Thursday, September 20, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 45 (Masking ethnomusicologists edition)

Reading a really good dissertation on my painter as a translator of pre-Civil War racial attitudes. It's good, not least because it forces me to articulate how and why what I'm doing is different. Herewith:

This dissertation, like so many other studies of blackface minstrelsy, does not recognize the bodily joy that participation in African-American musicking could create. Like so many others, this is a rather essentialist reading, which assumes that participation in these arts must be understood as operating from ulterior socio-political-communitas purposes. Of course this is true: it is fair to say that public performance always implicates motives, allusions, subtexts, and issues of cultural power. But to argue that public performance is only focused upon this ulterior motives and meanings fails to sufficiently recognize that pleasure in the participatory motions of bodies was (a) a fundamental part of African and African-American performance, (b) powerfully attractive as a target of not only observation but also imitation and participation, and (c) directly as a result of its attraction, powerfully subversive. Middle-class and aestheticist derogation of working-class and minority art forms was precisely a political response to the liminal “threat to order” which these art forms represented. This is what Elvis, stock-car racing, black transvestism, and hip-hop were about—they were participatory, transgressive, illicit, body-integrative, sexual, and thus powerfully attractive. And thus massively threatening.

Various authors have recognized that blackface minstrelsy was in part a strategy that allowed working-class whites and youth to simultaneous aspire to and mock the pretensions of the middle class. What none of these authors have articulated is the next insight: that the “minstrel mask’s constructed whiteness” might itself be based upon the playful trickster masks of African and African-American culture. Lott and Lhamon recognize the ways that blackface minstrels took on burnt-cork as a “mask” in order to make social critique (cf Inside the Minstrel Mask etc) but, perhaps because they don’t have a deep understanding of African performance arts, they don’t recognize sufficiently the degree to which such masking, imitation, satire, and allegorical mockery was an African retention. There is no question that satire and mockery were part of European carnival. But imitation a la the cakewalk was an African and African-American province and contribution. Surely these early blackface practitioners, who I have suggested made legitimately be regarded as the first urban ethnomusicologists, were cognizant of the African tradition of caricature? Surely they learned that also from their informants?

This is a strange presumption: that the process of construction (as a process, independent of the particular racist content) must be originating with white imitators—it does not recognize that perhaps the process of construction could be an Africanism that was itself attractive to and borrowed by whites. The “blackness” that was being imitated was itself already a synthetic construction—this is the point of what happened to different ethnic groups when brought from Africa: they created a pan-African syncretic culture in America.

In the case of my painter, to identify the complexities and the contradictions in his racial attitudes and representations can be informative but it is not the focus of my investigation—it is rather background. For my purposes, assessing motive is a secondary consideration, to be considered to the extent that it distorts evidence. I am interested only secondarily (or tertiarily) in motive—I am much more interested in data. Because the analyses of motive by Cockrell, Lhamon, Lott, Scott, et al are so good, I am liberated to look at the data, in this crucially under-documented period and topic.

The dissertation provides useful articulations of the ways in which middle-class racial constructions in the antebellum North were untenable, but he falls short of considering the direct aesthetic appeal of the art form. He locates the internal contradictions in these elitist attitudes, but fails to recognize the single most significant factor subverting elitism: the powerful and seductive attraction of the performance itself. This is why cultural arbiters were at pains to derogate working-class performance: because its attraction to working-class (and selectively, middle-class persons) had to be attributed to something illegitimate: this is why they denied aesthetic quality, why they claimed that bodily pleasure was unacceptable, why they created a canon in the first place. It is an untenable position: in the face of the demonstrable, pleasurable bodily and participatory experience of African-American performance, those with an investment in maintaining racist categories had to find other rationales for derogation.

Most authors seem to use my painter to understand the complex conflicts of racial and class constructions in antebellum North. I want to use him as a witness to complex musical, cultural, and performative interactions. This is a crucial distinction: others care about his attitudes; I care about his accuracy.

Below the jump: a few "this friggin' hotel is driving me crazy, gimme some fresh air, some wetlands, some seafood, and a banjo" photos:

Now playing: Barbecue Bob - Going Up The Country

No comments: