This is theory’s acute dilemma: that desire expresses itself most fully where only those absorbed in its delights and torments are present, that it triumphs most completely over other human preoccupations in places sheltered from view. Thus it is paradoxically in hiding that the secrets of desire come to light, that hegemonic impositions and their reversals, evasions, and subversions are at their most honest and active, and that the identities and disjunctures between felt passion and established culture place themselves on most vivid display.
– Joan Cocks, The Oppositional Imagination
Within current debates about race and difference, mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commodiﬁcation of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. Cultural taboos around sexuality and desire are transgressed and made explicit as the media bombards folks with a message of difference no longer based on the white supremacist assumption that “blondes have more fun.” The “real fun” is to be had by bringing to the surface all those “nasty” unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy. In many ways it is a contemporary revival of interest in the “primitive,” with a distinctly postmodern slant. As Marianna Torgovnick argues in Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives:
What is clear now is that the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with its own crises in identity, with its own need to clearly demarcate subject and object even while ﬂirting with other ways of experiencing the universe.
Certainly from the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the “primitive” or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that reinscribes and maintains the status quo. Whether or not desire for contact with the Other, for connection rooted in the longing for pleasure, can act as a critical intervention challenging and subverting racist domination, inviting and enabling critical resistance, is an unrealized political possibility. Exploring how desire for the Other is expressed, manipulated, and transformed by encounters with difference and the different is a critical terrain that can indicate whether these potentially revolutionary longings are ever fulfilled.
Contemporary working-class British slang playfully converges the discourse of desire, sexuality, and the Other, evoking the phrase getting “a bit of the Other” as a way to speak about sexual encounter. Fucking is the Other. Displacing the notion of Otherness from race, ethnicity, skin-color, the body emerges as a site of contestation where sexuality is the metaphoric Other that threatens to take over, consume, transform via the experience of pleasure. Desired and sought after, sexual pleasure alters the consenting subject, deconstructing notions of will, control, coercive domination. Commodity culture in the United States exploits conventional thinking about race, gender, and sexual desire by “working” both the idea that racial difference marks one as Other and the assumption that sexual agency expressed within the context of racialized sexual encounter is a conversion experience that alters one’s place and participation in contemporary cultural politics. The seductive promise of this encounter is that it will counter the terrorizing force of the status quo that makes identity ﬁxed, static, a condition of containment and death. And that it is this willingness to transgress racial boundaries within the realm of the sexual that eradicates the fear that one must always conform to the norm to remain “safe.” Difference can seduce precisely because the mainstream imposition of sameness is a provocation that terrorizes. And as Jean Baudrillard suggests in Fatal Strategies:
Provocation – unlike seduction, which allows things to come into play and appear in secret, dual and ambiguous – does not leave you free to be; it calls on you to reveal yourself as you are. It is always blackmail by identity (and thus a symbolic murder, since you are never that, except precisely by being condemned to it).
To make one’s self vulnerable to the seduction of difference, to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one’s mainstream positionality. When race and ethnicity become commodiﬁed as resources for pleasure,the culture of speciﬁc groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders,sexual practices afﬁrm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other. While teaching at Yale, I walked one bright spring day in the downtown area of New Haven, which is close to campus and invariably brings one into contact with many of the poor black people who live nearby, and found myself walking behind a group of very blond, very white, jock type boys. (The downtown area was often talked about as an arena where racist domination of blacks by whites was contested on the sidewalks, as white people, usually male, often jocks, used their bodies to force black people off the sidewalk, to push our bodies aside, without ever looking at us or acknowledging our presence.) Seemingly unaware of my presence, these young men talked about their plans to fuck as many girls from other racial/ethnic groups as they could “catch” before graduation. They “ran” it down. Black girls were high on the list, Native American girls hard to ﬁnd, Asian girls (all lumped into the same category),deemed easier to entice, were considered “prime targets.” Talking about this over-heard conversation with my students, I found that it was commonly accepted that one “shopped” for sexual partners in the same way one “shopped” for courses at Yale,and that race and ethnicity was a serious category on which selections were based.
