Looking Back and Moving Forward

For the purposes of this post, I split my writing into three sections:  Paternal Power, Jaws, and Ghosts.  These sections function largely as organizing principles, and are by no means the exclusive focus, or outside source discussed, in each section.  I conclude with a brief discussion of how I would add The Devil in Silver to a course’s curriculum.

Paternal Power

The Devil in Silver documents the attempts of several patients in a mental institution to gain agency over their bodies in order to survive a monster that haunts the hospital.  Accordingly, John Locke’s meditation on “Paternal Power” in his Second Treatise is particularly useful for examining issues of agency and autonomy in The Devil in Silver.  In “Paternal Power,” Locke examines the process by which an individual gains the right to own property and thus can become an agent with the right to legal self-representation in society.  More importantly to The Devil in Silver, which examines the ways that a person can lose their right to be proprietor of the self, Locke discusses the means by which a person can be dissolved of their right to property, and thus become a property annexable to the power of the state.  In New Hyde hospital, individuals are substituted for a paratextual apparatus—their patients records—which are used by the hospital administrators as a means of controlling the relationship between the individual and the state in order to obtain money from the state and other entities.  This relationship between individual and state, one that is paratextually mediated, will also be discussed later on in this post, as its basis informs my discussion of ghosts and textual haunting in the novel.

According to Locke, for an individual to come into the full state of equality—that is, to obtain and dispose of property as one sees fit, and to exercise freedoms as an autonomous agent so long as one does not impinge on the preservation of another person’s life and property—the individual must be removed from the state of nature and socialized into the laws of reason (Locke 56).  In this “full state of equality,” individuals act according to the laws of reason, and transgressions of these laws can be punishable, according to Locke, by slavery or death.  Importantly, Locke states that individuals are not born into this full state of equality which is governed by the laws of reason, rather, they enter the world in the state of nature, “ignorant and without the use of reason;” Locke continues, “no body can be under a law, which is not promulgated to him” (Locke 57).  Hence, an individual does not enter the world with the right to autonomy and freedom from state powers, but only achieves this state by demonstrating mastery of the laws of reason.  The primary dispositive of these laws of reason—or in other words, the agent responsible for conferring these laws onto the individual—is the parental unit, which must “inform the mind, and govern the actions of their yet ignorant non, till reason shall take its place, and ease them of that trouble” (Locke 58).  But Locke’s coverage for when this form of “parental power” may fail to produce an agent governed by the laws of reason is insubstantial:  “defects may happen out of the ordinary course of nature [such that] one comes not to such a degree of reason, wherein he might be supposed capable of knowing the law […] he is never capable of being a free man […] but is continued under the tuition and government of all others” (Locke 60).  Problematically, these assertions suggest that although an individual cannot be born into a state of freedom, they can be born into a state of bondage, and reverted to this state of bondage at any time that they fail to act in accordance with a set of rules to which they may or may not have had exposed and explained to them.

In The Devil in Silver, through the act of creating patient records—known in the novel as charting and logging—LaValle examines how Lockean ideals inform an individual’s relationship to the corporatized state.  It is important to note, before moving on to the Lockean implications of charting and logging, that these terms etymologically relate to a sea motif that runs throughout the novel and is informed by allusions to Jaws that ultimately place these Lockean implications within a historiographic context.  By using italics to denote the first instance of charting, LaValle heightens the importance of the action.  And charting is referred to frequently in the novel—that is, until charting is changed to “logging.”  The difference between charting and logging is signified by the computer program used to create the patient records:  charting is used for the program “equator,” and logging is used for “equator zero.”  Immediately, the pun on “equator” suggests the formation of a facsimile—a simulacra of sorts.  And although this evokes Lockean proprietary principles—in that the individual’s agency is subjected to the state through a simulacra—the intention of creating this paratextual apparatus based in Lockean principles is not yet made clear to readers.  It is not until charting becomes logging and equator become equator zero that Locke becomes truly significant.  The change from logging to charting is essentially a linguistic one that engenders a more complex reading of the sea motif, but the switch from equator to equator zero is more immediately significant:  the equator program was not made to create patient records, it was designed and purchased by banks to ensure homeowners could not avoid foreclosure on their homes.  The equator program has real-life parallels to fraudulent computer programs used by banks like Bank of America, who eventually settled many foreclosure fraud cases for billions of dollars.  This allusion links the formation of a simulacra—a document that records a patient’s health records and activities—to a form of fraud.  This fraud is ultimately realized later in the novel when New Hyde implements “equator zero,” a program that is actually designed to record patient information, but is ultimately used charge insurance companies—both state funded and private—healthcare costs even after a patient has died.  LaValle is doing several things here:  first, the slippage of the pun from equator to equator zero suggests a falsehood to the simulacra in the sense that there is no equation when you try to reduce a person to a series of documents, but also suggests a sort of zero sum—it equates to zero.  This additional complexity evokes Snead’s contemplation of economic cycles and the illusion of growth in strict tautological systems, and also resonates with Snead’s claim that a culture must transform in order to cover up its dependence of repetition.  Here, the transformation is one involving the digital age, a transformation which essentially suggests that humans are fungible for the information coded on their bodies, only so long as the information can be transferred to a computer.  Both equator and equator zero are important to examining the Lockean principles at play, as both use paratextual apparatus as a means of dissolving one of their property.


