The final seminar in our Inventions of the Text series this term sees Daniel Grausam talking on ‘Last Night’: Colson Whitehead’s Presents. All are welcome to the Seminar Room, Hallgarth House, on 16th December at 17.30.
Though often hailed as one of the most original and compelling ‘contemporary’ novelists, and cited as a key example of a developing post-postmodern aesthetic, Colson Whitehead has produced a body of work that complicates any clear notion of the present, and hence of periodization itself. From his debut novel (The Intuitionist, 1999) through to his more recent work, Whitehead has crafted a fictional universe defined by multiple, competing, and often quite contradictory notions and experiences of modernity.
While The Intuitionist’s focus on literal elevation—via its plot, centered as it is on the Elevator Inspector’s Guild in an unnamed (but clearly New York) American city—has been read as a more abstract commentary on the racial and gendered dimensions of social mobility, critics have been curiously blind to the obvious problem with this metaphoric commentary: social mobility figured as the ever-increasing heights of urban architecture is a social mobility reliant on the production of social inequality, since those heights require, rather than eliminate, every lower floor. We might, in other words, read even the most utopian hopes of the novel as conditioned by an acceptance, rather than a critique, of ever-increasing income inequality. Whitehead turns this problem of unequally distributed resources into both a thematic preoccupation (crafting a novel whose setting can’t be dated, given the contradictory historical markers running through the text, and creating a cityscape in which the movement of only a handful of blocks spatially can be read as a kind of time travel narrative, since that spatial movement takes one years, if not decades, backwards when it comes to infrastructural access) as well as a literary one (his intertextual homages span the century).
Using this account of The Intuitionist as a staring point, this essay reads Whitehead’s career as one extended attempt to defamiliarize our sense of the contemporary as a unified experience of historical time. In particular I focus on the ways in which Whitehead suggests that this unequal distributions of the promise of modernity is the result of the increasing neoliberal privatization of infrastructure and the public good; his time travel backwards into history is thus not only a revelation of the ways in which a benighted past resurfaces in the present, but also a lament for the historical paths not taken, and the lost opportunities of various historical moments.
The Call for Papers for next term’s speakers (to be drawn from Durham and elsewhere) is coming soon, on the theme of “Literary Concepts, Theories, Genres.”