To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white “innocence” and enter the world of “experience.” As is often the case in this society, they were conﬁdent that non-white people had more life experience, were more worldly, sensual, and sexual because they were different. Getting a bit of the Other, in this case engaging in sexual encounters with non-white females, was considered a ritual of transcendence, a movement out into a world of difference that would transform, an acceptable rite of passage. The direct objective was not simply to sexually possess the Other; it was to be changed in some way by the encounter. “Naturally,” the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires. Writing about the way difference is recouped in the West in “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art, or White Skin, Black Masks,” Hal Foster reminds readers that Picasso regarded the tribal objects he had acquired as “witnesses” rather than as “models.” Foster critiques this positioning of the Other, emphasizing that this recognition was “contingent upon instrumentality”: “In this way, through afﬁnity and use, the primitive is sent up into the service of the Western tradition (which is then seen to have partly produced it).” A similar critique can be made of contemporary trends in inter-racial sexual desire and contact initiated by white males. They claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive desiring subjects. They call upon the Other to be both witness and participant in this transformation.
For white boys to openly discuss their desire for colored girls (or boys) publicly announces their break with a white supremacist past that would have such desire articulated only as taboo, as secret, as shame. They see their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as afﬁrmation of cultural plurality (its impact on sexual preference and choice). Unlike racist white men who historically violated the bodies of black women/women of color to assert their position as colonizer/conqueror, these young men see themselves as non-racists, who choose to transgress racial boundaries within the sexual realm not to dominate the Other, but rather so that they can be acted upon, so that they can be changed utterly. Not at all attuned to those aspects of their sexual fantasies that irrevocably link them to collective white racist domination, they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change in white attitudes towards non-whites. They do not see themselves as perpetuating racism. To them the most potent indication of that change is the frank expression of longing, the open declaration of desire, the need to be intimate with dark Others. The point is to be changed by this convergence of pleasure and Otherness. One dares – acts – on the assumption that the exploration into the world of difference,into the body of the Other, will provide a greater, more intense pleasure than any that exists in the ordinary world of one’s familiar racial group. And even though the conviction is that the familiar world will remain intact even as one ventures outside it, the hope is that they will reenter that world no longer the same.
The current wave of “imperialist nostalgia” (deﬁned by Renato Rosaldo in
Culture and Truth as “nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed” or as “a process of yearning for what one has destroyed that is a form of mystiﬁcation”) often obscures contemporary cultural strategies deployed not to mourn but to celebrate the sense of a continuum of “primitivism.” In mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of reenacting and reritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other. This longing is rooted in the atavistic belief that the spirit of the “primitive” resides in the bodies of dark Others whose cultures, traditions, and lifestyles may indeed be irrevocably changed by imperialism, colonization, and racist domination. The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate,assuages the guilt of the past, even takes the form of a deﬁant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deﬂected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.
Whereas mournful imperialist nostalgia constitutes the betrayed and abandoned world of the Other as an accumulation of lack and loss, contemporary longing for the “primitive” is expressed by the projection onto the Other of a sense of plenty,bounty, a ﬁeld of dreams. Commenting on this strategy in “Readings in Cultural Resistance,” Hal Foster contends, “Difference is thus used productively; indeed, in asocial order which seems to know no outside (and which must contrive its own transgressions to redeﬁne its limits), difference is often fabricated in the interests of social control as well as of commodity innovation.” Masses of young people dis-satisﬁed by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the postmodern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodiﬁcation. The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives. Concurrently, diverse ethnic/racial groups can also embrace this sense of specialness, that histories and experience once seen as worthy only of disdain can be looked upon with awe.
Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization. Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodiﬁcation, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation. When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism.The acknowledged Other must assume recognizable forms. Hence, it is not African American culture formed in resistance to contemporary situations that surfaces, but nostalgic evocation of a “glorious” past. And even though the focus is often on the ways that this past was “superior” to the present, this cultural narrative relies on stereotypes of the “primitive,” even as it eschews the term, to evoke a world where black people were in harmony with nature and with one another. This narrative is linked to white western conceptions of the dark Other, not to a radical questioning of those representations.
Should youth of any other color not know how to move closer to the Other, orhow to get in touch with the “primitive,” consumer culture promises to show the way. It is within the commercial realm of advertising that the drama of Othernessﬁnds expression. Encounters with Otherness are clearly marked as more exciting,more intense, and more threatening. The lure is the combination of pleasure and danger. In the cultural marketplace the Other is coded as having the capacity to be more alive, as holding the secret that will allow those who venture and dare to break with the cultural anhedonia (deﬁned in Sam Keen’s The Passionate Life as “the insensitivity to pleasure, the incapacity for experiencing happiness”) and experience sensual and spiritual renewal. Before his untimely death, Michel Foucault, the quintessential transgressive thinker in the west, confessed that he had real difficulties experiencing pleasure:
I think that pleasure is a very difﬁcult behavior. It’s not as simple as that to enjoy one’s self. And I must say that’s my dream. I would like and I hope I die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind. Because I think it’s really difﬁcult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it’s related to death. Because I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure, would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it. I would die.
