Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations by Bell Hooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In her introduction, hooks writes about finding herself at home in Cultural Studies ‘where interdisciplinary work [as opposed to the conventional specialised & periodised pedagogy she’d felt so limited by] was encouraged and affirmed’. When white male academics in the US discovered Cultural Studies, it promptly exploded, and became a glorious space where she was free to transgress the boundaries she had always pushed at, and where hoards of students excitedly engaged critically with popular culture. Yay.
However, hooks shares her view that lots of folk in the field ‘prefer to score points by remaining in the academic world and representing radical chic there’ rather than reaching out to a wider audience as she does herself. This leads to appropriative rewriting of pop culture, seeing subversive intent that isn’t really there. Cultural studies is useless when it’s ‘the movement of the insurgent intellectual mind across new frontiers’ in cultural imperialist mode. We must decolonise our minds! Hooks talks about making boundary-crossing possible for all, about working to disrupt the structures of domination we interrogate, by ‘courageously surrender[ing] participation in whatever sphere of coercive hierarchical domination we enjoy individual and group privilege’.
Consistently hooks strives to make the reader feel at home in her essays by opening with and working from anecdotes or personal reflections. The feeling you get is that she is reaching out to you, offering her work to you in a generous, inclusive spirit. Welcoming especially the black, poor, or otherwise alienated-from-academia reader, hooks practices what she advocates. Another great thing is that she tells us what to do with our politics, how to live them, wherever possible. The practical strategies she suggests are often so simple that one can individually start to carry them out. Most require solidarity, cooperation and political engagement.
Should I feel this happy reading this book??! It’s not time to get comfy and pat myself on the back as if by reading I’ve magically solved injustice (hooks warns herself against feeling that by achieving success with her writing the space for her critique exists and thus job done! This is not the case – even now I struggle to explain and even justify my political approach to entertainment forms to many folk outside the feminist bubble. this essay by Trudy at Gradient Lair really speaks to me about the lack of space for cultural criticism and how it is crushed from both sides). But I feel hooks manages to affirm that passion for working towards the world we want, and lovingly welcome us all into the struggle. From this fierce willingness flows action… I see differently and act towards people around me differently after reading. Have to start somewhere.
Here’s a chapter-by-chapter summary for ease of reference. A lot of these summaries don’t do justice to the nuance, contextualisation and precision that hooks always brings to her arguments. Also, the any quotes should not be seen as an exhaustive list of quotables. I would have to type out the entire book to provide that!
1 Power to the pussy
Hooks has absolutely no time for Madonna’s white supremacist and homophobic stereotype-mongering in Sex and exposes her ‘women in abusive relationships must dig it’ line alongside her image as the pure blond hetero white woman as the racist victim-blaming antifeminist crap that it is. On the back of this, she expertly deconstructs the idea that sexual freedom for women means having the choice whether to dominate or be dominated.
2 Altars of sacrifice
This essay is about Jean Michel Basquiat and how extremely difficult it is for a black artist/creative to work under the white gaze. Her words on the works’ achievements (communicating black pain & its sources, critiquing imperialist maleness)and limits (failure to be ‘in touch with the senses and emotions beyond conquest) are fascinating, but I can’t help but latch onto the brilliantly pointed remarks she dishes out to white critics who crudely psychoanalyse Basquiat in accordance with racist and sexist assumptions, whitesplain his work and generally obstruct his entry into the canons.
3. What’s passion got to do with it?
“In what context within patriarchy do women create space where we can protect our genius?”
This is an interview in which hooks talks diversely about pop culture but especially about transgressive relationships and portrayals of African American communities. She mentions The Bodyguard and Thelma and Louise as offering the possibility of radical love that then crashes and burns. She shows how exciting and useful this kind of examination can be. One of the points I liked was her mention of how people who are generally completely unrepresented in pop culture tend to embrace even a crumb thrown their way.
real passion has the power to disrupt boundaries. I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility[…] We have to go to films outside America to find any vision of redemptive love… because America is a culture of domination.
