Archive for October 2011

Fascinating Fascism Revisited.

By Fernando Gomez Herrero (fgh2173@gmail.com).

It appears to be a good idea –and perhaps also a good timing– to revisit some historical perceptions of the generality of US culture, initially alongside Susan Sontag’s articles written in the 1970s and gathered in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). This is something of a time travel with at least two stations, 1970s and 1980s, but also the early decades of last century are brought into the historical imagination, while we may walk ever so tentatively the tight rope of our own immediate future. Have we learned to pay more attention and grow more mature collectively in relation to such challenging avatars that delivered our own present uncertainties? I here want to highlight two articles in such collection: “Fascinating Fascism,” and “Syberberg’s Hitler,” with my main interest in the first one. This is good, middle-brow essay production, journalistic by the good name of journalism, inextricably linked to the rubric of “public intellectual.” This is always good reading for your subway ride, and it will linger in you, and perhaps the previous quotation marks are still needed in relation to the profound erosion of the “bad” or “minority” couple in question, public and intellectual, against vigorous de- or anti-intellectual privatizations taking place all over the home of the brave. There is a quaint word, “publicist,” badge of honor for those engaged in public affairs and international relations at the beginning of the 20th century (two pan-American examples, Alejandro Alvarez and James Brown Scott, but these will be ghosts for the natives of preciously thin memory). So, here we have portable modicum of critical “publicity” of immediate social dimensions of troubling attachments: fascism, a perennial “bad” word in the American English on this side of the American shore. Another one: socialism. But, surely inquisitions will go through the bad and good press believing neither. Sontag helps us here.

I still think our public intellectual was keenly perceptive of some symptoms of her own society, ours now, and for how long?, while keeping the doors of perception open to powerful foreign dimensions. I would initially like to suggest that this is enviable healthy mix, native and foreign, salt and pepper, ice cream and chipotle sauce, rare I must say, in most households, and I grant you that it is easier to do in the cities on the coasts than in the middle of the plains of the big country. So it would be wise to move out of there fast before you die a brainless death. And you know I am kidding up to a point… Sontag’s prose is always reader-friendly, accessible, perceptive, careful, tactful and with some bite. She nibbles in the middle so to speak, in between “highs” of minority academic culture and the street-level “lows” of “publicity” of the messy national culture. She refuses to trivialize the issues, say the relations between aesthetics and politics, without wanting to fix final solutions and false comforts. Instead, she builds intersections and passageways with academic modalities, in both senses of the word academic, good and bad, the more incisive and biting, the specialized and sustained, a deeper acquaintance, yes, the studious, the former good sense, but also the latter bad sense, the arcana, the eccentric and idiosyncratic, the hobbyhorse and the relative asocial enclosure of timidity, the tea cups with or without storms that look petty and laughable from the distance.

These two articles deal with the fascination that fascism generated historically in the European and American continents, and inevitably also with the reverberations felt in Uncle Sam’s house of being, Sontag’s fundamental ground-zero of concern and contact, New York city, her wonderful platform of observation. She converses with scholarship –citing Meinecke about the eruption of the satanic principle (Hitler) in world history, and Horkeimer about Auschwitz being the logical culmination of Western progress in the same tight paragraph. Try to find these authors in conventional bookstores out there, even in big cities. Try to find them in the middle of a sentence in good journalistic coverage dealing with the analysis of current events. In this “middle” manner, Sontag jumps into the marketplace of ideas and seeks the association with challenging good stuff, often foreign, for example Hans –Jurgen Syberberg’s magnus opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (the film released in America in 1979), with abundant “bad” academic material in it in the previous sense of “bad” to satisfy all your neighbors and extended family. I still think her generosity of intake of materials is healthy and so is obviously the courage to insist on disturbing topics of conversation: say, how fascistic dispositions found a survival outlet to reach  into the second half of last century and arguably our own crisis that finds –at least in some environments that would like to be considered thoughtful–  one mirror image in the Weimar Republic, in between two world wars, the Wilsonian moment near the Depression, etc. Not the typical Europe for honeymoon fun, quaint postcards and good food and all-good tourism, but a real Europe nonetheless that any immigrant nation should pay close attention to, unless it wants to slide down its own vertiginous mindlessness. And I am sure other historical moments in other continents could be put together as well for a richer room of mirrors. I am personally hungry for those and this is not as easy to come by in the land of the free as you would like to think, even in my current moment of library-holding luxury. Your subway ride will go faster, back and forth in time travel and you may even miss your original stop.

And here we are witnessing a surge of interest in the Weimar Republic moment in noted museums in New York city, undeniably with shadows and echoes in the larger cultural life of the big nation. Whether it is “high” culture, such as the recent Guggenheim exhibit, “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936,” reviewed in a previous culture bite entry, or popular film culture, the fascism motif stubbornly clings over here to the political imagination somehow. It is as though the Nazis were infinitely closer to us than the Bolsheviks and this is something that self-appointed “nice” liberals of predictable Humean stripe and inspiration do not attempt to hide (the Nazis, being the “authoritarian capitalist alternative,” Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan (Princeton UP, 2011, p. 18). It tells you the way “our” cookie crumbles, as Billy Wilder would put it…  And this will have to be developed in another culture bite soon. So, there is here something of a premonition, of lessons unlearned, at least according to Noam Chomsky’s recent interventions, repeated by Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class (2010), reviewed in detail in a previous culture bite, perhaps one modality of critical journalism that is so rare in our midst. In relation to this surge of interest around (proto-)fascism, you may have noticed literature samples and films, chat rooms and the world of commercialism and advertisement embedded in our increasingly authoritarian form of capitalism. There is the good novel by Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004), recreating for us now the Charles Lindbergh moment. There is also the more accessible and mediocre film materials such as Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998) in which the main protagonist is a nazi who turns liberal after being raped in jail!, the most recent Mario Bellocchio’s Vincere (2009) offering a dramatization of the story of Ida Dalser’s ill-fated relationship with Benito Mussolini, a kind of good girl falling for the very bad, if charismatic boy, but good lover, who deigns challenge God to exist and knock him out on the spot. All these films develop an idea of the connection between forceful sexual enjoyment and fascism that remains something of a commonplace to which I will return soon. It is possible to throw in here David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), particularly in relation to that community of men proving themselves in basement clashes, and this film is common form of entertainment among American students during exam time, I can attest. But you should not forget the grand stylizations of another time and place, Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and The Conformist (1970), with a slower pace and more “decadent” tapestry of foreign seductions, also sexualized.  Impossible not to have the feeling of an aesthetic letdown in our cheap and popular visual Americana! (there will be more cheapness to come, but don’t worry, America holds no special place in the claim of exceptionalism here). A figure of dangerous intelligence that is being studied abundantly: Carl Schmitt, and not necessarily by the nice liberals and the right, at least openly, but by some noted members of the Left, for example Chantal Mouffé. How many good candidates do we have out there, then as well as now, to counterpose to the historicist-philosophical geopolitical fascism of Carl Schmitt emerging from a moment of defeat and European transition to US hegemony? Reaching for the cultural-studies move, the “low” dimension of this fascist survival, puts us in the “celebrity culture” of eminent visual domain, fashion, television culture, tattoos and gossip (feel free to google images of Jesse James’ mistresses for a quick fix). I hope this is not too low for you, dear reader. I want to rescue the main idea that there is something of a non-subtle sexualization at work here in the vicinity of what I would like to claim is something of a (proto-)fascist disposition, a kind of a rough expression of memory and desire, that provides more or less faithful escort service to fantasies of violence or destruction, not exclusively articulated by conventional male-female binary opposition. Do we need reminders to beware the Ides of March of dirty politics? George Clooney’s recent film is the type of poor product about double-dealing politics that does not answer the fundamental question of whose collective aspirations, goals and horizons and against whom. Politics is dirty seduction game and your Spanish and your Italian will immediately come to you with popular sayings along those lines.

If Syberberg’s work is grandiloquent kitsch aesthetics with a few good moments of brilliance and eccentricity, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary photography and film production is more “straight” fascist celebration, particularly the still spectacular film Triumph of the Will (1935), despite some of her own obfuscations on the contrary. Sontag does a good job in uncovering such aesthetic impetus but also the complicities that New York artists and intellectuals may have had in such recoveries, four decades later when Sontag wrote her articles and about eight in relation to our own moment. Riefenstahl’s films still electrify and your embarrassment will not suffice: you want a rational explanation of such powerful aesthetics and no explanation will come in handy. The platform of observation makes things easier, up to a point, when you come to think of it: a USA woman comes to terms with an older German woman emerging from the defeated nation in relation to the showing of her later artistic production in the global metropolis. Sontag plays it home-court advantage and she wins, at least in the perspective of yours truly. Perhaps her victory is not rotund, but it is more than enough, considering what else is around. Her reconstruction of Riefenstahl’s trajectory, jigsaw bits and pieces, things said and unsaid, assertions and omissions is persuasive. There are priceless nuggets as when Riefenstahl visited Hollywood, the guest of Walt Disney before or after accompanying as “embedded art-journalist” the invading Wehrmacht into Poland… Sontag has a good investigative nose for the more or less subtle odor of the negotiations, acceptances and repudiation mechanisms in her own society as when she asserts that “[t]he rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal societies does not happen with the sweeping bureaucratic finality of the Soviet Encyclopedia…”  Touché. Watch out for those who will do their best to hide the regimentations and repudiations of (neo-)liberalism…

In the context of the 1973 New York Film Festival, Sontag handles critically the rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl highlighting what we might wish to call the “woman factor” without falling for it (the Festival poster was “made by a well-known artist who is also a feminist”). It may not be automatic to see the connection with the later work on the Nuba people of Africa and how such phenomenal work does not fundamentally contradict the early works. And you have to watch for the aesthetic appreciation and the ideological evaluation of rich and dense materials in relation to an artist who lived 100 years. Mala hierba nunca muere… And who said that artists have to be nice people or even be on the right side of your politics of preference? Yet, almost anyone can see through that woman-factor line and make the link with those who said they liked to see Margaret Thatcher in high places because she was a woman, or more mundanely, those who celebrated the American Academy Award for Best Picture for the Hurt Locker of Kathryn Bigelow, a first for a relatively mediocre woman director, for the same reason. Now, I leave it to you to celebrate the American imperialism of the said film.

