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go-set-a-watchman-and-to-kill-a-mockingbird  The release of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, is generating a fascinating public fold between fiction and reality. [I have not yet read the new book but am reflecting here on the media outpouring around the book’s release.]

After 50 years of teaching, screening and idolizing Atticus Finch as a man whose love for humanity wields the triumphant sword of racial justice, the new release, by all reports, depicts the man as a bitter, aging racist and a figure who ably (i.e., cynically or instrumentally) navigates the subtle nuances of mid-century Southern state politics.

The announcement of this startling plot twist shifts quickly in news reportage to expressions of distress and sometimes shame: what do we do now with this book, this character we have loved? Such sharp and prevalent affective responses delineate the fascinating fold between fiction and reality that holds my attention here. Has Atticus finch attained a stature in US society unusual for a merely fictional character in a novel? Are there other literary characters whose changing moral sway would so sway us?

What if we consider Atticus less as a fictional hero and more as a kind of totem for a certain White disposition, that is, a totem that stands in for a set of rules for processing White memories and experiences?  This consideration requires a word about totem, and about disposition. I am using totem in the Durkheimian sense of a collective symbol of both society and society’s gods; in this case, the totemic god is liberal humanism or democratic society, and totemic society is America writ large (and contradictorily posed through simultaneous assertions of equality and White supremacy, since Atticus Finch is clearly the White savior). [1] I am using disposition as an analogy to what Silvan Tomkins terms ‘script’ or a set of rules for “predicting, interpreting, responding to, and controlling a magnified set of scenes,” where scenes are memories of interpersonal experiences saturated with affect and meaning. [2] This White script, totemized by Atticus Finch, can be understood as something like a congratulatory orientation towards systemic Black oppression in the U.S., in general, and towards the fury of the 1960s Civil Rights movements, in particular. This script has effectively organized scenes of racial tolerance and harmony so as to sustain and aggregate affects of interest and joy, and arranged scenes of racial intolerance and racial pugilism so as to sustain and aggregate affective distress, anguish, or disgust. It has functioned, that is, as a psychic and material mechanism for a White privilege that disavows structural racism in the same gesture by which it congratulates tolerant and even justice-seeking White individuals.

If the media reports about the aging Atticus are correct, then Lee’s newly published book will shred the legitimacy of this totemic function and the congratulatory orientation it constellates. It will show up those carefully managed affecognitive scenes as fraudulent or illusory and will plop the White bodies disposed to this particular totem right back into the chaotic, violent, bloody stuckness of US race relations. While horrific race relations ‘always already’ frame and penetrate US history (and not just Southern history), the release of Lee’s new book does seem to punctuate the racial tension that has been growing in the U.S. since Trayvon Martin’s death in February, 2012, just as her classic novel, published in 1960, punctuated a decade of growing racial tension, and anticipated the next decade of Civil Rights activism and legislation.

Such a show of collective distress or shame in the face of a tumbling totem can indicate an important moment of potential White re-assessment, as anxiously suggested by articles on how, now, ‘we’ (presumably the White ‘we’) are to move forward in teaching To Kill a Mockingbird since the bitter racist Atticus of Go Set a Watchman will proleptically imbricate his beloved predecessor. This potential re-assessment leans on what Tomkins describes as the social good of shame, the way in which shared shame both solidifies established hierarchies, thereby ensuring transmission of social order and shared norms to the next generation, but also can challenge established hierarchies. The challenge arises when the affective dynamics of identification (the levers of joy and interest that make shared shame effective) are conjoined with an expanded affective sensibility, affective bond or gesture of empathy. Tomkins gives the example of a dominant [White] body witnessing a marginal body (he actually writes about “the Southern Negro”) shamed into and reduced to existence as this marginal position by a dominant body. [3]

This witnessing of vicarious shame from the position of privilege boomerangs back to the witnessing body as shame for her own dominance, shame not for getting out of place (for disrupting social norms) but shame precisely for being caught up in a social norm that shames another into her place. Tomkins notes, “If the society is ever to change, there must be some tension sustained between the society’s definition of the situation and the individual’s script.” [4]  In trying to think both the totemic function of Atticus Finch for sustaining White America’s denial or disavowal of structural racism and also the persistent violence against non-White bodies since…well, since forever, but particularly within the living memories of those of us who grew up with Atticus Finch, I find myself acutely curious about this socially disruptive shame born out of a felt reception of and disgust for a specific social norm, a norm that structures human relationships through shame and therefore cements the structures of shame as the felt propriety of social reality. I am acutely interested in a socially disruptive shame that sustains tension between society’s narrative and the individual’s script (where, again, a script is a set of rules for managing and magnifying scenes of memory and experience).

The dynamics of this reception-disgust that constitutes disruptive shame might be akin to what Foucault discusses as the historical ontology of oneself, a process that defamiliarizes the norms of the present by a sudden (or researched) experience of their contingency. White supremacy is not necessary, not eternal, not stamped with transcendent approval. More importantly, White privilege is damnably entrenched and difficult to defamiliarize. The ‘scenic’ disturbance generated by Go Set a Watchman can ripple through established White scripts and unsettle them. But where that slight dislodging will lead, is anyone’s guess.


[1] Émile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

[2] Silvan Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters, 180.

[3] Tomkins, 156-162.

[4] Tomkins, 180.