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Powell's Ruthless Democracy


Ruthless Democracy. 2000

Powell, Timothy B. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. 227 pgs. (index), $18.95, paperback. ISBN: 0691997305.

Ostensibly about the literature of the American Renaissance, Ruthless Democracy is also a theoretical and methodological boon to Cultural and American Studies; for those in search of an appropriate model for their own scholarship, Timothy Powell provides a basis for further extrapolation. By coupling Derridian theory with Foucauldian methodology, but in neither case dwelling on the theory over the historical or literary evidence at hand, Powell convincingly incorporates Continental thinking into American Studies. Aware of the present state of American Studies, Powell positions himself against those who argue for a post-nationalist conception of identity formation, instead favoring a transnational model of ideological emergence. Rather than the nation-state transcending the yoke of patriotism and geographically influenced identity, a transnational model follows the traces of American identity around the globe, wherever it manifests itself. This leads Powell to the foundation of Liberia and its representation in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as William Wells Brown's literary career in response to Stowe. This succeeds his analysis of American identity within the United States' boundaries, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau's representation of whiteness' Others (or lack thereof) to the first Native American novel, John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta. While all compelling, the apex of Powell's argument focuses on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

As a literary scholar, Powell is a convincing thinker. Deflecting previous readings of Moby-Dick as lacking the cultural awareness to fully theorize the novel, Powell reads the novel as a metonymic representation of multicultural American society (the crew of the Pequod) at war against the monstrous whiteness of the whale, Moby-Dick. It seems, now, an entirely self-evident reading, but Powell takes the time to recount the various other readings of the novel, many hampered by the politics of their day, which might distract from his reading of the text, but, if Melville's project was to depict the inability of the multicultural nature of American society to represent itself, to bloom, then Powell's analysis is both correct and comes at the appropriate cultural moment and his analysis of earlier scholarship only makes this more evident. Powell's analysis isn't simply focused on the novel, but on Melville's oeuvre and Moby-Dick's relation to this whole; coupled with a broad understanding of the literature of the American Renaissance, Powell is able to explicate his understanding of his theoretical notion, of the "ruthless democracy" of the hegemonic drive within white American culture to erase all remnants of our multicultural heritage. Moby-Dick is, for Powell, the penultimate artistic representation of this cultural drive, the image of Ishmael afloat on Queequeg's "tattooed" coffin being the symbolic realization: Beneath white hegemonic culture there will always exist the remnants, the Derridian "traces," of our multicultural reality, and the careful scholar will be able to tease out these traces into full-blown things-in-themselves. Rather than granting primacy to the previously suppressed work of ethnic Others, Powell weighs all the facets of the multicultural American Renaissance equally and constructs a methodology that is anti-antagonistic, and promising for such.

Throughout Ruthless Democracy Powell stresses that his work is linked, inexorably, to the scholarship that has preceded his own, but also that his contribution is not the definitive statement on multiculturalism or the American Renaissance; he repeatedly stresses points within his own work which are understudied and in need of further explication. As such, he provides numerous topics for scholars to consider, and to contemplate incorporating in their own work. If there is a flaw with Powell's Ruthless Democracy, it is in the author's wordiness -- he is more often discursive than direct. While this can be sometimes distracting, Powell is a compelling writer, and Ruthless Democracy is a pleasure to read -- and should prove such for readers of many backgrounds. For those exasperated with the present state of American and Cultural Studies, Ruthless Democracy is strongly recommended; for those simply exploring the possibilities of contemporary academia, Ruthless Democracy is essential.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer