HORTENSE SPILLERS interviewed by Tim Haslett for the Black Cultural Studies web site collective in Ithaca, NY February 4, 1998
TH: I wanted to ask a little about your more recent work, the Boundary 2 essay. (see Hortense Spillers. "All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race" Boundary 2 vol. 23, no. 3 Fall 1996) What do you think led to your interest in the psychoanalytic as a political category within the work you do?
HS: It really started with my concern about the intramural, our relations within the community. That really has been the thrust of the discourse in black life, what the community is doing in relation to a perceived mainstream or dominant force, and it's clear to me that we've not done enough work on internal or interior relations and so it occurred to me that there were reasons why we were avoiding the interior. One of them has to do with gender, And so I thought the way you put together some kind of protocol that you can pursue is to talk about it in psychoanalytic terms. And there again it was a question of finding terms larger than oneself, one's own little grouse of a particular moment and so the psychoanalytic seemed to open up those possibilities, that you could really talk psychoanalytically at many different levels and all the time you're talking interpersonally, intersubjectively, from one subjectivity to another, so that for me what psychoanalytic theory allows you to do is to talk about intersubjectivity at its different levels, its different rhythms. So you can go all the way from the most intimate to the most public of involvements.
TH: when you talked about 'interior intersubjectivity' in relation to the distinction between the 'one' and the 'individual'. I wanted to ask a bit more about that in terms of your suggestion of different levels of subjectivity; interior and exterior.
HS: There can be resistance to the psychoanalytic for many reasons, and I think one resistance to it or objection to it is that it is perceived to be so private and personal in its thrust; it's just you and the couch and the third ear, or the analyst. That's not what I have in mind. I think of it as a way that leads to greater self-consciousness, a self-critical capacity in your relationship to others because as far as I'm concerned you're always in relationship to others, even when you are a lone figure. The distinction I'm trying to make between the 'one' and the 'individual' is a way to go around that objection. I think of the individual as a certain kind of formation in relationship to property. It's a bourgeois or middle-class idea that's associated with liberal property or early modern capital or early modern property. Whereas the 'one' I think of as a concept that's born with Freud in about 1900, with the Interpretation of Dreams. The 'one' is put in place by the social, it is put in place by language, one's relationship to the social, to language, to others--and idea I borrowed from Lacanian thought. That's something that I really want to draw out further because it's a strategy for moving us on to the territory where I think we should be in having this discussion. It's an important distinction in its own right because you can't avoid someone saying 'this is just more bourgeois subjectivity, whereas we need to be talking about something else'. I think it takes us to the 'something else' already.
TH: In terms of your interest in psychoanalytic theory, I've always wondered in reading your work how you've had an ongoing interest in the Black sermon and the Black church. Do you think that the spiritual dimension of African-American life and psychoanalytic discourse are incommensurable? Does one prevent the emergence of the other?
HS: I don't think that's necessarily the case. Last year when I was working on my project (the forthcoming book) I was struck by a certain kind of memory. When I think about my childhood in the South, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in the late-forties, fifties and sixties. The memory that I carry with me from those early years is that the community was a place that supported subjects. Men and women didn't appear to be, at least to an eight-year old, in conflict. They appeared to be cooperatively positioned in relationship to each other, so you are talking about people who for the most part did not have a high degree of formal training, but they were very intelligent people who had dreams for themselves, their children, their community, and they lived in that way; my father, who died a couple of years ago at ninety years old, was in a marriage seventy years. My mother is still living, still in the house that all the children were born in and they spent their lives in the community in Memphis. The nucleus of that experience for me was the church and the home, everything revolved around that. People were working out whatever conflicts they had in the name of some larger good. But it seemed to me that somehow those values got deflected or dissipated or eviscerated once the children moved to the metropolis, and became educated people, and then they took up the values of the mainstream culture, so that in my experience and in the way that I would put together my understanding of my autobiography, I became aware of gender conflict only after I moved North, into a Ph.D. program and was in relationship with very smart folks who were getting Ph.D.s; that's when things really started differentiating themselves along lines not only of race now, but along lines of gender and class interest. My idea is that whatever it was that the generation of the octogenarians and the nonagenarians, as I call them, had was lost in their successes. What was it that made it possible for them to live in the world with each other, what happens to that understanding in the cultures of the metropolis or in the cultures of the learned? We are talking about parents, who as children were farm kids and laborers. There was a dimension of the spiritual that they engaged which made them critical of themselves and others. So, I'm looking for the equivalent of that in the world in which we find ourselves now. The psychoanalytic might in fact offer a way to remain critical, and to secularize that value that had its center in the religious, in religiosity. Perhaps the psychoanalytic is a strategy or a mechanism for finding some dimension of self-criticism that one needs when the stakes are now : recognition, affluence, degrees of access and accessibility, when it is no longer about literacy because we are talking about people who've crossed a frontier in that regard. When you talk about the learned classes of African-Americans today, you're talking about people who have a whole different set of needs. How do those people behave? And what I'm suggesting is that we're not behaving in ways that I would consider exemplary. That's what I'm trying to find a discourse to talk about because it's larger than me; it's bigger than a generation and it's not just my being unhappy and complaining. This really has to do with resources, who has access to them, how access is granted, how that whole question of access is configured, by whom, to whose benefit. Those are all enormous questions that now have to do with whether or not you're teaching in X university rather than Y university and not a question of whether or not you've got access to the university, it's a different question. When you move the question, how do you make a point, that's very important to make? As far as I'm concerned it is a political, powerful problem: how do you gain the tension or gain ground for that problem when you're now talking about folk who, for the most part, have been successful? For me, the psychoanalytic offers a discourse that opens up that possibility, which both looks back towards something that I have nostalgia for; lost childhood; lost youth and the values associated with that, and forward where I am now and where I think we have to go. It seems to be that there's a possibility that psychoanalytic discourse, will be transformed, if you can get it into the arena in a certain kind of way which is going to alter it; once you move it out of its own historical context, you've got to change that configuration, too. So you're going to effect a change on both sides of the equation. You're going to change what's possible to talk about in your own social formation just as you're going to change what you think is a "lever" that pries the issue open.
