Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations.
by bell hooks Routledge Press, 260 pp, $15.95 paperback
by Opal J. Moore
Cultural critic and scholar bell hooks opens her collection of essays, Outlaw Culture, with a reminder of the presence of children in the world and of the necessity of keeping them present in the lives and thoughts of any intellectual who wants intelligence to be more than brainy showmanship. In the opening essay, hooks explains how the pursuit of rewards in the academy effectively removed children from her life but how, upon moving to a small town and renting a "large old house with plenty of bats ... children just walked back into my life." One day she finds herself and two little Black girls looking at a Jacob Lawrence painting, "The Lovers," and doing a cultural critique of the elements of the painting. hooks tells us, "Already they know that red is a color for seduction and desire .... Already they know about color caste, about the way dark black color makes one less desirable. Connecting all these pieces we find a way to understand Jacob Lawrence, desire and passion in black life."
In this vignette, hooks explains to the children and to any skeptical reader the centrality and importance of her goals as a critic -- to examine our cultural products as representations that contribute to or deconstruct the ongoing process of mental colonization that keeps us trapped in structures of oppression. The importance of having the little Black girls come to understand Lawrence's depiction of Black love (and the relationship of that story to themselves) is plainly apparent. The importance of providing "a pedagogical process firmly rooted in education for critical consciousness" for the reading of culture and the freeing of minds becomes equally apparent.
hooks believes that interrogations of popular culture can be a "powerful site for intervention, challenge and change" in the process of freeing the minds of the children beset and confused by the bombardment of images. She also aims to uncover the "voyeuristic cannibalization of popular culture" by opportunistic intellectuals involved in "masturbatory mental exercise[s] that... merely mimic in a new way old patterns of cultural imperialism and colonialism." The children seem to be her motivation; her goal identifies her targets.
hooks explores the figure of pop star Madonna and how she transforms her subversive persona that had, initially, threatened to transgress all expectations of the "good girl" into an anti-radical, antifeminist exploitative perversion of territories of sexual/racial difference. hooks explores how depictions of sex and nudity -- often mistakenly read as boundary breaking -- can in fact obscure the perpetuation of stereotypical usages of the "other," i.e. images of the Black, the gay, the lesbian, etc.
In "Spike Lee Doing Malcolm X," hooks uses the disturbing double entendre in her title to extend the sexual subtext of exploitation that she introduced in the opening Madonna essay into her commentary on the perversion of Malcolm's story. She begins by backgrounding an unfortunate feature of cultural marginalization: how the Black populace protects the commodification of blackness by censoring rigorous critique of Black art products. She cites filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who notes that this is the danger presented by a censoring public. He observes that many Black moviegoers are so grateful for any depiction of a Black historical figure or subject matter they feel only anger when these products are subjected to any form of criticism.
Spike Lee seems to hide behind such reactionary, non-critical adulation, feeding his admirers empty radical rhetoric that obscures his own selling out of the man he intends to raise to iconic abstraction. …