Of course there is no one straight line between politics and aesthetics, and there is also not one or two straight and reliable lines between the feminization of aesthetics and / or politics. The undeniable aesthetic quality of the great German artist does not distract the respectable American public intellectual from the political criticism of the purification of her reputation in the transatlantic Euro-American axis of the “first world” (let us not forget that the German origin is the dominant American immigration group in gross numbers, if we keep the various British nationalities distinctive and separate). So, there are at least two fundamental levels of the inherited Eurocentrism of American culture of last century: the geopolitical struggle for world hegemony with German fascism and with Soviet revolutionary forces on your side at least for WWII, inside a nation with a dominant German contingent of its growing population that had to undergo strict and fast assimilation (in University settings, the German model pretty much remained inspirational, in the new industry of the motion pictures, think of a figure such as Billy Wilder in Hollywood’s so-called golden age, etc.).

You will feel alarmed at Sontag’s reconstruction of Nazi anti-intellectualism forbidding art criticism and their demonization of the “typically Jewish traits of character: putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.” One can come up with many instances of the circumscribing of the more or less veiled forms of repression of all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic (and yes, you guessed it right, also inside self-appointed nice liberal sectors). It is increasingly alarming not to see more often approaches to aesthetic achievement that combine an intelligent ideological critique without taking the most immediate orthodoxy for granted. It is challenging to come to terms with the “classicism” of the Triumph of the Will (1934), as it is to try to put your head around the celebration of the primitivism of the Last of the Nuba (1973), initially the type of docu-drama that will endear politically-correct visual artists of an anthropological inclination. Both are phenomenal works of art that are not simply emanating from the same source, but from the same, resisting ideological core that Sontag helps to qualify as “fascistic.” So what to make that such materials receive a regal welcome inside some circles? Critical intelligence is needed to come to terms with such modality of collective formation –call it “proto-fascist/ic” if you wish– side by side the current domination of capitalism. This is Sontag’s gist of argumentation in “Fascinating Fascism.” Her concern is with the cover-up of the ideological signification of aesthetic production that allows for its recontextualization and survivability inside the liberal precincts of theoretical plurality of voices in the marketplace. Yet some are more equal than others…  If fascism has to do with the violent outbursts of capitalism in moments of crisis, and perhaps with the mass-mobilizations of threatened petty-bourgeois sectors, one can perhaps see how some of this may not necessarily be behind us in a distant time and faraway place…

Particularly with these matters, I feel one does not have to dart into one perfect synthesis or near perfect formula that does the epistemological trick in various locations, but instead slow down and collect some impressions and thoughts in relative tranquility for more sustained reflection in the near future. “Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces: movements are confined, held tight, held in,” Sontag writes. There is the orchestration of containment and release in the Triumph of the Will, still a film that will move you in ways you do not anticipate to be moved, necessarily. She also writes of the “petrified eroticism” of Art Deco, deemed fascist style at its best (the making of the novelty of the skyscrapers in the city of Chicago in its moment of unparalleled growth has the most sustained Art Deco ornamentation). Sontag emphasizes the sexual lure of fascism, “which SS Regalia testifies to with unabashed plainness, impervious to deflation by irony or over-familiarity.” There is here a potency in these images turned into symbols that has not diminished sixty years later. Perhaps the Soviet symbols hold out? The contrast with the debilitated symbols of neo-liberalism is very marked indeed. Politics as theater, and performance, and the natural link is here established between sadomasochism and fascism—sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life, Sontag dixit. So is this a matter of doing it more, and better, of enjoying it more? I do not at all mean to trivialize the issue of collective formation, real or imagined, side by side want, or the realm of desire or the utopia of collective enjoyment.

There is more:  “these sadomasochistic fantasies and practices are to be found among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, although it is among male homosexuals that the eroticizing of Nazism in most visible.” What are we to make of this type of remark? Some examples will come up quickly, for example the adoration of Jean Genet by an author such as Juan Goytisolo in the contexts of French and Iberian Spanish literatures. I recall seeing a poster in Madrid of a march of attractive soldiers with veiled subliminal messages of orifices and penises, cannon balls and helmets, flags and weapons marching along towards some kind of gay parade to collect funds for some good cause. I can think of numerous examples going in the opposite direction (Derek Jarman would be a salient example). Almost anthropologically speaking, in what appears to be a deflation of politics, the end of sexual experience is presented by Sontag as defilement and blasphemy. And some of this is the dirty remainder of fascism that reaches us. Sontag maintains a generic level of vague natural universality, as though we all had those impulses inside and only a few acted on them. Sontag incorporates a series of impressions drawing from anthropology, politics and aesthetics. The impressionistic texture of her assertions is what remains in me without a firm sounding of these messy streams of consciousness and unconsciousness traveling in predictable ways in her own society or in any other. Fascism would be described as this taping into the reserve of sexual energy. The whole semantic field of liminality, defilement, blasphemy, boundary and boundary violation or transgression is brought into question, accordingly. Is this type of mass-culture visuality bypassing the explicitness of discursive language seeking to tap into the world of want, desire, eros and thanatos and doing it better accordingly than other ideological modalities? What are we to make of the eroticization impulse acted upon by the heavily tattooed white body of a woman, Michelle “Bombshell” McGee posing in Nazi-paraphernalia, with the Swastika armband, the SS-head gear, the blade-licking, the W and P in the back of her legs, and the online discussion as to whether the letters signify wet and/ or white, pussy and/ or power?

One must catch some breath at this point and not to conflate different levels and layers of interaction, thought but also of things unthought and unconscious. Ideological belonging may not need a coherent structure of propositional phrases logically interlinked in a tight narrative construct. It may instead operate visually through incoherent, if suggestive and provocative pastiche, through play with referentiality and motion pictures (not in vain, avant-garde modernism is contemporaneous with fascism and soviet revolution). For us now, the connection between these modalities with commercialism appears too easy, yet true. You do not have to read Virilio often to become aware that the consumption of images side by side the world of commodities, and the ironic compare-and-contrast with the verbal texture proper in recession, is undergoing a fast-forward global push towards the abyss of dematerialization. A more advanced stage the Marxist saying that “old that is solid melts into thin air”? “Angry white girl” white t-shirts, –“Trophy Girl” tattooed underneath the semi-exposed breasts of the woman—sexualize not only the body of the woman, but also the symbolic engagement inside which the potential customer may (wish to) operate that is always already operative inside late, postmodernist capitalism. There is something here of a controlled rebelliousness, operative largely through increasingly more violent, or more graphic or more shocking visuality. There is an appropriation of subcultures for the interests of the mainstream (rock’n’roll, and heavy metal, for example, moving into realms of entertainment such as the world of sports, American football for example, and porn-inspired sexualization in shopping-mall areas, the increasing space of video games moving into the film industry for example, etc.). The goal appears to be to try to catch your attention in an age of distraction and of media saturation.

Yet, what kind of phantasmatic collectivity is implied in such social networks where some of these images circulate (www.socalglamourgirls.com/Michelle_Bombshell)? It is in the mild pornography of these sites that I would argue the ideological underpinnings play out and not necessarily in full coherence.  In the age of non-narrative, I would argue that at least in relation to some of these references mentioned, there is something of a non-mainstream, predominantly young “white” presence of customers and consumers, not explicitly political, a kind of post- or neo-Nixonian if you wish, less “silent majority” if you wish, emerging congruently, if disjointedly inside a virtualized capitalism in severe crisis of identity. The challenge appears to be the imagination of a collective good, a commonwealth, the commons, and one can perhaps see how the official liberal subject of relative social decontextualization may become proto-fascist against some repudiated community, an “other,” against the horizon of a galvanizing crisis (I united with you against a third party). And yet the crucial issue is: and what kind of collectivity is the one that I wish to form with you accordingly? On the face of it, we appear to deal with extreme individualism of monadic monads with no thick or heavy concrete content, eminently closer to “libertarianism,” rather any central or collective pull (any (symbolic) centers in the world wide web of late capitalism in transition from the Euro-American platform to Asian locations as most salient predictions have it?). Accordingly, capitalism becomes the world wide web of heightened sexualization of those anthropological constants already enunciated by Sontag in the 1970s (some of this is already in Visconti’s aforementioned films in relation to the Cabaret culture of the time, and some of this has been critiqued by Slavoj Zizek in relation to the postmodern fascination with Deleuzian fragmentariness, post-ontological ethereality, acontextuality, etc.). What would make a community pull out or better coalesce around these virtualities (think of the etymology of “fasces”)? One possibility: the manufacture of consent towards some kind of enemy, particularly in times of crisis! One suggestion: this amorphous “libertarianism” may be the right type of environment that may welcome if not bring together proto-fascist tendencies in the near future (isn’t the invocation of the “war on terror” a symptom of such mechanism and the irony for all of us to digest in that the repudiated liberal universalism repudiated by Schmitt, call it Wilsonianism, returns in the manner of a neo-liberal, neo-Wilsonianism incorporating and re-utilizing Schmitt?). Again, always careful with levels and layers of interaction: there is no chance of mistaking Carl Schmitt for Leni Riefenstahl or for Michelle Bombshell McGee. Yet one can see how some of the ideas of Schmitt find their naturalization inside respectable circles of international studies and liberal historiography and how the early lesson of Riefenstahl, at least in the interpretation of Sontag, may indeed break down into virtual smithereens with some Nazi paraphernalia, at the street level, in social networks, in popular Americana, etc. some of which in and around the stripping body of the angry white woman with tattoos… The challenge is to maintain something of a historico-political and ideological Global Positioning System (or “GPS”): from the macro to the micro, the geopolitical level and the making of insides and outsides in relation to the various group formations and the symbolic productions that your dreams may or may not inhabit… The key thing is to try to see what kind of society is being imagined, built, promoted, repudiated, inside what type of symbolic imaginary are we functioning, where are the explicit and implicit influences coming from, what is it that is being suggested in the name of social, political order, etc.

