The Handsworth Songs letters
One of the most remarkable films I’ve seen the last couple of years must be Handsworth Songs by Black Audio Film Collective (directed by John Akomfrah), which takes as a starting point the “riots” that haunted the Birmingham district of Handsworth and South London in 1985, as a way to open up secret histories of racial suppression and post-colonial tension in post-Industrial England. We have shown this film - the debut film of Black Audio Film Collective, released in 1986 - in our Somewhere in Time programme in 2009, but I recently saw it again on the occasion of the BAFC exhibition at STUK (Leuven), and it still struck me as a particularly affective and invigorating piece of work, brimming with urgency and audacity. It’s one of those rare works in which the dynamics between political charge - outspoken but never dictated - and aesthetical choice - a panoply of various text, image and sound sources and textures - still hold up to this day. From a certain perspective, one could consider it as one of the film essays that in its own way served as a reaction to what Jacques Rancière, in his article ‘Il est arrivé quelque chose au réel’ (published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 2000), has described as the crisis of the “réel de la fiction”. He especially targeted the “fiction mineure”, characterised by a combination of political stereotypes and dramatic clichés in a sterile formula that we can no longer stumach. Against the “réel de la fiction” (real of fiction), Rancière has put the “fictions politique du réel” (political fictions of the real).
“It is not us who no longer tolerate politics. It is politics which no longer tolerates the remnants of the ‘réel de la fiction’. Perhaps because some filmmakers have in the meantime invented a new mode of fictioning appropriate for denouncing the socio-fictional compromise that links the ‘fiction mineure’ to modes of presentation of a depoliticised politics. The socio-fictional compromise is the complicity between the pseudo-evidence of the separation between document and fiction, and the perpetual exchange of the forms of belief they give rise to. Against the ‘réel de la fiction’ that support this compromise, the ‘fictions politique du réel’ have succeeded in exploiting the paradoxical advantage that is proper to the documentary genre: where the real is taken as an acquired given, there is no need to attest it fictionally, no need to produce the sentiment. Where it is supposedly given, one can invest in rendering it problematic, one can invent its problem.”
In the light of Rancière’s musings on the changing relations between cinema and politics, reality and fiction, past and present, History and memory, Handsworth Songs seems like an interesting case to reflect on these changes, which in themselves are related to the overhanging expectations towards cinema - and “political” cinema in particular. By way of initial illustration, I looked up and copied below some of the earliest reactions on the film, i.c. the critical review that Salman Rushdie wrote for the Guardian in January 1987, and the subsequent letters written by cultural theorist Stuart Hall (whose work has undoubtedly inspired the language of Handsworth Songs) and activist Darcus Howe. These letters were then themselves quoted in several important culture-critical essays from the end of the 1980’s, mostly dealing with the politics of racial representation, two of which can be found below: Stuart Hall’s influential ‘new ethnicities’ and Isaac Julien & Kobena Mercer’s ‘De Margin and De Centre’. Good reading!
Salman Rushdie, ‘songs doesn’t know the score’
The Guardian, January 1987
In The Heart of a Woman, volume four of her famous autobiography, Maya Angelou describes a meeting of the Harlem Writer’s Guild, at which she read some of her work and had it torn to pieces by the group.
It taught her a tough lesson: ‘If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance.’
It just isn’t enough to be black and blue, or even black and angry. The message is plain enough in Angelou’s self-portrait, in Louise Meriwether’s marvellous Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, in Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall; if you want to tell the untold stories, of you want to give voice to the voiceless, you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’re dumb and blind.
Down at the Metro cinema, in Soho, there’s a new documentary starting a three-week run. Handsworth Songs, made by Black Audio Film collective. The ‘buzz’ about the picture is good. New Socialist likes it, City Limits likes it, people are calling it multi-layered ‘original’ imaginative, its makers talk of speaking in metaphors, its director John Akomfrah is getting mentioned around town as a talent to watch.
Unfortunately, it’s no good, and the trouble does seem to be one of language.
Let me put it this way. If you see ‘Handsworth’, what do you see? Most Britons would see fire, riots, looted shops, young Rastas and helmeted cops by night. A big story; front page. Maybe a West Side Story: Officer Krupke, armed to the teeth versus the kids with the social disease.
There’s a line that Handsworth Songs wants us to learn. ‘There are no stories in the riots.’ It repeats, ‘only the ghosts of other stories’. The trouble is, we aren’t told the other stories. What we get is what we know from TV. Blacks as trouble; blacks as victims; Here is a Rasta dodging the boat; here are the old news-clips of the folks in the fifties getting off the boat, singing calypsos about ‘darling London’.
Little did they know, eh? But we don’t hear about their lives, or the lives of their British-born children. We don’t hear Handsworth’s songs.
Why not? The film’s handout provide a clue. ‘The film attempts to excavate hidden ruptures/agonies of “Race”’. It ‘looks at the riots as a political field coloured by the trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis.’ Oh dear. The sad thing is that while the film-makers are trying to excavate ruptures and work out how trajectories can colour fields, they let us hear so little of the much richer language of their subjects.
When Home Secretary Hurd visits Handsworth looking bemused, just after the riots, a black voice is heard to say: ‘The higher monkey climb the more he will expose.’ If only more of this sort of wit and freshness could have found its way into the film. But the makers are too busy ‘repositioning the convergence of “Race” and “Criminality”’, describing a living world in the dead language of race industry professionals. I don’t know Handsworth very well, but I do know it’s bursting with tales worth telling. Take a look at John Bishton and Derek Reardon’s 1984 photo-and-text essay, Home Front. There are Vietnamese boat people in Handsworth where Father Peter Diem, a refugee himself, runs a pastoral centre to which they come for comfort.
There’s an Asian businessman in Handsworth who made his pile by employing his fellow-Asians in sweat-shops to make, of all things, the Harrington jackets beloved of the skinheads who were also, as it happened fond of bashing the odd Paki.
Here are two old British soldiers. One, namely Shri Dalip Singh, sits stiffly in his army tunic, sporting his Africa Star with pride; the other a certain Jagat Singh, is a broken old gent who has been arrested for drunkenness on these streets over 300 times. Some nights they catch hum trying to direct the traffic.
It’s a religious place, Handsworth. What was once a methodist chapel is now one of the many Sikh gurdwaras. Here is the Good News Asian Church, and there you see Rasta groundations, a mosque, Pentecostal halls, and Hindujain and Buddhist places of worship. Many of Handsworth’s songs are hymns of praise. But there’s reggae, too, there are Toasters at blue dances, there are Punjabi ghazals and Two Tone bands.
These days, the kids in handsworth like to dance the Wobble. And some of it deizens deam of distant ‘liberations’, nurturing, for example, the dark fantasy of Kahlistan.
It’s important, I believe, to tell such stories, to say, this is England: Allahu Akbar from the minaret of Birmingham mosque, the Ethiopian World Federation which helps Handsworth Rastas ‘return’ to the land of Ras Tafari. There are English scenes now, English songs.
You won’t find them, or anything like them, in Handsworth Songs, though for some reason you will see plenty of footage about troubles in Tottenham and Brixton, which is just the sort of blurring you know the Harlem writers would have jumped on, no matter how right-on it looked.
It isn’t easy for black voices to be heard, It isn’t easy to get it said that the state attacks us, that the police are militarised. It isn’t easy to fight back against media stereotypes. As a result, whenever somebody says what we all know, even if they say it clumsily and in jargon, there’s a strong desire to cheer, just because they managed to het something said, they managed to get through.
I don’t think that’s much help myself. That kind of celebration makes us lazy.
Next time, let’s start telling those ghost-stories. If we know why the caged bird sings, let’s listen to her song.
Stuart Hall, ‘song of handsworth praise’
The Guardian, January 1987
Sir, I must take issue with the way Salman Rushdie attacked Black Audio Film Collective and its film Handsworth Songs, from his well-deserved but secure position in the literary firmament.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Of course, a mere recital of the known contours of racism and oppression in the same, old, stale language does no one any good. Of course, black artists, deserve something more from us than mere celebration for having managed to say anything at all.
