Post-black, old black.
The sense of being in the wake of an important historical shift encourages the people I have in mind to borrow the "post" from postmodernism and use it to specify their simultaneous debt to and distance from their favored historical dynamic. So Tommie Shelby searches for forms of political solidarity that are appropriate to what he calls the post-civil rights condition. Nelson George and Mark Anthony Neal explore, among other things, the personalities and expressive practices that define what they refer to as post-soul culture. And Thelma Golden heralds the inventiveness and assertiveness of those she identifies as post-black artists (Tate 50).
However one understands the ideas of post-soul culture, post-civil rights politics, and post-black identity and aesthetics, there is considerable overlap between them. We might take these expressions as synonyms, as different names for the same complex reality. (1) It seems more productive, though, and a more efficient use of the linguistic resources that we happen to have available, to insist on the differences of emphasis that have produced these terms. Each then becomes a partial window onto some relatively distinct aspect of the far-reaching and multifaceted reorganization of black life that has occurred over the last couple of decades.
It may be especially productive to identify and clarify the specific contribution that a distinct notion of post-blackness can make. As it happens, the notion tends to figure in rhetorical gestures more than in fully formed arguments. It seems, in fact, to be a placeholder, an abbreviated, perhaps elliptical invocation of unexcavated theoretical resources. My sense is that if we seek out these resources and flesh out the idea, we will find that it offers more than a way of talking about black art. It may well capture something of the peculiar situation of race theory at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The most obvious place to turn for resources is to postmodern theory, which has directly or indirectly cultivated in so many of us the impulse to speak of the post-this or the post-that--the impulse, I will eventually call it, to posterize. But theorists of post-blackness themselves tend to go no further in this direction than the casual understanding of postmodernism, or of postmodernity, that has made its way into public intellectual culture. (2) This casual postmodernism captures some of what one might mean in speaking of post-blackness, but it also obscures some meanings, and squanders a fascinating opportunity to put the posterizing impulse in the service of a comprehensive understanding of contemporary racial conditions. More theoretically robust appeals to postmodernism would certainly do better. But "post'-talk implies an end of history argument, and the theoretical lacunae inherent in the standard references to post-blackness leave the way clear to follow out this implication in a slightly less obvious direction.
Post-blackness: institutional and trans-institutional
The idea of post-blackness as I know it derives from the work of Golden. Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Golden uses the term to describe a nascent movement in contemporary art--a movement she meant to introduce with the 2001 Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum. Post-black artists, she says in the exhibition catalogue, are "adamant about not being labeled as black artists," but they still work at "redefining complex notions of blackness" (14). Having been born, for the most part, after the 1950-60's civil rights movement, these artists experience race differently from their predecessors. This generational and ideological shift has two crucial consequences. The post-black artist tends to balk at the traditional meanings and burdens of Black Art and The Black Artist; but he or she has also learned to play on and with these meanings.
Golden says little more than this about the idea of post-blackness as such, though the little more she does say will be of some importance in a moment, and her disinclination to say more is not, I think, blameworthy, for reasons I will come to. In spite of her brevity, the implications of the idea are clear enough. She uses it as a gathering notion, to specify the key feature that governed her choice of artists for the exhibition. The artists, it turns out, are among the members of the western art world who belong to what Neal and George describe as the post-soul generation.
For Golden's post-black artists, as for everyone else who has learned the lessons of the post-soul era, the traditional meanings of blackness, the meanings that took their most recent form in the soul-era politics of respectability and black power, are too confining. New meanings have emerged: new forms of black identity that are multiple, fluid, and profoundly contingent, along with newly sophisticated understandings of race and identity, marking what Neal describes as the shift "from essential notions of blackness to metanarratives on blackness" (3). As artists, these "soul babies" can take as their vocation K. Anthony Appiah's injunction to engage in "identity play": the race-related meanings and symbols that can no longer claim our exclusive allegiance have also become grist for the mill of artistic reflection (Color Conscious 104). Richard Powell might well be describing the orientation of the post-black artist in his broad description of black art trends in the late twentieth century: "[These] artists took their work beyond the racial and cultural "scarification" that identified previous generations and ... employed a multiplicity of conceptual mechanisms: analyzing socially rooted emblems, questioning traditional concepts of identity, utilizing testimony and scripted narrative, and, in general, dealing with culture and history as artistic currency" (166). Post-blackness, then, is not something only artists can have. It is a feature of the post-soul condition that, as it happens, artists can typically put to better use than the rest of us. We might say that to be post-black is to experience the contingency and fluidity of black identity, to have to wrestle with the question of how to orient one's self to the various options for black self-consciousness, and to do all of this while relating one's self to the similarly fluid meanings and practices of the wider society. We might refine this idea--by distinguishing, for example, between the conscious experience of racial contingency, of the sort that Golden's artists exemplify, and the unconscious experience of those who evade responsibility for their identity. But then we would have to speak here of bad faith and the spirit of seriousness, and invite figures like Lewis Gordon into the conversation. And following out that line of thinking would take us too far afield of the subject.
If certain of the implications of post-blackness are clear, the full import of the idea remains somewhat up for grabs. This is true in part as a matter of logic, as the very concept of the post-black, as Golden uses it, seems to carry some internal tensions. According to Golden, by "the end of the 1990s ... post-black had fully entered into the art world's consciousness. Post-black was the new black" (14). Of course, she means that post-black identity, and the work around and inspired by it, had come to occupy the cultural space that ideas about blackness had occupied a generation earlier. (And, presumably, she means to signify on the familiar refrain in fashion circles about which color will become the new black.) But putting the point in just this way makes me wonder just what work the "post" is doing.
