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)

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.

legibility and viability

We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.

But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.

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I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.

There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.

Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.

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St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.

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One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.

And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.

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Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?

So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.

But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.” 

And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?

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Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?

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The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.

If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?

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And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.

I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference  (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.

I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.

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on the campus at University of Chester

Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.

But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?

And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.

Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.

That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.

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No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.

Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).

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Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…

For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.

The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).

The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?

The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).

The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.

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The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.

The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.

This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.

This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.

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the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.

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organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

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Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.

How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?

This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.

It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.

It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.

It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.

It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.

But what about their daily lives? What were those like?

What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?

What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?

What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?

When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.

But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.

A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.

The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.

But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.

No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.

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food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.

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recipes escaping their cookbook!

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A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.

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somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.

And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.

Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.

Doodle.

Keep every scrap of paper.

Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.

Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.

Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.

This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.

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With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.

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

taste as archive

taste as archive

Lisa M. Heldke has argued that food making is a “‘theoretically practical’ activity — a thoughtful practice” (1992, 203). As Rosalyn Collings Eves observes, recipes might be understood as sites of embodied memory. What we ‘know’ about food is located not just in the ingredients, but in all of the body’s senses; in Heldke’s words, “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (1992, 219).

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Cooking up a batch of raspberry jam takes me back to the mosquito-infested patch of raspberry bushes we had in the back yard when I was growing up. Even in 30 degree heat, I’d cover up from top to bottom, sweltering in the heat as I picked, my ears filled with the sounds of mosquito wings….

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Taste, these writers suggest, is never just about flavour. It is about texture, look, feel, smell, touch, sound; it is about movement; about a kinaesthetic knowledge (Sutton) located within the very sinews, bones, muscles – the very stuff – of the body itself.

How do I know which pepper to buy? What constitutes a good bulb of garlic? Who can tell me if a watermelon is juicy and sweet?

What constitutes a pinch of salt? How do I know that I’ve put in enough cinnamon? What is the exact science of mingled spices – garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric – for my curry?

None of this can be found in a book. Well, it can. But the true understanding of food making exists in the body itself.

“Taste,” writes Barbara Kirsehnblatt-Gimblett, “is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell (outside the mouth), and sound …. Our eyes let us ‘taste’ food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell” (qtd. in Sutton 2010, 218).

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Eating pom, one of two main Creole celebration dishes, with my aunt and uncle in Suriname. Made with a Surinamese taro root, chicken, a stock mixture and orange juice, this is comfort food par excellence. Creamy, rich, flavourful. Served here with cassava, plantain and sauteed Chinese long beans. What I wouldn’t give for some of this right now….

Taste is, in and of itself, an archive of senses, meanings, histories. Consider Julia Kristeva’s visceral accounting of abjection in the form of food loathing:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.” (2-3)

Taste, as Kristeva observes, is more than individual; it is about the self, certainly, but it is also about the social. For Kristeva, the skin floating on top of milk “separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it” (3); taste here disrupts normative kinship; it also disrupts the intergenerational transmission of food and food memories.So, too, might we consider Fred Wah’s (1996) revulsion at the slivers of ginger floating in his dinner, even as he simultaneously acknowledges their role in his hybrid Chinese-Canadian identity.

None of this can be exactly measured. None of this can be accurately marked. These are knowledges located on our tongues, at our fingertips, in our muscles, between our teeth.

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I’m a sushi fan, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the Dutch penchant for raw herring topped with chopped onion. This is my moment of abjection. Doesn’t matter how far back I can trace my Dutch heritage (1750 last time I worked at it), I still won’t eat herring….

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Oliebollen, on the other hand…. pass ’em right over! In The Netherlands – and at our house – these donut like balls are New Year’s Eve fare. 

But these archives of taste are also political. Food is never just about the private, domestic sphere of home and family; food – and taste – cross borders, break boundaries, challenge private/public dichotomy (Sutton 2008, 160). David Sutton (2010) references the work of Sydney Mintz, for example, who links the taste of sugar to questions of political economy. Sugar, he argues, is never solely about sweetness; rather, it is intimately linked to questions of morality and politics. In Sutton’s words, “the addictive taste of sugar made it difficult to give up, and thus, a contentious item of anti-slavery boycott, whereas its taste once again led commentators to suggest it would lead the working classes into idleness and women into other desires and illicit pleasures” (2010, 212).