What are the ideals of our national or international entity vis-à-vis the longings of National Socialism and of the Socialism of the Soviets? The main thing that neo-liberalism puts on the table is individualism, another word for manufactured de-socialization. Yet there is always a collective sky above such manufacture, even in its negative silence. Where are the ideological parameters being drawn now? I think it was Gramsci who spoke of the emergence of the charismatic leader amid the ruins of the institutions. Gramsci also spoke of Machiavelli. And many others have circled around the Florentine (Althusser, genealogists of liberal republicanism such as J.G. A. Pocock, etc.). In relation to the liberal preference for consensus and consent, other forms of political forcefulness and of coercion  have to put side by side. In relation to the chapter “Mind as Passion,” Sontag plays a tribute to Elias Canetti, the model itinerant intellectual, Bulgarian Nobel Prize for Literature, of Sephardic-Jew origin, “poly-cultural, restless, misogynistic, a collector, dedicated to self-transcendence, despising the instincts, weighed down by books and buoyed up by the euphoria of knowledge…” Is this type of lucidity a model for the immediate future imperfect that may come to us? We will have to read Auto-da-Fé (1935), but also Crowds and Power. A figure such as Baruch Spinoza has been celebrated recently by non-mainstream authors such as Antonio Negri, for example. These are “foreign” examples. What about the “natives” models? Ubi sunt?

Our time is more Saturnalia than Bachanalia. I realize in the end that I am clinging to the disrelationship between a perception of extreme individualism in American society and the possibility of forms of collectivity that could be convincingly called right-wing, libertarian or perhaps fascistic. The horizon of the opposite, call it left, collectivist, communalist, more centralized forms, even “socialist” or communist forms of social energies appears definitely more distant, at least near the ground zero of our public intellectual. Sontag pays attention to the eclectic, pastiche retrieval of all styles of the past, “especially the most pilloried,” in her own immediate society and wants to follow through some of these implications. She lived the early times of the retrieval theory moment of kitsch and pastiche, modalities that appear American through and through in their high-and-low mash-up, the borrowing, ephemerality and impermanence that insists in keeping the world-historical exceptionally at (virtual) arms’ length. Isn’t kitsch and pastiche the dominant modality of our aesthetics? Isn’t our political vocabulary dilution of old discourses with no clear frames of intelligibility? There is a certain de-politicization at work here, a certain thinness and simplification, a force of normalization also, inside which “proto-fascist” longings may be detected in relation to community-building desires and sustainable collective formation wants, particularly in the current desolation of institutional privatizations, or even de-institutionalizations.

 

It remains to be seen what type of social formation will grasp –even fascinate– the collective imagination and to what end it will propel such formation politically against others. Fascism may be merely a fleeting presence, and perhaps a superficial fashion with an irrepressible promiscuity of taste. That is not what history tells us however. Some “classicism” will impose itself. I would like to think that perhaps such promiscuity of taste will still save us aesthetically inside the complex and disorienting, disjointed and de-structured American life always already uneasy with any sustainable notion or frame  of tradition. I am less certain about the political dimension of such “salvation.” But the word itself needs to be put in quotation marks since I do not really know what it means. Is “utopia” any better?

 

Any comments, questions, issues for FGH? Get in touch: fgh2173@gmail.com

Marketing Blackness in the Age of Obama: Randall Kennedy and Touré.

 

 

The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency by Randall Kennedy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011).

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now by Touré  (New York: Free Press, 2011).

Initial quotes:

“Most African Americans gratefully appreciate that the simple fact of a black man occupying the presidency has irrevocably transformed the United States (…).

Having received so little for so long, blacks are happy to have someone in the White House with whom they can fully identify and who fully identifies with them, even he is unwilling to advance any set of federal initiatives that could plausibly be labeled “a black agenda.” [sic, in quotation marks].

Aware of the president’s limitations, I am yet unembarrassed to say that I admire Barack Obama” (Kennedy, pp. 34-35).

“Post-Black means we are like Obama rooted in but not restricted by our Blackness… Black is not a box, it’s an unbox. It opens the door to everything. It’s open-ended and open-source and endlessly customizable. It’s whatever you want it to be. Such is the dynamic hyper-creative beauty of modern individualistic Blackness… And like the iPod, post-Blackness has ended up in the White House… Blackness is like a Visa card –accepted everywhere you want to be” (Touré, pp. 12, 53, 55).

“How do we say “fight the power” with the same gusto when the commander in chief is a brother? … Does nigga fit the Zeitgeist of the country anymore? How can I continue giving the linguistic middle-finger to the country and approach America as if it hates us when America picked a progressive brother who fist-bumps his wife to be president?”  (Touré, pp. 152, 172).

 

Introduction.

Historically subordinated communities will surely have to build alliances with the legacy of collaboration and dissent exercised by Black or African-American groups in the US, inevitably taking into account the current predicaments and disorientations, which are wide-ranging and rich and touch on other communities as well. How to signify vigorously in the exceedingly small ideological variation game of late capitalism when a “brother” occupies the White House, the first Black president in the history of the United States of America? How to play it forcefully inside the current configuration of institutionally sanctioned spaces, including academia, as though no outside ever existed in the past and future? This is about the limits of liberal politics of representation of blackness in the Age of Obama, perhaps “marketing” is a correct term, not exactly an adventurous Age of Aquarius attached to the relative Obama novelty that some will want to play up and some play down. The foreshortened angle of internationalist perspective may detect things that the more up-close intimacy may not, and vice versa. It is good to deprovincialize the conversations about the Obama meaning for African-American groups in the US setting only, and it is also good to pay attention to how they play it –hardball or softball— in the entrails of the philanthropic ogre, as the well-known formula of Octavio Paz put it decades ago.

It will not be controversial to say that the possibilities for vigorous dissent appear small, American-small, even if, or particularly when, the current crisis is thick and deep and the talk of imperial decline walks classrooms and streets already as one of our own kind, and not about some ghost out there in the night of the history of other empires (intellectuals of the stature of Immanuel Wallerstein have been bringing it home at least for a decade!). How to go on making critical sense of the current predicament of big national perception of loss of might and the election of Barack Obama after the severe deterioration of the previous Bush presidency? I got to read two recent books that address some of these issues through the prism of Blackness in Obama’s America. I got to witness public presentations by the authors in question through the mediation of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the noted university of international name recognition. Ideologically, we are dealing with institutionally sanctioned liberal Black “minority” groups addressing what might be termed cultural politics (quite far away from leftist British brothers of the other side of the Atlantic, Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall to mention but two great examples). There’s here, in the immediate context of Red-Sox city, on this side of the Atlantic, a modicum of contentment, infinite caution and calibrated expression of dissatisfaction, at least on the most intelligent of the two authors I will be handling, as well as some well-earned pride and recognition side by side the racial affinity and group-belonging associated with the election of Obama. This is mostly about how Black groups fare in the US after such election. There is here a focus on blackness, and even a certain restraint, or even closure, perhaps understandably so. The already largest “minority” group, the Hispanic / Latino label, is not a strong presence. It represents two asterisks and two elementary clarification notes at the page bottom for Kennedy, inside a chapter that celebrates the election of Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court of Justice, and absolutely nothing for Touré, who mostly looks at his professional interests in the mirror binary of blackness and whiteness, with or without an attenuated addition of the prefix of “post” to the sign that will not go away, “black.” “Post” is more pro-, or proto-, hyper- or even super- and trying hard to be hip, or hype-, and “ultra-,” perhaps “plus ultra.” It does not at all mean the conventional grammaticality of moving on, of leaving it behind, of putting it in the dustbin of historical obsolescence. No fear.

 

 

I here wish to exercise a type of intellectual solidarity without hiding disappointments: Kennedy allows for thoughts on margins of (im-)possibility around political codes that are peculiar to American society, and Touré’s light culturalism allows for biting around the edges of promiscuous mixtures and self-sustaining hybridities. It felt fresh and light, even refreshingly lightweight, at first, and this is the good word I want to put out there at the beginning of this piece that deals with the artistic branding of “post-Blackness” as one form of cultural commodity production, circulation and consumption  (it feels more colored variations of mitigated postmodernism among affluent sectors rather than belligerent modalities of majoritarian postcolonialism, to tell the truth). Hence, the critical focus is on two samples of Black intelligence and current affairs, one of political sociology and one of “cultural studies” with a proximity to, or influence by, the arts.

