Everything You Know

Ian Sansom

  • Hood by Alison Kinney
    Bloomsbury, 163 pp, £9.99, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 5013 0740 9

The 21st-century version of Aristotle’s Poetics – and for that matter of Cicero’s On the Orator, Robert McKee’s Story, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the entire works of Syd Field, and just about every other book ever written that pretends to reveal the ways fiction, drama or poetry ‘work’ – is tvtropes.org, the self-described ‘all-devouring pop-culture wiki’ which has done so much to contribute to our understanding of modern literary and artistic tropes, trends, devices, possibilities and all forms of story structure. TV Tropes helps to explicate, illustrate and popularise ideas such as ‘Jumping the Shark’, ‘Crapsack World’, ‘Scenery Gorn’ and ‘My God, What Have I Done?’ It began as a fan-fiction site devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer but now covers everything from advertising to games to theatre to literature, music and sport. The site has just two rules, which are pretty much the opposite of the rules for, say, peer-reviewed journal articles: ‘Nastiness and dickery will not be tolerated’ and ‘Fun will be had.’ TV Tropes defines a ‘Mind Screw’ as something that has departed ‘so extremely’ from any ‘attempt at regular old coherency, that the immediate response afterwards is “what the heck was that?!?!”’ Or, in the words of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, ‘Everything you know is wrong.’ The mind screw is one of the default tropes of cultural studies.

Alison Kinney’s Hood is a minor classic of the genre, replete with every trope and device one might hope for. The book is part of a series entitled Object Lessons, which looks at ‘the hidden lives of ordinary things’ and which are all utterly ‘Fridge Brilliant’ (defined by TV Tropes as an experience of sudden revelation, like the light coming on when you open a refrigerator door). Kinney’s Hood is not, therefore, to be absolutely clear – for the sake of anyone looking for a book about, say, hoods – about changing fashions in snoods, wimples, hijabs and snorkel parkas. This is not the Sartorialist. Indeed, in many ways Hood isn’t about hoods at all. It’s about what – and who – is under the hood. It’s about the hooding, the hooders and the hoodees. In the words of the Harlem-based photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah, talking about his magnificent documentary Field Niggas – not one of Kinney’s cultural reference points, though it easily could be – the point is ‘taking the hood off the hood and just showing you the head’. Hood isn’t about fashion and aesthetics. It’s about identity, power and politics.

Death’s ‘signature look’
Death’s ‘signature look’

In the first of several mind screws, Kinney explains that Death once went around hoodless. It wasn’t until the 16th century that he began to be represented with his head covered – or, in Kinney’s rather cute phrase, that he unleashed ‘his signature look’. Before then, ‘in paintings and sculptures, Death sometimes accessorised with a jaunty crown, a headwrap, a ladies’ black headdress, or a clutch of worms wriggling through his eye sockets.’ Plus, the hoods we all thought were worn by executioners were more often worn by those about to be executed. Hooded prisoners were not only less likely to resist but less likely to elicit sympathy from their accusers or executioners. Rather surprisingly, given Kinney’s extraordinary range of reference – from online articles about burkinis to the Nibelungenlied, torture manuals and scholarly works on clergy clothing – she doesn’t mention Emmanuel Levinas. According to Levinas, the face speaks; it ‘renders possible and begins all discourse’. ‘The first word of the face,’ he says, is ‘Thou shalt not Kill.’ It’s always easier to ignore a commandment if you or your victim is wearing a hood, whether you’re in Spain during the Inquisition, a hangman at Tyburn in the 18th century, or a medical professional working for the prison service in Florida today. In one of the most shocking accounts in a book that relies almost entirely on shocking accounts, Kinney describes the leather hood traditionally worn by prisoners going to the electric chair in Florida. (Lethal injection is now the preferred method, though in a grisly illustration of the importance of freedom of choice in America, prisoners may still opt for the chair.) With typical fridge brilliance, Kinney claims it’s precisely our ignorance of the historical role of hooding that prevents people from protesting against modern day executions: ‘It concentrates all accountability in the single, ghoulish figure of the hooded executioner, while making us feel better about the supposedly just, impersonal, simple and humane systems we perpetuate now.’ See: ‘Everything you know is wrong.’