Golden's line leaves me wondering: How can post-black be the new black? Postmodernity is precisely not the new modernity; and ditto for postcolonialism and colonialism. And if post-black can be the new black, in what sense is it really "post" blackness at all? Why isn't it just a new stage of blackness? And, and: if it is just a new stage of blackness, then why not name it accordingly? Not "post-black," as if blackness has been superseded, but, say, neo-black. Or, since that stinks, something else?
This kind of logical scrutiny may seem unreasonably demanding. Golden's remark was almost surely a throwaway line, after all. And it was offered in support of what I have already conceded was little more than a gathering notion. If it works in that capacity, perhaps it is inappropriate to ask that it satisfy philosophical standards of conceptual fastidiousness.
It is certainly inappropriate to raise these worries as criticisms of Golden herself. The curator's job is to organize and thematize, not to provide airtight definitions or to resolve standing questions about the pragmatics of identity-description. But her admirable work has opened a line of inquiry--in ways partly anticipated, as we will see, by her throwaway line--that deserves further consideration. She has, in keeping with her role, raised questions, framed ideas, and provoked conversation. Contributing to the conversation that she has made possible may mean refining the key ideas.
And there are at least two perfectly good reasons to worry that the postblack idea is vague enough to need refinement. First of all, it does not seem to work especially well even as a gathering notion for the art world. One writer complains about the difficulty of "defining this newly-named vein of black art," and reports that "artists and curators inside and outside the 'Freestyle' orbit have a range of responses to the label 'post-black' ..." (Byrd 35). In the same spirit, it appears that some artists, including some of the people whom Golden took herself to be describing, are unclear and often uneasy about her gathering term. Painter Kojo Griffin, for example, a participant in the Freestyle exhibition, says, "As a person who is very proud of being 'black' or of African heritage, I would be reluctant to ever describe myself as 'post-black' in any sense" (qtd. in Byrd 35). Griffin's remark may reflect a misunderstanding of Golden's underlying idea, or some disagreement with her about the implications or likely consequences of its use. Nothing she says, after all, commits her to the repudiation of black identity, either as a psychoemotional resource for individuals or as a political-economic or moral factor in social life. But this disconnect and these worries are not peculiar to him, or to the specific art world that Golden inhabits. A contributor to a recent forum on black theatre had this response to the idea of postblack being the new black: "Does this mean the Negro is no longer in vogue? Is brown the new black? Is brown black? Is trans- inter- multi-culturalism the new black? (I could dig being post-Black if I weren't constantly reminded--for better and worse--of how black I am.)" (George-Graves 611).
The second reason to worry about the vagueness of the post-black idea is that the idea has great potential. Posterizing blackness can go beyond throwaway lines and gathering notions to provide some insight into the philosophical structure of the history of race-thinking. If I am right about this possibility, the post-black idea will turn out to be more than a gesture at a dynamic within a particular domain of expressive practice. It will be more generally useful, serving as a window onto broader dynamics in contemporary race theory and black life. Let me rephrase that last point: Golden begins with an idea about post-blackness as an institutional condition, one that obtains within the confines of the official art world. My aim, though, is to consider the merits of talking about post-blackness as a trans-institutional condition, one that affects racial conditions across the narrower institutions and practices that constitute social life. (3) Better yet: my aim is to figure out how to talk about post-blackness in this broader way, so that it can do the work that I imagine it doing.
Postmodernity, temporality, and naming
You might by now wondering: what's to figure out? That is: It might seem that the idea of post-blackness is fairly straightforward, After all, it borrows its "post-" from postmodernism, and enough ideas about postmodernism have trickled down into lay culture to make this or any other instance of the posterizing impulse easily explicable. This appeal to an impressionistic or public understanding of postmodernism is attractive, but ultimately unsatisfying. It does have the virtue of explaining why the idea of post-blackness has been able to avoid clarification thus far--because we already think we know what it means. But a little scrutiny will show that it will take some philosophic work to make the idea hold up in a way that generalizes beyond the art world.
Specifically, we will need an account of the temporal rhetoric and the accompanying approach to naming that the post-black idea inherits from postmodernism. Posterizing is a complex enterprise, enjoining those who would engage in it to embrace and to reject the past, while also embracing but remaining wary of the present. It means asserting that some state of affairs follows from a prior one in a way that requires reference to the earlier state, and that militates against naming the successor state in any other way. It is as if the later situation is unworthy of independent specification: as if the predecessor somehow brings some unfolding dynamic to a close. But when does this delicate temporal balancing act make sense? In what sense does the predecessor state represent the end of the history that leads to its successor?
Impressionistic postmodernism has answers to these questions about temporality and naming, but none that give us adequate insight into the idea of post-blackness. To see this idea, we will have to consider some of the obvious postmodern ways of motivating the impulse to posterize. I am not competent to survey the entirety of the vast and unruly thicket of approaches that post-modernism has encouraged, directly or indirectly, to use this philosophical "post." It may be that after 30 or so years of proliferating inquiry, no one is competent to cover all of this ground. But a few broadly applicable motivations for the temporal rhetoric of posterizing do stand out.
Very broadly speaking, posterizing is a device for understanding divergent evolution, for clearing conceptual space, or for expressing skepticism and suspicion. These three approaches are, of course, related in practice, and I distinguish them here only for purposes of analysis. Often enough, employing one quickly leads to employing the others. And each provides a distinctive set of reasons for refusing to allow successor states their own names.
