American Wild Zones

Space, Experience, Consciousness

by Jerzy Kamionowski (Volume editor) Jacek Partyka (Volume editor)
©2016 Monographs 368 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 6


The contributors understand the wild zone as denoting the existence and experience of a group (ethnic, social, sub-cultural, sexual, religious, etc.) which is/was marginalized in American society. Reaching far beyond the boundaries of original agenda (Edwin Ardener’s and Elaine Showalter’s), the term’s applicability has been significantly enlarged. Its fluidity or fuzziness, however, ought to be taken as a blessing: in the rapidly changing contemporary («liquid») world it is the language that needs to keep up with new circumstances and developments, not the other way round.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Moving Wild Zones
  • Part One: American Wild Zones: Space
  • An Outlandish Idea or a Staple of Growth? Contradictory Visions of Urban Gardening in Documentary Films about Detroit and Philadelphia
  • Importing Trauma/Reclaiming the “Wild”: Holocaust Memory in the US
  • Black Flight, or A Tale of Two Tales
  • Chinatown as a Wild Zone in Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea
  • The Dominican Republic as a Wild Zone in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • Part Two: American Wild Zones: Experience
  • “Where the Wild Things Are”: Excursions into Mixed-Race Literature through Affect Theory
  • Various Expressions of Wild Zones: Chicana Identity in Selected Productions by Mexican-American Female Rap and Hip Hop Artists
  • Stories from the Wild Zone: Some Recent Developments of the American Memoir by Women
  • (De)Marginalizations of Wild Zones in Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe
  • “Deathly afraid of being anything but normal”: Exploring the “Wild Zone” of Fat Female Body in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig
  • Osage Avenue, Philadelphia Fire, and Civil Disobedience through Shakespeare’s The Tempest
  • Part Three: American Wild Zones: Consciousness
  • From Visual Thoughtforms to Bauharoque: Paul Laffoley’s Renegade Science Fiction Art
  • She a BaddDDD Sistuh: Sonia Sanchez as a Wild Zone Poet
  • The Bizarre Tale of a Masked Rogue, or the Quixotic Wild Zone in James Gunn’s Super
  • Ishmael in the Wild
  • Queering the Wild Zone with Experimental Filmmakers: Barbara Hammer, Liz Rosenfeld, and Wu Tsang
  • Taming the Wild Zone: The Paradoxes of the Conspiracy Narrative
  • Conspiracy of Faith on the Margins of Empire: Christian Anarchism as a “Wild Zone” in Post-Countercultural America
  • Muslim Cultures as the “Wild Zone”: Representations of Muslim Women in American Television Series after 9/11
  • Marianne Moore’s Zoning of Germany: On Moore’s Translation of Adalbert Stifter’s “Rock Crystal”
  • Robinson Jeffers’ Ecological Poetry: Human Culture in the Wild Zone
  • Wildlife, Not So Wild Metaphors: Personification of Animals and Plants in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac
  • Shameless (US) as Political Allegory. An Interclass Prospect
  • About the Authors

← 14 | 15 →Marek Wilczyński

Introduction: Moving Wild Zones

Elaine Showalter’s now classic essay “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” was published thirty-three years ago. Today, feminist criticism in the United States is no longer where it was then – a fully legitimate and fairly obvious part of academic discourse even in Poland, where changes follow those in the West usually after about twenty years. In turn, Showalter, to refresh our memory just in case, borrowed the concept of “wild zone” from the British anthropologists, Shirley and Edwin Ardener, who in the early 1970s came up with an articulation of a discursive relationship of the ideologically dominant and the muted group. According to the feminist critic’s brief synopsis of the Ardeners’ argument, “[b]oth muted and dominant groups generate beliefs or ordering ideas of social reality at the unconscious level, but dominant groups control the forms or structures in which consciousness can be articulated. Thus, muted groups must mediate their beliefs through the allowable forms of dominant structures.” Showalter paraphrases this line of reasoning for her own purposes thus: “Another way of putting this would be to say that all language is the language of the dominant order, and women, if they speak at all, must speak through it” (Showalter 262). As a result, some part of the muted group’s experience, in that case women’s, must remain mute because the dominant language has no means to name and convey it. In Lacan’s idiom then, which, although unacknowledged, informs both the Ardeners’ and Showalter’s approach, “the ‘wild’ is always imaginary, from the male point of view it may simply be the projection of the unconscious. … [W]omen know what the male [experience – M.W.] is, even if they have never seen it, because it becomes the subject of legend (like the wilderness). But men do not know what is in the wild” (Showalter 262).