You perhaps won’t be surprised to discover that the Ku Klux Klan hood, the ‘one-piece, full-face-masking, pointed white hood with eyeholes’, is probably not what you think it is: rather it’s a recent invention which hides all sorts of troubling historical associations. According to Kinney, in the 19th century the average Klansman felt no need to cover his face, because he was effectively ‘cloaked instead in state power and popular support’. If Klansmen wore anything special to get up to their diabolical business it tended to be ‘gigantic animal horns, fake beards, coon-skin caps, or polka-dotted paper hats’. The birth of the white pointy Klan hood can be dated precisely to 1905, to an illustration by someone called Arthur Keller for the play developed by Thomas Dixon from his novel The Clansman, in turn adapted by D.W. Griffith into his film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which featured heroic Klansmen riding across America in their billowing white garb. Life imitated art: Klan hoods were soon being marketed via mail-order catalogues. Once again, Kinney finds a surprising counterintuitive argument: the point of the Klan outfits wasn’t so much anonymity as a sense of group identity. The Klan hood doesn’t hood, it binds.

So, you get it: the basic point, repeated with varying degrees of subtlety, and supported by dozens of examples, is that hoods are never quite what they seem. Hoods hoodwink, and Kinney is determined to be unhoodwinkable. In her discussion of Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh at Abu Ghraib – the so-called Hooded Man, photographed naked except for a blanket and a hood, with wires attached to his fingers, standing on a box – she claims that although the image may have drawn attention to the plight of Faleh and his fellow detainees, it also obscured the truth about the wider injustices of the Iraq war. ‘Hooding, and outrage over the hooding, served as a cloak, behind which systems of massive state violence remained intact … The famous viral photos attracted public attention, at the expense of the victims of crimes that were never photographed … They had the collateral effect of abetting the authorities.’ This seems both dangerous and disingenuous as an argument, almost indeed a little hoodlumish: because a photograph doesn’t tell the whole truth, it cannot serve the truth? Everything you know is wrong? (Oddly, Kinney makes only one brief parenthetical remark about Islamic State and their beheadings and mass executions.)

Of course, in any work of this kind there will occasionally be overstatements and – inevitably – omissions. ‘We all wear hoods,’ Kinney says: ‘Judges, athletes, rappers, torturers, politicians and toddlers.’ No, sorry. I’m not a judge, an athlete, a rapper, a torturer, a politician or a toddler, and I have never knowingly worn a hood. Also, there are perhaps just too many types of hood for Kinney or anyone else to contend with. She mentions monks’ habits, for example, but makes nothing of them. She mentions Anne Boleyn’s headdress, for no obvious reason. She mentions the gothic futurist hip-hop artist RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ. She mentions the Queen of Hearts. (But she doesn’t mention the King of Hoods, Kenny in South Park.) In the end it all gets a bit much. Also, the risk of arguing that nothing is what it seems is that nothing seems to mean anything. ‘On top of everything else,’ Kinney writes, ‘hoods are about transformation, resistance, and everyday life.’ That’d be absolutely everything then. ‘Even the word “hood” is a contronym bearing simultaneous, opposite meanings.’ But ‘hood’ isn’t a contronym. It may have rich and complex associations, but that doesn’t make it a contronym. The word ‘cleave’ is a contronym, meaning both to split, sever or divide and to join, stick or hold together.

Klansmen from ‘The Birth of a Nation’
Klansmen from ‘The Birth of a Nation’

An American writing mostly about America, Kinney is at her best when writing about America, though she is good too on David Cameron’s 2006 ‘hug a hoodie’ speech. She describes it as ‘clumsy’, but approves of one part, which she describes, in a telling phrase, as ‘haunting’. ‘For young people, hoodies are often more defensive than offensive,’ Cameron said. ‘They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in, don’t stand out.’ This idea of the hood as a kind of invisibility cloak is indeed rather haunting. Kinney’s concerns are mostly political, but for anyone of more literary inclinations Cameron’s hood might conjure up memories of Eliot’s figure in The Waste Land, perhaps the most famous hooded figure in the canon, after Little Red Riding Hood and the black-bonneted French Lieutenant’s Woman:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

Eliot’s mysterious third man, as he explains in his notes, comes from one of Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions, in which ‘the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.’ This other, ‘on the other side of you’, is also an allusion to Christ’s appearing to his disciples on the road to Emmaus: the lone indefinite hooded person, the ghostly presence, is therefore perhaps a comforter and friend. But the hooded ones become a threat in Eliot’s poem when they become a horde:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet >air
Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

Kinney’s book certainly reveals the complex history of the hood in America. There is another book urgently to be written about the spectre of the hooded hordes that continues to haunt Europe.