Stuart Hall and Cultural Identities

Stuart Hall’s 1989 essay, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” is a seminal piece on race and identity, situated on the crossroads between film studies and cultural theory. It has been particularly influential on my theoretical approach to Black independent cinema (specifically the L.A. Rebellion, as I wrote about last week), so I thought it only fitting to showcase some of the key points that have helped guide my thinking.

Connecting issues of representation alongside enunciation, or “the positions from which we speak or write,” he observes, “Though we speak, so to say, ‘in our own name,’ of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never exactly in the same place” (Hall 68). In other words, identity is much more complicated than we are often made to think.

Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps, instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact, which the new cinematic discourses then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall 68).

Hall outlines two different approaches to ‘cultural identity’:

The first approach to ‘cultural identity’ views it as a kind of shared culture. Here, there is the expectation that behind individual ‘selves’, there is an underlying, collective, ‘one true self’, whereby people are united by “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes” (Hall 69).

The second approach is different, but not completely oppositional to the first. It acknowledges that while our conception of ‘cultural identity’ seems to thrive on notions of similarity, elements of difference are also crucial to our construction of identity.

 We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the differences and discontinuities which constitutes, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’ (Hall 70).

This second approach views identity as something not fixed, but always in flux. As Hall puts it, “Cultural identity … is matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,'” adding, “it belongs to the future as much as to the past” (70).

I like this way of thinking not only of histories, but of futures, too. Cultural identities are not ahistorical. They are not resistant to the changes that come with time, place and history (Hall 70). Cultural identity, therefore, “is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return” (Hall 72).

If we think about this interplay of time, perhaps we can better understand this notion of ‘becoming,’ not as something linear, but rather as a kind of web, weaving across time, place, history, and culture. A web where lines can be added, broken, mended, forgotten, remembered. And because it is always in process, a web is never really ‘complete’; conversely, no matter how many lines we add or mend, we can never really return to that original form. The web is positioned within a particular time, place, history, and culture.

 Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant trans-formation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (Hall 70).

Reflecting on his childhood in Kingston, Hall explores the influence of ‘Africa’ on Afro-Caribbean identity. While the ‘discovery’ of African connections in the Caribbean lead to a new construction of “Jamaican-ness,” or an “indiginous cultural revolution” in the 1970s, Hall is still wary of how Africa might be viewed as ahistorical. He argues, “The original ‘Africa’ is no longer there. It too has been transformed. History is, in that sense, irreversible” (75).

What perpetuates this notion of an ‘old’ or ‘original’ Africa? Well, like many issues of representation, it has its roots in the ‘European Presense’ (Hall 76). In colonial fashion, Europe has a tendency to speak for ‘others,’ situating Afro-Caribbean identity (in this case) within the “dominant regimes of representation” (Hall 76). Think of typical Hollywood portrayals of Africa, for example, where self-representations are silenced and exotic misrepresentations run rampant.

Hall thus calls upon Caribbean cinema to reclaim representations from the ‘European Presense’. To return to Africa, but ‘by another route,’ and to re-tell how Africa has actually become, and how it continues its becoming (Hall 76).

As Hall argues, cinema is not a “second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists,” it is a “form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are” (Hall 80).

If identity is constructed within, not outside, representation, then we must reevaluate who is being represented, and who creating those representations (Hall 80).

Then, what kind of futures can our representations hold?

 

Sources:

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework, vol. 0, no. 36, 1989, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/1311784516?accountid=12378.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

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Rebels With a Cause

Since beginning my research on Julie Dash’s films this past winter, I have become fascinated by a particular movement in US black independent cinema dubbed, the “L.A. Rebellion.”

Following the civil unrest of the late 1960s, marked by the Watts Uprising of 1965, as well as the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, a group of young African and African American students entered the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Theatre as part of an “Ethno-Communications initiative” launched to address the concerns of communities of colour (“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion,” n.p.). Some notable students associated with this initiative include: Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woodberry, and of course, Julie Dash.

According to Ntongela Masilela, the cultural aims and artistic practices of this group were “inseparable from the political and social struggles and convulsions of the 1960s” (qtd. in Martin, 2). Unlike Hollywood, these filmmakers drew inspiration from Third world theorists, philosophies of black consciousness, the practices of the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of the New Latin American Cinema movement (Martin 2; Reid 10).