Perhaps one foreign distraction from these all-American matters: international readers aware of other languages will have to “naturalize” the language of “race” as it is still used in the US in the 21st century, for example in the forms you are requested to fill out following federal and state regulations about “racial and ethnic categories.” There is a previous culture bite on the topic of social categorization in “Fear of a Hispanic Planet” (http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=171). And it is still true that one social typology, say Black, brings with it all others, one box must include other boxes with it, and that the messiness of the nomenclature is historical product that will not go away tomorrow (Touré claims to want to unbox Black and Black only, what does that mean for the other boxes in the racial template?). I am sure that this will not be easy pill to swallow for speakers of languages other than English (check out the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española for something of an elementary diachronicity of the concept of “race” [raza]; and I am still chasing down why initially foreign sign of “negro” lingered in the English language for five centuries). Proposals such as making Hispanic a “race” can only be understood inside US history (Haney López, for instance, cited by Kennedy). And such race language may well be inevitable, even if, or particularly when it brings with it a history soaked in subordination and racism, explicitly articulated by public figures round the 20th century corner (Kennedy’s racist quotations of political enemies are fatally self-incriminating and give a sense of how tough the discursive fight has been and is). In these delicate matters, the institutionally promoted, politically-correct presumption is that such use of “race” will debilitate racism, and that such debilitation is a good thing, obviously, towards a more inclusive democracy, if you are not a democrat, you don’t have to deal with this problem of egalitarianism, and that this presumption is in fact the only acceptable, public, vocal use of “race,” whether the presumption is correct or not is another matter. Ab initio, we all have to be anti-racists and this type of generic universalism is in and of itself suspicious symptom of troubled undercurrents begging for reconceptualizations, difficult task that these two books in question do not (wanto to) address directly. The Persistence of the Color Line is more historical, articulate and dense than the light and commercially hip Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? There is good collaborative book put together between Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (1991), which speaks to the new possible configurations of racism (comparativism among nations, and class dimensions sorely missing in our two books in question). Touré makes quick references to the real possibility that contemporary racism may be adopting new forms. And there is another one that opens up historical vistas: The origins of racism in the West, edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge UP, 2009), including other languages and landscapes that preceded the official foundation of the entity that we now call US, or even “America.” I would hastily venture that US liberalism allows this conventional use of “race” with the anti-racist-corrosive presumption up to a point, but without rendering the historical and social explanation  in greater detail. How far can you go down this “race” path of social-grouping configuration, typically against an outside group, without falling into the abyss of discrimination and of racism, one ruthless modality of politics among others? And a third suggestion in a “clear” context: Emmanuel Faye’s phenomenally researched and historically dense Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (Yale UP, 2009).  “Race” in one context is obviously not “race” in another, and still…

In the Spanish language for example, such race-language died, as far as I know, in the first half of the 20th century: “la raza” is today only exclusively used as sign of self-affirmation by Chicano groups in the US, a kind of retro-transfer possibly from the Vasconcelos moment of Raza Cósmica after the Mexican revolution in moments of pan-Americanist alliances (James Brown Scott, Alejandro Alvarez and others). Is it the same debilitation perceptible in other languages? Is this debilitation a good or a bad sign? As mentioned, making “Hispanic” a “race” in the context of the U.S., would require quite a bit of explanation on an international platform and I do not know if it would be eagerly embraced. In our society of extreme individualism, and we will soon see Touré’s advocacy of the good sign of individualism, “ethnicity” is one possible twin concept that is, I find, less popular in classrooms and streets, perhaps because it has more syllables. How to build collectivities in a society of nomads and monads? What type of sustainable community-building in a global-society of shorter and shorter timeframes? In any case, it is always good to remind ourselves that a common strategy of subordination has been to underplay such group or downplay hyphenated national characterizations while assuming the default position of, or normality for, “whiteness.” I hope you may still agree with me that some of this foreign denaturalization is a good thing, also in the vicinity of US Black political culture, if only not to have to assume the immediate national platform is the absolute horizon of ideal (or anti-racist) meaningfulness.

One more point: I cannot resist highlighting a perceived rigidity in such “race” language, typically in the mono-lingual American English idiom, often with an underdeveloped and under-appreciated historicist appetite. Kennedy pointedly speaks of the “toxicity of references to race in American electoral politics (p. 141), and examples are not hard to come by, think for example of the impossible use of the term “mulatto,” ironically in the Obama age, the “perennial” black-white binary of simplification of social dynamics, the liberal mechanism of self-identification in the official forms, a kind of bureaucratized, self-assigned identity politics, the largely representational roles played out by noted “nonwhite” members of subordinate groups and the common  in-group conversations with precious little intersection with other groups, typically “whiteness” remaining the normalized contact zone, and last but not least the systematic erasure of the frame of intelligibility, capitalism, inside which collectivities strive to signify and live. Think of how often you run into the word “capitalism” in The Persistence of the Color Line and Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: I will give you a dollar for each occurrence. And isn’t Obama the designated manager of the transitional moment of gradual US decline inside global capitalism? Both Kennedy and Touré naturalize capitalism in what is a common American mannerism. Both books deal with social psychology and perceptual level of social relations with relative disregard for detail over policies or large-scale ideological levels of politics (relative disregard in Kennedy, total in Touré).

Randall Kennedy, Treading in the Shimmering Light of the Color Line.

Randall Kennedy (born in 1954) is a respectable academic of warm, suave manners whom I find likable. He makes a living in a respectable big-name university in the field of legal studies. Touré (sic, with no other names, born in 1971) is a music journalist and social commentator, also of suave manners, contributing editor of Rolling Stone, who has written short stories, and done some show hosting. We are not dealing with two impressive or elaborate books. Both authors wish to catch the tail of current affairs in the immediate national circumstance, without giving it a big shake (the law professor presses and shakes harder than the music critic, yet both remain within the bounds of decency and propriety). Fifty-seven-year-old Kennedy pays tribute to the memory of his father against Civil Rights struggles vis-à-vis the way Obama handled –mishandled for our author– the Reverend Wright incident. Forty-year-old Touré plays occasionally the role of father to his newborn son Hendrix in a world of creative black redefinition and unlimited post-black expansionism. Touré thinks Obama is the greatest thing on earth and the initial quotes may perhaps deliver unintended comedy results. Kennedy, while being an admirer, holds some doubts, but respectfully so. Yet, when chips are down, as the expression of old liberals in the 1960s had it, these “new” liberals would undoubtedly close ranks and cast the vote for the second term of the incumbent President, and in so doing they will join the vast majority of African-Americans. Both authors keep silent about the historical meaningfulness of their mothers in their lives, while the younger author simply mentions at one point that he married outside the “race.” There is some anxiety about the “oreo” attribution, and one chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, explicitly deals with an affront to the author’s blackness. Yet the lived experience bespeaks affluence and minor “race-“related incidents. I confess that the writing of such personal experiences reads often shallow, glossy-magazine subway-ride easy-read shallow. There is none of this type of existential hesitation –or posturing– in Kennedy, who appears to have a keener sense –and a brighter torch—of ideological positions, getting delight in kicking the wooden legs of his favorite enemy, Clarence Thomas—Touré is more forgiven. All cats are black in the same way in the darkness of the historical night? No, both authors would agree that there is some light at the end of the tunnel while Touré already sees bright shining lights with Obama in the middle of the post-Civil-Rights tunnel. He wants to manufacture more Obamas in industrial quantities, good name for the “first” in the quintessential American success story he wanted for himself when he was a child not so long ago. For him, Obama is one of “us,” as though that identification was enough. Touré has nothing to say about the policies and politics of the successful professional politician.

There is some blurring of genre lines: Kennedy’s text straddles popular-culture and academic culture, leaning on journalistic website articles and chat rooms, yet holding on to the occasional “proper” academic article and some defined DuBoisque line of inspiration included in the title of the book, badge of honor in the context of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University whose director brokered the public sessions I and others attended. There is less of a clear intellectual direction in Touré, and more of an artistic influence in painting and hip-hop music. But this is not exactly an art book. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? –and who will be the chicken who will admit to having fears publicly?– has a conversationalist tone. It includes a list of interviewees, 105 in number, whose comments are quoted, occasionally. It would be interesting to know how he came up with such a list: flipping through glossy magazines? I do not want to make light of what is light product of serious issues. Yet, there is an affectation of a certain musical-magazine-cool fashion lingo mode if you wish, coming out of the writing of the younger author whose work, I must confess, I like less the longer I remain faithful to his narrow horizon. There is more of a historical awareness in the older intellectual, who may still be perhaps faulted for idealizing the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s, but where else to go for renewed energy to trudge along the tunnel of vision of the best modality of global future possible? There is however accessibility also in the prose of Kennedy, who does not want to press the academic button too much, also not the Obama political button too hard. His work is still, I find, respectful –too respectful?– of the figure of Obama even with the few criticisms included in it, which I find can be perfectly handled with no major embarrassment for an official dinner of importance. I find the work generally persuasive, and less easy, the longer I linger in it.

