“To see as we never see”: a dialogue between Pierre Bourdieu and Toni Morrison

By Saturday 11 April 2020 No Comments

Geoffrey Mead: This talk was originally held in Paris on October 22, 1994, and published in January 1998 in the journal Vacarme, where the French text is available in full. It appears that Morrison was speaking English and Bourdieu French, so this translation back to English obviously does a disservice to Morrison in particular, so hopefully a recording or transcript surfaces.

Pierre Bourdieu: My questions are intended to try and give you the occasion to say things that you haven’t said. I would have liked to inquire about Howard University, about the teachers you had there — Frazier, for example, the great author of Black Bourgeoisie; and also about your role as senior editor at Random House, where you published a certain number of important works by distinguished writers and black critics. I would have liked to raise the controversy surrounding the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, because it seems to me that it’s a very significant event that permits reflection on the particular situation of the black writer in the American intellectual world.

But I’ll move from there to something that seems more important to me.
In Playing in the Dark, you analyzed the hidden images of Blacks present in white literature. But there’s also a white image of black literature, a terribly stereotyped image: for example, even if, and this is very legitimate, you don’t like to be treated as a black writer, you are a black writer because you are thought to be a black writer — because there is a stereotype attached to this image, which orients the reading of your work. What is this stereotype?

For example, a systematic link is made between black literature and the social sciences. Generally speaking, this is not a compliment… Albert Murray spoke of “social-science fiction”, which is not a way to pay any respect to this literature. Here, the literary work is reduced to a document, and when one accords to black writers a subversive capacity, one accords it to them on the socio-political terrain, not on the formal terrain. For example, just as jazz introduced entirely extraordinary innovations, which have been at once received and not received, because they have been categorized in and confined to an inferior region of musical art, so too have a certain number of aesthetic innovations made by black literature been reduced to folklore, and neutralized in their literary specificity. For example in Jazz, what has been taken from it is the rhythm as much as the structure.

In fact, what is interesting is the plurality of voices and the fact that there is no longer a principal voice, a central discourse… One could say the same thing about black writing. We hear of sensuality, warmth, sexuality, etc. Put another way, we find in the discussion of your work all that you find in white writers regarding Blacks.

Toni Morrison: To be considered only the witness of a certain situation or as someone who has nothing to say except “Ouch! That hurts!” or “I protest!” is deeply humiliating, even if it is very important that we consider writers in their context. I tried to make of Beloved a historical novel that escaped the limits of the discipline of history. When I finished it, I decided to write a book dedicated to the following historical period, what we call the Jazz Age. But what I wanted, above all, is for readers to be aware, before anything else, of the construction, the apparent elaboration, in which I wanted to use as much as possible, the structures of jazz.

The comparison with this music is fundamental since, if it is true that the culture of jazz is still associated with sensuality, illegality, tam-tams, and exoticism, it’s become difficult to stop there. From the moment that one begins the smallest critical analysis of this music, one can’t ignore its sophistication. But this is still not the case in the area of literature: whatever the sophistication of the works, whatever the new responses, the subtleties and innovations that they contribute, all of this is completely ignored. The most banal reactions are always offered: something of the “natural”, the accessible, the magical, or the folkloric is seen.

I would add that journalists are restricted by the limits of their profession. But I can guarantee you that none of them discusses what interests me: the structure inserted, the way that stories are recounted, the refusal of all domination in narration by breaking apart the narrator’s voice.

Bourdieu: Everything that you’ve said of the black writer goes for the sociologist, who often tries to do rather sophisticated things, which are in turn reduced to pure “content”. This is perhaps what has made me sensitive to the injustice done to black writers. Now, what seems important, and what you’ve confirmed now, is that one often takes a non-literary point of view on black literature. And to adopt a properly literary point of view, it is important to place literary writing back into literary history, in the history of predecessors, and evidently, we probably need more time — I would like it if you could say a little about how you situate yourself in relation to these people from Harlem in the 1920s, whose era you have rediscovered in Jazz; or in relation to people like Zora Neale Hurston, for example, who is very important for us sociologists, because she was at once a writer and an anthropologist. I would like you to tell us in which of your predecessors you recognize yourself, black writers but also white writers, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Garcia Marquez.