Essentially, this new generation of West Coast-based filmmakers rejected the imposed standards of Hollywood, viewing it as limiting to “their artistic and political vision of black life and experience” (Reid 10). By choosing to work within “the shadows of mainstream film,” the L.A. Rebellion created a “paradigm shift in the history of black independent filmmaking” (Reid 10).

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Still from Killer of Sheep. Directed by Charles Burnett. Milestone Films, 1978. Image source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion).

According to Toni Cade Bambara, members of the L.A. Rebellion, who she calls “Black insurgents,” lived by an alternative set of filmmaking philosophies, including their belief that: “accountability to the community takes precedence over training for an industry that maligns and exploits, trivializes, and invisibilizes Black people” (qtd. in Rocchio, 173). Ultimately, their goals were to interrogate the conventions of mainstream cinema, to screen socially conscious content, and to consider alternatives that challenge past (mis)representations of Black individuals and communities (Rocchio 173).

In the words of one UCLA rebel, Haile Gerima:

 … I couldn’t imagine how a white supremacist structure such as Hollywood, an industry of culture that has created havoc to all human beings, could be a base for me to peacefully tell my story and experiment. Hollywood didn’t have any obligation to tolerate my search in form. The only term that Hollywood accepts is the commercial mould. And once you cease to operate within that paradigm, the industry will reject all the reasons you have to tell a story (qtd. in Reid, 11).

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Still from Child of Resistance. Directed by Haile Gerima, 1972. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2015/12/18/la-rebellion-book).

In a previous blog post, I wrote about Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984), and contemplated how her argument might apply to filmmaking.

Lorde argues: “… the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change ” (Lorde 112). Even years later, Lorde’s words seem to reverberate through the philosophies and practices of the L.A. Rebellion. Recognizing the limitations of Hollywood standards – narratively, aesthetically, and politically – the Black insurgents refused to conform to the rules of the ‘master’s house’.

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Understanding that real change could not take place by using the very tools of a historically racist industry, the UCLA rebels opted films styles and narrative forms that were in line more with African, Latin American, Asian, and European filmmakers who similarly worked against the Hollywood grain (Reid 11). For example, using handheld cameras created a characteristic trembling movement, shooting in familiar, urban locations, favoring discontinuous editing and nonlinear narratives, and ‘bad’ lighting, are some of the distinctive characteristics of the black independent film movement (Reid 11). Like the Italian neorealists and the French New Wave auteurs, many of these style choices were brought about by financial restraints, but it was this gritty and experimental frugality that actually helped set the rebel’s films apart.

At the same time, it wasn’t just economics that influenced L.A. Rebellion filmmaking practices. Ultimately, every aesthetic and narrative choice had a political purpose. Even the traditional use of frame rates was contested. For example, as director of cinematography for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Arthur Jafa not only questioned “most generic film conventions,” but he also questioned “whether the standard of twenty-four-frames-per-second rate is kinesthetically the best for rendering the black experience” (Bambara xv).

Toni Cade Bambara offers a wonderfully astute analysis of a specific scene in Daughters that captures Jafa’s unconventional use of frame rates:

 A particularly breathtaking moment begins with a deep focus shot of the beach. In the foreground are men in swallowtail coats and homburgs. Some are standing, others sitting. Two or three move across the picture plane, coattails buffeted by the breeze. They speak of the necessity of making right decisions for the sake of the children. Across a stretch of sand glinting in midground, the children play on the shore in the farground. Several men turn to look at the children. In turning, their shoulders, hips, arms, form an open ‘door’ through which the camera moves; maintaining a crisp focus as we approach the children. The frame rate changes just enough to underscore the children as the future. For a split second we seem to travel through time to a realm where children are eternally valid and are eternally the reason for right action. Then the camera pulls back, still maintaining crisp focus as we cross the sands again and reenter the present, the grownups’ conversation reclaiming our attention (Bambara xv).

With this, we see what kinds of stories can emerge if we actively challenge the conventions of filmmaking. By rejecting the ‘master’s tools,’ the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion helped conceive and create a cinematic landscape that worked to represent individuals and communities that existed beyond the borders of Hollywood.

 When we call ourselves film-makers it’s because we wrote, produced, knew how to do the sound, operate the camera, to light, and when we took it into post [production] we’d edit our films physically, as well as mix the sound. We were totally immersed in it. We weren’t making films to be paid, or to satisfy someone else’s needs. We were making films because they were an expression of ourselves: what we were challenged by, what we wanted to change or redefine, or just dive into and explore (Julie Dash qtd. in Clark, n.p.)

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Still from Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash, Kino International, 1991. Image Source: UCLA Film & Television Archive (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/daughters-dust).

