Race, Thick and Thin

by Kinohi Nishikawa

The lag between surface reading’s gestation in the late 2000s and its critical uptake/interrogation in the early 2010s roughly corresponds to the time between Kenneth W. Warren’s delivering the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard in 2007 and his publication of the book based on those talks in 2011. I’m intrigued by the coincidence of these timelines. On one hand, surface reading has helped usher in literary studies’ era of postcritique, which I take to mean the discipline’s broad-based reorientation around the affordances of epistemological uncertainty rather than the assurances of ideological truths. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? has had the opposite effect on African American literary studies, where debate over his central claim—that the racial coherence of a “black” literary field was perforce an outcome of segregationist thought and practice—has sparked a fresh round of ideological battle. If surface reading has done much to curtail the professional desire to always be in the know, the very idea that black literature is a thing of the past, which Warren links to the demise of state-sponsored segregation, has resulted in African Americanists searching for more solid ground on which to convey truth-claims about race. In African American literary studies it can sometimes feel as though postcritique was never a thing, much less the principle behind innovation in the discipline.

Warren’s pithy book has been the subject of awkward forums in PMLA and African American Review, barbed exchanges in the Chronicle online and American Literary History, and reviews and endnotes too numerous to count. At stake in almost all responses to the book is not anything specific to literature, but the terms by which we define race as a coherent social category. Warren believes that exponentially increasing class inequality in the postindustrial United States has led to the demise of actual racial community and notional racial coherence, thus erasing the material foundation for an African American literature. His numerous critics insist that race still matters, at times even more than class, which is why they tend to lean heavily on legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s characterization of our age as that of the “New Jim Crow.”[1] Literature is incidental to this ideological debate about periodization and social change. Indeed, the key opposition in the debate (class vs. race) reflects the classical Marxian distinction between base and superstructure, which as an analytic is one of the standbys of critical hermeneutics. In this very sense, What Was African American Literature? has compelled scholars to respond not to its titular question but to a question concerning Marxian totality: What is the fate of race in a world dominated by capital?

And not only capital but state power. Because also transpiring over the late 2000s-early 2010s period has been the presidency of Barack Obama. For scholars of African American literature in particular and of black studies writ large, Obama has posed a historic contradiction. On the one hand, he was seen as representative of the race, a beacon of black achievement, when he won his first election and took office in 2008. Now, nearing the end of his second term, disappointment over his presidency has practically erased his racial representativeness. Left critics today write on Obama’s exceptional status as a way of distinguishing his actual black identity from his policies, which are said to be harmful to black and brown people the world over. They also look back on the hopefulness inspired by the first campaign (not to mention the mass of intellectual capital it generated) as the worst kind of false consciousness. And just as scholars have used the New Jim Crow as conceptual leverage against Warren’s argument, so have academics marshaled tropes of fugitivity, flight, and escape as a way to advance an unrealized, utopic “Blackness” over the fact that a black man is the head of state.

The convergence of What Was African American Literature? with profound disillusionment over the presidency of Barack Obama has created conditions whereby the rise of “the new modesty in literary criticism”[2] has passed by those of us in African American literary studies. In fact, I would say that over the past decade I have seen bolder claims, deeper symptomatologies, and thus more robust critique advanced in articles, monographs, and online forums. In this war of positions (to riff on Gramsci), the critical trend is to say: Show me where you think race is subsumed under class or co-opted by state power, and I will show you where it stubbornly isn’t.

Race has assumed exponentially thicker significance in a discipline where the general trend is to thin things out. So while experiments in surface reading, distant reading, and other postcritical methods have recast core assumptions in many fields—not only what to study but how to study it—there has been a noticeable doubling down on critique in African American literary studies. For some, the stakes (outside the academy) are too high to not persist with critique. For others, the idea of postcritique is incompatible with the advocacy work of minority discourse. And for many others besides, the pragmatism of postcritical dialogue is just downright unsatisfying compared to the passion of politicized exchange in fields such as black studies and American studies—that is, the new front for critique in the age of Obama.

But that’s not the whole story, really. Because in my estimation postcritique is thriving in less-recognized work in the field: namely, scholarship that is oriented around empirical analysis of textual objects and that is animated by theoretical and practical reflection on archival research. For example, the essays collected in Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein’s Early African American Print Culture (2012) and George Hutchinson and John K. Young’s Publishing Blackness (2013) demonstrate that race is not an a priori category to be read into literature, but a complex effect of distinct social, cultural, and textual mediations. The approaches these essays deploy point to subtrends in the field that defy thick inscription, tendencies that are difficult to pick up on by nonspecialists. With the archival turn, new nineteenth-century studies, and rise of textual materialism (to name just a few of these tendencies), scholars are inching away from the historicist-identity politics of the recent past and embracing methods that are able to keep racial meaning and historical knowledge in dynamic tension. That so many people are engaged in this kind of intellectual work without identifying it as postcritical is perhaps strategic. The idea that doing African American literary studies is a form of doing “politics by other means”[3] still holds sway over much of the field. Thus, for materialist scholars, it may be easier to split the difference and do solid empirical research that incidentally (but not necessarily) does good politics.

