Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist stages a confrontation. A noir detective novel backlit by the subtle irony of postmodern knowingness, the enigmatic debut of its now doubly-Pulitzered author seeds its mysteries in proliferating binaries, competing stand-offs, and embattled ideologies and forms. It's a Black novel of ideas and it's also a work of genre fiction, a characteristic combination for Whitehead whose literary efforts are perhaps best contextualized among a cohort of new millennium Black male satirists Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, Mat Johnson, and others Black men who, in the early aughts, turned to comedy to innovate their fictions and to loosen the conventions that historically beset Black male authors.

Is it right to call The Intuitionist satire? It's certainly wrong to stop at the term postmodern, with all its connotations of whiteness, cynicism, and futility. Hardly of the kind that indulges in caged song only to delight in the sounding of its own voice (though it does that too), Whitehead's irony issues instead from an African American tradition. The joke said to sit at the center of his novel is questing, curious: a vehicle and instrument for philosophical and existential discovery rather than an anti-social bludgeon to excoriate and then turn away from social reality and its oppressive contradictions. In The Intuitionist, a joke is a way of laying claim to the multiplicity of a vexed social reality in flux, a way of saying that the world we live in is not inevitable and, so, is vulnerable to change. Which is to say that when the novel's protagonist, the violently quiet Lila Mae Watson, finds her world inverted by a catastrophic accident, there's a problem to be solved, an answer to be sought.

True to its genre roots, The Intuitionist follows the paces of a detective novel. After an unprecedented catastrophe, an elevator free-fall in one of the city's most important buildings, Lila Mae finds herself singularly accused. The only Black woman elevator inspector in a nominally integrated profession, Lila Mae is an Intuitionist to boot, an acolyte of an experimental style of inspection that goes against the prevailing grain and storied tradition of her white male Empiricist colleagues. So, when an elevator falls in the city's newest municipal building conspicuously, the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, which was named to honor a formerly enslaved woman who taught herself to read and who eventually escaped to the North the Elevator Guild and the Empiricists quickly blame Lila Mae, the last inspector on the job. What better way to indict both racial uplift and too-soon integration within the Elevator Guild than to finally find fault with Lila Mae, whose erstwhile perfect inspection record had saved her and her Intuitionism from reproof? Certain she has been framed, Lila Mae bails. She does not report back to work. Instead, she spends much of the book following clues and dodging enemies, hoping all the while to vindicate herself and to express her long-suppressed fury.

Like any good detective novel, The Intuitionist is flush with clues, most of them red herrings. It is in this space, the space between the interpretative frame that is useful and the interpretative frame that only appears so, that Whitehead threads his joke, his novel testing not only Lila Mae's ability to read the signs that might guide her to her freedom, but also the reader's. And well, it's a good joke: critics and lay readers alike interpret Whitehead's novel in varied and mutually exclusive ways. Two influential readings of the novel provide example: Lauren Berlant reads the novel as one that "[opens] up affect to history," The Intuitionist offering a methodology for giving account of the historical present, intuition crucially an "organ that interfaces the sensorium and history." It's affect, Berlant argues, that tells us how to live and what to dream despite the ongoing infringements upon human life and dignity. It's affect that also reveals the world within a world, the possibility of a "lived alternativity in the present."1 Madhu Dubey, by contrast, reads the novel as a response to a particularly postmodern impasse concerning how Black authors represent and write about Black community. In Whitehead's novel, Dubey sees an author confronting the conventions of Black modernism. Lila Mae's discovery of the founder of Intuitionism James Fulton's secreted Blackness is world-splitting. It registers the limitations of Enlightenment rationality and its attendant humanism and it offers sly critique and revision of stalwart Black modernist tropes. In The Intuitionist, print literacy, urban migration, passing, and all the compromised freedom dreams that attach to those modalities of being, those progressive strivings, provide only more questions, more impasses. Lila Mae, Dubey's reading suggests, must find a different way forward. Where Berlant sees intuition as a liberatory mode potentially against the structures of modernity, one that might ultimately help Lila Mae navigate toward forms of attachment that are neither cruel nor delusional, Dubey sees intuition as an instrument of refashioning within an ongoing project, as an instrument capable of correcting modernity's exclusions and excesses, as a necessary mechanism for its fabled "creative destruction."2