Sources:

Bambara, Toni Cade. Preface. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash, The New Press, 1992, pp. xi-xvi.

Clark, Ashley. “The LA Rebellion: when black filmmakers took on the world – and won.” The Guardian, 9 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/09/the-la-rebellion-when-black-film-makers-took-on-the-world-and-won.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Martin, Michael T. “‘I Do Exist’: From ‘Black Insurgent’ to Negotiating the Hollywood Divide – A Conversation with Julie Dash. ” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/222358084?accountid=12378.

Reid, Mark A. Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Rocchio, Vincent F. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture. Westview, 2000.

“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion.” UCLA Film & Television Archive, n.d., http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion.

 

© Lesley Butler, 2017 (lvb717 @ mun.ca)

From absences to senses

A few weeks ago I had a visit with my eighty-nine year old grandmother. An outing that has a 90% chance of biscuits and a 100% chance of tea. In recent years, she has taken a liking to looking at pictures on my iPhone – whenever I go to her apartment she will say excitedly, “Any new pictures on your iPad?” (iPad referring to any kind of smart phone – she often takes this as an opportunity to crack jokes about ‘eye-pads’). Most of the time I just have fairly generic pictures of landscapes, screenshots of funny images, or pictures of cats wandering around my backyard – nothing particularly interesting. But what my grandmother likes best are pictures of people – and unfortunately, a series of 5 or more minimally different pictures of the same cat outside my window leave much to be desired for my ‘audience’ (I guess the phrase “quality not quantity” would apply to me here).

On this particular day, my grandmother added a twist to our usual picture sharing regime. She hobbled across the room with her walker and handed me a rather small, faded, orange and yellow photo album, saying: “Today I have pictures for you to look at!”

I opened the cover and scanned the pictures inside – most of them black and white, some of them yellowed and wrinkled with age. Faces from long ago look out from the frame – I search for familiar features, gestures, anything to help me name my ancestors.

I look back towards my grandmother, who is now having a cup of tea with my father across the living room. I bring one of the pictures over to her and ask, “Is this you when you were a little girl?”

Before even looking at the picture, she says, “My dear, it can’t be me!”

My dad chimes in as well, “There aren’t any pictures of your grandmother as a kid – they just didn’t take any.”

Somewhat perplexed, I carried on perusing the photo album. But I could not help but think about our family’s ‘archives’: What happens when there are pieces missing? And in turn, what counts as ‘missing’?

This would be difficult to answer – and I can only speculate at this point. But this blog series has taken up similar questions of photographic representation and absence in archives. What role does privilege play in the photographic? What about power in the archives? How do we navigate our contemporary understandings of gender, race, and class when we approach historical documents?

In Woman, Native, Other (1989), Trinh T. Minh-ha opens up and challenges our standard notion of archives. She claims: “The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women” (121).

We tend to privilege the tangible, the material, as our source for History and ‘truth.’ But if we look further, there is so much more we can learn. What histories can we tell if we look beyond the written word, beyond the preserved photograph?

The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroyed, brings into life, nurtures (Trinh 121).

Perhaps this is why I did not completely feel my grandmother’s absence from the photo album. While I do wonder why she was so blatantly left out of these family pictures (was it gender related? A class issue? Or something completely innocent? A broken camera maybe?), I can’t help but think that she is not entirely ‘missing’ from these ‘archives’. When I see pictures of other family members, I think about the stories my grandmother has told about them over the years. I hear her thick accent reverberating in my ears. When I see pictures of the rugged landscape of her childhood home, I smell the salt fish laid out to dry in the summertime and I feel the dewy ocean breeze on my skin. I imagine what life was like for my grandmother as in that small, Newfoundland fishing community in the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond.

Perhaps, searching for history takes more than looking to the past. Sometimes it takes listening, feeling, smelling, tasting … opening up our senses to a world of archives, or better yet, opening up our archives to a world of senses.

Sources:

Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Indiana University, 1989.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

The Atlantic

I have been thinking a lot more about the ocean recently. Maybe it’s because this Newfoundland spring has brought about a particularly striking seascape.

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View from Signal Hill, St. John’s. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler

Earlier in the season, harbors were packed with ice, and although visually it was quite beautiful, it certainly made it difficult (and sometimes, impossible) for boats to come and go.

 

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Pack ice in Torbay. April 2017. Photo: Lesley Butler.