TH: So essentially you'd like to reconfigure psychoanalytic discourse, problematize it, take what you want from it and leave behind what is not going to be useful.
HS: Yes, exactly right. The way it's handled now, it's the property of the esoteric. It belongs to people who live in the world in a certain kind of way. How can you make it politically responsive and responsible for a situation in the late century, on a terrain that is completely foreign to its field of origins.
TH: If I'm not misreading, when you talk about 'intramural protocol', it seemed to suggest that you were saying that rather than turning psychoanalysis outwards to do textual readings that it first be turned inwards or that it also be turned inwards, that the subject of inquiry or 'culture worker', in your words, would also use it as a technique for what you call 'ethical self-knowing'. Is that part of your interest in psychoanalysis; not in a conventional, clinical sense but using it internally as well as externally?
HS: Yes, right. Let me start with a dramatic example. Colin Ferguson gets on a New York subway one day and opens fire on a number of people and kills people. A very famous defense attorney, now dead, before anything, names what the defense strategy will be: "Black rage". So you think, okay, Black rage, that's an interesting idea and certainly we do not have to look very far to realize that Black people have every right to be enraged but it's also true that whatever conclusions we draw about a particular Black person should be complicated in relation to who that person is., but if you have decided that all of Black life fits a template then you can call on the Black rage argument every time and that means that you can anticipate, empirically, millions of people everytime on the basis of some kind of configuration that you just apply wholesale to those persons. It's also a way of breaking into that cozy, comfortable sense that we have already been able to predict and determine who you are on the basis of something called "Black Experience" or whatever you want to term it. I want to break into that presumption, open up that closure to see instead a question mark, or an interrogation; who is Colin Ferguson, or Dolly Jones? I want to see an attending, a waiting for the subject to reveal what it is. That hasn't happened enough in the culture, in two loci primarily. It hasn't happened in the community enough and it hasn't happened in the larger world. Everybody wants to determine where, who, what the Black person is before you get to the ballpark to find out who they in fact are. If you can look from the outside at the person, then the person can also look out from that perspective, can then begin to think himself/herself as a possibility that can in part define its own possibilities, its own self-possibilities. One is not simply put here by forces of oppression or police brutality or the shape of the economy. All of those are very powerful forces that are moving and operative in the world and there's no reason that I would want to try to deny them. But I would also want to place more emphasis on agency and agentification--I think that the latter may be a Kenneth Burke word. In the quote that I pulled from Habermas in Knowledge and Human Interests, self-consciousness does not necessarily revise laws or change them, but it can make them inoperative or ineffective if we can begin to talk about agency. That's missing in the discussion, it's there sporadically, but I would like to see it there systematically; it seems to me that the ethical is a way of putting that on the table in a systematic way. (see: Jurgen Habermas. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972)
TH: In other words, your kind of psychoanalytic framework would be ethical, an irreducibly ethical practice, that it would start from an ethical principle.
HS: Yes, it would start from a fairly simple idea, but then it must not be so simple or there would much less conflict in the world: I am obligated to you and you are obligated to me and how do we know that obligation, and how do we define that obligation. There is very little in American life today that makes it easy to think about the ethical. When everything is defined materialistically, in terms of the balance sheet, gains and losses, what's in it for me, what do I get out of it? Why should I pay taxes when I don't have children in the public schools? You hear that question a lot about a lot of different things. We're looking at the collapse of the public schools because enough of the population has been misled by unscrupulous politicians who are saying to people: "It's your money, so why should your money go to support schools where your children aren't safe to go?" It's a value that is anti-democratic. The idea is that I'm safer if you are and you're safer if I am, so it's in my self-interest that you have everything that you need to live your life and some of the things you want because you're my neighbor. I cannot live in the world if I am comfortable and other people are not. The ethical has a lot to do with what I would call enlightened self-interest. It has a lot to do with an enlightened democracy, not just a democracy in name, a democracy that opens up access; that's a way to fight crime, reduce crime. If you want to get rid of death row, you've got to raise people better. You've got to make charity something that someone other than Jerry Falwell is talking about. It feeds into a number of different issues that I would consider sociopolitical; the state of civil society, the health of civil society.
TH: Going back to Colin Ferguson, I wanted to pursue that for a moment and ask about The Grier & Cobbs approach, the sociological, pathologizing. (see: William Grier & Price Cobbs. Black Rage. New York, Basic Books: 1968) Is my understanding of your wanting to go back to psychoanalysis to use it in a non-pathologizing framework, to use it in ways that white supremacy and patriarchy don't, to turn it into an ethical project?
HS: Yes, I think it's a dimension in psychoanalytic theory that's there pretty directly, it's not the piece of it that postmodern theorists emphasize or pull out. If I'm remembering Lacan correctly, one is ethically obligated to discover his or her motives, and to shed light on the unconscious. If that's true, then we need to ask what it might mean in terms of a psychoanalytic protocol. I guess what I want to do is preserve some of the important benchmarks of the psychoanalytic and to me the most important of those is self-knowledge. That's its goal. I want to preserve that aim at the same time as I want to widen its function or widen its access so that people who are not necessarily in a 'pathological' state, or people who are on that continuum between health and morbidity can use it.
TH: You were speaking about the ethical, your neighbor, and civil society. That's another strand I see in your work, I'm thinking of the "Politics of Intimacy" essay and the Paule Marshall piece, you're interested in the ethical in terms of everyday life. (see: Hortense Spillers. "Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World" in eds. Hortense Spillers & Marjorie Pryse. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington :Indiana University Press,1985) You tend to pull back from a grand narrative of "Black History" (with a capital B and a capital H)-- the parade of Black History Month heroes and heroines, towards the everyday. I wanted to ask you a bit about that, because it seemed that that was where you were going when you talked about the ethical.
