‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Black Panther (dir Ryan Coogler, 2018)



The last thing the world needs now (of course I know) is another earnest hot-take on the representation of race in Black Panther written by a middle-aged white guy. Burying such thoughts in the decent obscurity of this blog is surely the best thing to do. Certainly, the prodigality of this film's 3Cs success (cultural, critical and commercial) speaks for itself. Nor is that success surprising: it's an extremely well-made and effective superhero action-thriller that does all the things the best of those sorts of movies do whilst also managing, apparently effortlessly, to open this mode of storytelling to a genuine racial diversity and to engaged and substantive political discussion too. And that's all marvellous. Manohla Dargis's New York Times review called Black Panther ‘a jolt of a movie ... in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully.’ I'm not here to argue with that assessment.

So instead of discussing this film in any detail, I'm going to make what you will probably think is a very obvious, even an over-obvious, point about the cultural representation of race. Since racism (both in terms of one-to-one instances of neglect and oppression, and more importantly as a systemic feature of the way modern societies operate) has resulted in greater human misery and death over the last several centuries than any other of the various malign forces at work in human affairs, understanding it and more to the point effectively disseminating our understanding strikes me one of the most crucial tasks facing us. The recent flare-up of nativist, nationalist and quasi-fascist politics, from Brexit and Trump last year to Viktor Orbán winning the Hungarian parliamentary election earlier this month, is only one symptom of a long term refusal of racism to go away as a structuring principle of modern politics. This seems to me a very urgent problem.

What our immediate future holds, as a species, is increasing intercommunication between cultures, peoples and individuals; a new global intermingling of groups who were, until really recently (in relative historical terms) separated by huge travel times and a much more inertial human habitus into near-hermetic steads of ethnic and religious homogeneity. No longer! There's no avoiding this sociocultural fact, and indeed many reasons to celebrate it in terms of diversity and a pooling of human resources and ingenuities. But it would be foolish to deny that it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and not all those people are evil or stupid.

How we negotiate the fact that we are now encountering, and in the future increasingly frequently will encounter, people of many different cultures, religions and skin-colours is the great question of our time. The Brexitrumpbán answer is: shrink back into a siege mentality, purge the nation-state of ethnic diversity and build a wall to keep things inside as they used to be. That's no answer at all, of course; but the difficult work of overcoming human timidity (and thus resistance) in the face of alterity is by no means a simple one. There aren't any easy answers. It's also not a task we can shirk.

Now: encountering alterity is one of the foundation-stones of my favourite literary-cultural genre, science fiction. It's one of the reasons I love it. The alien can be many things in SF, but one of the things it has most often been is a means of engaging with the complicated questions of racial difference, the exhilaration as well as the anxiety of that real-world encounter.

It's because SF represents the world without reproducing it that the genre has more imaginative leeway to reconfigure race than mimetic modes of art. This has a good and a bad aspect, the former because, by simplifying and extrapolating ideological anxieties it can make them clearer, and allow a less prejudiced engagement with them; the latter because its isolation of ‘race’ from its actual historical embeddedness can ground a sort of special pleading (when D W Griffiths puts racist caricatures on-screen in Birth of a Nation there's no disavowing it; when George Lucas does the same thing in The Phantom Menace he can say, howsoever disingenuously, ‘but Jar Jar Binks is a Gungan! You surely can't be accusing me of anti-Gunganism!’). But the main advantage is the larger structural one of the fact that the whole genre is predicated upon encountering various kinds of otherness, such that mere engagement habituates the reader (the viewer, the fan) to that encounter. All the aliens in SF can't be repulsive Goebbelsian monstrosities, after all.

How does race get itself represented in SF? Often it is through a kind of duality: the bad other (the vampire, the monster, the hideous man-slaying invading alien) versus the good other (the alluring alien, the wondrous other, the sublime possibility of leaving our hidebound assumptions behind). The key thing is that specific ethnic groups are often represented as both of these in the same text.

So: the Jews of Star Trek are bifurcated into the 'good' Jews, who are rational and super-clever like Einstein and whose religion is a proper mystery, the Vulcans, and the 'bad' Jews, who are small and ugly and who worship only money, the Ferengi. The Vulcan hand salute is the ש sign kohens make as a blessing, which Nimoy observed as a child in synagogue. Where the anti-Semitic stereotype posits large noses as a defining feature of Jews, in Trek, this feature is transferred to ears: pronounced but elegant in Vulcans, grotesquely enlarged and strangely sexual in Ferengi.