And now, icebergs are ‘in season’. Those ‘bergy bits,’ which are the inspiration for this ‘Theory Thursday’ blog series, draw out locals and tourists alike. Those glacial giants are picture perfect, but of course there is more to them than meets the eye. Well, there is 90% that we don’t usually see, if we want to put a number on its underwater mass. But what about the rest of the iceberg’s story? What was its journey? How did the crashing of waves work to carve each berg’s unique shape? What of the glaciers from which they came?

What else can we learn when we think more about the water? About the movement, the current that brought these bergy bits to our harbors? How does the ocean influence the journey?

 

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Icebergs near the Quidi Vidi “Gut” a few years ago. April 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler.

While I touched on ideas of water briefly in my post on the movie Moonlight, I would like to open up the theoretical dimensions of the ocean a little bit more here.

Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds (2006) has been particularly eye opening for her take on the Atlantic Ocean through a black geographic perspective (thanks, Sonja, for the recommendation!).

Referring to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, McKittrick says:

 I want to read The Black Atlantic, and the black Atlantic, differently: as an ‘imbrication of material and metaphorical space,’ in part because the text is so noticeably underscored by a very important black geography, the Atlantic Ocean, through which the production of space can be imagined on diasporic terms …

I suggest that if The Black Atlantic is also read through the material sites that hold together and anchor the text – the middle passage, the Atlantic Ocean, black travelers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, the slave ship, the plantation, shared outernational musics, fictional and autobiographical geographies, nationalisms – it clarifies that there are genealogical connections between dispossession, transparent space, and black subjectivities. Historical and contemporary black geographies surface and centralize the notion that black diaspora populations have told and are telling how their surroundings have shaped their lives (xxi).

So often, the “naturalization of identity and place” leaves experiences of diasporic populations out of geographic conversations. How then, can we change the conversation?

Ultimately, McKittrick aims to reaffirm that “black Atlantic cultures have always had an intimate relationship with geography” (xxi). She challenges the notion of the Atlantic Ocean purely as a metaphor for “placelessness” and “vanishing histories,” rendering black writers as “ungeographic.” Instead, she emphasizes the material significance of physical geographies on black lives (xxi).

McKittrick pushes our perceptions of space and place further. What happens when we bring an element of fluidity to our notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’? What if we really consider the physical of the so-called ‘placeless’, or if we actually apply geography to the so-called ‘ungeographic’? How might we see diasporic differences, differently? Can we somehow reconcile the metaphoric with the material?

When we look to the water, what else can we learn? Or better yet, how else can we learn?

Geographic solutions to difference and political crises (such as segregation, imprisonment, ghettoization, genocide, the sexual-racial division of labor, surveillance, as well as social theories that “add on” a subaltern body) are undermined when difference is taken seriously, when a sense of place does not neatly correspond with traditional geographies, when transparent, stable political categories are disrupted by places unbound, and all sorts of humans open up different, less familiar, alterable geographic stories (McKittrick 34-35).

 

Sources:

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

 

Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

Four Women (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.

Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Colourful cinematography and kinetic editing.

In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).

Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Linda Martina Young dancing within the confines of a veil.

In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/74869216). As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.

This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: dancer Linda Martina Young evokes the constraints of, and resistance to, legacies of slavery.

This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.

“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).

In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.

Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.

In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.

When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: offering new ways to approach critical ‘looking’.

In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).

We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.

As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.

Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: challenging the cinematic gaze.

I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:

“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:

My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina       Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700. Accessed 6 March 2017.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

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The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700.

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/four-women.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=grdNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wUQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3795,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

Art and the Animal

I have been reading quite a bit about art and art history throughout this winter semester – from 19th century impressionism, to photography, to contemporary performance art. But one of the most recent things I have read was Elizabeth Grosz’s (2011) musings on art and animals.

While many philosophical perspectives tend to distinguish humans and animals on the basis of a human’s capacity for art, Grosz takes a Darwinian approach to finding the animal roots in artistic expression.

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“The Dodo,” 1893. Image from The British Library (Public Domain).

If I had to take a guess, I would say that the extent of my knowledge on Darwin comes from high school, much of which was probably very basic ‘survival of the fittest’ related evolutionary theory. So when I saw the term ‘Darwinism’ in Grosz’s writing, I felt a little bit out of my element.

In retrospect, I think this was part of Grosz’s goal – to show that scientific theory does not have to be daunting for more humanities-minded folks, and in fact, it can actually be quite beneficial.