Morrison: Like all writers, I dreamed of being an author apart, sui generis, and somewhat original, beyond all comparison. But the fact is that we have all read so much, and we would like not to have to recognize our influences. I am nevertheless entirely aware of having been marked by many American authors; black authors and white authors, sometimes for different reasons, and sometimes for the same reasons. Those who counted the most for me are the writers of the 1920s, people like Jean Toomer; and above all I’ve found myself very curious and attentive to black literature, which has permitted me to discover treasures so far ignored — not novels, but accounts by slaves or former slaves. In my eyes, literature includes an incredible number of stories written by people who, with the pen, broke free of the yoke of slavery and entered the world of freedom. In the history of humanity I don’t know of an oppressed people who meditated, wrote, and published so much on their own situation.

And then there was also this inexhaustible mine of songs, of lyrics, of spirituals, which were and will always remain the voice of jazz; this kind of poetry immediately spoke to me. These antecedents are therefore clearly present in my work. But in certain cases I put these writers into question: in Ralph Ellison, for example, I asked myself about certain narrative voices, I tried to see if one couldn’t modify them, divide them, to create a different effect. I understand how important it was for all these writers, for those who still lived in slavery as much as for those who wrote at the beginning of the century, to prove their capacity to write well to a white public that dictated the rules of the game. They approached writing by using an excessively correct and erudite language. Or else, inversely, they tried to reproduce what was then called the black “dialect”, for lack of a better term; but they would very often do it clumsily, in their transcription, to try to highlight the specificities of black language. This problem interests me in my work in particular; it’s in this way that I can attempt to make a conscious effort to reattach myself to the authors of the past.

Bourdieu: Maybe you could, on this point which seems important to me, talk a little about your own solution. Between these two limits, hyper-correction and hyper textual fidelity to the vernacular, whether linguistic or cultural. How have you found your own way as a writer: in alternation, in combination?

Morrison: The first thing done by those who hold the rifles is discredit the other’s language. When you have an army and a navy, you can say to the other that her language is not a language, that what she says is closer to the speech of animals. Knowing how to manage this position, of being subordinate with respect to language, is a fundamental problem for all dominated peoples. We know that in theory, all language comes from elsewhere. The play of all these languages is extraordinary; and if somebody would like to protect the purity of one among them, they would have to enact an extremely complicated task that implies a very large amount of self-defense. And the reason why this defense is necessary is that it is constantly under threat of being crushed by someone. In this way, language can be a true battlefield, a place of oppression, but also of resistance. American English poses few problems in this regard, on the one hand because it is already essentially a polyglot language; and then, thanks to the influence of all the people who live in America and who refuse, like black people, the domination of one language over the others. It’s something that has always seemed astonishing to me, this absolute refusal of Blacks, of all Blacks, whatever their social and cultural status: they remain always faithful to their language; it is at once something very dear to them, but also a mark of rebellion.

I think that there is something captivating in the fact that to write in English in the twentieth century is precisely this possibility of moving between diverse levels of language, from the vernacular of the language of the street to lyrical or biblical language, passing through the common register. All these languages say different things. So, what seems interesting to me is to fuse them, mix them up to say something else, perhaps something that has never been said in exactly the same way before. I think that this search was the very definition of “modernity”, of the language of people whom one calls the “modernists”, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, even a large part of Hemingway’s work, and then e e cummings. All these authors, when they tried to be “avant garde”, to say something entirely new, with the most possible freedom, they used black vernacular language. See Ragtime, for example, or even the correspondence of these writers, and you find expressions there drawn from this folkloric tradition: when they wrote of themselves, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound nicknamed themselves “Possum” and “Br’er Rabbit”. They even adapted their spelling and typography, specifically by using lower-case letters where standard English uses upper-class letters. So at least for those who claim this tradition, black language has always been marked, not by a return towards a sad past, but on the contrary by a step towards a modern and exciting future.

Bourdieu: What impresses me when I survey your trajectory is that you have an attitude that could be described as both engaged and reserved. For all I know, you have never entered into overt forms of engagement. We don’t see you strongly engaged in the feminist movement, although the feminist movement claims you; we don’t see you ostentatiously engaged with black activism, although this movement claims you. At the same time, you have defined a rather beautiful formula for yourself, a kind of generative formula of what you are: you say that you are “an African-American woman writer in a sexualized and racialized world”.¹ Obviously, you are very powerfully engaged through your work; and also through your actions: I think of what you did recently in relation to the matter of this judge accused of harassment.² You are therefore very engaged, but in a very special way, “engaged-disengaged”. I would very much like you to describe the philosophy of this engagement… which I like very much.