Divergent evolution occurs when diverse progeny emerge, and diverge, from a common root. We find an example in an essay by Charles Jencks, who explains how he understood the term "post-modern" when he helped introduce it to the world of architecture. "I used it as a temporizing label," he says, "as a definition to describe where we had left rather than where we were going. The observable fact was that architects ... had all departed from Modernism and set off in different directions which kept a trace of their common departure" (472; original italics). This approach to posterizing has two aims. It declares or accommodates a lack of uniformity in some unfolding domain of practice, and it traces the newly variegated reality to its common origins.
On this approach, diversity or pluralism is what precludes independent--that is, non-backward-looking--specification of the successor state. The temporal rhetoric, the appeal to posteriority in time, is therefore doubly useful. It is a positive assertion, indicating the relation to the past. But it is also a negative assertion, a gesture toward a lack--the lack of any other common theme by appeal to which we can unify the diversity of the present.
The second motivation for posterizing has to do with what Appiah calls a space-clearing gesture (In My Father's House 149). When Jencks's architects took up the mantle of postmodernism and used it to demand and praise the distance from modernism that he simply described, the "post" became a way of making room for alternative approaches. This approach, like the first, uses temporal rhetoric to signify a descent relation. But the second, negative assertion has less to do with describing a lack of current uniformity than with establishing distance. The "post" of the space-clearing rejects the assumption of a common project or shared enterprise, while also highlighting the connections and the lines of descent, that make rejection possible and necessary.
The space-clearing approach can motivate the refusal of independent specification in a couple of ways. One appeals to the diversity argument that we have already considered. But another argument recommends itself if we think of this approach by analogy to a child's quest for independence. We respond to our forebears by distancing ourselves from them and establishing our distinctiveness. (In this sense the "post" in "post-modern" and like terms is akin to the "post" in "posterity" (Brian McHale qtd. in Appiah, In My Father's House 141fn14). (4) But it takes time and work to achieve individuality--to find ourselves, as we sometime say. The posterizer's refusal to name the present may be, in a way, an indication that the emerging practice or situation is still trying to establish an identity.
The difficulty of naming an emerging practice leads directly to the third approach to posterizing. This approach begins with a quite general concern about periodization, progressivism, or linearity. The worry is that there is something philosophically suspect, and typically obscurantist, about proceeding as if historical processes present themselves like chapters in a book, neatly labeled, separated into discrete periods, and unfolding in orderly succession. (Hegel might usefully chime in here, reminding us that theory does its work only after the owl of Minerva has flown. But we will come to him soon enough.)
There are many ways to advance this worry about narrativizing history, and we can see a few of them at work in Ihab Hassan's early piece, "POSTmodernISM." According to Hassan, "chronicles of continuity ... deny real change" by enabling diverse and dynamic realities to "fall into place on numbered pages" (383). Change, he wants to say, does not happen in the world the way it happens in stories, and the (nevertheless indispensable) human practice of constructing linear narratives to make sense of things inevitably overlooks, and sometimes prevents, the emergence of real novelty (400). More than this, Hassan suggests, change can make us "inhabitants of another Time and another Space," so that "we no longer know what response is adequate to our reality" (395). Coherence can give way not just to variety or to the indeterminacy of gestation, but also to incoherence.
On this third approach, posterizing's temporal rhetoric is both suspicious and skeptical. It expresses a deep skepticism about our ability to understand some unfolding state of affairs. And it combines this doubt with a suspicion of the impulse to pursue understanding by appeal to temporal categorization. The refusal to name, then, is a way to reject the seductions of periodization. If, as another writer says, "periodizing is the instrument of a particular kind of control, not just reductive--which it is inevitably--but oppressive," and if, in addition, periodizing blinds us to the complete inability of our current conceptual resources to make sense of the present, then the refusal to designate a period makes perfect sense (Reiss 444).
This skeptical and suspicious orientation provides at least two arguments for the refusal of independent specification. The first appeals to a basic conceptual problem: assigning names is a technique of conceptual sorting, and the central point of skeptical posterizing is precisely that we lack the appropriate conceptual resources. That is, we are limited to speaking of P and post-P because the concept of Q is unavailable to us. The second argument is that we need a kind of safeguard against the seductions of facile periodization. The refusal to designate a discrete successor to the period that has come to a close, the insistence on treating the murky present as the continuing aftermath of the (ostensibly) more knowable past, is an important corrective to an impulse that suppresses creativity, novelty, and diversity.
This rudimentary foray into the literature on postmodernism has yielded three basic ways of understanding the refusal of independent specification and the implied end-of-history rhetoric that constitute the posterizing move. I will allow myself the use of some variables, just to make it easier to summarize the discussion. Referring to a state of affairs as "post-P" instead of as "Q" might indicate that (a) there is nothing uniform about the elements of Q except for their common origins in the prior state P; (b) the participants in Q wish to express their distance from P, but without denying its role in shaping them, and without prematurely identifying the theme that unifies the unfolding present; or (c) the conceptual resources that were adequate for P are no help in understanding Q, in light of which naming Q would overstate our cognitive powers and suppress the novelty inherent in Q.
We can see these approaches at work beyond the confines of postmodern theory. Postcolonialism, for example, insists both that colonial conditions continue to shape the contemporary world and that they have given way to something new. But it imagines the new state of affairs in pointedly pluralistic and nonlinear terms. Colonizer and colonized have both become post-colonial, but they have not become the same. Nor have they transcended the colonial situation: they have not stepped out of the towering shadow of the old in the seamlessly progressive way that calls forth a new name. The state of affairs in question is neither colonial nor wholly not-colonial, but post-colonial. Similarly, people like Tommie Shelby speak of the post-civil rights era in part to suggest that the political verities of the 1960s--marching, identity-based solidarity, integration, treating racism as the only cause of material inequality, and so on--are clearly inadequate to the contemporary scene, and that no other single approach has emerged to fill the void. As for the postcolonial theorist, the past casts a long shadow, and the diverse and inchoate present has not organized itself sufficiently to emerge into its own light.