It seems – to me as well – self-evident that all the “wild zones” of American culture and literature, which were unrecognizable to historians for decades and over the last thirty-five years or so have obtained belated recognition, contributed a lot to our perception of the United States. In 1878, Professor Moses Coit Tyler of Cornell, author of a pioneering History of American Literature 1607-1765, wrote in Chapter 1: “To us, of course, the American Indian is no longer a mysterious or even an interesting personage – he is simply a fierce, dull biped standing in our way; and it is only by a strong effort of the imagination that we can in any degree reproduce for ourselves the zest of ineffable curiosity with which, during the most ← 15 | 16 →of the seventeenth century, he was regarded by the English on both sides of the ocean” (Tyler 39). To repeat, “even a strong effort of the imagination” will not help one suppose that such a sentence could be written today or, for that matter, that it could be written a hundred years after the publication of Tyler’s book when Showalter published her essay.

Instead, we can read in a well-done critical edition the complete writings of William Apess, a half-blood Pequot, who in 1831 published his autobiography, A Son of the Forest, and five years later Eulogy on King Philip, commemorating Metacom. Following Showalter, one might say that Apess used the genre of autobiography, practiced before him in America by Edwards and Franklin, to make his personal experience meaningful to an educated, liberal white audience, but perhaps even more significantly he began the Eulogy on King Philip thus: “I do not arise to spread before you the fame of a noted warrior, whose natural abilities shone like those of the great and mighty Philip of Greece, or of Alexander the Great, or like those of Washington – whose virtues and patriotism are engraven in the heart of my audience” (O’Connell 277). Then, in passing, he makes a comment on one of Metacom’s successful military maneuvers:

We may look upon this move of Philip’s to be equal, if not superior, to that of Washington crossing the Delaware. For while Washington was assisted by all the knowledge that art and science could give, together with all the instruments of defense and edged tools to prepare rafts and the like helps for safety across the river, Philip was naked as to any of these things, possessing only what nature, his mother, had bestowed upon him; and yet makes his escape with equal phrase. (O’Connell 297)

Finally, even Metacom’s defeat received an honorable, if slightly surprising and rather distant frame of reference:

Yea, he outdid the well-disciplined forces of Greece, under the command of Philip, the Grecian emperor; for he never was enabled to lay such plans of allying the tribes of the earth together, as Philip of Mount Hope did. And even Napoleon patterned after him, in collecting his forces and surprising the enemy. Washington, too, pursued many of his plans in attacking the enemy and thereby enabled him to defeat his antagonists and conquer them. (O’Connell 305-6)

To make his and his people’s experience intelligible to his listeners at the Boston Odeon, Apess, showing genuine erudition, successfully appropriated the language of Metacom’s enemies and placed himself within the symbolic order of the white America. However, at one point in his autobiography he rebels and rejects a name imposed on him by the American Other: “I thought it disgraceful to be called an Indian; it was considered as slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation, and I have often been led to enquire where the whites received this word, which they so often threw as an opprobrious epithet at the sons of the forest” (O’Connell 10). ← 16 | 17 →Apess’s own identity choice was clearly just that – “a son of the forest,” the title of his autobiography. It was also his particular Pequot “wild zone” – the space of “uncivilized,” “savage” experience unarticulable in the vocabulary of the Bostonians. There is not much about it in his writings because in that respect, writing in English, he had to remain mute. If he wished to exist in the social order of the United States, he was bound to use only its legitimate and accepted means of verbal communication.