Though speaking from the standpoint of his individual experience, Foucault voices a dilemma felt by many in the west. It is precisely that longing for
the pleasure that has led the white west to sustain a romantic fantasy of the “primitive” and the concrete search for a real primitive paradise, whether that location be a country or a body, a dark continent or dark ﬂesh, perceived as the perfect embodiment of that possibility.
Within this fantasy of Otherness, the longing for pleasure is projected as a force that can disrupt and subvert the will to dominate. It acts to both mediate and challenge. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs, it is the desire to experience closeness and community that leads the white American journalist Charles to make contact and attempt to establish a friendship with Tshembe, the black revolutionary.Charles struggles to divest himself of white supremacist privilege, eschews the role of colonizer, and refuses racist exoticization of blacks. Yet he continues to assume that he alone can decide the nature of his relationship to a black person. Evoking the idea of a universal transcendent subject, he appeals to Tshembe by repudiating the role of oppressor, declaring, “I am a man who feels like talking.” When Tshembe refuses to accept the familiar relationship offered him, refuses to satisfy Charles’ longing for camaraderie and contact, he is accused of hating white men. Calling attention to situations where white people have oppressed other white people,Tshembe challenges Charles, declaring that “race is a device – no more, no less,”that “it explains nothing at all.” Pleased with this disavowal of the importance of race, Charles agrees, stating “race hasn’t a thing to do with it.” Tshembe then deconstructs the category “race” without minimizing or ignoring the impact of racism, telling him:
I believe in the recognition of devices as devices – but I also believe in the reality of those devices. In one century men choose to hide their conquests under religion, in another under race. So you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device in both cases, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Moslem or a Christian – or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black – is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist – merely because it is a lie...
Again and again Tshembe must make it clear to Charles that subject to subject contact between white and black which signals the absence of domination, of an oppressor/oppressed relationship, must emerge through mutual choice and negotiation. That simply by expressing their desire for “intimate” contact with black people, white people do not eradicate the politics of racial domination as they are made manifest in personal interaction. Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other. Often it is this reality that is most masked when representations of contact between white and non-white, white and black, appear in mass culture. One area where the politics of diversity and its concomitant insistence on inclusive representation have had serious impact is advertising. Now that sophisticated market surveys reveal the extent to which poor and materially under-privileged people of all races/ethnicities consume products, sometimes in a quantity disproportionate to income, it has become more evident that these markets can be appealed to with advertising. Market surveys revealed that black people buy more Pepsi than other soft drinks and suddenly we see more Pepsi commercials with black people in them.
The world of fashion has also come to understand that selling products is heightened by the exploitation of Otherness. The success of Benetton ads, which with their racially diverse images have become a model for various advertising strategies, epitomize this trend. Many ads that focus on Otherness make no explicit comments, or rely solely on visual messages, but the recent fall Tweeds catalogue provides an excellent example of the way contemporary culture exploits notions of Otherness with both visual images and text. The catalogue cover shows a map of Egypt. Inserted into the heart of the country, so to speak, is a photo of a white male (an Out of Africa type) holding an Egyptian child in his arms. Behind them is not the scenery of Egypt as modern city, but rather shadowy silhouettes resembling huts and palm trees. Inside, the copy quotes Gustave Flaubert’s comments from Flaubert in Egypt. For seventy-ﬁve pages Egypt becomes a landscape of dreams, and its darker-skinned people background, scenery to highlight whiteness, and the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. The front page copy declares:
We did not want our journey to be ﬁlled with snapshots of an antique land. Instead, we wanted to rediscover our clothing in the context of a different culture. Was it possible, we wondered, to express our style in an unaccustomed way, surrounded by Egyptian colors, Egyptian textures, even bathed in an ancient Egyptian light?
Is this not imperialist nostalgia at its best – potent expression of longing for the “primitive”? One desires “a bit of the Other” to enhance the blank landscape of whiteness. Nothing is said in the text about Egyptian people, yet their images are spread throughout its pages. Often their faces are blurred by the camera, a strategy which ensures that readers will not become more enthralled by the images of Otherness than those of whiteness. The point of this photographic attempt at defamiliarization is to distance us from whiteness, so that we will return to it more intently.
