Wanted: Identity Outlaws (dead or alive, but preferably alive)

last revised 10/18/07

bell hooks' essay "Postmodern Blackness" is, in a nutshell, about what it could mean to be a decentered subject, and I would say a decentering artist, in and outside of academia, a subject that "eschew's essentialist notions of identity" (Yearning 19) and I would also say of art.  

Of course one of the main projects of her essay is to chastise academic (poststructuralist) elites and feminist writers for talking about Otherness, but then too often completely ignoring black women artists, for rendering blacks "invisible with their gaze in all areas of daily life" (25, par. 6).  Reading hooks is always a good reminder to analyze our own essentializing racisms and sexisms. 

hooks is also talking about postmodernism which can sometimes be used as a catch phrase for postructural theories as well as specific artistic movements after WWII, both of which focus on the "eschewing" of essentialism, of norms, if you will, a disruption of what we are taught is "normal."  This word is highly problematic for postmodern thinkers because it is often used in harmful binaries.  Normal is __________?  So anything outside that is __________?

I like to look at gender and race binaries (or other forms of colonization) with students to try and unpack the harmfulness of so called norms (which are really simplifying stereotypes).

  • pure
  • innocent
  • dark
  • shadowy
  • assertive
  • passive
  • normal
  • biblical
  • abnormal
  • anti-Christian

hooks' essay is also calling for all marginalized peoples, but in particular "black folks," to think about their potentially outlawed identities, marginalized identities that are "outside" white, heterosexual, capitalistic patriarchy.  She's basically saying that by living constantly with a complex, outsider identity, one can disrupt the seemingly entrenched norms or stereotypes of race and gender (merely by walking in to a room, even).

hooks' own name is a postmodern disruption, a pen name that doesn't use capital letters, a name that belonged to her grandmother, a created, outlaw identity for the Kentucky born Gloria Watkins to use as a daily disruption of norms.

Of course, hooks' essay also acknowledges the way "black folk" respond to the idea of disruption.  "'Yeah, it's easy to give up identity, when you got one.'" (28, par. 9).  This is often an issue for any marginalized people who have been suffering under erasure and oppression, who have been told who they are which is often merely the opposite of white, patriarchal norms.  This is the case for "black folk," for women, for queers, for the disabled, for the elderly, for the poor.

hooks quotes Audrey Lorde, a famous black, lesbian poet and activist: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," (19), yet co-optation by the "master" is, for many, inevitable, and is one of my central concerns with identity and art.

Michael Berube, a cultural critic, talks about how art that might have once been disruptive, like the movies of David Lynch, or hip hop musicians like Grand Master Flash (now considered "Old School"), both very active, and very outlaw in the 1980's, eventually end up getting co-opted by popular culture.  No one who saw Lynch's Eraserhead or even Blue Velvet would have ever imagined him having a television show (Twin Peaks).

I like to think about the cooptation of second wave feminism of the 1970's (with their myriad Identity Outlaws burning bras) with this Enjoli perfume ad (that is co-opting a Peggy Lee song): "I can bring home the bacon.  Fry it up in a pan.  And never let you forget you're a Man.  Cuz I'm a W-O-M-A-N with Enjoli."  The ad has a Superwoman, hyper feminist message while at the same time selling hetero sex (and a good dose of , a definite no no for second wavers.  When something as outlaw as feminism can be so quickly co-opted (and also become so quickly famous, much more famous than any writing by Betty Freidan or Gloria Steinem or bell hooks), I have to ask the question, how can one really be an identity outlaw?

hooks tells us that acknowledging our diverse range of experiences, affirming "multiple black identities" rather than a singular, and falsely co-opted "Black Experience" (established by the "master"), is the key to disruption or decolonization, is the key to being outlaw (28, par. 11).  I like to look at examples of outlaw characters in popular culture, like Quentin Tarrantino's Jackie Brown, the hero being an aging black woman (who is, yes, a criminal, and who still, yes, knows how to use her "feminine" charms, but who wins in the end even though she doesn't take her romantic interest with her in to the sunset).

The queer theorist Judith Butler pushes the complexity of this when she says the subject is not "prediscursive" which basically means our identities do not come before the ideological language we were born in to, and that we will inevitably repeat gender norms (given to us by the "master"), that we are always already inscribed by compulsory subjectivities like heterosexuality (or blackness, or womanhood).  Butler says, however, that this forced repetition of "norms" is exactly where we can disrupt normativitity, "through a radical proliferation of gender" (Gender Trouble 188-89).  Popular culture examples here would include Hedwig (from the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the punk rock, post-communist, drag queen, partially post-surgical transexual gay guy.  I also like the proliferation of gender in the movie Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink), which is about a very young boy who "naturally" dresses like a strange emo girl (and how this disrupts parents all through the neighborhood).