Another relevant example, now canonical, is the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. A young African woman brought to Massachusetts in 1761, when it was still a colony, not only managed to master the English language in a short time, but she also acquired a comprehensive knowledge of Western culture and the conventions of contemporary poetry. In her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley writes:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die,”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train. (Shields 18)

The poem, apparently referring to the “Middle Passage,” does not contain any trace of the trauma of kidnapping though Wheatley was about seven years old when captured and must have remembered the event well enough. On the other hand, it presents her ability to adopt the diction of the Augustan Age to appreciate Christian conversion and therefore expect salvation, unavailable to those who did not have a chance to leave Africa. Interestingly, another poem, “On Recollection,” which begins with an appeal to memory, called in Greek “mneme,” does not refer to the author’s African past, either:

Mneme begin. Inspire, you sacred nine

Your vent’rous Afric in her great design.

Mneme, immortal power, I trace thy spring:

Assist my strains while I thy glories sing:

The acts of long departed years, by thee

Recover’d, in due order rang’d we see:

Thy pow’r the long the long forgotten calls from night,

That sweetly plays before the fancy’s sight. (Shields 62)

This passionate appeal to and praise of memory in fact leads nowhere. Africa appears in it only as a third-person designation of the poet, followed by no details ← 17 | 18 →concerning her descent or arrival in North America. Only in the third stanza the reader may find an allusion to some past horror that, however, remains unnamed:

But how is Mneme dreaded by the race,

Who scorn her warnings, and despise her grace?

By her unveil’d each horrid crime appears,

Her awful hand a cup of wormwood bears.

Days, years misspent, O what a hell of woe!

Hers the worst tortures that our souls can know. (Shields 63)

The noun “race” mentioned in the first line, apparently has nothing to do with Africans in particular, but most likely refers to all people who ignore the lessons of experience. Perhaps “a hell of woe” and tortures of the soul refer to the fate of Wheatley herself, yet the text gives no hard and fast evidence to support such a hypothesis. Again, this silence significantly covers the “wild zone” of her African slave’s condition, unapproachable through the decorum of the neoclassical verse. The language she resolved to share with her oppressors and use as an instrument of emancipation made her also partly mute, unable to call the moment which determined the circumstances of the future choice.

Autobiography as a record of either conversion (Edwards) or progress (Franklin) and Augustan verse were forms available to individuals whose origin and experience could hardly – or could not at all – be articulated through them. Replacing, as it were, the concept of “wild zone” with that of “blind spot,” Niklas Luhmann describes the proliferation of the languages of art, including literature, in the following way:

A difference-theoretical concept of form therefore presupposes the world as an “unmarked state.” The unity of the world is unattainable; it is not a summation or aggregate, nor is it Spirit. When a new series of operation starts from a self-created difference, it begins with a blind spot. It steps out of the “unmarked state” – where nothing is visible and we cannot speak of a “space” to begin with – into the “marked state,” and it draws a boundary in transgressing that boundary. The mark creates the space of the distinction, the difference between “marked” and “unmarked” space. It (somehow) selects one of an infinite number of possible distinctions in order to constrain the work’s further construction. The first difference separates two sides so that the next operation can be executed in the marked space. Distinctions serve to control connecting operations. These might subsequently yield further distinctions. (Luhmann 29)

To make Luhmann’s argument more specific, one might say that even though there was a social and legal difference separating both Apess and Wheatley from the white and free American society, there were no discursive instruments to account for their respective conditions: Apess could not write or speak about himself freely as an underprivileged Native American and member of that society at the ← 18 | 19 →same time, while Wheatley could not complain on her status as a kidnapped slave and simultaneously address General Washington as a hero, using the ornate diction of neoclassicism. Their respective identities occupied the “wild zones” or, in Luhmann’s idiom, “blind spots” from which another differentiating process could begin to yield a difference between a Native American autobiography and a non-Native American one, and a difference between an elegant neoclassical poem and a slave narrative. (The latter could actually receive some systemic support from the captivity narrative, particularly such as Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration which also conveyed the female experience of temporary enslavement.) Besides, to borrow from Luhmann his other key concept of the difference between the first-order and the second-order observers, while Wheatley and Apess observed the autopoietic systems of colonial or antebellum art and literature from their “blind spots,” trying to make themselves at least somewhat less mute, their potential audience, that is, the second-order observers, were clearly not ready to see – and read with acceptance and understanding – their texts. Both of them had to wait till 1981 and the following decades to be fully recognized as authors in their own right. Their second-order observers at the turn of the 21st century have already read Harriet Jacobs, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde, as well as N. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich.