Even so, there are important similarities between Berlant and Dubey's interpretations similarities that we might read as recognition that Whitehead's joke obtains for its familiarity, its elocution of familiar structures, and its defiance of the expectations that such familiarity usually brokers. Both critics register the centrality of crisis to The Intuitionist; both apprehend crisis as bound up with the systemic reproduction of the structures and mechanisms that constitute modernity; both turn to the aesthetic and to collective sensoria as potential countermodalities capable of refusing the imperatives of history; both, finally, emphasize the importance of right reading, of accurate interpretation, of the necessity of approaching the world and literature too with the right set of perspectival frames and instruments this, they both argue, will lead us and Lila Mae out of the twinned quagmires of history and the historical present. Lila Mae's attempt to clear her name, her investigation into the usual suspects (her grinning obsequious Black co-worker Pompey, her kingpin boss Chancre, her white Empiricists colleagues), is the process by which she clarifies and names her own interpretative horizons, and potentially, importantly, her way of getting free. This process is not only about solving the curious case of an elevator free-fall, but also about apprehending possibility in an increasingly administered world. For Berlant, such possibility exists already, waiting to be recognized and enacted, by well-tuned intuition; for Dubey, intuition itself is a "medium of futurity," ultimately a way of extending and transforming modernity's project rather than a lived strategy for resisting it.3

We should consider Lila Mae's repetition of history a farce. Echoing the eponymous formerly enslaved Fanny Briggs, Lila Mae teaches herself a "new literacy" after she discovers that Robert Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism, is a Black man, that Intuitionism, her chosen school of thought and practice, was originally conceived as a joke. Her questing leads her to Mrs. Rogers, Fulton's longtime housekeeper, who admits, "[Yes,] he was having a joke on them at first, but it wasn't a joke at the end. It became true."4 How jokes function, how they can become "true" even as they parody social reality, how that truth obtains through the movements of thoughts in concert and time these minor reckonings send Lila Mae back to Fulton's two-volume founding text Theoretical Elevators. The many passages that invoke "we" and "the race" no longer read like universalist invocations but instead tempt a form of racial particularism is he talking to Black people, Lila Mae thinks. But Blackness itself as the key to The Intuitionist's mysteries is yet another red herring another site and scene likely to invite instrumentalized bad reading. Still, astute readers are right to approach The Intuitionist as a work of racial allegory, but it's the kind of allegory that extends from jokes, from the subversive rehearsal of the world and the inadequate modes of knowledge that we routinely bring to it.

It's impossible not to hear the echo of James Weldon Johnson's infamous Ex-Colored Man in James Fulton's equating of Intuitionism to a joke. In one of the African American literary tradition's most enigmatic lines, the Ex-Colored Man lays claim to his initiatory joke as a kind of bittersweet revenge. "I know that I am playing with fire," he says in the 1912 masterpiece The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, "and I feel the thrill which accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society."5 Originally conceived as parody, Johnson's novel intentionally engaged the literary conventions of early 20th century Black writing particularly, the predominance of autobiography and the reliance on allegory and melodrama to heighten the narrative stakes of racial struggle and progress to disrupt them. Johnson called forth calcified ways of reading Black life and Black artists and threw those methods against an indeterminately Black background. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which explicates its title narrator-protagonist's decision to live permanently on the white side of the color line,was first published anonymously, Johnson only claiming authorship years later and clarifying its fictional status.