HS: It is, because that's where the subject lives as theorist, consumer, grocery shopper, got-to-pick-up-the-mail-now, let's get to the bank. That subject is really living in the everyday. The question for me is how do you talk about or think about those different beats or rhythms through which you live your life. In other words, there is a doing and then there is a contemplating the doing. Those are two kinds of emphasis in the life of the same subject. There is the standing in relationship to an event, anticipating an event, and then there's a getting a perspective on the event. One lives in the everyday and that's one of the reasons why I'm a little concerned that our discussions about internationalism have made it harder for us to focus on the everyday. There might in fact be a global village, I can email or call someone right now, I can certainly go to Canada and instantly exchange money and vice-versa. All the trade agreements have made us a little closer to each other in the world across barriers of languages and cultures. But, I live my life everyday with a postal system, a system of currency, a certain set of neighbors, a certain kind of foodstuff and food culture.. There are certain people that I think about and call up. I live in a national culture, in the everyday world. So how do you think about that in relationship to Homi Bhabha's "escalator" that he introduces in The Location of Culture. (see: Homi Bhahbha. The Location of Culture New York: Routledge, 1994) The notion of hybridity and ambiguity is a very powerful notion, it has a certain glamour and sex appeal, but I don't live on an escalator. I mean at some point, I land. Theoretically that might not be interesting but that's what happens and so that reality has to be worked into the theoretical configuration, or we are misleading or perverting what actually happens. I live in one culture at a time, I might speak several languages or idiolects in it. The post-colonial and the post-modern have a way of always moving the discussion somewhere else. But you take the "local" with you, whatever your "local" is, into these various cultural and theoretical zones. A lot of this comes back to what you actually do on the ground, in the everyday. What I'm suggesting is that it is one thing to make pronouncements in public spaces about fraternity, brotherhood, liberty, and justice. But it's another thing to come back where you live and to make that a part of your practice. The disparity between those two things is what we call hypocrisy, and observing it makes me realize that I don't like my own lapses, I don't like other people's lapses, even though we know we have to live with them. It's a way of making people responsible beyond the pressures of their own rhetorical commitments, and the realization that commitments have to be something other than rhetorical; they have to be practical or praxial, in the sense of a practice. That's what I see missing in our discussions today about race, gender, class, sexual preference. We talk a lot of stuff about openness and plurality and diversity and so on, but what's the practice? What is the actual practice between one subject and another, between one leftist and another? There are troubling conclusions you have to draw about the generation of the '60s and its actual practices, what we actually do when we get home or when the television cameras are not there. You can't believe that Clinton ought to come out more strongly for children's rights, one asserts out of his mouth if you don't take care of your own children. Women should have access or rights, but you don't treat your women colleagues very well, the women around you, and the same relating to men. What's the practice? The question is: Is there a place in theory today for us to to be critical of various gaps or lapses or aporias in the theoretical?
TH: Some of Bhabha's ideas of hybridity, even though they're in vogue at the moment, tend to, if they're appropriated in the wrong direction, go back to the sort of liberal universalist humanism where you have a little bit of this, a little of that and there isn't a keeping track of unequal power relations, and so hybridity seems to be so easily appropriated by global capital.
HS: That discourse does not acknowledge its historical involvements with the scene of the colonial and the post-colonial. Those theories really come out of the post-colonial moment, so you're talking about theoreticians who have access to more than one national culture, but they're not in their natal culture, they're in this one. That's why "hybridity" has to be declared as a virtue because they're somewhere other than their natal space. You turn that into virtue. I'm not saying that it should be a virtue or a fault, but you cannot exhaust the question of the problem of national culture by claiming internationalism, globalism, and hybridity. That doesn't solve the deep problem of the national and the moment that we're in a nation. At this moment in American life, we're looking at the presidency, at loggerheads with the special prosecutor and what's going to happen to Bill Clinton and certain allegations that are made against him. What is this nation going to do in relationship to Saddam Hussein? At any particular moment, you are in a particular focus, which might not exhaust your complexity or it might not exhaust what interests you, but for that political and social context you're in a national moment so that your experience of the global is really reflected and refracted through that national culture or through that national moment. That's one of the things I don't like about the hybridists' positions , they don't allow that discussion, or emphasis, to go on. What they don't allow is that they are collapsing something or eliding something. Discussions about hybridity go on in capitals of the First World and they take place, most significantly, in the United States. So that you can have a discussion about hybridity only in a certain kind of synthesis, only under certain kinds of conditions. You can't have that discussion in most places in the world. You can have it in the First World and particularly in the United States because the national culture allows it. What's the relationship between those two, that discussion is mooted, if not altogether rubbed out, in the discussion about hybridity. I always want to know: what are people going to do when they get off the QE2? or the Concorde? You go somewhere. National culture, everyday life, the global, they are now separate moments, but I think they all come home on the ground of subjectivity and the subject, subjectness .
TH: Going back to the 'intramural protocol': Is the difficulty in establishing that protocol the demand for Black women to maintain a being-in-the-group so that, as you said, contemplative interiority or access to subjectivity as a 'one', that might be a way to begin to approach that. Is that something that makes any sense at all?
