Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to be a Successful Artist

Butler's commentary about her lack of self-confidence as a young black writer and Conor's concern about reading blackness into an a-racial narrative reminded me of the above video by Hennessy Youngman. The video - which contains "the n word"* - highlights the tendency of critics to read the minority status of an artist into artwork. In reflecting on the video I noticed how, even in our own class discussions, we’ve fallen into this discursive trap. Orson Well’s radio play was never cast as product of his suburban, Caucasian upbringing and a radical reification/reaction against white essentialism. Our classroom discussion of Tiptree, however, was primarily concerned with her gender, sexuality and even the courses she took her freshman year of college.

In resolving the “a-historicity” of white males should we, as critical readers, bear our tools of autobiographical inference on the white, heterosexual male too? Or should we simply do away any and all autobiographical interpretations of readings? Is it productive, or even possible, to divorce the writer from their work?

Butler’s writing, in particular, is focused on a specific interplay and reimagination of race and gendered experience. It seems quit bizarre to attempt a reading of “Blood Child” without paying special attention to the gendered experience of pregnancy. In Butler’s interview on Radio Imagination she claims that she imagines her characters as bodiless and it is only in the act of writing that she genders, sexes and races them (Mehaffy and Keating 50). The characters, like people, have a internal free floating personality that is brought into conflict with external classifications and racialized/species-specific scripts for them to perform.

Choosing an appropriate analytical lens for understanding the world and worldview of Butler may be something of an impossible project. I am tempted to liberate her from the assumption that “blackness” is the primary determinant of a works meaning but that does a certain violence to her lived experience. Perhaps Butler provides her an alternative. A confused interviewer wonders how Butler can be unconcerned about biological determinism and Butler responds:

Don't worry about the real biological determinism. Worry about what people make of it. Worry about the social Darwinism. What we have to do is learn to work with it and to work against people who see it as a good reason to let the poor be poor, that kind of thing-the social Darwinism: "They must be poor because of their genes," that kind of foolishness. [Mehaffy and Keating 57]

It is possible to read racial autobiography into the work but only insofar as such a reading doesn’t obscure other, equally valid, interpretations. To assert the role of blackness over themes of, say, patriarchy is to work against the multitudinous narratives working within Butler’s texts.

* that means "nigga"


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