What I don’t understand is how anyone watching the film could have missed the struggle which it represents, precisely, to find a new language. The most obvious thing to me about the film is its break with the tired style of the riot-documentary.
For example, the way documentary footage has been retimed, tinted, overprinted so as to formalise and distance it; the narrative interruptions; the highly original and unpredictable sound-track; the ‘giving voice’ to new subjects; the inter-cutting with the ‘ghosts of other stories.’
These new ways of telling bring Handsworth Songs into the line with Passion of Remembrance and, in a different way, My Beautiful Laundrette, in that distinctive wave of new work by third generation black artists, part of whose originality is precisely that they tell the black experience as an English experience.
For what reason, apart from making us look in new ways, does Salman Rushdie want these ‘new languages’? He seems to assume that his songs are not only different but better, presumably because they don’t deal with all that dreary stuff about riots and the police etc. He prefers colourful stories about experience, closer to ‘the richer language of their subjects.’
I fully agree that there is no one ‘black experience’, and we need to confront its real diversity without forcing it into simplistic moulds. But subjects and experience don’t appear out of thin air. The counterposing of ‘experience’ to ‘politics’ is a false and dangerous dichotomy.
Black Audio may have been guilty of mixing its metaphors when it spoke of ‘a political field coloured by trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis’. But it seems to be struggling harder for a language in which to represent Handsworth as I know it than Salman’s lofty, disdainful, and too-complacent ‘Oh dear’.
Darcus Howe, ‘the language of black culture’
The Guardian, January 1987
Sir, I want to take issue with Stuart Hall’s attack on Salman Rushdie’s critical piece on the Black Audio collective’s film, Handsworth Songs.
I write neither from Rushdie’s ‘well-deserved but secure position in the literary firmament’ nor from, dare I say it, Stuart Hall’s equally well-deserved but secure position in the academic firmament.
I have been an activist in the black movement for over 20 years, organising and developing political, cultural and artistic thrusts which have emerged from within our black communities and continue to do so today.
For some time now my activist colleagues and I have been moaning in print about the absence of critical tradition in the field of black arts and culture. We recognise that such an absence is a point of greater weakness. Without it we are left with nothing but cheer-leaders on the one hand and a string of abuses on the other.
Enter Salman Rushdie with a well-written and thoughtful piece of criticism which serves the dual function of a critique of the film itself, while at the same time laying the foundations of a critical tradition. It is most welcome.
Hall’s main objection is that Rushdie misses the fact of the struggle for a new language which the film represents. Rushdie does nothing of the sort. He simply says that the attempt to shape a new language does not work, and I agree with him. In the best critical tradition he goes to suggest what he thinks would work. And I am certain that the filmmakers will take that on board. If they don’t we are in a sorry state indeed.
Finally I could find not a trace of loftiness, disdain nor complacency in Rushdie’s critique. His is a useful and timely intervention, a far cry from the patronising ‘ten out of ten for struggling’ approach.
Stuart Hall, ‘new ethnicities’
Written in 1988. Reprinted from ICA Documents 7: Black Film, British Cinema, edited by Kobena Mercer.
I have centred my remarks on an attempt to identify and characterize a significant shift that has been going on (and is still going on) in black cultural politics. This shift is not definitive, in the sense that there are two clearly discernible phases—one in the past which is now over and the new one which is beginning—which we can neatly counterpose to one another. Rather, they are two phases of the same movement, which constantly overlap and interweave. Both are framed by the same historical conjucture and both are rooted in the politics of anti-racism and the post-war black experience in Britain. Nevertheless I think we can identify two different ‘moments’ and that the difference between them is significant.
It is difficult to characterize these precisely, but I would say that the first moment was grounded in a particular political and cultural analysis. Politically, this is the moment when the term ‘black’ was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism and marginalization in Britain and came to provide the organizing category of a new politics of resistance, among groups and communities with, in fact, very different histories, traditions and ethnic identities. In this moment, politically speaking. ‘The black experience’, as a singular and unifying framework based on the building up of identity across ethnic and cultural difference between the different communities, became ‘hegemonic’ over other ethnic/ racial identities—though the latter did not, of course, disappear. Culturally, this analysis formulated itself in terms of a critique of the way blacks were positioned as the unspoken and invisible ‘other’ of predominantly white aesthetic and cultural discourses.
This analysis was predicated on the marginalization of the black experience in British culture; not fortuitously occurring at the margins, but placed, positioned at the margins, as the consequence of a set of quite specific political and cultural practices which regulated, governed and ‘normalized’ the representational and discursive spaces of English society. These formed the conditions of existence of a cultural politics designed to challenge, resist and, where possible, to transform the dominant regimes of representation—first in music and style, later in literary, visual and cinematic forms. In these spaces blacks have typically been the objects, but rarely the subjects, of the practices of representation. The struggle to come into representation was predicated on a critique of the degree of fetishization, objectification and negative figuration which are so much a feature of the representation of the black subject. There was a concern not simply with the absence or marginality of the black experience but with its simplification and its stereotypical character.
The cultural politics and strategies which developed around this critique had many facets, but its two principal objects were: first the question of access to the rights to representation by black artists and black cultural workers themselves. Second, the contestation of the marginality, the stereotypical quality and the fetishized nature of images of blacks, by the counter-position of a ‘positive’ black imagery. These strategies were principally addressed to changing what I would call the ‘relations of representation’.
I have a distinct sense that in the recent period we are entering a new phase. But we need to be absolutely clear what we mean by a ‘new’ phase because, as soon as you talk of a new phase, people instantly imagine that what is entailed is the substitution of one kind of politics for another. I am quite distinctly not talking about a shift in those terms. Politics does not necessarily proceed by way of a set of oppositions and reversals of this kind, though some groups and individuals are anxious to ‘stage’ the question in this way. The original critique of the predominant relations of race and representation and the politics which developed around it have not and cannot possibly disappear while the conditions which gave rise to it— cultural racism in its Dewesbury form—not only persists but positively flourishes under Thatcherism.1 There is no sense in which a new phase in black cultural politics could replace the earlier one. Nevertheless it is true that as the struggle moves forward and assumes new forms, it does to some degree displace, reorganize and reposition the different cultural strategies in relation to one another. If this can be conceived in terms of the ‘burden of representation’, I would put the point in this form: that black artists and cultural workers now have to struggle, not on one, but on two fronts. The problem is, how to characterize this shift—if indeed, we agree that such a shift has taken or is taking place—and if the language of binary oppositions and substitutions will no longer suffice. The characterization that I would offer is tentative, proposed in the context of this essay mainly to try and clarify some of the issues involved, rather than to pre-empt them.
The shift is best thought of in terms of a change from a struggle over the relations of representation to a politics of representation itself. It would be useful to separate out such a ‘politics of representation’ into its different elements. We all now use the word representation, but, as we know, it is an extremely slippery customer. It can be used, on the one hand, simply as another way of talking about how one images a reality that exists ‘outside’ the means by which things are represented: a conception grounded in a mimetic theory of representation. On the other hand the term can also stand for a very radical displacement of that unproblematic notion of the concept of representation. My own view is that events, relations, structures do have conditions of existence and real effects, outside the sphere of the discursive; but that it is only within the discursive, and subject to its specific conditions, limits and modalities, do they have or can they be constructed within meaning. Thus, while not wanting to expand the territorial claims of the discursive infinitely, how things are represented and the ‘machineries’ and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role. This gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation— subjectivity, identity, politics—a formative, not merely an expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life. I think it is the move towards this second sense of representation which is taking place and which is transforming the politics of representation in black culture.
This is a complex issue. First, it is the effect of a theoretical encounter between black cultural politics and the discourses of a Eurocentric, largely white, critical cultural theory which in recent years, has focused so much analysis of the politics of representation. This is always an extremely difficult, if not dangerous, encounter. (I think particularly of black people encountering the discourses of post-structuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis and feminism.) Second, it marks what I can only call ‘the end of innocence’, or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject. Here again, the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’; that is, the recognition that ‘black’ is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that ‘race’ or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.