HS: I'm thinking that group membership is a powerful and wonderful thing at the same time that is has its constraints. One of the problems that I took up in the essay on Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (see: Harold Cruse. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967 and Hortense Spillers. "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date". Boundary 2 v. 21 Fall 1994) was redefining community so that it could now stand for a "moveable feast". The idea that community is not strictly defined by four stakes in the ground, and you stand on that spot in the center. The idea is that community is a place that I never leave because I always take it with me, because it's now something inside me. I can go back to it, yes, but some people can't go back to it. A very good friend of mine who lives in the Midwest now was born in the Bronx and he was telling me some years ago that the community where he was born literally does not exist anymore. There is no such place as that. It has been, not boarded up, it's disappeared. It's a now an interstate, a stadium, it's not there anymore. So there might be other communities like that, that are now radically different in terms of some physical and material demographic sense. If the community is strictly a physical space, then that's not good enough, because everybody is not going to always stay there, nor should they. That's what I mean in the article when I talk about the difference between flight and dispersal. Leaving the community is not always you're wanting to flee or get away in some kind of pathological sense, dispersal could be simply growing up and experiencing the world and leaving home. Certainly that's what a lot of parents hope children will do, that they will become their own person in the world. So that if you do that, in Tuscany or Tuscaloosa, the point is that community-those configurations of values and memories that are embedded in you, that are a part of your soil or your ground, is taken with you. That means that you can really do a number of things without feeling that you have betrayed someone. You can study Wittgenstein, or Heidegger, or Kierkegaard, or Bach, or Charlie Parker or Charlie Mingus. You can do any of that if you want to. That means that you can have the world, you can really have the world on your postage stamp of soil. You can have the world from that vantage, because the world is in here now, it reposes in your heart and brain. So that's a way of breaking the bonds or the bars of love when love is choking, and when membership is now defined as that which keeps me hemmed up in some little corner somewhere because it is proper to "Black tradition", or to "Black experience", or in order to be an authentic and proper Black person, I have to live in this way, dress in this way, think in this certain kind of way. Now that's not what it's all about, to me. It is not a matter of my going back anywhere, even though I go home as often as I can. It is now a question of my being at home wherever I happen to be, or being at home even more so because I don't live there anymore. I think it was Garrison Keilor who said once , and I had to do a double-take, though he's always inviting double-takes, something that I thought was absolutely fantastic: "I left home in order to remember." It should now be possible to leave home without taking flight or to be in dispersal without being in denial; or to embrace the world without rejecting one's mother, or take on new things without turning one's back on the old. I'm all of those things. I can experience them in some kind of dialectical synthesis wherever I am on earth. That's what I want to see possible for people, that's what I want to see possible for Black people who, God knows, really need freedom in that way, in every way: they need freedom from their oppressors, and they need freedom from their sisters and brothers; the freedom to love freely in the world is the greatest imperative, to my mind, for black people. And that even includes the freedom to turn one's back on the experience if one wants to. Even if one ends up passing into another culture, that has to be, in my logic, in the end, acceptable. I've got to be able to live with that. It's comparable to my wanting the church to turn over some of its prime time to ideas about the world, and if some of its constituents end up atheists, then we will have to live with that. Obviously, such an outcome is not ideal, nor is it what I would wish, but the goal is to try to open the way to responsible freedom.
TH: Is that connected with your comments in "All The Things.." about the OJ Simpson trial and the church in South Central Los Angeles where black people would gather to talk about the trial?
HS: Yes. I think that churches remain the single most powerful Black institution, which is traditionally the case. The church has been there a very long time. Our first formal organizations were churches that emerged, in the record, in the 18th century, right around the time of the Revolutionary War. The African church: Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, those are old organizations, The Mutual Aid Societies in the churches etc. So that it makes sense that the single most prestigious organizations in Black life were the churches and the schools. The preacher is the first leader, people pay attention to preachers and they always have, and in some cases, it's a wonderful idea. We are very, very lucky that Martin Luther King was a great man and did not take all that charismatic force and take us to Jonestown and give us poison Kool-Aid instead of take us to civil rights. We are very lucky, we are blessed that that happened. Or that Malcolm X was not some kind of egomaniacal fool who was just concerned about what he could get out of his power. We aren't always lucky. We were lucky in those two very powerful cases of the 20th century. The world is lucky that Ghandi was Ghandi and not some "ego-jones." At some powerful moments in this century, the leaders were people using the charisma to redeem, to transform and not to destroy others or aggrandize themselves. So preachers today, and it has always been true, can take their people towards the transformative social good or can take them backward toward slavery. As far as I'm concerned anything that's reversing the direction, is going back in a direction that I don't want to go: toward slavery. Even if you're doing it in the name of "Black"; I don't care if the king is Black, I'm not interested in kings and monarchy, period. The church, given its powerful position in Black communities, can absolutely introduce a new idea and people will listen to it. Whereas if I said it, they would just say "Oh, well you know that's just Hortense, and a woman at that". Other women would say that. Whereas if a man, a dude, said it and he's the preacher, they're gonna listen to him. A politically conscious, politically progressive ministry today could do a lot towards helping us move away from drugs, prostitution, destructive behavior, violence. It doesn't make sense for children to be killing children and dropping children out of windows, this is ridiculous; in Black communities, among Black people, it's bullshit. We can do something about that. We would need some help, but we can do