On the Spot with Monica Miller

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

monicaQ: Identity and identification are words the members of Culture on the Edge are using to stand in for two different, and likely opposed, scholarly approaches to the study of who we see ourselves and others as being; whereas the first presumes a stable inner quality or sentiment only later projected outward into the public world, the latter starts with a series of public practices and social situations that are eventually interiorized. In your own research specialty – Hip Hop culture and rap music in particular, but also the wider field of the study of African American religion — can you illustrate the difference between these two approaches?

A: Much of what constitutes the study of “Hip Hop” “rap music” and “African American religion” is grounding in, and study of, identity itself. In other words, these terms are more often used to connote “something” of the cultural practices, histories, and life worlds of people of color in particular sorts of ecologies (i.e., diasporic, urban, poor, oppressed, marginal, and so on). For example, “Hip Hop” is often described as a cultural development with beginnings and roots, for and by working class black youth, in economically depressed urban environments. In a similar vein, rap music, the lyrical wing of Hip Hop is often understood and described as, the “voice” of marginal youth and oppressed groups and African American religion is often presented as, and thought to be, an area of study resulting from an admixture and combinative of African diasporic and New World sensibilities, resulting in a cosmology that signifies aspects of black struggle, civic engagement, politics, and a tent for black concerns regarding limited life options and meaning making as a response to the fixity of identity. Of course, these examples and short descriptions are not exhaustive of what such contested terms mean, come to mean, are thought to express in the discourses at large. That my descriptions above are only representative doesn’t take away from the large role that identity plays in and about such discourse – almost functioning as a functioning centering. In other words, these discourses are thought to represent, say something about, reflect, and speak for and on behalf of identities themselves. As such, questions regarding agency, appropriation, and authenticity are largely involved in the academic debates surrounding these areas of study. Due to the weighty and large role that identity (as a self evident and conscious thing) plays in and around such discourse – concerns regarding representational politics (who gets to represent, how and in what way, who can represent, who is represented [and as such, left out], what voices are operative, and so on) loom large – thus producing a tension between what is seen as an opposition between the discursive and theoretical and that which is classified as material/empirical/embodied. Most of which is largely rooted in conversations related to power (i.e., who can speak for who/what groups), historical memory (i.e., certain sorts of universal and trans-historical essences can be seen/are exemplified in certain cultural data that ties and binds black identity in the larger African Diaspora), consciousness (i.e., subjects are fully aware of why they do what they do), and time and space (i.e., voices can be recovered and (re)presented from the past).

All of that to say, these areas of study are thought to express the feelings, meanings, practices, worldview, voices, etc of the people/groups/communities under study (in this case, people of the African Diaspora) and is often undergirded by an existentialist concern and pulse over life meaning, struggle, and liberation.

A shift away from a focus on “identity” itself (as an interiorized thing/essence/feeling/disposition) towards an examination of the processes by which these things come to be understood as x, y, or z and for what/whose interests is largely what I find curious and take as my starting point. That is to say, I am interested in the historical and contingent rather than, say for example, uncovering a common transhistorical essence that binds things together, or are evidenced in particular sorts of practices over others. While others who write in and about these areas might describe their work as “speaking for and on behalf of x, y, and z voices,” for example, I wouldn’t characterize my work/approach as doing such. I am less interested in “taking sides” so to speak regarding the “meaning” or “experience” or “identity” of Hip Hop or African American religion (the contestation over and regarding what counts as authentically and legitimately x, y, z), rather, I’m much more involved in studying the contestation itself – in fact, I think that is all we can and do study at the end of the day.

My academic interest in identification means that I don’t study “identities” (aka “voices” of my data) themselves, rather, analytically, I examine the process, tools, strategies by which such things become manufactured, for what purposes, and what/whose interests such constructions serve. As such, my objects of study are not voices, bodies, intentions, or memory of the past’s past; rather, they are (and only ever can be) discursive, historical, contingent, and not self-evident.

