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The readings by Stam and Hall focus on how we might study race as a category of analysis and differentiation within popular culture. What arguments from their essays seem most pertinent and engaging? What other theories do you feel they are building upon? And how might you apply these ideas to understanding Bamboozled?

11 Responses to “Discussion questions for 4/23”

  1. Jeremy Martin says:

    There are many great points to discuss here. To start the thread, I’ll be simple.

    Stam first makes a point that many theorists like Barthes or sociologists like Fanon were already pioneering the way for cultural studies and race, quite avant la lettre. Many intellectual movements such as structuralism and semiotics were unfortunately “raced” from their birth — careening forward with a democratizing, egalitarian, and antihierarchichal thrust.

    For Stam, Eurocentrism represents vestigial, complex thinking that is contradictory and historically unstable (p. 475). We must erradicate the epistemological privileges of single communities by first realizing that racism (otherness), not really race, exists in society. Otherness – a concept we are all innately aware of – can be academically deleterious because it promotes divisive rhetoric and biased analysis, whether intentionally or not.

    What is most compelling about Stam’s article is the notion of the burden of representation. I now think differently about how homogenous groups are represented in the media and how this distorts our perception of community in everyday life. We consciously and unconsciously categorize human beings, constructing stereotypes that serve advantageous, unnecessary, and sometimes harmful purposes. This dynamic process of signification changes our reception as audiences through the eventual negative imagery of underrepresented or marginalized groups. Cultural studies must thus engage in consumption AND production to put forth less editorialized meanings for its audience. As Hall adds, differentiation has become ‘normalized’ within the representational and discursive spaces of society so that we are numb to the fact that we have fallen victim to the primitive political tactic of stereotyping those who surround us. It is not just about representation, but the politics of representation itself. With this in mind, we can understand subjectivity and identity much more accurately.

    I definitely agree with the observation that we are perpetually involved in the ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’. I prefer Stam’s more cosmopolitan view over Hall’s since he does not primarily focus on issues of race. In terms of how these issues apply to the film Bamboozled, I would say that – despite the difficulty in deciphering satire – we can understand the war of positioning and representation much more profoundly through the consumption of texts that call attention to such divisiveness and differentiation.

    Thoughts?

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  2. Ian Trombulak says:

    I think this is first time race has really been discussed in our readings, and I found it fascinating. Since the beginning of the class, one thing I’ve struggled with is reconciling how all these theorists, who lived in quite distinctly different times and places, could be piled together to form the body of texts we label “cultural studies”. How Culturalism and Culture & Civ could be discussed as opposing schools of thought, when the theorists involved knew nothing of their school or any other at the time…it made it all difficult to comprehend, for me.

    I’d also been confused by the apparent lack of regard for major themes in society as a whole. Yes, the origins and repercussions of high and low culture are interesting, and of course encoding/decoding and production vs. consumption are invaluable concepts to cultural studies. But it always felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing, and a big one…different groups of people consume mass culture in vastly different ways, such that studying bodies of people as a whole becomes very difficult. Granted, that’s not exactly what these readings were about…but I’m still glad to see the larger issue of race finally break into the course. It began last week with the discussion of male/female differences (a great class discussion, IMO), and now we continue on. Yay!

    As for the readings, the rise of cultural studies as intrinsically linked to race is a really interesting idea. Of course, it makes sense: many of our theorists did the majority of their work at a time when racism was common and accepted. To me, the interesting part is mapping that onto today’s society, where I feel that although racism is still going strong, it exists in a much different form than before. It’s a covert racism, and to me that provides even richer ground for cultural analysis. Again, I’m veering slightly from the reading…but it’s just so damn interesting.

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  3. Will Van Heuvelen says:

    I see elements of Hall’s discussion of race reflected in Bamboozled, mostly insofar as Spike Lee treats both the “relations of representation” in addition to the “politics of representation itself” (Hall, “New Ethnicities,” 442). One of Hall’s most salient points is that representation choices only exist with meaning if they exist “within the discursive” – i.e. within a specific cultural discourse fluent in the symbols/myths represented. With respect to Bamboozled, we see this in the profuse use of black-face that accentuates black stereotypes intended to engender indignation and discomfort. It is possible for the audience to take offense on account of these stereotypes by virtue of our familiarity with their dehumanizing consequences. But the meaning of the text is entirely contingent on a race-conscious discourse.

