This Body Still Has Time: Jermaine Singleton’s Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual

As a young child, Frederick Douglass watches his “old master” Captain Anthony strip his Aunt Hester to her waist, tie her arms to a hook, and whip her until blood drips to the kitchen floor—all as punishment for speaking to a male slave after dark. Douglass hides in a closet until the “bloody transaction” is over, but not before psychically absorbing Aunt Hester’s agonizing shrieks, assuming himself as an eventual participant in the bloody scene: “I expected it would be my turn next.”1 That “bloody transaction,” then, operates both as a psycho-sexual exchange between Aunt Hester and Captain Anthony and as a transference of psychical damage from an aunt to her nephew. The process of becoming raced persists across generations, continuously contaminating, traumatizing, and producing new racialized subjects.

As in Douglass’s text, in Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual (University of Illinois Press, 2015), the raced subject’s self is delineated through “the secrets left over from the lives of others.”2 In Cultural Melancholy, Jermaine Singleton investigates how those “secrets” transform and transmit racial grief over time through ritualized performance, laying bare the performative mechanisms that undergird the engagements between normative subjects and raced others. Singleton refers to the racialized subject’s submerged response to historical trauma as “impossible mourning”: a hidden affect which the racialized subject both acknowledges and cannot acknowledge, emerging from the materially manifest, but impalpable, psychic damage enacted by historical collective injury. Though Singleton suggests that this social grief is transmitted to and through both white and nonwhite subjects, Cultural Melancholy focuses almost exclusively on African American exchanges of historical trauma. By presenting these traumatic exchanges as intra- rather than interracial, Singleton obscures the true cultural codependency that mechanizes performances of racial grief for both white and nonwhite performers and spectators. After an initial chapter that explores how white audiences normalize black emotion through their desensitized engagement with the “ritual” of blues music, the book turns to a sustained reading of the black subject’s performances of social grief. Through discussions of August Wilson’s Piano Lesson, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, and Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, Singleton catalogues a psychical afterimage of past racialized encounters (albeit, an afterimage accessed primarily by black performers), a “hidden affect” that defies conscious recognition but still manufactures “hidden dialogues” of shared social grief among performing subjects. In short, Singleton’s project is two-fold: investigating the processes by which affect is submerged and transmitted through ritualized performance, and, ultimately, identifying strategies for forcing that affect to reemerge on the surface of social experience.

As perhaps his most significant innovation in the text, Singleton emphasizes that performative exchanges are temporally bound. In that sense, performances of grief are not only raced, but also endlessly historicized because the body is a time-bound material artifact. Singleton’s argument recalls Marianne Hirsch’s concept of rememory (adapted from Toni Morrison’s Beloved), a mechanism for resistance that performs, rather than represses, traumatic memory.3 For racialized subjects, all social loss has attached avowed (expressed) and hidden (submerged) affect. Ritualized performance attaches hidden affect to an avowed affective state, which allows the melancholic subject to operate within conditioned patterns to “carry and transform disavowed losses of self across time and social space.”4 For Singleton, cultural melancholy is a ritualized melancholy that places the past (a “racialized past”5) and the present into dialogue, re-constituting the black subject by defining the collective body through historical racial antagonism. By defining black subjects through historical grief, it is time that makes social constructions like race “look and feel real.”6 As William W. Meissner argues, the self exists in and is constituted through time.7 If identity is demonstrated through the self’s continuity over time, then the temporal contiguity in Cultural Melancholy is what binds racialized subjects to past social grief. Singleton rightly identifies time and its legacies as foundational to the production of the raced subject. For that reason, Cultural Melancholy seems determined to strip away the present aftereffects of historical black subjugation by exposing its submerged influences. By laying bare the hidden dialogues with the past that dictate the racialized subject’s present, Singleton attempts to “dismantl[e] the legacy effects of historical racial subjugation and inequality.”8

Singleton echoes scholarly works like Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia (2004), Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race (2000), and Jose Muñoz’s Disidentifications (1994) by identifying a “cultural” melancholy that is transferable and, therefore, interpersonal, shifting away from the personality-centered, highly individualized theory originally positioned in Sigmund Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia.” As in much of the recent scholarship surrounding racial melancholia, Singleton’s melancholia is one instead informed through both individual loss and group identification through collective loss. As such, Cultural Melancholy investigates the mutually constitutive material, historical, and psychical effects that produce hidden affect, and, through that hidden affect, cultural melancholy.