In most of the “snapshots,” all carefully selected and posed, there is no mutual looking. One desires contact with the Other even as one wishes boundaries to remain intact. When bodies contact one another, touch, it is almost always a white hand doing the touching, white hands that rest on the bodies of colored people,unless the Other is a child. One snapshot of “intimate” contact shows two women with their arms linked, the way close friends might link arms. One is an Egyptian woman identiﬁed by a caption that reads “with her husband and baby, Ahmedio A’bass, 22, leads a gypsy’s life”; the second woman is a white-skinned model. The linked hands suggest that these two women share something, have a basis of contact and indeed they do, they resemble one another, look more alike than different. The message again is that “primitivism,” though more apparent in the Other, also resides in the white self. It is not the world of Egypt, of “gypsy” life, that is afﬁrmed by this snapshot, but the ability of white people to roam the world, making contact. Wearing pants while standing next to her dark “sister” who wears a traditional skirt, the white woman appears to be cross-dressing (an ongoing theme in Tweeds). Visually the image suggests that she and ﬁrst world white women like her are liberated, have greater freedom to roam than darker women who live peripatetic lifestyles. Signiﬁcantly, the catalogue that followed this one focused on Norway. There the people of Norway are not represented, only the scenery. Are we to assume that white folks from this country are as at “home” in Norway as they are here so thereis no need for captions and explanations? In this visual text, whiteness is the unifying feature – not culture. Of course, for Tweeds to exploit Otherness to dramatize“whiteness” while in Egypt, it cannot include darker-skinned models since the play on contrasts that is meant to highlight “whiteness” could not happen nor could the exploitation that urges consumption of the Other whet the appetite in quite the same way; just as inclusion of darker-skinned models in the Norway issue might suggest that the west is not as uniﬁed by whiteness as this visual text suggests.Essentially speaking, both catalogues evoke a sense that white people are homogeneous and share “white bread culture.”
Those progressive white intellectuals who are particularly critical of “essentialist” notions of identity when writing about mass culture, race, and gender have not focused their critiques on white identity and the way essentialism informs representations of whiteness. It is always the non-white, or in some cases the non-heterosexual Other, who is guilty of essentialism. Few white intellectuals call attention to the way in which the contemporary obsession with white consumption of the dark Other has served as a catalyst for the resurgence of essentialist based racial and ethnic nationalism,Black nationalism, with its emphasis on black separatism, is resurging as a response to the assumption that white cultural imperialism and white yearning to possess theOther are invading black life, appropriating and violating black culture. As a survival strategy, black nationalism surfaces most strongly when white cultural appropriation of black culture threatens to decontextualize and thereby erase knowledge of the speciﬁc historical and social context of black experience from which cultural productions and distinct black styles emerge. Yet most white intellectuals writing critically about black culture do not see these constructive dimensions of black nationalism and tend to see it instead as naive essentialism, rooted in notions of ethnic purity that resemble white racist assumptions.
In the essay “Hip, and the Long Front of Color,” white critic Andrew Ross interprets Langston Hughes’ declaration (“You’ve taken my blues and gone – You sing ’em on Broadway – And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl – And you mixed ’em up with symphonies – And you ﬁxed ’em – So they don’t sound like me. Yet, you done taken my blues and gone.”) as a “complaint” that “celebrates...folk purism.” Yet Hughes’ declaration can be heard as a critical comment on appropriation(not a complaint). A distinction must be made between the longing for ongoing cultural recognition of the creative source of particular African American cultural productions that emerge from distinct black experience, and essentialist investments in notions of ethnic purity that undergird crude versions of black nationalism.
Currently, the commodiﬁcation of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the signiﬁcance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization. Like the “primitivism” Hal Foster maintains “absorbs the primitive, in part via the concept of afﬁnity” contemporary notions of “crossover” expand the parameters of cultural production to enable the voice of the non-white Other to be heard by a larger audience even as it denies the speciﬁcity of that voice, or as it recoups it for its own use.
This scenario is played out in the ﬁlm Heart Condition when Mooney, a white racist cop, has a heart transplant and receives a heart from Stone, a black man he has been trying to destroy because Stone has seduced Chris, the white call girl that Mooney loves. Transformed by his new “black heart,” Mooney learns how to be more seductive, changes his attitudes towards race, and, in perfect Hollywood style, wins the girl in the end. Unabashedly dramatizing a process of “eating the Other” (in ancient religious practices among so called “primitive” people, the heart of a person may be ripped out and eaten so that one can embody that person’s spirit or special characteristics), a ﬁlm like Heart Condition addresses the fantasies of a white audience. At the end of the ﬁlm, Mooney, reunited with Chris through marriage and surrounded by Stone’s caring black kin, has become the “father” of Chris and Stone’s bi-racial baby who is dark-skinned, the color of his father. Stone, whose ghost has haunted Mooney, is suddenly “history” – gone. Interestingly, this mainstream ﬁlm suggests that patriarchal struggle over “ownership” (i.e., sexual possession of white women’s bodies) is the linchpin of racism. Once Mooney can accept and bond with Stone on the phallocentric basis of their mutual possession and“desire” for Chris, their homosocial bonding makes brotherhood possible and eradicates the racism that has kept them apart. Signiﬁcantly, patriarchal bonding mediates and becomes the basis for the eradication of racism.
