Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Chimeras of FormModernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914-2016$

Aarthi Vadde

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231180245

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231180245.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Stories Without Plots

Stories Without Plots

The Nomadic Collectivism of Claude McKay and George Lamming

(p.108) 3 Stories Without Plots
Chimeras of Form

Aarthi Vadde

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The third chapter brings together Caribbean-born migrant writers Claude McKay and George Lamming, and forms a bridge across the divides of period and national literature that usually assign McKay to the Harlem Renaissance and Lamming either to the category of postwar black British literature or Caribbean literature. In allowing these two writers to converge, I argue that a paranational account of modernist internationalism emerges in their mutual formal and theoretical engagement with plotlessness. A lack of a plot, understood in the polysemic terms of a planned-out heteronormative life, a collective political program, and a patch of land to call home, becomes the common ground from which McKay’s Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929) and Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) explore the fugitive life and fantasies of colonial black subjects within a securitized Europe. In deforming plot and finding an alternative idiom, rhythm, and structure for the mobility of stigmatized populations, McKay and Lamming’s novels anticipate contemporary theories of cosmopolitics and international law (namely, those of Etienne Balibar, Seyla Benhabib, and Nicolae Gheorghe), which have argued for the accommodation of transience within territorialized models of belonging and citizenship.

Keywords:   Claude McKay, George Lamming, Diaspora, Novel, transnational citizenship, cosmopolitics

Banjo had no plan, no set purpose, no single object in coming to Marseilles. It was the port that seamen talked about—the marvelous, dangerous, attractive, big, wide-open port. And he wanted only to get there.

Claude McKay, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot

Someone had posted me a book called The Living Novel and I read it as though by habit, page after page, for several hours. The Novel was alive, though dead. This freedom was simply dead.

George Lamming, The Emigrants

The August 17, 2013, issue of the Economist contained an obituary for Nicolae Gheorghe, sociologist and human rights advocate for the Roma people. Faced with summing up a life, the obituary strings together a number of possible identities:

“Nomad” was a good word for Nicolae Gheorghe. He was always on the move, with his worldly goods strapped to his back. … “Cosmopolitan” would have suited him, too. He could perch happily in Geneva, Helsinki, Warsaw or Washington. … Or you could call him “gypsy.” After all, that was what he called himself, when pushed to give an identity. There was no denying it: both his parents were gypsies; you could see it, he admitted, in his slightly darker skin and thick lips, which his schoolmates mocked him for.1

Gheorghe’s itinerancy suffuses the article and highlights the disjunctions of privilege associated with individuals on the move (cosmopolitans) and collectives on the move (gypsies). Gheorghe’s life’s work was to close that gap. His filiation with the gypsies, a racial inheritance marked on the body in early life, became an embraced affiliation later on, a chosen (p.109) identity. The Roma’s nomadism, their deracination, for Gheorghe, was a feature of their collective identity that defied national paradigms of citizenship and demanded new ways of thinking about international political community.

The European Union has been one such experiment in concrete international citizenship, even if it has proven difficult to substantiate the still-fledging category of belonging known as “European” with collective feeling, much less with rights and protection for a deracinated population such as the Roma. A 1995 resolution by the European Council declared the Roma a “transnational people,” a phrase that could well be taken as a romanticized version of statelessness but that I think confronts us with a conceptual category worth exploring.2 How can we adapt prevailing notions of belonging to a transnational people? How do nonnormative, nomadic subjects—the Roma, guest workers, refugees—test normative conceptions of citizenry?

Philosophers, political scientists, and activists for a more democratic internationalism readily admit that nation-based models of citizenship cannot accommodate migratory groups without conceiving of them as a crisis or a threat, because migration is tacitly understood as a right of the individual, not of groups. Étienne Balibar calls this phenomenon “international individualism” and argues that it is enshrined in the assumptions and declarations of international law. Citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Balibar argues that the institutionalization of human rights relied on a feedback loop between individuals and collectives, wherein one pole, the individual, became the bearer of rights and the other pole, the collective, became the political body that must recognize rights. This body is the state, which in practical terms, reduces more diverse kinds of collectivity (for example, diasporic or continental) to the nation. International individualism creates the common-sense logic that associates travel or circulation with the individual, and immobility or permanence with collective membership in a nation. No matter where an individual goes, he cannot change his national citizenship without extreme effort and often long-term residence in the country of choice.

Balibar’s theorization of transnational citizenship begins by contesting the national equation of community with the territorialization of groups. It proposes a counterlogic, civitas vaga, “a citizenship of the roads and the changing places,” which takes movement, wandering, and circulation as the keywords for rethinking “the philosophical character of the citizen.”3 (p.110) These are also the words that must be conceived of as rights—for example, the right to circulate—if “a transnational people” is to be more than a euphemism for (nation-)statelessness.

Though the novel is not the arena in which rights are invented or distributed, it is certainly the one in which the bearer of those rights, the individual, was created and given character. As Joseph Slaughter has argued, the bildungsroman and human rights law are symbiotic narrative forms in which the former creates and refines a model of the individual’s relationship to the collective, which the law in turn ratifies and redeploys. The classic or realist bildungsroman “novelizes” citizenship through a particular organizational model: plot. Plot, ideologically speaking, is a technology of social incorporation in which potentially problematic individuals are reformed and absorbed into a society that is representative of the nation-state.

“Constitutive, rather than derivative,” of character, plot designates the series of events over which the novel’s protagonist matures into adulthood and develops the capacity for rational self-government.4 Such a capacity, as Nancy Armstrong has argued, is defined by the simultaneous assertion and restraint of individuality. The problematic individual, or what she calls (via Louis Althusser) the “bad subject,” becomes the “good citizen” by subordinating his passions and self-interest to the common good of a society. He does this by internalizing “bourgeois morality,” namely those qualities of sincerity and cooperation that we have to come to associate with authentic personhood. Once the bad subject has learned the self-restraint of the good citizen, he is also ready to be a good subject of the state. He gladly trades freedom and mobility for property and protection. As Armstrong puts it, “an individual’s willingness to stay in his place is what gives him moral value” in the eyes of the state.5

Armstrong’s idiomatic formulation of discipline not only explains the origin of the citizen-subject’s place within a state apparatus; it also discloses the role of territoriality in producing the citizen. Part of “staying in his place” requires staying in place. To set down roots and to own property become essential to expressing an innate spirit of communal responsibility. These classical characteristics of liberal individualism gel well with the nation-state’s territorial norms, and their residual effects are what make residence rather than border crossing seem like the necessary basis of belonging itself. However, if we understand this theory of belonging as ideologically national rather than universally true, then it becomes (p.111) possible to see alternatives to liberal nationalist models of belonging that precede and support Balibar’s civitas vaga. Such alternatives, to which Balibar has not linked his own work but which deserve mention, have been richly theorized by scholars working under the rubrics of African diaspora studies and transnational blackness.

Paul Gilroy and Carole Boyce Davies were among the first scholars to note the limitation of nation-centered paradigms for theorizing black collectivity, and they have offered concepts such as the Black Atlantic and migratory subjectivity as tools for identifying forms of diasporic belonging in the face of systematic political exclusion from the nation-state.6 In the groundbreaking The Practice of Diaspora, Brent Edwards extends their work by tracing diaspora through the material linkages of print culture. His focus on the mobility not just of peoples but also of texts reminds us that ties to the African diaspora, far from being static and consistent, are forged through mobility and, often, mistranslation. He coins the term décalage to capture the unevenness that haunts all attempts to articulate a unified racial belonging.7 Such approaches supply a refined vocabulary for theorizing collectivity out of the crucible of fugivity and deterritorialization.

Though scholars such as Gilroy, Davies, and Edwards refrain from endorsing a normative model of transnational citizenship, I build on their critical insights as part of the ongoing project of bridging divides between black cultural studies and modernist studies.8 Studies of transnational blackness and black internationalism have, given their object of study, tended to affirm a specifically racial solidarity even as they acknowledge the discrepant histories and linguistic differences that fissure the African diaspora.9 Black thought forms a countercurrent to European narratives of modernity, and the oppositional potential of blackness derives from its exteriority to European epistemologies.

In bringing the lessons of black internationalism to bear on my own conception of modernist internationalism, I argue that experimental black writing actually anticipates cosmopolitical models of European belonging, rather than remaining perpetually outside them. If such writing is regarded as speaking only to or for the African diaspora, its susceptibility to routine marginalization or, worse, absorption into universal theories without awareness or acknowledgment, increases. In an effort to work against such patterns of intellectual separatism, I show that twenty-first-century theories of transnational citizenship, like Balibar’s civitas vaga, find their own symbiotic literary form in the “plotless” novels (p.112) of Claude McKay and George Lamming. These novels rejected the politics and style of realism for creating illusions of order, which they perceived to be disjunctive with modern black experience. Instead, these authors used the material of linguistic idiom and, in particular, narrative organization to redesign the novel around those racialized practices of nomadism—vagabondage and emigration—that stymied liberal-national models of individuality and territorialized belonging. McKay’s vagabonds and Lamming’s emigrants are “inter-national” subjects in the sense of “between nations, belonging nowhere.” Unable to integrate into Europe’s national communities, their exclusion becomes the ground from which they both disrupt and make their claim upon the philosophical character of the citizen. Depicting belonging under transient conditions and drawing out the double standards of imperial versus national citizenship, McKay and Lamming move the novel away from international individualism and toward the expression of nomadic collectivism. They do this by using stories without plots to address vagabondage and emigration not just as the activities of characters but also as the activities of narrative form.

Claude McKay and George Lamming are rarely read together. Their migratory paths (McKay arrived in New York in 1914, after a brief residence in Charleston; Lamming went to London in 1950) and age differences (McKay died in 1948, five years before Lamming published his first novel) have led critics to view them as part of different national traditions and literary periods, despite their common ancestry in the British Caribbean. McKay is more often discussed as a Harlem Renaissance writer than as a colonial writer. In turn, Lamming’s post-1950s production has resulted in his canonization as a postcolonial writer, despite the fact that his most well-received early novels were written in Britain in the decade before decolonization.10 However, the separation of McKay and Lamming into separate national traditions (American versus West Indian) and historical moments (colonial versus postcolonial) misses, first, the ways in which these writers’ careers traversed multiple geographies, and, second, the role that colonial deracination played in both writers’ turns toward international socialism, their breaks from official political organizations, and their elaboration of experimental aesthetics explicitly founded on modernist notions of the artist in exile.

The McKay and Lamming who emerge in this chapter are both migrant writers who contest the conflation of bourgeois morality with the capacity (p.113) to self-govern and who reject the partitioning of citizenship from deracination as fundamentally overlooking the historical experience of British imperial citizenship for subjects of color. Their generational differences do not fundamentally separate their aesthetic projects, even if they inflect their sense of political possibility. McKay, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, did not yet identify colonial emancipation with national sovereignty, as Lamming would in the 1950s.11 Yet McKay’s fascination with the ephemeral and pointedly derelict collectivities of Harlem and Marseilles lays the groundwork for emancipation from the prefabrications of plot, understood as both a conventional literary form and a conservative social attitude. His desultory style dismantles the dyad of self-governing individuality and territorially enclosed community, which casts the citizen in both a liberal and national mold. Lamming’s novels of the 1950s, particularly The Emigrants, need to be understood as inheritors of McKay’s “plotless” modernism, even if Lamming is not known to be especially influenced by McKay’s works. Both understand the cancellation of plot as a literary path toward rethinking the structure of social ties across geographic and political boundaries. Their stories without plots are thus also stories about internationalizing citizenship.