Singleton’s text explicitly distances itself from Freud’s emphasis on individual personality by exchanging the personal for the interpersonal, but Cultural Melancholy’s discussion of collective exchanges of grief is limited by its failure to acknowledge work from foundational interpersonal psychoanalytic theorists. It seems crucially limiting for Singleton to posit an interpersonal theory of racialized subject formation without engaging substantively with relational psychoanalysis. Throughout Singleton’s text, the black subject’s image of the self seems to depend upon that image’s social reflections. As such, Singleton’s work on ritualized performance could have naturally extended from scholarship that defines the “social self” through performance, presenting the subject as a socialized synthesis of performed and interpreted selves (see, for example, H. S. Sullivan). What Singleton misses through his neglect of interpersonal psychoanalysis is a nuanced engagement with the ramifications of interpersonal exchange: cultural melancholy would no longer be simply a viral, self-generating transmission of affect, but a marker of our own cultural codependency. “Hidden affect,” then, is transmitted not just through performance, but through the social reflections and interpretations of that performance. The self is constituted through performative exchange, which would helpfully clarify the relationships between performers and their audiences that Singleton’s text uses to define the racialized subject.

In his text, Singleton identifies the melancholic ego as a subject that is collectively produced, “neutralizing false notions of singularity.”9 As such, Singleton helpfully introduces new possibilities for positive collaboration between the “interdependent cohabitants” of the world. Throughout Cultural Melancholy, Singleton argues that ritualized cultural performance is used to discreetly modify (but sustain) our engagement with historical racial grief—and, for him, that discretion, that disavowal, is what forces our insatiable over- and reinvestment in the objects of social loss. Through his study of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus and Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change in chapter five, Singleton finally offers alternatives to this perpetual traumatic disavowal by suggesting modes by which to make “hidden” racial trauma explicitly visible. Under what circumstances does impossible mourning become “possible”? Ultimately, I am convinced by his assertion that, where other modes of performance operate within hidden dialogues of traumatic expression, contemporary theater showcases and openly mourns, rather than merely consolidates, the losses of social exclusion. Parks’s and Kushner’s plays force audiences to engage with and participate in the social losses being exhibited on the stage. How can this open avowal of trauma be translated to a social space beyond dramatic performance? How might non-black subjects, too, avow this experience of social loss, if those subjects otherwise participate in its submersion and consolidation? Singleton’s text offers a useful critical foundation for discussing historical trauma as not just a social, but a cultural phenomenon—as we move forward, it is important to acknowledge that that “culture” extends beyond black bodies.

References
Douglass, Frederick. 1986 (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: Penguin Classics.

Freud, Sigmund. 1976. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XIV. Translated by James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

Hirsh, Marianne. 1994. “Maternity and Rememory: Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” In Representations of Motherhood, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, 92-110. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Meissner, William W. 2007. Time, Self, and Psychoanalysis. Lanham, MD: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

Singleton, Jermaine. 2015. Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

  1. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 52.
  2. Singleton, Cultural Melancholy, 1.
  3. Hirsch, “Maternity and Rememory,” 96.
  4. Ibid., 8.
  5. Singleton, Cultural Melancholy, 64.
  6. Ibid., 12.
  7. Meissner, Time, Self, and Psychoanalysis, viii.
  8. Singleton, Cultural Melancholy, 2.
  9. Ibid., 118.

Amadi Ozier

Amadi Ozier is a PhD student at Rutgers University, studying the psychic inter-articulation of humor and violence in African American literature and performance. She currently teaches courses on composition, comedy, and the principles of literary theory.