The Dirty Dozens

Terence Hawkes

  • Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars by Henry Louis Gates
    Oxford, 199 pp, £15.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 19 507519 6
  • The Alchemy of Race and Rights by Patricia Williams
    Virago, 263 pp, £7.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85381 674 4

We haven’t been allowed to forget that 1994 has brought the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. But their sound and fury masked another, no less fateful event whose anniversary we will probably not be asked to remember. As the Italian campaign of 1943 slowed to a painful crawl, the British found themselves more and more dependent on the Americans both to maintain it and to mount any effective invasion of Northern France in the following year. No conclusive Churchillian thrust into the soft underbelly of Europe remained on the cards. And so at this point, just 50 years ago, the balance of the world decisively shifted. The United States took over the role of premier Western power and it began to dawn on British politicians and their generals that the game was finally up. In any case, Roosevelt had already made it quite clear that the price of the United States’s entry into the war in Europe was that the British should give up their empire. In consequence, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out in his matchless Blood, Class and Nostalgia (1990), the British underwent a massive and soul-gelding relegation. Harold Macmillan’s remark that ‘these Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go’ was never anything but whistling in the dark.

Fifty years on, the tune of choice for any remaining whistler would be less likely to be ‘The Anniversary Waltz’ than ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made.’ For one of the central domestic questions now facing the new Romans is how to become truly American. Broader, complex matters, involving way of life, language, cultural inheritance and historical and political perceptions of the world at large, are obviously at stake, and in their engagements with these, both Henry Louis Gates and Patricia Williams offer despatches from various front lines of what have been called the ‘culture wars’. What is at stake is the meaning of the term ‘America’, and Gates and Williams take their place among a growing number of African-American academic foot-soldiers who see themselves currently leaping from their landing-craft to confront an entrenched and ruthless enemy.

Gates wisely hits the beach under a protective barrage of scholarly references and sources, deftly deployed. An initial outflanking movement proves immediately successful, drawing as it does on V.F. Calverton’s judgment of 1929 that, in respect of black contributions to American art and literature,

it is no exaggeration whatsoever to contend that [they] are more striking and singular in substance and structure than any contributions that have been made by the white man to American culture. In fact, they constitute America’s chief claim to originality in its cultural history ... The white man in America has continued, and in an inferior manner, a culture of European origin. He has not developed a culture that is definitely and unequivocally American. In respect of originality, then, the Negro is more important in the growth of American culture than the white man.

The nonchalant audacity of this helps reinforce Gates’s somewhat cannier argument that the forces characterising American culture have never been solely white. This partly accounts for those anxieties concerning the configuration of a ‘national’ culture that lend debates about pluralism and multiculturalism in the United States their specific academic edge. In Europe, the flowering of nationalistic passions encouraged by economic decline and the collapse of Communism generates battles on the streets, rather than university campuses.

In the United States, by contrast, the urgency with which Black or African-American Studies have been promoted since the Sixties has turned the humanities syllabus – indeed literary studies at large – into an arena in which culture-war skirmishes can be energetically pursued. If the majority of United States citizens will be persons of colour by the year 2020, as Gates claims, then the establishment of African-American Studies as a universal ‘option’ in the academy becomes a matter of no small importance. The syllabus’s adequacy as an implement for the propagation and reinforcement of a democratically representative ‘culture’ undeniably warrants more subtle probing than it receives here, but, in Gates’s eyes, any half-hearted schemes will be likely to fail since in the US blackness is emphatically not optional: ‘The idea that African-American culture is exclusively a thing apart, separate from the whole, having no influence on the shape and shaping of American culture, is a racialist fiction ... For us, and for the students that we train, the complex meaning of blackness is a vision of America, a refracted image in the American looking-glass.’

Racialist fictions at this level may be readily identifiable. But Gates, not above a certain archness when he speaks of ‘the great intellectual Western racialists such as Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson and G.W.F. Hegel’, finds racialist ‘truths’ less easy to come by. After all, as he points out, when blacks begin to produce ‘literature’, they make a revolution by that very activity. The eruption into signification of the supposedly inarticulate will always prove upsetting, as the British well know.

Considerations of this sort persuade Gates to stress the potential of slave narratives as a stylistic and structural template for an American literature. The search for a critical mode appropriate to them and to the writing they generate must eventually involve a ‘definition of critical principles peculiar to the black literary traditions’. As familiarity with those traditions increases, black, text-specific theories will have to be constructed in order that we may ‘learn to read a black text within a black formal cultural matrix, as well as its “white” matrix’. For Gates, in short, the future of literary theory in America is black.