This brings me back to my title and my main point. If art and literature may be approached as an autopoietic system which in one way or another corresponds to social differentiation, that is, the level occupied by first-order observers, and if the recognition by second-order observers – readers with a varying competence, from non-specialists to literary historians – decides about the placement of a text in the area of perception, that is, culture, then wild zones must keep moving, and in a twofold sense of the verb. First, they disappear whenever literature makes it possible to articulate them in a readable way – when there comes into being a genre or a diction that can be incorporated thanks to the difference or a set of differences it generates into the system. Second, they may also appear where they did not exist before when for various reasons the second-order observers cease to see them, so that the users of a certain language that might have even been dominant or at least prominent in the past all of a sudden turn out mute because they are not heard any more. In other words, the wild zones vanish when they are no longer wild, while zones that were not wild become such when the second-order observers lose their sight.

That seems to have happened, for instance, to the author of the following passage, whom for a while I will leave unidentified:

It went to my heart when they cleared the old parlour of the venerable family furniture, and stripped the oak panels of the prints of the months, – July with her large fan and full ruffles at the elbows, and January in her muff and tippet. They would have pulled down ← 19 | 20 →the panels, too, to make the room as smart and bright as paper could make it; but placing my back against them, I swore by the spirit of my grandfather, that not a joint in the old work should be started while I could stand to defend it. And I have my revenge when I see how pert, insignificant, and raw everything looks, surrounded by the high and dark walls of the apartment. But the old furniture was huddled together topsy-turvy in the garret. The round oak table, which had many a day smoked with the substantial dinners of former times, lost one of its leaves by too rough handling; but an old oak desk, at which my grandfather in his days of courtship was wont to pen epistles as sonnets to my grandmother escaped the violence of the revolution with only a few scratches. I have had the dust wiped off its black polish, brought it down by my study fire, and placed before it the old gentleman’s arm-chair, which I found standing calm and stately upon its four legs, amidst the disordered rubbish of the garret. (Dana, Sr. 3-4)

To the readers of early nineteenth-century American fiction this passage may sound vaguely familiar. They will probably associate it with Hawthorne’s “Custom-House,” an introduction to The Scarlet Letter, where an image of a garret full of old furniture, dimly lit by moonshine, evokes the atmosphere typical of the romance as opposed to the novel. Others will connect the tone and first-person narration with Irving’s sketches, and indeed, it is an opening paragraph of a sketch published in 1817 in the North American Review by Richard Henry Dana, Sr. The system of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature differentiated between tales and sketches, narrative and non-narrative prose for which fictionality was not necessarily a crucial matter of difference. At present, the sketch has been replaced either by the essay or the story, so that it is no longer easily recognizable by the audience. Few readers though may realize that Dana’s sketch is a thinly veiled conservative, almost loyalist critique of the American Revolution or actually revolution in general: a meditation on the grandfather’s furniture and a complaint on the parlor’s redecoration concur to repudiate change as such and praise the past which in that case could only be the British colonial past of Massachusetts.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Ethnic Experience Ethnic Literature Queer Culture Class Politics Women's Experience Media Analysis
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 368 pp., 2 b/w fig., 1 table, 2 graphs

Biographical notes

Jerzy Kamionowski (Volume editor) Jacek Partyka (Volume editor)

Jerzy Kamionowski is a literary scholar, whose present work is focused on African American poetry, especially by women. Jacek Partyka writes on twentieth-century poetry and poetics, both Anglo- American and from a comparatist perspective, as well as on American Holocaust fiction. Both are Assistant Professors and teach at the Institute of Modern Languages at the University of Białystok (Poland).


Title: American Wild Zones