LaValle signifies on Jaws as a means of establishing an etiology of corporate scandal.  This etiology—one in which the corporatized state achieves its cultural image as an ever growing, upward striving society—finds as its object the human body, thus rendering a disposability of the body that is necessary to maintain cultural illusions of progression and growth.  LaValle later builds upon this disposability of the body via the ghosts that permeate the text, as these are the ultimate disposable bodies—those which exist only in the periphery of the novel and perform a sort of textual haunting in which the reader cannot be sure if the ghosts are actually there or not.  Moreover, LaValle employs Jaws as a metatextual signifier that engenders a constant rupturing of the past into the present—that is, the threats of corporatized surveillance and scandal from a past era continuously operate in the text as a way of questioning the role of history and memory in the corporatized disposability of the body.  In other words, the disposability of the body is predicated not on a physical disposability, but a disposability of some sort of paratextual apparatus that mediates the body—for instance, the patient’s charts or logs, which define their relationship to the state.

Central to LaValle’s invocation of Jaws is what Stephen Miller terms “the decayed symbolic order” by which “Jaws plays on the newly culturally embedded Watergate myth” (Miller 93).  According to Miller, the shark is an uncontrollable danger that threatens to disrupt the “governmental and moneyed interests of Amity” (Miller 93).  In order to preserve these “governmental and moneyed interests” town officials “distort reality” to cover up the shark attacks, and when the public becomes aware of this distorted reality, they become cognizant of a decayed symbolic order to the world (Miller 94).  A compounded fear is conferred to the reader (or audience) of Jaws by the shark’s hidden ubiquity—its lurking threat that suggests “a similar lapse in the political and moral order” could occur anywhere (Miller 94).  While LaValle is not directly concerned with the Watergate scandal, he is concerned with the forms of surveillance used by corporate/state powers to ensure that their subjects are acting in accordance with their moneyed interests.  In The Devil in Silver, the form of surveillance utilized comes in the form of patient records—it is a way of regimenting and surveying an individual with actually using resources to do so:  as wards of the state who have lost their Lockean right to property and autonomy, patient’s logs and charts allow agents of the state to create a patient history—in the sense of an order of actions and events which the patient was subject or subjected to—that in fact defines the patient’s relationship to the state, regardless of its validity.  For instance, after Pepper walks down Northwest Four (the Devil’s hallway), he is subdued by the nurses at New Hyde, drugged, and strapped to his bed for much more time than is legal.  Mrs. Chris, Pepper’s nurse, does not include this detail in her charts, thus falsifying the history by which Pepper’s relationship to the state is defined.  To this end, LaValle utilizes Jaws to emphasize the bureaucratic decay that problematizes the relationship between individual and state:  one of the first shots of Jaws is of Officer Brody typing up an official police report for the death of the woman killed by the shark, moments after the medical examiner has been coerced by the mayor to lie about the cause of death.  Moreover, as Officer Brody types the report—a shot that Miller claims “serves verbally to mobilize our sense of the symbolic order,” and its accompanying sense of decay—he warns his assistant to make sure she files everything properly, thus reinforcing the importance of mediating the space between state-sanctioned knowledge and public perception.  That LaValle is trying to evoke a sense of this symbolic decay is made clear by his descriptions of a drugged-up Pepper as “a shark” lurking in the water.