In part, this ﬁlm offers a version of racial pluralism that challenges racism by suggesting that the white male’s life will be richer, more pleasurable, if he accepts diversity. Yet it also offers a model of change that still leaves a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy intact, though no longer based on coercive domination of black people. It insists that white male desire must be sustained by the “labor” (in this case the heart) of a dark Other. The fantasy, of course, is that this labor will no longer be exacted via domination, but will be given willingly. Not surprisingly, most black folks talked about this ﬁlm as “racist.” The young desirable handsome intelligent black male (who we are told via his own self-portrait is “hung like a shetland pony”)must die so that the aging white male can both restore his potency (he awakens from the transplant to ﬁnd a replica of a huge black penis standing between his legs)and be more sensitive and loving. Torgovnick reminds readers in Gone Primitive that a central element in the western fascination with primitivism is its focus on “overcoming alienation from the body, restoring the body, and hence the self, to a relation of full and easy harmony with nature or the cosmos.” It is this conceptualization of the “primitive” and the black male as quintessential representative that is dramatized in Heart Condition. One weakness in Torgovnick’s work is her refusal to recognize how deeply the idea of the “primitive” is entrenched in the psyches of everyday people, shaping contemporary racist stereotypes, perpetuating racism. When she suggests, “our own culture by and large rejects the association of blackness with rampant sexuality and irrationality, with decadence and corruption, with disease and death,” one can only wonder what culture she is claiming as her own.
Films like Heart Condition make black culture and black life backdrop, scenery for narratives that essentially focus on white people. Nationalist black voices critique this cultural crossover, its decentering of black experience as it relates to black people,and its insistence that it is acceptable for whites to explore blackness as long as their ultimate agenda is appropriation. Politically “on the case” when they critique white cultural appropriation of black experience that reinscribes it within a “cool” narrative of white supremacy, these voices can not be dismissed as naive. They are misguided when they suggest that white cultural imperialism is best critiqued and resisted by black separatism, or when they evoke outmoded notions of ethnic purity that deny the way in which black people exist in the west, are western, and are at times positively inﬂuenced by aspects of white culture.
Steve Perry’s essay “The Politics of Crossover” deconstructs notions of racial purity by outlining the diverse inter-cultural exchanges between black and white musicians, yet he seems unable to acknowledge that this reality does not alter the fact that white cultural imperialist appropriation of black culture maintains white supremacy and is a constant threat to black liberation. Even though Perry can admit that successful black crossover artists, such as Prince, carry the “crossover impulse”to the point where it “begins to be a denial of blackness,” he is unable to see this as threatening to black people who are daily resisting racism, advocating ongoing decolonization, and in need of an effective black liberation struggle.
Underlying Perry’s condescension, and at times contemptuous attitude towards all expressions of black nationalism, is a traditional leftist insistence on the primacy of class over race. This standpoint inhibits his capacity to understand the speciﬁc political needs of black people that are addressed, however inadequately, by essentialist-based black separatism. As Howard Winant clariﬁes in “Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States: Difference and Inequality,” one must understand race to understand class because “in the postmodern political framework of the contemporary United States, hegemony is determined by the articulation of race and class.” And most importantly it is the “ability of the right to represent class issues in racial terms” that is “central to the current pattern of conservative hegemony.” Certainly an essentialist-based black nationalism imbued with and perpetuating many racial stereotypes is an inadequate and ineffective response to the urgent demand that there be renewed and viable revolutionary black liberation struggle that would take radical politicization of black people, strategies of decolonization, critiques of capitalism, and ongoing resistance to racist domination as its central goals.
