Life is a constant series of cycles through which the subject learns and unlearns understanding the self more deeply but never entirely.
Identification and Invisibility: Invisible Man
Freud’s original concepts of identification established the foundation for an entire branch of psychoanalytic research into identification and neurosis. However, later works like Diana Fuss’s Identification Papers and Gautam Basu Thakur’s “Fanon’s ‘Zone of Nonbeing’: Blackness and the Politics of the Real” critique areas in which a Freudian understanding of identification may fall short. Reflexivity is crucial to the identification process. In fact, identification relates more closely to a separation from that which we are not, then to a union between aspects of “true self” and the ego. As one moves through life, one is constantly challenged with new concepts, new ideas, and new reflections of oneself with which one must establish relational dynamics. This process of judging and categorizing provides us a subjectivity that is growth, alterity, and, ultimately, life. Fuss and Thakur argue that the Black individual is denied this subjectivity, and therefore lives a half-life of objecthood. I use the term “half-life” because the Black individual must relegate certain aspects of the self to the “zone of non-being,” a term coined by Frantz Fanon and a space described by Thakur as:
a particular paradox: it is an inarticulable space within the colonial socio-symbolic. That is, it exists in the Symbolic but cannot be symbolized or rendered present in and through discourse. As the inside-outside of the Symbolic, the zone cannot be formalized yet it is always present as a deep ‘haunting.’1
These concepts of “non-being,” or invisibility and reflexive identification, are hard to envision within the reality of everyday life. Analyzing concepts of identification in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison provides some clarity on the subject.
Invisible Man serves as a manual, not only providing an in-depth description of life within the zone of non-being, but navigating life and its cycles of identification. The Invisible Man embodies a philosophical and analytical shift in response to early twentieth-century theories of structuralism. Structuralism is a psychological framework for interpreting and analyzing language, literature, and society through contrasting elements of a structure in an attempt to place them within a larger context. For Ellison, structuralism often feels linear and rigid. It fails to account for ideas of ambivalence, subjectivity, and can break down when applied to the complex individual. A foundational work of post-structuralism, his novel follows a format of cyclical identification and dis-identification. The nameless narrator, whom I’ll refer to as Invisible, moves between various social settings as he journeys from a small southern town to New York City in the 1930s. As he enters adulthood, Invisible experiences a series of “epiphanies.” Each time, he believes that he has found the true path to forming an authentic identity, control over his own subjectivity, but inevitably, reality reminds him of his inescapable objecthood. Thus, the cycle repeats itself as Invisible moves through early adulthood. In the beginning, the reader may believe that, although Invisible suffers setbacks, he is moving towards a concept of “authentic Blackness” or individual identity. However, Invisible realizes that wherever he is, even in the cultural mecca of 1930s Harlem, he suffers the same invisibility. Ultimately, the novel never resolves this cyclical nature. An ongoing process, this analogy best describes identification. We experience new concepts, identify, dis-identify, and continue, moving in circles, learning nonetheless.
Ellison introduces a concept similar to Fanon’s zone of non-being in the first chapter. Invisible recounts the final words of his grandfather on his deathbed:
I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.2
The narrator goes on to admit that he is “haunted” by these words. He, too, lives like a traitor in the zone of non-being. Furthermore, Invisible is rewarded for this behavior. Living as a Black object in a world of white subjects, he is constantly praised for his treachery. While the zone of non-being is hard to understand, the feeling of living as a spy in enemy territory beautifully describes invisibility. In the words of Invisible, reflecting on his grandfather:
And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did.3
The individual is forced to live as the Other, a relational object of white reality. Whether they chose to rebel against this objectification or live in treachery, the individual exists outside both symbols, within the zone of non-being. The novel deals with many paradoxes and cycles, this being the first. Thakur acknowledges the paradoxical nature of the zone of non-being stating, like Invisible, that the subject is trapped between what she is supposed to desire and how she is perceived by the colonizer.4 However, Thakur does little more than interpret the zone of non-being; he cannot articulate a non-linear subjectivity. In Invisible Man, Ellison explores the zone of non-being in action, and the life of Invisible probes deeper into this metaphysical space.
