Selections from “Cultural Theory and Popular Culture”

July 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

From my “Race Gender and Symbolic Power” exam list:

bell hooks, “Postmodern Blackness”

This article covers similar ground as audre lorde’s “Master’s Tools,” but does so with considerably less trollishness. In a nutshell, for hooks, postmodernism is just a fancy term for white people –usually white men– weeping over white people’s (usually white men’s) problems. See chin-whiskered crybaby Fredric Jameson, especially his solipsistic bawwfest about the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. hooks points out that, although self-professed postmodernists give lip service to “the Other” and “difference,” the theoretical country club is as white-bread as ever. Black female voices –of which hooks is one– aren’t given much credence, if they’re even acknowledged. So why bother trying? Well, hooks argues, because postmodernism has some useful tools, most notably its ability to unpack essentialist and essentializing discourse — but not if it continues to reinscribe a white supremacist agenda, that is, functions to silence all those voices it professes to champion. (harkening to the mega-balls awesome move by lorde demanding that her white middle class feminist audience confront their own politically problematic behaviors, for example being all like “brown women are people too!” and promptly hiring several of them to watch their babies and clean their houses).

In order to remain relevant to actual “Others” (as opposed to the hypothetical Other of postmodern lore), postmodernism must: recognize and explore the importance of identity, engage the lived experience of “difference” and court an “empowering nihilism” amongst displaced or politically alienated populations. Additionally, postmodernists must –if they hope to have any relevance irl and/or if they hope to do good as opposed to what they’ve always done– be willing to practice what they preach. This is a hard thing, for white people! But hooks has faith, and believes that with some conscientious effort, the striking discordance between (white) postmodernism and the actual world as inhabited by humans could at least be challenged.

Jaqueline Bobo, “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers”

Written in 1988, Bobo’s article considers how and why media audiences have varying experiences with the texts they “consume.” Bobo argues that audiences are far from passive vessels for media content; despite pervasive Frankfurt-type dick arguments to the contrary, audience members create meaning for themselves, based on their own personal experiences and histories. In order to further this claim –and more broadly to help ground her ethnographic account of black women’s relationship towards the film The Color Purple— she provides a detailed account of dominant v. negotiated v. oppositional readings, the culturally constructed “subject,” as well as textual interpolation and Hall’s related conception of “articulation.” At the time, this was groundbreaking stuff. 25 years later, Bobo’s arguments (and the arguments of those whom she cites, including and probably especially Stuart Hall) have been widely, if not universally, adopted by new/media scholars. In a nutshell: people are interpolated by the texts with which they engage, those textual engagement(s) is/are based in part on the experiences the person brings to whatever text, and people’s readings often challenge or reinterpret or outright hijack the “intended” meaning of whatever media artifact. Back to Bobo: what she did was awesome, and either forwards or nicely summarizes a series of seriously foundational claims, on whose shoulders I squarely stand. So thumbs way up.

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