The pursuit of electoral office forces compromises. Among these, Kennedy charges Obama with cynical, blasphemous behavior in the appeals to religious beliefs to avoid confrontational issues (p. 22). The Wright “repudiation” by Obama is compared with the figure of his father who exemplified a quiet resistance and a reluctant, honest keeping oneself together so to speak, in the face of adversity (the white cops stopping dad’s car with the plate from up North to give him an early warning that things are done differently down there in the South). I suppose Kennedy makes the choice for tight-lipped honesty over playing massaging white anxiety. He says he assesses Obama in terms of his role as an electoral politician (p. 26), which is a funny way of speaking of the football player because he is already on the football field, but playing in what manner exactly? Isn’t the success of being elected the winning of the big game? There is a certain racial-group affinity that keeps Kennedy and others tongue-biting, if not mouth-shut entirely, somehow. An interesting section of The Persistence of the Color Line has to do with the “disharmony” of words and deeds in the political life of the big nation (did not Machiavelli say that a long time ago?). Kennedy speaks of the “Bradley effect” (pp. 55-6), the behavior of misrepresenting anti-black prejudice for the interviewer. Put wild ignorance of the populace, with a brutal history of racism and the behavior of “excessive cautiousness” (p. 26), and “excessive deference” (p. 274) towards the right and how much wiggle room have you got? There is abundant psychologizing of the single figure of the President handling a monstrously big bureaucracy (he says this, but he means that, he does this, but he means that, he does the same foreign affairs because he cannot do otherwise, but he selects a Latina for the Supreme Court, he is not your average black, his upbringing is not conventional, but he talks black occasionally, he self-identifies black, he married black, etc.). I see Kennedy being fundamental deferential, with or without the final disagreement with the sociologist Lawrence Bobo, also at Harvard, which is more symbolic than substantial, using his own language about the importance of Obama for the nation (more about this later).

Kennedy is self-critical of the “overwhelming support for Obama among African-Americans… regardless of his policies” (p. 34). How to explain it?:

“Most African Americans gratefully appreciate that the simple fact of a black man occupying the presidency has irrevocably transformed the United States (…).

Having received so little for so long, blacks are happy to have someone in the White House with whom they can fully identify and who fully identifies with them, even he is unwilling to advance any set of federal initiatives that could plausibly be labeled “a black agenda.” [sic, in quotation marks].

Aware of the president’s limitations, I am yet unembarrassed to say that I admire Barack Obama” (pp. 34-35).

You can parse the sentence sequence from the appreciation to the happy identification in light of sustained history of marginalization that bypasses the critical evaluation of the policy level of measures and does not yet have time to consider the largest horizon of politics, much less international politics. Pay attention to the tug of war between the presumed individual intentionality and the praxis of the collective program, the awareness of limitations of such identification game of mirrors with the nation-state figurehead, and the open proclamation, with the adjective in the negative form, of the admiration of the President, despite or because the preceding modifying clauses and social and historical conditions of (im-)possibility. The importance of Obama is then for Kennedy one of symbolism over substance (p. 34), and this is American language for formalism over content touching on the realm of the psychological and the spiritual.

The meaning of Obama is symbolic over or around the substance of his policies in so far as they claim to improve the conditions of the social-group with whom he identifies. You can put different talking heads to the previous paragraph and bet your money that the paragraph would be labeled “racist” at some point. These are the muddy waters that Kennedy is willing to contemplate. Context magnifies Obama in a country in which “ten of the first fifteen presidents owned Negroes, including George Washington (p. 40). Kennedy cites works such as The Hemingses of Monticello: An American family (2008), and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American controversy (1997) in this regard as settling once and for all the persistent hagiography of the founding fathers of the big nation, much less common among Black sectors, I must say. Yet isn’t the Obama spin to be hopeful for the rejuvenation of American politics? I remember the line voiced by Amy Goodman from Eduardo Galeano the night of the election in New York city: the black president in the white house built by slaves… And one can play here with the various signifiers while magnifying the cartographies of politics along the persistence of the color line that is now undergoing global transformations (conventional US understandings of “race” go global, yet how often blending intellectually well with other national and linguistic modalities?). Remember the still conventional prohibition of the word “mulatto” in the US English-speaking context, and the poisonous expletive of “nigger” with hip-hop variations such as “nigga” (compare it with the official ideology of mestizaje in Latin America in moments of independence and even today). While I write this a window into toponyms in the US geography opens up in the newspaper of record in relation to one property of one of the Republican contenders (Editorial “Gov. Perry’s Rock,” New York Times, Oct. 4, 2011).

The explicit racism of American presidents finds another example, Woodrow Wilson, “who superintended the comprehensive racial segregation of the federal civil service and welcomed to the White House a screening of D.W. Griffith’s paean to the Ku Kux Klan, the landmark film The Birth of the Nation (p. 44). Go tell that to the neo-Wilsonians from Princeton who have been busy promoting this Democratic brand of internationalism (in fact, Anne Marie Slaughter was part of the Obama team until recently)! Obviously, Obama looks pretty against such ugly background, that still needs to be historicized. One provocation: consider the following twist, the Roman Empire was “liberal” and happy to make selective members of the conquered populations Roman, and even bring up one of these representatives all the way to the highest level of Emperor occasionally (Roman Emperor Hadrian of the Iberian peninsula is one good case in point). Could it be that we are dealing with something similar in the current moment, of re-energizing “hope” in politics, particularly after the Bush catastrophe, by giving a different “color” to the person in high office? Some things must change so that other things remain the same as the famous line as the Prince Salina would put in the great film by Luchino Visconti? But is this Euro-trash comparativism that does not apply to the American specificity? I still remember the line by Tariq Ali who spoke of the question about differences among the Presidents (Bush, Obama, McCain, etc.), and yes, of course, they are different, as Nero was different from Augustus, and Hadrian from  Caligula… I say it lightly in relation to some things that are not light at all. While Kennedy can be humorous and animated in person in public presentations, his book does not want to go humorous in the slightest. I already said that Touré’s commentary is insistingly light, individualistic, feel-good hip, occasionally irreverent and tongue-in-cheek, wants to be fun. Yet, what is the longevity here?

Kennedy gives space to the virulence by people on the Left, such as Ralph Nader, who wondered if the new chief executive would be a corporate Uncle Tom (p. 64). Bobby Rush, former leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago framed Obama as “white man in blackface” (p. 78). In a sense he does, I feel, what Farrakhan and Sharpton did during the presidential campaign (p. 88), he offers a quiet and kind support. And you can see the wiggle room when one gest surrounded by figures in high places such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, and a favorite enemy, the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It is perhaps difficult for foreigners to feel the flavor of the American English language, in relation to the mulatto label (p. 68-9), irremediably derogatory and beyond the pale still by the time I write these lines (mostly neutrally descriptive in Spanish now as far as my ears hear as with mestizo, since the early writings of El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536) writing for European readers about his own novel condition of hybridity). Spanish still feels more pliable and elastic in relation to racial labels, sexual parts and blasphemy, or at least pockets of the Spanish language. Kennedy speaks of how the term of mulatto meaning mongrelized degradation was used in 1948 as part of the justification for upholding the states’ law barring interracial marriage. And what can be said about the making of “black” with the one-drop rule in contexts of official segregation? (p. 72). Obviously, “passing” happened then and now in contact zones and Touré “post” feels a bit like this “passing,” that will happen, largely for some mixed-breed individuals, including the President. Another thing is the verbal luxuriousness that may or may not accompany such circulations.

The Persistence of the Color Line mostly moves at the level of perceptual/psychological appreciation of social interactions. There is little or none of economic, artistic, ideological or philosophical differences. Whether one finds it persuasive or not, self-identification is politically correct liberal mechanism of individual choice: “Obama presents himself primarily as a black man and thereby affiliates himself with the most stigmatized racial group in America” (p. 77). Foreigners would be perhaps surprised to know that if Obama’s father were alive today, he would probably not be president, or if his wife was considerably different from Michelle Obama, etc. Kennedy cites the race checking done by Otis Graham in this regard (pp. 80ff). And it is not uncommon to witness talk of hair, fist-bumps, clothes, choice of sport, etc. Even if there is unconventional background and upbringing, there is the “progressive” anchoring in the Chicago setting, selective us of Black lingo, etc. The devil is in the details: Is he one of us or not? More vanilla than chocolate? Appropriate Cosby-Showesque and Prince of Bel Air air in the first family?Any other options? Manicured blackness? In the vicinity of the Wright controversy, “most black people understand the game” (pp. 111ff), which I take to mean to play down confrontational language down instead of up: the Obama way.

Kennedy is not moved by Obama’s rhetoric, which I remembered was often praised during the campaign. The brilliant eloquence appears to have lived an ephemeral life. See the initial quotes by Kennedy: “Eloquence and candor are not always useful qualities” (p. 120);  “much of what Obama had to say, is, frankly, banal” (p. 121)…  calculated to assuage the anxieties of whites” (p. 224); the so-called Beer Meeting,  bringing closure to the Gates-Crowley episode, “deplorable” (p. 272). I am with Kennedy.   I only wish he had felt stronger with Obama’s excessive cautiousness in dealing with racial issues. Kennedy, in a sense, comprehends the dilemma and in a sense I feel he explains away due to the Machiavellian disharmony of words and deeds in relation to an ignorant populace and the general level of racism in US politics. Here I am willing to trust his sense better than mine, particularly when he contextualizes the “say covertly and say overtly” against the background of the Civil Rights movement and for example how the talk of “states,” at least in the vicinity of a figure such as George Wallace was code for anti-Civil-Rights anti-black racism. There is a damning quote of the blatant racism of the longest serving member in the history of the Senate, the ex-senator from West Virginia recently deceased (pp. 179-180). Byrd endorsed Obama.

