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.

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.

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.

Maneuvering the Master’s House

When I initially began my research about a year ago, I looked mostly to literature on postcolonialism, transnational feminism, and life writing. But as I was primarily interested in how film and gender fit into these general topics, I found myself perusing a book called, Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (2014). While trying to see if I could find any specific films or filmmakers that might help me hone in on a more specific topic, one paragraph stood out to me:

 Far from Hollywood, Senegalese director Safi Faye realised she could communicate more effectively in visual images rather than words to overcome the multiple languages of her country and avoid using the language of France, the coloniser of her country, Senegal (Kelly and Robson 12).

Although quite short and straightforward – more a survey than anything profoundly theoretical – this quote helped me to think more about the significance of film within (post)colonial contexts.

How does the visual medium of film work through the colonial implications of communication? How does it navigate language differences within (and across) borders? How does it challenge, and engage with, notions of silence?

In a way, Safi Faye’s filmmaking philosophy seems to echo Marlene NourbeSe Philip.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended … (Philip 56).

Sometimes I find myself forgetting the histories of power and persecution behind the very words that warp my tongue.

Perhaps I don’t really forget, rather, I fail to notice.

When something becomes seemingly second nature, like language – like my mother-tongue – it becomes hard to defamiliarize it, to distance yourself from it. But this is why it becomes all the more important to remember the many injustices that occur at the level of language.

 English

is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang

language

l/anguish

   anguish

— a foreign anguish.

 

English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

What does this mean then for filmmakers like Safi Faye who are caught between languages? How can the visual help us navigate those colonial histories? Can film maneuver the politics of language more effectively than other textual mediums?

I think also to Audre Lorde, who famously claimed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (112).

 Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women … know that survival is not an academic skill … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For 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. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde 112).

If we think of these “tools” in terms of language, how can we apply this to Safi Faye’s approach to postcolonial filmmaking? Can filmmaking dismantle the ‘master’s house’? Or does filmmaking become yet another tool of the ‘master’?

 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).

Can filmmakers, with unique, passionate, and critical ways of storytelling, direct their lens in a way that is resistant to their patriarchal, racist surroundings? Can filmmaking effectively contribute to (post)colonial conversations?

 

Sources:

Kelly, Gabrielle and Cheryl Robson, editors. Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through. Supernova Books, 2014.

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

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

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

silky: formlessness/otherness/wetness

My search for trans histories in Newfoundland runs rampant. Something like yearning, reaching, performing. I look for them in the dark, shifting narratives, water. I imagine them as a means to cope with isolation, splitting, the abyss. To keep myself afloat.

I feel something similar to Dionne Brand when she remembers how the ocean surrounding her island home laid at her feet “a sense of leavings and arrivals” (2001: 74). As I have grown on this island, I have watched the ocean carry things away: men from my hometown, kelp, fish heads, plastic bags. Most of the men came back, the sea didn’t swallow them. It was generous when it wanted to be. Somehow I knew my body was connected to water and earth, its materiality climbing over land and seascapes. Years later I would find out that we were all made of the same stuff.

I saw myself in them.
I talked to them.
I learned from others.

As a researcher, interviews and oral history sessions are my main methods of inquiry. Even so, my background in folkloristics has further enlivened a relationship with archives. A few weeks ago, I was fumbling through Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative when I happened upon a photograph that has sent me flying through erased and imagined histories, trying to make sense of my present – remembering how I got, and stand, here at this location – while writing myself into the past. In this way, I have felt the rush of temporalities meeting and touching. I have understood, again, how “memory is a research project, an archive (‘a referral to birth’) of connected pasts and others” (Hall 2008: 238).

The photo and the weight it carries meet me at this point in my life without warning. From here I am unfixed and transfixed, locating the scattered (wayfaring) parts of my corporeality I know as hybrid. I am not made one way so I cannot think one way. Like Barbara Bridger, “I am the opposite of single-minded, I work constantly with fragments” (2009: 344). And at once these fragments lay bare: foremothers, hair like silk, fish scales.