Identification becomes a complex paradox in the zone of non-being. In Identification Papers, Fuss mainly focuses on the limitations of Black identification and forced image occupation. In forced image occupation, outside identification is placed upon the subject, the subject cannot control nor entirely discard these identification. Thus, forced image occupation may lead to shame. Similarly, Thakur expresses the liminal reality in which the Black subject resides. Neither explore concrete examples of how the invisible subject makes identifications. In fact, Fuss seems to believe that meaningful identification and objecthood are mutually exclusive within the subject stating, “Black may be a protean image other from white, but for itself it is a stationary ‘object’; objecthood, substituting for true alterity, blocks migration through the Other necessary for subjectivity.”5 Ellison disagrees with this interpretation of identification. The motif of ambivalence appears throughout Invisible Man. Ambivalent identification is disregarded in Fuss’s work possibly due to the structuralist approach of most psychoanalytic literature. For Fuss and Thakur, identifications are the building blocks of the ego, and we add or remove blocks moving the ego closer or farther in relation to the ego ideal. Ellison takes a post-structuralist stance on identification. For him, identifications are a circular process. The ego does not move farther or closer to the ego ideal because the ego ideal is not a static figure. In Invisible Man, Invisible constantly identifies then dis-identifies. For example, he joins “the brotherhood,” a Black Communist group in Harlem, hoping to use his oratorial skills to make a difference. Ultimately, he realizes that, even in this role, he is objectified as a representational figure. Ellison posits that identifications are simply illusions of the ego, constantly given new meaning, built-up and torn down. Lessons we learn through identification are constantly proven wrong. Under different circumstances, the ego will shed its identifications and take on new ones with ease. While the journey of identification is a circle leading back to naivete, the concrete experiences of reality are inherently valuable. Through Invisible Man, Ellison creates a commentary, not only about Black identification, but about the human experience as a whole.
Ellison’s novel suggests that there is no authentic expression within society, with the exception of literature and music, and that there is no “true” identification, because identification is a reflexive action. The subject can only identify in relation to the reality in front of them. Imaginary identifications are thrust upon the Black subject, but the white subject’s satisfaction and control of the ego are just as illusory. Naivete allows the white subject to believe in authenticity; furthermore, this naivete can ebb and flow in the same manner as the Black subject. While the Black subject is disenfranchised of his own ignorant bliss, authentic identification remains a lie that the ego tells itself, regardless of subjectivity or objecthood. Invisible narrates the novel from an underground bunker. Living a parasitic life, he writes from the basement of a New York Building, rent free, siphoning power from the main grid, and deliberately wasting it by illuminating 1,369 light bulbs. Here, he can live without feeling his invisibility.
Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility. That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness.6
Here, in the prologue, Invisible provides his solution to the problem of identification and the zone of non-being. In the bunker, he has complete control over his subjectivity. He lives as he would like with no symbols that he must strive towards. However, he is alone and, ultimately, voiceless. The bunker is analogous to a total alienation of the ego. The subject separates himself from human interaction, even human interaction with the self. In this space, the self lives freely isolated from the body and reality. At the end of the novel, Invisible burns his documents, diploma, and various remnants of his life journey. He retreats underground to construct the bunker where he will remain to tell his story. Ellison writes in his meta style, “Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”7
Following the theme of the circles and paradoxes, the novel ends where it began, and the narrator concedes that the solution for his invisibility is not a solution, after all. In seeking to free himself from objecthood and express authenticity in isolation, he has lost the ability of expression altogether. The narrator has again completed a cycle of identification and dis-identification only to return to where he started. However, life is not a meaningless pendulum swinging between asymptotic illusions of authenticity. The physical novel is the message of the work as a whole. Invisible wrote the novel in the zone of non-being, voiceless and formless, and in some way, he may reflexively identify through the reader.
Concluding the novel, Ellison expands the understanding of identification one step further. Rather than a process by which one evolves towards the ego ideal, identification is simply adaptation based upon circumstance. Furthermore, the author highlights the imaginary, illusory nature of identification and the ego. While the novel does not provide a valid escape route from the zone of non-being, Ellison does believe that the feeling of invisibility can be overcome through self-awareness. Unaware of one’s invisibility, the subject lives a death. Once one becomes aware of their invisibility, the subject may even use it to their advantage in certain situations. Finally, the novel provides an alternative approach to the structuralist journey of identification. For the Black individual, identification will never provide subjective control. However, authentic expressions of the invisible man are possible, if only in the elusive language of art. The novel has no race, it has no body, and yet it speaks for someone. Ellison articulates this idea in his closing lines
Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes looked through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?8
Art allows for formless identification, the closest thing to authentic identification that exists. The narrator admits that the entire novel has been a collection of his ramblings from within the bunker. However, this fact only emphasizes the narrator’s post-structuralist worldview. Life is not a series of challenges and lessons through which the subject reaches a state of understanding and peace. Life is a constant series of cycles through which the subject learns and unlearns understanding the self more deeply but never entirely. Ellison does not attempt to conclude the novel with a moral of the story. Instead he posits the question that there are others who are invisible, and they may possibly identify with him. Ultimately, they might understand themselves more fully in understanding him.
- Gautam Basu Thakur, “Fanon’s ‘Zone of Nonbeing’: Blackness and the Politics of the Real,” in Lacan and Race: Racism, Identity, and Psychoanalytic Theory, edited by Sheldon George and Derek Hook (Routledge, 2022), 285.
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2018), 16.
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.
- Gautam Basu Thakur, “Fanon’s ‘zone of nonbeing’: Blackness and the politics of the Real,” in Lacan and Race: Racism, Identity, and Psychoanalytic Theory, eds. Sheldon George and Derek Hook (Routledge, 2022), p. 284-298.
- Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Identification Papers (Rouledge, 199), 14.3.
- Ellison, Invisible Man, 7.
- Ellison, Invisible Man, 571.
- Ellison, Invisible Man, 581.