Kennedy remains candid if measured in a context that does not appear to allow for much candor given “the toxicity of references to race in American electoral politics” (p. 141).  With filial piety, the figure of the father is remembered for the role-model behavior that eschews any sentimental bond with the American government or the American nation. The father appears close to Wright, then. It appears that the symbolism of Obama has to do with playing the game of appearing to disavow, but not quite, the representational role assigned to willing members of under-represented groups. In The Persistence of the Color Line, the link is all-male (183ff), as is in the younger more hip author in our post-Civil Rights moment.

I wish to rescue what I consider to be one important aside. Kennedy praises Obama for his choice of Sotomayor for Supreme Court while castigating his rhetorical timidity at such seized opportunity. Perhaps castigating is too strong a word? We are in the territory of “identity politics,” but also of “strategic essentialism,” the well-known rubric of Spivak explicitly mentioned by the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center during the Brattle Theatre event, crisscrossing here with a certain “(post-racial) universalism,” bad for all these three authors, one of them clinging firmly to the relatively new branding of  “post-blackness” (I would guess Gates is closer to Kennedy than Touré). In the post-9/11 streets, there is also the unacknowledged discrimination for security reasons, the so-called “racial profiling,” theoretically illegal in a democratic system predicated upon the theoretical equality of its members. The Hispanic / Latino dimension receives two asterisks (p. 196). The first one speaks of the word choice in relation to the US Census. The second asterisk speaks of the considerable confusion in this Hispanic label, already majority-minority group, bypassing the official number of 40 millions of Blacks (pp. 202-3). This is grotesquely underdeveloped particularly in relation to the chapter in which Sotomayor plays the minority role of first Hispanic ever appointed to the Supreme Court. “Obama’s cautiousness has prompted him on occasion to cede excessive ground to the right,” (p. 274). Kennedy includes the bibliography of Haney-Lopez while making a mistake with Jorge J.E. Garcia [sic, Gracia], and there is a very interesting ethnic and philosophical impulse on the part of this Cuban-American intellectual (a philosophical line of convergence of diachronic vistas would put together the expatriate Spaniard José Ferrater Mora and the Cuban American J.E. Gracia, sharing the common ground of the home of the brave for example in relation to the figure of Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), after the vindication of the importance of Latin American and Iberian thought and culture, but this is something way out of the scope of vision for Kennedy and Touré). Spanish-speaking readers would have here a triple line of entry into some (Latin) American specificities that do not travel well to other national localities. And this is the second explicit “foreign” intrusion into domestic US politics of blackness.

 

When the Op-Ed New York Times writer Maureen Dowd critiques that Obama “should (sic, in italics in the original) be more ambitious in terms of pushing a racial agenda. “ Kennedy comes to the rescue:  “Given the antiblack racism that is so ingrained in American culture, Obama’s reticence is probably the most realistic course of action under the circumstances,” (p. 238). And the end of chapter seven about the give-and-take of codes, the not-wanting to go beyond the comfort level of most American voters, the volatility and toxicity of the topic of race, making it a “repressed and paradoxical presence in the political culture of the United States” (p. 239) is one, if not the core of The Persistence of the Color Line, which is more about continuities than drastic cuts, with or without the largely symbolic impact of the Obama factor.

 

Hence, here we are then: first black president, a professional politician (p. 273), who has no option but to play electoral politics as presently constituted, who must stay inside the game so to speak, who cannot press hard verbally (Obama’s statements on race… are strikingly uninstructive, p. 257). The President’s language is laconic non-committal, transracial “universalism” (p. 266). His verbal strategy, deracialization, as in the “lamentable Beer Summit” (p. 272), with no declaration about the incident between Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Boston policeman Joseph Crowley (it should be repeated that Gates is the power-broker figure hosting Kennedy and Touré’s book presentation). Devil in the details, it had to be beer and not wine, or whisky or tea or coffee and no cookies or cigars given the connotations of these products. There’s Liliputian ideological ground available, it appears. And yet, as one can see, there is plenty of detail and the devil is in the details in the same way the cookie was full of arsenic in the memorable Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Sweet is heavily ironic here in the true bitter sense of ironic in the context of dirty politics. There is more of this smell in Kennedy’s book than in Touré’s.

Kennedy puts the left inside the black left, and the black left in one page with “little traction outside of small constituencies that read BlackAgendaReport.com, the BlackCommentator.com, NewPolitics, The Progressive, etc.” (p. 260). Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson are quoted. I love the line that “this president runs from race like a black man runs from a cop” of the latter (p. 260). Kennedy includes Antony K. “Van” Jones in an explanatory asterisk (p. 261). He gives the space but he maintains a middle line and as mentioned Kennedy can be animated and winningly salty in public. The final disagreement with Bobo  (Spanish-speakers should withhold skepticism as to the real name of the Harvard political scientist) appears less so, when contemplated from a certain distance –not to mention from an international platform, say Paul Gilroy’s black London’s summer of revolt. Policy versus symbolism: Obama appears the only option in a political field with precious little options for African-Americans, yet in relation to what type of politics in relation to the financial crisis of capitalism in the new century? The “enormous differences” Obama makes are not in policy matters but in the previously mentioned symbolism, at least according to our law-studies professor. Kennedy accuses Bobo of falling for “grade inflation” (pp. 274-7), and yet I feel he would also give the President a generous grade –more than a pass– after all. Kennedy might not smile the big smile while not having the picture taken in high public places, but he would certainly greet the President warmly: “Aware of the president’s limitations, I am yet unembarrassed to say that I admire Barack Obama” (p. 35). How different the admiration? How enormous the symbolism? When chips are down…

The progressivism that we are talking about is the gradual amelioration of marginalized groups inside the naturalized frame of late capitalism currently undergoing massive transformations, conceptually and otherwise (and that applies to how (racist) repudiations are to be articulated in the near future, I risk the hypothesis of increasing, apparently less troublesome White-Asian fusion, selective incorporation of Black and Hispanic members and generalized marginalization of Black and Hispanic majorities). The book opens with a reference to the article “In our lifetime: From toiling as White House slaves to President-elect Barack Obama, we have crossed the ultimate color line,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Nov. 5, 2008), The Root (accessed Oct. 11, 2011), also editor-in-chief of such digital venue. Gates’ liberal shade, generally sympathetic and supportive mood and Black-ecumenic mode loom large here.

Who Will be Afraid of Touré’s Commercial Spinning of Post-Blackness?

As the full title makes it clear, the “post” prefix in Touré’s “post-black” does not mean leaving the racial marker behind by the side of the road to the best possible future: the subtitle does away with the prefix. “Post” is not really what follows after an attribution becomes obsolete or dysfunctional. Violating the conventional grammatical assumption, “post” is more like supersize, “ultra-“ and enhanced, more “super-“ and artistic, more “hyper-,” even “hip” than old, more “hop” to the “hip,” artistically inspired and wanting to magnify irreverent kitsch lightness, more Dr. feelgood-boost psychological handling of traumas of the inherited past than big-scale and historically tense postcoloniality of subordinated groups. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is more about Touré’s individualism, and the professional variety of that than anything else. “Post-black” is perhaps catchy branding that wants not to be confused with “post-racial.” How is one post different from the other? Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? essentially endorses The Importance of the Color Line also for the new century: race matters. Who would go for the opposite? What is here wanted is the creative expansionism of the category of black side by side the measuring rod of white, the other conventional categories are missing. Touré does not do US Census Bureau percentages or clarifications. The book has a good beginning. The author is scared of skydiving and yet jumps all the same. The virtue of the daring act has also the sin of the diminutive depiction of trans-individual energies against some distant background of American society in the ideal future projection. Emblematically, this is the American society readers get to see: always in the background of the protagonist, who also happens to be the author. There is pocket-size narcissism and no more daring after this early jump.

So, no one is really afraid of this type of “post.” This is preppy puppy “post” who wants to have the cake of upward mobility and eat the rewards of group affiliation too, when professionally convenient, yet in selected pockets, or the happy few of relative privilege. Touré rides the “post-black” sign (soon to come the car metaphor!). I challenge the reader to change “black” for his/her favorite social-group self-assignation and the fundamental message of the book will hold. A few anecdotes will have to change, but the desired upgrade and versatility of the category wants to do without unwanted attributions (again, think of the public relations of a product brand going at the expansion of the brand name and doing away with blemishes). The authorial intention is here, I find, more postmodern –in the commercial, postmodern sense of fluid, floating signifier– than heavy and unresolved, tense postcolonial (Touré’s sheltered life has not crossed fingers with the likes of Gilroy and Hall, nor with some of the artists that these two phenomenal intellectuals care about). Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is predictably –and exclusively— concerned with cultural Americana of the last couple of decades, and this sunflower looks mostly up to the sun that Obama is, a kind of big brother of the younger Touré reminisced by the author who also dreamed of becoming the first American president (I fail to see any other nationality with the obsession for firstness and the Presidency quite like the one I am mostly concerned with at this moment). Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? wants to be hip-hop upbeat and manages it to be such thing for the most part. The question is whether the reader wants to make it its own intellectual merchandise for the duration. Obama is here blemish-free success story. Period. This is iconic transcendence of all those unwanted meanings attached to the social marker of “black,” now with the extra “post” potency or vitamins. Touré, like his favorite President of all times, wants to be “rooted in but not restricted by his Blackness” (p. xi). The wish is to “trump the idea that a single gauge of oppression measures the full weight of their Black identities” (p. xiii). “What it means to be Black will always be richer than our response to oppression at any point in our history. “We” (sic) can never helpfully define ourselves by our response to what “they” (sic) say or do” (p. xiv). Post-Black is the “end of the reign of a narrow single notion of Blackness. It does not mean we’re over Blackness; it means we’re over our narrow understanding of what Blackness means” (p. xv). So, expansion, multiplicity, affirmation of heterogeneity versus the –any?—proclamation of “orthodox” or “authentic” or “legitimate” Blackness (p. 4).

