“…the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” — Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

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Stuart Hall, the British Marxist and cultural theorist, died today. He was the author of numerous articles on Marxism, cultural identity, Thatcherism, and the politics of difference. Below is posted an extract of his brief 1989 article on “New Ethnicities,” in which he discusses “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject.” This was, as my friend Dakota Brown pointed out, a provocation that has largely gone unanswered since it was first announced (indeed, largely unanswered by Hall himself). While I don’t share Hall’s predilection for Gramscian notions of “hegemony” and the “war of maneuver,” having long since been assimilated into the mainstream of cultural politics, he at least recognized the potential danger of such concepts leading to “a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism.” Moreover, Hall discusses the often problematic encounter between “black politics” and postmodernism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. All these have been discussed recently on this blog, and so I’m here republishing this excerpt.

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[The politics of representation] is a complex issue. First, it is the effect of a theoretical encounter between black cultural politics and the discourses of a Eurocentric, largely white, critical cultural theory which in recent years, has focused so much analysis of the politics of representation. This is always an extremely difficult, if not dangerous encounter. (I think particularly of black people encountering the discourses of poststructuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and feminism). Secondly, it marks what I can only call “the end of innocence,” or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject. Here again, the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that “race” or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.

We should put this as plainly as possible. Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily “right-on” by virtue of the fact that they deal with black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that “you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same.” This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity. It entails the movement in black politics, from what Gramsci called the “war of maneuver” to the “war of position” — the struggle around positionalities. But the difficulty of conceptualizing such a politics (and the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism) does not absolve us of the task of developing such a politics.

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