We should put this as plainly as possible. Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right-on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that ‘you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same’. This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity. It entails the movement in black politics, from what Gramsci called the ‘war of manoeuvre’ to the ‘war of position’—the struggle around positionalities. But the difficulty of conceptualizing such a politics (and the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism) does not absolve us of the task of developing such a politics.
The end of the essential black subject also entails a recognition that the central issues of race always appear historically in articulation, in a formation, with other categories and divisions and are constantly crossed and recrossed by the categories of class, of gender and ethnicity. (I make a distinction here between race and ethnicity to which I shall return.) To me, films like Territories, Passion of Remembrance, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, for example, make it perfectly clear that this shift has been engaged; and that the question of the black subject cannot be represented without reference to the dimensions of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity.
DIFFERENCE AND CONTESTATION
A further consequence of this politics of representation is the slow recognition of the deep ambivalence of identification and desire. We think about identification usually as a simple process, structured around fixed ‘selves’ which we either are or are not. The play of identity and difference which constructs racism is powered not only by the positioning of blacks as the inferior species but also, and at the same time, by an inexpressible envy and desire; and this is something the recognition of which fundamentally displaces many of our hitherto stable political categories, since it implies a process of identification and otherness which is more complex than we had hitherto imagined.
Racism, of course, operates by constructing impassable symbolic boundaries between racially constituted categories, and its typically binary system of representation constantly marks and attempts to fix and naturalize the difference between belongingness and otherness. Along this frontier there arises what Gayatri Spivak calls the ‘epistemic violence’ of the discourses of the Other—of imperialism, the colonized, Orientalism, the exotic, the primitive, the anthropological and the folk-lore.2
Consequently the discourse of anti-racism had often been founded on a strategy of reversal and inversion, turning the ‘Manichean aesthetic’ of colonial discourse upside-down. However, as Fanon constantly reminded us, the epistemic violence is both outside and inside, and operates by a process of splitting on both sides of the division—in here as well as out here. That is why it is a question, not only of ‘black-skin’ but of ‘Black- Skin, White Masks’—the internalization of the self-as-other. Just as masculinity always constructs feminity as double—simultaneously Madonna and Whore—so racism contructs the black subject: noble savage and violent avenger. And in the doubling, fear and desire double for one another and play across the structures of otherness, complicating its politics.
Recently I have read several articles about the photographic text of Robert Mapplethorpe—especially his inscription of the nude, black male— all written by black critics or cultural practitioners.3 These essays properly begin by identifying in Mapplethorpe’s work the tropes of fetishization, the fragmentation of the black image and its objectification, as the forms of their appropriation within the white, gay gaze. But, as I read, I know that something else is going on as well in both the production and the reading of those texts. The continuous circling around Mapplethorpe’s work is not exhausted by being able to place him as the white fetishistic, gay photographer; and this is because it is also marked by the surreptitious return of desire—that deep ambivalence of identification which makes the categories in which we have previously thought and argued about black cultural politics and the black cultural text extremely problematic. This brings to the surface the unwelcome fact that a great deal of black politics, constructed, addressed and developed directly in relation to questions of race and ethnicity, has been predicated on the assumption that the categories of gender and sexuality would stay the same and remain fixed and secured. What the new politics of representation does is to put that into question, crossing the questions of racism irrevocably with questions of sexuality. That is what is so disturbing, finally, to many of our settled political habits about Passion of Remembrance. This double fracturing entails a different kind of politics because, as we know, black radical politics has frequently been stabilized around particular conceptions of black masculinity, which are only now being put into question by black women and black gay men. At certain points, black politics has also been underpinned by a deep absence or more typically an evasive silence with reference to class.
Another element inscribed in the new politics of representation has to do with the question of ethnicity. I am familiar with all the dangers of ‘ethnicity’ as a concept and have written myself about the fact that ethnicity, in the form of a culturally constructed sense of Englishness and a particularly closed, exclusive and regressive form of English national identity, is one of the core characteristics of British racism today.4 I am also well aware that the politics of anti-racism has often constructed itself in terms of a contestation of ‘multi-ethnicity’ or ‘multi-culturalism’. On the other hand, as the politics of representation around the black subject shifts, I think we will begin to see a renewed contestation over the meaning of the term ‘ethnicity’ itself.
If the black subject and black experience are not stabilized by Nature or by some other essential guarantee, then it must be the case that they are constructed historically, culturally, politically—and the concept which refers to this is ‘ethnicity’. The term ethnicity acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual. Representation is possible only because enunciation is always produced within codes which have a history, a position within the discursive formations of a particular space and time. The displacement of the ‘centred’ discourses of the West entails putting in question its universalist character and its transcendental claims to speak for everyone, while being itself everywhere and nowhere. The fact that this grounding of ethnicity in difference was deployed, in the discourse of racism, as a means of disavowing the realities of racism and repression does not mean that we can permit the term to be permanently colonized. That appropriation will have to be contested, the term dis-articulated from its position in the discourse of ‘multi-culturalism’ and transcoded, just as we previously had to recuperate the term ‘black’ from its place in a system of negative equivalences. The new politics of representation therefore also sets in motion an ideological contestation around the term, ‘ethnicity’. But in order to pursue that movement further, we will have to re-theorize the concept of difference.
It seems to me that, in the various practices and discourses of black cultural production, we are beginning to see constructions of just such a new conception of ethnicity: a new cultural politics which engages rather than supresses difference and which depends, in part, on the cultural construction of new ethnic identities. Difference, like representation, is also a slippery, and therefore, contested concept. There is the ‘difference’ which makes a radical and unbridgable separation: and there is a ‘difference’ which is positional, conditional and conjunctural, closer to Derrida’s notion of différance, though if we are concerned to maintain a politics it cannot be defined exclusively in terms of an infinite sliding of the signifier. We still have a great deal of work to do to decouple ethnicity, as it functions in the dominant discourse, from its equivalence with nationalism, imperialism, racism and the state, which are the points of attachment around which a distinctive British or, more accurately, English ethnicity have been constructed. Nevertheless, I think such a project is not only possible but necessary. Indeed, this decoupling of ethnicity from the violence of the state is implicit in some of the new forms of cultural practice that are going on in films like Passion and Handsworth Songs. We are beginning to think about how to represent a non-coercive and a more diverse conception of ethnicity, to set against the embattled, hegemonic conception of ‘Englishness’ which, under Thatcherism, stabilizes so much of the dominant political and cultural discourses, and which, because it is hegemonic, does not represent itself as an ethnicity at all.
This marks a real shift in the point of contestation, since it is no longer only between anti-racism and multi-culturalism but inside the notion of ethnicity itself. What is involved is the splitting of the notion of ethnicity between, on the one hand the dominant notion which connects it to nation and ‘race’ and on the other hand what I think is the beginning of a positive conception of the ethnicity of the margins, of the periphery. That is to say, a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position as ‘ethnic artists’ or film-makers. We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. But this is also a recognition that this a not an ethnicity which is doomed to survive, as Englishness was, only by marginalizing, dispossessing, displacing and forgetting other ethnicities. This precisely is the politics of ethnicity predicated on difference and diversity.