The three approaches to the temporal rhetoric of posterizing also clearly shape the post-soul idea. George's post-soul culture emerges when certain narrow prescriptions about respectable black identity give way to diverse forms of acceptable black identity. The baps, b-boys, bohos, and buppies in whose honor he named one of his books all listen to different kinds of music, wear different clothes, and so on; and though all are black, this means principally that their diverse identities have common roots in a generation of more uniformly black people, and in the soul-era black struggles, both cultural and political to which they owe their freedom. In addition, the soul era earns posterization not just on account of this divergent evolution but also thanks to its indeterminate present. The constitutive dynamics--urban deindustrialization, hypercommoditization of blackness, and so on--seem still to be unfolding, with no obvious endpoint clearly in sight.
For Neal, the connection to postmodern modes of posterization is even more direct. For him, the post-soul condition is the postmodern alternative to, and diversifying of, the form of modernity represented by the soul era's "traditional tropes of blackness" (2-3). Soul culture was countermodern, to be sure, but a form of modernity nonetheless: it claimed, as Appiah would say, an "exclusivity of insight" into the black condition, a typically modern form of arrogance that the post-soul generation flatly rejects. Where soul culture insisted on the seriousness of authenticity and positive images, post-soul culture revels in the contingency and diversity of blackness, and subjects the canon of positive images to subversion and parody--and appropriation.
I have been trying to motivate the temporal rhetoric of the posterizing impulse. This effort has led me to offer some rudimentary reflections along some probably familiar lines of thinking in postmodernist theory. The aim has not been to engage with state of the art theory, but to unpack certain assumptions and arguments that lie behind the enterprise as a whole, and that have made their way into other enterprises. The principal assumption at issue is that it makes sense, for certain purposes, to act as if history has ended--as if there is no way to characterize current conditions except by appeal to what came, and in some sense went, before. This is an assumption about the appropriateness of what I have called temporal rhetoric. And I have identified a few ways of vindicating this assumption: insisting on the variety that results from divergent evolution; establishing distance through conceptual space-clearing, or acknowledging incoherence and accepting radical novelty.
The question now is whether these arguments are sufficient to support the idea of a post-black condition, in either its institutional or transinstitutional forms. The results of the previous section make it possible to refine the questions that emerged from the earlier discussion of the post-black idea. Among those questions were the following: if post-black is the new black, is it really post-black at all? And what has to come to an end for post-blackness to begin? The discussion of posterizing and its (three grades of) temporal rhetoric transmutes those questions into these: has blackness in some sense given way to the kind of diversity that precludes independent specification? Is there something to be gained by establishing distance from blackness? Or are current racial (or, perhaps, postracial) conditions so novel that examining them through the lens of blackness is utterly insufficient?
Before we take up these questions in earnest, there are a couple of preliminary issues to settle. First, which blackness are we talking about? That is to say, whose blackness, in what place or places? As is now commonplace to note, racial ascription and identification proceed differently in different places, which means that assessments of current conditions may produce different results in different geographic settings. And second, just what do we mean by blackness? Clarifying these threshold details will mean providing a preliminary account of the blackness that motivates the post-black reaction.
For Golden's post-black artists, the relevant form of blackness derives from the western art world, and specifically from the US outposts of that world. It limits artists to black influences and black topics, and saddles them with the burden of inhabiting the art world most saliently as Black Artists. So if they do not draw principally on, say, black vernacular cultures, or express perspectives on racialized themes like lynching, slavery, or civil rights, then they aren't black enough to gain entry to the art world on the only terms available to them--as participants in special "diversity" exhibits. These are paradigm cases of racial reasoning, or of constraint by the imperatives of racial authenticity, and they clearly show why Golden's artists might reasonably aspire to some post-black condition.
This art world conception of blackness is not free-standing. It gets its content from the more broadly applicable forms of race-thinking that, like other social meanings, infiltrate the art world from outside. There are many forms of race-thinking in western culture, but most are at least recognizably related to a slightly idealized hegemonic conception. Considering this idealization--in the sense of a Weberian ideal type, not in the sense of a moral ideal--will illuminate the art world conception of blackness and prepare the way for a discussion of the transinstitutional prospects of the post-black idea.
US citizens are meant to have a particular conception of race in mind when we fill out census forms. This conception is currently evolving in ways that make the census problematic (as it always has). But it is stable enough to support meaningful race-specific research into discrimination, wealth stratification, and disparities in health care outcomes. There is considerable disagreement over just what features of the world, if anything, this conception of race actually denotes. Still, it is not hard to agree that the commonsense understanding of race-talk--right or wrong--typically means to pick out human populations whose members satisfy certain minimal criteria for what some call a "thin" racial identity (Mallon 646). (5) These people tend to share certain gross morphological features, and they trace the majority of their ancestors to the medieval populations of Asia, Africa, or Europe. This way of thinking, of course, requires a considerable tolerance for abstraction and generalization, enough to lump together the populations of entire continents, to assume that tracing ancestry is fairly simple business, and so on. But one comes by this tolerance rather easily in a world that has been profoundly shaped, for good and ill, by race-thinking.