4 Seduction and Betrayal
Going further in her discussion of interracial relationships, hooks expands on the disappointing politics of The Crying Game and The Bodyguard (which transgresses class stereotypes but is regressive about IRR), deconstructing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy all the way of course
“Uncontrollable lust between white men and black women is not taboo. It becomes taboo only to the extent that [it] leads to… a committed relationship”
5 Censorship from Left and Right
With examples that reveal the problems of patriarchal attitudes among and limited platforms for black culture-leaders, hooks makes clear her position on censorship – “the core of any movement for freedom in the society has to have the political imperative to protect free speech”. She points out that as a dissenting voice within feminist movement she was often silenced by a collective demand for harmony. “I learned that any progressive political movement grows and matures only to the degree that it passionately welcomes and encourages, in theory and in practice, diversity of opinion, new ideas, critical exchange and dissent”. I’m almost unwilling to share these important words for fear they will be weaponised against the already marginalised they are meant to protect, by those folks who think debating others’ testimony & humanity is their free speech prerogative, or try to shut down criticism that bites them too hard with cries that they are being silenced by abuse… We need to remember where and who these words come from.
6 Talking Sex
Hooks rehabilitates feminism as supporting liberatory heterosexuality – it was always about ‘claim[ing] the body as a site of pleasure’ after being misquoted and misrepresented in Esquire magazine, in one of those now-familiar ‘look boys the new sexy feminism is here!’ pieces that denigrate ‘man-hating’ feminists who have critiqued compulsory heterosexuality and rape culture and hail the arrival of some sister-dissing ‘pro-sex/sex-positive’ ‘new’ feminists who are actually just repackaging conservative ideas that focus on male desire, domination and ‘the patriarchal phallic imaginary’, as well as aiding white supremacy by universalising white experience in the word ‘woman’. Her contribution was constructed in a way that played on racist stereotypes of black female sexuality. Hooks comments that the piece showed ‘contempt for any radical or revolutionary feminist practice that upholds dialogue and engagement with men [and] sees men as comrades in the struggle”. She calls for feminists to document their embrace of female agency and liberatory sex lives in art literature film etc, to provide counter-hegemonic evidence to repel the phallocentric sexist media from the turf of sexuality!
7 Camille Paglia
*laughing my ass off, makes mental note to repeat this action whenever anyone mentions Paglia to me*
8 Dissident heat
Before Lean In feminism there was Power feminism courtesy of Naomi Wolf, who actually wrote that the masters tools would be able to dismantle his house *laughter resumes*
9 Katie Roiphe
An important part of the lesson is, there is always some even worse white feminist to diss. Do not waste your time scoring points off their crappyness in ways that erase & appropriate the critiques radical women, especially feminists of Colour, have already made of us since the moment they (ok we) first started our shenanigans…
10 Seduced by violence no more
“We live in a culture that condones and celebrates rape”
This is an essay about how women and men can engage with heterosexuality to undermine rape culture by repudiating phallocentrism, where hooks uses her own experience to explain how to do this.
11 Gangsta Culture – Sexism and Misogyny
Hooks is so funny when she tells how the white mainstream media is so desperate for her to issue feminist condemnation of gangsta rap & refuses to hear her assertions that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is the purveyor of its sexism – this crap does not emerge in a vacuum but is produced from what folk are fed!
It is useful to think of misogyny as a field that must be laboured in and maintained both to sustain patriarchy but also to nourish an antifeminist backlash. And what better group to labour on this “plantation” than young black men?
After a thorough, contextualised critique of misogyny in gangsta rap, hooks turns her attention to The Piano, a thoroughly regressive and misogynistic film with a white bourgeois setting with the same values ‘cowboy, gangster, philistine’, revealing the racist agenda driving condemnation of the former and the sexism feminists must resist in both.
12 Ice Cube culture
Hooks lives her encouragement to folk to ‘talk across difference’ by chatting with rapper Ice Cube. They talk about black capitalism and the shaming hooks experienced when buying herself a decent car. A major theme is self-love – this is central to praxis for both of them. Hooks nudges him to consider this from a feminist perspective. His thoughts are really interesting. I like how he says ‘white kids are eavesdropping on my records, but they need to hear what we got to say about them’. This speaks to my own consumption of hooks’ product, which I have to keep contextualising & interrogating. I love how hooks talks about her need to be cool so that black kids particularly will see it’s possible to be an academic writing books and still be down: her coolness is enabling!
