By Charles Davis | This essay examines the rhetorical function of invisibility in Ralph Ellison’s postwar novel Invisible Man. The author claims that invisibility serves as an allegory for the act of uncovering the political motivations of urban spaces. The main protagonist’s curse of invisibility and his eventual retreat to the sewers –the literal ‘underground’ of the city–is interpreted as a prompt for unveiling the forces that silently direct a city’s visible geometry. This act of unveiling is an pre-formal mode of investigation that must serve as a prelude to any and all formal interventions. Such activities greatly reduce the potential of exacerbating existing patterns of exclusion or introducing new patterns of segregation.
This essay originally appeared in VIA, an academic journal sponsored by the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man introduces the motif of invisibility to create a connection between the social construction of race and the building fabric of the postwar city. This essay outlines some of the architectural applications of Ellison’s motif, as well as introduces an urban design principle implicit in the narrator’s final retreat to the city’s underground. In order to fully exploit this motif, one must push beyond imitating its form–in textual or architectural terms–to elucidate its underlying ethic. By studying the nature of the narrator’s retreat, the possibility of an ethical position emerges for the architect-planner that assists him or her in locating the noumena of race in the inherited material of the postwar city. The clearest set of design principles is offered by the narrator in the paired prologue-epilogue of the text. It is apparent that the two sections of the book are written as one and are later divided to bracket the body of the text. The body documents what leads the narrator to the city’s underground, while the prologue and epilogue record his reflections from within the underground. The body is written about the past, while the prologue-epilogue is written about the present and just enough is introduced in the prologue to the foreshadow the realizations that come to fore in the epilogue.
According to the prologue, the visual code that renders race visible to others renders the narrator’s humanity invisible. The opening lines of the novel help us to understand how this motif operates:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ellison cleverly couches the source of the narrator’s invisibility in the visibility that is afforded by racial tropes. The optical evasion that surrounds objects of race in the novel operates by erasure and substitution: by projecting elements over the subject to identify him as a black body, one elides the individual constitution of that subject. This tension between the universal and the particular in the perception of the subject is a fundamental element of the motif of invisibility.
Two examples illustrate this tension in connection with physical space. In chapter one the narrator is awarded a scholarship to an elite Southern university because of his valedictorian speech. His speech emulates Booker T. Washington’s ethos of disciplined manual labor alongside patient faith in white benevolence. That this view sublimates the individual freedoms of blacks in a collective civic duty is manifest by the narrator’s substitution of ‘social equity’ with ‘social responsibility’ at one point in the speech. This textual reference to Washington’s philosophy is mirrored in the physical setting of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who occupies the same shack that his slave relatives held before the Civil War. Despite the rhetoric of hard work and fair play fed to Southern blacks, Trueblood literally finds himself in the same space of previous slaves.
Second, the narrator’s exchange with a Harlem Marxist radical is colored by the myth of primitive black sexuality. Ironically, the narrator makes this white woman after giving a speech on the theme of female equality:
‘Really,’ she repeated as I laughed. ‘It’s so powerful, so–so primitive.’
I felt some of the air escape from the room, leaving it unnaturally quiet. ‘You don’t mean primitive?’ I said.
‘Yes, primitive: no one has told you, Brother, that at times you have tom-toms beating in your voice?’
‘My God,’ I laughed, ‘I thought that was the beat of profound ideas.’
In this instance the narrator’s oratory style and his intellectual approach are conflated in the notion of the primitive. The woman doesn’t seem to grasp the condescending nature of this reference, nor the compromised manner that her need of it reflects. Again the physical environment is concomitant in the construction of the narrator’s invisibility.
The apartment’s interior elements objectify white and black sexuality, alongside artifacts of artistic primitivism:
‘What a beautiful room you have here,’ I said, looking across the rich cherry glow of furniture to see a life sized painting of a nude, a pink Renoir. Other canvases were hung here and there, and the spacious walls seemed to flash alive with warm, pure color. What does one say to all this? I thought, looking at an abstract fish of polished brass mounted on a piece of ebony.’
The narrator’s so-called primitive nature is mirrored by the primitive geometry, mood, and content of the room. The character of the room asserts itself in the apartment elements: the cherry wood of the furniture and the warm colors of the wall glow with excitement. The painting of the nude substitutes itself for the narrator’s internal desire, perhaps even for the woman’s self image. Even the modern language of art naturalizes this primitive drive in its pure forms. The abstraction of the fish (a sculptural pure form) translates the primitive geometrically. Mounting the sculpture atop a base of ebony, the missing ivory of the cliche present in the Renoir and the woman completes the gesture. Ellison’s depiction locates a common ground between the artistic primitive and the social construction of the primitive. The surrounding space is charged by the myth of black sexuality, black intellect, and primitive strength, every element concomitant with a common purpose.
