Notes on: Hall, S. (1996). S. Hall. Critical dialogues in cultural studies. (Eds)  D. Morely & K-H Chan. New York: Routledge.

Dave Harris

[Wonderful slipperiness and weaselling throughout taking on the old enemy of discursive theory aka a tiger by the tail. Tries one sentence to rescue Gramsci. Generally ends in hesitation and academic caution]

Chapter 21 new ethnicities.

There are two phases in the shifting Black cultural politics, both faces of the same movement which overlap, both affected by the same historical conjuncture, both rooted in the politics of antiracism. Two moments in effect.

The first one can be seen as arising when the term Black became a way of referencing common experiences of racism and marginalisation in Britain, the organising category among groups 'with in fact very different histories, traditions and ethnic identities' (41). The Black experience became a unifying framework, it became '"hegemonic"' [Ha!] over other identities although these did not disappear.

Black experiences were marginalised, deliberately positioned as a result of specific political and cultural practices which normalised English society. They arose in the context of challenging resisting and if possible transforming 'the dominant regimes of representation, in music, style and later a literary visual and cinematic form'. The focus was turned from having been the objects to the subjects of representation, a critique of 'fetishisation objectification and negative figuration', simplification and stereotyping rather than absence or marginality. The politics focused first on access to the means of representation, and then contesting the marginality and stereotypical quality of images by suggesting a positive imagery.

'I have a sense' that there may now be a new phase, not necessarily a substitution. The politics of race does not develop in stages, but moves via displacement, reorganisation. Black people now struggle on two fronts, while avoiding binary oppositions. Hence only a tentative proposal is suitable.

There is now a struggle over the very politics of representation rather than just its relations. Representation is a slippery turn. It might refer to images of reality in the mimetic theories, but it can take a more radical turn. Hall does believe that there are 'conditions of existence in real effects outside the sphere of the discursive', but they can only be constructed within the discursive and subject to its limits and conditions. This will avoid 'expanding the territorial claims of the discursive infinitely' but enable a focus on the 'constitutive role of representation. culture and ideology, its formative rather than expressive place'.

The background to the struggle is 'the effect of a theoretical encounter between Black cultural politics and the discourses of Eurocentric, largely White, critical cultural theory' (443) which has been dominant in analysing representations so far. That critical theory has been dangerous for Black people [he doesn't specify but he mentions the threats of post modernism and feminism]. It has brought about the end of innocence and the notion of an essential Black subject. This has political consequences. On the one hand we need to recognise 'extraordinary diversity of positions, experiences and identities which means that '"Black" is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories [especially] no guarantees in nature'. As a result, it cannot be linked to the 'effectivity of any cultural practice'.

More plainly, 'films are not necessarily good because Black people make them', nor because they deal with Black experience. Instead, there is nowadays a 'maelstrom of continuously contingent, and guaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism' (444). There is no simple reversal where old essential white subjects are bad. This might 'threaten the collapse of entire political world' or it might be seen with relief — that people are no longer the same, but they are no longer all good. We must think instead of the politics that works through difference build solidarity and identification which makes struggle possible without suppressing 'the real heterogeneity of interest in identities'. The boundaries will never be eternal. Guess what, it will involve Gramsci in war of position. We must at the same time avoid 'the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal pluralism'.

There are implications for the relations with other categories and divisions like class and gender. Films that he likes [!] make clear that these relations are now under discussion and that Black people must now be represented in terms of the dimensions of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity [because films do so!].

We now also recognise 'deep ambivalence identification and desire'. Identification is no longer a simple process involving fixed selves. There is both envy and desire as well as contempt in the positioning of  Blacks, identification as well as otherness.

In racism, the boundaries are supposed to be impassable and represented by binaries, but there is also 'epistemic violence' [claim to be originated by Spivak, 445] as in imperialism. Antiracism was founded on reversal of these binaries, but as Fanon reminds us epistemic violence is directed inward as well so there is splitting inside, 'the internalisation of the self as other', a double identity.

We can see this in the photographs of Mapplethorpe of nude Black males. They do feature fetishisation and fragmentation, and objectification, but there is more — 'the surreptitious return of desire' (445). This also had the effect of challenging in an unwelcome manner, questions of gender and sexuality in Black culture and Black masculinity. Black culture is also been 'underpinned by a deep absence or more typically an evasive silence with reference to class' (446).

Turning to ethnicity, there are different notions. Antiracism has often been seen as opposed to multi-ethnicity or multiculturalism, and the new politics of representation may bring still more contestation. Ethnicity has referred in the past to the construction of the Black subject of Black experience, and the codes which are represented. Now these centred discourses have been replaced, together with their universal and transcendental claims, we need a new struggle that prevents colonisation of the term to displace racism altogether or domesticate it as multiculturalism.

There is a new concept of ethnicity appearing based on full engagement with difference. This is also slippery and contested as a concept. Some difference is 'radical and unbridgeable', other forms 'positional, conditional and conjunctural, closer to Derrida's notion of differance' (447), although again we must be careful to avoid infinite slidings of signifiers [not close to Derrida then]. Ethnicity needs to be decoupled from nationalism, imperialism and the state which it is in Britishness, or more accurately Englishness.

Again some films like Passion and Handsworth Songs begin this distance from Thatcherite notions of Englishness which 'stabilises so much of the dominant political and cultural discourses [that] because it is hegemonic, does not represent itself as an ethnicity at all' (447). So there is a struggle inside the notion of ethnicity that split it from the dominant notion to develop a more positive notion. We are all ethnically located, and we should not support one that only survives by displacing and forgetting others, as Englishness does.

This entails Black experience as a diaspora experience, and celebrates 'unsettling, recombination, hybridisation and "cut and mix"'. The emergence of Third World cinema has helped as has Asian and African culture and their aesthetic traditions. However there are also new forms of contestation seen again in films which are intertextual. [Then a weird bit: '15 years ago we didn't care, or at least I didn't care whether there was any Black in the Union Jack. Now not only do we care, we must' (448)].

There is no critical innocence any more in Black cultural politics. When discussing film, for example, is no longer adequate to rely on the old 'stable, well-established critical criteria of a Guardian reviewer', but to look instead for 'signs of innovation, and the constraints, under which these filmmakers were operating', although it is difficult to think of alternative modes of address. However, questions of aesthetic value can no longer be decided by transcendental cultural categories like whether the filmmakers are Black. There must be 'continuous critical discourse about themes, about the forms of representation, the subject of representation, above all, the regimes of representation' [more work for critics]. Diagnosis is tricky and that you can get the mode of address wrong, and in one televised debate [about My Beautiful Launderette?]  he was accused of attacking the critic [in this case, the holy Salman Rushdie!].

The piece ends with a paean of praise to My Useful Launderette, as refusing monolithic representations while remaining positive. It can still be critically judged and argued about 'without undermining one's essential commitment to the project of the politics of Black representation'.