Rather than shy away from postcritical associations, I want to make the argument that the study of literary and cultural objects without guarantees should be a model for the African Americanist field moving forward. While this model would be grounded in the materialist inquiry mentioned above, its commitment to any sort of object-oriented research would free up energies otherwise locked in ideological battle. Because if your intention going in is to figure out what an object is saying, revealing, performing, or expressing on its own terms, then you cannot know in advance whether that object will reflect anything about your politics. How can this method be enabling of African Americanist literary criticism? Reading without guarantees allows a critic to be surprised by what she finds in an object whose racial meaning is understood to be self-sufficient—that is, in no need of her critical exegesis. It approaches race thinly, as an element within the object that may or may not confirm what she wants as a matter of social justice. Indeed, in reading without guarantees, the task is not to inscribe racial politics onto the object but to describe how the object expresses racial meaning as singular to itself.

On a theoretical level, the African Americanist materialism I advocate here is aligned with what the anthropologist and social theorist John L. Jackson, Jr., has conceived as “thin description.”[4] Jackson’s concept comes as a response to his field’s default mode of “thick description,” the phrase Clifford Geertz coined in the early 1970s for his interpretive study of human behavior. Thinking about disciplinary consensus around that method, Jackson writes

[T]hin description is what you can see with the naked eye. It is a raw and baseline empiricism, the necessary starting point for social investigation but not nearly enough all by itself. Part of an anthropologist’s job is to contextualize social behaviors for readers, behaviors that are never purely self-evident and that always reward more careful scrutiny. And these days, even shorn of its strictest Geertzian moorings, “thick description” is used like a mystic metaphor or metaphorical talisman that denotes an attempt at—an ambition for—rich, rigorous, and even full social knowing. Headlines or statistics are thin, even when they provide some potentially useful information, but thick description proffers nuance and detail hidden or misconstrued by truncated captions, crude observationalisms, and too-crunched numbers.[5]

Yet it is precisely the “thickness” in thick description that Jackson wants to interrogate. Because, much like the depth model of ideology critique in literary studies, isn’t that appeal to density just a placeholder for the researcher’s assumptions about power that (thereby) frame his or her object of study? And isn’t the pursuit of deep context just another way of highlighting the critic’s views over the object’s existence? To what extent, then, does thickness preclude description of objects and their contexts in the name of “seeing through another person’s eyes”?[6]

Perhaps, Jackson posits, it is time to forsake ethnography’s grand claims and embrace only what “baseline empiricism” affords. “If thick description imagines itself able to amass more and more factual information in service to stories about cultural difference,” he writes, “‘thin description’ doesn’t fall into the trap of conceptualizing its task as providing complete and total knowledge—readers finishing monographs, putting them down, and walking away with the self-satisfied belief that they’ve mastered some previously opaque other.”[7] In this regard, the value of thin description resides in how its attention to (social) detail short-circuits the feedback loop running from critic to reader. If the former goes out seeking “stories about cultural difference,” then the latter is bound to consume exactly what he is already looking for. Thin description doesn’t know what it will find, and so it invites the researcher to learn from what others present to the world.

An ethnographer of African American and black diasporic social formations, Jackson is keen to demonstrate that thin description is not postracial. In his book, the whole point of the method is to describe a racialized social formation—the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ), a community of Black Jews that migrated to Israel from the United States in 1969—that had gone unaccounted for by our thickest discourses on race, ethnicity, nation, and religion. But just the same, Jackson does not turn what he gleans from AHIJ into convertible racial knowledge, as if their blackness could be readily exchanged as so much intellectual capital. He prefers to put their racial identity into play alongside a number of other categories of experience, with the effect that “a story of [AHIJ] often resonates, in uncanny ways, with seemingly disparate tales of African and European Jews, of ‘Lost Tribes’ in India and China, of ‘Overcomers’ and Afrocentrists, of polygamous Mormons and vegan Hare Krishnas.”[8] What Jackson learns from AHIJ proves to be more meaningful than whatever he could have said about their utility to racial politics. Attending to the community’s particularities helps him see their place in the world from a fresh perspective. Thin description promises nothing, but it often yields insight that actually enlightens—precisely because it takes nothing for granted.

Substitute “objects” for “others” in Jackson’s method and you have what I consider a promising agenda for African Americanist materialism. As I propose it, reading without guarantees wagers there is something about the literary or cultural object that resists what we want to say about its orientation toward racial politics. Our media-saturated culture thrives off turning everything into proxy political battles, and it would be a sad thing indeed if we (continue to) reduce criticism to such rhetorical gestures. Postcritique is uniquely positioned to help us tune in to what objects can teach us, to appreciate those details that challenge our accustomed way of looking at things, and thus to let ourselves see how race matters in a whole new light.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).

[2] Jeffrey J. Williams, “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5, 2015, web, January 11, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] While I acknowledge Heather Love’s version of “thin description” as influential to my thinking here, I believe that Jackson’s take on the concept does a better job of illuminating the social and racial (in)consequences of leaving the Geertzian model behind. But see Love, “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25.3 (2013): 401-34.

[5] John L. Jackson, Jr., Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 13.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 153.

[8] Ibid., 19.

Kinohi Nishikawa

Kinohi Nishikawa is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in PMLA, Book History, and African American Review, and in the edited collection Post-Soul Satire.

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