PRINT November 1994


WHEN BELL HOOKS, THE DOYENNE OF BLACK CULTURAL STUDIES, writes in the essay that follows of her passionate relationship to writing, I think of my own struggles with the written word, which aren’t passionate at all. Filmmaking is my passion—except that filmmaking involves so much writing.

I know bell as writer, as speaker, and as friend. Her essay on Looking for Langston in her book Black Looks was by far the best and clearest piece of critical writing about my film, and has endeared her to me ever since. Her critical assessment of my subsequent films has been equally both generous and tough. And as bell’s friend, I’m always conscious of the generosity of her interactions with people, whether friends, critics, or adversaries. Her passionate friendships mirror the work process she so eloquently describes below.

Bell’s vision of critical practice has informed all my film work: “talking back,” talking across borders, speaking to, with, and at times against diverse communities. As bell put it in her recent Village Voice interview with Diamanda Galas, “We are living in a culture that is at war with itself. And that’s exactly what drives us to speak of these things.” I’ve often witnessed her courageous willingness to transgress the conservative boundaries of the academy. On a panel recently at the Celebration of Pan-African Cinema conference at New York University, she successfully managed to shift the whole discussion to a terrain of emotionally charged, passionate intellectual engagement, confronting both herself and the audience with the responsibility of both thinking critically and feeling deeply. Even though I know how much planning goes into her interventions, I’m always convinced by their seeming effortlessness; here it was a matter of recovering some of the edge that the discussion of cultural studies badly needs if it is not, as she points out below, to become mired in chic neocolonial ways of talking about representations of identity and difference.

Coming as I do from a black British working-class background, I particularly relate to bell’s insistence on class, which is grounded in her sustained allegiance to her own working-class background. Class differences charge our understanding of blackness and of black experience; whether here in the U.S. or back in Britain, all black folks are not the same.

As a filmmaker, a worker in the visual, I am often awed by language and linguistic possibility. My critical investment in academic discourse and deconstruction, the complex epistemologies that bell longs to share with everyone inside and outside the academy, comes precisely because I see them as paralleling the difficulty and complexity of filmmaking. When I find myself raging at the lack of thought behind so many of the images produced by our dominant film and television culture, I turn to the appealing complexity of bell’s writing—a challenge equivalent to the difficulty that should go into creating images.

Isaac Julien


WRITING IS MY PASSION, a way to experience the ecstatic. The root understanding of the word “ecstasy,” “to stand outside,” comes to me in those moments when I am immersed so deeply in the act of thinking and writing that everything else, even flesh, falls away. The experience of language as a transformative force, however, was not something I arrived at through writing. I discovered it through performance—dramatically reciting poems or scenes from plays. Our all-black, Southern, segregated schools valued the art of oration. We were taught to perform. At school and at home we entertained each other with talent shows—singing, dancing, acting. Seduced by the magic of words in childhood, I am still transported, carried away, writing and reading. Writing longhand the first drafts of all my work, I read aloud to myself, performing the words to hear and feel them. I want to be certain I am grappling with language in such a way that my words live and breathe, that they surface from a passionate place inside me.

Had I entered my writing life as a critic, working this way might not have mattered to me. Instead, I began by writing poems. Standing in our living room during dark Southern nights when the earth was shaken by thunderstorms and electrical power was down, I performed, reciting poems, some I had written, some by favorite poets. During those strange and unpredictable nights I practiced the art of making words matter. In the stark daylight, I learned by heart the words I would speak in the shadows of candlelight, words that enchant, seduce—move. Long before criticism had any place in my imagination, the segregated institutions of my childhood church and school taught me that writing and performing should deepen the meaning of words, should illuminate, transfix, and transform.

Back then, I would have grieved had any prophetic eye shared that I would one day become most well-known not as a writer of poetry or fiction but as a critic. All the years I spent in college studying and reading literary criticism did nothing to convince me that writing criticism could be an act of passion. The criticism we were encouraged to write as students, the kind that won affirmation and approval, sounded dead. The more it lacked a passionate engagement with words, the more likely it was to earn respect.

We were taught that this dispassionate stance expressed objectivity and neutrality. Actually, it asserted the hierarchical divide separating critic and writer. The critic, we were taught, was superior to the writer, and the critical act looked over and down on the act of writing. In the university then, and often now, clear distinctions were made between critic and writer, a perfect dualistic distinction between mind and body. There was no safe crossing of the boundaries separating the two.

Reflecting on this artificial separation in Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, Nancy Mairs declares, “I believe in the reality of work. Period. I do not distinguish between creative and critical writing because all writing is creative. . . . And all writing is critical, requiring the same shifting, selection, scrutiny and judgment of the material at hand. The distinctions are not useful except to people who want to engender an other with whom they can struggle and over whom they can gain power. And because they are useful in that way, they are dangerous.” Refusing to accept these distinctions remains a rebellious act, one that can challenge hierarchies in both the academy and the world outside.