Q: Given this difference in approach, when did you make a shift to seeing identity as the tip of a prior social and behavioral iceberg that we can study and which has a history? Was the shift in response to a particular empirical issue or difficulty in studying your material that you were trying to solve?

A: During my graduate studies, I became highly interested in the data of Hip Hop – finding the many uses and shout-outs to religion in rappers’ lyrics and imagery that pervaded music videos to be worth examining. While I found this to be fascinating, there were little theoretical and methodological resources to critically parse out what I was seeing and hearing. With the exception of a few books and articles out there, I had very little to work with when I began writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic. Because of this, I literally wrote the book I wish I had when I was writing what became my first book on religion in hip hop. Moreover, I became frustrated with the all too common cookie cutter approach to identity vis-à-vis religion in Hip Hop often couched within an essentialist frame of analysis (whether it be Christianity, Blackness, etc) and within a certain protectionist confessional approach grounded in hermeneutically uncovering belief, meaning, truth, and something of human nature. In the beginning of Religion and Hip Hop I write about why I had to “begin again” by deleting most of what I had and start over from a new vantage point and understanding of the academic category of religion. The former approach to my data was influenced by an assumption that my “objects” of study (such as “meaning”) could be isolated and uncovered while preserving the voices and identity of the groups that I was studying. Long bouts of frustration in never being able to fully “represent” the “essence” of meaning or identity in my work led me to take up a new approach to what I thought I was studying at the time. This new vantage point was fundamentally influenced by a more postmodern/critical approach to identity, meaning, practices, and so on. For example, the more common questions, “what is religious about rap music?” or “what is black about hip hop culture” were flipped on their head and examined in new ways (i.e., what do uses of religious rhetoric in hip hop accomplish for competing social and cultural interests?). The shift in my work was largely in response to the realization of the scholars’ inability to isolate/extract/represent/uncover the meaning of one signifier or another.

Q: What types of undergraduate courses have you taught and are there particularly good examples of how the theoretical issues of importance to Culture on the Edge arise in these classes? And how do your students respond to the invitation to rethink how identity works?

A: I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses on African American Religious History, The Sociology of Religion in Hip Hop, African American Religion & Popular Culture, Anxious Identities in Postmodernity, Black Religions in Hip Hop, and Youth, Popular Culture, and the Construction of Meaning – all of these courses, in a variety of ways, highlight how we, at Culture on the Edge, treat/approach identity and identification in our areas of interest. For example, the question of “origins” “authenticity” and “agency” are often grappled with in these courses when discussing the “starting point” for a particular discourse (i.e., Hip Hop as a cultural development that arises in a particular urban geography by a very specific group of young people with a calculated interest in speaking about x, y, and z representative of very localized issues dealt with by certain folk and communities against the backdrop of postindustrialism, etc). I try to get students to understand such narratives as part of creation narratives/and myths that are historically specific and recapitulated and universalized with a wide variety of social interests in mind. That is, attention is shifted away a discussion over “the real ‘beginnings’ of Hip Hop” towards how such beginnings are constructed, for what purposes and ends, according to what social actors, and so on. As mentioned above in question #1, I’m less interested in the contest over which narratives are authentically best or which identities were “really” responsible for the creation of particular cultural developments, but rather, try to enable pedagogical opportunities to examine how and why competing origin narratives are constructed.  Initially, students often respond defensively, especially when dealing with data that is assumed to be grounded in identity based experiences. More often than not, students feel a sort of anxiety in losing the what they see to be the “fundamental foundation” of what it is they are talking/reading about or a sense of bewilderment regarding analyzing the category of experience or authenticity for example as a mere placeholder for other operative things (ideology) that need examination. Mostly, making unstable that which they hold and want to continue to see as stable is always jarring at first. This brings to mind a particular semester of teaching the Anxious Identities course where each section of the course dealt with how a specific aspect of identity is treated from a wide variety of perspectives/approaches (i.e., critical race theory, queer theory, etc.) across disciplines. It is common in such courses for students to speak from “first hand” accounts of race, gender, sexuality and so on – thus each week, was fodder for the contestation between one group and another. Over time, students began to see that they’d be more willing to take say an essentialist and phenomenological approach to one identity category (when it was in their interest to do so) – or when they could speak from the privileged, privatized position of their own experiences (vis-à-vis firsthand accounts) which they came to see cannot be universalized) and then, a more critical/social constructionist approach to another category of identity (again, when it served best their interests). Over time, we were able to, together, see how involved (and complicit and vested with human interest) the identity game is and therefore became much more interested in examining the competing responses as data – as strategies that worked hard to preserve/protect one thing or another. Another great example which is representative of the types of issues that we work on in Culture on the Edge is evidenced in the competition that would often ensue when one person of one identity group attempted to universalize their experiences as representative of all members in that group – thus students were able to see how contingency works regarding the category of experience. Over time, students would begin to read course materials, engage each other and challenge their own selves in really new and exciting ways. Such courses also have presented stellar opportunities to deal with the many ways in which we often think of identity in hierarchical ways through privileging one identity category as unique over others (i.e. maleness operates as utterly different/distinct from femaleness). Such plastic distinctions begin to break down over the course of the semester when students themselves find that the line that serves to distinguish one thing from another is indeed a human construction. Thus the line that is initially seen to “naturally” divide “this” and “that” is, over time, becomes the very thing analyzed (who makes the lines, why, for what purposes) rather than studying the “distinct domains” produced by the very lines constructed. We can therefore begin to see the lines as contested sites of human action. The invitation to rethink identity is always one that initially causes much anxiety, which we then use as a topic of conversation, apply to our readings and class discussions – in the end, students realize that we’ve not so much analyzed “identity” as a “a priori self-evident thing” but rather, and in using our own selves/dilemmas and conversations as data itself, have come to study the discourse, positionalities, curiosities and operational acts in the formation of this thing we call identity.

