Dancing into Life: Affective Ontogenesis in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain
Keywords : Philip Roth, The Human Stain, affect, embodiment, ontogenesis
Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, The Human Stain, is widely considered a novel
about racial passing. However, such a view assumes that Coleman Silk, a lightskinned
African American who lives most of his life as a white Jew, is the sole
protagonist of the story at the expense of Zuckerman, who, as the narrator
and self-proclaimed author of The Human Stain, is no less important than
Coleman to the novel. The novel details how Zuckerman abandons his selfimposed
seclusion and becomes reintegrated into human relationships after a
spontaneous dance with Coleman. Granting equal importance to Coleman
and Zuckerman will reveal that Roth’s concern in the novel is not only the
historical phenomenon of racial passing but subjectivation in general.
To understand the instances of ontogenesis in The Human Stain, this essay
proposes an affective materialist perspective, one that, instead of focusing on
the macro-level of social structures, as previous criticism on the novel has done,
turns to what can be considered the quantum level of pre-perceptual matter.
Such a perspective is provided by affect theory, for which subjectivity is always
embodied and subjectivation is galvanized by active, creative matter.
This paper argues that the 19-year-old Coleman’s racial passing and
Zuckerman’s self-imposed seclusion, based on a mixture of the modern
humanist concept of self-invention and the postmodern belief in the body
as text, exemplify an idealist conception of ontogenesis that is destined to ossification
and sterility. In contrast, the 71-year-old Coleman’s unexpected transformation
after meeting Faunia and Zuckerman’s revitalization through the
dance with Coleman illustrate that embodied subjectivation through affection
is the truly productive ontogenesis, which leads to continual openness and creativity.