The final point which I think is entailed in this new politics of representation has to do with an awareness of the black experience as a diaspora experience, and the consequences which this carries for the process of unsettling, recombination, hybridization and ‘cut-and-mix’—in short, the process of cultural diaspora-ization (to coin an ugly term) which it implies. In the case of the young black British films and film-makers under discussion, the diaspora experience is certainly profoundly fed and nourished by, for example, the emergence of Third World cinema; by the African experience; the connection with Afro-Caribbean experience; and the deep inheritance of complex systems of representation and aesthetic traditions from Asian and African culture. But, in spite of these rich cultural ‘roots’, the new cultural politics is operating on new and quite distinct ground—specifically, contestation over what it means to be ‘British’. The relation of this cultural politics to the past; to its different ‘roots’ is profound, but complex. It cannot be simple or unmediated. It is (as a film like Dreaming Rivers reminds us) complexly mediated and transformed by memory, fantasy and desire. Or, as even an explicitly political film like Handsworth Songs clearly suggests, the relation is inter-textual—mediated, through a variety of other ‘texts’. There can, therefore, be no simple ‘return’ or ‘recovery’ of the ancestral past which is not re-experienced through the categories of the present: no base for creative enunciation in a simple reproduction of traditional forms which are not transformed by the technologies and the identities of the present. This is something that was signalled as early as a film like Blacks Britannica and as recently as Paul Gilroy’s important book, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.5 Fifteen years ago we didn’t care, or at least I didn’t care, whether there was any black in the Union Jack. Now not only do we care, we must.
This last point suggests that we are also approaching what I would call the end of a certain critical innocence in black cultural politics. And here, it might be appropriate to refer, glancingly, to the debate between Salman Rushdie and myself in the Guardian some months ago. The debate was not about whether Handsworth Songs or The Passion of Remembrance were great films or not, because, in the light of what I have said, once you enter this particular problematic, the question of what good films are, which parts of them are good and why, is open to the politics of criticism. Once you abandon essential categories, there is no place to go apart from the politics of criticism and to enter the politics of criticism in black culture is to grow up, to leave the age of critical innocence.
It was not Salman Rushdie’s particular judgement that I was contesting, so much as the mode in which he addressed them. He seemed to me to be addressing the films as if from the stable, well-established critical criteria of a Guardian reviewer. I was trying perhaps unsuccessfully, to say that I thought this an inadequate basis for a political criticism and one which overlooked precisely the signs of innovation, and the constraints, under which these film-makers were operating. It is difficult to define what an alternative mode of address would be. I certainly didn’t want Salman Rushdie to say he thought the films were good because they were black. But I also didn’t want him to say that he thought they weren’t good because ‘we creative artists all know what good films are’, since I no longer believe we can resolve the questions of aesthetic value by the use of these transcendental, canonical cultural categories. I think there is another position, one which locates itself inside a continuous struggle and politics around black representation, but which then is able to open up a continuous critical discourse about themes, about the forms of representation, the subjects of representation, above all, the regimes of representation. I thought it was important, at that point, to intervene to try and get that mode of critical address right, in relation to the new black filmmaking. It is extremely tricky, as I know, because as it happens, in intervening, I got the mode of address wrong too! I failed to communicate the fact that, in relation to his Guardian article I thought Salman was hopelessly wrong about Handsworth Songs, which does not in any way diminish my judgement about the stature of Midnight’s Children. I regret that I couldn’t get it right, exactly, because the politics of criticism has to be able to get both things right.
Such a politics of criticism has to be able to say (just to give one example) why My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the most riveting and important films produced by a black writer in recent years and precisely for the reason that made it so controversial: its refusal to represent the black experience in Britain as monolithic, self-contained, sexually stabilized and always ‘right-on’—in a word, always and only ‘positive’, or what Hanif Kureishi has called, ‘cheering fictions’: the writer as public relations officer, as hired liar. If there is to be a serious attempt to understand Britain today, with its mix of races and colours, its hysteria and despair, then, writing about it has to be complex. It can’t apologize or idealize. It can’t sentimentalize and it can’t represent only one group as having a monopoly on virtue.6 Laundrette is important particularly in terms of its control, of knowing what it is doing, as the text crosses those frontiers between gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. Sammy and Rosie is also a bold and adventurous film, though in some ways less coherent, not so sure of where it is going, overdriven by an almost uncontrollable, cool anger. One needs to be able to offer that as a critical judgement and to argue it through, to have one’s mind changed, without undermining one’s essential commitment to the project of the politics of black representation.
1 The Yorkshire town of Dewesbury became the focus of national attention when white parents withdrew their children from a local school with predominantly Asian pupils, on the grounds that ‘English’ culture was no longer taught on the curriculum. The contestation of multicultural education from the right also underpinned the controversies around Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford. See, Paul Gordon, ‘The New Right, race and education’; Race and Class XXIX(3), Winter 1987.
2 Gayatri C.Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Methuen, 1987.
3 Kobena Mercer ‘Imaging the black man’s sex’ in Patricia Holland et al. (eds), Photography/Politics: Two, Comedia/Methuen, 1987 and various articles in Ten.8 22, 1986, an issue on ‘Black experiences’ edited by David A.Bailey.
4 Stuart Hall, ‘Racism and reaction’, in Five Views on Multi-Racial Britain, Commission for Racial Equality, 1978.
5 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Hutchinson, 1988.
6 Hanif Kureishi, ‘Dirty washing’, Time Out, 14–20 November 1985.
Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, ‘De Margin and De Centre’
First appeared as the ‘Introduction’ to Screen 29(4), 1988, 2–10. The issue was entitled ‘The Last “Special Issue” on Race?’.
Film culture in the 1980s has candid pokies been marked by volatile reconfigurations in the relations of ‘race’ and representation. Questions of cultural difference, identity and otherness—in a word, ethnicity—have been thrown into the foreground of contestation and debate by numerous shifts and developments. Within the British context, these trends have underpinned controversies around recent independent films like Handsworth Songs, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Passion of Remembrance—films which have elicited critical acclaim and angry polemic in roughly equal measure. The fragmented state of the nation depicted from a black British point of view in the films themselves contradicts (literally, speaks against) the remythification of the colonial past in mainstream movies such as Ghandi or A Passage to India; yet, the wave of popular films set in imperial India or Africa also acknowledge, in their own way, Britain’s postcolonial condition in so far as they speak to contemporary concerns. The competing versions of narrative, memory and history in this conjuncture might be read symptomatically as a state of affairs that speaks of—articulates— conflicting identities within the ‘imagined community’ of the nation.
In the international context, certain moments and trends suggest further shifts, adjustments, in the articulation of ethnicity as ideology. The ratings success-story of The Cosby Show—‘number one’ in South Africa as well as the United States—has fulfilled the innocent demand for ‘positive images’ with a (neo-conservative) vengeance. And the very idea of a Hollywood director like Steven Spielberg adapting the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple (in the context of the unprecedented publication of black women writers) still seems extraordinary, however commercially astute. In addition, the widening circulation of Third World films among western audiences, or the televisual ‘presence’ of Third World spaces like Ethiopia via events such as Live Aid in 1985, implies something of a shift within the boundaries that differentiated the First and Third Worlds.
One issue at stake, we suggest, is the potential break-up or deconstruction of structures that determine what is regarded as culturally central and what is regarded as culturally marginal. Ethnicity has emerged as a key issue as various ‘marginal’ practices (black British film, for instance) are becoming de-marginalized at a time when ‘centred’ discourses of cultural authority and legitimation (such as notions of a trans-historical artistic ‘canon’) are becoming increasingly de-centred and destabilized, called into question from within. This scenario, described by Craig Owens as a crisis, ‘specifically of the authority vested in western European culture and its institutions’,1 has of course already been widely discussed in terms of the characteristic aesthetic and political problems of postmodernism. However, it is ironic that while some of the loudest voices offering commentary have announced nothing less than the ‘end of representation’ or the ‘end of history’, the political possibility of the end of ethnocentrism has not been seized upon as a suitably exciting topic for description or inquiry.2 We would argue, on the contrary, that critical theories are just beginning to recognize and reckon with the kinds of complexity inherent in the culturally constructed nature of ethnic identities, and the implications this has for the analysis of representational practices.