Q: Why do you suppose some people find the approach to identity studies represented by such scholars as Jean-Francois Bayart, who has influenced Culture on the Edge, to be controversial?

A: Exposing the theoretical fiction that is “Identity” is like destabilizing the very ground upon which people think they stand. In other words, as hinted above, and so poignantly demonstrated by thinkers such as Bayart, Butler, and the like – that the thing(s) we call identity are in and of themselves organizing structures and principles creating an illusion of coherence and unity where there really is none is a very anxiety producing gesture for many. Thus, such anxiety creates for many, a “crisis” of meaning – a certain sort of existential panic generated by a perceived lack of certainty of the self. It is for this reason, I believe, that prescriptive qualifiers such as “embodied” “material” and “fleshy” are so often paired/used in conjunction with other descriptors and markers of identity (we see the same trend in the study of religion), thus attempting to make more “real” that which is in reality discursive and theoretical (hence so many debates regarding a constructed separation between theory and practice/praxis). I find the push pull with identity to be fascinating, especially by those who claim to take a postmodern/critical approach where on one hand subjects find themselves arguing for a more multiplicative, performative and fluid stance to identity and difference (when they feel that difference is being constrained in and through sameness), while on the other, trading/altering such an approach for a more essentialist and stable portrait of identity when needing to be more strategic about claims to/about (their own) identity and the identity of other “group members.” The claim by Bayart that, “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification,” for instance, forces us to consider identity, not as a thing, that is “there” – but rather – the product and effect of citational acts that become naturalized, and therefore unquestioned, over time. Most assume that insomuch as identity does not “exist” as an isolatable “thing” is to imply that the effects of identification don’t have consequences in the social world, thus why power is often inserted into the conversation as something to distinguish and leverage how we talk about certain identities over and against others. Thus, the trouble to see/understand identity and identification in the way that Bayart and others push seem to be centered on/grounded in an erroneous occupation and anxiety over what is understood as a loss or injury to the perception of uniqueness and distinction of the self.

Read Monica‘s Culture on the Edge posts here.

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