These are just two examples of many that illustrate the point. The content of race in the body of Ellison’s novel is never rooted in the narrator’s individuality, but in the common features he shares with racial tropes. These tropes operate autonomously, and precondition one’s response to the black subject; indeed, they make him a black subject. From the opening lines of the novel Ellison makes it clear that this substitution is manifest in the constitution of building fabric as well. The narrator’s ‘surroundings’ emblematically substitute objective criteria for his individuality. It is against this complex ideological condition that the narrator is forced to reassert his very substance and discover what truly makes him an individual.
What is striking about Ellison’s motif is how ubiquitous it is in the novel’s depiction of the American landscape. The narrator of the story initially places his hopes in the differences between Northern and Southern attitudes towards race. He hopes that by crossing the Mason-Dixon line for Harlem he can finally leave behind the effects of racism. However, the regional distinctions that contribute to the formation of these separate social, political, the economic worlds paradoxically participate in a common visual technique that repeatedly renders the narrator invisible. The ‘common sense’ belief that the North and the South harbored different racial attitudes, perpetuated in landmark studies like Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma of 1944, are rebutted in Ellison’s portrait of America. Both regions construct visual codes of blackness, and these codes are similar because they operate on the same subject.
Because the narrator cannot define himself in an environment that objectifies his worth, his reconstitution takes place from the secluded space of the underground. This space, outlined in the final part of chapter twenty-five, is essentially a satellite of the sewers of Harlem. The narrator falls through a manhole in Harlem in an attempt to escape the violence of the riots overhead only to get lost in this space without any reference to time and space. In an attempt to navigate the darkness he is forced to burn all of the physical objects from the surface that reinforce his invisibility. After an indeterminate period of time he finds a resting place and decides to use it as a base to contemplate his next move. In the underground the narrator is in a purposeful state of ‘hibernation’ that he defines as a ‘covert preparation fro a more overt action.’ However, he is not in favor of constantly moving for the sake of moving. He has been running for everyone but himself for the entire novel, and now chooses a strategic inactivity that suits his purposes more fully. This aformal reprieve is the ethic that I wish to analyze for the purpose of city building. An aformal design ethic does not end in the instrumentality of formalism, but instead seeks to understand the implications of instrumentality. It presupposes a familiarity with formal thinking since, like the narrator, one comes to a state of rest from a state of activity.
Ellison’s strategy of reprieve transcends the independence of visual technique by painstakingly documenting the source and effects of those techniques (the before and after of visual instrumentality). The ‘formal’ nature of this work is mental, associated with a gestation period that predates yet anticipates appropriate action. In generating a mental orientation for design one takes a reprieve from mastering techniques to contemplate the relationship of technique to other things. Such a strategy resists the obsession of novelty and technological fantasy to endorse a mentality necessary to elucidate the postwar lessons of race and place. It recognizes the inherent dynamics of racially charged spaces and frameworks, and locates these conditions in the ubiquitous conditions of American urbanity. This issue of VIA challenges its readers to contemplate new urbanisms that critically deal with prevailing occupational frameworks. However, reading Ellison’s novel reveals that there is little need to invent new types of urbanisms when several very interesting ones and already taking form. A reprieve from the generative assumptions of formalism situates architecture’s autonomy toward recovering the relationships that are elided by its radical alienation. While this brand of contemplation is not a necessary precondition for good formalism, in the study of architecture and race the project of architecture’s autonomy must stand side by side, if not take a back seat to the ethical reflection of its interrelationships.
In Invisible Man, Ellison’s narrator is led to examine the formal effects of urban space in an effort to theorize the noumena of invisibility. Read in this way, the underground of the city, this ‘shut off and forgotten’ space of ‘the nineteenth century’ is more than just a physical place. It is a conceptual framework that gives life and support to the postwar city. During the nineteenth century European and American culture fell under the spell of racial determinisms that historically took different forms: Jim Crow laws in the American South; the discussion of moral character in natural philosophy; teleological vitalism in biology; and physical taxonomies in phrenology and physical anthropology. Nameless other remnants remain latent in the historical record of that period, especially in how architectural theory may have internalized these trends. With Ellison’s insights it is clear that some of this framework can be recovered by analyzing cues taken from city life. The narrator is humble enough to realize the time it takes to understand the strategic potential of these concepts, if they can be made strategic of all:
It’s really a very crude affair. Really pre-Renaissance–and that game has been analyzed, put down in books. But down here they’ve forgotten to take care of the books and that’s your opportunity. You’re hidden right out in the open–that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything, since they believe that they’ve taken care of that [already].’
Making the time to contemplate and document the historical pattern of architecture and race, tracking its periodic attractions and repulsions is a primary lesson of Ellison’s underground. In the sense that the practice of architecture continually reorients itself by means of its history, the construction of an architecture/race history is a great weapon. ‘Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are… to lose your direction is to lose your face.’ Recovery of the where and who we are in history is the great rhetorical challenge of Ellison’s novel to architectural history.