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The Idea of Black Culture


Last updated on June 15, 2022 6:15 am
SKU: 27038300


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Main blurb (for internal use only – CHECK BEFORE USING IN PRINTED PUBLICITY):
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, the hagiographical figure is manifest in divergent textual venues, form Negritude, to the New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance, to certain contemporary critical paradigms, even, to coeval Aftocentric postures; b) the teleological tendency, while related to a), projects a closural motive that opposes it: along this axis, black culture, liberated from the constraints that have paradoxically hemmed it in and defined it simultaneously, would sit, primus inter pares, at the great feast of world cultures. Whereas in the hagiographical outline, black culture follows a retroversive path, in the teleological, its coronation lies ahead. One points toward the past, the other toward an already fulfilled future; c) the sociological-historiographical figure, with its secular emphases, takes its name less from specific disciplinary interests within the social sciences than the general disposition to account for the cultural phenomena before it by way of the checks and measures of reality as well as the impact of historical cause and effect; this particular view places black culture squarely in the world of change and of the contingent. Perhaps it could be said in this case that there is black culture only insofar as it elaborates a measurable politics, a viable economics, and a soundly rationalized historical progression, often comparatively framed; d) the metacritical-theoretical figure shows little of a) and b), makes frequent raids on c), and might be thought of as the most self-conscious of these routes of rhetorical procedure. Its aim, refracting a gamut of post-modernist writing practices, is to bring black culture in communication, as a writing, with a hermeneutics of suspicion-in other words, with the ironical and paronomasic play of signs; much of the work in this discursive field is inhabited by academic critical projects on the arts, e.g., literature, music, dancing, and the plastic arts, as well as a newly concatenated cluster of objects (unspecified) that go by the collective name of cultural studies. Culture here is not delimited as a fairly well defined category of alignments, but stretching out in amoebic unruliness, occupies the whole of the life-world, much like history and politics were perceived to do in the post-Second World War period.
These lines of conduct, which I am designating here as kinds of rhetorical attitudes, may exist in combination, as well as discrete patterns of address, but each is advanced in the interest of attempting to penetrate its claim to the how of it, for running beneath the press of any rhetorical system, which either excludes or elides what would challenge it, lest its systematicity fall apart, is the key, I believe, to the modalities of cultural self-perception that play back over and over again. What all of these dispositions have in common is advocacy; perhaps we might put it down as a rule-in order to survive as a narrative about black culture-conceptual or otherwise-the maker must tell a good story, even when it is a critical one. To that degree, and the fabulists of black culture are not alone in this, culture, as discursive economy enacts defensive ends. It is warfare at the level of the scriptive.
2) As a field of material practices, black culture(s) makes a cut in Western time, creates its pockets and fissures, disabuses it of the illusion of wholeness. We may be well justified in claiming that black culture gives the West its identity, or in short, a way to know what it is for in recognition of what it imagines it is against. In certain details of a binaristic staging, opposition disappears as these forces in agonism become mutually framed and entangled. In a demonstration of this principle, I should like to examine in the work’s second chapter various artistic and other cultural phenomena deployed on six cityscapes, anchored to a comparative reading: 1) Detroit, with Motown and the black church; 2) London with the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM); 3) Paris with Negritude and Presence Africaine; 4) Manhattan with black dance and jazz; 5) Today: the moment in which we are located in Toronto with West Indian writing, and 6) Kingston at the table (or making Jamaican fried chicken in Berlin when you have to leave off the poppin John because you cannot find the black or red beans). These cuts across the times of representative spaces of the Western city are made in order to put flesh on the bones of an abstraction, but the sites themselves offer a rich vantage on developments in the unfolding saga of diasporic African peoples. Unsatisfactory because of its necessarily severe statistical limits and because it is confined to our just-closed si?cle de fer, this repertory of choices, if successfully maneuvered, will permit permutation and addition (for example, the annual carnivals in Brazil and Trinidad, as well as black New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, or the negrismo movements of Cuban modernism) and will argue forcefully that culture is movement through a material scene (in that regard, culture is acting), and unlike the tree felled in the forest, but no one heard it, only becomes the stuff of culture through witnesses. Culture is, therefore, a participatory forum, one way or another, high, low, middle, and it proceeds by social contagion-the more, the merrier! By definition popular, culture must eventually account for the relay of arrangements by which a given community of subjects translates the things of its ecosystem, the supports that nature provides, including the range of social precedents, into the tasks and devices of the spirit; culture in that regard perhaps renders a quintessential demonstration of the transmuted substance-from the seen, or the more-or-less ready-at-hand implement, to the unseen building not made by human hands, though it was. Culture, on this analogy, instantiates a paradox: that an ensemble of subjects, for example, in a coordinated banging on a flat surface, or a rhythmic scratching on one, or, yet a precisely choreographed leap across it, might effect alterations in another’s coronary patterns, or caloric count, or even induce a confirmed bachelor to change his mind.