The ocean was generous once more.

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Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Newfoundland Images. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/cns_images/id/0/rec/13

I am putting forth the potential to observe trans womanhood in Newfoundland as viscous and amorphous – a collection of representations between colonizer and colonized, between human and other than human, between material and discursive, between water and earth, liquid and solid. I see the mermaid as a maternal prototype for trans women working through the thickness and wetness of hybrid identity and corporeality on this island.

In order to work through this idea, I am combing over seven years of intimate movement / transition / turning. A personal archive of my transition(ing). I am simultaneously traveling through histories of mermaids and selkies, writing our lives coactively: “writing which is constant annotation, writing which takes place in the spaces between, writing over the lines, round the edges, in the interstices” (Bridger 2009: 346).

Liquid into liquid,
we resist emulsion.

Must be written together.

M/other and child.

Polybiographic.

I mull over John Hall’s belief that,

any genealogy that is also in part autobiographical is both an inquiry into and an act of specific ontology: this is who I am and this is how I know it. It is I who speaks thus, with all these others lined up behind and around me, including all those others who are part of the temporal ensemble of my I-through-time and of those various sets to whom I can belong as ‘we’ (2008: 232).

How convenient to jump into the archive, uncovering something precious that can force me to think through moving/mutant bodies.

Yet, I stumble upon and ask this question, once more, 22 years later:

“For who is it in these times who feels dislocated/placeless/invaded?” (Massey 1994: 165).

And another:

“What does a genealogy ‘do’? Is ‘we’ both an augmentation of ‘I’ and a way past it?” (Hall 2008: 233).

Like my graduate research, this theory materializes out of a personal quest to tie together trans affect, resistance and histories specific to this island. In many ways, it is about kinship. In Splittings, Adrienne Rich asks, “does the infant memorize the body of the mother and create her in absence?” (1974: 76). Am I doing this too? Naming the mermaid as mother, as the root, and route back home. One more: “Does the bed of the stream once diverted, mourning, remember wetness?” (76). How can I be sure? How far back can I reach into my “ancestral hybrid zone” (Lexer and Stotling 2011: 3702) before I come into contact with something I don’t want to know?  Should I want to know it?

There is an ache that pushes itself out of genealogical research, especially the metaphorical kind. One comes face to face with borders, ends, locations and relations that wear away. One recognizes “contiguity,” and all things “esoteric…disparate…peripatetic” (Mac Cormack 2003: 59). Yet, if I see parts of myself in the mermaid, I must know how she makes sacrifices, how she is “willing to pay the price and endure the pain of knives and swords for a body that matches the internal identity she claims” (Spencer 2013: 117). I must be comfortable with piercing movements through history, learning to view “movement as a place itself so no motion is homeless” (Mac Cormack 2003: 28).

This is what I’ve wanted. To have a glimpse of, and to touch ambiguity. Marika Cifor writes, “archival touches should be unavoidably intimate, provoking difficult and celebratory experiences and feelings reflective of the intimate and sometimes painful history and memory that made us who we are” (2015: 647). It is performative and unforeseen, “forming a queer connection that transcends normative bounds of space and time, changes both the artifact and me” (Cifor 2015: 648). Think about what happens in the process of revisiting. Think widely, through mutations.

As I continue to look at this photo, I shift locations, from island to ocean: each time I make this trip, I get the queer idea that this is what is waiting at the end of time (Hoagland 2013: 50).

Echoes:

once a selkie has returned to the sea, it will be seven years before he or she is seen again (Heddle 2016: 2).

I started claiming my womanhood seven years ago. Can you see me?

References

Brand, Dionne. 2001. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Vintage Canada.

Bridger, Barbara. 2009. “Writing Across the Borders of the Self,” In European Journal of Women’s Studies, 16 (4): 337–52. DOI: 10.1177/1350506809342613

Cifor, Marika. 2015. “Presence, Absence, and Victoria’s Hair: Examining Affect and Embodiment in Trans Archives,” In TSQ, 2 (4): 645-9. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-3151565

Hall, John. 2008. “Karen Mac Cormack’s Implexures: An Implicated Reading’,” In Antiphonies: Essays on Women’s Experimental Poetries in Canada, ed. Nate Dorward, 227-47. Ontario: Willowdale.