On this conception of raciality, blackness is a racial designation, not an ethnic one. We sometimes misleadingly describe the US-born representatives of the black race just as black people. But often enough we call them African Americans, and use the criteria for ethnic identification--cultural affiliation, language, and so on--to distinguish them from other kinds of black people. Things could quickly get much more complicated here, since the US approach to ethnicity is a highly unstable compound of lingering, old-style racialism and halfhearted attempts to reconcile Latin American and North American conceptions of identity. Luckily, there is no need to delve any more deeply into the vagaries of ethnicity. For present purposes it is enough to say that blackness in the United States is a racial category, that it is sometimes used to pick out the ethnic group--the culturally defined proper subset of the race--that we call African Americans.
Finally, we should say that on the hegemonic US conception, thin blackness--the ancestry and appearance in virtue of which one satisfies the minimal criteria for racial identity--gets thickened by attachment to a social location, in a couple of respects. It is first of all, as Anna Stubblefield puts it, a site at which certain norms intersect. Blackness, like other racial positions, is constituted in part by the experience of accepting or fending off the assumption that various norms ought to shape one's career in the world. You know the norms I mean: rules about what to eat, whom to date, how to play basketball, how to talk, what aspirations to form, and so on. To be black is to have one's identity in part constituted by one's response to the ambient pressures of the racial norms that circulate in the social world--whether one accepts the relevant norms or not.
Blackness is also a site at which social forces other than norms intersect. This is the point of statistics on the various gaps between blacks and others. The wealth gap, the achievement gap, the disparities in rates of incarceration and mortality from preventable ailments, and so on, all attest to the fact that blackness is a social location in a second sense. It is a location defined, we might say, by the conjunction of a series of probabilistic statements concerning such things as levels of net financial assets, mortgage rates, proximity of domicile to a hazardous waste site, and so on.
On the view that I have just laid out, racial identity has two parts. It is first of all a matter of having a thin racial identity-- of satisfying certain minimal criteria of genealogy and gross morphology. It is, in addition, a matter of social forces assigning to this thin racial identity certain thicker meanings. Thin and thick racial identities do not always coincide in commonsense sociology, as Shelby has shown: we sometimes complain, for example, that someone with a thin black identity fails to act in ways that earn her a thick black identity (209). But there are standard ways of picking out thin racial identities, assigning thicker meanings to them, and arranging social life around those thicker meanings. These are the practices of racial identification, of which race-thinking, or the appropriation, revision, and use of racial discourse, is one type. (In what follows, I will sometimes use the term race to refer to the entire domain of human endeavor in which racial practices operate.)
Black identity, then, has three aspects. First, to put it crudely, it involves African appearance and ancestry. Second, it involves being subject to the norms that society attaches to the thin identity of African appearance and ancestry. Different subgroups in society will have different conceptions of these norms, but we could without too much trouble construct an idealized set of typical norms, either for specific subgroups or for the hegemonic attitudes in US society as a whole. Finally, black identity involves certain probabilities of experiencing the typical conditions of black life. These conditions include but are not limited to the socioeconomic realities mentioned above.
If blackness gets its content from the forces that make appearance and ancestry meaningful, from the racializing forces that thicken thin identities by linking them with certain social locations, then the post-black condition must involve some kind of emancipation from those forces. That is, if we are to understand the posterizing move on the model of impressionistic postmodernism, with its three grades of temporal rhetoric, then at least one of the following three conditions must obtain for post-blackness to make sense. Either a new pluralism has emerged, and racializing forces no longer play out in the routine ways; a new sensibility has emerged, and black people now seek distance from the "traditional tropes of blackness"; or racial conditions have undergone profound alteration, taking on such novel configurations that our old ideas about blackness provide no guidance.
These conditions are more likely to obtain in the art world than in the wider world. We have already touched on the relevant norms and constraints for art world blackness: for example, thou shalt depict black vernacular cultures; thou shalt appear in elite exhibition spaces only under the auspices of diversity programs, such as black history month programming; and so on. Golden's initial remarks about post-blackness suggest that these norms and constraints are facing vigorous challenges. Black artists now feel and exercise the freedom to explore nontraditional tropes, or to reinterpret the traditional ones; they have wildly diverse influences, backgrounds, ideological orientations, and attitudes about race; and they are welcome and secure in the art world in a way that may be unprecedented. All of this suggests that there is something to the idea of post-blackness as applied to the art world. Whether that suggestion, or the description of the art world on which it is based, actually tracks the facts on the ground is a question best left to those who, like Golden and her interlocutors, have detailed knowledge of how that world actually works.
The impressionistic postmodern arguments for posterizing blackness fare much less well, I think, when generalized beyond Golden's institutional spaces and applied to the wider social world. In fact, each of the three arguments seems to fail. Divergent evolution has not produced more approaches to black identity, most black people seem unwilling to distance themselves from more or less traditional forms of racial identification, and racial conditions have not undergone the kind of startling alteration that makes ideas about blackness irrelevant or mystifying.