Johnson's novel is a catalyzing work in its own right, showcasing Black interiority and collapsing it into the narrational perspective, an early example of what would eventually be codified as a literary term and strategy in 1918: stream of consciousness.6 We might read Johnson's formal innovations as of a piece with his authorial gambit, as evidence that jokes operate formally and epistemologically. In letters to his wife, Johnson made clear that his readers must be unwitting: "the absolute secrecy of the authorship must be maintained . . . [as] soon as it is known that the author is a colored man who could not be the character in the book, interest in it will fall. There must always be in the reader's mind the thought that, at least, it may be true."7 Johnson then, like Whitehead, had a joke of his own in addition to that of his fictional narrator-protagonist. Johnson's joke is fundamentally about perception, about the forms that allow his readers to receive certain kinds of knowledge, which is to say, about authority and the necessary confidence games that secure it in a constitutively unequal society. Johnson's narrator-protagonist, the Ex-Colored Man, passes as white and so reveals the absurd superstition, the violent irrationality, at the heart of racial categories; Johnson, himself, adds another drop of Black paint to the bucket, giving his readers a familiar Black form (autobiography) and a familiar Black narrative (from enslavement to freedom) that can only finally obtain for their ironic disruptions.8

With this history in mind, Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Fulton's joke, and what we might begin to think about as Whitehead's own, extend from how they inhabit genre otherwise. The mechanism for doing that, for taking convention and revealing its seams in a way that nevertheless leaves it both intact and transformed, is a joke. To be sure, jokes can be put to many uses, can just as easily be regressive as revolutionary. The minstrel show that the Guild puts on midway through The Intuitionist is testament to this, but the formal qualities of jokes, how they contain and make coherent contradiction, make them an especially useful modality for thinking about and feeling through Black life. What Berlant and Dubey both miss in their emphases on intuition are the social intimacies called forth by any given comic event the joker needs someone to be in the forest with him in order for the tree to sound (even if that someone is himself, is imagined, is deferred). It's not, then, the discovery of Fulton's passing that reawakens Lila Mae's intuition, but her apprehension of Fulton's joke her understanding that Fulton's Intuitionism is a joke, and also true.

Fulton's joke doesn't make itself known to Lila Mae all at once. Lila Mae's colleague, the only other Black elevator inspector, Pompey, primes Lila Mae's critical attention. Convinced for the majority of the novel that Pompey has had a hand in her incrimination, Lila Mae confronts him in front of his home. It's the first time Lila Mae sees Pompey: Pompey is a kind man. He has a wife and two boys. He lives in a Black neighborhood, only two blocks from Lila Mae, but unlike her, he interacts with his neighbors, seems to know them well. When Lila Mae arrives at his home in the morning, she catches a moment of tenderness between Pompey and his wife as he sends her off to meet the world. She watches him squeeze the shoulders of his sons, who moments before this gesture were routinely fighting each other on the stoop steps. The family Pompey, Lila Mae thinks to herself. Her planned confrontation is disturbed by these quiet observations, her convictions and her process for arriving at them falling away after she finally sees Pompey for the first time. Nevertheless, Lila Mae carries out her task. Pompey denies any involvement in the Fanny Briggs Building elevator free-fall, and more than that, he denounces Lila Mae's fragile superiority:

All my life I wanted to be an elevator inspector. That's all I wanted to be. And I got it. I was the first colored man to get a Department badge. They made shit of what I wanted and made me eat it. You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you. Come up here and piss in my face. I don't know what you're looking for, Inspector Watson, but I don't have it.9

Prior to this moment, Lila Mae regarded Pompey with envy and contempt, simultaneously critical of his camaraderie with other inspectors and desirous of it. But Lila Mae's insistence on independence, her distrusting detachment, blinds her to Pompey's true nature, her blindness no different than that of her fairer colleagues. Pompey is not a "shuffling embarrassment," the man who throws his head back with tears streaming from his eyes after a racist joke, or not simply so. He is a man with a family to feed, two boys to think about. He is the first Black man to integrate the Guild. Pompey tells Lila Mae, "What I done, I done because I had no other choice. This is a white man's world. They make the rules."10 Lila Mae's realization that she is wrong about Pompey makes her curious about her other perceptions. If Lila Mae is as easily fooled as the white men who work beside her, as easily beguiled by Pompey's performance, as equally distanced from his complex humanity, what does that say about her, her orientation to the world, and her methods for making sense of it?