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  4. Emre Sahin says:

    Like Ian, I am pleased to see the discussion of race (and also the discussion of gender we had last week) enter our coursework. I feel like most of what we’ve learnt in class so far (like encoding/decoding, to use Ian’s example) gave us the tools to reach/think about/comment on major themes in society as a whole. In the first weeks of the course, we learned several theoretical arguments/tools and recently, we are seeing how these arguments/tools helped other people reach major social themes and commentaries.

    As for this week’s readings, learning about the relationship between race and the rise of cultural studies in Stam’s essay “Cultural Studies and Race” was convincing. I remember Prof. Mittell saying that many cultural theorists’ lower/middle class backgrounds contributed to the development of cultural studies (i.e. Negotiation theorists). I can see how a similar argument (not the equivalent, only similar) can be made for the issue of race and how it is discussed in the ‘world of cultural studies.’

    Finally, a few words on this week’s movie Bamboozled. I am deeply disturbed by what I saw in it but I loved it. If I was asked to make a movie in response to what a learned about pop culture during this semester, I would probably copy Spike Lee’s style and try to show how certain aspects of media function in a disturbing manner. In the movie, Dela’s attitude towards entertainment shows us the normalization of differentiation within the media. But as we witness in Bamboozled, differentiation is cannot be normalized for everyone (i.e. the rap gang that kills Man Tan at the end) and this burden of representation can lead to trouble (confirmation of stereotypes etc… or in the case of our movie, the death of Man Tan). As Jeremy pointed out, “It is not just about representation, but the politics of representation itself.”

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  5. Kyle Howard says:

    Spike Lee’s Bamboozled illustrates exactly the kind of debate that, as Hall puts it, does away with the false notion “all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same.” DeLa and Big Black Africa are both black, yet they view each other as a blight on the face of their culture. In fact, DeLa seems to be more white than black (his accent or his unfamiliarity with black cultural history, for example).

    This brings me to Stam’s discussion of “whiteness studies.” There are several white characters in the film who try to be black. Take the only white rapper in Mao-Mao, for example. He is just as outraged as the other crew members at the show, he can spit a rap just as well as any of them can, etc. But his whiteness reasserts itself in the end, when all the black crew members are killed by the cops but he is left alive. This is a perfect example of how whites “cannot divest themselves of privilege even when they want to.” And all of this talk about whitness as an “unmarked norm” get’s me thinking about Michael Rapoport’s character (the boss). It’s almost as if he wants to be black because he yearns for a racial identity. He displays all of these portraits of black athletes and politicians in his office as if they were badges of pride. Only problem is, he’s proud of someone else’s cultural history. The emergence of “white-chocolates” is an interesting one and something I think we should continue to look at. Can a person be “black” without actually having black skin? Has “blackness” transcended the physical realm that far?

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  6. Kyle Howard says:

    In case you can’t tell, I’m a big Spike Lee fan and I kind of wound up writing two responses (though they are different, hence I divided them up). Sorry if I’m brain farting on the blog right now.

    What makes this film and Spike Lee’s other works so powerful is that it deals with the lives of specific individuals at a specific point in time. It’s as if Spike Lee cares almost as much as the experiences that cause a character to hold a certain belief or act a certain way than the actual belief/action. It reminds us, just as Hall does, that “all discourse is place, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual.” After DeLa visits his father (Paul Mooney) at the all-black comedy club where he works, he undergoes a major turning point. His father chooses to stay outside the mainstream, choosing to tour around from one small club to the next because he doesn’t think he can say what he wants to in Hollywood-land. After seeing his father in a drunken stuper, DeLa (while driving in his car) becomes determined not to become a beaten man like his father. After that point in the film, he seems to become more and more complacent with his white boss and allows the show to degenerate further and further all so that he can pay the rent for his clock tower apartment, get awards, and be successful in a mass medium like TV.

    Hall also writes that there can be “no simple return or recovery of the ancestral past which is not re-experienced through the categories of the present.” The minstral figurines, though they are authentic (not replicas), have a very different meaning for DeLa before Manray is kidnapped and after. Before, he looks at the piggy bank as a sign of his success and chooses to decorate his office with figurines. But after he talks to his disappointed mother and after manray is shot, he comes to hate these dolls, feeling judged by them for ignoring the history of oppression they represent.