We might take George's baps, b-boys, and the rest as evidence that a new pluralism has emerged, that there are more and more acceptable ways of being black now than ever before. But it is not clear that this pluralism is new, or that it has evolved and diverged from a common root. There have always been many ways of being black, shaped by region, class, occupation, theological commitment, sexual orientation, and more. In fact, the culture industries today have conspired to flatten out local variation and sell monochromatic models of blackness so effectively that there may be fewer ways of being black than before. What feels to the post-soul theorists like a new pluralism may really be the refutation of what Adolph Reed calls "the racial vision of the black petite bourgeoisie--a singular class vision projected as the organic ... sensibility of the group as a whole" (47). The sense of greater diversity may simply follow from the uncritical acceptance of an unduly limited narrative of soul culture or civil rights politics, a narrative that focuses on the strivings and self-understandings of some blacks at the expense of the rest. That is, contemporary diversity seems to diverge from a common, unitary root only if we flatten out the diversity that has always existed among African Americans. This sort of flattening has been made possible by, among other things, the cold war constriction of black radical politics, which makes the mid-20th-century civil rights movement and its dominant figures seem to emerge from a vacuum; and the Reagan-era withering of the moral vision and sociological complexity of the civil rights era, in which both black and white elites were complicit.
Similarly, the idea that more people are rejecting the traditional tropes of blackness is less telling than it may seem at first. There are empirical questions here that I am in no position to settle, so let me stipulate to the most favorable case: I assume that more black people are in fact more comfortable doing things that do not seem traditionally "black" than ever before. (Whatever that would be--hiking, speed skating, wearing Birkenstocks, playing golf: whatever.) Even so, vanishingly few of these people seem to approach this nontraditionality as a repudiation of blackness. In fact, the growth of black organizations devoted to introducing black (typically inner-city) children to activities like skiing and golf suggests that what is happening is an expansion of the boundaries of blackness, rather than an attempt to get distance from the category. In addition, most black people still live in largely black communities and still identify as black, and new and newly far-reaching instances of distinctively black popular and civic cultures have recently emerged. I am thinking of Tyler Perry's Ma'Dear franchise, the Original Kings of Comedy concert tour and film, and Tavis Smiley's Covenant tour and book. All have reached mainstream markers of success--Perry's films earned more at the box office than any other films in the US during their opening weekends, and The Covenant was the first book by a black publisher (Africa World Press) to reach the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. And all made their mark almost entirely on the strength of word of mouth in the African American community. Black folks in the US seem not to be seeking distance from blackness.
Finally, conditions seem not to have changed in ways that make concepts like blackness irrelevant. There is considerable insecurity and uncertainty in the wake of the civil rights revolution (and the Reagan counter-revolution), so traditional notions of black politics are unsettled. And the still-growing influence of the critique of biological racialism has complicated traditional notions of identity. But Shelby argues convincingly that a reformulated model of racial solidarity--in particular, of black nationalist solidarity, combined, oddly, with a kind of political liberalism--can make black politics worth preserving. And many people have argued that reformulated concepts of race and blackness are vital resources in the ongoing struggle to identify and respond to racial inequality. That is, race may have declined in significance in the sense that the causes of racial stratification have less than ever before to do with overt exclusion and racism. But it remains profoundly significant in light of the distinctly racialized patterns of disadvantage that result from, for example, the ostensibly race-neutral policies that govern policing and wealth transference.
So far, then, the prospects for a transinstitutional account of post-blackness seem dim. Again, I make no criticism of Golden's initial formulation of the concept, which was in the first instance meant to frame and provoke, and was in the second instance a generalization from certain trends in the art world. I took it on myself to explore the prospects for applying Golden's idea more broadly, so far with little success.
Ending history, Hegel-style
If unpacking the notion of postblackness with the tools of impressionistic postmodernism fails to make good on the promise of the idea, another approach is in order. Richer invocations of postmodern theory might produce better results. But I am encouraged to turn in another direction by recent attempts to recover Hegelian resources for work in analytic philosophy. As noted earlier, the posterizing impulse implies an end of history argument; it assigns backward-looking names to unfolding states of affairs, as if history has somehow come to a close and left something like nostalgia as the only mode of specification. Who better to flesh out an end of history argument than the originator of the form?
Unadulterated Hegelisms would be a bit much to introduce this late in the argument. So I will present them mostly under the interpretations given by contemporary commentators, focusing on one commentator in particular. The philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has famously argued, on broadly Hegelian grounds, that art (mainly painting) came to an end in the twentieth century. Danto says that after working to develop an historicist philosophy of art, he came to see the need for more than this: he found that he had to develop a philosophy of the history of art. It seemed to him that art had in some sense reached its end and entered a post-historical phase, and Hegel, suitably domesticated, provided him with the language to say so (xii).
As Charles Taylor puts it, Hegel thinks of history as the itinerary or biography of a self-positing spirit, or Geist. Just as a seed actualizes its potential by unfolding itself into forms that grow increasingly adequate to its underlying genetic blueprint, reality actualizes its potential by unfolding itself into forms that are increasingly adequate to its underlying animating spirit. This gives history its purpose, leading it in the direction of "realized reason, freedom, and self-consciousness, or rational self-awareness in freedom" (Taylor 88). Art contributes for a time to history's progress, but eventually gives way when other forms of human practice--first religion, then philosophy--reach the stage at which they can do the job more effectively. At this point, as Danto puts it, the energies of art and the energies of history no longer coincide, and art becomes post-historical (84). This does not mean that art ceases to exist; just that it ceases to serve the external purpose prescribed to it by the teleological structure of reality. Art-making will continue, but freed of the burdens of externally-imposed agendas. Now art "is free and can give itself over to the 'adventures of fantasy'" (Taylor 478).