Deviant Plotlessness

Heather Love has described “modernity’s others” as those rendered ineligible or perpetually behind Kantian progress narratives that culminate in the birth of a rational-critical citizen.12 By turning away from the hetero-normative development plot of the bildungsroman, these “others” refuse to abide by the stable order of time that it creates. Rather, they call attention to the simultaneity of modernism’s tropes of pastness, such as primitivism, tradition, and folklore, with its tropes of futurism, such as technology, progress, and civilization. McKay’s commitment to stories without plots reflects his commitment to the modernism of modernity’s others, and he uses the novel as a vehicle for turning that which is marked as both primitive and deviant (blackness) toward the pursuit of aesthetic and political novelty. In McKay’s novels, the formal device of plotlessness serves the intellectual purpose of rethinking the attitudes associated with political responsibility and communal belonging within the racialized context of political exclusion and spiritual statelessness.

(p.114) Claude McKay became an American citizen in 1940, but his most creative periods are characterized by peripatetic wandering from Jamaica to the United States to Europe and finally to North Africa, where he finished writing Banjo. Critics have disputed McKay’s identity as a Jamaican or American writer, but it is rarely noted that he spent much of his life under the technical legal status of a British subject. To paraphrase a line from Banjo, describing the immigration status of the vagabonds, his affective status was “nationality doubtful.” McKay, like Joyce, was more likely to fly by the nets of communal belonging than to get tied up within them. Yet, unlike Joyce, who left Ireland in the name of artistic exile, McKay imagined himself doubly exiled by the “deracinated ancestry” of New World black communities in the Caribbean and United States.13 McKay felt deracinated at birth, and this paradoxical sense of uprooted nativity led him to define home as a site of changeable affinities rather than filial piety. Home to Harlem (1928) establishes this motif in his work, but rather than following a model of incorporation typical of both the classic bildungsroman and the coming-to-America tale, the novel defines artistic maturity through his protagonist’s continued flight beyond the community that would inspire him.

Home to Harlem, much like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, presents itself as a Künstlerroman, a splinter genre of the bildungsroman in which artistic readiness is at odds with communal subordination. Refusing the constraints of bourgeois morality and the carrots of institutional success, Stephen, in book IV of Portrait, decides to fall, to fall utterly. The biblical connotations of the word fall align Stephen with the devil, but the downward trajectory also suggests that artistic maturity might rest on a commitment to immaturity by the standards of polite society. Home to Harlem takes the notion of a fall into artistry even further than Portrait does, as its protagonist, the immigrant-artist Ray, finds succor in Harlem’s underworld.

Home to Harlem aligns artistic flowering not just with aesthetic individualism but also with the ignobly decadent and antisocial figures of the Harlem underworld—the pimps, sex workers, drug addicts, and impoverished members of society who fail to meet the requirements of bourgeois morality or responsible citizenship. Indeed, the novel vacillates between aligning Ray with Harlem’s great unwashed and separating him into a pantheon of cosmopolitan artists:

(p.115) Dreams of patterns of words achieving form. What would he [Ray] ever do with the words he had acquired? Were they adequate to tell the thoughts he felt, describe the impressions that reached him vividly? What were men making of words now? During the war he had been startled by James Joyce in The Little Review. Sherwood Anderson had reached him with Winesburg, Ohio. He had read, fascinated, all that D. H. Lawrence published. And wondered if there was not a great Lawrence reservoir of words too terrible and too terrifying for nice printing. Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu burnt like a flame in his memory. Ray loved the book because it was such a grand, anti-romantic presentation of mind and behavior in that hell-pit of life. And literature, story-telling, had little interest for him now if thought and feeling did not wrestle and sprawl with appetite and dark desire all over the pages.14

In this passage, Ray encodes biographical anxieties about growing up into the universal aesthetic language of “achieving form.” Attaining mature reason and retaining immature “appetite” are allegorized as in the distinction between achieved form and the ongoing “wrestle and sprawl” of dispersed “patterns.”

It is significant that McKay’s description of Ray’s artistic ambition as “patterns of words achieving form” ironizes his dream of maturation by presenting itself in the grammatically incomplete form of a sentence fragment. McKay’s syntactic contradiction suggests that the energy of Ray’s art will come from the overturning of a progressive temporal narrative in which patterns coalesce into forms. Rather, he must recognize patterns as always already formed, signs of the modes of organization that reside within the putatively formless. “Patterns,” syntactically and socially, signals something extra that the future promise of “form” threatens to extinguish. Not quite whole and not quite assimilated into Ray’s maturation plot, it marks an excess order that asserts itself before the proper time. One might call such aesthetic order underdeveloped or immature, but as with McKay’s precursors Joyce and Lawrence, it is the pursuit of experience in the absence of maturity that characterizes the artist’s defiant heroism and his self-doubt.

While Ray reflects on the risks of pursuing art that is only half-formed, McKay turns the novel into a genre for the promotion of a deliberately (p.116) immature aesthetics that can capture the energy and vigor of black life-worlds that do not aspire to cultural assimilation. Michael North has written vividly of McKay’s poetry as the genre in which his own drama of assimilation and estrangement played out. Made famous by the dialect poems Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912), McKay saw the pernicious effects of writing in Jamaican dialect. The poems were received not as art but the spontaneous expression of a primitive voice. In attempts to move away from such ethnographic definition, McKay turned to conventional forms and standard English in his later collections Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), which, despite their profusion of traditional English sonnets, still resulted in his presentation as a “stuffed exhibit” for white readers.15

If the turn to highly regulated forms in poetry had no effect on shattering stereotypes of black primitivism, McKay’s turn to prose suggests a change in the attitude of the author. No longer interested in meeting or defying white expectations, McKay saw prose as affording possibilities different from those of poetry. In Home to Harlem and Banjo: A Story Without a Plot he experimented with the dyad of form and formlessness that he found particular to the medium. The attractions of prose lay in the vagueness of its form and the precision of its idiom. This lack of alignment allowed it to elude the developmental scale from primitivism to modernity—or, in biographical time, childishness to adulthood—that McKay’s poetic trajectory from dialect to sonnet had come to illustrate. The contradictions of “a story without a plot” further captured the double meaning of deracination, as McKay’s novels focused on characters without loyalty to a physical territory (i.e., a plot of land) or lives scripted by the expectations of others.

A negative theory of literary form makes explicit in its perversity what North calls “the spiritual truancy” of modernist expatriate writing.16 Unlike North, though, McKay yokes that truancy to the pursuit of black collectivity outside the political structures and confinements of the nation-state. McKay makes deracination the property of a group rather than the dream of the individual. In turn, he reinvents the modernist artist not as a heroic iconoclast in solitary flight from the collective but as a kind of Moses, leading his collective into exile from the nation.

Spiritual truancy looked like juvenile irresponsibility to McKay’s critics. W. E. B. Du Bois saw in McKay something of the Pied Piper, and his (p.117) famously negative review of Home to Harlem made no separation between the novel’s immature aesthetics and its immoral politics. That Du Bois judged McKay’s novels to be immoral for their uninhibited content is common knowledge; that he regarded them corrupt because of their form, or supposed lack thereof, is less often observed. Du Bois feared that McKay’s depiction of the Harlem underworld pandered to “that prurient demand on the part of white folk for a portrayal in Negroes of that utter licentiousness which conventional civilization holds white folk back from enjoying.”17

Du Bois’s review, steeped in the politics of positive imagery, expressed a fear that the novel’s examination of decadence and vice would only re-affirm stereotypes of black irrationality and excess. This danger was compounded by what Du Bois perceived to be the formal grotesqueness of Home to Harlem, which he describes as both “padded” and deprived of “any artistic unity.” By organizing his criticisms of worldly excess in the language of formal excess, Du Bois articulates a conservative politics of style that understands aesthetic conventions as vehicles of racial integration and uplift. His demand for temperance from a future project is expressed in terms of a desire not just for proper content but also for proper form. He desires from McKay a novel with a “strong, well-knit as well as beautiful theme.” In other words, a novel streamlined by plot.

McKay’s riposte to Du Bois is now as well known as the review of Home to Harlem itself. In it, he embraces his own “utter absence of restraint” and defends excess as a tactic of social critique aimed not at pleasing the white world but at defying the need for their recognition. Whereas Du Bois and other black reviewers demanded a homogenized and sanitizing portrait of the black community in the name of fostering racial uplift, McKay sought out its diversity, its rivalries, and its internal spectrum of skin colors and nationalities in the service of a more cosmopolitan, less ascetic socialism. Despite having broken with various socialist organizations and the international communist movement by the time of its publication, McKay cited Home to Harlem as a “real proletarian novel.”18 In addition, as Shane Vogel notes, McKay used the novel to pursue solidarities across working-class and “submerged tenth” lines, rather than incorporating the lower classes into the bourgeois morality of upward mobility.19

I agree with Vogel that McKay deviated from the assimilationist policy of the black bourgeoisie in the name of more flexible definitions of racial (p.118) and sexual identity; however, I would add that such deviation also arose from a fundamental questioning of the structures of collective consciousness. If McKay was committed to race as a category that the individual could not transcend, he was equally committed to testing race as the grounds for an obligatory solidarity. In an essay for the New York Herald-Tribune entitled “A Negro Writer to His Critics” (1932), he speaks of political consciousness as paralyzing: “From all this I should say we are floundering in a mass of race, color, national consciousness and all the correlative consciousnesses. Besides, many of us who are trying to see and live tolerantly and temperately are worried of a guilty conscience. White and colored.”20 Tolerance and temperance, McKay goes on to argue, are virtues that black uplift narratives demand but that depend upon the castigation of the most poor and vulnerable within a society. Imagining and indulging in decadence is McKay’s way of contesting a social ladder that denigrates those who have not yet or may never climb it: “poor minorities, especially the colored who often find it rubbed into them that their state is due to their lack of ‘white’ virtues.” McKay does not envision minorities transcending the markers of group identity, but he does object to Du Bois’s amalgamation of collectivity and morality because it contributes to the fiction of “‘white’ virtue” that he is out to explode.