Touré would want to be public-relations and customer-service manager of the Obama product. Do not miss the commodity analogies quoted in the intro page. I recall Paul Gilroy speaking critically of the merchandising of blackness in the new economy of Cameron’s Tory Britain precisely along the “happy” lines of the Obama success story. The Europeans, alas, do the uplift, a bit less enthusiastically in general terms. They appear, on the surface, to have been less colonized by capitalism. But perhaps it is only a matter of time.

Touré speaks of the cultural avant-garde. Don’t think anything scholarly. The examples betray an immediate access to American popular culture with an unintentional comic effect: [These are] personae “filled with middle-class and/or culturally avant-garde signifiers” (p. 6). You know what middle-class stands for and the adverb says nothing in its context-free presentation (there is the affectation of the adverb in the American English language that mistakes adverbs for adjectives particularly in Black English, and I would suggest keeping this affectation until the end of this critique). There is no inspirational past, for example no aesthetics of the Civil Rights movement, much less modernism or expressive abstraction, not even of the New York School, so close to Brooklyn, and the future of the post-blackness is left open, vague and amorphous, very much like everything else. Blackness is a “completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form, just like the chameleonic agents in The Matrix or the T-1000 or the T-X in the Terminator sequels that are made of a mimetic polyalloy that allow them to take on any appearance” (p. 6). Doesn’t this sound like unintentional humorous juvenilia? With no rich history, and no impulse to provide a good narrative, our author has to do with what else but psychological typologies.

He speaks of three dimensions of blackness: accidental, incidental and intentional. He prefers to call them, he says, introverted, ambiverted (sic) and extroverted (p. 9). O.k. First type entails a kind of private relationship with Blackness (Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice are examples). Second type, it is a more fluid relationship, blackness is an important part but does not necessarily dominate the rich personality (Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Will Smith, no kidding, are examples). And, the intentional or extroverted form of blackness, exemplified by Malcolm X, Dr. King, Jim Brown and Jay-Z (pp. 10-1). I wonder what good thinking is able to put these various human pieces together on what dinner table. It reads, to me at least, like bad note-taking from Psychology 101. But you will be hungry for more. There are two more modalities: 1) Platinum-silver authentic Negro, gold level, silver Negro and bronze Negro (Touré’s bronze, assimilated white suburbs, prep school and all-white college, affluence (p. 153); and 2) race-conscious, race-avoidant and race-neutral (p. 159-60). Touré puts himself in the first subdivision. Pity he does not do the same with the 105 alleged interviewees he includes at the end of the book. There is no rationale as to why pick those. And yes, this type of Black-boxing is somewhat paradoxical for someone who advocates the desire to liquidity. Who cannot relate to the impulse to break free from assigned boxes when inconvenient? For all the talk about multiplicity, polyvalency and multi-vectoriality –it sounds catchy Deleuzian enough, doesn’t it?, but the name of the French author is here not present–  what emerges is an acute sense of desocialized individuality with thin bibliography, a desire for black-professional networking invigoration and exceedingly limited social vistas of his own society, also artistic. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? includes a series of vignettes and parable-like anecdotes of supposedly larger collective relevance. There is little of the situated approach of Kennedy that names names and puts situations inside a larger historical context. There is nothing to be afraid of in Who is Afraid of Post-Blackness? since there is no patient and loving ethnographic rendering despite the public love for blackness, or post-blackness. There is something Oprahesque about this prose. Take a few years down and make it more upbeat and you got it. The more you read and ponder, the prefix loses potency and the logical disjunction loses persuasive force. We are most likely dealing with the commercialism of a brand name ephemerally functional in selective urban pockets. Remember the Banks family in the series of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? I imagine Touré watching it in the 1990s. Update it and there you go: “post-black.” Will Smith is included in one of the previous typologies…

If Kennedy finds obscure pleasure in the repeated exposure of the selling out of Clarence Thomas, a relatively easy target, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell would be more difficult to handle and consequently they are not handled, Touré downplays gestures of sharpening of the ideological blades and of condemning of “authentic” blackness. His mindset is typically one of catholicity. This was made clear in relation to his insistence of who will do the policing of blackness put under the nose of Kennedy at the Brattle Theatre. The easy answer: situational politics. Kennedy’s answer was to say that social groupings will manage mechanisms for coercion as well as cohesion, repudiation as well as action and inertia and that it was not for him to say. Interestingly, the definition of blackness was made more coherent and perceptible, stronger, as reaction to anti-black racism, even in current moments defined by Touré –and correctly so, I would think—as more amorphous, diffuse and confusing than previous decades. Even in societies of extreme individualisms, such as the United States, mechanisms of group formation will include excommunications that will be ferociously activated sometimes in moments of crisis and tension… Self-definitions only go so far, typologies are typically simplistic devices of social tensions and energies and critical language may try to play catch up, or not. Kennedy gave us a sense of how difficult the contemporary territory is.

I failed to see disagreement in substance between the two authors brought into the public light of the Brattle Theatre by Gates. Kennedy would probably find the window-screening of Touré pleasant, occasionally, as I do. But there is little else or little more that I can find. Perhaps the thing to rescue the most is the acknowledged inspiration, coming from Thelma Golden, the curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem (pp. 16, 31). Something is happening in some artistic circles in the vicinity of the “black” label. The faulty core of the book is the application of her “meme” (biological term that refers to the passing of a cultural or behavioral element by imitation or other non-genetic means) to all Black people. The formula is simple and catchy enough. To aestheticize blackness and making it “post”? To culturalize social and political history? To make things liquid? Touré spreads the post-black marmalade to cover the entire peanut butter sandwich of the desirable future projection for black America. The language gets moments of flippancy: “it felt like I was asking her [Thelma Golden] if I could take her magnificent, ultra-rare, expensive car for a drive on the highway. I essence, she said she wouldn’t drive it on the highway but I could, if I dared.” Here you have a typical journalistic-type vignette that illuminates nothing of the past, present and future except the voluntaristic utopia of our individual author-protagonist seeking professional interests. There is a solitariness of pursuits in the “expensive-car” manner of articulation that does not do it for me. Does it do it for you?

Post-blackness is commodified (cultural) merchandise side by side gadgets, ipods, expensive cars, Visa cards, American presidents, with some artistic references for gentrification zing. Post-blackness is no longer caught up in trauma (p. 60), and I wonder about the statistically significant sample. A grain of salt:  “The changed nature and function of racism leads to a very different Black identity” (p. 23). This is possibly the gist of post-blackness in professional corporate environments: the branding, the marketing. I am surprised there are no references to sports, when this is the perhaps the arena of highest black impact in American society, certainly at the level of popular culture. Perhaps we are witnessing the readjustments of structures necessary for the current times of crisis, the incorporation of selected pockets of assimilated individuals –Benetton-style, preferably with the provocative photography of the Italian photographer Oliveiro Toscani—yet without pushing vigorously the capitalistic frames of commercial intelligibility. Post has lots to do with eclecticism of a certain kind and nothing of iconoclasm. The impulse appears to be all about being functional and responsive to the new situations. Hence, the emphasis in the irresolutions between unity-diversity, sameness-difference, white and black with a focus on the boundless possibilities of the latter by way of a more individualized notion of Blackness. I remain curious about artists such as William Pope.L (sic, pp. 26ff), performing vulnerability and “friendliness” in your face in the theoretical crawling of 22 miles in the city of New York (google him for a tremendous verbal eloquence!). Touré lavishes praise on Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley (p. 33). There is praise for Dave Chappelle’s comedy (p. 39).  I feel Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? would have better been “Who’s Afraid of Post-Black Art and Creativity?”, but perhaps this catalogue already exists and Touré had to copy-cat and take it somewhere else, to some kind of mild culture commentary –I do not dare use the word critique here. Such explicit focus would perhaps have made the book much more disciplined and convincing. While Kara Walker’s cutouts-on-the-wall imagery is provocative in the daring use of antebellum slavery, minstrelsy and blackface stereotype figures, I can’t help but feel that the synonym for “post-blackness,” “individualism,” attributed to her, is very insufficient. It is not her fault. It is his. Touré embraces it.