Morrison: It’s true. I have a big problem: as you recall it, I live in a totally racialized and sexualized world, and I must do in it what I feel is truly right. Yet in truth, I’m not at ease within organizations: I’m never there when it’s necessary, and I don’t like to receive orders. I have very limited room for maneuver in certain political spaces. But I believe that writing is the political act par excellence. I’d like to take as proof of this that the first measure taken by an oppressive government is to censor or to destroy books, or still to gag people. And they do this simply because they are not stupid, because they know too well that the very act of writing is seditious, potentially seditious in any case, and always the bearer of interrogations.

My books don’t respond to aesthetic preoccupations alone, no more than they respond exclusively to political preoccupations. I think that, to be taken seriously, art must do both at once. There is no reason that a work of art can’t be taken seriously in its own world, no excuse for not doing the best work possible. But, on the other hand, I think that writers must also engage themselves in a certain type of collective action. As you know, in the United States we don’t have this long tradition of politically active “intellectuals”; it existed at moments and then disappeared, and I believe that at this moment we’re in one of these times where this tradition is more buried than living, contrary to France. It’s why what happened two years ago in the US, at the time of a certain judge’s nomination, created an exceptional political situation. The problem was to find someone who was capable of succeeding Judge Marshall, this absolutely extraordinary African-American judge who, for fifty or sixty years, fought relentlessly and was victorious a number of times in the service of two causes: that of human rights and that of civil rights for Blacks. Then President Bush chose a young black man, because he was a black man of the right who was malleable.

To gloss this nomination, Bush declared: “I want you to understand that it’s not a question of race, this nomination has been decided outside of all racial criteria”. It’s then that accusations of sexual harassment appeared. This was a true fiasco, and everybody was absolutely fascinated by this story. I don’t know what you have been able to see of it in Europe, but all this was almost paralyzing. It didn’t help to telephone senators, because they would immediately ask you, “Who do you vote for? What do you want?” Anyway — and here I am angry all over again, I didn’t expect that! — I appealed to a whole group of writers, to people from diverse academic disciplines: history, English, law, critical legal studies, anthropology, religion, ethics, philosophy, etc. Eighteen of us, Whites and Blacks, men and women. In a very short time, because there was some urgency, we wrote an anthology in which each among us made use of our discipline’s point of view to deconstruct, analyze, and clarify the political situation that brought us to this point. We titled the book, Race-ing justice, En-gendering power, a somewhat complicated play on words…

Bourdieu: You have told me that you are working on a novel with two “heroines”, one black and the other white, and that all your effort consists in making the categories of white and black completely disappear. First, is this possible? What particular difficulties does this work of quasi-“transcoding” encounter? It’s an experiment that finds an analogue in what Perec did when he tried to write without recourse to the vowel e, but, in this particular case, it’s a fundamental category of perception of the social world that you exclude. So, are you not being led on an extremely complex formal pursuit, which is at the same time a political pursuit: the utopia of a world in which the white-black category will be no longer pertinent, will no longer exist?

Morrison: The book I’m currently working on³ is deeply rooted in the reality of a place that I deliberately chose as being exclusively black: a black village at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, I speak in it of four women of whom I say: “One among them was white, the others were not”. Then I hope that I describe each of these women so well that the reader will know them all intimately, as if she were in their skin; that she will know everything about them, except their race. I think that the reader will really ask who is white and who is black; but, if I succeed, and I’m not sure yet because I haven’t finished, this question will in the end no longer have any importance. But the difficulty is enormous, because there exists no language for this. How do you describe the soul of a character without reference to racial codes, without using this secret language, explicit or implicit, that everybody uses to mark race? And at the same time, it’s necessary to give the reader what she is never entitled to possess: an immediate gaze permitting her to see as she never sees. All this demands a new discourse, a new language. It’s difficult, but I believe that it’s gratifying. I truly think that this language can be just as subtle, just as strong, and permit just as many emotions, without any reference to color. This is my hope. But in any case, what is important to me now is less the success of this project than the search itself, the construction of a language that permits me to render these characters terribly present, to make them entirely known… except for their race.

¹ The exact phrase Morrison (Playing in the dark, p.4) uses is, an “African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world”.
² This is a reference to accusations made against Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, by his erstwhile assistant, Anita Hill. Morrison edited a collection of essays on this scandal, entitled Race-ing justice, en-gendering power: essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the construction of social reality.
³ This became Paradise (1998).