Heddle, Donna. 2016. “Selkies, Sex, and the Supernatural,” In The Bottle Imp, 20: 1-3. http://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/SWE/TBI/TBIIssue20/Heddle.html

Hoagland, Tony. 2013. “Crossing Water,” In Ploughshares, 39 (1): 50-1. DOI: 10.1353/plo.2013.0059

Lexer, C. & K. N. Stotling. 2011. “Tracing the recombination and colonization history of hybrid species in space and time,” In Molecular Ecology, 20: 3701-4. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05246.x

Mac Cormack, Karen. 2003. Implexures. Sheffield, UK: West House Books.

Massey, Doreen. 1994. Space, Place, and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rich, Adrienne. 1974/1993. “Splittings,” In Adrienne Rich’s poetry and prose: poems, prose, reviews, and criticism. 2nd edition, eds. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, 76-7. New York: W. W. Norton.

Spencer, Leland G. 2013. “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney,” In Communication Studies, 65 (1):112-27. DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2013.832691

© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017

Julie Dash and the Mysteries of the Celluloid Ceiling

If you’ve read any of my last few blog posts, you could probably tell that I enjoyed Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001). It’s true. Brand now holds a very special place on my bookshelf.

Brand’s work is not explicitly theory, in a traditional sense. But that does not mean it is not theoretical.

There is theory in her narrative, in her poetry. There is theory in-between the lines.

There is theory in unexpected places. (As Dr. Boon so aptly pointed out a few months ago)

In fact, I had the pleasure of taking a feminist theory course last semester on this very topic: Finding theory in unexpected places (again, thanks to Dr. Boon!)

In this course, we had an opportunity to write a feminist detective story, using theory to help craft our characters, setting, and plot.

I wanted my story to explore the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood, specifically in roles behind the camera. Or as it is often referred to: The Celluloid Ceiling.

This has been a topic that I find myself returning to over and over again. So I thought it only fitting to make the problem of the “celluloid ceiling” the central mystery of my detective story.

Fast-forward a few weeks and I am deeper into the research side of my story. It was time to add some theoretical meat to my narrative skeleton, so to speak.

While browsing some feminist film theory articles, I came across one in particular that caught my eye. It was Judylyn S. Ryan’s ” Outing the Black Feminist Filmmaker in Julie Dash’s Illusions” (2004), which explores the role of race and identity not only on camera, but behind it as well.

Illusions, set in 1942 Hollywood, follows Mignon Duprée, a black woman who secures an executive position at National Studios because she can ‘pass’ as white. It explores the tensions between illusions and reality, which are in constant play within the film industry, as well as the issues of racism and sexism within Hollywood, and the United States more broadly.

Illusions accomplishes several goals. As a manifesto, alternating among the discourses of history, logic, and prophecy, it recasts Black women’s vocal contribution to American film history, measures the cost and terms of that participation, imagines expanded roles and greater agency for Black women in film, facilitates Black women’s self-empowerment through film, and, in encouraging new modes of critical viewing, provides a new paradigm for constructing interpretive agency” (Ryan 1341).

Wow.

I was captivated, and I had not even seen the film yet.

I immediately started looking more into the work of Julie Dash. I learned that she was the first African American, female filmmaker to have a feature film released theatrically. That film was Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Set in 1902, Daughters follows three generations of Gullah women, descendants of former slaves, living on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina as they prepare to migrate north and settle on the U.S. mainland.

 I thought to myself: how have I not heard of Julie Dash after studying films academically for the past five years?

Does the celluloid ceiling still haunt those who have broke through?

illusions-3

Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee) and Esther Jeeter (Rosanne Katon) in Julie Dash’s Illusions. Women Make Movies, 1982.