Banjo doubles down on McKay’s project of unsanitized representation and plotless form, as it shifts settings from Harlem, New York, to the Ditch, a bohemian neighborhood in Marseilles, France, which, as James Smethurst notes, becomes “for McKay the true international capital of the modern Negro World that [Alain] Locke claimed Harlem to be.” Like Home to Harlem, Banjo rejects a racial consciousness modeled on virtue and cleansed of the “wrestle and sprawl” of submerged life-worlds. Its formal design produced another round of reviews, this time in English and French, that linked its immorality to its perceived formlessness. Dewey Jones, in a Chicago Defender review entitled “Dirt,” declared the novel’s protagonists to be enrapt with laziness: “a group of tramp sailors who prefer loafing and bumming to working and earning an honest dime.” André Levinson, for the French periodical Nouvelles Littéraires, portrayed the vagabonds as free riders in the “land of plenty,” whose unstructured lives are reflected by McKay’s unstructured tale: “Banjo is not properly a novel; it is a suite of episodes haphazardly arranged [alignés au hasard]” to offer a “literal reproduction” of black sociability.21

(p.119) Because Levinson sees Banjo as a transcription of black life rather than an artful re-creation, he does not think to array McKay’s “invertebrate tale” with other modernist novels accused of indecency and plotlessness, such as, for example, Joyce’s Ulysses. At times, however, Levinson observes the richness of McKay’s idiom and the difficulty of its style, in a language redolent of modernism: “The verbal material is dense and colorful. But the language in which these new black novels [les nouveaux romans nègres] are written becomes an obstacle to their diffusion. … The phonetic transcription of speech, with its curious deformations, turns out an illegible scrawl [grimoire] that one can hardly decipher.”22

Levinson’s choice of words in the French is felicitous not for the opinions it expresses but for the exclusive politics of literariness that it reveals. The innovations of “les nouveaux romans nègres” are recoded as sociological transcription, and their aesthetic difficulty is recoded as grimoire, or utter illegibility, with a primitivist subtext. In French, grimoire functions as a figure of speech connoting incomprehensibility; its meaning derives from the standard definition of a grimoire as a magician’s manual for practicing spells, invoking demons, and contacting the dead. Charles Baudelaire invoked the grimoire as a metaphor for poetry’s enchantments,23 yet Levinson uses it to reinforce the distance between black writing and deliberate formal experimentation.

Still, Levinson unwittingly furnishes a modernist vocabulary for understanding McKay’s pursuit of calculated illegibility. The etymological roots of grimoire lie in the Old French gramaire, or “grammar.” Its dynamic semantic history reminds us that even the most devalued and debased forms of knowledge carry within them a system of rules governing their composition. McKay’s novel may have featured the “illegible scrawl” of an unfamiliar black vernacular, but its real foreignness arose in its negative structural grammar for organizing the sprawl of the African diaspora. A story without a plot, Banjo foregrounds lack as the common ground of an international collectivity characterized by its dispersal and deterritorialization.

Finding a new grammar for the novel is no easy task, especially when plot is understood as interchangeable with grammar itself. Peter Brooks has defined plot as the novel’s “syntax,” the way in which its events are ordered and arranged to produce its constituent parts. This syntax further conveys a “certain way of speaking our understanding of the world,” meaning that a novel’s plot does not just tell a fictional story.24 It denotes (p.120) a formal organization that is always already an interpretive process. Although particular plots may vary in complexity, the need for plot, according to Brooks, reflects a human need for the kind of meaning that can only be achieved through narrative.

Brooks’s argument depends on the meanings that narrative generates and connects to the finite structure of plot—its identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. Indeed, the “subterranean logic” that Brooks claims unifies plot’s heterogeneous definitions as physical territory and literary design is the “idea of boundedness, demarcation, the drawing of lines to mark off and order. … From the organized space, plot becomes the organizing line, demarcating and diagramming that which was previously undifferentiated.”25 Brooks’s spatial geometry helps to explain plot’s power as a cognitive tool that both produces divisions and makes those divisions easier to see. In constantly differentiating space over time, plot brings the world of the novel into being. The movement of plots toward their meaningful completion is what leads Brooks to call them “not simply organizing structures” but “intentional structures, goal-oriented and forward-moving.”

Although Brooks does not use the term, his understanding of plot is dialectical in that the novel emerges as the totality of plot’s developmental process. Plot’s movement sublates any elements of disorder within its larger structure, and it arrives at meaning through achieving the “idea of boundedness” that spurred its movement. The dialectical engine of plot is precisely what Banjo sets out to disable with its promise of plotless storytelling. Its grammar is not dialectical but anecdotal, not progressive and conserving in its narrative momentum but pulsating and expending in its exposition.

Levinson recognizes these attributes of Banjo, but he is obviously mystified by their implications when he describes the novel as “not a novel, but a suite of episodes aligned at random, of detached chapters that one by one crumble away into anecdotal dust.”26 As Levinson oscillates between “n’est pas proprement un roman” (not properly a novel) and “nouveau roman nègre” (new black novel), we see how Banjo reactivates definitional debates about the novel by transforming the propulsions of narrative desire into the disintegration of narrative structure. What Levinson reads as the novel’s random and crumbling architecture, McKay uses to display the subject formation of the vagabond, whose vagrancy furnishes the novel with a new spatial and temporal scheme. In the opening pages (p.121) of Banjo, McKay introduces the vagabond as a vital, if overlooked, painter of modern life:

Banjo was a great vagabond of lowly life. He was a child of the Cotton Belt, but he had wandered all over America. His life was a dream of vagabondage that he was perpetually pursuing and realizing in odd ways, always incomplete but never unsatisfactory. He had worked at all the easily-picked-up jobs—longshoreman, porter, factory worker, farm hand, seaman. Seized by the old restlessness for a sea change while he was working in an industrial plant, he hit upon the unique plan of getting himself deported.

(Banjo, 11)

The sensation of restlessness in the face of a monotonous and mechanical industrial modernity is one of the most commonly identified affective states of modernist literature. Deportation is without doubt one of the rarer solutions. Unlike Stephen’s exile in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or the expatriation of so many modernist writers, deportation fully and openly implicates the state in the direction of a person’s life. Banjo, like his author McKay, understands the intimate association of international wandering with border policing and turns it to his advantage. Not having the financial means to wander, Banjo criminalizes himself, ascending to greatness as a vagabond by willfully descending into statelessness.

Pursuing a life “always incomplete but never unsatisfactory” clearly differentiates the restless vagabond from the proto-citizen-subject of the realist bildungsroman, for whom achieving one’s destiny is bound up in finding an appropriate resting place or niche within their community. More surprisingly, it also revises what Jed Esty has defined as the distended or frozen youth of the modernist bildungsroman. Whereas, for Esty, a modernist protagonist’s prolonged youth is a symptomatic condition of imperial modernity’s failed progress narrative, for McKay, youthfulness is a dispositional politics of survival in the face of perpetually adverse conditions.

Banjo is organized not around endless youth but around an internationalism of endless youthfulness. Vagabond conviviality consists of dancing, drinking, and debating—practices of energy expenditure rather than of conservation. As these open-ended practices accumulate, their “anecdotal dust” establishes the vagabond as both a product of state surveillance (p.122) and a subject position decidedly indifferent to the state’s disciplinary mechanisms. The novel’s plotless structure asserts the value of unconserved, unsynthesized time. It heeds those interactions and experiences that, in their ephemerality and triviality, test the norms of continuity, seriousness, and growth that align plot development with the birth of the bourgeois individual. In disrupting the temporality of maturation, Banjo adapts the novel form to those motley and heterogeneous others who persevere on the other side of citizenship. Far from a series of “random adventures,”27 it generates patterns of banding and disbanding that furnish the rhythm of illegality to what Du Bois called, in his more positive review of Banjo, McKay’s “international philosophy of the Negro.”28

McKay’s decision to embrace vagabondage as a portmanteau internationalist identity privileges a set of behaviors (vagabonding) as a response to the historical conditions of deracination and dispossession (bondage). The subject position, in refusing to be race-specific, brought black internationalism into conversation with the broader anticolonialism of the non-European world. Further, in refusing to be heroically oppositional, vagabondage provides insight into the ramshackle subcultures of capitalist modernity:

Commerce! Of all words the most magical. The timbre, color, form, the strength and grandeur of it. Triumphant over all human and natural obstacles, sublime yet forever going hand in hand with the bitch, Bawdy. In all relationships, between nations, between individuals, between little peoples and big peoples, progressive and primitive, the two lovers spread and flourish together as if one were the inevitable complement of the other.

(Banjo, 307)

The unbreakable compact between commerce and bawdiness, capitalism and vagabondage, is central to McKay’s international philosophy. The shameless “Bawdy,” unlike Du Bois’s dignified “Negro,” personifies a counterculture immorality that is structural rather than racial and residual rather than reabsorbed into capitalism’s ruthless cycles of accumulation. Like gadflies, bawds and vagabonds encapsulate the ambiguous agency of subcultural others. More irritating than threatening, their power lies not in revolutionizing or overturning Western civilization but in bearing accurate witness to it. By flourishing alongside modernity as its seamy (p.123) underside, McKay’s vagabonds remain unconsumed by it. They are its shadow class rather than its aspirants.

McKay ties his broad critique of capitalist modernity to legal regimes of imperial nation-states in which immorality is defined not by wasting time but by wasting space. Nomadic existences are both guaranteed and punished by state apparatuses that deny transient populations the right to claim nationality without documentation:

Colored seamen who had lived their lives in the great careless tradition, and had lost their papers in low-down places to touts, hold-up men, and passport fabricators, and were unable or too ignorant to show exact proof of their birthplace, were furnished with new “Nationality Doubtful” papers. West Africans, East Africans, South Africans, West Indians, Arabs, and Indians—they were all mixed up together. … They were agreed that the British authorities were using every device to get all the colored seamen out of Britain and keep them out, so that white men should have their jobs.

(Banjo, 312)

The passage clarifies the institutional racism informing Banjo’s preference for deportation. Europe’s immigration laws reclassify “colored seaman” as stateless men. With their nationalities stripped away, vagabondage becomes a form of what William J. Maxwell wryly calls “state-sponsored transnationalism,” in which enforced transience replaces national belonging as a site of shared culture.29 Vagabondage produces paracollectivities of amorphous nationalities and races whose documented illegibility McKay builds into the novel as grimoire form. Banjo renders itself a dubious document in the course of refashioning the novel’s syntax to speak in the idiom of the detained.

Diversionary Tactics

In treating vagabondage as an escape bred of constraint, McKay refrains from romanticizing a precarious internationalism while also stopping short of subordinating diverse existences to militant projects of political transformation. McKay’s embrace of vagabondage is often seen as continuous with his break from the organized politics of international socialism (p.124) in the early 1920s, but the substitution of vagabond for activist operates under the tacit assumption that his literary projects supplanted political ones. An anecdote from McKay’s correspondence corrects this misperception and establishes an important political motivation for advertising Banjo as a story without a plot.