We chose to call this the ‘last special issue’ as a rejoinder to critical discourses in which the subject of race and ethnicity is still placed on the margins conceptually, despite the acknowledgement of such issues indicated by the proliferation of ‘special issues’ on race in film, media and literary journals.3 The problem, paradoxically, is that as an editorial strategy and as a mode of address, the logic of the ‘special issue’ tends to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, the perceived otherness and marginality of the subject itself. There is nothing intrinsically different or ‘special’ about ethnicity in film culture, merely that it makes fresh demands on existing theories, methods and problematics. Rather than attempt to compensate the ‘structured absences’ of previous paradigms, it would be useful to identify the relations of power/knowledge that determine which cultural issues are intellectually prioritized in the first place. The initial stage in any deconstructive project must be to examine and undermine the force of the binary relation that produces the marginal as a consequence of the authority invested in the centre.
At a concrete level the politics of marginalization is an underlying issue in the overview of black film-making in Europe sketched by Maureen Blackwood and June Givanni. The negotiation of access to resources in training, production and distribution emerges as a common factor facing practitioners in a migrant or ‘minority’ situation. While highlighting the different conditions stemming from the colonial past, the comparative dimension also draws attention to the specificity of British conditions in the present, where black film-making has flourished in the state-subsidized ‘independent’ sector. Data compiled by June Givanni elsewhere4 indicates some of the characteristics that constitute black British film as a ‘minor’ cinema: the prevalence of material of short duration, shot on video, and in the documentary genre, indicates a pattern of underfunding, or rather, taking the variety of work into consideration, a considerable cultural achievement that has been won against the odds of meagre resourcing. Moreover, shifts in the institutional framework of public funding in the United Kingdom were brought about in the 1980s as a result of a wider social and political struggle to secure black rights to representation. It was said at the time of the 1981 ‘riots’ that this was the only way in which those excluded from positions of power and influence could make themselves heard: in any case, the events were read and widely understood as expressing protest at the structural marginalization of the black presence in British public institutions.
The consequent demand for black representation thus informed shifts in multicultural and ‘equal opportunity’ policy among institutions such as Channel Four, the British Film Institute and local authorities such as the Greater London Council. More generally, this took place in the context of a re-articulation of the category ‘black’ as a political term of identification among diverse minority communities of Asian, African and Caribbean origin, rather than as a biological or ‘racial’ category. Together, these aspects of the cultural politics of ‘black representation’ informed the intense debates on aesthetic and cinematic strategies within the black British independent sector. Far from homogenizing these differences, the concept has been the site of contestation, highlighted in numerous events and conferences, such as ‘Third Cinema’ at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1986 and more recently, the conference on ‘Black Film/ British Cinema’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.5 It has become apparent that what is at stake in the debates on ‘black representation’ is not primarily a dispute over realist or modernist principles, but a broader problematic in cultural politics shaped, as Paul
Gilroy suggests, by the tension between representation as a practice of depiction and representation as a practice of delegation.6 Representational democracy, like the classic realist text, is premissed on an implicitly mimetic theory of representation as correspondence with the ‘real’: notionally, the political character of the state is assumed to ‘correspond’ to the aspiration of the masses in society. However, not unlike the civil disruptions, aspects of the new wave in black British film-making have interrupted these relations of representation: in cinematic terms the challenge to documentary realism that features so prominently in more recent work, such as Territories, is predicated on a relational conception of representation as a practice of selection, combination and articulation. At a textual level, such shifts have contested the hegemony of documentary realism underlying the formal codification of what Jim Pines calls the master discourse of the ‘race-relations narrative’.7 This also entails awareness of extra-textual factors, such as funding, as important determinants on black film-making and its modes of enunciation, such as ‘the moral imperative which usually characterizes black films, which empowers them to speak with a sense of urgency’, as John Akomfrah of Black Audio Film Collective has put it.8
What is at issue in this problematic is the question of power, as Judith Williamson argues in her review of The Passion of Remembrance, ‘The more power any group has to create and wield representations, the less it is required to be representative’.9 Where access and opportunities are rationed, so that black films tend to get made only one-at-a-time, each film text is burdened with an inordinate pressure to be ‘representative’ and to act, like a delegate does, as a statement that ‘speaks’ for the black communities as a whole. Martina Attille, producer of the film, suggests that the ‘sense of urgency to say it all’ stems less from the artistic choices made by black film-makers and more from the material constraints in which ‘sometimes we only get the one chance to make ourselves heard’.10 Contemporary shifts have brought these problems into view, for as
Williamson adds, in relation to the invisible demand to be ‘representative’ implicit in the rationing and rationalization of public funding, ‘what is courageous in Sankofa’s project is that they have chosen to speak from, but not for, black experience(s) in Britain.’
Marginality circumscribes the enunciative modalities of black film as cinematic discourse and imposes a double bind on black subjects who speak in the public sphere: if only one voice is given the ‘right to speak’, that voice will be heard, by the majority culture, as ‘speaking for’ the many who are excluded or marginalized from access to the means of representation. This of course underlines the problem of tokenism: the very idea that a single film could ‘speak for’ an entire community of interests reinforces the perceived secondariness of that community. The double bind of expedient inclusion as a term for the legitimation of more general forms of exclusionary practice is also the source of a range of representational problems encountered not just by black subjects, but by other groups marginalized into minority status. In the gay documentary Word is Out (Mariposa Film Group, 1978) the nature of this problematic is pointed out in a performative mode by a black woman who carefully describes the predicament she is placed in as a result of the editing strategy of the text:
What I was trying to say when I asked you if I would be the only black lesbian in the film is: do you know we come in all shapes and colours and directions to our lives? Are you capturing that on the film? As a black lesbian-feminist involved in the movement, so often people try to put me in the position of speaking for all black lesbians. I happen to be a black lesbian among many, and I woudn’t want to be seen as this is how all black lesbians are.11
Within such a regime of representation, the restricted economy of ethnic enunciation is a political problem for at least two important reasons. First, individual subjectivity is denied because the black subject is positioned as a mouthpiece, a ventriloquist for an entire social category which is seen to be ‘typified’ by its representative. Acknowledgement of the diversity of black experiences and subject-positions is thereby foreclosed. Thus, secondly, where minority subjects are framed and contained by the monologic terms of ‘majority discourse’, the fixity of boundary relations between centre and margin, universal and particular, returns the speaking subject to the ideologically appointed place of the stereotype—that ‘all black people are the same’.
Stuart Hall’s account of the shifts taking place in contemporary black British cultural production offers a means of making sense of the ‘politics of representation’ at issue here. His argument that current shifts demand the recognition of the ‘end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject’ enables us to analyse and unpack the burden of racial representation. The recognition that ‘black’ is a politically and culturally constructed category, and that our metaphorical fictions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ are not fixed by Nature but by historical formations of hegemony, brings into play ‘the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experiences of black subjects’. This has major consequences for the critical evaluation of different aesthetic and discursive strategies that articulate race at the level of language and representation.
Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily right-on by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject.12
The deconstruction of binary relations thus entails the relativization and rearticulation of ‘ethnicity’. This is an importantly enabling argument as it brings a range of critical issues into an explanatory structure, however tentative.
At one level, it contextualizes Salman Rushdie’s point, expressed in his polemic against Handsworth Songs,13 that ‘celebration makes us lazy’. Because black films have been so few and far between, up till now, there has been a tendency to ‘celebrate’ the fact that they ever got made at all; but this has inhibited the formulation of criticism and self-criticism and perpetuated the moral masochism of ‘correctness’ so pervasive in oppositional ‘left’ cultural politics (especially in Britain). Judith Williamson takes up this point and argues that the moralism of being ideologically ‘right-on’ has been conflated with aesthetic judgement and thus the formal properties of the recent ‘experimental’ films have been subsumed into their ‘blackness’ (that is, the racial identity of the authors) giving the films an ‘aura of untouchability’ that further pre-empts critical analysis. The problem which arises, is that such responses threaten to frame the films as merely replacing the avant-garde (as the ‘latest thing’) rather than as displacing the orthodoxies that have led the Euro-American vanguard (specially its formalist variant) into its current stasis. At another level, Perminder Dhillon-Kashyap argues that the debates on black British film have in turn made Asian experiences and interventions ‘secondary’, thus risking the replication of essentialist versions of race precisely when the rearticulation of subaltern ethnicities as ‘black’ seeks to undermine ‘ethnic absolutism’ (anchoring the culturalist terms of the ‘new racism’ that fixes hybridized experiences in terms of alien cultures’).14 Coco Fusco’s assessment of two major conferences in the United States examines the way in which two kinds of essentialist tendency, manifest in the contradictory reception of black British film, mutually forestall the politics of criticism. The impetus to ‘celebrate’ black cinema, on the one hand, invokes a unitary notion of blackness that precludes elucidation of ‘internal’ differences and diversity. The desire to ‘correct’ the omissions of the past within the western avant-garde, on the other hand, has led to a one-sided fixation with ethnicity as something that ‘belongs’ to the Other alone, thus white ethnicity is not under question and retains its ‘centred’ position; more to the point, the white subject remains the central reference point in the power ploys of multicultural policy. The burden of representation thus falls on the Other, because as Fusco argues, ‘to ignore white ethnicity is to redouble its hegemony by naturalising it.’