Resurgence of black nationalism as an expression of black people’s desire to guard against white cultural appropriation indicates the extent to which the commodiﬁcation of blackness (including the nationalist agenda) has been reinscribed and marketed with an atavistic narrative, a fantasy of Otherness that reduces protest to spectacle and stimulates even greater longing for the “primitive.” Given this cultural context, black nationalism is more a gesture of powerlessness than a sign of critical resistance. Who can take seriously Public Enemy’s insistence that the dominated and their allies “ﬁght the power” when that declaration is in no way linked to a collective organized struggle. When young black people mouth 1960s black nationalist rhetoric, don Kente cloth, gold medallions, dread their hair, and diss the white folks they hang out with, they expose the way meaningless commodiﬁcation strips these signs of political integrity and meaning, denying the possibility that they can serve asa catalyst for concrete political action. As signs, their power to ignite critical consciousness is diffused when they are commodiﬁed. Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption. As Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen emphasize in Channels of Desire:
The politics of consumption must be understood as something more than what to buy,or even what to boycott. Consumption is a social relationship, the dominant relationship in our society – one that makes it harder and harder for people to hold together, to create community. At a time when for many of us the possibility of meaningful change seems to elude our grasp, it is a question of immense social and political proportions. To establish popular initiative, consumerism must be transcended – a difﬁcult but central task facing all people who still seek a better way of life.
Work by black artists that is overtly political and radical is rarely linked to an oppositional political culture. When commodiﬁed it is easy for consumers to ignore political messages. And even though a product like rap articulates narratives of coming to critical political consciousness, it also exploits stereotypes and essentialist notions of blackness (like black people have natural rhythm and are more sexual).The television show In Living Color
is introduced by lyrics that tell listeners “do what you wanna do.” Positively, this show advocates transgression, yet it negatively promotes racist stereotypes, sexism, and homophobia. Black youth culture comes to stand for the outer limits of “outness.” The commercial nexus exploits the culture’s desire (expressed by whites and blacks) to inscribe blackness as “primitive” sign, as wildness, and with it the suggestion that black people have secret access to intense pleasure, particularly pleasures of the body. It is the young black male body that is seen as epitomizing this promise of wildness, of unlimited physical prowess and unbridled eroticism. It was this black body that was most “desired” for its labor in slavery, and it is this body that is most represented in contemporary popular culture as the body to be watched, imitated, desired, possessed. Rather than a sign of pleasure in daily life outside the realm of consumption, the young black male body is represented most graphically as the body in pain.
Regarded fetishisticly in the psycho-sexual racial imagination of youth culture, the real bodies of young black men are daily viciously assaulted by white racist violence,black on black violence, the violence of overwork, and the violence of addiction and disease. In her introduction to The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry states that “there is ordinarily no language for pain,” that “physical pain is difﬁcult to express; and that this inexpressibility has political consequences.” This is certainly true of black male pain. Black males are unable to fully articulate and acknowledge the pain in their lives. They do not have a public discourse or audience within racist society that enables them to give their pain a hearing. Sadly, black men often evoke racist rhetoric that identiﬁes the black male as animal, speaking of themselves as “endangered species,” as “primitive,” in their bid to gain recognition of their suffering.
When young black men acquire a powerful public voice and presence via cultural production, as has happened with the explosion of rap music, it does not mean that they have a vehicle that will enable them to articulate that pain. Providing narratives that are mainly about power and pleasure, that advocate resistance to racism yet support phallocentrism, rap denies this pain. True, it was conditions of suffering and survival, of poverty, deprivation, and lack that characterized the marginal locations from which breakdancing and rap emerged. Described as “rituals” by participants in the poor urban non-white communities where they ﬁrst took place, these practices offered individuals a means to gain public recognition and voice. Much of the psychic pain that black people experience daily in a white supremacist context is caused by dehumanizing oppressive forces, forces that render us invisible and deny us recognition. Michael H. (commenting on style in Stuart Ewen’s book All Consuming Images) also talks about this desire for attention, stating that breakdancing and rap are a way to say “listen to my story, about myself, life, and romance.” Rap music provides a public voice for young black men who are usually silenced and overlooked. It emerged in the streets – outside the conﬁnes of a domesticity shaped and informed by poverty, outside enclosed spaces where young male bodies had to be contained and controlled.
