Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”

August 31, 2011 § 3 Comments

Penguins, because why not. Actually I’ll get to exactly why in just a second.

I don’t always know how to respond to old theory. I realize that Date of Publication is something I frequently discuss, often derisively, especially in terms of digital culture stuff. Oh poo poo, I cluck like some 24k asshole. 2006How quaint. This isn’t fair; time passes, it’s no one’s fault, especially when one considers that –and this is a very painful “that”– theorists are by definition behind the curve. Because christ once something has successfully traversed Death Valley, i.e. made it through the publishing process, the subject of whatever study is often halfway out the door. Ahem Second Life, MOOs and MUDS, probably trolling, etc. So let the record show that I am fully aware of this particular tic of mine, and try to keep it in check. At the same time, it can be so odd reading groundbreaking things 15 years after the fact — a particular specialization of UO’s English department (OH I WENT THERE, see how many fucks I give on 3 hours of sleep).

Interestingly, this morning’s (second) selection provides a roundabout take on academic evolution. Course good old Stuart Hall isn’t explicitly engaged with the march of the theoretical penguins (get it???? it’s a metaphor) but the shoe still fits — I roll my eyes at what was said then because of all the other things that have been said since. As Hall argues, the past is only ever viewed through the present; we cannot step outside history, or whatever it is we happen to regard as historical, in itself an ideologically-loaded endeavor. Consequently we must approach our various origin stories (in terms of race/ethnicity, in terms of culture, in terms of THEORY WARZ, in terms of whatever else we assume has a discrete beginning) as both critical to our understanding(s) of our current selves and also entirely mythological.

Hall’s specific account centers on an emerging identity politics, one which acknowledges-slash-celebrates and simultaneously contextualizes the geographical, historical, and therefore epistemic origins of presumedly static racial categories. These new ethnicities, which can best be described as difference with a touch of Derridian differance, are needed to combat the essentialized and essentializing nature of so-called “black” experience, which was often cited in post-war Britain but wasn’t and still isn’t actually a thing. “Blackness” as a political concept may have arisen for very good reasons –as Hall explains, both to access and contest the right to representation– but it reduces individual people, all subject to divergent histories and origins and struggles and successes, to one certain kind of person, indivisible and indistinguishable in some apparently homogenous blackness. Simply inverting the racial dialectic and equating everything black with everything good doesn’t combat the truly pernicious nature of racism — namely the implication that “you people are all the same.” Identity is much messier than that; blanket concepts must give way to more localized identities.

In conclusion, this happened in 1995. Since 1995 many other things have happened. Also.


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§ 3 Responses to Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”

  • Sethish says:

    I take offense at the idea that MUDs are no longer valid modern topics of debate.

    I feel like trends are quite a bit more fluid than we tend to give them credit for. Second Life wasn’t really worth putting an academic rubber stamp on, until academia started doing crazy stuff in it (I’m looking at you _eon_). And then just as suddenly, academia gave up on SL. SL is just as valid as it was before, and has /more/ users and innovation going on now (aside from innovations in weird sex), but academia couldn’t care less. The SL server is now open source as well, allowing schools to set up their own porn-free spaces in the SL multi-verse.

    But no, the bell says that Second Life is but dust. We’ll listen to the wind so long as it doesn’t chime for us.

    • Oh, I don’t mean to say the behaviors themselves are problematic or dumb (although new behaviors certainly have supplanted what used to be a much more limited field) — my problem, even though it isn’t exactly a problem, maybe just a summertime annoyance, which I could have put more carefully, is that the vast majority of academic articles and books on MUDs and MOOs say the exact same goddamn thing, over and over and over. One of those deals where, I pick up a book on “gender in MUDs and MOOs” and know exactly how the argument will go. Again, it’s not that these individual books are BAD, it’s just that there are so many of them…and speaks to problems within academia, much more than problems with the scholars who write these sorts of books. Part of this is due to, you know, we all want jobs, and we can’t just go running around writing about stuff that won’t get published or help our careers, making the road less traveled an evermore frightening prospect. So, people jump on board various ACADEMY APPROVED hawt topics (you know, like trolling lol), which is why the Second Life thing makes me snort. Partially as…I dunno, a signal of my own anxiety. But also because researchers only started looking at SL because other researchers were. Again, not to impugn any one individual’s work. Just that. The world turns faster than the academy. Which has always been true, but even more so online, where things change so quickly that as soon as you pin something down, it’s actually on its way to becoming a new thing. God knows I struggle with that…

  • […] Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”: We should be very suspicious of the assumption, no matter how well-intentioned or ostensibly positive, that “you people are all the same.” (Barthes) […]

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