While such discursive events acknowledge contemporary shifts, their logic evades the implications of Hall’s insight that the point of contestation is no longer between multiculturalism and anti-racism, but inside the concept of ethnicity itself. Within dominant discourses, ‘ethnicity’ is structured into a negative equivalence with essentialist versions of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ which particularize its referent, as the pejorative connotation of ‘ethnic minority’ implies (who, after all, constitutes the ‘ethnic majority’?). On the other hand, just as it was necessary to re-appropriate the category ‘black’, Hall argues that ‘ethnicity’ is a strategically necessary concept because it
acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual. Representation is possible only because enunciation is always produced within codes that have a history, a position within the discursive formations of a particular space and time.15
In this sense, ‘we are all ethnically located’, but the cultural specificity of white ethnicity has been rendered ‘invisible’ by the epistemic violence that has, historically, disavowed difference in western discourses. The rearticulation of ethnicity as an epistemological category thus involves, the displacement of the centred discourses of the West (and) entails putting into question its universalist character and its transcendental claims to speak for everyone, while being itself everywhere and nowhere.
Richard Dyer’s article, ‘White’, inaugurates a paradigmatic shift by precisely registering the re-orientation of ‘ethnicity’ that Hall’s argument calls for. Dyer shows how elusive white ethnicity is as a representational construct (and the difficulties this presents for constituting it as a theoretical object of analysis) and notes that, ‘Black is, in the realm of categories, always marked as a colour…is always particularising; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularising quality, because it is everything.’ In other words, whiteness has secured universal consent to its hegemony as the ‘norm’ by masking its coercive force with the invisibility that marks off the Other (the pathologized, the disempowered, the dehumanized) as all too visible—‘coloured’.16 Significantly, in relation to the films that Dyer discusses, whiteness only tends to become visible when its hegemony is under contestation.
The complex range of problems now coming into view in film studies around the site of ethnicity, partly as a result of developments elsewhere in literary and social theory,17 enables a more adequate understanding of contemporary forms of contestation. The ‘differences’ between various black independent film practices have, to some extent, been overplayed, as the key underlying objective across each of the strategies, is to displace the binary relation of the burden of representation, most clearly pinpointed by Horace Ove:
Here in England there is a danger, if you are black, that all you are allowed to make is films about black people and their problems. White film-makers on the other hand, have a right to make films about whatever they like.18
Theoretically, the displacement of binarisms has been most important in the analysis of stereotyping—the marginalization of ethnicity has been held in place by the logical impasse of the ‘positive/negative’ image polarity. Screen has contributed to the productive displacement of this stasis in a number of ways: from Steve Neale’s analysis of the impossibility of the ‘perfect image’ sought by idealist and realist arguments, to Homi Bhabha’s influential reading of colonial discourse, which emphasizes the psychic ambivalence, the fear and fascination, that informs the ‘Manichean delirium’ of classical regimes of racial representation.19 However, the range of textual readings here suggests that we need to go much further towards a reflexive examination of the mutual inscription of self and other in the analysis of ethnic boundary-ness. This involves questioning the way that, during its ‘centred’ role in the discursive formation of film theory during the 1970s, Screen participated in a phase of British left culture that inadvertently marginalized race and ethnicity as a consequence of the centrifugal tendency of its ‘high theory’.
During this period, one was more likely to encounter the analysis of racial stereotyping in sociology than cultural theory, where class and gender took precedence in debates on ideology and subjectivity.20 Furthermore, without imputing maleficent intentions (because such relations are beyond the control of individual intentionality), it can be said that even within Screen’s important acknowledgement of ethnic differences in previous ‘special issues’,21 the explanatory concept of ‘Otherness’ distances and particularizes ethnicity as something that happens far away, either in the United States or in the Third World.22 Space prohibits an adequate exploration of the intellectual milieu that Screen helped to form, but recent comments on the institutionalization of film studies have argued that ‘Screen theory’, so-called, came to function as a kind of corporate ‘name of the father’, a ‘theoretical super-ego’ or even a ‘phallic mother’—a centred point of reference that, like a doctrine or orthodoxy, featured a number of ‘disciplinary’ characteristics.23 Jane Gaines recalls that, in the translation of ‘Screen theory’ into the North American academic environment in the 1970s, leftist enthusiasm for theoretical ‘correctness’ was heard to speak in an unmistakably English accent.
This background is important because what emerges in the current situation is not a ‘new’ problematic, but a critical return to issues unwittingly ‘repressed’ in some of the ‘old’ problematics and debates. It would be useful, therefore, to tentatively draw out some of the directions in which the field is being remapped and in which the lacunae of previous paradigms are excavated.
First, the analysis of ethnic binarisms at the level of narrative codes returns to the question of how dominant ideologies naturalize their domination, underlying previous debates on the classic realist text. Clyde Taylor’s inter-textual examination of racialized repetition across two ‘epic’ Hollywood films suggests that the ethnic iconography that drives the reproduction of racist ideology is not simply indicative of capitalist commodification or a bourgeois world view. Star Wars, argues Taylor, repeats the ‘blood and purity’ mythology of The Birth of a Nation, not as a defiant assertion of WASP ‘superiority’ but as an embattled recoding of the master text in response to the encroaching presence of the Third World. The racial discourse sub-textualized by binary oppositions acknowledges the crises of (US) hegemony. The ‘liberal’ inflections in the
films discussed by Richard Dyer also acknowledge the destabilization of prevailing race relations, albeit within a different set of generic and narrative conventions. Common to both readings is a concern to ‘typify’ textual structures that position racial and ethnic signifiers in the fixed relation of a binary opposition, whether it be one of antagonism, accommodation or subordination.
There is, in addition, a historical emphasis that relativizes the kinds of claims once extrapolated from the formal structures of the ‘CRT’, as it was known. Aspects of Bhabha’s theorization of the stereotype in colonial discourse replicate this trans-historical or de-historicized emphasis.24 The move towards a more context-oriented view, on the other hand, indicates that although dominant discourses are characterized by closure, they are not themselves closed but constantly negotiated and restructured by the conjuncture of discourses in which they are produced. The way in which ethnic ‘types’ are made afresh in contemporary movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Angel Heart—or more generally in current advertising— demands such a conjunctural approach. The theory of the stereotype cannot be abandonded as it also needs to be able to explain how and why certain ethnic stereotypes are at times recirculated, in the British context, in the work of black film and television authors.25
Secondly, there is a note of caution about reproducing binarisms at the level of theory. Cameron Bailey’s reading of the accretion of ‘ethnic’ signifiers around the construction of (white) femininity as a source of pleasure and danger in Something Wild demonstrates that, rather than the familiar ‘race, class, gender’ mantra, analysis needs to take account of the intersections of differences, in particular of the representation of sexuality as a recurring site upon which categories of race and gender intersect. Feminist theories of the fetishistic logic inherent in the sexualization of gender-difference have provided an invaluable inventory for the reading of the eroticized othering of the black (male and female) subject. Yet, as Jane Gaines argues, the gender binarism implicit in the heterosexist presumption so often unwittingly reproduced in feminist film theory (or FFT; the acronym already indicates an orthodoxy) remains ‘colour blind’ to the racial hierarchies that structure mastery over the ‘look’. The scenario of voyeurism, sadism and objectification played out across Diana Ross’s star image in Mahogany enacts a patriarchal discourse of masculine ‘desire’, but also demands a historical understanding of the pre-textual and the contextual discourses of race that placed the black woman in the ‘paradox of non-being’—a reference to the period in Afro-American history when the black female did not signify ‘woman’ on account of the racial ideology that made the black subject less than human.