something about that and the Nation of Islam has shown the way on that. Its social redemption programs have worked where nothing else has worked. So I know we can do that. So something really simple like opening the church up to discussion groups. I realize it might be a little dangerous for the preacher to try to play therapist, but discussion groups are possible; there's nothing wrong with that. It seems to me that that's one thing that is possible. I saw a beautiful thing just the other day on television. There is, in Washington, DC, a mother-daughter reading group. Black mothers and their daughters read books together and they go sit and talk about the books. So that means that a girl fourteen-years old has more access to her mother and vice-versa, and that might help her set her sights on something other than a baby next spring, or this boy down the block or wherever the hell he is. It might help to keep her looking up because she now has something to look to. It's intellectual development, it's practice in reading and interpretation, it brings young and old together, mothers and families together-what a great idea. What's to keep reading groups in churches from springing up around the same idea, to which the preacher goes, from time to time, as the leader in connection with other people? It might be a wonderful lesson for people in the congregation to see the minister sitting down listening to somebody else talk for a change, that might be a good lesson, too. So why can't the churches do that? That's the kind of thing I had in mind. I believe that that kind of thing can work. It would be a way of re-attracting people like myself, a lapsed Baptist who grew up in the Baptist church. But I don't go now because, I suspect that the discourse I want to hear, and that is taking up issues in religion, world religions, Christianity, its great writings, scholarship on the Bible, that I'm not going to hear that. But I am gonna hear some stuff that, to me, is going to sound like Santa Claus. I'm going to say yeah, "it's really lovely to be in a fellowship with other people, but I really want to hear someone who is doing this work in a way that is a little smarter and more interesting." I know that's what I'm going to say, and that saying so is not very nice. So I stay away. But if there's a reading group or somebody talking about some interesting questions, I would love to hear that. I think Black preaching is very powerful interesting stuff, but I'm not going to go and be bored. What a transformative movement or moment we could have if the churches, through their ministers, just relaxed enough not to be threatened by educated people; there's always such selfishness and fear, people are afraid that if we start opening up this thing to questioning, then somebody might ask me some important question one day, as in "What are you doing here, driving your Mercedes Benz, when there are people in this church who can't eat?" And that would be an appropriate question. I'm for ministers opening themselves up to criticism, opening their practices up to criticism, absolutely. But not many are going to do that. Because they don't, they miss an occasion to really carry out some good work. This is not just a Sunday thing; we're here, we're concerned about people on the street, people knocking each other in the head, people on welfare and trying to get work, and the ways in which it's going to make people suffer. We're concerned about children in poverty, children not learning, children graduating from high school illiterate. We're concerned about it, let's do something about it. There should really be institutions that care, and discussion groups I think can lead people to self-reflection, self-criticism, a reflection on individual behavior, to a greater self-discipline, in order for the whole institution to become less exclusive, if only we could just think about some of church's aims in a different sense.
TH: Is this the distinction you made between the 'speaking' and 'talking' "cure", a different paradigm of the analyst/analysand or patient/therapist? That it can take place also in speaking and contemplation?
HS: Yes, that's right, and perhaps an anecdote might drive it home. I have heard over the years. A very good friend of mine, who is dead now, who lived in Boston and someone I was very close to when I was at Brandeis, used to talk about households that were "very verbal." We were in a Jewish university, and this person was talking about how verbal Jewish households are, that children grow up very verbal, and of course Gentile households are very verbal; or mostly, in a certain class formation, they are. There are certain children from those two cultures who are just astonishingly conversational, little; three, four years old, voluble, talking, curious. You say to a little boy "What's your name?" and he says "James, and you know what I saw today?" and he starts talking to you and drawing little figures and he can hardly get the words out, and then I think that's really remarkable, that means that somebody is talking to him, and he is awash, already, in the language so that when he gets to be six years old and somebody hands him a book, that's not going to be a problem for him because he's been talking all his life. That's what I mean when I refer to this 'talking' in the essay. I have a feeling that a lot of our children grow up silenced; "Shut up, I don't have time for you, what are you talking about?" People are short-tempered, sometimes, overworked, irritable, not enough money, not enough resources to go around. So you want these "chaps" to shut up so you can get done what you need to do and get them into bed, so they can get up and go to school. The child is not getting an exposure to ideas and, most of all, is not granted the license to speak, to talk. That's where monosyllabic children come from, and you see it in certain young adults: "How you doing?" "OK", "What's up?" "Nothing." And that's because they were smacked down growing up, they didn't get a chance to talk enough and just run their mouth like little children are supposed to do, even if it annoys you. I have a feeling that I could be wrong about this, empirically, but I don't think so; it would be a very valuable project for a sociologist, a linguist, a psychoanalyst, or psychologist, to find out if my claim is actually right: to track certain Black households over a period of years; children between walking and six years old to find out what actually happens in the everyday life of those families regarding children and the English language. My hunch is that not enough children get to swim in language because someone is always telling them to "shut up, you're not talking about anything." By the time the person reaches his/her five, thirtieth, fiftieth birthday, even older, they're used to repressing what they're thinking, they might in fact be used to repressing thinking. So you've got to open up those floodgates; that's what the discussion groups in the churches will help to do. I've heard people call in these television programs and their voices shake sometimes. We all can get a little flustered, but I'm asking how much of it is due to thinking that you're going to get knocked down, rejected, laughed at, called 'stupid,' or the ideas are not there for you, or