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  • The Idea of Black Culture
  • Hortense J. Spillers (bio)

A return to the idea of black culture must be considered today in a critical climate that is not hospitable to the topic, even though hospitality and accommodation have never been attributes of the context in which the idea was either engendered or understood. An aspect of the problematic for the investigator, then, is to get in sight a horizon of inquiry that will enable, if not necessarily vouch for, a project that is, by very definition, anachronistic from several points of view. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a powerful repertory of refusals that make the topic a virtual impossibility now blocks one's view: (1) the recession of the subject, historical and otherwise; (2) a dimensionless present, on an analogy with television; and so, (3) the impoverishment of history; (4) the decline of the concept and practices of the nation-state, except that current U.S. foreign policy, the dramatic rise of post-Soviet states, and China's sensational emergence on the contemporary world stage would all urge a serious rethinking of such claims; (5) the "exhaustion of difference"; (6) the new impulses of a globalization so complete, we are led to believe, that locality, or the "local" itself, apparently vanishes as a discrete moment of [End Page 7] perception; and paradoxically, (7) an Afrocentric conceptual space that so collapses the distance between a putative African Diaspora and the cultures of the African Continent that little differentiation is interposed between them. Any coeval attempt, then, to revise the project of black culture as a conceptual object and as a practical devise toward the achievement of social transformation must confront these fully blown symptoms of impediment that appear to have surged up from the reactive forms of the post-1960s world.

One of the symptoms that I have identified here—"the exhaustion of difference"—along with the rest of the repertoire, might be taken as a feature of the critical framework that enables such a project as this one, at the same time that it significantly alters the topic away from the binaristic impulses that might have inspired the question in the first place. Published in 2001, Alberto Moreiras's The Exhaustion of Difference, the title that I have purloined here, inquires into the epistemic conditions that would make it possible to situate Latin-Americanist cultural studies (Moreiras 2001). We might linger here a moment because this text offers a brilliant synthesis of theoretical reflection on the new epistemes, among which I would locate the inquiry I am embarked on, and which runs parallel, as an instance of an emergent social formation in discourse, to the one that I have in my sights. Furthermore, it poses the kind of resistance that a project like "the idea of black culture" must answer. One of the crucial demonstrations that The Exhaustion of Difference carries out, in its exemplarity, is the dancing the value of dialectical engagement applied as a brake to closural motions along a trajectory of conceptual points: this interminable motion has its drawbacks, as well, not the least of which is its tedium, perhaps another rendering of "exhaustion," but the reward here is that the split between positions—that scissiparous effect that is false, in truth—is avoided as the case unfolds. The challenge, then, to mount the division and ride it, rather than repose in any particular nuance, can never be entirely won, but the effort is worth the expense and identifies precisely the kind of problematic that the new epistemes have wanted to tackle; the process of dialogic or dialectical movement between punctualities also suggests that analysis often proceeds from the position-taker driving her point against another [End Page 8] that is, perhaps, only the reverse of her putative own, or its complement, or one peremptory side of a split that could possibly be sutured with an apparent other, if a dialogical rhythm or current could be created and sustained between the m. Dialogism in this instance might arrest the advance of the "straw man."

One of the other most persistent refusals of black cultural conceptualization is, ironically enough...


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