The historical violation of black bodies in social formations structured by slavery gives rise to a discourse (encoded in both the rationalization of and resistance to such pre-modern forms of power as lynching) which has indeed the countervailing force to rival the problematic of castration rhetorically placed at the centre of psychoanalytic theory by the Oedipal grand narrative. Just as lesbian critiques of FFT have questioned the explanatory capacity of Freudian and Lacanian theory to account for the inscription of female pleasure and desire26—demonstrating the contradictory subject positions occupied by different spectators—the
reorientation of the spectatorship problematic in the articles by Gaines and Manthia Diawara identifies the ethnocentrism of psychoanalytic discourse as a barrier to further inquiry. Both question the universalist claims anchored in the Oedipus story and imply that uncritical adherence to psychoanalytic theory (however enabling as a method) risks the disavowal of its Euro-centric ‘authority’; Freud closes his essay on fetishism by commenting that the acknowledgement and disavowal of difference ‘might be seen in the Chinese custom of mutilating the female foot and then revering it like a fetish after it has been mutilated’27—surely this culturebound aesthetic judgement is the starting-point for a more circumspect appropriation of psychoanalytic theory.
Diawara identifies the mythic ‘castration’ and ‘visual punishment’ of the black male as a term of the ‘narrative pleasures’ offered by Hollywood spectacle (and also as a narratological term of closure, analogous to the ‘punishment’ of feminine transgression in film noir). By raising the issue of spectatorial resistance, Diawara opens up an interesting question about the place of the black spectator in the ideological machinery of interpellation. How is the black subject sutured into a place that includes it only as a term of negation? What does the black spectator identify with when his/her mirror image is structurally absent or present only as Other? In the past, it was assumed that all social subjects acceded to the narcissistic pleasure of the ‘mirror phase’ in their misrecognition of themselves as the subject of enunciation, returned thus as normalized and passified ‘subjects’ of ideological subjection (this was the basis of Barthes’ distinction between ‘pleasure’ and ‘bliss’28). But what if certain social categories of spectator do not have access, as it were, to the initial moment of recognition? The question of how black subjects psychically manage to make identifications with white images is thus signposted as an important area for further inquiry.29 Perhaps one reason why, for example, The Cosby Show is so popular among black audiences is that it affords the pleasure of a basic or primary narcissism even though it interpellates the minority subject, in particular, into ideological normalization.30 A contemporary black star, like Eddie Murphy—popular with both white and black audiences— offers another source of ‘bad pleasure’, partly on account of the pastiche of the stereotype that he performs in his star-image as the street-credible, but ideologically unthreatening, macho loudmouth.
This is also where class comes back into the calculation of difference. An appreciation of differentiated regimes of racial representation necessitates acknowledgement of different audiences or, taken together, recognition of the different forms of ideological articulation characteristic of First and Second Cinemas, as described by the concept of Third Cinema.31 The inscription of ethnic indeterminacy does not take place ‘inside’ the text, as if it were hermetically sealed, but in-between the relations of author, text and reader specific to the construction of different discursive formations. Blackness is not always a sign of racial codification (as the term film noir admits): its representational aura in auteurist and avant-garde traditions conventionally serves to mark off the status of the author (as white subject of enunciation) in relation to the discourse authorized in the text (as black subject of the statement). Ethnic alterity is a consistent trope of modernist differentiation in various Euro-American canons: the play of black signs
that inscribe the authorial voice self-referentially in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild can be seen as drawing on elements of the romanticist image-reservoir, where blackness is valorized as emblematic of outsiderness and oppositionality, that might be read off Jean Genet’s Chant d’amour (1953), Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil (1969) or Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1976). This arbitrary list (indexing disparate debates on independent film-making32) is made merely to point out another set of questions; namely, how to differentiate diverse appropriations of the same stock of signs and meanings built up around different discursive formations of ‘race’ and ethnicity? This question bears upon the broader underlying issue of the multi-accentual nature of the signs characteristic of the flashpoints of ideological contestation and cultural struggle.33 It also alludes to the paradox identified in Richard Dyer’s reading of Paul Robeson as a cinematic icon that meant different things to radically differentiated readers:
Black and white discourses on blackness seem to be valuing the same things—spontaneity, emotion, naturalness—yet giving them a different implication. Black discourses see them as contributions to the development of society, white as enviable qualities that only blacks have.34
The issue of ‘envy’ confirms that white identifications are as problematic (conceptually) as the ability of black readers—or readers of subaltern status —to appropriate alternative ‘sub-textual’ readings from the racial discourse of dominant cultural texts. King Kong—to cite one of the most centred mythologies of modern popular cinema—has been read as the tragic story of a heroic beast and/or the fate of a black man punished for the transgressive coupling with the white woman that he/the monster desires. These questions appear to be ‘new’, hence very difficult, yet we have returned, by a rather circuitous route, to the hotly contested terrain of the debates on class and culture, hegemony and subjectivity that were territorialized with such passion in the mid-1970s.35 We must conclude that this cannot possibly be the last word on ‘race’ as these complicated issues are only now coming into view as a result of the critical dialogue that has engaged with the blind-spots and insights of earlier conversations. And further, that such dialogism is a necessary discursive condition for understanding contestation in film culture and other formations of cultural practice and cultural politics.
1 Craig Owens, ‘The discourse of others: feminists and post-modernism’ in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto, 1985, 57.
2 The assertion of the ‘end’ of everything is exemplified in Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), 1984 and Victor Burgin, The End of Art Theory, London: Macmillan, 1986. More considered reflections on postmodernism, which focus on the problems of its ethnocentrism, are offered by Stuart Hall, ‘On postmodernism and articulation: an interview edited by Lawrence Grossberg’, in Communications Inquiry 10(2), 1986 (University of Iowa) and Andreas Huyssens, ‘Mapping the post-modern’, in After the Great Divide, London: Macmillan, 1987.
3 For instance, ‘Black experiences’, Ten-8 22, 1986; ‘Race, writing and difference’, Critical Inquiry 12(3), 1985 and 13(1), 1986; The inappropriate Other’, Discourse 8, 1986; ‘Colonialism’, Oxford Literary Review 9, 1987 and The nature and context of minority discourse’, I and II Cultural Critique, Spring and Fall, 1987.
4 Black and Asian Film List, compiled by June Givanni and edited by Nicky North, London, British Film Institute Education, 1988. A transatlantic comparison is offered by James A.Snead, ‘Black independent film: Britain and America’, in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Black Film/British Cinema, ICA Document 7/British Film Institute Production Special, 1988.
5 Symposia organized by the Greater London Council in 1985 are documented in Third Eye: Struggles for Black and Third World Cinema, Race Equality Unit, London, GLC 1986; the Edinburgh conference is documented in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds), Third Cinema: Theories and Practices, London, BFI (forthcoming); and the ICA conference is documented in Kobena Mercer (ed.), op.cit.
6 ’Nothing but sweat inside my hand: diaspora aesthetics and Black arts in Britain’, in Kobena Mercer (ed.), op.cit. See also Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Delegation and political fetishism’, Thesis Eleven 10/11, 1984–5 (Sydney), 56–70.
7 See Jim Pines, ‘The cultural context of Black British cinema’, in Mbye Cham and Claire Andrade-Watkins (eds), BlackFrames: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema, Celebration of Black Cinema, Inc/MIT Press 1988 and Kobena Mercer, ‘Diaspora culture and the dialogic imagination: the aesthetics of black independent film in Britain’, ibid.
