Dialogically Destabilizing Discourses of Power/Knowledge in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

  • Zebulah Baldwin
Keywords: R. Ellison, Foucault, Bakhtin, Discourse, Socialization


This paper offers an analysis that is centered on the structural and rhetorical aspects of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, arguing that attention to the “formal” aspects of the text―such as the ways that contested terms, ambivalent tropes, and ambiguous symbols function to disrupt readerly assumptions―allows for a radically different understanding of the novel, specifically in terms of its representation of how American society functions to produce and police structures of domination. This analysis reconsiders the representations of race and African American culture in terms of their imbrication in popular discourses and stereotypes, reconceives the novel’s representation of the protagonist’s journey as a counter to the conventional ideological determinations of the genre of the coming-of-age story, and argues for a fundament rethinking the critical consensus surrounding the protagonist’s ostensible quest for “visibility.” Through these arguments, this paper illustrates the major conceptual congruencies between Ellison’s novel and the discourse theory of Michel Foucault, and demonstrates the purchase of this analysis through examining two aspects of Ellison’s novel that have received very little scholarly attention to date: the conflict over the meaning of the term “brother” throughout the novel, and the paradoxical complexity of the network of cultural-historical materials that construct the identity of the African American couple whose belongings fill the snow-covered street in the “dispossession” scene.