Many critics read the novel as a gradual, if deferred, resolution of the neat binaries that circulate over top of the imposition of the color line. The central tensions between the two leading schools of elevator thought, Empiricism and Intuitionism, as well as the Guild election that pits political conservatism against political progressivism easily map onto the fundamental architecture of Jim Crow urbanity. Fulton's promise of a "black box," his language of a second elevation which drives competing elevator corporations, Arbo and United, to eagerly search for the same notebooks that Lila Mae investigates to clear her name is commonly read as a prophesied transcendence, as a long-awaited conveyance to the promised land. But this too, I would venture, is yet another red herring.

Berlant's essay follows Lila Mae's "being jolted" from one wrong form of knowing to another: first from Empiricism to Intuitionism in college, then from Intuitionism to a kind of limbo following the crash, and then to what she calls a "yet another new intuitionism."11 Interestingly enough, Berlant does not name the instigator of this third and final shift, nor does she indicate whether or not she understands Lila Mae's jolting to have been completed. Instead, Berlant describes Lila Mae as abdicating both "capital and love" to ascetically fulfill the project and promise, the final realization of Fulton's prophesied second elevation in the "uncompromised now."12 Similarly, Dubey retains the metaphors that first swirled in the rumors surrounding Fulton's lost notebooks. For her, Lila Mae's decision to take up Fulton's work after discovering his truth is a bid for futurity, for the future city that will displace the current corrupt and exclusionary one.

Each of these readings is persuasive in its own way, but neither author contends with Fulton's joke, with how jokes give mutable form to knowledge. Berlant and Dubey both understand Lila Mae's final investment in Fulton's project as an investment in the architecture of the world, as either subversive reanimation or transformative destruction of the modern project. Which is to say that both critics remain within modernism's clutches and paradigms, reanimation and destruction two sides of an always reinvested coin. But what if Lila Mae's commitment to study, what we might think of as "black study" following the insights of Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey, is a commitment to people, is the kind of intellectual labor that extends from a foundational refusal of the categories and terms that organize knowledge, power, human beings? What if, in abdication, Lila Mae turns once again to Fulton's notebooks not to redeem or transform her life within the modernist frame, but to seek the kind of spontaneous communion, borne of chance and desire, that brought her to Fulton's notebooks and his secret joke in the first place the spaces that the modernist frame and project can neither confront nor predict?

What does Lila Mae learn when she understands that Intuitionism is a joke? In part, she learns the utility of jokes and how jokes exhaust utility. Jokes are not teleological. James Weldon Johnson's joke, for example, can only become legible against the screen of anti-black logic and discourse that it engages, but even so, Johnson's joke is not beholden to that screen. Jokes suspend the logic and discourse of a given knowledge system in a field of play. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man enacts what Frederick Douglass might have celebrated as "scorching irony": Johnson writes that the only way to escape anti-black violence is to become white, portrays such an existence, white life, as an unremitting tragedy, depicts whiteness as bereft even in its promise of safety. Johnson does this in a novel that itself challenges the ideological demand for Black narratives of escape and self-revelation, even as he writes and inaugurates new fugitive methods, new ways of knowing Blackness. Which is to say that the purchase of a joke always happens in relief, always exceeds the logic and terms which give it flight. The familiar cliché turns out not to be quite true: jokes are not worse for their explanations, but their explanations cannot obtain within the same frame as the jokes themselves. Critical jokes, quite simply, ask more of us. And it's always an us that they ask. That's their promise: a space to commune outside the organizing logics from which those hailed need relief.