3) An imagined community, which is inhabited by a grammar of attitudes and feelings, black culture is profoundly personal; in this light, it would not be wrong to say that its grammars properly belong to the psychoanalytic sphere; thinkers about the culture have been trying to name this dimension of it for quite a while now, but without exhausting the possibilities. In his study of the U.S. poetry movement of the black sixties, Stephen Henderson redirected the meaning of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s mascon to explain this marked saturation of elements that break over the cultural participants in a wash of recognition. Henderson argued that these cultural signatures, benchmarks, if you will, could be captured by the poet and that his doing so formalized an instance of black cultural protocol. Whatever we might nominate this something within, we would have to acknowledge that it belongs to the imaginary, or that ensemble of objects of desire that appear only in symbolic displacement and significant misrecognition. Right away, one sees the problem: To talk about black culture as a community of belonging that transcends particularities of time, generation, space/place, is to slip quietly onto psychoanalytic ground, in which event we are talking about a composite person on the model of the one. But can we speak about the culture without this one? This perfectly shaped, ideal actor/actant who is the same for my parents’ generation of the great nonegenarians as for my own of the quintegenarians and my nieces and nephews of the quartegenarians? Not finding her/him/it is the equivalent of waiting for God/ot, whose failure to turn up (often enough) is translated as the disappointed revolutionary change; it is the lament that black folk ought to do some things better because they are black and know by dint of the suffering that their culture opens a special window onto. But what is it that we agelessly know? The third chapter here will be devoted to a reading of the fictional character of Langston Hughes’s ageless Jesse B. Simple as a way to approach the undecidable it’s a black thang. Running across the decades as a feature of the old Pittsburgh Courier, where I first encountered this priceless treasure as a beribboned school girl, the tales of Simple offer a perspective on black culture as a system of values and beliefs that are imagined to make up its bed-rock.
4) As one of the sites of creolization, black culture, like the West, establishes itself as an autochthonous regime, an unassimilable, an undivided alternative. But by way of that very logic, it shows itself everywhere porous to intervention. Processes of creolization most often refer to linguistic systems evolved in the Atlantic Slave Trade and to the genetic ensemble of elements parented by African-European conjunction; but if we could slide the scale of reference just a bit, we might be able to apply the concept to varied artistic phenomena, as in the impact of certain modernisms and post-modernisms on black cultural production, i.e., Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures, Romare Bearden’s paintings, Keith Jarrett’s exquisite noises, poised somewhere between J. S. Bach and A. Copland, but somehow neither, or even the influence of classical flamenco guitar on middle Miles Davis; in the fourth chapter, then, we will examine traffic in the contact zone, firstly by rereading one of its most salient theoretical formulations, mounted in Ralph Ellison’s Little Man at Chehaw Station, then in an attempt to scrutinizing elements of a ritualistic syncretism as displayed in the public profile of the Nation of Islam, especially its 1996 Million Man March. That this well publicized event was mediated by the devil’s technological means shows the boomerang effect: That in its most strident oppositional stances, instances of black culture display must conjure with its putative Other. Whether or not, a million black men actually marched on the nation’s capital became, predictably, a matter of dispute, and in a certain sense, the only thing that mattered was the powerful symbolic import of such a number, but for sure, thousands upon thousands were captured by cameras at the Washington Monument, as, moreover, thousands of others quite likely monitored U.S. television outlets that were, at least for a day, all Farakhan. Narrated as the nation’s latest avatar of the Apostle of Hate, Minister Farakhan knows very well how media play the mythemes, those bits and bytes of image-message, interstitial with the commercial break, that rivet the public imagination. The imagined community never actually sees itself as its own empirical evidence, but the massive sociability of television enables the idea of the gathering. Precisely imitative of the perceptual apparatus, the televisual means in this case metaphorized the notion in one’s mind of what the imagined community might actually look like if it were possible to convoke it in a single unbroken sequence The picture that the subject carries in his brain experiences little moments of the realization of a massive ensemble that never appears when his eye pierces the surface of a well attended rally, or mass meeting. In that moment, everyone is present and accounted for, as television here gives the effect of a proliferating presence that throws an ideal image.
5) Because it is not possible to contemplate black culture without placing it squarely within the development narratives of the West, the fifth chapter will take up the question of the role of money-specifically its modern appearance-in the advancement of the African slave trade. The question here is how the progressive displacements of meaning and value, captured in the notion of the fetish, so dissembled the human and social desecration of African humanity in this case that the logic of property was made to prevail at all costs. How two key thinkers of the late nineteenth century-Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud-converged on the same object is a profoundly puzzling intellectual detail, but read in tandem on the fetish, this pairing might well show the psychoanalytic dimension of home economics. But in any case, the problem is to speak this semiosis across the body of prototypical black culture formation.
6) The Black Studies Movement in the United States was never actually called a movement, but in hindsight those earliest formations, arising, in part, by accident and contingency, seem to have been inducing movement, insofar as they appeared on predominantly white campuses like falling dominoes, or in tune with a spate of popular lyrics of the times, like a rolling stone. By the early to mid nineteen-seventies, what had been stumbled upon in a continuation of black political struggle by other means was becoming increasingly instaurated as a curricular object, a bureaucratic unit in a radically revisionist setting for the new Humanities, a thorn in the side of the Faculties, and the heaviest arm?r in the arsenal of the new University subject. The sixth and final chapter of Discriminations is devoted to an analysis of that moment which awaits theorization: when a political mandate, ordained by history, translates its objectives into its object. To this day, Black Studies, mostly under other names-African-American Studies (from Afro-American Studies), Africana Studies, Pan-African Studies, and perhaps in the near future, African Diasporic Studies-shows the ambivalence of its historical moment. I believe that it is possible to situate the idea of black culture within this epistemological engagement and to suggest that as a cluster of critical inquiries, black culture now belongs to the academy in the West. This quite remarkable eventuality, for all its unevenness of development and for all the misfortune that might attend it in certain of its settings and manifestations, gives us the unusual occasion to witness the university itself as a living organism rather than a museum piece.


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Specification: The Idea of Black Culture

Release date NZ

June 2nd, 2022


Hortense J. Spillers


Wiley-Blackwell Manifestos




Postgraduate, Research & Scholarly Undergraduate

Country of Publication

United Kingdom


Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd)





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