Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994): bell hooks

Outlaw Culture is a collection of essays, interviews, and reflections by bell hooks on many different aspects of popular culture and cultural criticism. hooks' stated goal in her introduction is to open up the field of cultural studies. She is interested in challenging the academy and trying to get people who have traditionally been excluded from “scholarly” discourse to engage in it. “Talking critically about popular culture was a powerful way to share knowledge, in and outside the academy, across differences, in an oppositional and subversive way” (4). hooks further posits that, “These essays reflect the desire to construct frameworks where border crossing will not be evoked simply as a masturbatory mental exercise that condones the movement of the insurgent intellectual mind across new frontiers (another version of the jungle safari), or become the justification for movements from the center into the margin that merely mimic in a new way old patterns of cultural imperialism and colonialism” (5). hooks expresses frustration that she began to do interdisciplinary work in this area before the white, male, conservative academy caught on and made it okay to study these things. The key to this book is the phrase hooks uses to describe contemporary American culture: White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Almost every essay included in this book deals with how minorities and women must struggle against this hegemonic force. Anyway, there are twenty essays in this book and I will provide a summary/reflection of a few of them below:

“Seduction and Betrayal: The Crying Game Meets The Bodyguard”: In this piece, bh explores how the arty “white” Crying Game got more critical attention than the “black” Bodyguard. bh also shows how the directors and actors of both films tried to distance themselves from the issues of sexuality/gender and race. Kevin Costner, for example, said that the Bodyguard was not about “race” or an interracial relationship, rather, it was about a love story. bh points out that is easy for people who have the hegemonic power (whites and males) to assert that race and/or gender are not important issues. bh concludes that both films are daring works that evoke the issues of gender and race, but both resolve the problems by returning to the status quo (also, in both of these films, white males are allowed to deal with their problems/insecurities, not minorities). This keeps things from being challenged or changed.

“Censorship from the Left and Right”: In this essay, bh moves beyond trashing right wing censorship projects, and discusses the self-censorship, or silence, that occurs within marginalized movements such as feminism and black liberation. bh uses the Clarence Thomas hearings as an example. Black people did not feel that they could question Thomas, b/c they would be questioning one of their own (even though Thomas’ views would not support black rights). bh also says that there are a number of high-powered black intellectually who seek acknowledgement from the white powers that be. She says, for example, she had trouble questioning the powerful Henry Louis Gates Jr. when she disagreed with a piece he wrote for the New York Times about blacks and Jews. bh concludes by saying that all these movements need to protect free speech and not encourage silence.

“Dissident Heat: Fire with Fire”: The idea of anonymity, that used to be very important in feminist thought in order to avoid patriarchal subversion, is being lost in our society due to the more public role of feminists and the mega-success of many feminist texts. This has caused a loss of the feminist community and camaraderie, and has replaced it with in-fighting and individuals seeking attention. bh says that many new feminists, including Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf, ignore issues of class and race in their works. This essay focuses on Wolf’s book Fire with Fire (incidentally, Wolf trashes Roiphe’s The Morning After in this book). bh agrees with Wolf’s idea that feminist thought and theory do not fully speak to the needs of masses of women and men, but does not think that the answer is to “popularize” feminism and make it a soft sell to the masses. “Feminist movement is not a product—not a lifestyle. History documents that it has been a political movement emerging from the concrete struggle of women and men to oppose sexism and sexist oppression” (99)

“Love as the Practice of Freedom”: In this piece, bh argues that there is not an ethic of love that guides many social programs and movements in America. Many people who call for racial equality and other noble social goals are sexist and do not discuss the idea of people loving one another. bh claims that love can be transformative, but love is a difficult sell in contemporary American culture b/c the focus is on power as a vehicle of transformation. In our current capitalistic society, true love is co-opted by capitalism, where love and other people are seen as commodities to be exploited. bh says a love ethic emphasizes a commitment to serving others and that true freedom and transformation can come from an embracing of love. This is a powerful essay to close her text with as bh has been attacked and accused in the past for being hate filled.

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