In its earliest stages, rap was “a male thing.” Young black and brown males couldnot breakdance and rap in cramped living spaces. Male creativity, expressed in rap and dancing, required wide-open spaces, symbolic frontiers where the body could do its thing, expand, grow, and move, surrounded by a watching crowd. Domestic space, equated with repression and containment, as well as with the “feminine” was resisted and rejected so that an assertive patriarchal paradigm of competitive masculinity and its concomitant emphasis on physical prowess could emerge. As a result,much rap music is riddled with sexism and misogyny. The public story of black male lives narrated by rap music speaks directly to and against white racist domination,but only indirectly hints at the enormity of black male pain. Constructing the black male body as site of pleasure and power, rap and the dances associated with it suggest vibrancy, intensity, and an unsurpassed joy in living. It may very well be that living on the edge, so close to the possibility of being “exterminated” (which is how many young black males feel) heightens one’s ability to risk and make one’s pleasure more intense. It is this charge, generated by the tension between pleasure and danger, death and desire, that Foucault evokes when he speaks of that complete total pleasure that is related to death. Though Foucault is speaking as an individual, his words resonate in a culture affected by anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure. In the United States, where our senses are daily assaulted and bombarded to such an extent that an emotional numbness sets in, it may take being “on the edge” for individuals to feel intensely. Hence the overall tendency in the culture is to see young black men as both dangerous and desirable.
Certainly the relationship between the experience of Otherness, of pleasure and death, is explored in the ﬁlm The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which critiques white male imperialist domination even though this dimension of the movie was rarely mentioned when it was discussed in this country. Reviewers of them ﬁlm did not talk about the representation of black characters, one would have assumed from such writing that the cast was all white and British. Yet black males are a part of the community of subordinates who are dominated by one controlling white man. After he has killed her lover, his blonde white wife speaks to the dark-skinned cook, who clearly represents non-white immigrants, about the links between death and pleasure. It is he who explains to her the way blackness is viewed in the white imagination. The cook tells her that black foods are desired because they remind those who eat them of death, and that this is why they cost so much. When they are eaten (in the ﬁlm, always and only by white people), the cook as native informant tells us it is a way to ﬂirt with death, to ﬂaunt one’s power. He says thatto eat black food is a way to say “death, I am eating you” and thereby conquering fear and acknowledging power. White racism, imperialism, and sexist domination prevail by courageous consumption. It is by eating the Other (in this case, death)that one asserts power and privilege.
A similar confrontation may be taking place within popular culture in this society as young white people seek contact with dark Others. They may long to conquer their fear of darkness and death. On the reactionary right, white youth may be simply seeking to afﬁrm “white power” when they ﬂirt with having contact with theOther. Yet there are many white youths who desire to move beyond whiteness. Critical of white imperialism and “into” difference, they desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed.These desires are dramatized by two contemporary ﬁlms, John Waters’ Hairspray and the more recent ﬁlm by Jim Jarmusch, Mystery Train. In Hairspray, the “cool” white people, working-class Traci and her middle-class boyfriend, transgress class and race boundaries to dance with black folks. She says to him as they stand in a rat-infested alley with winos walking about, “I wish I was dark-skinned.” And he replies, “Traci, our souls are black even though our skin is white.” Blackness – the culture, the music, the people – is once again associated with pleasure as well as death and decay. Yet their recognition of the particular pleasures and sorrows black folks experience does not lead to cultural appropriation but to an appreciation that extends into the realm of the political – Traci dares to support racial integration. In this ﬁlm, the longing and desire whites express for contact with black culture is coupled with the recognition of the culture’s value. One does not transgress bound-aries to stay the same, to reassert white domination. Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a ﬁctive universe where white working class “undesirables” are in solidarity with black people. When Traci says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries. Blackness is vital not because it represents the “primitive” but because it invites engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the status quo. Like white rappers MC Search and Prime Minister Pete Nice who state that they “want to bring forth some sort of positive message to black people, that there are white people out there who understand what this is all about, who understand we have to get past all the hatred,” Traci shifts her positionality to stand in solidarity with black people. She is concerned about her freedom and sees her liberation linked to black liberation and an effort to end racist domination.