You take my point, and indeed I'm sure you can think of lots of other examples. Tolkien was deeply in love with the old feudal-warrior world of the Anglo Saxons but was himself in his life (as I am myself in mine) a thoroughly conventional bourgeois individual who lived his life by a bourgeois code of respectability. One of the things he does in Lord of the Rings is work-through his buried anxieties about this identity by splitting it into two: the ‘good’ bourgeois hobbits, living their small, hidebound lives surrounded by creature comforts, and the ‘bad’ bourgeois Gollum, whose materialism and possessiveness have warped his life into a hideous parody of bourgeois ownership and conservatism. The original Planet of the Apes films included both the sensitive, virtuous chimpanzees and the violent, aggressive gorillas. And so on.

This tracks a key way in which racism as such sustains itself. So: back in the eighteenth-century (let's say) it was acceptable in White society to believe and express the view that Black people were not really human beings. This view was, indeed, a common one for much of European history. Of course it's a lie: Black people are precisely as human as White people. Nowadays only loonies and weirdos think that having a black skin makes you a species of higher beast rather than a homo sapiens.

And yet we see, every day in America, law enforcement treating Black people (even law-abiding Black people) in a markedly different manner to the way it treats White people (even delinquent White people): that is, as animals to be cowed and even killed, rather than as citizens to be recuperated into the law. It looks as though many White Americans hold two radically different view of Black Americans. Broadly speaking they accept that truth so patent that it was notated into the founding document of their nation as self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. But at the same time they regard some of their fellow citizens as subhumans, prone to murderous violence and a present threat to their own lives and property. That looks like cognitive dissonance, but I don't believe it's experienced that way by the average everyday Trump Voter. I think precisely this dualism enables a sort of mental two-step that lets the racist off their own internal-moral hook, as it were.

There are, in this worldview, good and bad African-Americans. On the one hand is there is the culture trope of the kindly, spiritual Black man, the sassy Black woman, the Magical Negro of so much cultural discourse. On the other there is the thug life criminal, the gang-banger, the mugger, drug-dealer, streetwise Fuck Da Police rapper urban-violent Black. Racist policing justifies itself in a society that ‘officially’ repudiates racism by pretending it's only targeting this second group. And it matters for this that the second group is styled, by the various discourses that prop-up racism, as an active threat—the American racist takes the assertion ‘Black Lives Matter’ not as a simple restatement of the Declaration of Independence's self-evidence (which is, after all, what it is), but, rather, as if a soldier in a First World War trench chose precisely the moment of a mass charge by the enemy to start yelling ‘German Lives Matter! Stop Shooting!’ That is to say: it's not that they'd disagree, exactly, in humanitarian-abstract terms. It's just that, right now, they're convinced that police officers gunning down Black motorists and Black customers getting handcuffed and marched out of Starbucks is a matter of (White) life and death. How to convince them of their manifest wrongness? Not easy. And one reason for that is that, because of their Feels where the first group of ‘good’ negroes is concerned. Many racists don't consider themselves racist. And it's that, the ‘I can't be racist, my wife/best friend/esteemed work colleague is Black!’ (and its more dilute version, ‘I can't be racist, I like the movies of Denzel Washington’ or ‘I can't be racist, I sing along when a Michael Jackson song comes on the radio’), that is the real nut that needs cracking.

Which brings us back to Black Panther. Because we might want to argue that this dualistic way of ‘reading’ race in our everyday lives is dialectic in the proper sense of the term: not that we should want ‘them’ to be more like the ‘good’ stereotype and less like the ‘bad’ one, but that both stereotypes are complicit with one another in maintaining the larger structures of racism as such. The magical Negro is, in its way, as malign as the Thug-life gangster.

It's this dualism that Black Panther is structured around. This movie is the story of a war between two kinds of Black man: the ‘good’ T'Challa and the ‘bad’ Erik Killmonger Stevens. I'm not suggesting that the movie handles this Manichean battle crudely. Not at all: it manages to be remarkably eloquent about the political issues involved without ever losing narrative momentum or set-piece excitement. But that is its structure, and as such it reproduces the lineaments of racial representation in contemporary US cultural discourse. The good character is literally a magical Negro (who visits a spiritual plane beyond death to acquire magical strength and endurance) and the latter is a Thug-life cold-eyed killer from the ’hood. That the good character is an African and the bad African-American is not, we might say, ideologically neutral:—as if a Black man can only be truly authentic if he undoes diaspora and returns to Africa; as if the existential inauthenticity of Killmonger is a function of his Americanness rather than his Blackness (I was struck that the marks on his body, notionally recording his many kills, resembled smallpox scars, harking back to the original ‘settlement’ of America, pox-infected blankets being distributed to the aboriginal population). That the whole film, and the larger series of which it is a part, figures the universe as a whole as a great war is also a problem, I think.