Darwinism has opened up a way to engage with animal forces as those with which our own forces participate, and which direct us to a humanity that is always in the process of overcoming and transforming itself. It is the animal forces in us that direct us to what is regarded as most human about us – our ability to represent, to signify, to imagine, to wish for a make ideals, goals, aims. It is the animal in us that, ironically, directs us to art, to the altruistic, to ethics, and to politics. It is animals’ modes of coexistence, their modes of difference, their direct encounters with nonliving forces and materialities that guide our own. (Grosz 169).

As Grosz argues, instead of attempting to understand art and humanity through Enlightenment philosophies that valued “intelligence, reason, and the attainment of higher, more ennobling goals,” Darwin allowed us to see the connections between humans and their animal ancestors (169-70). Essentially, Grosz aims to change the conversation of art from its reliance on the human, to its relation to the world beyond (170).

The animal becomes not that against which we define ourselves but that through which we come to our limits. We are animals of a particular sort which, like all of life, are in the process of becoming something else (Grosz 170).

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“Three Butterflies and a Wasp.” Illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1646, The Met Museum (Public Domain)

Although I tend to be apprehensive about looking to animals for our understanding of humans (it is sometimes a slippery slope in terms of ethics, depending on the angle you take), but Grosz does bring out some interesting points.

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Crossbills at the bird feeder. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2013.

One of the key concepts that she brings in is that of Umwelt, biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s term for the particular world, or the “soap-bubble,” in which each living being exists.

An organism’s Umwelt is the unique world in which each species lives, the world as its body represents it, the world formed by the very form of the organism, whose morphology is the long-term result of evolutionary pressures, of the living engagement with a particular territory and its particular modes of object …

The Umwelt is the sensory world of space, time, objects, and qualities that form perceptual signs for living creatures, the world that enables them to effect actions, to exercise their organs, to act … It is a bubble-world, much like a creature enclosed in an invisible snow globe, which always positions the subject within the center of a movable horizon (Grosz 175).

According to this, we might see how “the body of an animal is an inverted map of its world” (Grosz 182). While at the same time, the animal’s world (the bubble in which it experiences life) “is a projection of its bodily capacities” (Grosz 183).

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A raven on the signal hill trail. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2013.

How then, does this fit in with art?

Grosz compares the material relationship between animals and their surroundings. She explores the significance of instinct for the creation of such things as bee hives, bird nests, and ant tunnels, in terms of ‘home’ and ‘territory,’ and what this means for life in general.

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Abandoned bird’s nest. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2016.

Without territory surrounding the home, both protecting it and infusing it with a certain set of resources, there can be no stable or ongoing home, as is the case for the vast majority of animals. And without the space and safety of the home, there can be no elaborate courtship dances and songs, no acts of spectacular rivalry, no arts of performance and enhancement – that is, no territory, no milieu, no art, no seduction, only the weighty reality of the phenomenal world, the Umwelt. That is not to say that there is no sexuality, no seduction, no sexual selection for the homeless or the nomadic of the animal world, only that such animals have no access to the resources for the artistic transformations of their own bodies or their milieu such as territory enables” (Grosz 185).

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Canada geese in Manchester. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

Grosz suggests that it is these animal arts that “become the raw materials of the human arts” (185).

We use such things as feathers, colors, and scents taken from, or inspired by, what we see in the animal world to adorn our clothes, our canvases, and our bodies (Grosz 185).

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A scarab beetle artifact, used for public education at the Manchester Museum. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

In a way, the human arts are not as distinct from the nonhuman as we usually think. Both the human, and the human arts in general, “are the transformation, the reworking, the overcoming of our animal prehistory and the beginning of our inhuman trajectory beyond the human” (Grosz 186).

If we consider these ideas of art and the animal, how does this transform the ways in which we think of our selves?

How might our understanding of space, territory, and home in terms of Umwelt, potentially rework our understanding of human geographies? How might we view migration and (trans)nationality, or race and belonging, through this perspective of the Umwelt? How might it change the stories we tell? Or how we tell them?

“The animal is that from which the all-too-human comes and that through which the human moves beyond itself” (Grosz 186).

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A spider’s web in a window, me in the reflection. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

Sources:

Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. Duke University Press, 2011.

Hollar, Wenceslaus. Three Butterflies and a Wasp. 1946. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/361547?sortBy=Relevance&ft=wasp&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=1.

“The Dodo.” Illustration from “[Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography. Edited by R. Brown. With … coloured plates and maps, etc.],” The British Library, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11223540985/in/album-72157641858423503/.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.