What, then, are the ‘formal properties’ of the black writing with which such theories will engage? Properly wary of the establishment of black canons on the white European model, Gates is also aware of the extent to which ‘only the master’s tools will ever demolish the master’s house.’ Drawing on his own major work, The Signifying Monkey (1988), as well as studies such as Houston Baker’s exemplary Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature (1984), he rests the case for a distinctive African-American mode of writing squarely on its use of English, and particularly on its involvement with a range of verbal rituals. Grouped under the general heading of ‘Signifyin(g)’, these include configurations or modes such as ‘rapping’, ‘loud-talking’, ‘screaming on’, ‘testifying’ and ‘playing the dozens’. The bracketing of the final ‘g’, and the use of the capital ‘S’ in Signifyin(g) announce the concept’s oral roots and point to a range of elaborate rhetorical displays which make much of conspicuous, self-advertising tropes as well as innuendo, illogical leaps, systematic lying, focus on a word’s sound rather than its meaning, ‘needling’, talking ‘around’ a subject, parody and pastiche. The dozens, or the ‘dirty dozens’, also operates as a kind of punitive game, with increasingly forceful interchanges of insulting language directed at each player’s closest relatives, usually the mother. The first participant to become overtly upset loses the advantage. In practice, ‘playing the dozens’ acts as a kind of affective commando course, testing and training emotional strength in the face of a white, hostile world, ever poised to insult your parentage. Any theory of Signifyin(g) which takes on board Gates’s provocative evaluation of it as the distinctive feature of African-American language must begin by accepting that it involves a deliberate disruption of the apparent sequential coherence usually implied by the process of signification. Its mode is figurative. This frontal oral challenge to literate European notions of the linear, incremental generation of meaning is, as Gates argues, the distinctive black trope of tropes, the ‘trope-a-dope’, the central rhetorical principle of a vernacular discourse with its own material history.

The principal feature of that history is slavery. In other words, this is a discourse forged in captivity by a culture systematically robbed of its own language and forced to adapt itself to the contours of another. Indeed, the specific features of the experience of captivity and slavery are subtly hinted at in the way in which the African-American word ‘Signifyin(g)’ confronts, challenges and even covertly offers to master the very instrument of its own servitude – embedded in the crucially homonymous English word ‘signifying’ – while apparently remaining ignominously shackled to it. Learning to Signify, to rap, to loud-talk, to scream on, to testify, to play the dirty dozens, serves as the initiation rite of a culture which experiences its ‘own’ language as a foreign tongue imposed by an oppressor. In the struggle for ownership, parallel but distinct orders of meaning come to inhabit the same sequences of words, and when these square up to each other, the stakes will inevitably be high. To control signification is, after all, to control reality, and at the heart of this black rhetorical practice lies a principle of freewheeling revision, or repetition with difference, in which a subordinate culture repeats the products of a dominant culture, down to the individual words of the language it is forced to share – and in doing so subtly, even paradoxically, remoulds them.

The continuing black revision of English, familiar enough in cases such as cool, bad, brother, cat etc, may be a mode of ‘Americanisation’ experienced by non-blacks as random and apparently casual, but it remains distinctly of a piece with a larger process. Jazz music, with its commitment to the improvised reworking by soloists of original melodies, stripped to their chord-structure, offers one of the best instances of substantially the same process in action. It’s not insignificant (as we say) that Oscar Peterson should have produced a work entitled ‘Signify’ or that Count Basie should have recorded numbers called ‘Signifyin’ and ‘The Dirty Dozens’. The very names taken by jazz musicians, ‘Duke’ Ellington, ‘Count’ Basie, ‘King’ Oliver, ‘Earl’ Hines might be said to ‘signify’ satirically on the structures of a social and aesthetic hierarchy anxious to favour what it nominates as ‘creative’ over something it is quick to denigrate as merely ‘imitative’.

Jazz after all represents a major African-American challenge to the European idea of the author’s or composer’s (or, mutatis mutandis, the slave-owner’s) authority. As Geoffrey Hartman has argued, the revisionary ‘reading’ of a text is not parasitic or imitative so much as symbiotic in its relationship with its object. Its role is not limited to the service of the author’s or the composer’s art. On the contrary, interpretation, radical and revisionary as in the best jazz it is, constitutes the art of the jazz musician. The process of repeating with difference inevitably proposes the release of the illogical, scandalous, restive Other, that which is usually suppressed in order that straightforward, acceptable meaning may be brought into being. Blackness, seen thus, might stand as the repressed Other of Whiteness.

The ungrudging scope, as well as the wit and parodic flair, characterising this collection of essays permit no hint that the multiculturalism of the United States might better be reduced to a unified entity. Yet on no account is Gates prepared to settle for the present situation, where what is effectively an Anglo-American ‘regional’ culture can glibly pass itself off as universal. His position remains liberal and pluralist to the extent of believing that to relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation would be to abandon ‘the very experiment that America represents’. Unfortunately, as recent history shows, pluralism frequently fails to emancipate, leaving oppressive structures intact. It can end by fostering the very indignation it seeks to eradicate. In these circumstances, righteous indignation can easily become routinised, a mere investment for the professional radical and an ever-ready substitute for critical rigour.