There is some anxiety of influence, it seems, in the need to break through the “holy reverence” of a previous generation (p. 48), obviously in relation to figures in the pantheon of the the Civil Rights movement. But it does not seem to be a big anxiety. Ours is a mashed-up world, a world of “cross-over” (p. 49), and there is tongue-in-cheek kitsch juxtaposition of codes inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s paintings “Colonel Platoff on His Charger,” “Ice-T,” and “Alexander the Great,” reproductions of the paintings included, unfortunately in black and white, in the book. This is multiculturalism of a certain kind, cross-cultural mash-ups, refined, “culturalized” or even gentrified version of identity politics, that, I must say, I do not find to be edgy, angry or biting, at least in Touré’s account. I remain receptive to the possibility that it can very well be in other settings and from other perspectives. In fact, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? closes with the self-imposed conduct of good behavior not to use bad language now that Obama is the brother President of the land of the free. How one thing may lead to another is not fully explained by Touré. But Obama is here not a real person with political goals, but instead some kind of generic tout of all-American success story with no messy-politics context. It is as though Touré does not reach for the facile criticism of politics repeated ad nauseam in films such as Clooney’s recent Ides of March (2011) and much better recreated by the previous classic The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Touré remains, as the good line of one good chic friend of mine, sweet, so sweet it hurts your teeth kind of sweet. It begs the question: why?

By the half of the slim book, there is no clear sense of destination. The aforementioned artists are not developed. And they go in the direction of attenuating (intellectual) aggressivity: Post-blackness is saying, “Go ahead, get funky with your mask” (p. 55). Touré mitigates the idea of race betrayal (p. 69). And his insistence on the accusation of “oreo” (black outside and white inside, for the benefit of international readers) betrays some existential angst on his part that Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is surely trying to exorcise (Latino tensions are harsher, and I would even defend more honest, at least in the good moments in authors such as the conservative journalist Richard Rodriguez and the performance-artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, but this is one advantage of sharing the landscape of two big nations on both sides of the Río Grande).

Would you still care to know about Touré’s child dreams? In 1st grade, he wanted to become the first Black president (p. 85), so in a sense he lost it to Obama. He says he still feels bad for the Black people who manipulate race for their own private interest, such as Tawana Brawley and Sabrina Collins (pp. 92ff). Isn’t this a bit what Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is doing, but languidly? Should we include the notorious case of a noted French Socialist-Party high-ranking individual in an expensive New York hotel in the summer of 2011? Horrendously predictable, our author tells us of his born-again blackness with the help of Malcolm X’s biography in college (p. 94), and how this led to open up his original circle of white folks. Still, someone shouts at him “to shut up” and that “he ain’t black.” This is the pearl of chapter four. And this may be the negative cause that triggers some “oreo” exorcisms. There is a kind of Dead Poets Society moment of a dream of classroom rebelliousness (pp. 104-5) to seek the inclusion of black figures in the curriculum. I don’t know about yours but my reader taste buds detect a ring of shallowness. Everything is too much movie-like predictable in a clean kind of way. And how sympathetic would you be for his suppressed anger at the typecasting he suffered (black music journalist) when he wanted to write a profile of white musicians such as Eric Clapton? There is a vignette of mistaken identity games, when he thinks the wife of a congressman is white and she jumps at him (pp. 110-2). So, yes, there are complex, shifted, amorphous “identities” also among congressional types of privilege. Do his fingers get dirty in the American scene? I wouldn’t say so. Would you join the sympathetic relief in the scene in which he is the only Black adult holding his son Hendrix, left racially unidentified, perhaps he is waiting for his own self-definition?, and someone (the partner? the wife? the (undisclosed) helper?) brings watermelon to the tiny roof-deck house party in Brooklyn… I feel almost anyone could go Tom Wolfe parody automatic mode here about how the radical chic of another time and place –not too far away, mind you—became pallid post-Black cultural merchandise. Touré tells us that he told his “inner Sharpton to sit down” to witness the son eating watermelon amid sympathetic smiles! This is fabricated domestic space of insinuated privilege and limited lived experience with one too many erasures. For once, where is the partner or the wife, out of the race, remember, perhaps the mother of the child? Or should we imagine a gay couple? What about the guests and friends since he says he is the only Black around the roof? An adopted child then? Does this type of vignette allow us to broaden our post-black horizons of sky-high infinity? “Race [is] more subliminal, more subjective, more subtle,” (p. 119). Yes, indeed. And ethereal and abstract: unconvincing. With no sense of irony, Touré writes that “the most racist thing that happened to [his interviewees] is unknowable,” (p. 121). There are known unkowns as the Rumsfeld line… Social types remain thus unnamed generic types: “A Black man with a Ph.D. from Harvard Law in a suit from Savile Row is still a nigger” (p. 136), blanket statement against some phantasmatic type of big, bad Other of racism, and since there is no sign of intellectual might in the said Ph.D. character, no book holding reference, you might feel the need, as I need, to want to check out the fashion statement about Savile Row, a shopping street in Mayfair, central London, famous for its traditional men’s “bespoke” tailoring. Does this “middle-class” quaintness make you grit your teeth? Add the foreign, expensive suit to the iPods, the Visa cards, the expensive cars –where’s the babe?, are we led to believe she is white and blonde?– and you get Touré’s all-American dream! And what does this have to do with the politics and the policies directly attached to the signature pen of Barack Obama inside US political machine? Touré has no Law Ph.D., and he must follow fashion –or follows those who follow fashion. He may well have the said type of suit, and yet the said impossible marker of linguistic anti-black racism is –how else but fashionably?—incorporated otherwise later in the book for hip-hop in-group reuse. Such hip use however is incongruent enough now that “brother” Obama is our president. The moral of the story: “post-blackness” has no use for rebelliousness any longer. One too many twists and turns to the corkscrew?

The denigration of the n-word has been thrown at other characters, in some melodramatic cases as in church settings (pp. 136ff). The neighbors of his white suburb did not want black people around them –surprise?—but then they treated young Touré with infinite kindness. Touré’s defends the “vicarious” association (sic, with quotation marks), “I mean racism need not happen to you for you to experience it as painful and stressful” (p. 142). The vignettes convey a limited life experience of mixed messages: “Get real. I’ve been to too many wildly negrified BBQ’s in well-tended backyards in Oak Bluffs, the Hamptons, D.C., and Beverley Hills to believe down-home Blackness and class can’t coexist” (p. 153ff). Should we imagine him hanging out with Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith? But disappointingly –for me at least—Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Includes no babes. I am of course kidding. Touré speaks of Richard Pryor giving birth to the modern, affirmative, subversive usage of “nigga” –spelled thus (p. 169ff), as a highly restrictive black-only marker of subordinate in-group belonging. And not every Black person will fist-bump you courageously for it. Touré makes no references to Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002). The said word was not used in the presentations around Harvard square.

 

The end of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? feels to me like a double capitulation:

“Now I see nigga as an old toxic friend I need to distance myself from. He’s (sic) an enabler and he’s (sic) not leading me down a good path. I need to stop getting high with him (sic) on the cheap narcotic he’s (sic) always got plenty of: rebelliousness. I need to leave nigga alone and spend more time with a word that’s about empowerment, love, freedom and the American way: post-Black,” (p. 173).

Hamletian soliloquy talking to a male allegory of his own old-black self language use? Post-blackness, blackness with no teeth in the contestation of the linguistic degradation of a social interpellation?, which, by the way, must come from the Spanish and Portuguese “negro” in the XVI century and which mysteriously lingered in the American English language well into the mid-20th century (sign of contestation and pride in W.E. B. Du Bois among other great authors). The explicit racist sign must be “funny” pronunciation of the said “foreign” word made native and thus perhaps kept it naturalized in use until today, something that “mulatto” does not manage to do. Isn’t the cleaning up of the language use of social differentials and of tension a marker of progressivism? If I hesitate to answer with an emphatic affirmative, my hesitation does not prevent bureaucracies from normalizing such clean-up operation. Doesn’t this feel –at least from a certain angle and in light of the blandness that has preceded– like a clean-fingered Caliban affecting good manners –but for whom?— possibly in expensive good clothes while washing his mouth with good soap? Is it necessarily a good thing this self-imposed renunciation of less biting language in relation to the social and political situation of the US turning less biting, at least according to our social commentator? Exactly where is our author looking from his Brooklyn roof? The contrast with Kennedy’s remark about the toxicity of race relations in America cannot be starker. And I’d rather speak of the bad things to come than the good things in the past. Touré is fixated on some amorphous future of post-good things, but mostly for young artistic professionals like himself in the art-and-music business. Kennedy does not have to be hip with this or other unpleasant word, instead he produces a book about such unpleasantness. Touré’s intellect runs like a post-black man from the cop’s mere insinuation of  unpleasantness. And this is coming from someone who claims to be inspired by artists and hip hop musicians. The esteemed law professor does not evade tensions and conflicts and one could perhaps still accuse him of excessive admiration for Obama with or without the final disagreement with the political sociologist Lawrence Bobo, his Harvard colleague with whom I am sure he shakes hands frequently, and perhaps fist-bumps. In my book of intellectual manners, Kennedy is commendable intellectual with or without expletives of approval in the same way that Touré is fun companionship in the kitchen before it gets too hot and then reaches for others to come and help while he reaches for the amiable air circulating smilingly around his Brooklyn roof. If this were not enough white salt, add the black pepper: there is a sorry postscript about the word “motherfucker” (pp. 173-4). Apparently, it is of Black American English origin, originating in the context of slavery, and popularized in WWII. It is a word the slaves used to refer to the master who impregnated the slave women. I will dust off my philological training and look into that shortly. In the meantime, Touré concludes in the chapter titled “we are quintessential Americans:” “And I had to stop using that word too” (pp. 173-4). Should I not say that I feel sorry for him? Kennedy’s accessible language never feels to me to have the forced hip-hop virtues of Touré. I would go with the critical and more pugnacious, if still insufficient liberalism of Kennedy any rainy day. No brainer.

Any comments? Any suggestions? Get in touch, fgh2173@gmail.com.