Expressing a similar solidarity with the agenda of “liberation,” which includes freedom to transgress, Sandra Bernhard, in her new ﬁlm Without You I’m Nothing,also associates blackness with this struggle. In the March issue of Interview she says that the movie has “this whole black theme, which is like a personal metaphor for being on the outside.” This statement shows that Bernhard’s sense of blackness is both problematic and complex. The ﬁlm opens with her pretending she is black Dressed in African clothing, she renders problematic the question of race and identity, for this representation suggests that racial identity can be socially constructed even as it implies that cultural appropriation falls short because it is always imitation,fake. Conversely, she contrasts her attempt to be a black woman in drag with the black female’s attempt to imitate a white female look. Bernhard’s ﬁlm suggests that alternative white culture derives its standpoint, its impetus from black culture. Identifying herself with marginalized Others, Bernhard’s Jewish heritage as well as her sexually ambiguous erotic practices are experiences that already place her outside the mainstream. Yet the ﬁlm does not clarify the nature of her identiﬁcation with black culture. Throughout the ﬁlm, she places herself in a relationship of comparison and competition with black women, seemingly exposing white female envy of black women and their desire to “be” imitation black women; yet she also pokes fun atblack females. The unidentiﬁed black woman who appears in the ﬁlm, like a phantom,looking at herself in the mirror has no name and no voice. Yet her image is always contrasted with that of Bernhard. Is she the fantasy Other Bernhard desires to become? Is she the fantasy Other Bernhard desires? The last scene of the ﬁlm seems to conﬁrm that black womanhood is the yardstick Bernhard uses to measure herself. Though she playfully suggests in the ﬁlm that the work of black women singers like Nina Simone and Diana Ross is derivative, “stolen” from her work, this inversion of reality ironically calls attention to the way white women have “borrowed” from black women without acknowledging the debt they owe. In many ways, the ﬁlm critiques white cultural appropriation of “blackness” that leaves no trace. Indeed, Bernhard identiﬁes that she had her artistic beginnings working in black clubs, among black people. Though acknowledging where she is coming from, the ﬁlm shows Bernhard clearly deﬁning an artistic performance space that only she as a white woman can inhabit. Black women have no public, paying audience for our funny imitations of white girls. Indeed, it is difﬁcult to imagine any setting other than an all black space where black women could use comedy to critique and ridicule white womanhood in the way Bernhard mocks black womanhood.
Closing the scene shrouded in a cloak that resembles an American ﬂag, Bernhard unveils her nearly nude body. The ﬁlm ends with the ﬁgure of the black woman, who has heretofore only been in the background, foregrounded as the only remaining audience watching this seductive performance. As though she is seeking acknowledgment of her identity, her power, Bernhard stares at the black woman, who returns her look with a contemptuous gaze. As if this look of disinterest and dismissal is not enough to convey her indifference, she removes a tube of red lipstick from her purse and writes on the table “fuck Sandra Bernhard.” Her message seems to be: “you may need black culture since without us you are nothing, but black women have no need of you.” In the ﬁlm, all the white women strip, ﬂaunt their sexuality, and appear to be directing their attention to a black male gaze. It is this standpoint that the ﬁlm suggests may lead them to ignore black women and only notice what black women think of them when we are “right up in their face.”
Bernhard’s ﬁlm walks a critical tightrope. On one hand it mocks white appropriation of black culture, white desire for black (as in the scene where Bernhard with a blonde white girl persona is seen being “boned” by a black man whom we later ﬁnd is mainly concerned about his hair – i.e., his own image) even as the ﬁlm works as spectacle largely because of the clever ways Bernhard “uses” black culture and standard racial stereotypes. Since so many of the representations of blackness in theﬁlm are stereotypes it does not really go against the Hollywood cinematic grain. And like the Tweeds catalogue on Egypt, ultimately black people are reduced, as Bernhard declares in Interview, to “a personal metaphor.” Blackness is the backdrop of Other-ness she uses to insist on and clarify her status as Other, as cool, hip, and transgressive. Even though she lets audiences know that as an entertainment “rookie” she had her start working in close association with black people, the point is to name where she begins to highlight how far she has come. When Bernhard “arrives,” able to exploit Otherness in a big time way, she arrives alone, not in the company of black associates. They are scenery, backdrop, background. Yet the end of the ﬁlm problematizes this leave-taking. Is Bernhard leaving black folks or has she been rejected and dismissed? Maybe it’s mutual. Like her entertainment cohort Madonna, Bernhard leaves her encounters with the Other richer than she was at the onset. We have no idea how the Other leaves her.
When I began thinking and doing research for this piece, I talked to folks from various locations about whether they thought the focus on race, Otherness, and difference in mass culture was challenging racism. There was overall agreement that the message that acknowledgment and exploration of racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination. The over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodiﬁed and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate – that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten. After weeks of debating with one another about the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, students in my introductory course on black literature were convinced that something radical was happening, that these issues were “coming out in the open.” Within a context where desire for contact with those who are different or deemed Other is not considered bad, politically incorrect, or wrong-minded, we can begin to conceptualize and identify ways that desire informs our political choices and afﬁliations. Acknowledging ways the desire for pleasure, and that includes erotic longings, informs our politics, our understanding of difference, we may know better how desire disrupts, subverts, and makes resistance possible. We cannot, however, accept these new images uncritically.
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