanhood,” identifying the four behavioral attributes of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity as universally admired. Obviously, the aim itself—that of uncovering “depth” and “deeper” meanings in the form of metaphors underlying and ordering phenomena—is very much in tune with the episteme of the modern age. Indeed, the consensus so characteristic of the first phase of American studies can be largely explained by its participation in paradigms of the modern episteme, especially its “fundamental depth models,” as Frederic Jameson puts it (318) of inside/outside, essence/appearance, latent/manifest—among which structuralism seems to be the depth model par excellence. Such unitary concepts as the “idea of America,” the “American mind,” the “Puritan mind,” or the “American intellect” all reflect the metaphor’s emphasis on the center as controlling structure, on depth as determining surface, on the unseen as governing the seen, the universal as manifest in ephemeral and contingent events. Within this epistemic-tropological framework it was easy to identify the all-national in the individual, to give homogeneity to the heterogeneous, uniformity to the diverse, or stability to the variable.
“New American studies” evolved when the discipline grounded in the modern and structuralist notion of literature and history opened up towards a more pluralist concept of culture. This is the time when the old grand narratives were replaced by new fabulae, narratives that were de-centered (or had many centers), de-privileged, de-hegemonized, exhibiting traits of diversity and post-coloniality, and reflecting an awareness of the social and discursive processes that produce “reality.” Scholars across the field began to explore especially the constructions of gender, race, sexuality, and class, starting with the production of marked configurations—the African American, the woman, the homosexual—, but soon going on to the absent traces of inscriptions of race, gender, and sexuality. It became clear that the naturalized, thereby unmarked categories such as whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality were equally produced through discourses, texts, practices, and institutions. The grand metanarratives of a supposedly monolithic culture have all been discredited by the emergent attack mode; history and culture now being reclaimed as sites of what Frantz Fanon calls the “‘big lies’ of the colonizer” (qtd. in Wahneema Lubiano 645). Concepts such as post-coloniality and counter-hegemony signal the decentered field of the postmodern episteme. Among the new and radically alternative scholarly configurations, literature appears to have lost its primacy among the multifarious texts and discourses studied by Americanists, and has begun to be used as one of several intersecting and conflicting points of language, power, institutions, and social practices that produce social and cultural perceptions and meanings. Scholars have ceased to claim to have the power to uncover how things “really” are, but rather how things are being produced or constructed—as well as perceived, represented, imagined, or fictioned.
With the breakthrough of “New American Studies” in the 1990s, the metaphoric conceptualizations of the multiracial society of America have given way to a catachretic paradigm of shifting identifications, always incidental, always contingent. The signifier American, supposedly familiar to all scholars, has opened up to new significations, to include multiplications and permutations of categories alterity (see Gubar 34)—that is, subjectivity constructions that come about by heterology, a shifting, mixing, and overlapping of inflections, hybridization and queering—often through processes of play, irony, parody, or drag. Possible constructions include those that de Man described in the passage on catachresis I quoted earlier, where “ the texture of reality” is dismembered and reassembled “in the most capricious of ways,” whereby “the most fantastic entities” will be invented “by dint of the positional power inherent in language” (21). American will be informed by such catachreses as, for example, the multiethnic and multiracial individual (one of multiple ethnic and racial allegiances), the person with shifting gender markers, the disabled person (or, as Michal Davidson, one with a “defamiliar body”), and the part human/part machine cyborg.
I mention these constructions because they have called for several frameworks complementing one another in today’s American studies. Among them, postethnic studies, queer theory and gender studies, disability studies, and ecocriticism interpret and explain a multiplicity of US experiences. Each of these branches of inquiry (into which American studies has splintered) contributes to that new definition of the human which Judith Butler discusses in Antigone’s Claim, where, as Lee Edelman points out, Antigone moves “beyond intelligibility,” towards “new forms of social relations” (102). Through Antigone, Edelman continues, this discourse of intelligibility “expands to accommodate what it formerly disallowed” (104). Here it is indeed the “human” that becomes catachresis, as Butler claims (82), “altering and enlarging the meaning that the signifier ‘human’ is able to convey” (Edelman 104).
Postethnic studies was born out of a dissatisfaction with what they saw as the narrowness of the multiculturalist understanding of cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity. The postethnic perspective, as presented by its main proponent, David A. Hollinger, takes a step beyond multiculturalism and the underlying identity politics, and perceives diversity in more plural terms, favoring “voluntary over involuntary affiliations” and appreciating communities of descent as well as communities grounded in individual choice (see Hollinger 3). In general, the postethnic perspective appreciates “multiple identities, emphasizes the dynamic and changing character of many groups,” and favors “choice over prescription” (13), as well as solidarities and “voluntary affiliations” (3), which it conceptualizes as performative (7). The postethnic scholar questions the official “ethno-racial pentagon” that “divides the population into African American, Asian American, Euro-American, Indigeneous, and Latino segments” (8), and proposes that a “new mixed-race classification” be introduced to capture the diversity of Americans. “[D]iversity has become too diversified,” Hollinger claims, “to be contained within the ethno-racial pentagon” (12). In short, postethnicity will favor catachresis over metaphor when conceptualizing the American.
Queer theory and gender studies focus on such permutations of gender and sexuality inflections as I mentioned earlier: how gender is relativized (in the McCullers text, for example), how gender play destabilizes not only gender identities but also sexuality; how race passing brings about shiftings in gender as well as sexuality. Americanness is being expanded through these permutations of inflections; the American is, in its every instance, a contingent, single, once—and as such: catachretic—construction.
Disability studies presents “normalcy” as fiction and offers, as Michael Davidson points out, alterity as “a position from which to develop an imagined community” (33). Such national narratives as Moby Dick will often use disability (like a one-legged Ahab) as “narrative prosthesis” that in fact enables the story; as such, the disabled body is, Davidson quotes David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “the crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (59). Which truly throws a new light on the myth of American exceptionalism.
Ecocriticism focuses on “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty‑Fromm, xviii) and examines “the symbolic construction of species” (xxiv). Ecocriticism offers alternatives to the national narrative, as does, for example, Ursula K. LeGuin, when instead of the many national “killer stories” she emphasizes the “life story,” cyclical time instead of linear time, and “cultural carrier bag” instead of “weapons of domination” (152-152). Or Annette Kolodny, who insists that there are other figures and tropes behind the governing metaphoric conceptualization of the American land as woman. Another paradigm that has gained wide recognition is Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the hybrid construction that, as Greg Garrard puts it, represents an “interface of humans with technology” (15) and “an opportunity to flout the boundaries of gender and species” (147)—and which is, as such, a catachresis itself.
I have tried to present a rhetorical figure which allows—both as a literary figure and as a figure of conceptualization—for an understanding of the world in terms of multiplicity and hybridity, mutability and transgression. It is a figure that fits a perspective that finds stability and orderliness suspect, and shows, instead, a high tolerance of disorder and instability. This is catachresis—which seems to be the governing trope of the postmodern episteme in both literature and scholarship.
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1 Poem numbers refer to those in the Thomas H. Johnson edition. ↩