So art's history ends for Hegel when it can no longer do its part to push history forward. Of course, history itself goes on. Geist continues its struggle to become self-aware. This struggle unfolds in the domain of human culture, among the individual humans who are the sentient embodiments of Geist. When we come to see all of reality as an expression of the same rational force that animates us (and when we establish institutions and forms of life that adequately embody and express this force), Geist will have achieved self-knowledge, and history will have reached its end. It is important to understand the idea of self-knowledge in play here. Literally, we must come to see that knowledge of the world is, in a sense, knowledge of self. The seemingly external processes and mechanisms of nature, logic, and so on will stand revealed as products of Geist's restless striving. As Danto puts it, "Spirit as subject grasps the essence of Spirit as object--subject and object become one" (xii.) As before, the end of history in this sense does not mean that activity ceases; it means that life has now completed its historical mission, and can continue freely, without the burden of teleology.
Danto strips away Hegel's grand teleology but keeps the two main ideas just discussed. Art history ends when it diverges from the external history that once provided its purpose; and history in general "ends with the advent of--self-knowledge" (107). These are distinct routes to the end of history idea, with one appealing to historical inadequacy--the inability of some practice to carry history forward--and the other appealing to a closed cognitive circuit--the completion of a quest for self-knowledge in the realization that all knowledge (in the relevant domain) is self-knowledge.
On Danto's view, art history ends in both ways. The history of painting from the Renaissance to the modern period was driven by the goal of "progress in the conquest of visual appearances" (205). But when film and photography reached maturity, the long-standing purpose of "fooling the eye" passed on to other practices, and stood revealed as external to the nature of art. The history that drove art history went down its own path, revealing art's inadequacy. This occasioned the end of art's role in the progress of history, and hence the end of art history. At the same time, art had to reflect on its own nature after losing its presumed purpose. With the advent of modern art, painters and sculptors explicitly started to take the nature of their enterprise as their principal subject. (Think of the work that highlights the artifice of painterly technique, often by turning attention from the consequences of brush-work to the activity of the brush itself. Jackson Pollock, for example.) This innovation collapsed the distance between art and the philosophy of art, and turned the enterprise into a quest for self-knowledge. Art began to evolve by working out different ideas about what it was, and eventually found an answer that closed the cognitive-historical circle: just as world history is the history of Geist's journey to self-awareness, and of Geist positing increasingly adequate worldly embodiments along the way, art history is the history of art's continual reflection on its own nature--of artists producing objects that correspond to their various stages of progress toward true self-consciousness. And when artists figure this out, art history is really over.
If my reading of Hegel and of Danto--or, perhaps better, of Danto's Hegel--is basically right, then it identifies two more ways to motivate the temporal rhetoric of post-talk. We can speak of history coming to an end when a practice ceases to be historically progressive: when it no longer plays a role in moving history toward some goal that is external to the practice. But we can also posit the end of a history when a practice becomes self-aware: when its participants come to see that the history of the practice is the product and embodiment of their own reflection on the practice.
Both routes to the end of history are available to the critical race theorist and, by extension, to students of post-blackness. Western race-thinking has certainly proven itself inadequate to carry forward the histories that originally gave it direction. For most of their history the practices of racial identification, in their hegemonic forms, were driven by goals that we can now identify as external. More precisely, the participants in the practices took themselves--not always, surely, but often enough--to be working toward goals that have turned out not to be interestingly related to race. Race theorists thought of themselves as uncovering the causes of human biological variation and social stratification. And white supremacy's race workers--the architects, managers, and inhabitants of the institutions of white supremacy--took themselves to be establishing a kind of justice, if we understand justice in terms of the old idea of giving people their due. (White people, "we" thought, were better than others, and therefore deserved better treatment. Nonwhites, meanwhile, needed guidance, or discipline, or whatever, and deserved none of the privileges of higher beings.) However, now that classical racialism has given way to critical race theory, race-thinking has been stripped of these illusory goals. Just as painters came to realize that their history was not really about getting better at fooling the eye, race theorists came to realize that their history was not really about explaining the general phenomena of human diversity and social stratification. They saw that it had, in point of fact, been about overruling, appropriating, and distorting other mechanisms for producing diversity and stratification to create new forms of difference and inequality--and about hiding its work by pretending that the social arrangements it helped create were part of the natural order.
Having seen through the illusions of their original sense of purpose, race theorists, like artists, have had to reflect on the nature and future of their enterprise. Different views have emerged, of course, with three deserving special mention. Some argue that race-thinking is obsolete and indefensible, and should give way to some variety of nonracial humanism, universalism, or cosmopolitanism. Others argue that race is a storehouse of social meaning that we can appropriate and play with as we see fit. And others argue that race-thinking remains a useful tool for navigating and understanding the world that previous race-thinking has made. The fact that reasonable people can see race as an atavism, a plaything, or a tool already itself suggests that race-thinking has entered a post-historical phase, a point at which the future of the practice is not assured or clear. In addition, the views themselves present distinct post-historical visions. On the first two approaches, race takes the place of art on Hegel's scheme: having lost its historical mission, it is free to do or be anything, or nothing, without historical consequence. On the last approach, though, race is in the position of Geist. Race theory has come to know itself, and to know its subject of study--racial diversity and stratification--as the material consequence of its own activity. This means that racial history is over, that the cognitive circuit has been closed.
It is important to be clear about the differences between these three post-historical visions. None follows directly or necessarily from the end of racial history. Just as the end of history was not for Hegel the end of the world, the end of racial history is not necessarily the end of racial practices. It is not entirely clear what the end of history meant for Hegel, since in some places he suggested that real novelty and development was still possible, at least in the domain of culture (Beiser 279). But the fact that activity continues post-historically suggests that there are still choices to make, competing courses of action to weigh and evaluate. I have to leave for another occasion the question of the proper response to the post-historical condition of race theory, but I will register my suspicion that lingering problems of deleterious racial conditions, the conditions that race-thinking has come to see as its own doing, require critical race theory for its amelioration.
