Reading Stuart Hall Through Matana Roberts' album COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee
Jennifer Lorraine Fraser
February 23 2015
This paper is a critical response to cultural theorist, Stuart Hall’s text Cultural Identity and Diaspora, and how it can relate to work by musician Matana Roberts’ and her newly released album COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee. My focus is on what Hall terms as ‘the imaginary,’ and how it constructs the identity of individuals. The paper will consist of three sections, the first outlining Hall’s argument concerning the formation of identity within diasporic, migratory, and scattered peoples. Secondly, I will introduce American artist Matana Roberts, the review of her latest project by critic Jackson Scott[i], and how she vocalizes her own history in performance, art and music, and finally I will discuss how Hall’s theories of cultural identity offer instruction in how to analyze perceptions of identity formation.
Writing in 1989, Hall’s thesis for Cultural Identity and Diaspora remains complex, it signaled a new organization in understanding identity, within individuals, and in what signifies as culture within a group. Cultural identity constantly shifts as representations of politically dominant thought, and these representations are positioned between historical orality and epistemological knowledge. Hall focuses on two primary ideas, termed as being and becoming; being a part of the collective, and of becoming one within the historicity of a group.[ii] Within these two modes of identification, layers of knowledge termed as imaginary, traces and presences, are the basis of representing the binary of us/other.
This binary is not as solid as dominant cultures claim; there are many more factors at play in the positioning of a people within their situated location. The term, positioning, according to Hall is the construction of the past, its memories and how people use it to represent themselves or identify within a larger group. Hall claims, “The past is always-already ‘after the break’. It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture.”[iii]
Hall positions himself as being a Caribbean man, and discusses types of histories that make up the different cultural groups residing within the islands. Doing so, revealing how these histories signify the presence of the dominating political systems of regulation within individual people. Through education, storytelling, and knowledge, histories are embodied, or embedded into the psyche of the people. The embeddedness of fragmented ‘hidden histories’ into the consciousness of a marginalized group, is Hall’s description of the imaginary and its role in identity, and furthermore, how these histories do not cohere to the dominant culture’s lessons/histories of the people or of the area.[iv] Left out of public sites for knowledge, these hidden histories are those truths of personal experience as being and/or becoming ‘other.”
When there are social revolutionary practices, the people are working through the imaginary system of representation, they are revealing their hidden histories, of which are founded on the peripheries of what Foucault termed, the regime of representation. Accordingly, in, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Hall clarifies Foucault’s regime of representation. Foucault’s theory stems from a constructionist and discursive approach to the making of meaning, as the power structures within a community. Hall writes, “his concern is with knowledge provided by the human and social sciences which organizes conduct, understanding, practice and belief, the regulation of bodies and as well as whole populations…. seeing forms of power/knowledge as always rooted in particular contexts and histories.”[v]
Further, into the article on cultural identity, Hall describes the transposing of knowledge, as systems of power, onto people in order to dominate them. This transposition of knowledge makes up my understanding of Hall’s theories of presence. Over the course of history, bodies, in the Caribbean and in Hall’s position, Jamaica, were regulated by numerous domineering practices. There are those people who were conquered, displaced through systems of African slavery, and suppressed by European and American colonized forces. Each dominant ‘culture’ transposing their own knowledge and history onto the overruled people, negating their previously held beliefs and practices. However, the displaced people still hold partial memories of the pre-encounter and these memories collide and form new traces in their psyches.
To illustrate Hall’s idea of identity formation as a series of memorial traces of presence in the embodied imaginary, I have chosen to introduce the work of Matana Roberts. Roberts is a musician based in New York City, and works as a performance artist, saxophonist, filmmaker, poet and dancer. Her primary practice involves what she has termed as Panoramic Sound Quilting (PSQ),[vi] a process of layering the sounds of her saxophone with her own voice, to create a new sensory landscape of narrative and meaning. Roberts describes PSQ as “an ode to my ancestral history, a siren call to my dreams, and a consideration of a constructional force that amuses, inspires, jars, and incites me.”[vii] She uses music to conceptualize how memories of her ancestral past leave traces in her own body, and how collective memories of African American experiences become ‘tradition.’ She hopes for her work to enter into the historical mapping of a people and to sit as testimony to the formation of knowledge and meaning in disparate American cultures. She states,
“I have a deep interest in American history and old oral traditions developed, deconstructed, merged together often times through profoundly contradictory means. I am charmed by co-existing histories that exist within a single framed event, but yet are not synchronous. I am fascinated by narrative, and the problems that perception of linearality create in a re-telling of victory, triumph, tragedy. I use multi-genre methods of improvisation, alternative composition and performance to explore these themes. I am profoundly intrigued by human trace; the whispers, the secrets, left behind, sometimes by those never given a chance to really claim them. I wish for my work to sit firmly as a historical document of these universal, sometimes forgotten, moments.”
