Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) opens with the narrator, a black man, living for free in a closed-off section of a basement in a New York apartment building reserved exclusively for white tenants. According to the narrator, he "did not become alive until [he] discovered [his] 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. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. . . . Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I’ll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don’t know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity. I’ll solve the problem. And maybe I’ll invent a gadget to place my coffee pot on the fire while I lie in bed, and even invent a gadget to warm my bed—like the fellow I saw in one of those picture magazines who made himself a gadget to warm his shoes! Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a “thinker-tinker.” (7)

Douglas Ford argues that for Ellison electricity is "more than a prop or a morally neutral force. Rather, it functions as a trope that provides new aesthetic possibilities, as well as a means of accessing discourses of power and productive strategies of resistance" (888). That's true. But electricity also appears -- to the narrator, at least -- as a limitless resource that can be squandered with impunity, with the power company the only loser. We know, and I think Ellison knew, that the narrator's passive-aggressive method of resistance harms not just the power company, but his own spirit. This is why Ellison chooses not, for example, to have his narrator go off the grid entirely. That would be a kind of anarchic civil disobedience; his installation of 1,369 light bulbs actively participates in an extreme form of capitalism that espouses taking all the (literal) power and resources one can get, even if it leads to wildly irresponsible and wasteful behavior. All in the vain hope of somehow beating the societal order. It is the acquisition of power for power's sake.

Rush Limbaugh bragged on the air the other day that to protest what he labels the "hysteria" over global warming, he was going to refuse to buy energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, preferring instead to stick to the "old-fashioned Thomas Edison-style" incandescent bulbs. An almost hilariously pathetic attempt at nonconformity. Like Ellison's narrator, Limbaugh is ignorant -- willfully so -- of the consequences of his actions. The difference is that while the so-called invisible man at least thinks he is fighting the system, Limbaugh -- the nation's #1 radio talk show host -- knows perfectly well, despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, that he is the system.

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