Sarah Silverman, Blackface, and the Death of Postmodern Irony

The comedian Sarah Silverman recently acknowledged that her career has been damaged by a decade-old episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character appears in a highly satirical version of blackface. Silverman has vociferously apologized for the episode, declaring “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”

Many have defended this particular usage of blackface by placing it within the contexts of comedy and satire. However, the episode represents more than the mere undulations of comedic boundaries. It is pointedly situated within two very different approaches to ameliorating social divides and hierarchies.

The blackface episode sits, self-consciously, at the crossroads of modern and postmodern politics. At one point, a crowd of supporters, also brandishing Silverman’s absurd version of blackface, are asked the typical protest question, “What do we want?” Their answer, however, does not reference the usual modernist tropes of equality and justice, nor does it refer to any specific markers of race. Rather, the crowd responds that what they want is “the freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of postmodern irony!” The denial of this freedom from within the film/television industry, and the larger political community, raises the political implications of the death of postmodern irony, and the loss of an important political tool to fight injustice.

Postmodern politics arose in the late sixties as a response to the perceived inadequacies of modernity. The argument was that claims of “reason,” “rationality,” and “evidence” always served to further undermine marginalized peoples. The belief was that individuals divide the world into categories and that any attempt at reasoned refutation of existing dominant norms simply collapsed into, and reinforced, existing categories.

We see this prominently today in the use of “socialist” as a linguistic denier of rational discussion. The postmodern approach would not be to argue the merits (or inadequacies) of socialism, its supposed substance, or the irrationality of some. All such attempts would simply reinforce the category and allow for its continued manipulation by others. Instead, postmodern politics seeks to disentangle and deconstruct the category of “socialist” itself – to “de-rationalize” all categories – often through the use of parodic embellishment.

The attempt by early postmodern political theorists was to deconstruct existing norms by creating “events” – such as the “die-ins” and the “kiss-ins” – which the viewer couldn’t easily define, categorize, and then discard. Judith Butler wrote, “subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.” In other words, they have to overwhelm the categories and undermine their ability to define and subsume “rational” arguments for structural change.

Butler also noted that once “you know how to read them in advance, or you know what’s coming…they just don’t work anymore.” Every attempt at subversion is met with the creation of a new category which will be constructed, maintained and patrolled. Thus the rise of “hipster racism” which combines contested categories, and links disparate comedians and performers, into a singular denotation which functions to both obscure and abjure.

The point is neither to support nor defend “hipster racism” or any specific category; rather it is to examine the construction, usages, and political implications of all categories. A category is not a mere recognition of the pre-existent metaphysical sameness of its components; rather the category itself defines and coagulates its substance. The substance of a category is shaped, defined and compared by the need for the simplistic comfort of the category itself.

Silverman’s use of blackface was designed not as a counter-category, but as a means of undermining all categorical constructions. Those who criticize Silverman’s postmodern approach replicate the futility of modernist politics – the very kind of politics which has brought us to the political precipice upon which we now teeter. Silverman attempted to deconstruct the category of blackface; the modernist response has been a re-assertion and condemnation of the usage of blackface anywhere, anytime, and a fierce denial to those who would not merely critique but attempt to demystify and disempower through parody and satire.

At one point, as Silverman’s character is leaving the apartment with her new blackface makeup, she places a bandana on her head – another sign for the modernists of an obvious racial stereotype. Except that, as she leaves, Silverman declares, in an exaggerated New York accent “New York this is your last chance.” This line is a reference to the old Rhoda show in which Valerie Harper played a Jewish woman from New York. (Each episode began with a short “history” of the character read by Harper, the last line of which Silverman is citing.) Silverman is attempting to undermine the power of a particular category by dis-entangling it from a singular set of substances and re-entangling it within a host of disparate signifiers. Silverman’s blackface episode points in many directions, criticizing not only racism but also those liberals who believe that they can easily “live” the plight of others by being “black for a day.”

In the 1970’s the African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge starred in a movie entitled Watermelon Man in which a white man (Cambridge in white-face) suddenly turns black overnight. The film is earnest in its depiction of what befalls Cambridge’s character as he loses his (white) wife and kids, and his home. The film is a highly modernist refutation of racism as the character is transformed from a white racist into a black militant.