While in Russia attending the fourth congress of the Communist International, McKay was drafting a collection of essays entitled Negroes in America, which criticized American radicals’ marginalization of race within the class struggle. His friend and patron Max Eastman responded that McKay’s qualms were both overblown and blind to the larger strategic picture of socialism. He asked if McKay were living in “the practical ‘scientific’ era of Lenin or the age of Thomas Paine.” McKay replied, “If you had in your whole body an ounce of the vitality that Paine had in his little finger, you with your wonderful opportunities, would not have missed the chances for great leadership in the class struggle that was yours in America.”30

McKay’s defense of Paine’s implied utopianism as “vitality” tells us something about the enervation and closed-mindedness he associated with the institutions of international socialism. What Eastman saw as a dispute only about race, McKay saw as exemplary of a larger dispute about outlook. Eastman subordinated diverse identities to one goal, whereas McKay argued that diverting attention to those marginalized by radical internationalism’s drive had the potential to change the political goals of that movement for the better. McKay was willing to divert the plot of Marxist politics in the name of addressing the heterogeneous concerns of those who comprised its constituency.31

As Leela Gandhi has argued, the divide between scientific and utopian socialism was often articulated through a rhetoric of maturity. When Eastman accused McKay of impracticality, he was following in the footsteps of a scientific socialism that rebranded the ideology as one of discipline and unity rather than of pleasure and promiscuity. Whereas Edward Carpenter once argued for “the wealth and variety of affectional possibilities” within socialism, influential leaders such as Henry Hyndman, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin dismissed such logic as chaotically trivial and eclectic.32 Their “scientific” approach replaced such juvenile and consequently chimeric utopianism with strategies of centralization and a consistent definition of the proletariat. Hyndman, leader of the Social Democrat Federation (Britain’s first socialist political party), observed (p.125) that socialism could no longer be a “depository of odd cranks: humanitarians, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, anti-vaccinationists, arty-crafties… sentimentalists. They confuse the story.”33 Hyndman’s phrasing reminds us that socialism is a story, and that disputes over that story’s protagonists and plot reflect disputes over the achievement of its ends. When McKay faced continued membership in a movement that coded race as trivial and multiple loyalties as immature, he chose to articulate an alternative socialist internationalism in a modernist idiom that courted confusion (a story without a plot) and enabled the profusion of vagabond protagonists who are nothing if not contradictory and changeable in their affections.

Banjo turns to vagabondage out of a principled refusal to delimit the discourse of the political by the extant categories of the utopian and scientific. Although it may be tempting to read the novel as immature or naive in its fondness for transitory communities, I (like Brent Edwards) understand the novel’s restlessness as immanent to the institutions of modernity—commerce, labor, immigration law—that would deform black existence in the process of regulating it. Edwards persuasively argues that “vagabond internationalism” illustrates the author’s suspicion of any clear-cut attempts to promote a consistent racial consciousness across the various divides of nationality, language, accent, or shades of color. He sees the novel as mounting, on the one hand, a “radical critique of black internationalism” and, on the other, a chimeric renovation of it in which the novel’s one model of collective possibility—the orchestra—becomes a paradoxically anti-institutional vision of the “dream to institutionalize black internationalism.” The dream of an orchestra remains a chimera because Banjo fails to assemble a group with any permanent members or profit potential, yet his “obliviousness to wage and profit seems to be not just absentmindedness but actually inherent in the aesthetic” of vagabond life. The peripatetic nature of vagabondage—its intrinsic impermanence—would seem to exclude characters like Banjo and his friends from any kind of recognizable political community, but their exclusion activates another model of community, in which casual musical collaborations or “jam sessions” reveal music as one of the ways in which “community is performed.”34

Edwards’s reading of Banjo derives the alternative collective potential of music from its spiritual dimensions—its ability to cut through the prevailing logic of territorialized community while also signifying a kind (p.126) of transcendental resting place beyond the strictures of institutionalized group membership. Building on this reading, it would seem that the presence of music in the novel is representative of more than just an escapist fantasy; its chimeras are tactical mediums of diversion. By playing music (and talking about playing music), McKay’s vagabonds are able to rethink the affects, dispositions, and persons associated with normative political belonging and action. They introduce elements of friendly dispute, confusion, and vagrancy into black internationalism’s somber conversations about class conflict, racial uplift, and positive imagery. As a result, they challenge respectability politics and scientific socialist discipline as the only indexes of political seriousness.

Banjo partners music and narrative in ways that show the discomfiting proximity between taking apart a stereotype and participating in its perpetuation. Broad allegory tempts us to read the central friendship of the novel, between the musically nicknamed Banjo (whose legal name is Lincoln Agrippa Daily) and the writer Ray (the same character as in Home to Harlem), as a display of opposites, lyric and narrative, attracting. Yet McKay uses Banjo’s ambition of forming an orchestra to complicate the friendship by setting up a chiastic relationship between his central characters. The usually free-spirited, “prepolitical” Banjo displays premeditation and focus: “Banjo dreamed constantly of forming an orchestra, and the boys listened incredulously when he talked about it. He had many ideas of beginning” (Banjo, 19). Meanwhile, the agonized, intellectual Ray displays spontaneity and distraction:

“But you’re interested in race—I mean race advancement aren’t you?” Goosey asked Ray.

“Sure, but right now there’s nothing in the world so interesting to me as Banjo and his orchestra.”


In the last lines of a chapter called “The Flute-Boy,” Ray avoids a conversation about race to pursue a conversation about music, building on Banjo’s earlier dismissal of Goosey’s suggestion that a black band needs a stereotype-defying flute to replace the stereotype-affirming banjo. Ray’s and Banjo’s politically disrespectable decisions become critical diversions for McKay, who, in suspending the exhausting (and exhausted) conversation about racial imagery and advancement, refreshes its logic by following (p.127) his protagonists’ lead. He brings focus to a practice all about diversion: partying.35

One of the best-known chapters from Banjo, “Jelly Roll,” couples some of McKay’s more primitivist and ethnographic writing with his depictions of revelry and carousing, giving rise to the commonplace notion that he is partaking in stereotypes of African peoples as wilder and more passionate than their restrained and consequently more civilized European counterparts. Yet the atmosphere of “wildin’ out” that he creates is deeply structured by narrative and syntactical diversions that entangle music and money, racial mixture and commercial mixture, into a sly commentary on the symmetries of civilization and savagery. When McKay ends “The Flute-Boy” with a diversion from race to music, he guides readers back to the beginning of “Jelly Roll,” which diverts us from jazz to money:

Shake That Thing. The opening of the Café African by a Senegalese had brought all the joy-lovers of the darkest color together to shake that thing. Never was there such a big black-throated guzzling of red wine, white wine, and close, indiscriminate jazzing of all the Negroes of Marseilles.

For the Negro-Negroid population of the town divides sharply into two groups. The Martiniquans and the Guadeloupans, regarding themselves as constituting the dark flower of all Marianne’s blacks, make a little aristocracy of themselves. The Madagascans with their cousins from the little dots of islands around their big island and the North African Negroes, whom the pure Arabs despise, fall somewhere between the Martiniquans and the Senegalese, who are the savages. Senegalese is the geographically inaccurate term generally used to designate all the Negroes from the different parts of French West Africa.

The magic thing had brought all shades and grades of Negroes together. Money.

(Banjo, 45)

The major diversion in this passage is executed through a bait-and-switch of jazz for money, made possible by the ambiguity of the phrase “the magic thing.” Yet there are minor diversions as well: the presence of a second paragraph, which slows the movement from jazz to money, and, within (p.128) that paragraph, a meeting up of inconsistent sensibilities. The declarative fixities of sociology (“For the Negro-Negroid population of the town divides sharply into two groups”) mix with the anecdotal editorializing of a neighborhood gossip (“make a little aristocracy of themselves” and “whom the pure Arabs despise”) to make the line between sincere and parodic ethnography quite blurry.

The paragraph’s jostling tones suggest that the party is underway in McKay’s narrative voice before the music officially starts. The purpose of their diversion is to infiltrate and make flexible the fixities and hierarchies of black society, not to abandon them, as “indiscriminate jazzing” would suggest. Jostling tones connect jousting currencies: sociology and anecdote; the jazzing that levels social distinctions and the money that creates them. Layering diversion upon diversion, Banjo makes music of narrative, and narrative of music. Its blending of mediums reveals primitivism to be an artifact of modernity and black “vitality” to be an expression of the felt mortality of a precarious existence in a commerce-driven world.

That mortality is pervasive in the chapter’s repeated, increasingly agitated refrain of “Shake That Thing.” As the vagabond party moves from the café to what seems to be a brothel, described as “a showy love shop,” Banjo and his makeshift band replay the song, a version of the hit “Jelly Roll Blues.” Its lyrics occasionally interrupt the narrative, initially complementing the action and then delving into its more painful motivations. They start cheerfully in the vein of sex (“Old Uncle Jack, the jelly-roll king/Just got back from shaking that thing!”) and wandering (“Dry land will nevah be my land,/Gimme a wet wide-open land for mine”), but then quickly darken, in a shift from adventurous virility to sickness and death (“Old Brother Mose is sick in bed/Doctor says he is almost dead”). The song’s story ends with a shift back to cheer, this time in a clear display of bravado (“dead/from shaking that thing”) (Banjo, 49–52).

Although first and foremost a euphemism for sex, it is worth pointing out the history of black objectification and forced labor is very much present in the imperative “Shake that thing!” The double meaning bundles the opposing tendencies toward freedom and manipulation that Sianne Ngai has identified with the racialized affect animation. Animation, closely associated with the stereotype of hyperexpressivity (a stereotype that McKay was thought to be reproducing), conjures complex notions of agency by fusing “signs of the body’s subjection to power with signs of its ostensive freedom.”36 The lyrics to “Shake That Thing” are a reminder (p.129) of the “thingification” of black bodies and the diversions—sex and migration—that rejuvenate them. The reclaiming of “thingness” in song reminds us of the circumscribed freedom of the vagabonds, whose hypermobility is conditioned by the history of black subjection and forced labor.

Banjo conveys the pressures of inter-national nomadism through various kinds of compressed syntactical and orthographical innovations, achieving the grimoire, or modernist idiom that Levinson called merely transcription and utterly illegible. Puns like “youse sure one eggsigirating spade” (Banjo, 55) play on the homophonic nearness of exaggerate and gyrate, as well as the double meaning of spade as a tool and as a derogatory signifier of blackness. The sentence spoken in response to speculations about violent crime in the Ditch conjures the double vision of salacious dancing and the coiled sensation of being under constant threat. A reduction of the song’s lyrics to “Back… thing… bed… black… dead… Oh, shake that thing… Jelly-r-o-o-o-o-oll!” (54) summons a nightmarish vision of objecthood’s return—“back… thing; black… dead”—and a plea for recreation as a form of re-creation in response. The braiding of black vitality with black mortality becomes even more explicit at the end of the chapter, when McKay allows the song lyrics to permeate the main narrative as a series of commands: “Shake down Death and forget his commerce, his purpose, his haunting presence in a great shaking orgy. Dance down the Death of these days, the Death of these ways in jungle jazzing, Orient wriggling, civilized stepping” (57). In these lines, frenzy clearly has a both an existential and a political purpose. Far from a return to savage instinct or regression away from modernity, it is a strategy immanent to the modern, a way of surviving “these days, these ways.”