Certainly, foods have long played a role in questions of politics. In a letter to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, one of the most celebrated physicians of eighteenth-century Europe, a correspondent named Lavergne detailed with precision the recipe for his healthy drinking chocolate:

My drinking chocolate is made with 56 ounces of cocoa, 28 ounces of sugar, never vanilla. I distinguish between three different types of drinking chocolate: the first with half an ounce of cinnamon (instead of the full ounce I used in the past), the second with a quarter ounce; the third with no cinnamon at all … if I am missing something in order to consider this a true health drink [chocolat de santé], please let me know.”

(Lavergne l’aîné, October 1772, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS784/II/144.01.07.24)

For this correspondent, food and diet were linked directly with questions of health.

As I observe in my 2015 book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot, this framing was integral to Tissot’s own approach to questions of public health. In his Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion, for example, he contrasts the healthy body and mind of the rural peasant with the disordered body and psyche of the “man of fashion” in the city:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach labouring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for a long time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited, heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (38)

The seductive qualities of rich flavours – cream, meats, wines, sweets – would lead inevitably to a life of excess. Unhealthy eating habits damaged not only the body of the individual, Tissot argued, but also the body of the citizen, and in so doing, undermined the health of the state as a whole.

Taste, then, is never just a matter of intimate relations; it is also a matter of politics writ large.

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Speaking of too much…. why have one pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving when you can have two? Last year we had four. With lot of whipped cream, of course. 

My students and I experienced this first hand when we considered the politics of presidential cookie baking. In those halcyon days of yore, when Hillary Clinton was but a First Lady in waiting, the Democratic Party thought up a plan to make their candidate’s wife more palatable to the American electorate.

I’m not sure how “We’ll have her bake cookies!” won the day, but the cookie bake off between First Lady wannabe’s has been a tradition ever since (worth noting that I don’t recall Bill Clinton and Melania Trump facing off over the kitchen table during the last election cycle). Taste, in these contests, is not just about flavour, but about home, family, generations, domesticity, class politics, race, religious belief, and more (I wrote about the cookie bakeoff in a post called “Arugula and Chocolate Chips”)

“Cooking,” David Sutton (2001) argues, “is not simply an everyday practice, but an attempt to reconstruct and remember synaesthetically, to return to that whole world of home, which is subjectivity experienced both locally and nationally, if not at other levels as well” (86). Taste, here, operates in multiple registers; while intimately located within the body, it cannot be understood without the larger context in which foods and memories circulate.

Taste is about gender, race, class, ethnicity.
It is about how we locate ourselves within our webs of belonging.
It is about how we remember.

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A spectacular dessert concoction dreamed up by a good friend and my younger son, while we were staying with these friends in London. This dessert brings me to conversations we’ve had over the 20+ years we’ve been friends, to the music we’ve made together (both serious and silly), and to evenings of laughter in the back garden in North London.

In a recent article, Lisa Heldke (2016) reflects on the memory itself as a sense, considering the intensely embodied food memories that shape her relationships to her pasts and, inevitably, her futures. She recalls her response to seeing her deceased mother’s handwriting on a recipe card, writing:

It’s not the recipe itself – the list of ingredients, the set of steps – that carries this stunning visceral power….It’s the handwriting that does it, seeing it brings the past – brings her into the present moment with me …. Of course it’s not not the recipe. Indeed, whenever I make a favorite family dish, I purposely ‘go there’; I retell myself a story about this food and its place in our family lore. I invite myself to marinate in memories of when and where and how we might have eaten this food. (90)

What memories do you marinate in?
What tastes do you hold close?

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Fresh garlic. Where would we be without it?

Food historian Ian Mosby observes that “studying the taste of history is more than just a novel way of engaging with students. In fact, it is a key tool available to teachers for opening students’ eyes to the profoundly important role that the sense have historically played in determining important changes to societies, empires, economies and environments” (170).

What might this sensual archive tell you, if you listen to what it has to say?

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Mangoes. My all time ultimate favourite fruit flavour sensation. Look at them all, just hanging there. It’s almost impossible to get a good mango in St. John’s…. 

Works Cited

Boon, Sonja. Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, 280-97.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, pp. 87-91.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 251-265.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Mosby, Ian. “Eat Your Primary Sources! Researching and Teaching the Taste of History.” Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Resaerch, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg. Routledge, 2016, pp. 166-72.

Sutton, David E. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 157-180.

Sutton, David E. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 39, 2010, pp. 209-223.

Sutton, David E. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, 2001.

Tissot, Samuel Auguste, An Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1771.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 1996.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2017 (sboon @ mun.ca)