you're not used to formulating ideas in public and putting sentences together. People have to have practice at that. I mean the of early human and social laboratory of family; we don't think that's what we're doing. We're just getting through the weekend, but that space is a laboratory, that's really training people to live their lives. That's what I want to see Black people exposed to more. Systematically, so that you would have to work with certain adults as if they were children. You've got to give them the license to speak and tell you what's on their mind, without feeling ashamed or that they have nothing to say. You do you have something to say. You have a lot to say. Say it, let's work on it. That's what I have in my mind. My thinking is that too many Black people are horribly repressed linguistically and when they get the opportunity to develop those skills, they do very well. But I want to see it available to millions of people. So, people speaking in small groups, family groups, church groups, Y groups, club groups, reading groups, are all a way of going about it. I believe, and this might be naive belief, that's where agency starts; the physical body moving through material space and the freedom to do that is the analogy or model: the kids have to walk but if you keep smacking them down, they ain't never gonna learn how to walk, run, jump. That, to me, is a fundamental freedom, the freedom to physically achieve mobility and the next thing is verbal agility and language, and that is intellectual agency. It begins with this little kid jabbering away, nonsense syllables, and somebody says "that's so cute, isn't that brilliant?" He hasn't said anything, but it grows into consciousness, into human agency that way. I bank a lot on the verbal, and that's the second freedom behind the freedom of the body-the freedom of the mind, of language that feeds the development of human personality. That's a very powerful idea in Black culture because for a long, long, long time, through the centuries of slavery, there were strictures on intellectual development, I don't know any other society or civilization that barred people from the book, from reading. If there had been just one coercion not imposed, just one of those strictures, either the physical or the mental, I think we would have come out ahead. But once you put a practice like that in place, even if you change it, then the ones put upon have a lot of ground to cover, catching up. We're still coming off that stricture that intellectual work is something that white people do, that Europeans do, not something that black-skinned people do. There's nothing inherently illiterate or un-intellectual about African cultures, but they were made that way in New World experience. So, you've got that centuries long process. Now, if it's ingrained enough, maybe you get genetic coding for it and people pass their attitudes on. It really does bother me that even though we're improving, but we don't do as well on those "objective" tests as I think we could do. Perhaps there are those who think that we shouldn't even do those tests, and inadvertently pass on destructive views about black intelligence. To correct those attitudes, you engage work around literacy; you try to open up the access. If you can get the child to start jabbering away, to give him or her the space to do that and try to channel it, but don't ever try to box it in, but you're looking at someone who's going to turn out to be a pretty intelligent individual. You're going to get more kids in college, fewer drop-outs. If you can drive that idea among the men, and the young men in relationship to the young women, because that's where the babies are coming from, then perhaps we can make some headway. Crack addicted children, who the fuck needs it? Nobody needs any of that stuff. We certainly don't need it. You can cut down on defeat by trying to drive some of these ideas through the culture now. You can work on race pride without the appeal to mysticism. I want to see people ready to live in the world, and then they can choose to whatever focus they want, which would certainly include Afrocentricity, but it might also be a Black person who's going to concentrate on Japanese, Balinese culture, whatever they want to follow. That's what I want to see. I want programs, I want policy, I want discourse, I want spokespersons, all pointing to that future, where, at long last, Black generations can be whatever they wish to be. I don't like the idea that my community is always bringing up the rear on intelligence tests. I don't think that's in the plan, that it is written to be so. I don't think there's anything wrong with Black intelligence at all. And I'll kick these pseudo-scientists in the behind if they walk in here and tell me that. I don't believe there's anything wrong with Black genetic structure, Black brain power, ain't nothing wrong with it. But we've got to change some things in the outer and the inner and we're going to have to do some of that ourselves. That's the culture work, that's the political work, that's what I think Black intellectuals should be talking about, among other things. For me, that's where the literacy/psychoanalytic/theoretical thing is pointing, it's pointing to those questions. How do you increase human agency under conditions that are not ideal, even though they are a lot better than they were, and they're improving? There's now a larger Black middle-class. Some of the most powerful icons in American society today are Black. Here's Oprah Winfrey, in a trial in Texas not because she's Sophia escaped from the movie Color Purple, but because some very powerful guys in Texas have said "this women is responsible for our losing millions of dollars because she's so powerful." What an idea? It's a powerful idea. Bill Cosby. OJ Simpson, who is that same sign interpreted negatively, but those are three of the most powerful people of the last half-century. We're somewhere else in the culture today that's really a hell of a lot different, socially, than the one I grew up in. But we still have a lot to do. The largest segment of the prison population is Black, we're bringing up the rear on all the achievement tests. In proportion to our numbers, many of the poor people in the country are Black, dependant on welfare. All of these social outcomes are symptoms. People all talk about them as though they were, inherent human properties, however and that's false, because some of those conditions are out of our hands, are systemic to an ongoing racialist culture.
TH: Going back a little bit to repression. I wanted to ask you about slavery in terms of the lack of work, not just scholarly, that's done around the idea of the Middle Passage and slavery as a violent, traumatic event, the trauma which can be inter-generationally "transmitted". There is some small body of literature on the Holocaust in relation to those questions, but there seems to be so little from any direction, except the pathologizing impulses of the Right (Charles Murray, The Moynihan report, et. al.) Obviously, it's a painful area to approach and there'd be hesitancies about doing that. Why is not taken more seriously as a massive trauma that has its effects, that is not simply an historical fact, but that it is very much present?
