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  • Black Modernisms / Black Postmodernisms
  • Russell A. Potter
Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan UP/ UP of New England)
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Harvard UP)

The mid-nineties are unquestionably a signal point in the development of the cluster of intellectual and political movements that move variously under the banners of Postmodernism, Cultural Studies, Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and American Studies. In one sense, they have been almost too successful in gaining academic currency—some academics, it seems, have embraced them before they even quite knew what they were, happily tacking these new rubrics over the departmental doorframe in hopes that they would work the magic of keeping up with the theoretical Joneses. And yet, at the same moment, these new fields have been attacked with unusual virulence by such veterans of the academy-bashing circuit as Roger Kimball and Shelby Steele. Black Studies, both in the U.K. and the U.S., has in particular felt this crisis, continuing to serve as a favorite target for the self-declared traditionalists even while it comes under pressure from newer “Studies” competing for the same academic niches. Earlier debates, such as those over the questions of canon and curriculum, are now overshadowed by far deeper and more ominous rumblings, as internal divisions have erupted in an academic left that was perhaps never as unified as its conservative critics liked to believe. And, just to turn up the flame a little higher, college and university budgets have begun to shrink, forcing many of the new generation of academic mavericks and activists into arguments over who will get how big a slice of the dwindling pie—or who will get no slice at all. The distant laughter of the conservative critics of the academy adds a sense of lurking despair to this morose game of musical chairs.

Meanwhile, back in the “cultures” that these fields ostensibly study, the wheel of new subcultural formations and their commodified doppelgangers has been spinning with increasing speed. While this acceleration has been marked in rapid changes in video, film, multimedia, and hypertext, one of the most visible sites of change has been music; yesterday’s rhythms of revolution are today’s pricey national concert tours, and tomorrow’s instant retrocompilation CD’s. Under such circumstances, academics who cast their hats into the ring of “popular culture” or “cultural studies” had best be prepared for a fast-forward free-for-all; if they emerge with something more than a handful of someone else’s hair, they probably ought to get some sort of medal. The battered academic Volvo suddenly finds itself caught between sound-system-loaded Jeeps blaring Ice Cube on the one side and air-conditioned Lexuses with the radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh on the other. It’s culture wars with a vengeance, and yet it’s also a time when there is an opportunity, however fleeting, for voices from within the academy to perform potent acts of cultural translation, acts which, even if they can’t resolve the cacophony, can at least articulate what’s at stake, and perhaps finally break through the strained dichotomies between “intellectual” and “popular” culture, and perhaps even take account of the interpenetration of such categories. That, after all, was supposed to be one of the benefits of the post-structuralist critiques that pried open this door in the first place; it seems strange that, a generation after Barthes, people should still be discovering the mythologics of culture as though this were something never heard of before.

A large part of the problem lies, ironically, in the very discourses post-structuralism has deployed to describe itself. As bell hooks put it back in the first issue of Postmodern Culture:

The contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience, one that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge. If radical postmodernist thinking is to have a transformative impact then a critical break with the notion of “authority” as...

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