Watermelon Man is comforting to modernists as a clear, reasoned, refutation of racism. But such approaches have been limited in their political effect. Postmodern irony and parody as evidenced through The Sarah Silverman Program is an attempt to place another arrow in the quiver of the fight for social and political justice. The defining, categorization, and repudiation of Silverman is, itself, an ironic and parodic performance of the modernist defense and reinforcement of an exhausted politics.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Taking the Gay Out of Gay Politics

Image by Rebecca Lieberman

The claim that a group’s “rights” are being violated is a long-standing form of identity politics which aims to protect the marginalized from unwanted incursions of power. Though rights often seem the only tool available to combat oppression, the identities they generate are constructs of exclusion and constraint.

The application of rights requires that there be an existing group in need of protections. This group is politically defined by its list of “shared” grievances. Determining this list of grievances  – the rights which will delineate the group’s oppression –  inevitably engenders a central authority.  

During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders referred to Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as being “ part of the establishment.” The comments generated a significant debate within the Democratic Party as to what substantively separates establishment from margin. But the division is not a matter of evaluating different policy goals; “establishment” refers to which organization’s list of grievances is shaping the marginalized identity and its “rights.”

The recent politics of the HRC exemplifies the highly constraining effects when “rights” are joined with assimilationist goals.  Historically, gay politics attempted to open spaces for alternate forms of social and personal relations. Problematizing the naturalness of sexual norms was seen as an important contribution of non-dominant sexualities.  In contrast, the HRC offered only the right to assimilate into those norms.

The power exhibited by the HRC was not merely the triumph of gay marriage and military service. Their power rested in their ability to utilize these goals to shape a new “gay” identity and institute different standards of “appropriate” behavior. All those who had argued for different forms of living, were now re-cast as foot-soldiers on the inevitable march to military, marriage, and monogamy.

Rights-based politics protects only those who are in agreement with the specific types of rights being sought. Those who seek to destabilize institutional and sexual norms are deprived of a political or social space, or even a recognized existence, within the new “gay politics.” The sexuality of the 1970s is now the Upside Down of gay identity. A shadowy repudiated remnant; a lurking danger to the new well-scrubbed identity of weddings and baby strollers.

There have been a number of theorists who have criticized the exclusionary aspects of “rights” politics and have argued for the dissolution of all identity categories.  This dissolution is far different than the HRC path in which the marginalized group is dissolved into the now-strengthened dominant identity.

 In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler wrote, of feminist politics, “feminist critique ought…to understand how the category of ‘women,’ the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.”  Butler claimed that the contemporary feminist category of “women” is constructed, restrictive, and exclusionary.  She argued, instead, for deconstructing – not protecting and multiplying – the categories that define and separate people.

Butler claimed that “if politics [was] no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old.” Butler offered no details of a sexual utopia; she gave no political roadmap to the new configuration. 

This ambiguity is off-putting to many of those currently engaged in gay politics who prefer the well-trodden path of “rights.”  The result has been a progressivism which continuously chases its own tail; re-fighting the same rights-based identity battles every decade.

The HRC focused on shaping a rights-protected sexual identity that was acceptable within dominant institutions.  But successive generations of young people are performing Butler; appearing less and less tied to any identity categories. The generational views on homosexuality have shifted from claims of toleration based on a fixed identity, to the disappearance of sexuality as a marker of identity. “Homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” become indistinguishable within the malleable flow of desires. 

The same attitudinal shifts can be seen towards gender.  Younger generations are far more open to an elasticity which may render the current male/female binaries as archaic relics. Race has become so multi-faceted that any attempt by the U.S. Census to appear more inclusive through additional identity categories is attacked as exclusive and restrictive. 

The emerging “trans” movement has the potential to further deconstruct identity categories. Or it might result in a series of internecine battles which will define the new “trans identity” and its rights-based protections.

Progressive politics should not be supporting constructions of identity by any centralized power, nor should it be participating in the imposition of norms of behavior. Progressivism should seek ways to further the dissolution of all identities and to end the politics of assimilation.

The arguments for “rights” are more than three hundred years old, yet activists remain solely reliant on them. Central organizations, whose existence and power is dependent on rights-based politics, will continue to ignore the politics of non-identity espoused by theorists such as Butler.  But if the cultural dissolution of identity categories continues, rights-based politics will slowly sink into the shifting sands of irrelevance.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;    thegoldinrule@gmail.com