HS: I've thought a lot about that: How different historical events get packaged. The Holocaust is packaged in a certain kind of way, slavery is packaged in another kind of way. I don't know if we're talking about a question of timing, or not, if Amnesty International, and The Geneva Convention had been around two hundred years ago, slavery would have been considered crimes against humanity, and we would have been talking about, in effect, trials for war criminals. We can now read slavery retrospectively as crimes against humanity, even though abolitionists were reading it that way then. Certain critical and theoretical tools like the term "trauma" and post-traumatic stress syndrome are new critical tools. The body in pain, outlined in Elaine Scarry's book, none of that was available in the eighteenth century even though we can now see how that application has taken place. Because the Holocaust was so recent, within my lifetime, that Amnesty International, The Geneva Convention, the United Nations, all of that, in part, grew out of the experience of the Second World War. So we're just coming into a lot of those tools that will help us re-fashion our understanding of slavery. That's one of the reasons why so many people are going back to look at slavery, because they want to see new things that can be understood about a phenomenon that is inexhaustible, if you look at it through the eyes of speculative instruments that we have evolved in the contemporary world. I think that's one reason why slavery presents itself to me now, for instance, as a society having a massive psychotic episode. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere in American society between 1619, when the first Africans landed at Jamestown, and about 1942, when I was born. And certainly nowhere in it before the twentieth century, but the first fifty years of the twentieth century were a period of terrorism for Black people in certain places. I only gradually understood why my mother is so crazy in terms of her children and keeping them close to her; we were in the South, and terrible things happened to Black people in the South. That sticks in the mind of a mother and a father raising four children, two of them males. They're gonna look at their youngsters and think, "Oh my God, if they go outta this house, they may never come back." Emmett Till didn't come back one day. This society was an extraordinarily dangerous place for a long time unless you were, not just a white man, but you had to have been a European of a certain class. You had to own property to be safe. So that if you were in Virginia in the 17th century, there were eight categories of servants to which you could belong; servants, indentured servants and slaves, with Indians and Black people bringing up the rear. If you were anywhere along the hierarchy, you were subject to fines of one sort or another; subject to being whipped. If at a certain point in the life of the economy of Virginia a poor white person had a liaison with a Black person, and you were caught at it, you could be arrested or whipped for that. You could have had a couple of years added on to your indenture. The Black person could be put into slavery in perpetuity. I wouldn't have wanted to be a part of that at all; as the country worked out what it was going to be in relationship to the notion of democracy. It had to define democracy against some people who were slaves. It would have been an absolutely terrible experience to live through. Within the South, at a particular moment, I would not have wanted to have been someone without property; in some ways, each generation has to go back over that moment, those moments, because they're always with us. However, I wouldn't have minded being a spirit, perhaps, who has been living here since the 17th century, to get a perspective on how this society has evolved. I think we have become, as bad as we still are, more civilized in certain respects. And I think that what we are looking at now appears to be a certain kind of incoherence in the criminal justice system; I think it's a sign that perhaps a new human form is evolving, still evolving, but its work, of course, is incomplete. We do terrible things, that are absolutely not civil. You have a death row, which is questionable anyway; but you've got it there, in Texas, for example. A woman comes along and takes up a pick axe and kills two people. You throw her in jail, you put her on death row. Now it's time to kill her and some people want the world to stop, want Governor Bush to forgive her, want the Supreme Court to take it up. There are other people And then they're other people out there saying, "no, kill her." I'm thinking, if you've got death row, and this lady really was guilty, I think you're going to have to kill her. And her finding Christ doesn't have anything to do with what the state has to do. Christ is above the state. But how's the state going to mediate, going to negotiate that? And if you're going to keep her off death row, then you've got to get rid of it for everybody. Because everybody can now claim "I'm a born-again Christian, so you can't kill me." So the society is schizophrenic, it doesn't know what the fuck it wants. Or that woman in Massachusetts, Louise Woodard, who, I really believe killed that little boy; the British nanny. All of Britain went "nuts" about this girl, and she got off, and I think she really killed this kid. That's the kind of thing you look at and you say "Huh?" Schizophrenic. Some people you want to kill, some you don't, some it's OK, some it's not. That's because this society is torn between our own inclination toward violence and barbarity toward one another and our own reaching and striving to be something that we're not quite yet. So we're inconsistent. You either have capital punishment or you don't. All the States should have it or not. Is killing another person a good idea? Probably not. But we don't know how to negotiate that. Character counts, but then some people think it might not count, so that you get this schizophrenic thing about Clinton in the news. People are saying "Yeah, he lied," as we all suspect, but "he's doing a great job." So what do you do with that? Every generation has to take up the issue of slavery again, because it's not gone.
TH: I thinking about some of the things you discussed in "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" (see: Hortense Spillers. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book". Diacritics vol. 17, no. 2 Summer 1987)and along a similar line, what Elizabeth Alexander talked about in her essay "How Can You Be BLACK and Look At This?: Watching The Rodney King Video". (see: Elizabeth Alexander. "How Can You Be BLACK and Look At This?: Watching The Rodney King Video". Public Culture vol. 7 no. 4 1994) She takes up some of the things you talk about in "Mama's Baby..." in terms of the idea of memory carried in the flesh, which is what I think you get at, if I'm not misreading your piece; as distinct from the body. You talk about the flesh and the body, and is there a way in which that has to do with trauma being passed on? You talked about the flesh being "seared, ripped-apart" the notion that the markings can be, metaphorically, I don't mean to be flip about it, transmitted generationally; on the psyche also. Would you mind talking about that a bit?
HS: In some ways, I don't believe in the collective unconscious, or racial unconscious, because if that's true then that means that we will all never be anything but haunted, each generation. If that's true, then there is an original sin, it has not been ransomed or somebody has paid the price for that, and if that's so, then we're talking about human and social fatalism and historical fatalism that I don't think I can afford to believe; that I don't want to believe.. But if that's so, then human agency is not going to make any difference. In some ways, politically speaking and aesthetically speaking, I can't believe it because that would then make a lot of what else I believe untrue or questionable. I'm not sure that I believe that pain is transmitted genetically or by way of some kind of genetic imprint on the socionom, that carries with it the memory of pain. I don't know if I want to go that far. I do think that there is a body of history that's coded for memory, and that that's what's being passed down in some symbolic and discursive and narratological sense; the latter is almost as powerful as genetic coding, or genetic imprint. I think that the generations of slavery did carry pain in the flesh, that information was passed through the body in pain or through the torn flesh. But I would also have to believe that the child of that mother and father can start anew. But the body of history is something I would like to think about, the palpable nature of memory and how that gets passed on. But to make it genetic, I think, would be something I'd be reluctant to do.
TH: In that essay, she takes up some of what you talk about in "Mama's Baby..." not in terms of a collective unconscious, but of your notion of the "body of history". She talks about watching the Rodney King beating and what she calls a "bottom line Blackness that temporarily erases other differentiation" for Black people, the witnessing of such violence against a Black person is something that brings the "body of history" alive in violent, traumatic ways.