What looks like primitivism in McKay can be read as a riposte to the logic of civilization—one shared by avant-garde philosophers such as George Bataille. Bataille’s interest in jazz in the interwar years arose out of his reading of it as an “excretion,” a sound for those elements that would not or could not be assimilated into metropolitan narratives of idealism or progress.37 Bataille assigned to black music the dissident work of decomposing civilization from within:

To the extent that blacks participate in revolutionary emancipation, the attainment of socialism will bring them the possibility of all (p.130) kinds of exchanges with white people, but in conditions radically different from those experienced by the civilized blacks of America. Now black communities, once liberated from all superstition as from all oppression, represent in relation to heterology [Bataille’s philosophical doctrine] not only the possibility but the necessity of an adequate organization. All organizations that have ecstasy and frenzy as their goal (the spectacular death of animals, partial tortures, orgiastic dances, etc.) will have no reason to disappear when a heterological conception of human life is substituted for the primitive conception; they can only transform themselves while they spread, under the violent impetus of a moral doctrine of white origin, taught to blacks by all those whites who have become aware of the abominable inhibitions governing their race’s communities. It is only starting from this collusion of European scientific theory with black practice that institutions can develop which will serve as the final outlets (with no other limitations than those of human strength) for the urges required today by worldwide society’s fiery and bloody Revolution.38

Bataille’s critique of capitalist civilization is undoubtedly couched in all sorts of troubling assumptions and essentialisms, beginning with the notion that “ecstasy and frenzy” are the “goals” of black “organization.” Yet he is worth hearing out for the ways in which he interiorizes and embodies external and structural oppressions. Note the odd use of the word inhibitions to characterize the exploitation and restriction of black communities worldwide, and the transposition of an ideological goal, “the attainment of socialism,” into the domain of “urge” fulfillment. The porousness between individual repression and collective oppression is clear within Bataille’s reasoning, and it is useful for mediating McKay’s own understanding of musical ecstasy as a form of interior experience and exterior organization that must be shared among the vagabonds of the Ditch before more politically legible kinds of internationalism can be imagined.

What makes Bataille and McKay so interesting together is their shared conviction that “ecstasy and frenzy” constitute affective states that are also forms of communication among strangers. For Bataille, the communication that takes place in a state of ecstasy is paradoxically one of shared anguish in which the rational-critical self is shattered by the suffering of (p.131) another. As Amy Hollywood argues, in Bataille’s controversial meditation on a photograph of a Chinese man being tortured, the philosopher seeks communion with the object of his gaze so that he might obliterate the subject–object relationship altogether in a state of ecstasy that he calls “inner experience.”39 In this case, Bataille’s inner experience comes with certain costs that should not be dismissed lightly: the erasure of the Chinese man’s historical difference and the annexation of his suffering for Bataille’s own ends. In seeking a communication that veers dangerously toward a perceived communion, Bataille’s ecstasy obliterates strangeness.

For McKay, ecstasy temporarily levels hierarchies, but it does not absorb intraracial and international differences. It arises from their friction. Even as McKay uses ecstasy to confront ongoing historical anguish with a “great shaking orgy,” he does not pretend that such a confrontation will breed the strong bonds of a black cultural nationalism. Rather, ecstasy complicates black nationalist or Pan-African desires for a unifying origin story, because it generates not just a loss of individual consciousness but also a collective self-shattering of racial consciousness. Such uplifting and politically progressive phrases as “the race” and “race man” give way to the syntactic shattering of “Back… thing… bed… black… dead.” The subjectless anguish of ecstasy communicates the horrors of black mortality across “all shades and grades” of international difference.

The ecstasy of internationalism for McKay, then, lies in the proliferation and sustenance of insubordinate difference, even in proximity to that most universal condition: death. His impulse not to eradicate difference but to extend it invites a solidarity that goes beyond racial unity. “Jungle jazzing, Orient wriggling, [and] civilized stepping” all become ways of maneuvering within modernity’s confinements and, on an existential level, confronting finitude itself: “Sweet dancing thing of primitive joy, perverse pleasure, prostitute ways, many-colored variations of the rhythm, savage, barbaric, refined—eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent—the dance divine of life” (Banjo, 57–58).

In the closing lines of the chapter “Jelly Roll,” the collective aggregation and self-shattering of ecstasy gives way to the birth of a new kind of language in the novel, rooted in the reorganization of parallel structures. The perfect parallelism of racialized dances (“jungle jazzing, Orient wriggling, civilized stepping”) leads into the blurred and irregular division of (p.132) particularized and universal abstractions. “Sweet dancing thing of primitive joy, perverse pleasure, prostitute ways” bleeds into “many-colored variations of the rhythm, savage, barbaric, refined” and “eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent.” The shift from the ethnographic classifications of dance to the antimimetic culmination of “the dance divine of life” invites the reader into the experience of ecstasy as a kind of rebirth through which it becomes easier to see the interpenetration of word, movement, and world. Fixed classifications like “jungle jazzing” are neither innate nor mapped onto a preexisting material world. They are fictions, which are also variations on civilization’s rhythm of development. McKay searches for an alternative rhythm in ecstasy by replacing the mystery of God or an imagined other with the mystery of survival, “the dance divine of life.”

Beyond the experience of ecstasy in music and dance, the lasting record of an alternative rhythm within black internationalism is the grimoire form of Banjo itself. McKay writes without an ideal community, a utopia, on the horizon—no nation, no Pan-African continent, no territorialized place can contain the African diaspora or the even more differentiated collectivity of “colored seamen” that populate a commerce-driven world. Even ideational categories such as “blackness” or “colored,” which would try to establish the foundational unities for such being, become undesirable as the novel veers further away from recognizable modes of political organization. In the absence of knowing or believing in an object of desire, the novel runs on without a plot. It also runs away from domestication of any kind.

The final conversation of the novel, between Banjo and Ray, makes the evasion of heteronormative maturity and the pursuit of fugitivity explicit: “Don’t get soft ovah any one wimmens, pardner. Tha’s you’ big weakness. A woman is a conjunction. … Come on pardner. Wese got enough between us to beat it a long ways from here” (Banjo, 326). A partnership built on subjunctive possibility and sustained by desire without rest is, McKay suggests, both a chimeric alternative to the territorialization of modernity’s shadow classes and a description of their actually existing internationalism. The unlikely partnership affords unique purchase on the monstrosities of modernity and on the nomadic strategies of sociability used to survive them. McKay’s grimoire is no doubt a gendered grammar, in which women are not merely excluded but definitive of the entire system of values that Ray and Banjo wish to escape. Nonetheless, the (p.133) partnership born within the novel might also be extended to the reader. The final line’s direct address asks the reader to “Come on pardner,” makes explicit an invitation that has been present all along. It is the perfect textual stopping point for a vagabond novel that promises to continue onward without end.

Banjo is a story without a plot because it teaches us to understand desire differently. No longer the expression of a rational-critical subject motivated by the pursuit of an object (the kind of desire that shapes the bourgeois individual), the desire of the vagabond subject is without limit and without achievement. Something is missing, to invoke the dialogue that Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno staged on the concept of utopia, but it is precisely the missing part—the amputation of plot—that produces hope.40 The ending of Banjo delays Ray’s dream in Home to Harlem of “achieving form,” via its open-ended invitation to the reader and its refusal of the consummations implied by the double meaning of conjunction (first, as a stabilizing form of connection, and second, more obscurely, as a state of union in marriage). Discounting both the household and the territorialized homeland as sites of black incorporation and liberation, McKay replaces the equilibrium of a marriage plot with the unspoken possibilities of transnational male friendship.41

McKay’s conviction that one might articulate a bond while remaining in motion is a key insight for building deracination and circulation into the citizen’s philosophical character. Rather than preserve the citizenship norm that every person must be born into and thus have a single country, Banjo uses the inter-national character of the vagabond to bring the lives of others to bear on what Seyla Benhabib, in her study of the modern institutions that produce certain categories of people only to make them into outcasts, calls “the rights of others.”42 “Others,” in its deliberate amorphousness, refers to aliens, refugees, and deportees who, in having no country and residing across many, are written into illegibility by border-policing regimes. Banjo converts that enforced illegibility into a principle of internationalist expression. It shows that narratives of good citizenship rely on notions of individual responsibility that can be destructive in their self-righteousness and tone-deafness to the needs of pariah populations. By articulating a rhythm, order, and idiom for paranational life, Banjo holds out the possibility that vagabond culture might challenge the plot of citizenship to encompass habitation without roots.

(p.134) Plotless Suspense—Waiting in The Emigrants

Banjo introduces the reader to the dark conditions of global illegality, and, through them, articulates a denationalized ethos necessary for conceiving solidarity in more deterritorialized terms. George Lamming’s The Emigrants continues McKay’s project of finding a narrative form for the perpetual deracination of black subjects, and it takes us a step closer to incorporating the restlessness of the vagabond into a renovated philosophy of the citizen. Lamming’s emigrant occupies an intermediary subject position between the vagabond and the citizen—one that does not altogether reject the liberal development plot but instead radically distends and disorients it to produce a thoroughgoing criticism of the bourgeois individual as model citizen. His protagonists, who literally are West Indian migrants on their way to England, figuratively represent colonial subjects’ paralysis within the waiting room of history. Lamming uses the space of the novel to dramatize their confrontation with time, and, like McKay, he uses the fundamentally unstable dwellings of black transient life as generative grounds for thinking beyond colonialism’s authorized categories of being and behavior.

McKay, writing in 1928, did not yet foresee the possibility of Caribbean decolonization, but Lamming saw the realization of an independent West Indies Federation as a concrete way of bringing the negative history of black deracination back into the positive production of West Indian citizens. Whereas McKay’s experimentations in plot negation accompany a rejection of sedentary, nationalized belonging, Lamming’s dismantling of plot reflects an attempt to make readers more comfortable with discontinuous and uprooted forms of connection. Adapting to such connections enabled Lamming to reclaim the traumatic history of the African diaspora as the basis for a regional sense of belonging that was crucial to the exceptional geographic space of the Caribbean.

Lamming knew that the greatest challenge a future West Indian nation would face was its members’ refusal to put the federated islands’ needs above the interests of any one particular island. He saw literature, particularly the novel, as a unique space in which to transform the anxieties of the waiting room of history into opportunities for imagining a new kind of nation populated by an unprecedented kind of citizenry. Composed not of international individuals (recall Balibar’s argument about individualism) (p.135) but of a transnational people, Lamming’s ideal citizenry would refuse to take territorial rootedness as the most natural criterion for communal belonging.

