The Idea of Black Culture
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Hortense Spillers's THE IDEA OF BLACK CULTURE will consist of six chapters, described below, in some detail (she has supplied more detail than I give here). Her book exploits Eagleton's successful title, and like Eagleton's book, grounds its subject (but more thoroughly) in its history. The engagement here - the controversy, as to what can be meant by the term 'Black Culture' and the necessity to bear witness to history - will run through her several strands of argument. More obviously in her sights, in her concluding chapter, are those people (treasonable clerks), like Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, Cornel West, who, in her view - have used African-American/Black Studies to their own financial ends, usurping and exploiting their history in a cult of personality. Spillers is an eminent and adversarial figure, acquainted personally with many of the greats of African-American culture. Her work bears steady witness to the plight of African-Americans, to the full history of slavery, North (she has written in her latest book on the horrific breeding farms in Massachusetts) and South.
1) Black culture as a discursive field-in fact, of intersecting discursive fields-self-consciously pursues the question of origins, either explicitly or implicitly. Because the motive idea of black culture is advanced as an oppositional form, its theoreticians have had to decide not only what it excludes (is the logic of choice already decided in this case?), but what it must exclude, relative to an absolute "beginning," often embodied in a wide array of symbolic and figurative devices summed up as "Africa." It is important to insist on a distinction here between the massive geopolitical complex of the African continent, with particular reference to Subsaharan Africa, and the plethora of poetics attendant upon literary notions of "Africa," which frequencies are not only not synonymous and commensurate, but describe different orders of cases entirely; often enough, these realms of attention are elided as if they were twina.
The question of genesis is by far the most prestigious problematic of scholarship and writing on the culture of black life-worlds, inasmuch as any given moment of social and political practice is predicated, even when implicitly emergent, on where the culture comes from; the current Afrocentric fashion in the United States, for example, is not new, though many of its tenets and tonalities have been redrafted as a contemporary response to the mid-century movements in Civil Rights and the Black Nationalist resurgence subsequent to it. Afrocentric theory has never dominated the field of cultural explanation, but it is fair to say that it has always been a contender, solidly poised against "integrationist/assimilationist" appeals on the one hand and "nationalist/separatist/essentialist" claims on the other.
Much of the writing about the black culture problematic tends to poach on the ground of its nearest textual and contextual neighbors-history, politics, and economics-and can hardly be imagined without reference to "race" as theory, as interlinked material practices, as the bane or boon of public policy and address. In (more or less) monolingual communities, as in the United States and Great Britain, "culture" and "race" attend the same school, whereas the lines are drawn quite otherwise in multi- or bi-lingual national formations, as in the complicated instance of Canada, or in bilateral religious spheres, as in the case of Ireland. To say so is not to suggest that "race" does not appear in various interarticulations (with religious, linguistic, and national/nationalistic cartographies), neither is it to say that monolingual systems of language do not engender what Hazel Carby has called "differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community." But juxtaposing "race/culture" does show how one of the lines of force might be described through a stage of heterogeneously poised cultural valences. While "race" for the most part marks the battleground in Diasporic African communities, it is the "it" that means different things in different black cultural regions; in certain Caribbean communities, for example, one is not black in Kingston, or Basse Terre, or Fort de France for the same reasons that she might be in St. Louis, or Atlanta, USA. In the former instance, "race" loses some of its pernicious evaluative force since the community operates by the social logic of the "same," while in the latter, the confrontation of heterogeneous subjects, contending for status, for superior talisman, designates "race" as an absolutely reified property, negatively weighted, in marked and unmarked positionings. Not too clearly, the taxonomies of marking, of stigmatizing, might be as ingeniously derived as a given situation demands, but the unseen trick is that the mark always follows an arbitrary path; "blackness," for instance, is not inherently remarkable as we can think of certain contexts in which it actually "disappears" as a strategy of discrimination. Conventionally, however, it is one of the master signs of difference. Where "race" pressures are aligned in binaristic display, Afrocentric theories of culture arise as the most impassioned counterclaim. But after all, Afrocentric views of culture and their competing conceptual narratives are situated within rhetorical systems of address that may be said to constitute the discursive field of black culture.
In the opening chapter, then, we will attempt to lay out a conceptual scheme of instances of black culture's discursive field according to fours stress points: a) the hagiographical tendency, which posits black heroes in a mimetic tradition of writing and celebration that traces back to the lives of the Saints; decisively marked as an intellectual technology that replicates and re-enforces the mythic cult of the "leader
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