HS: I think that's absolutely right. In the Boundary 2 piece, I try to differentiate the rhythms of everyday life in reference to Rodney King. I physically experienced the Rodney King event in the sense that I didn't just watch that on television. I watched it and trembled, it frightened me. It was like somebody had dropped a bomb somewhere in the world and we were at war. That's what I felt like in the streets of North Carolina, on leave that year. It traumatized me. So, Elizabeth (Alexander) is absolutely right. You looked at that and you thought "The shit's on." I felt something like on the day that the verdict came back in the O.J. Simpson trial, sitting right here in this apartment; I thought, I am a Black person and all my neighbors are white, all around me and up and down, and as far as the eye can see. At that time, Lois Brown, who is a colleague, who now lives on the second floor of this building, lived three blocks away from here. She's now right downstairs. That's the closest Black person that I know near me. But she just moved here. But this recognition came two years ago. My idea that the Black person could get hemmed in really does mean that you can be vulnerable to your physical person being assaulted in a certain kind of way. One feels that. I sat here and was alert to every footstep, every voice, every noise, because Black and white America just split right down the middle on that decision. There are some Black people who think that O.J. Simpson is an asshole, like I do. And some Black people wished Black people would stop cheering and that white people would stop weeping and that we would all say, "well, it's not a big deal." But those days right around in there, I really did feel that, perhaps, white people were going to riot. And that if I were caught somewhere in a minority, that it was just going to be terrible. There are moments like that, when on feels it. So I think that maybe one of those moments she's (Alexander) talking about, where the memory of what you have been told, what you understand, what you know vicariously, and/or that you've lived through yourself, is the King moment, the Simpson moment, as instances that she's addressing.
TH: Subsequent to Alexander's essay, there was a monograph by Paul Gilroy, and he can sometimes be a punitive anti-essentialist. He really took exception to her notion of "bottom-line Blackness", because for him, ultimately, that was an essentialist idea. But, I found that it struck me as disturbing, as a punitive anti-essentialist rebuke. (see: Paul Gilroy. The Status of Difference: From Epidermalisation to Nano-Politics. London: Goldsmiths College, Centre for Urban and Community Research, Occasional Papers, 1995)
HS: The world does not always conduct itself according to the theoretical models that we carry around in our heads, and which emanate from humanities and cultural studies programs. It does not. There are moments when an essentialist response is called forth because you're dealing with people who believe in essentialism. Those cops from Simi Valley believed that this nigger was going to do something to them. That's what they believed in New York when they stuffed that toilet plunger up that man's behind. Does he think that can't happen to him?
TH: I've taken up a lot of your time, and I wonder if I could conclude by asking a couple of more "mundane" questions?
TH: I wanted to ask what you're working on. I've heard mention of "In The Flesh: A Situation for Feminist Inquiry"
HS: I'm working on that.
TH: And then a book, "Peter's Pans," a collection of essays.
HS: I'm working on that too.
TH: Are those going to contain some of your older work?
HS: The "Peter's Pans" I want to have as a collection of essays that would be based on selected old essays and two new pieces. "In The Flesh.." takes "Mama's Baby...." and attempts to expand it. So, last year, I was working on the introduction to the latter book.
TH: That's what you were working on at Stanford last year?
HS: Yes. That's what I'm trying to hammer out now. That's what I'm going to be working on. The opening chapter is this issue of the Black woman intellectual and her placement in relationship to feminists, and Black men, and the academy, and those are the issues that I'm trying to work out. So that will have in it that piece, the "Mama's Baby.." piece expanded, a piece on the mulatto figure which is an expansion of an essay in the 'The Difference Within.' It's based on an essay called "Neither/Nor: Notes on an Alternative Model" (see Hortense Spillers. "Neither/Nor: Notes on an Alternative Model" in eds. Michael Sprinker, Mike Davis, and Manning Marable. Year Left 2 NY: Verso, 1987) There's a piece that will take up novels about slavery, and a piece called "Keywords" that will take off from Raymond Williams.
TH: You talked about expanding Williams' keywords in one of your essays.
HS: The closing chapter is sort of a cross between fiction and scholarship, or fiction and expository prose, that's going to raise this question of one cutting loose from the group, called "The Uses of Salt." So, it's a book with six chapters in it, and an introduction. There's also a piece on value, which takes up the question of "chattels personal," that mark a kind of contradiction.
TH: You mentioned the fiction, and I wanted to ask about your fiction writing. You wrote a couple of short stories in Essence and The Black Scholar in the '70s. (see: Hortense Spillers. "Isom" Essence May 1975 and "Lament" The Black Scholar n. 8 March 1977) What is your view of the position of a scholar who is also a 'creative' writer? I was thinking of other writers who maintain academic careers, like V.Y. Mudimbe, Harryette Mullen, or Elizabeth Alexander. How do you view that tension?
HS: It's wonderful. It's terrific. If there's one thing I hate, it's that I've been in the profession so long that my professional obligations are such that I cannot easily produce scholarship and fiction at the same time. The drive towards tenure, promotions, and to go through all of that has required me to drop one, but I'm just chomping at the bit to get back to fiction.
TH: The sense that I get to be honest, that we discussed when we put together these questions, is that a lot of your theoretical writing is very much prose-like, it has a certain lyrical quality to it, not to be too sycophantic, but a quality that distinguishes it from a lot of theory, which doesn't have, perhaps, the same rhetorical force, or narrative drive as a lot of your work. It seem like you put quite a lot of the energy of fiction into your theory, as a reader that's the sense that I get.
HS: That's nice of you to say. If that's true, that's fine. I have always felt that writing did have an aesthetic dimension that I've always tried to honor, that you try to write beautifully and that maybe it can be serviceable in that way. I really want to get back to my fiction. I have a lot that I'm working on; when I stopped working on fiction, a novel was there, and I still have it. I've wanted to send somebody a piece of it the year before last, when Essence was doing its twenty-fifth anniversary, because I won an award for them for one of my stories. I wrote the three stories that were published in The Black Scholar and in Essence, and then I stopped and concentrated on scholarship. I have a novel I want to put back in progress, about the Sixties, set on a campus that shall remain nameless, but looks a lot like Brandeis.
Back to Hortense Spillers front page I Back to Black Cultural Studies front page