LaValle’s thematic alteration here—moving from a government sanctioned document that reports to the public the death of an individual, to a government sanctioned document that reports to both government agencies and corporations—marks a change in which the state lays claim to the individual not in death, but in life.  Most notably, this claim to the life of the individual is not necessarily one that controls the actions of the individual, although this is partly true, but rather, it is a control over the way an individual is documented, that is to say, historicized.  This historicization is amplified by the metatextual role that Jaws plays in the novel:  as readers read a story about a man who is haunted by a monster, Pepper reads a story about a town haunted by a monster in an attempt to understand his own experience.  As a result, Jaws, and its contingent examination of the Watergate myth, thrusts history into the present; ultimately, LaValle calls attention to the paratextual apparatus that mediate the individual’s relationship to the state via historiography—a relationship that LaValle further ruminates on with his ghostly allusions.




The Devil in Silver—in addition to having a monster that roams the halls of New Hyde—is full of ghosts.  Ghostly allusions may be a more appropriate phrasing, but these allusions function the same as specters nonetheless.  I first noticed these ghostly allusions after I jokingly posted about catching LaValle’s erectile parody of Tupac’s poem “A Rose in Concrete,” and professor McCoy suggested that I think of these instances as ghostly allusions.  With this in mind, I re-read the text and realized not only how frequently these allusions occurred, but how frequently they alluded to the murder of black people or the obliteration of black culture.  These ghostly allusions include (but are not limited to) references to:

  • John Coffey, the fictional hero of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, who was falsely convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to the electric chair
  • The Jonestown Massacre—a mass cult suicide perpetrated by Jim Jones, who targeted poor blacks to join the cult. LaValle deals with mass cult suicide in his novel Big Machine as well.
  • A parody of Tupac’s poem, “A Rose in Concrete,” in which Pepper’s erection is described as rising through a haze of drugs like a flower through concrete
  • Idi Amin—the former president of Uganda who killed hundreds of thousands of people. Idi Amin is the only thing Pepper knows about Uganda.
  • Dangerous Minds, a movie about a former marine who becomes a teacher in a low-income school district with a predominantly black student population and uses poetry to teach her students English and other life skills. The movie is based on real events—except in real life, the teacher used rap as poetry, but the movie adaptation replaces rap with Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas.  Roger Ebert had this to say about the film:
    • Wondering about the Dylan-Dylan connection, I went looking on the Internet for more information about My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the 1992 book by LouAnne Johnson that inspired this movie. I found out something interesting: The real Miss Johnson used not Dylan but the lyrics of rap songs to get the class interested in poetry. Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out. Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing. What has happened in the book-to-movie transition of LouAnne Johnson’s book is revealing. The movie pretends to show poor black kids being bribed into literacy by Dylan and candy bars, but actually it is the crossover white audience that is being bribed with mind-candy in the form of safe words by the two Dylans. What are the chances this movie could have been made with Michelle Pfeiffer hooking the kids on the lyrics ofIce Cube or Snoop Doggy Dogg?
  • Coffee has two tragic references:
    • First, his name, Kofi Acholi, refers to the Acholi people of Uganda, many of whom have been relocated to what are essentially concentration camps in 1996.
    • Coffee’s death—in which police officer fire 41 shots at him while he is trying to blind the Devil—is a reference to the Death of Amadou Diallo. According to witness testimonies, Diallo was confronted by four undercover police officers who did not identify themselves as NYPD.  When the officers confronted Diallo, who had not yet received legal citizenship status, he ran up the stairs to his apartment and pulled his wallet from his pocket, at which point officers opened fire, firing a total of 41 shots and hitting Diallo 19 times.  One of the officers was later promoted by the NYPD.
  • The book makes more explicit references to the death of Esmin Green, a black woman who fell to the floor and died in a psychiatric facility’s emergency room after many hospital employees walked past and stepped over her without doing anything. Later, the employees falsified the “official version” of events and created fraudulent documents to cover up their actions.  Other patients saw what really happened, but as they were psychiatric patients, they were discredited as legitimate witnesses.  The hospital employees were only caught when security camera footage was reviewed.
  • The novel also references the death of Randolph Maddix, a 51 year old black man in a psychiatric facility who suffered seizures. The employees of the facility frequently left Maddix unattended for long periods of time, and was eventually discovered dead 12 hours after a seizure that left him crumpled on the floor.
  • Do The Right Thing: Sal’s Pizzeria.  There’s a moment in the novel when the patients of New Hyde are shuttled to a nearby pizza joint, Sal’s pizzeria—an allusion to Spike Lee’s film and the location of the explosion of a racial conflict that results in the death of Radio Raheem.