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  7. Tahirah Foy says:

    One of the most important aspect of this week’s readings was in Stuart Hall’s article “New Ethnicities’. I felt that his distinction between the term black and ethnicity is very important in cultural studies. His emphasis on the fact that the term black was constructed and the fact that this is not tied to history, culture, and tradition was important. Spike Lee plays with this distinction, like mentioned before although Big Black Africa and Delacroix are both black however they are not the same. These characters have very different histories, educations, and experience. It is important to note the Delacroix is suppose to represent his race at the network. Delacroix struggle with what Stam refers to as the burden of representation.
    Another thing that Hall highlighted in his article was the diaspora. He attempts to show that the black experience encompass the diaspora. He defines the diaspora as a process listing unsettling, recombination. hybridization etc. Understanding this process is crucial to understanding the black experience and identity. I think that Manray’s character exemplifies the process of the diaspora. He begins as a confused produce of the involuntary African Diaspora (unsettled). He then attempt to fit in and make some money in the society (recombination). Next he uses the oppressive show to highlight his talents and propel is social status (hybridization). And after he meet Sloan and enter another set were he is educated about African American history in America. Delacroix goes through the same process however it is very different from Manray’s.

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  8. Andrey Tolstoy says:

    Stuart Hall’s “New Ethnicities” relies explicitly on a number of theories – encoding/decoding, différance – but is fundamentally underpinned by Foucault’s ideas about discourse. “Black” culture is defined at all times in relation to white culture (which, in turn defines itself in relationship to non-white culture); hence, the cycle of marginalization and deference that Hall describes coming from the Eurocentric bias. Althusser would describe this as the ISA of race – since it was designed by colonialists, it naturally posed questions in which white superiority or centrality was implied.

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  9. Neil Baron says:

    What I found most interesting from the readings was the moment Hall marks as “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject.” The representation of black subjects shifts to take into account a breadth of different cultural and historical experiences of black subjects.

    A lot of the effectiveness of Bamboozled as a satire relies on this shift in representation. In the film, as Kyle noted, DeLa and Big Black Africa are both black, but their social experiences are completely different. The Mantan Show within the film, however, represents its black subjects as one dimensional minstrels. The blackface symbolically reduces the many different shades of skin color into one. It is this juxtaposition of representations of black subjects that is central to the satire.

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  10. Ralph Acevedo says:

    I think that two key scenes in Bamboozled are when Delacroix pitches his show to his boss Thomas and brings in Manray and Womack, as well as when a consultant supposedly with a specialty in African-American studies meets with Thomas and Delacroix. In these two scenes, the “politics of representation” idea is evoked when Thomas capitalizes on the idea that since not all blacks are the same, there is no essentially correct way to represent black figures. While I do find the proposed solution to minority representation as a reversal from a negative to a positive image to be simplistic and problematic, I believe Bamboozled illustrates the possible consequences of ignoring the effects such images can have on a mass audience or society.

    On the other hand, “contrivedly positive images”, as Stam points out, have their own problems as well. The emphasis on the historical and contextual nature of discourse owes much, I believe, to Foucauld. In this way, sensitivity to historical relations of power between different groups of people is taken into account.

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  11. Dustin Schwartz says:

    I find several things interesting about these arguments. One of which is the idea that race does not exist but racism does; it appears that racism is a process that makes distinguishing two peoples apparent, culturally creating a race. Another thing that is interesting is that there seems to be no way of escaping race once it is brought up, and that when one tries to highlight the issues of it, they might reproduce it at the same time; while one tries to defeat it, just bringing it up only supports the fact that it exists. It is a real Catch-22 and struggle of positions. A binary system is therefore, created. I see structuralism in these arguments because of the way in which signs and signifiers becomes created, especially with the term “black” and what it means in language, then taking a turn for the worse and being associated with race. This is highlighted a lot within Bamboozled, especially with Michael Rappaport’s character, when he plays the stereotype game Damon Wayans’s character about what it means to be black, concerning the way he speaks and knowledge of a basketball player’s jersey. It is also blatantly seen in the meeting where Wayans makes the pitch to Rappaport about how they could create some many stereotypical references within the minstrel show. It is somewhat indirectly interpreted, however, with Mos Def and his hoodlum rapper friends, especially the white standout who complains of not being killed at the end of the film.

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