Righteous indignation takes up a lot of Patricia Williams’s energy and, while her central concerns may include the application of theoretical critical rigour to legal writing, there often seems insufficient time for that to arrive at the centre of the stage. Anecdotes tend to elbow the main point aside rather than to illustrate it. Distracting fantasies tug persistently at the argument’s sleeve, chance events trip a range of triggers primed to activate a subjectivity forever discovered in some attitude of pert response: ‘I wonder,’ ‘I disclaim,’ ‘I switch channels,’ ‘I grow angry,’ ‘I am feeling most like a law professor,’ ‘I am seized with golden-weighted, heavy-hearted fear.’

A grounding proposition that ‘subject position is everything’ offers its own justification for such procedures. But the result risks the sort of degeneration that always lies in wait for the endlessly picked-over life, its unforgiving focus ultimately narrowed to the glittering shelves of insult from which the daily shopping-basket of resentment can be filled. Confronted with some of this material, one law journal’s letter of rejection, sardonically paraphrased here, came right out with it: ‘We understand that your life must seem hard and complicated, but frankly the events you describe are mild and quite ordinary.’

But there’s the rub. No doubt very similar words would have been on offer to Professor Williams’s great-great grandmother, a slave made pregnant at the age of 11 by her owner, a white lawyer called Austin Miller. Williams highlights what she sees as the only legacy remaining to the descendants of those denied access to all laws: an angry loyalty ‘to the self, to the sanctity of one’s own personal boundaries’. Any assessment of the rights of the rightless is forced to begin here and Patricia Williams’s always astute critique of legal texts rests on that sense of unique individual personality which, in her view, the law almost systematically puts at risk.

‘Mild’, ‘quite ordinary’, these are white, not to say male words, and her impulse to deride them springs from her awareness of the ‘mild’ and ‘quite ordinary’ events concomitant with slavery, whereby Austin Miller’s law forcibly entered her own life. If law is in her family’s blood, as her mother assured her, it is there as a result of rape. Williams’s admirably defiant rejoinder insists on the retributive, revisionary insertion back into the law of her own subject position as a black woman professor. Appropriately, it involves a kind of Signifyin(g), in which apparently directionless, erratic, even parodic argument proves ultimately purposive. Part of such a project will certainly involve personalising that which is supposed to be impersonal, preferring anecdote to argument, and allowing digression to overwhelm progression, in its challenge to the boundaries and divisions by means of which the white male world orders what it sees as reality in terms of what it assumes to be logic. When she writes, such a style attracts a predictable enough response. Her essays come limping back from editors decisively filleted: ‘My rushing, run-on rage ... reduced to simple declarative sentences. The active personal ... inverted in favour of the passive impersonal.’

Escape from white recension seems permanently elusive. Even if the case that Beethoven was a mulatto were proved – something, she says, that blacks have taught for over a hundred years, though it sounds like a sophisticated instance of the dozens to me – it would still be read as a scandalous exception to the rule that great art is produced by white European males, rather than as an example of the contribution blacks characteristically make to the ‘larger culture’. For blacks, she claims, find themselves systematically omitted from the canons enshrining that culture, and this reflects the ‘original intent’ with which the canons were designed. Canon-busting thus becomes a necessary feature of the culture-wars offensive: an act of social and professional responsibility, extending even to the Library of Congress cataloguing system, that very model of the world as seen through white eyes. Williams’s book ends, appropriately, with a challenge to those librarians proposing to classify it under the headings ‘Afro-Americans – Civil Rights’ and ‘Law Teachers’. Arguing the toss to the end, she opts instead for ‘Autobiography’, ‘Fiction’, ‘Gender Studies’ and ‘Medieval Medicine’.

This is Signifyin(g) with a vengeance and, in a sense, the whole case for a black culture lies in that apparently minor debate, as much as it lies in the larger issues raised by the Critical Legal Studies movement, whose task, as she expresses it, offers an effective summary of her own preoccupations: ‘not to discard rights but to see through or past them so that they reflect a larger definition of privacy and property: so that privacy is turned from exclusion based on self-regard into regard for another’s fragile, mysterious autonomy; and so that property regains its ancient connotation of being a reflection of the universal self.’

No doubt the law school’s oxymoron-detector will have started to flash well before that ‘universal self’ hits the screen, and the discomfited shades of Williams’s colleagues can be sensed wringing anxious hands around the borders of her text from an early stage. ‘If, I demand somewhat sharply of the dean, political discourse is a market phenomenon, what happens to those members of the polis who are outside the market – who cannot or will not be bought and sold? And what indeed is the impact of buying and selling on the polis that is within the marketplace of ideas? I say, jabbing the air with my finger, that the answer to all of this ...’ It is a measure of the determined resistance still to be found dug-in on the academic beach-heads that that punctilious signifying – and Signifyin(g) – digit fails finally to subvert all of the dean’s piety and wit. When it comes to playing the dozens, he knows better than to flinch. ‘ “But money is real,” ’ he warns quietly, ‘and refills my glass.’ Roll back, Beethoven. And happy anniversary.