As I read, I felt haunted by these ghostly allusions—and I think LaValle is attending to the issue of things that are deeply troubling and important in our society that frequently pass without us giving them much attention.  Moreover, the text performs a sort of Pynchonian paranoia—in which the reader is constantly on the lookout for something that may or may not be in the text.  Ultimately, however, I think LaValle intends for these ghosts to come between the reader and the process of reading.  That is to say, I think LaValle wants to question the way we read.  To understand LaValle’s interrogation of the act of reading, I think it’s important to consider the novel’s title, The Devil in Silver: on one hand, the title certainly refers to the monster in New Hyde—the Devil behind the silver door.  But considering the origin story Loochie’s brother provides is insightful:  in the 19th century, at the peak of American silver mining, people were unaware that mining silver produced toxic fumes that caused hallucinations and madness in the miners.  Miner’s who succumbed to these hallucinations were said to have been attacked by the “devil in silver.”  Just as New Hyde’s devil is unleashed upon the patients, the ghosts of the novel are unleashed upon its readers.  The mining story reconfigures the way that the novel functions as a physical object.  By opening the book, we are in fact availing ourselves to “the devil in silver” and thus we are subjected to the specters entombed within the book.  The book as object passes the specters onto its reader, performing a sort of haunting on the reader.

This haunting may be more accurately considered in terms of Suzan-Lori Parks’ idea of possession.  In her essay, “Possession,” Parks explores her writing process and the importance of literature, particularly theatre; she explains that to her, writing is a form of possession in which she is “rewriting the Time Line— creating history where it is and always was but has not yet been divined.”  Parks writes for her characters—the figures, ghosts, figments whose lives were not recorded in history:  “because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to– through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real– life— locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”  I think LaValle is interested in something similar; however, I think his point is not to re-animate these individuals, as they exist almost entirely in the periphery of the novel.  Indeed, what LaValle seeks to record in history is the moment of death itself—Coffee only becomes a ghostly allusion at the moment of his death when we learn that his true name is Kofi Acholi and that he was killed in the same way as Amadou Diallo.  Park’s idea of possession is important to our interrogation of LaValle’s ghosts as it brings us back to thinking about Locke.  “The relationship between possessor and possessed,” Parks explains, “is, like ownership is, multidirectional.”  One possesses and is possessed; one possesses The Devil in Silver (the book as physical object), and one is possessed by The Devil in Silver (the book as art object and physical object).  Indeed, possession physicalizes the textual haunting of the reader and thus calls into question issues of ownership and property.  As a result of this physicalization of the multidirectionality of possession, the reader is both disrupted from their remote, comfortable position outside of the text and implicated as a part of the text itself and, consequently, confronted with a juxtaposition of proprietary aesthetics:  one based on Lockean thinking, and another rooted in the idea that ownership is multidirectional.  This juxtaposition of proprietary aesthetics is reflected LaValle’s reference to Sal’s Pizzeria from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing:  in Lee’s film, Sal’s Pizzeria serves as the centre of conflict between a Lockean proprietary aesthetic and that of the predominantly black community of Bed-Stuy.  When the conflict erupts, Radio Raheem is choked to death by a police officer.

This allusion situates haunting as a zone of conflict, as a competition between two parties for the occupation of a space.  Jaeeun Yoo’s examination of haunting in contemporary novels is helpful here.  Discussing the place of ghosts in both popular culture and “high art,” Yoo quotes Zizek:  “‘the answer offered by Lacan [to the question of why the dead return] is the same as that found in popular culture: because they are not properly buried, i.e. because something went wrong with their obsequies. The return of the dead is the sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid debt.’”  Yoo adds that “the peculiar way that ghosts […] claim an ‘unpaid debt’ reveal[s] much about contemporary American and global cultures as much as they reflect them.” So what is the debt for which the ghosts of The Devil in Silver have returned to claim?  In my reading, I think that one (of several) spaces that these ghosts seek to reclaim is their place in cultural history and memory; however, I see the history that these ghosts are reclaiming not necessarily as the past, but as the history that is currently being recorded.