After this introspective hiatus via my detective story, I began to think again to my thesis. Well, here was a filmmaker whose work touched on nearly all of my research interests: identity, race, gender, migration, memory, history, and life writing.

I was even finding connections to the work of Dionne Brand through Black, feminist, geographies!

I felt like my research was finally falling into place. Before, it was as if I had pieces of a puzzle, but was having trouble picturing the final image. Now, I can see it much more clearly (even if the pieces still need to be assembled).

Research is not always chronologically convenient, but moments like these are always worth the wait. Sometimes we have to change gears if we want to go forward.

Isn’t it wonderfully surprising where a feminist detective story can take you? Not only in fiction, but also in ‘real life’?

Sources:

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

Illusions. Directed by Julie Dash. Women Make Movies, 1982.

Lauzen, Martha. “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on     the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015.” Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2016, http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/research/.

Ryan, Judylyn S. “Outing the Black Feminist Filmmaker in Julie Dash’s Illusions.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 30, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1319-1344, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/421884.

 

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

Back to School

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“Back to school” at the University of Manchester. September 2013. Photo: Lesley Butler

With the ‘back to school’ air of September, I can’t help but think about the many years spent in grade school. For me at least, sometimes it feels like a different life from my days as a university student. However, what I learned in those formative years has undoubtedly impacted my higher education experience.

My experience with geography stands out in particular.

Throughout elementary and junior high school, we didn’t have geography class. Instead, we had “social sciences.” In high school, however, “social sciences” diverged into separate “geography” and “history” classes, and we had to choose one or the other. One day, our school principal spoke with our class about planning our high school courses. He advised that the more “advanced” students take history, and the “weaker” students take geography.

This sounded absurd to me.

Was it not more important to pursue something you are interested in, rather than something that will give you a convenient grade? Not to mention having grown up with a geographer as a mother, I thought his statement was both incorrect and insulting.

Although most of my friends switched over to history, I decided to stand my ground with geography, both in support of my mother’s career, and in rebellion of our narrow-minded principal.

From my understanding, geography was a complex, changing subject that involved critical thinking.

In other words, geography should not be “easy.”

Now that I am a graduate student reading from various theoretical perspectives, I keep thinking back to this scenario. (Isn’t it interesting how we can reinterpret our memories through theory?)

Specifically, feminist and indigenous theories of geography have helped me reinterpret why I felt uncomfortable and angry at the idea of geography as an “easy” subject.

The works of feminist geographers such as Doreen Massey (1994) and Linda McDowell (1999) have opened my eyes to the patriarchal traditions that are deeply rooted in geography as a field of study.

In short, Massey challenges the largely ‘masculine’ elements of classic geographical epistemologies in order to decenter dominant, contemporary western modes of conceptualizing gender (12-13). Similarly, McDowell attempts to deconstruct and denaturalize assumptions of gender divisions through transnational, geographic, and feminist frameworks (31-32).

Mishuana Goeman (2013) has also been particularly influential in helping me understand the colonial origins, and reverberations, of traditional geography on indigenous women in particular.

Drawing largely from the theories of feminist geography, Goeman confronts traditional geographies as largely masculine and colonial endeavors (22). For example, she argues that the “mapping and invention of America” required (if regrettably so) the heteropatriarchal forms of slavery, colonization, and the ideologies of orientalism, all of which are “gendered forms of violence” (22). Furthermore, she argues that traditional maps have been crucial to colonial projects, and are therefore complicit in the spatial violence inflicted on Native communities, and on women more specifically (14-19).

With this introduction to feminist and indigenous perspectives of geography, I find I am able to trek back through my memories, using theory as a light to reexamine my experience.

Perhaps it was not my principal’s dismissive attitude of geography as a whole that should have angered me as a teenager. In retrospect, I think the real problem is how this kind of simplistic attitude might keep geography from becoming the intersectional field of study that feminist geographers are striving for.

If we think of geography as easy, how will we challenge the undeniably difficult issues of colonialism and patriarchy that are rooted in the history of geography itself?

 

Sources:

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Massey, Doreen B. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity, 1994.

McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016