13 Spending Culture
Using Paul Fussell’s playful & v useful concept of a people who try to escape class, Xs, generally doing creative/intellectual, autonomous work & heedless of ‘popular shibboleths… an unmonied aristocracy’ hooks makes a nuanced critique of ‘opportunistic materialism’ lamenting that the commodification of blackness has made space for such attitudes and noting that interrogating class privilege is not at odds with solidarity in black liberation struggle. She sees an ‘internal colonialism’ arising from American education: “complicity begins with the equation of black capitalism with black self-determination”. She notes that “the failings of global socialism have made it easier… to reject visions of communalism or of participatory economics that would redistribute society’s resources in more just and democratic ways” and problematises the way black elites discuss ‘the underclass’ and also her experiences of having her critique cast as envy on one side and appropriation on the other, depending on context.
Those of us who are still working to mix the vision of autonomy evoked by X category with our dedication to ending domination in all its forms, who cherish openness, honesty, radical will, creativity and free speech, and do not long to have power over others, or to build nations (or even academic empires), are working to project an alternative politics of representation – working to free the black image so it is not enslaved to any exploitative or oppressive agenda”
14 Spike Lee doing Malcolm X
Problems with Lee’s film… it’s the way white supremacist capitalist patriarchy would want it. In detail.
15 Seeing and Making Culture
This essay is about the poor, particularly the African American poor, and how hooks’ upbringing involved instilling some communalist values and self respect, both of which are being cruelly undermined by increasingly neoliberal values and policies. Negative representations of the poor astonished hooks when she went to college. While working to dismantle economic inequality, she argues that we must affirm that it is possible to live a meaningful life whilst poor. She notes that Pretty Woman is about a benevolent rich man rescuing a poor woman from poverty – the ruling class generally portray themselves as generous and eager to share, while the poor are depicted as avariciously opportunistic. More and more people believe these tropes peddled by mainstream media and pop culture. Hooks makes the brilliant suggestion of building literacy programs for critical consciousness in movie theatres during the times when these are not in use.
16 Back to Black
An essay on the history of ‘black is beautiful’ and on colorism/shadism.
17 Malcolm X
On the lack of attention given to the radical leader’s self-divestment of misogyny and patriarchal values in later life. Obviously, the White gaze is implicated.
Here hooks addresses the issue of settler colonialism in the USA. Something I did not know: African people came to the Americas before Europeans and a peaceful cultural exchange took place (in your face colonisers (I think that’s my face too unfortunately)).
We are called to judge between a memory that justifies and privileges domination, oppression and exploitation and one that exalts and affirms reciprocity, community and mutuality. Given the crisis the planet is facing – rampant destruction of nature, famine, threats of nuclear attack, ongoing patriarchal wars – and the way these tragedies are made manifest in our daily life and the lives of folks everywhere in the world, it can only be a cause for rejoicing that we can remember and reshape paradigms of human bonding that emphasise the increased capacity of folks to care for the earth and for one another. That memory can restore our faith and renew our hope
19 Moving into and beyond feminism
This is an interview, very personal. Hooks talks about the wounds of racism, sexism and homophobia and the healing power of reaching out to each other. I love where she answers her own question “how do we deal with difference?” by inviting us to think about falling in love, and researching and carefully feeling each other out. As Trudy (of Gradient Lair) once tweeted ‘love = accountability’. I will never stop repeating that! Many themes here… community, madness… privacy, honesty, spirituality, the need to engage with emotions, using performance art to deal with trauma… “aesthetics are crucial to our ability to live humanely in the world”. She also talks about cultivating the ability to wait, and to patiently learn not to dominate and shut down others when we interact
20 Love as the practice of freedom
The title kind of says it. I hope to read more about the place of love in hooks’ political vision and practice in her other books. So inspiring.
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