11 comments:

  1. fn1 Chris Rock reference
    fn2 "I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could"

    Really interesting. Reminds me what a useful toolkit Freud put together, when he wasn't obsessing about willies - perhaps the time I spent trying to apply The Interpretation of Dreams to the Faerie Queene (following Graham Hough) wasn't as wasted as it seemed at the time.

    Have you seen Moonlight? I'd need to watch it again, but I'm pretty sure it refuses that splitting (even as it enacts it over time, interestingly enough). The central character is not a nice guy or a good person to be around, but the story is the story of his heart and what has - and hasn't - touched it.

    We should also acknowledge one unambiguously positive thing about BP, that the making of it was pretty much a Black production; that's something I've heard celebrated much more than anything to do with the fiction itself, and it's probably more important than the fiction in the longer term.

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    1. Spenser Freud's "The Interpretations of Duessas". Excellent stuff. I haven't seen Moonlight I'm sorry to say: though I have some sense of what it's about from all the buzz, Oscars etc.

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  2. Adam, this is very good. I tried to suggest here how the story might have been told in a way that avoids the conventional dichotomy you rightly identify.

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    1. Your suggestions for the Killmonger character are very interesting (they're how I'd be tempted to write this story, or one like it, for instance), but I wonder what would happen to this movie as a Marvel Comics Universe film if it were reworked like this.

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    2. Yes, that's why I say at the end "That probably wouldn’t be good for the MCU franchise" — which leads me to wonder whether there might, just might, be some conflict between (a) propping up an enormously profitable and potentially endless film series and (b) excellent storytelling.

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  3. Loving this! Quick thing about the vulcan hand thingy, just for the sake of spreading this knowledge around: it's not rabbis who make the blessing, it's Kohens (Kohanim) the priestly class (Cohens, Cohns, etc.). It's called birkat kohanim.

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    1. Quite right! Thanks: have corrected.

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  4. Kilmonger is a
    Veteran not a thug.

    That difference is extremely important since his character represents the brutality inherent in the post colonial west.I found your POV interesting & truly appreciate your attempt to answer the bigger questions. I look forward to the day when the first black president of the U.S. & the great king of Wakanda don't have to have their legacies defined by whether they created a post racial utopia. No one would ever put that burden on Supermans shoulders in addition to all the other things that had to be done in a day. But then again the one mantle too strong for Superman to lift is racism. But I love the attempt in current incarnations dealing with Superman as a "Dreamer" & immigrant sent here as a child for a better life. And I think you're right about how relevant this is N.O.W. Best Wishes

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  5. I think there's something to your argument, but I'm not sure you account for the way the dynamic changes when it's the protagonist that we're talking about. As the TV Tropes page you link to makes quite explicit, the Magical Negro is a supporting role:

    With such deep spiritual wisdom (and sometimes — though not always — actual supernatural powers), you might wonder why the Magical Negro doesn't step up and save the day himself. This will never happen. So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance... which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people.

    One prominent example is Morpheus and Neo (somewhat subverted in the later films, but only somewhat). The closest character to that trope is Forest Whitaker's Zuri. However, Zuri's protege, the Neo role, is not some white savior, but T'Challa himself.

    Getting into some spoilers here. Similarly, if we look at the most prominent heroic white role in the film, I'd say it was Martin Freeman's CIA agent Everett K. Ross. Ross's role is not to save Wakanda directly, he's intercepting weapons shipments destined for London, New York, and Hong Kong. That might get to the African/African-American dynamic you discuss, but I think it's a clearly supporting role and one that doesn't directly affect the outcome of the main battle.

    Finally, I think because T'Challa is the protagonist, the film also offers much more than just the dialect you cite. As Abigal Nussbaum argues, T'Challa considers three different models as to the right way to use power: the isolation of his father, T’Chaka, the engagement of Nakia, and the militarism of W'kabi.

    So I definitely think there is something to the idea that there are more dramatic possibilities if you look at Alan Jacobs aforementioned Killmonger rewrite. That said, I think part of how the film tries to avoid falling in the dialectic is by inviting the audience to identify with T'Challa rather than to think of him as a mystical mentor.

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