This is just one space that I see the ghosts as reclaiming; of course, there are many others.  Indeed, the novel has so many different strands—that is, its exploration of New Hyde goes off in so many different directions—Jaws, the housing crises, Van Gogh, insurance fraud, American history—that putting them all together into one cohesive, synthesized, explication of meaning is nearly impossible.  What connects all of the strands, however, is that they all rely on some sort of paratextual authentication.  Consider the computer programs that commit fraud in the novel, they rely on a paratextual apparatus to remove the agency of the individual and annex their autonomy to the state.  Compare this to the death of Esmin green, which could only be recorded truthfully with the “testimony” of a security camera.  Even the allusions to Jaws rely on the Jaws mythos itself to help readers understand how they are supposed to consider the monster of New Hyde.  I think my struggle to write about this novel was anticipated, even planned, by LaValle; in other words, I think the constant need for paratextual authentication signifies that LaValle is attending to the transactions of power that take place in an exchange of information.  For instance, in writing an academic essay about The Devil in Silver, I got so lost in a maze of citations that acted as paratextual authentications of my claims and arguments that the actual ideas that I was trying to write about became indecipherable.


Moving forward:


Throughout my project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach The Devil in Silver in a college classroom.  And I think what makes the text so difficult to write about—its disparate strands that make synthesizing an essay about it difficult—make it a potent and flexible text to teach.  If I were teaching this text, I would want a so-called theme of the course to revolve around the limitations of the academic essay.  This isn’t to say that the academic essay isn’t important or useful, but I believe that thinking about The Devil in Silver reveals both how other genres of writing—for instance, blogging—may better accommodate for all of the work that needs to be done with this novel and with the social issues it tackles.  And I wouldn’t want this them to come across in a lecture-y sort of way, but rather, be built into the course as something that I hope students would discover on their own by sifting through readings in various media.  And in my experience reading this novel, I felt dissatisfaction with what I think would be called the “literary establishment,” those seemingly amorphous structures that regulate who, what, and how we read.  I think this was partly because the establishment has yet to recognize LaValle as an individual we should be reading, and also because the mode of exposition most promoted by the establishment, namely the academic essay, didn’t really jive with the work I did in this project.  As a result, I think that this novel is useful for helping students explore the way power is transacted even within systems that we traditionally associate with altruism or progressive values—art.

What I find particularly troubling about LaValle being withheld from the establishment is that he is contributing to conversations being held by “establishment authors.”  For instance, I think teaching The Devil in Silver with Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing would make for great discussions of the complicated interstices between ownership, cultural memory, race, historiography, our economic system, and American social issues, among other thematic inclinations.  I think Fledgling and Apex are particularly useful here because they interrogate the difficult intersections involving pain, memory, citizenship, and the economy; I find Do The Right Thing equally useful for the way it interrogates different proprietary aesthetics.  All of these themes I find useful for discussing The Devil in Silver.  And although this is a short “primary” reading list, I think it has its benefits:  it allows for more time spent with the texts and encourages close re-reading rather than being exhaustive, which for a text like The Devil in Silver—one that really promotes the active process of thinking and going back to the text and re-thinking—is important.  A short primary reading list also allows for a longer “secondary” reading list—academic essays, journalism, blogs, etc., which fits with the theme of discovering the pros and cons of the academic essay.  And this isn’t to say that organizing a class in this manner doesn’t have its downfalls—there certainly something to be said about the value of breadth of authors and works—but after working with The Devil in Silver for so long, I believe it’s a text that requires frequent re-reading.  And ultimately, I think organizing a class in this manner also fulfills a desire on behalf of students to make connections to literature that deal with social justice in a way that we don’t get from “non-art objects”—an idea I’ve been working with all year and find particularly important to discussions regarding what an English degree should do.

Works Cited:

LaValle, The Devil in Silver

LaValle, Big Machine

Butler, Fledgling

Whitehead, Apex Hides the Hurt


Stephen Paul Miller, The Seventies Now:  Culture as Surveillance

Spielberg, Jaws

Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing

Snead, On Repetition in Black Culture

Locke, Second Treatise

Parks, Elements of Style

Parks, Possession




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