The challenge of reconciling deracination with populism is not easily overcome, especially because Lamming, like McKay, strove to circumvent the individualism of the liberal cosmopolitan tradition. Yet he found a way, by restructuring the novel around collective protagonists: the village in his first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, and the emigrants in The Emigrants. In his 1983 introduction to Castle, Lamming wrote that collectivism was what made Caribbean writing distinct:

The book is crowded with names and people, and although each character is accorded a most vivid presence and force of personality, we are rarely concerned with the prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness. It is the collective human substance of the Village itself which commands our attention. The Village, you might say, is the central character…

Where community, and not person, is the central character, things are never so tidy as critics would like. There is often no discernible plot, no coherent line of events with a clear, causal connection. Nor is there a central individual consciousness where we focus attention, and through which we can be guided reliably by a logical succession of events.43

Lamming’s retrospective theorization of the techniques in Castle speaks just as well, if not better, to The Emigrants, which lacks a central character to rival G and represents a stronger incarnation of the ambition articulated above. Lamming’s narrative collectivism sought to alter the novel form dramatically by subordinating the maturation of any individual character to the life cycle of the group. The result is a story without a plot and without legible centers of consciousness, but it is also a new kind of novel, which judges the contours of life differently from the European novel. Rather than capturing life through a series of developmental stages or through the pattern of impressions on the mind, Lamming makes the novel live (to paraphrase the present chapter’s second epigraph) by dispersing its faculties of attention and timekeeping to account for a community’s emergence in the absence of an omniscient narrator or overseer. The result is a paratactic and disjunctive narrative form that, in withholding (p.136) the unities of time and space, subjects even the most localized examples of community, whether the Village or the emigrant ship, to radical disruption.

Lamming’s commitment to delocalizing Caribbean aesthetics allows him to inscribe into group identity alienation—a negative attribute, by most standards of collective consciousness, but an important one for releasing the West Indian novelist from what he calls “peasant” writing:

Writers like [Sam] Selvon and Vic Reid—key novelists for understanding the literacy and social situation in the West Indies—are essentially peasant. I don’t care what jobs they did before; what kind or grade of education they got in their different islands; they never really left the land that once claimed their ancestors like trees. That’s a great difference between the West Indian novelist and his contemporary in England. For peasants simply don’t respond and see like middle-class people. The peasant tongue has its own rhythms which are Selvon’s and Reid’s rhythms; and no artifice of technique, no sophisticated gimmicks leading to the mutilation of form, can achieve the specific taste and sound of Selvon’s prose.44

One may disagree with Lamming’s assessment of Selvon and Reid, but what is important to note is how his definition of “peasant” shapes his antipathy to it. For Lamming, being a peasant is not simply a condition of birth; it is marked by imperviousness to rupture. Such imperviousness may insulate West Indian writing from the pain of migration, but in failing to allow migration to alter the novel’s structures of feeling, it misses an opportunity to challenge island provincialism. The “peasant tongue” is defined by emotional sedentariness (“they never really left the land”) and organic similes (“claimed their ancestors like trees”). Its feeling of rootedness, which may indeed be a misapprehension, is nonetheless what Lamming’s own version of populist consciousness sets out to deracinate.

Despite the hint of negativity toward formal experimentation here (“no artifice of technique, no sophisticated gimmicks”), Lamming pursues his own version of grimoire aesthetics through “the mutilation of form” in The Emigrants. Mutilation serves as a way of asserting national consciousness in the face of island provincialism. In order to imagine a West Indianness that could compete with the micronational loyalties of a Jamaican, a Barbadian, an Antiguan, etc., Lamming had to think transnationally (p.137) about nationhood. Like the European Union today, the West Indies Federation demanded an alignment of multiple loyalties. Even more challenging, however, was the fractured geography of the Caribbean archipelago. The island’s geographic boundaries presented physical enclosures that could easily give way to affective enclosures. “Mutilation,” with its etymological origins in the cutting or breaking off of a body part, proved a rich metaphor for retrieving a history of the Caribbean that island localism had repressed.

The Emigrants formalizes mutilation by replacing the cause-and-effect sequencing of plot, in which a “pleasant voyage” leads to a “safe arrival,” with narrative dead zones or black holes that signal the danger of the emigrants’ journey in terms of voided understanding transplanting a desired illumination.45 The novel’s tripartite structure grafts together three sections. Section I, “The Voyage,” chronicles the emigrants’ journey from the Caribbean archipelago to the shores of England. This portion of the novel is almost the same length as section II (“Rooms and Residents”) and section III (“Another Time”) combined. The latter sections trace the alienation of the emigrants in London and the ultimate breakdown of their relationships and senses of self. Between each section, an unspecified amount of time passes and the narrative changes centers of consciousness, from an unidentifiable “I” narrator to a third-person external narrator and back again. These blatantly textual effects effectively translate the emigrants’ disorientation to the reader, who is invited to experience the resonance of voyage and void, the passage of time and paralysis, that is essential to the temporality of migration. They also disrupt the illusion of psychic wholeness that the pronoun I has come to represent through the tradition of the novel.

Unabashedly critical of the liberal fiction of an autonomous, coherent self, the novel dispenses with its first-person narrator as the first condition of narrating the deracinated “we” of West Indian identity. The “I,” who is invested with no backstory or biographical markers, is a placeholder for individuality rather than a psychologically fleshed-out person. Upon observing a Good Friday Mass, “I” martyrs himself in a speech act that sets up a guiding tension in the novel between abstract personhood and embodied being: “I understood the mourning of this day’s death, but the resurrection which was not a pure assertion of spirit but an equal ascension of blood and bones had given the body a new meaning. … Father Into Thy Hands I Commend My Spirit” (Emigrants, 24; emphasis his).

(p.138) Lamming’s dissolution of “I” alongside the ceremony of the Good Friday Mass suggests that he wants to rewrite the abstractions of subjectivity through the concreteness of the body. The narrator suggests that the Crucifixion is a ritual whose value lies in restoring corporeality to spirituality (“an equal ascension of blood and bones”; “hands” cupping “spirit”). Lamming uses religion to blur the spirit–body distinction. Christian ritual contests liberal rationalism and draws attention to the body as the expelled remainder of abstract individuality.

Wilson Harris, another Caribbean modernist, helps to explain the poetics implicit within Lamming’s crucified “I” when he reminds us of the material body animating any spiritual metaphor of black existence. Where Lamming featured a Christian ritual, Harris calls forth specifically African rituals that put Lamming’s mutilations into the wider context of black Atlantic history: “Limbo and vodun are variables of an underworld imagination—variables of phantom limb and void and a nucleus of strategems in which limb is a legitimate pun on limbo, void on vodun” (emphasis his).46 The slightly imperfect homophonic pun of void and vodun and homographic pun of limb and limbo become “legitimate” because each shares a common genealogy or, to continue in the vein of Harris’s punning, a common route/root. The Middle Passage serves as the ancestral zone in which the slave’s bodily dismemberment (“the phantom limb”) and heritage loss (“void”) yield cultural reassembly in forms of bodily innovation (limbo) and translated ritual (vodun).

Harris’s theory of puns asserts the materiality of language as crucial to expressing the corporeal, physical traumas often judged more “real” or “worldly” than literary experimentation. It also invites, as Nathaniel Mackey argues, a renewed appraisal of diasporic deracination. Rather than attempting to regain African origins lost in the Middle Passage, Harris looks on the black Atlantic past as an “opportune disinheritance” in which the “insularity of various African peoples brought to the New World—the Ibo, Arada, Nago, Congo, and so on—was broken or dislocated.”47 Harris asks us to see the potential for beauty and cultural synthesis in his images of bodily and tribal dismemberment. Lamming takes this deracinated outlook as the bedrock of a West Indian archipelagic national consciousness and uses the transatlantic voyage to awaken the “underworld imagination” of the Middle Passage. The separate islanders’ convergence around their shared history of unknown ancestry makes abjection a central part of overcoming provincialism:

(p.139) Jamaican: … This West Indies talk is w’at a class o’ doctor call symptomatic. It hold more than the eye can see one time, that’s why me take to lookin’ into hist’ry. An hist’ry tell me that dese same West Indian people is a sort of vomit you vomit up. Was a long time back England an’ France an’ Spain an’ all the great nations make a raid on whoever live in them islands… all o’ them, them vomit up what them din’t want, an’ the vomit settle there in the Caribbean Sea. It mix up with the vomit they make Africa vomit, an’ the vomit them make India vomit, an’ China an’ nearly every race under the sun. An’ just as vomit never get back in yuh stomach, these people, most o’ them, never get back where them vomit from.

(Emigrants, 66)

This passage reflects another jarring shift in Lamming’s style, from narrative form to dramatic dialogue, in which he uses the typographic conventions of a script and Caribbean vernacular to approximate immediacy in the discussions aboard the ship. The particularity of West Indian English reveals the bodily marking of language in accent and syntax, just as the language of the body begins permeating the consciousness of individual islanders. They derive a fraught unity from identifying with the body’s ejections. Characters hailing from disparate islands (and labeled simply as “Jamaican,” “Grenadian,” etc.) experience a rebirth as “West Indian” by collectively confronting their ancestral disinheritance and making sense of it in their own voices.

Prior to these discussions, the novel’s narrator had described the Caribbean as a region variegated by linguistic differences and surviving under a casual ethos of “mutual misunderstanding” (Emigrants, 4). It is not until its protagonists move into the open water of the Atlantic that dialogue begins and vomit emerges as a guiding metaphor for the history that might invest such misunderstandings with the pull of affection rather than suspicion. A deliberately humiliating and formless image, vomit marks a turn away from the “peasant” rhetoric of groundedness that the Jamaican had earlier used to declare himself a “pure son o’ de soil” (35). Instead, it turns toward the possibility of a regional collectivity organized by a newfound understanding of the limitations of certain kinds of local perception: the West Indies “hold more than the eye can see one time.” Nationalism qua regionalism redirects perception from the (p.140) knowable community of a single island to the partially unknowable community of the archipelago.

Lamming’s fascination with the abject and ejected as a renovated basis for regional feeling in The Emigrants deviates from the call to arms usually associated with anticolonial nationalism. The novel’s visceral metaphors introduce negativity, shame, and finally unrequited love into its expressions of imperial dissent. Yet these putatively weak positions also make room for new insights to emerge. In the wake of the group’s cold reception in the motherland, Tornado, another of the emigrants, observes:

“Seems to me,” he said, “the people here see these things from their side. They know that England got colonies an’ all that, an’ they hear about the people in these far away places as though it wus all a story in a book, but they never seem to understan’ that these people in these places got an affection for them that is greater than that of any allies in war-time. De sort o’ feeling which we as children an’ those o’ us who never see the light, that feelin’ we got is greater than any feelin’ France could have for the English or the English for France. The name o’ English rouse a remembrance in us that it couldn’t have for any war-time ally.”

(Emigrants, 192)

Important arguments about Lamming’s anticolonialism have identified Jean-Paul Sartre as its major influence.48 These arguments tend to emphasize the misrecognitions and perpetual estrangement that shape encounters between black and white characters in the latter half of the novel. Yet a Sartrean vocabulary that presents relationships between the colonizer and the colonized as a form of existential antagonism misses the complex affective history of the emigrants’ identification with “the name o’ English.” As the passage unfolds, Lamming uses Tornado’s vernacular to draw subtle distinctions between the discrete political communities of England and France and the imperial affective community of Englishness that rouses the emigrants’ remembrance. Tornado’s words show that emigrants do not aspire to be English; they thought they already were. Colonial subjects’ unrequited affection, Lamming suggests, distorts the development plots that characterize conventional immigrant fiction as well as the distinct borderlines of nation-state geography.