Lila Mae's understanding of Fulton's joke forces her to recognize the infinite configurations that might competently inform a school of elevator thought and consequently, the infinite configurations capable of organizing thought, power, and human beings. It's not us versus them, she realizes, because Intuitionism, like Empiricism, like any conceivable knowledge system, has limits and will always fail to fully grasp a world that cannot be ruled. Lila Mae does not use intuition to operate in an "uncompromised now," as Berlant would have it; she does not seek to redeem the modernist project by studying to make it more inclusive, as Dubey suggests. The entire novel documents Lila Mae's susceptibility to being compromised, and her lived experience provides evidence that inclusion does not protect against othering violence, her own or others'. Fulton's joke endows Lila Mae with a way to name the limits of what can be systematized even as she discovers new ways of engaging with and knowing the world.

Lila Mae puts it this way: "She is never wrong when it comes to Intuitionism. Things occur to her. What her discipline and Empiricism have in common: they cannot account for the catastrophic accident."13 Lila Mae learns that no one is responsible for the elevator free-fall in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, no one sabotaged her the elevator, despite all improbability, simply fell. Whitehead's novel is then a kind of anti-detective novel, with nothing to be solved despite the protagonist's world-changing discovery. This wry joke reproduces Lila Mae's own final reckonings. Only forms dynamic enough to change in their relation to what it is they describe, only forms that can hold and make coherent contradiction, only forms that invite us to revel together in the space that cannot be captured, will lead us away from this world. How better can you describe a joke?

Dr. Brittney Michelle Edmonds (@jussssjokes) is an Assistant Professor of 20th and 21st century African-American literature and culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is currently working on her first book, Who's Laughing Now?: Black Satire and the Evolution of Form, which develops an argument about the centrality of Black humor practices to formal shifts in Black expressive cultures after 1968. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, Studies in American HumorMELUSSouth: a scholarly journal, and elsewhere.


  1. Lauren Berlant, "Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event," American Literary History 20, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 853.[]
  2. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Verso, 1983).[]
  3. Madhu Dubey, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 240.[]
  4. Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist (New York: Anchor Books), 236.[]
  5. James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism (W. W. Norton, 2015), 5.[]
  6. Ibid, XXXV[]
  7. Ibid, XXIII. []
  8. James Weldon Johnson conspicuously calls on the predominant forms of his day, autobiography and Black narratives of escape, to ironically disrupt them. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is not an autobiography, at the very least, for being a novel. The Autobiography stresses the seams of conventional African American autobiography because it tells the origin story of a man falling into whiteness, an autobiography of a white man. Johnson emphasizes the fall: Whiteness is a condition of unremitting tragedy. The very forms used to signify Black humanity to white readerships are transformed to indict whiteness, liberalism, and anti-Blackness. As Johnson emphasizes before the publication of the first edition, it is imperative that his readers think the narrative is true. Johnson uses the white desire for black fungibility to stage an escape: and that escape is not the narrator-protagonist's, but Blackness's own. Instead of being impressed to do the work of American liberalism, the work produces an allegorical biography of whiteness while freeing black forms from a kind of conscription. Autobiography and a Black narrative are only finally realized through this formal play, through the thwarting of white demands for an instrumental blackness. Instead, Johnson provides epistemological disruption and willful fugitivity. The ex-colored man announces this "practical joke" on the opening pages: the white man origin's story cannot help but emerge from Blackness.[]
  9. Whitehead, The Intuitionist, 195.[]
  10. Ibid, 195.[]
  11. Berlant, "Intuitionists," 854.[]
  12. Ibid. This is part of a broader argument that Berlant makes about the gender politics of contemporary male authors who often emplot female protagonists who achieve redemption only after taking up the unfinished work of a man. In Berlant's words, "women take on men's work to emancipate their intuitions." []
  13. Whitehead, The Intuitionist, 227.[]