Theory | Contextual Analysis

Here is a short analysis of some key texts which have really influenced my practical work and thought processes over the course of the previous semester and gives insight to the ideas I'm hoping to communicate through my work in this coming project. In it, I discuss Cultural Identity and Diaspora by Stuart Hall,  The Problem of Speaking for Others by Linda Alcoff and The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

Cultural Identity and Diaspora is a essay by media theorist Stuart Hall, where he describes the emergence of ‘Third Cinema’ in the Caribbean. ‘Third Cinema’, which is traditionally used to describe the Latin American film moment of the 1960s and 1970s, describes the how at the time this new industry publicly denounced the the use of political, economic, cultural, and other pressures which the Hollywood industry placed on Latin American film. Hall uses this phrase as a way to describe the emergence of the rapidly developing film industry in the Caribbean. The development allows Caribbean people of Afro (and Asian) decent to be at the focal point of and subject of a traditionally structured narrative, but this in itself raises questions as to the identity of the subject as Hall puts it

“Who is this emergent, new subject of the cinema? From where does he/she speak? Practices of representation always implicates the position from which we speak or write- the positions of enunciation.”

Hall goes on to discuss the contemporary theories surrounding enunciation which suggest that the way in which we speak or generally articulate our thoughts ‘in our own name’ is derived from our own personal experiences.

“nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never identical, never exactly in the same place.”

This is an issue which is also highlighted by Linda Alcoff in her text, The Problem of Speaking for Others where Alcoff explains to us how those in positions of privilege cannot effectively understand any individual who is from a different or lower ‘social location’ and that understanding is solely constructed based on how said individual preserves the context. Alcoff goes on to argue that an individual can never hope to fully understand or truly empathise with a topic if said individual is of a higher social location (Alcoff 1991). This corresponds with Halls opening argument.

Hall goes on to question how we view identity suggesting that the concept is in fact much less ‘transparent’ and there much more problematic than generally perceived. Hall discusses the idea of seeing identity as a work in progress.

“Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, we should think instead of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process and always constituted within and not outside representation.”

This idea of seeing identity as a ever evolving progressive concept is also supported by the ideas posed by social theorist Michel Foucault (1980) who argues that an individuals self identity is an abstract concept which is never permanent facts but simply just a product of imagination. This would therefore imply that an individual has the ability to change and develop their self-identity. Foucault tells explains to us that how you perceive an individuals personal identity, is based on how they interact with you at any given time, that it is therefore forever adapting and evolving. (Foucault 1980). Hall goes on to explain how this view create problems to the ‘very authority and authenticity’ how how we legitimise cultural identity.

Hall then continues by introducing his intentions of the essay, he describes is a ‘open dialog and investigation’ into the concept of cultural identity as well as the process of representation itself. He follows by explaining his own position, he says

“the ‘I’ who write here must also be thought of as, itself, ‘enunciated’. We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific.”

This adds further context to the writing and enables us as the audience to gain better understanding of the authors own social location. He describes himself as being the product of a lower middle class Jamaican family of who spent his entire duration of his adult life living in the United Kingdom. Hall also talks about the ‘diaspora experience’ and its ‘narratives of displacement’ is the notion of the on going experience of a feeling of a, how he puts it, displacement within a self identity which is effectively caused by being a product of the diaspora. This idea is one I hope to further explore within my own writing.

Hall introduces us to multiple ways of addressing cultural identity, the first of which is by addressing the identity of a culture in terms of one singular identity. He breaks down the first method as the process of seeing cultural identity as a single shared culture.

“The first position defines ‘cultural identity’ in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective”

He explains that his idea of, as he puts it, ‘oneness’ which underlies all other differences which he critiques as being ‘superficial’ which vary from person to person, stating that the connections which these individuals have with history reflects the true ‘essence of caribbean-ness’, of the ‘black experience’. Hall goes on to state the importance of understanding the history, which in this example is synonymous with age identity must be discovered by the diaspora before being able to express any form of representation.

Hall goes on to explain that this understanding of cultural identity has played a crucial part in what he describes as other post-colonial struggles. Therefore implying at this proposed process of understanding can be abled to other cultures outside of the Caribbean. He refers to ‘Negritude’, which is described as the fact or indeed to quality of being of black African decent. He also references the Pan-Africanism which which is the bringing together of African defendants on a global scale. PanAfricanism is said to have it origins in the fight against enslavement and colonisation. (Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem). Hall says that

“It continues to be a very powerful and creative force in emergent forms of representation amongst hitherto marginalised peoples”

Here he refers to Frantz Fanon’s writing on post-colonial societies and the discovery of identity, he uses Fanon’s observations to explain the way colonisation or rather the colonises themselves stripped an entire people of their cultural memory in turn giving further context to the origins of the feeling of displacement rooted in the diaspora experience which Hall introduces in the start of the essay.
“Colonisation is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all from and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns into the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.”

This is an extremely emotive quote which again expresses the feelings which correspond with the ‘diaspora experience’. It also slightly changes the tune of the text, although Hall does continue to refer to his own experiences he has sustained a much lighter tone, perhaps in an attempt to in some way remain impartial?

Hall goes on to argue that these observations posed in Fanon’s writings are actually new forms of ‘cultural practice’, amongst post-colonial societies. But how can this be related to the production of cinema? Hall talks about the ‘unearthing’ of truths of which where once ‘buried and overlaid’ by the colonial oppressors and the bringing the attention to the lesser known atrocities of colonial times. He talks about how the production of cinema in the Caribbean can be used as a tool to retell the past.

Hall talks about the act and importance of ‘imaginative rediscovery’ calling it the very conception essential to what the rediscovery of identity entails. He explains that the reemergence of ‘hidden histories’ has informed other important social movements in modern times, he lists ‘feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist’ movements. He references the work of Jamaican born photographer Armet Francis and how his work looks at the retelling of colonial history. Hall describes his work as being

“testimony to the continuing creative power of this conceptions of identity within the emerging practices of representation. Frances photographs the peoples of The Black Triangle, taken in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and the UK, attempt to reconstruct in visual terms ‘the underlying unity of the black people whom colonisation and slavery distributed across the African diaspora.”

He concludes with descriptions the artists work as a visual ‘reunification’ of a peoples builds a vivid example of how such a ‘imaginative rediscovery’ can take place in a visual sense, he again links this to ‘the experience of dispersal and fragmentation’ which is, again, the feeling of displacement created by the diaspora. He talks about how this unification is important as it depicts Africa has the heart of the imagery, which is of course in contrast to how colonial maps of the time would represent Britain as the centre, most important aspect.

All of this is again used by the author to reinforce the necessity of the oppressed people having means to create representation of their own enunciate. This is also something I hope to further discuss in both my dissertation and practical projects during my final year.
— Parys Gardener

Parys Gardener

I’m a Bristolian studying illustration and visual communication in London and I like to base my work around both everyday experiences as well as documenting  my journey through life as a black woman of Jamaican decent. I’m interested in identity, sociology and culture and work across a range of mediums.