(p.141) Lauren Berlant has argued that national citizenship cultivates a “politicized intimacy,” which turns borders into sites of deep emotional conflict between those inside them and those outside them.49 When the Caribbean migrants lay claim to England under the legal category of Commonwealth citizen, only to experience a border-crossing shot through with the retraction of Englishness into a national identity, they experience the full sensation of what it means to be nationless. In choosing to title his novel The Emigrants, as opposed to The Immigrants, Lamming figuratively suggests that his collective protagonists never arrive at their destination. Regardless of each emigrant’s individual status, they exist as a group in a state of perpetual displacement brought on by the affective and legal disjunctions of a geopolitical regime best understood not simply as empire but as what Gary Wilder calls the “disjointed political form” of the imperial nation-state.50 This designation reminds us of the double standard instantiated by England’s nation-state borders and the putative borderlessness of Englishness. Whereas the emigrants see continuity and intimacy between colonial subjecthood and English national belonging, natives of England, “people here,” see only strangers who should stay in the shadowy realms of elsewhere.

The emigrants’ doubly deracinated status—as the residue of the Atlantic slave trade and as the illegitimate heirs of the British Empire—inaugurates West Indian nationalism in a moment of uncanny repetition between the slave ship and the emigrant ship, between blacks as commodities within liberalism’s market economy and blacks as inter-national subjects attempting to cross over into full English citizenship, but finding themselves denied entry. The detainment of Lamming’s emigrants recalls the dubious nationality of McKay’s vagabonds, whose engagement with the corporeal and the visceral also arose from an encounter with the unfulfilled promises of imperial modernity.

Both novelists’ strategic layering of their protagonists’ nomadic presents upon their race’s traumatic past evokes Houston Baker Jr.’s notion of critical memory, which he describes as a key faculty for black modernism. Baker injects critical memory with a nostalgia for ideas rather than places, thus extending Harris’s and Mackey’s recuperation of deracination. Specifically, Baker suggests that fruitful nostalgia lies not in the idealization of Africa as a lost home but in the promise of the Enlightenment vision of the public sphere as a “beautiful idea.” Baker contends that the public sphere represents “a historically imagined ‘better time’ of reason.” Although black (p.142) peoples can never endorse the historical implementation of this idea, they too desire a share in the idea of citizenship it represents. Fully recognizing the ironies of such nostalgia, Baker suggests that a public sphere “expressively conceived as black” must be a “strangely distorting chiasmus: a separate and inverted opposite of white rationality in action.”51

We see this chiasmus most powerfully in Lamming’s portrayal of the Caribbean folk art of calypso aboard the emigrant ship. Lamming incorporates the calypso into The Emigrants to contest liberalism’s conception of personhood and its contributions to the creation of black objecthood. Echoing McKay’s strategy of portraying dance as an ecstatic mode of collectively confronting the proximity of blackness to “thingness,” Lamming uses this folk form to explore those states of ecstasy and absorption deemed without critical faculty (irrational) by “white rationality.” Rather than romanticize such states’ otherness to reason, however, Lamming describes them through an inverted language of liberalism in which he transposes characteristics of the autonomous mind onto the ecstatic body:

The calypso was only the occasion, the signal, perhaps merely the excuse for dancing; but the body was the dance itself. There was neither communication nor interpretation, the deliberate control of balance that makes for movement intended to attract the other’s attention, call forth the other’s sympathy and be measured by a sane and deliberate judgment. The other had been annihilated. There was only the body which was the dance itself, regulated, informed, nourished and dictated not only by its blood, but by some pervasive, measureless source of being that was its own logic of receptivity and transmission, a world that could be defined only through the presence of others, yet remained in its definition absolute, free, itself. The body was part of the source of its being and at the same time its being. It was within and outside itself simultaneously.

(Emigrants, 94)

Lamming describes the dancing body as “ecstatically alone” (93). This condition returns black bodies to themselves but deviates from the logic of possessive individualism that defines the subject in liberal political theory. In this passage, the mind does not realize its being through governing the body; rather, the body appropriates to itself the capacities of (p.143) consciousness. As both “the source of its being” and “being” itself, the body usurps the mind’s function in an inversion of liberal rationality that provides a brief respite from the mental anguish of colonial double consciousness. Through the body’s codes, Lamming also invokes and circumvents public-sphere activities most susceptible to contamination and misrecognition: communication, interpretation, sympathy, and judgment. Alone and “free, itself” in “the presence of others,” the dancing body achieves an authenticity that is felt as the closing of a void; the body is “within and outside itself simultaneously.”

The calypso is Lamming’s “occasion” for turning the language of disembodied reason against itself. His description prefigures Baker’s claim that theories of black being and belonging cannot derive from a straightforward resuscitation of liberal principles. It also constitutes a disidentification with “the name o’ English” by providing a glimpse into an alternative logic of autonomy derived from an African diasporic cultural reservoir. Lamming’s use of occasion activates its two definitions: first as an ephemeral event, and second as a reason or cause. The latter definition is important because it suggests that the calypso is more than a brief, transcendental respite from a bleak journey; it causes—that is, it makes possible—a new meditation on black identity and self-restoration.

Accordingly, as with McKay’s use of jazz in Banjo, musicality in The Emigrants cannot be cordoned off from the narrative project of immanently confronting imperial modernity and shattering its upward-mobility plot. The Emigrants formalizes the experience of failed immigration (and failed citizenship claims) as a narrative filled with plotless suspension rather than carried forward by individual motivations or a clear line of causality. A microcosm of the novel’s principled disassembling of causal order comes in the form of Azi’s letter, a fragmented narrative within a fragmented narrative that, like the calypso, reflects a withdrawal from English authority.

Azi is an African student at Cambridge who befriends some of the Caribbean emigrants in London and serves as an intellectual conduit for their alienated condition. His letter, addressed to a white Englishman and intended as a resignation from Cambridge, argues for the “insignificance of events” in compelling social or psychological change: “The same errors are committed, the same consequences crush us. But nothing really happens. … If we need things to occur before we can change, it seems that what happens is wasted on us, or nothing ever really happens (p.144) (Emigrants, 213). Stuckness, or stasis, for Azi, is an artifact of a certain relationship to history, whose event-based organization of time dooms individuals to reactiveness rather than anticipation, to following history’s plots rather than questioning its premises. The letter’s comments reflect on the novel’s own privileging of anticipation over action, and its form, a series of disconnected passages without an identifiable beginning or end, suggests that suspending the ordering impulses of storytelling is key to changing the stories that England has told herself and those “who are called her subjects” (106). It is impossible to know, as the novel’s inscrutable narrative voice tells us, whether the fragmentation of Azi’s letter is the result of excerption or an attribute of its written form. Such opacity makes wholeness indecipherable from brokenness, the mutilation of form inseparable from form’s reconstruction as something new.

Lamming quotes Azi’s letter in “The Negro Writer and His World,” an address he gave at the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, held in Paris in 1956.52 Lamming began his speech by changing his topic. He had been invited to speak on “the Negro novel in English”; instead, he spoke about what it means to be a “Negro writer.” He uses the letter to privilege epistemological dilemmas above the sociological problems that he argued black writers were expected to address with both directness and transparency. Lamming argued for a novel of ideas that would not allow legible protest to evade the conflicts over storytelling and subject formation that Azi’s illegible letter foregrounds. Arguably even more grimoire than Banjo, The Emigrants is a narrative marked by arrhythmias and opacities that disrupt the habitual patterns of action and aspiration that both McKay and Lamming attributed to conventional plots and their reactive modes of protest. If there is a glimmer of hope in Lamming’s bleak novel, it comes with the work’s turn away from event-based history and toward a confrontation with time itself.

In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin outlines modern social types via their relationship to time: “Rather than pass the time, one must invite it in. To pass the time (to kill time, expel it): the gambler. Time spills from his every pore.—To store time as a battery stores energy: the flâneur. Finally, the third type: he who waits. He takes in time and renders it up in altered form—that of expectation.”53 Benjamin’s unnamed type is embodied by Lamming’s emigrants, whose perpetual displacement creates a condition of endless expectation: “We were all waiting for something to happen,” the narrator announces at the start of the novel (Emigrants, 5). (p.145) On the third day of sailing, the wait continues and grows more elaborate: “The passengers, grouped or scattered here and there, were like men standing aimlessly at crossroads waiting for something to happen, hoping however that nothing would happen except the usual things: a pleasant voyage, a safe arrival” (25). Even the final page of the novel carries expectation with it: “Something was bound to happen” (282). The endless deferral of an event, resurgent in the novel’s ending, signals to the reader the heaviness of a time that does not pass but only seems to grow more static as the narrative comes to a close.

Lamming’s exploration of unquenchable anticipation would, at first, seem to expose waiting’s inherent anxiety and absurdity. Simon Gikandi seminally characterizes Caribbean modernism as “writing in limbo.”54 The perpetual displacement of the emigrants fits that paradigm and then takes it a step further. Lamming is writing limbo into narrative by allowing time to accumulate in the accretion of calls for an event that never arrives, until one realizes that the event is expectation itself: time rendered up in its altered form. This is why Lamming articulates the emigrant experience as a “journey to an expectation.”55

The richly enigmatic phrase captures more than the disjunction between the ideal and real England. In the antidevelopmental plot of the novel, collective expectation supplants individual maturation as a condition of civic preparedness. The emigrants do not need to become self-governing individuals to qualify for the living freedom of West Indian national belonging. Rather, they make the West Indies imaginable by becoming conscious of a new relationship to time: expectation of an expectation. Such an experience of time unforeclosed by action, event, or object, of course, fosters the negative emotions of anxiety and dread, but these emotions also bear a more genuine relationship to the future than what Bloch calls “filled emotions.”

For Bloch, filled emotions, such as jealousy or greed, have clear objects of desire, the future achievement of which is imagined from the vantage point of an unchanging present. In other words, the achievement of a future goal does not account for the fact that the future is irreducible to the variables that structure desire in the present. Filled emotions block this insight by substituting “an unreal future, i.e. one in which nothing objectively new happens.” This is the future to which Azi objects in his letter when he says “The same errors are committed, the same consequences crush us. But nothing really happens.” What Bloch calls “expectant (p.146) emotions,” like anxiety and hope, do not suffer from the misperception of time’s passage and thus “imply a real future; in fact that of the Not-Yet, of what has objectively not yet been there.”56

I take this to mean that seemingly objectless emotions—emotions such as anxiety, which are generalized and diffuse and consequently not very amenable to plot, understood as intention and design—can motivate unforeseen ways of being and organizing the future. Plot’s distension is important because it creates the formal conditions under which the reader, like the emigrants, can experience unbounded expectancy as, paradoxically, an unexpected kind of communal feeling. Together with Lamming’s protagonists, we wait for something to happen. That something, the birth of national consciousness, happens at an unexpected moment—halfway through the novel, rather than as its culmination. Jumping the gun of plot time, the emigrants redraw the affective boundaries of their island communities and find the unintended object of their wait—the West Indies—within the temporal lag of their journey.