If it makes sense on Hegelian grounds to speak of a post-racial condition, then it should make sense to speak of a post-black condition. The one would seem to entail the other. Blackness is one of the racial positions that racial ideology uses to do its work, and the norms and forces that constitute it are a function of broader racial conditions. If these broader conditions become historically unmoored, if racial practices in general lose their way and have to cast about for a new vision of their purpose and future, then the racial positions they comprehend must be in the same position.
The Hegelian approach to posterizing blackness has at least two advantages over the approach of impressionistic postmodernism. First and most obviously, it actually enables the posterizing arguments to go through. In addition, though, it makes sense of Golden's earlier remark about post-black being the new black. Far from being a throwaway line or an awkwardly worded point about cultural positioning, the line becomes a gesture at one of the crucial challenges facing the post-black idea. The postmodern approach struggled to reconcile its insistence on retrospective naming with the manifest continuities linking the black and post-black conditions. The Hegelian approach, by contrast, explicitly allows for practices to continue after history ends. Rather than terminating practices, Hegel's end of history changes their contexts, meanings, and significance.
I undertook the argument of this paper to follow a couple of intuitions. The first was that the idea of post-blackness could be of some use outside the boundaries of the art world. The second was that the way to understand this idea was not through the impressionistic postmodernism that, because of its ubiquity in public culture, enables posterizing gestures to pass without close scrutiny. I have tried to develop these intuitions by showing the limitations of the easy postmodernist approach and the virtues of a neo-Hegelian approach.
Danto's reworking of Hegel's aesthetic theory has been my guide in this effort. Danto's example is instructive because it lines up so neatly with the demands of responsible race theory. Many practitioners of critical race theory have tried to develop theories of race with constitutive historical dimensions. But the sense that the history of blackness or of raciality has made a decisive turn, enshrined in the determination to identify a post-black, post-civil rights, or post-soul condition, suggests that something more is available, and perhaps necessary. And Golden's reference to post-black blackness certainly seems to invite an Hegelian interpretation of this something more.
Finally, I hope also to have cleared away some of the concerns about Golden's initial formulation. We have heard from people who worried that being post-black means rejecting one's African heritage, or that "the new black" must be something other than black (for example, "trans-inter-multi-culturalism"). But the neo-Hegelian approach shows that post-black can be the new black, and that it need not jettison the content of the "old" black. Post-blackness is blackness emancipated from its historical burdens and empowered by self-knowledge--the knowledge that race-thinking has helped create the world with which critical race theory and liberatory notions of blackness have to contend.
Appiah, K. Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
--, Amy Guttman, and David B. Wilkins. Color Conscious: The Political Reality of Race. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.
Beiser, Frederick C. "Hegel's Historicism." Cambridge Companion to Hegel. Ed. Frederick C. Beiser. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 270-99.
Byrd, Cathy. "Is there a 'post-black' art? Investigating the legacy of the 'Freestyle' show." Art Papers 26.6 (2002): 34-39.
Danto, Arthur C. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Eversley, Shelly. The Real Negro: The Question of Authenticity in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
George, Nelson. Baps, B-Boys, Buppies, Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
--. Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant, and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans (Previously Known as Blacks and Before That Negroes). New York: Viking, 2004.
George-Graves, Nadine. "Basic Black." Theatre Journal 57.4 (2005): 610-12.
Golden, Thelma. Freestyle. New York: Studio Museum of Harlem, 2001.
Hassan, Ihab. "POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography." 1971. From Modernism to Postmodern: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996. 382-400.
Jencks, Charles. "What is Post-Modernism?" 1986. From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Laurence Cahoone. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2003. 471-80.
Mallon, Ron. "Passing, Traveling and Reality: Social Construction and the Metaphysics of Race." NoDs 38.4 (2004): 644-73.
Murray, Soraya, and Derek Conrad Murray. "A Rising Generation and the Pleasures of Freedom." Special Issue of International Review of African American Art 20.2 (2005): 3-11.
Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Reed, Adolph. Stirrings in the Jug. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
Reiss, Timothy J. "Perioddity: Considerations on the Geography of Histories." MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.4 (2001): 425-52.
Shelby, Tommie. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.
Stubblefield, Anna. Ethics Across the Color Line. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2005.
Tate, Greg. "The Golden Age: An Interview with the Studio Museum's Thelma Golden." Village Voice 46.20 (16-22 May 2001): 49-52.
Taylor, Charles. Hegel Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
(1.) "Terms like 'post-black,' 'post-soul aesthetic' ... are being coined to try and capture what appears to be a distinctive shift in a generation that has grown up after the civil rights era" (Murray and Murray 3).
(2.) Eversley's work may be one of the exceptions to this tendency. Her book published as The Real Negro: The Question of Authenticity in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, bore the title Post-Black in manuscript.
(3.) I have come to the idea of trans-institutionalism from the work of Tommie Shelby, who uses it in a somewhat different context.
(4.) As McHale puts it, to be post-something is to follow from that something as much as to follow after it, and to follow from it in the manner of children (which is to say, of posterity): in a memory-fueled rage for separation and distance.
(5.) Cf. Shelby.
Paul C. Taylor is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, and a founding member of the Jamestown Project at Harvard Law School. His writings explore questions in aesthetics, race theory, Africana philosophy, and social philosophy, and include the book Race: A Philosophical Introduction (Polity, 2004).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Taylor, Paul C.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2007|
|Previous Article:||Theorizing the post-soul aesthetic: an introduction.|
|Next Article:||Post-soul aesthetics in contemporary African American art.|