8 In Paul Gilroy and Jim Pines, ‘Handsworth songs: audiences/aesthetics/ independence, an interview with Black Audio Film Collective’, Framework 35, 1988, 11.
9 New Statesman, 5 December 1986.
10 In ‘The Passion of Remembrance: background and interview with Sankofa’, Framework 32/33, 1986, 101.
11 In Nancy Adair and Casey Adair (eds), Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, New York: New Glide/Delta, 1978, 203.
12 Stuart Hall, ‘New ethnicities’. Also in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Black Film/British Cinema, op.cit. See also Stuart Hall, ‘Minimal selves’, in Lisa Appignanesi (ed.), Identity, ICA Document 6, 1988, 44–6.
13 ‘Songs doesn’t know the score’, Guardian, 12 January 1987, reprinted in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Black Film/British Cinema, op.cit.
14 Discursive formations of British racism are discussed in Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, London: Hutchinson, 1987. Gilroy proposes the concept of syncretism to examine cultural resistance in the ‘hybridized’ context of black Britain.
15 Stuart Hall, ‘New ethnicities’, in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Black Film/British Cinema, op.cit.
16 The term ‘people of color’ operates in the United States as a political term analogous to ‘black’ in the British context. In both instances, such terms have engendered intense semantic ambiguity and ideological anxiety as the racial mythology of ‘colour’ is put under erasure, cancelled out but still legible, in a deconstructive logic that depends on the same system of metaphorical equivalences and differences. Semantic indeterminacy as a condition of political contestation is discussed in Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London: Verso, 1985.
17 See Stuart Hall, ‘Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance’, in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, Paris: UNESCO, 1980; Edward Said, Orientalism, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, and The World, the Text and the Critic, London: Faber, 1984; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, London: Methuen 1987; Cornel West, ‘The dilemma of a Black intellectual’, Cultural Critique 1(1), 1986; ‘Race and social theory’, in M. Davis, M.Marrable, F.Pfiel and M.Sprinker (eds), The Year Left 2, London: Verso, 1987 and ‘Marxist theory and the specificity of Afro- American oppression’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, London: Macmillan, 1988.
18 Interview with Sylvia Paskin, Monthly Film Bulletin 54(647), December 1987.
19 Steve Neale, ‘The same old story: stereotypes and difference’, Screen Education, Autumn–Winter 1979–80, nos 32 and 33, 33–7 and Homi K.Bhabha, The Other question: the stereotype and colonial discourse’, Screen, November– December 1983, 24(6), 18–36.
20 In both Weberian and marxist variants, see Charles Husband, White Media and Black Britain, London: Arrow, 1975 and Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, London: Macmillan, 1978. Cultural struggles over media racism are documented in Phil Cohen and Carl Gardner (eds), It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum,
London: Comedia/Campaign Against Racism in the Media, 1982. CARM’s BBC ‘Open Door’ programme is discussed in Stuart Hall, ‘The whites of their eyes: racist ideologies and the media’, in Bridges and Brunt (eds), Silver Linings, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1981.
21 ‘Racism, colonialism and the cinema’, Screen, March–April 1983, 24(2), and ‘Other cinemas, Other criticisms’, Screen, May–August 1985, 26(3–4). 22 Black British perspectives have rarely featured in Screen, but see Hazel Carby, ‘Multiculture’, Screen Education, Spring 1980, 34, 62–70; Paul Gilroy, ‘C4—Bridgehead or Bantustan?’, Screen, July–October 1983, 24(4– 5), 130–6; Robert Crusz, ‘Black cinemas, film theory and dependent knowledge’, Screen, May– August 1985, 26(3–4), 152–6.
23 The description of a ‘theoretical super ego’ in film studies is made by Paul Willemen in ‘An avant-garde for the 80s’, Framework 24, 1982 and in ‘The Third Cinema question: notes and reflections’, Framework 34, 1987. The characterization of orthodoxies in terms of the demands of a ‘phallic mother’ is made by Lesley Stern in her tribute, ‘Remembering Claire Johnston’, in Film News, 19(4), May 1988 (Sydney), reprinted in Framework 35, 1988. An interesting case of another translation this time in the postcolonial periphery, is provided by Felicity Collins, ‘The Australian Journal of Screen Theory’, in Framework 24, 1982.
24 Methods employed by Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak are the subject of a critique by Benita Parry, ‘Problems in current theories of colonial discourse’, Oxford Literary Review 9, 1987.
25 An issue raised in Jim Pines’ reading of sociological stereotypes in Horace Ove’s Pressure (1975), discussed in ‘Blacks in films: the British angle’, Multiracial Education 9(2), 1981. Some of the paradoxical consequences of documentary realism in black independent film are also discussed in Kobena Mercer, ‘Recoding narratives of race and nation’, in Black Film/British Cinema, op.cit.
26 See Jackie Stacey, ‘Desperately seeking difference’, Screen, Winter 1987, 28 (1), 48–61; reprinted in a slightly different version in Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (eds), The Female Gaze, London: Women’s Press, 1988.
27 Sigmund Freud, ‘Fetishism’, in On Sexuality, Harmondsworth: Pelican Freud Library 7, 1977, 357.
28 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York: Hill & Wang, 1975.
29 This again is by no means a ‘new’ topic. The starting-point for James Baldwin’s autobiographical reflections on cinema is his adolescent identification with Bette Davis’ star image; see The Devil Finds Work, London: Michael Joseph, 1976, 4–7.
30 The Cosby Show is the subject of two conflicting readings—as a ‘breakthrough’ and as a ‘sell out’: see Mel Cummings, ‘Black family interactions on television’, presented at the International Television Studies Conference, London, 1986 and Pat Skinner, ‘Moving way up: television’s “new look” at Blacks’, presented at the International Television Studies Conference, London, 1988. Both ITSC conferences sponsored by the British Film Institute and the Institute of Education, University of London.
31 The concept of ‘Third Cinema’ was originally proposed by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino; see their ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, London and Berkeley: University of California,
1976. It has subsequently been expanded, with particular reference to African cinema, by Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982.
32 Jean Genet’s film is the subject of intense debate in the Cultural Identities seminar on ‘Sexual identities: questions of difference’, in Undercut 17, 1988. Maxine, the black woman in Riddles of the Sphinx, is identified as a signifier of ‘dark continent’ mythology in Judith Williamson’s critique of the film, ‘Two or three things we know about ourselves’, in Consuming Passions, London: Calder & Boyars, 1986, 134. Frankie Dymon Jr was involved in Godard’s One Plus One and subsequently directed his own film, Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1969), described as a ‘pop fantasy’ by Jim Pines, in ‘The cultural context of Black British cinema’, op.cit.
33 Identified as indicative of class struggle, in V.N.Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, New York: Seminar Press, 1983. From another point of view, similar concepts are explored in Homi K.Bhabha’s reinterpretation of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (Penguin, 1970) in his essay, ‘The commitment to theory’, in New Formations 5, 1988, 20–2.
34 Richard Dyer, ‘Paul Robeson: crossing over’, in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, London: BFI/Macmillan, 1987, 79.
35 See Rosalind Coward, ‘Class, “culture” and the social formation’, Screen, Spring 1977, 18(1) 75–105 and the response, from Iain Chambers et al., ‘Marxism and culture’, Screen, Winter 1977–8, 18(4), 109–19. On authorship, enunciation and textual analysis, see Paul Willemen, ‘Notes on subjectivity: on reading Edward Branigan’s “Subjectivity under siege”’, Screen, Spring 1978, 19(1), 41–69. And on critiques of ‘Screen theory’ from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, see David Morley, ‘Texts, readers, subjects’ and Stuart Hall, ‘Recent developments in theories of language and ideology: a critical note’, both in Stuart Hall et al. (eds), Culture, Media, Language, London: Hutchinson, 1980.