Waiting, understood as the expectation of expectation in the ship and as an unrelenting confrontation with time beyond it, is the condition under which Lamming’s protagonists discover how to think and feel West Indian. This noncathartic state has gone unexamined in postcolonial theory because of its proximity to the imperial rhetoric of colonial immaturity and unpreparedness for self-rule, metaphorized as the waiting room of history. Yet, in offering a thoroughgoing contestation of liberal individualism’s developmental plot, Lamming’s experiments with narrative temporality in The Emigrants bypass the road to sovereignty outlined by Enlightenment principles. Its plotless aesthetics forges a self-authorizing path coincident with the experiences of those collectives denied entry into England’s national culture. Waiting brings the emigrants a vernacular awareness of the contradictions of the imperial nation-state and enables them to encounter deracination as the engine of, rather than the enemy of, West Indian belonging.

Civitas Vaga and le Nouveau Roman Nègre

To conceive of what Levinson called “les nouveaux romans nègres” as an aesthetic category rather than a sociological curiosity is to understand how the purposeful negation of plot enables nomadic collectivism’s survival (p.147) and representation in the realm of language. By altering the body of the novel, McKay and Lamming ground collectivity not on the logic of bourgeois individualism or territorial nationalism but on an aestheticized populism that reframes that bedrock phrase of democracy, “We, the people,” for supranational communities: the African diaspora for McKay and the West Indies Federation for Lamming. As Balibar writes, civitas vaga, or a “citizenship of the roads,” is not a citizenship of the world but a “citizenship in the world.”57

Balibar’s definition of the world is compositionist as opposed to metaphysical. It encompasses the “complex system of spaces and movements that form the reality of what we call ‘the world.’” Civitas vaga, in turn, strives to meet that available reality by proposing new sets of rights and practices in keeping with it. In a globalized world that is, more than ever, conditioned by the movement of people, Balibar endorses the right to circulate freely among countries as a fundamental human right, but one that has little hope of being enforceable because of the deep-seated territorialism lodged within European conceptions of the nation and the people. Returning to the late colonial era, and to novels of nomadic blackness that turned modernism toward new ends, helps us to identify social and narrative practices that denaturalize at least two couplings related to this philosophical problem: communal bonds with sedentariness, and bourgeois morality with good citizenship.

In McKay’s case, vagabondage served as a conceit for rethinking the narrative of maturity or readiness that informed imperial enterprises in Europe, scientific socialism, and racial uplift projects in the United States. In adding dereliction to the dispositions of political critique, he had no particular future political community on the horizon, but he did, like Balibar, have actually existing political regimes as his target. By releasing the vagabond into the border-policing regimes of European nations, he reveals the disciplinary mechanisms at work in rendering entire groups not only dubious but grimoire: utterly illegible from the vantage point of the state. By turning that illegibility into a principle of narrative organization, a story without a plot, he trades individual assimilation for a structural transformation perhaps never to come.

For Lamming, an aestheticized populism was vital to articulating a more positive form of belonging beyond Europe, a Caribbean regionalism that would lay the affective ground for a West Indian nation. Emigration as historical activity and novel temporality allowed him to imagine the (p.148) future West Indian citizenry as a people deracinated to the root. His creation of the emigrants alters the philosophical character of the citizen by making deracination the basis of their collective bond rather than the motivation for any one member’s emergent individualism.

McKay and Lamming, though members of different generations, shared a desire to write about common people in an uncommon way. Their stories without plots give definition to liberalism’s occlusions by rendering narrative time and space up in the altered form of les nouveaux romans nègres. These novels adapt modernist internationalism to those peoples, spaces, and movements that the world, as the sum of its various political structures, habitually excludes but is under ever-increasing pressure to accommodate.


(2.) European Parliament, “Resolution on Discrimination Against the Roma,” September 25, 1995, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:51995IP0974:EN:HTML.

(3.) Étienne Balibar, “Toward a Diasporic Citizen? From Internationalism to Cosmopolitics,” in The Creolization of Theory, ed. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-Mei Shih (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 207.

(p.249) (4.) Joseph Slaughter, Human Rights Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 106.

(5.) Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 28, 35.

(6.) See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 7; and Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject (London: Routledge, 1994), 12.

(7.) Brent Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 13–14.

(8.) A recent special issue of Modernism/Modernity entitled “The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies” encourages and exemplifies such bridging work by undertaking the project of rethinking the institutionally separated but historically related categories of modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Adam McKible and Suzanne W. Churchill, the editors of the issue, seek to redress the “critical practices that occlude and obscure the connections between the field(s) of study” while also remaining wary of conflating the fields. See McKible and Churchill, “Introduction: In Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies,” Modernism/Modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 429. Previous studies that have argued for reading black writers not only as adjacent to modernism but also as modernist themselves include Jennifer Wilks, Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernism: Suzanne Lacascade, Marita Bonner, Suzanne Césaire, Dorothy West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008); Miriam Thaggert, Images of Black Modernism: Visual and Verbal Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010); and James Smethurst, The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

(9.) An important exception to this claim is the work of Kate A. Baldwin, who traces the “transnational genealogies of black internationalism” beyond the African diaspora to Russia and later the Soviet Union. Baldwin’s focus on Russia leads her to examine the interracial solidarities underpinning black internationalism, which leads her work to deviate from what she calls “standard accounts of a black transnationalism” descended from Gilroy’s paradigm of the Black Atlantic. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 4, 85.

(10.) Claude McKay’s disinterest in returning to the Caribbean partially explains why he is read primarily as a Harlem Renaissance writer, whereas Lamming’s dedication to theorizing the West Indian novel has traditionally placed his oeuvre within the West Indian national tradition. See Sandra Pouchet Paquet, The Novels of George Lamming (London: Heinemann, 1982). However, recent (p.250) works on both figures have established the difficulty of assigning them to just one national tradition. For a reading of McKay that emphasizes his diasporic Caribbean origins, see Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”:Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 207–248. For studies that have recast Lamming as an immigrant writer in the British tradition, see John Clement Ball, Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 101–175; and J. Dillon Brown, Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

(11.) George Lamming, “Interview with George Lamming,” in Kas-Kas: Interviews with Three Caribbean Writers in Texas, ed. Ian Munro and Reinhard Sander (Austin, TX: African and Afro-American Research Institute, 1972), 16.

(12.) See Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’,” in Kant: Political Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54–60.

(13.) Claude McKay, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (New York: Harper, 1929), 137. All subsequent citations refer to this edition.

(14.) Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928; repr., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 227–228.

(15.) Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 113.

(16.) Ibid., 123.

(17.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “Two Novels: Nella Larsen, Quicksand, and Claude McKay, Home to Harlem,” Crisis 35 (1928): 202.

(18.) Claude McKay to James Weldon Johnson, April 30, 1928, in Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 247.

(19.) Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 133.

(20.) See Wayne F. Cooper, ed., The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912–1948 (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 138.

(21.) See Smethurst, African American Roots, 208; Dewey Jones, “Dirt,” Chicago Defender (July 27, 1929): 12; and André Levinson, “De Harlem à la cannebière,” Les Nouvelles Littéraires (September 14, 1929): 7.

(23.) Charles Baudelaire, Ouevres complètes, tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 71.

(24.) Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 7.

(25.) Ibid., 12.

(27.) Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner, 254. Cooper’s reading of Banjo tends to be shaped by his attribution of a nostalgic primitivism to McKay himself. When Jake in Home to Harlem and Banjo in Banjo are referred to as picaros, it is on the basis of such precivilized qualities as natural instinct and elemental will, rather than a studied response to the adverse conditions of an inhospitable social order.

(28.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “Review of Claude McKay’s Banjo and Nella Larsen’s Passing,” Crisis 36 (July 1929): 234.

(29.) William J. Maxwell, “Global Poetics and State-Sponsored Transnationalism,” American Literary History 18, no. 2 (2006): 360.

(31.) Joel Nickels has written persuasively about how McKay’s suspicion of authoritarian central planning led him to explore anarchist philosophies of political organization in Banjo and in his nonfiction. Nickels, “Claude McKay and Dissident Internationalism,” Cultural Critique 87 (Spring 2014): 10–11.

(32.) Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 59.

(33.) Ibid., 179.

(35.) My thanks to Marina Magloire for her felicitously titled graduate seminar paper “The Metaphysics of Partying in Three Modernist Novels.”

(36.) Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 100.

(37.) For a discussion of Bataille’s theories in relationship to his frequenting of jazz clubs, see Brent Edwards, “The Ethnics of Surrealism,” Transition 78 (1998): 115. Edwards (Practice of Diaspora, 223) also notes how Bataille’s and McKay’s similar accounts of primitivism reconfigure the usual divisions of modernist classification in which black literature would be separated from European theory.

(38.) George Bataille, Visions of Excess, trans. Allen Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 102.

(39.) Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago, Press, 2002), 85.

(40.) Ernst Bloch, “Something’s Missing: A Discussion Between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing (1964),” in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 1–18.

(41.) The queer-theoretical dimensions of male friendship in Banjo are thoroughly explored by Michelle Ann Stephens, who finds that McKay’s novel (p.252) anticipates contemporary queer theory’s challenge to the values embedded in the heterosexual marriage contract and the heteronormative nation-state. See Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 167–204.

(42.) Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(43.) George Lamming, introduction to In the Castle of My Skin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), xxxvi–xxxvii.

(44.) George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 45.

(45.) George Lamming, The Emigrants (1954; repr., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 25. All subsequent citations refer to this edition.

(46.) Wilson Harris, “History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas” (1970), repr., Caribbean Quarterly 54, no. 1–2 (March–June 2008): 22.

(47.) Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagements: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 170.

(48.) See Janet Butler, “The Existentialism of George Lamming,” Caribbean Review 11, no. 4 (1982): 15, 38–39; and Mary Lou Emery, Modernism, the Visual, and Caribbean Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(49.) Lauren Berlant, “Citizenship,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 37.

(50.) Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 7. Though Wilder’s research focuses on the constitutive contradictions of French republicanism, in which colonial racism is an operation of rather than a failure of imperial univeralism, his argument becomes particularly resonant with the changes to English imperial policy that came into effect with the British Nationality Act of 1948. The act instituted the category of “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies.” By creating the possibility for Commonwealth citizenship and loosening border regulations for colonial subjects traveling to England, the law held out the affective promise of blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness, although that line was firmly patrolled in a variety of ways upon the arrival of racialized subjects in England.

(51.) Houston A. Baker Jr., “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” in The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book, ed. Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 12–14.

(52.) George Lamming, “The Negro Writer and His World,” in The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonisation, ed. Anthony Bogues (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2011), 3.

(p.253) (53.) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 107. For drawing my attention to this quote, I am grateful to Theodore Martin, “The Long Wait: Timely Secrets of the Contemporary Detective Novel,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 45, no. 2 (2012): 165.

(54.) See Simon Gikandi, Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 12–16.

(56.) See Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol. 1, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 74–75.