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English Works: Exploring an "Impossible Mourning"

Alumnus Jermaine Singleton illuminates African American melancholy and resistance in the face of continuing oppression
November 24, 2015

Hamline University Associate Professor Jermaine Singleton (PhD 2005) prepares his students for “21st-century multiculture” by encouraging them to practice those core English skills, critical and creative thinking, even—or most especially—within “areas that cause people the most trepidation.” He himself investigates the continuing effects of racial oppression in his compelling new work Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual (University of Illinois). In the book as in the classroom, Singleton aims to unsettle false binaries and other calcified ways of thinking. “It’s all about preparing students to engage, collaborate, and lead across the manifold differences that beset our world,” he says.

Due to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, African American trauma and mourning are (again) being addressed in popular media, and writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Claudia Rankine have become nationally known public intellectuals. Where does your book enter the discussion?

The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that despite efforts to build a more inclusive age of multiculturalism, US clamor remains haunted by racial, gender, and sexual conservatism. At the same time and due to the merging of global economies, we are faced with increasing competition and a demanding need for authentic collaboration on all fronts of our lives. Cultural Melancholy acknowledges the nationalist, discursive, affective, and cultural processes through which race-based forms of collectivity are constructed, entangled, and solidified. The book also acknowledges the limitations of these forms of collectivity in the face of globalization and the role culture must play in helping us move beyond this impasse. In so doing, Cultural Melancholy stands in the space Ta-Nehisi Coates plots “between the world” and devalued black lives, pursuant to illuminating and redirecting the roles culture and hidden affect play in the constantly shifting arrangements of power and race.

At the end of the day, I think a nuanced, historically sensitive understanding of the cultural life of melancholy holds much promise for building a more humane 21st-century multiculture. 

Your book is part of a new wave of scholarship viewing race through psychoanalytic concepts of melancholy and mourning. Where do you situate Cultural Melancholy within this area?

My project challenges Freud’s contention that “melancholia ensues from a pathological disposition.” Thus it follows publications such as David L. Eng and David Kasanjian’s Loss: The Politics of Mourning, an entire anthology devoted to the exploration of the “numerous material practices by which loss is melancholically materialized in the social and cultural realms and in the political and the aesthetic domains,” and especially Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, which demonstrates how normative and minority subject-formations are fragile, melancholic edifices—that is, identities constructed and imaginatively supported through a dynamic of loss and compensation, by which losses of self are disavowed and retained. A close reading of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” brought into view the crucial question to explore: why, how, and to what end does this impossible mourning work through ritual practice and various regimes of power (psychosocial, sexual, and linguistic) to travel across time and social space?

Amid the skepticism and excitement around the efficacy of psychoanalytic readings of African American literature and culture and more time to think beyond the dissertation, Cultural Melancholy’s questions mushroomed: What does psychoanalysis, particularly theories of mourning and melancholia, hold for understanding the relationship between impossible mourning, ritual practice, and the ongoing processes of racialized subject formation and resistance? If the losses of self incurred by earlier generations of African Americans are not resolved and mourned, then what remains of this melancholia? How does melancholy work through rituals of belonging and resistance to transfer and transform itself through the ongoing process of subject formation? Indeed, how do we account for an accruing racial melancholia, as the children of a people of racial subordination and exclusion cope with their own subjugation?

Drawing on Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, which purports that the strength of the subject lies in its constructedness and fragility, this study explores how the ongoing performance of sameness and difference blurs the line between these domains. Cultural Melancholy urges us not to lose sight of the hidden affect that works through cultural practice to propagate and reconstitute itself across time and social space through racial subject formation.

What English class or professor do you particularly remember from your time here?

I’m deeply indebted to my intellectual and professional mentors from my days at the University of Minnesota—[English professors] John S. Wright, Timothy Brennan, Jani Scandura, John Mowitt, and Tom Augst, as well as Keya Ganguly [cultural studies & comparative literature] and Roderick A. Ferguson [American studies]—who saw and invested in my potential. My U of M days were rough, quite frankly. The growth curve was steep. Jani, Tim, and Keya delivered much of the tough love and intellectual support I needed to get through the last leg of the program and beyond. 

What book(s) are you recommending these days?

I’m rereading Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; the seeds of my book of short stories in process, Ebony in the Ivory Tower, emerged from the tensions and affinities between these classics and the moments I found myself shadowboxing with things quotidian as a black, queer academic. Getting here has been quite the crucible of insight. I have some sobering and mostly funny stories to share (#followyourbliss!!!!). 

Are you ready to talk about the next project?

My next book project builds on the accumulative knowledge of Cultural Melancholy: Indeed, if we are ritually constructed, we can be remade. Staging the Liberal Compact: Sociality Assemblages, African American Drama, and Public Life examines the ways capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization, and the institutionalization of diversity and inclusion intersect in practices I call “uncivil rites”—socially and economically determined neoliberal acts within and beyond the authority of the law that threaten our collective future as a thriving multiculture. I aim to develop a paradigm for exploring and eclipsing the manifold ways these uncivil rites undermine coalitions of common purpose and sustainable social change.