We Real Kitsch: bell hooks on the Black Male
Review by Ralph Dumain
While I normally do not rush out to read the latest book by bell hooks, the combination of a recent conversation on the subject in question and some time to kill for light reading led me to take up We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. [*] I must underline in advance that what follows is not essentially a critique of the race pornography industry or public black intellectuals. Rather, this book and its subject matter serve as an example of a general problem that plagues this society: the relation between intellectual work, popular education, and political movements. I am deeply at the odds with how the left conceives of intellectual work and popular education, and I need to articulate what irks me so. Bell hooks may serve as an example of the problem.
If I were a politically correct artificial intelligence program, I would be stymied trying to pinpoint what is wrong with this book. There are only a few instances in which hooks says something demonstrably stupid. Taking her arguments piece by piece, I would find it hard indeed to pinpoint where I disagree. Most of her discrete assertions and the social forces she holds responsible hold up, yet put together with her overall rhetoric and framing of the problem, there is something about the package that is pretentious, false, and ultimately kitsch. How can I pinpoint where the problem lies?
First, these are the overarching, interrelated thematic problems I sense in her work: (1) framing of identity in terms of political identity rather than human identity (i.e. identifying oneself as a member of a movement rather than in relation to the social totalitythe cardinal sin of the stupid provincial left intellectual), (2) appealing to the reader to identify with a movement subculture comparable to bell's rather than with his own human situation generically conceived, (3) casting the argument as a political self-help 12-step program (i.e. acting like an activist version of Oprah). These are three ways of saying almost the same thing. Put together, though, they help to bring into relief what makes this book so jarringly kitschy.
I must of course provide some illustration of what I mean. First, hooks repeatedly casts the black men who manifest the deplorable gendered self-concept she criticizes as the brainwashed victims of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She is correct to do so, yet there is a false note somewhere in her harmonic progression. Where is the problem? I think it lies in the way she appeals to identity in opposing this. Blacks are cast as victims deluded into imitating the values of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as if they essentially belong to some other agenda they were hijacked from. Hooks is of course aware that the male identity problem she identifies is both a universal and a particular one: the gender problem is a universal one, and the double bind that American black males have been put into is a specific historical problem that compounds what would otherwise be a generic problem. However, one gets the feeling that there are two entities at war here, the authentic black male, and the inauthentic black male as the product of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But what could the authentic black male possibly be other than a (male) human being plain and simple, or what could he have been before becoming tainted with white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? Hooks would never be so foolish to suggest recovering a pre-modern African male identity, which would hardly agree with her feminism. So how would this deprogrammed identity define itself? The problem is that it is defined in terms of what it opposes. But there is something about this that seems contrived. It's like the case of a 400-pound woman who claims to have purged herself of an inferiority complex about being fat and proves it by parading around on a TV talk show in a bikini. The tasteless ostentation of such a gesture undermines the confidence of the audience that she has really liberated herself from her complex.
But this is how hooks appeals to her audience, in the propagandistic language of black feminism, akin to the clever imbecility of Cultural Studies. The rhetoric is like designer labels applied to political identity, the kente cloth of historical awareness, the bad ranting poetry sputtered by black people on open mikes in DC (the tackiest, most insipid poetry ever composed in human history). Is there anything intrinsically wrong with being a black feminist? On the face of it, no. Concretely, the contents of such a doctrine may be unimpeachable; the problem lies in the labeling, packaging, positioning, posturing, and marketing of a category. It is bourgeois, "new class", a form of professional specialization, a spinnot universal, but fetishistic and ideological, opaque to its own pomposity and tackiness. Kitsch.
And this is just how left intellectuals think all the time. Never respecting people's intelligence or the totality of their social being, but always trying to recruit and propagandize, trying to squeeze people into their squalid little subcultures.
And this approach always renders the propagandist naive and gullible. Hooks' claim that Muhammed Ali represented an alternative conception of black masculinity gives the word "idiocy" a fresh resonance. Her charge that the prosecution of OJ was a legal lynching (62) is nothing short of ridiculous. While she is generally perceptive about the shortcomings of the black power advocates and nationalists of the '60s, she slips up occasionally, taking Stokely Carmichael more at face value than he deserves. She also gravitates to the kitsch of other black cultural propagandists, such as Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee) (44).
bell hooks' style of race-based argumentation is a variant on the theme: we shouldn't fight one another but enjoin the common enemy. This is a supremely naive argument, especially if one intends to confront the mentality of the lumpenproletariat. It reminds me of a friend in my home town who once got us within a hair's breadth of getting killed as he parked his van just as a street confrontation between black and Puerto Rican gangs was brewing. His argument to me was: somebody should tell them they are fools fighting one another when they are both being played by the rich. I said: if you told them that, they'd kill you in an instant.
One of the most telling traces of hooks' clueless propagandism is her treatment of black anti-intellectualism. She identifies the class structure, class hostility, and reaction to the frustration of opportunity as the culprit, but nothing within black culture itself. Tellingly, with the exception of two stray passing references to religious fundamentalism in relation to gender roles (117, 127), she is 100% silent about the lobotomizing role of the black church, the most malignant agent of black anti-intellectualism. In this too is to be found the telling racial provincialism and pandering and identity-mongering that frame the book.
It is not just mediocre black public intellectuals but the left as a whole that deals with people in this way. The left treats the development of people and their minds like ciphers: all considerations are extrinsic, instrumental, and manipulative. Blacks are treated like collective symbols of rebellion, like pieces on a game board. The same applies to racial brokers like Cornel West and Skip Gates. What is most needed to function as a mediator and power broker is the suppression of the individual perspective. (This is why so many contemporary racial power brokers in academia gang up on Richard Wright in their scholarship.) The combination of the left intellectual with the bourgeois academic intellectual enhances the worst mental habits of both. (But then the left intellectual is just a bourgeois intellectual with a slight twist.) These peopleespecially in matters of culturepurport to enlarge people's perspectives, but they pander to everything that works to keep people small. The left is partially an enabler of popular enlightenment, but it is also a major obstacle that must be removed.
Naturally, some of the original readers of this piece were stymied by it. Naturally, because they embody some of the very bad mental habits I oppose. This is how I responded to objections.
When writing a book trying to get people to examine their assumptions and change their outlook, is it necessary or even desirable to argue: you must join my movement? Is it necessary to insist: define yourself in terms of a movement rather than in terms of your alienated mainstream social existence? But how is a movement in the USA anything other than another alienated category, just another subculture? To get people to understand their condition, to get a different sense of who they are, why appeal to collective-unity statements at all? Why assume that people need you to organize them? And I'm not necessarily speaking in general, but with specific reference to the current state of American society. It is simply assumed, with reference to black people, that the manipulation of racial categories is how to appeal to black people. The multibillion-dollar entertainment industry has of course been highly successful with this approach. Yet there is a whole deeper layer of human experience buried beneath the hype, pretense, and conventions of self-presentation; there are things that people really feel but can't admit. I say the left has nothing to say about this deeper layer of human experience and is organized against it.
And I want to tell you something else: you must remember that the left press has a readership that penetrates beyond its own organizing circles, that includes people who share the same concerns but spend the bulk of their time living out their miserable existence trying to survive in mainstream society without the luxury of joining anyone's circle jerk. And many of these people are more class conscious than any left proselytizer will ever be, casting a cold, hard eye on the 'new class' arrogance of people who jet-set around the world boohooing about other people's misery but have no conception of how to treat people they actually know.
[*] Hooks, Bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2004. xvii, 162 p.
Written 13, 14, 19 April 2004; revised 21 April 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved. Further publication prohibited without consent of author.
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