Roberts’ latest album, COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee, was released earlier this month, and is absolutely haunting. Blending storytelling with her use of PSQ, she has created a master-work of emotion, history and of communicative destructuring. The critic Jackson Scott, has reviewed the work as a series of communicative layers. By first introducing his own critical practice as one of ‘conversation,’ highlights an expectation that in conversation with two (or more) people there is an equality of space within the exchange, however this is often not the case especially when led by shifting power dynamics. Scott states, approaching critical criticism through conversation is “flawed because (a) “conversation” implies (often egregiously incorrectly) that each position enjoys an equal footing, and (b) its presentness often belies its members’ storied pasts.”[viii] There is a hint of violence in conversation, for one is usually attempting to sway the other with their own understanding of situations. Realistically, there is also violence in discursive deconstruction, and identity formation.
To approach the work by Roberts, we should do it as a removal of the act of conversation, to decenter the voice. The work encourages a connectivity with listening, in order to truly feel and understand the inherent qualities of sound, narrative. Decentering the voice is also a system used to approach American diasporic studies, and one in which I believe Hall would also attest for. As conversation equates to the discourse of representations, Hall suggests finding a point where we can stand outside of representation, outside of the battle for discursive or theoretical building and unbuilding. In his review, Scott goes on to say,
“American History is present in full, (in COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee) its untold diversity presented in intersecting layers rather than in separate vignettes. Critical deconstruction then seems just as asinine as dismantling a quilt into incomplete squares, especially when you consider that this is one made from a history of rebuilding and reconstructing a still broken nation. Of course, ignoring its compositional process would be ignoring what’s beneath these expressions and what ties them together.”
Using Scott’s article about Matana Roberts, to illustrate Hall’s theories around cultural identity and diaspora, illustrates the belief that we cannot deconstruct the embodied imaginary, nor can we ignore it. What we should do is see where there are points of intersection and stand outside of these to reveal what has been forgotten or dismissed.
I chose to speak of a North American artist for this paper, as that is where I fall within understanding my own positionality. Unfortunately, I have not experienced much of the world outside of it. Which is a hindrance when studying the topic of diasporic studies. For, if I were to use Hall’s theory, my imaginary and what I have gained through knowledge is illusionary, and very much one sided. What I understand Hall to be doing is rupturing this positionality of one-sidedness, and illuminating that there are many different positionalities within an axis of what we can consider our cultural identity, and individual identity. The lesson to take from Hall’s text is the ability to reveal systems of language, and knowledge, and to see how they intersect. For, it is within the intersections that we are able to comprehend how or why people conduct their lives in the ways they do. Our beliefs about interpersonal encounters may not be fundamentally truthful. Roberts’ use of PSQ, in how she quilts her voice within storytelling and music speaks to these layers of identity that transpose themselves onto people, and communities. It is through a deep and embodied rupture, where we can find hints of who we can be regardless of overbearing and violent systems of regulation.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” Framework 36 (1989). Reprinted in Identity, Community, Cutural Differences, 1990, & Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, 1994.
Hall, Stuart. "The Work of Representation." Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Reprinted 2010 ed. London: Sage in Association with the Open U, 1997. Print.
Roberts, Matana. "Statement | Matana Roberts." Matana Roberts. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.matanaroberts.com/who>.
Scott, Jackson. "Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee | Music Review | Tiny Mix Tapes." Tiny Mix Tapes. 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/matana-roberts-coin-coin-chapter-three-river-run-thee>.
[i] Scott, Jackson. "Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee | Music Review | Tiny Mix Tapes." Tiny Mix Tapes. 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/matana-roberts-coin-coin-chapter-three-river-run-thee>.
[ii] Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” Framework 36 (1989). Reprinted in Identity, Community, Cutural Differences, 1990, & Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, 1994.P. 393
[iii] Ibid p.395
[v] Hall, Stuart. "The Work of Representation." Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Reprinted 2010 ed. London: Sage in Association with the Open U, 1997. Print. P.51
[vi] Roberts, Matana. "Statement | Matana Roberts." Matana Roberts. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.matanaroberts.com/who>.