That refusal demarcates. It separates those of us who write as a vocation from those who write as an academic practice. All academics write, but not all see themselves as writers. Writing to fulfill career expectations is not the same as writing to fulfill a yearning to work with words, writing when it is the experience of writing that matters, writing as a calling, almost a spiritual practice. I am driven to write, compelled by a constant longing to choreograph words, to bring them together in patterns and configurations that move the spirit. As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the divine, I move toward the infinite.

Though all my books so far are nonfiction, that fulfillment can be realized when I write in other forms—poetry, a play, fiction. For me, turning to the short essay was part of a revolt against the graduate-school tradition of writing long-winded padded papers. The critical essay is the most useful form for an engagement with ideas that begins in my head, in my talking back to the books I am reading, and extending the conversations I have with other critical thinkers. The essay is never the starting point; it emerges as a site of culmination, or as a location for prolonged engagement, an invitation to work in a sustained manner with ideas. Mairs’ assertion that she chooses the essay “for its power to both focus and disrupt” resonates with me. The critical essay demands the articulation of an agenda. It is a space where one takes a stand, expressing and revealing points of view that are particular, specific, and directed—a great place to “throw down,” to confront, interrogate, provoke.

At the heart of the critical essay is an engagement with ideas, with a realm of thought that may be contemplative but is active, not passive. As Michel Foucault writes, “Thought is no longer theoretical. As soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action—a perilous act.”1 That sense of provocation and peril is intensified when thought evolves into a critical essay. An atmosphere of pleasure and danger surrounds the writing process. As a writer, critical thinker, and intellectual, I feel swept away by the process of thinking through ideas, as well by their potential to incite and arouse the reader.

Since many of my essays are used in classroom settings, I often receive feedback about the work, both positive and negative. This has intensified my awareness of the essay’s power. An essay can be read more quickly than a book, and read again and again; it can also be easily shared (faxed or Xeroxed). Its accessibility makes it a marvelous catalyst for exchange. Initially I heard mainly from professors, who more than once told me of students being intensely provoked by an essay I had written. Then I began to hear from other readers. Parents tell me about reading an essay with their children. Women who have been battered, who work in shelters or live there for a time, talk and write to me about discussing my work in their groups. One of my favorite critical responses came from an incarcerated black man who shared that my essays on sexism were catalysts for critical discussion among his peers. In fact he declared, “I’ve made your name a household word around this prison.”

I write with the intent to share ideas in a way that makes them accessible to the widest possible audience. This means I’m often pushing myself to strip ideas down, to cut to the chase. The longing to pattern words and ideas so that they’re “in your face”—so that they have an immediacy, a clarity that need not be searched for—leads me to use vernacular modes of exchange from the expressive culture of the Southern black working class. In my imagination, this process of thinking and writing is affirmed by the Buddhist vision of interior arrangement, where one strives to create an inner atmosphere of esthetic minimalism, of simplicity, without excess. The point is not to render ideas less complex but to make the complex clear. The difficulty of the terrain traversed should not be evident.

Joan Cocks has spoken of writing as a process that reveals “an intrinsic passion for the perverse revelation.” We write “to find secrets in experience that are obscured from ordinary sight: to uncover hidden coherences in what seems to be a mere jumble of unrelated events and details, and incoherences in what appears to be strictly ordered; to make transparent what is opaque, and to expose opacity in what seems transparent.”2 Deconstruction is a useful tool for this process because it insists on addressing the multilayered structures that underlie discursive formations. Gayatri Spivak has eloquently written of deconstructive awareness as a standpoint compelling critical vigilance: “Deconstruction points out that in constructing any kind of an argument we must move from implied premises, that must necessarily obliterate or finesse certain possibilities that question the availability of these premises. . . . Deconstruction teaches us to look at these limits and questions.”3 When deconstruction is seen not as an end in itself but as a tool, it imposes a will to examine, critique, and analyze, moving the insurgent critical thinker away from attachment to a particular rhetoric or set of critical paradigms that it is easy to be seduced into restating again and again.

In fact a primary challenge of critical theorizing is the demand that ideas make as they act on the critic’s own mind, challenging the critic to be moving continually away from fixed positions. We are not just writing but changing the way we are writing given what we are saying and whom we hope to speak with and to. Spivak makes me laugh with recognition when she warns against intellectuals trying to “save the masses,” to speak for and describe them. She urges us instead “to learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard as bullshit.”4 When we write to engage wide audiences we confront the limitations of our discourse, of the languages we use. It becomes ruthlessly apparent that unless we can speak and write in different voices, using a variety of styles and forms, allowing the work to change and be changed by its setting, there is no way to converse across borders, to speak to and with diverse communities.

It is all too easy for cultural critics, particularly those of us who write about popular culture, to end up writing in an ethnographically self-serving manner about topics that do not engage us in a sustained dialogue with the cultural producers and audiences who provide us with the “texts” we discuss. This diminishes our work’s power to make meaningful interventions in theory and practice. As Cocks reminds us, “There can be a faddishness to theory, so that it pursues not the answers to difficult questions but the latest fashionable thinker or thought. It can lose connection altogether with the world and feed like a narcissist off its own concepts and principles.”5 This is especially true of writing on popular culture, because such writing has the appearance of immediacy and engagement. Often, merely choosing to write about popular culture can suggest that one is “down”—divested of attachment to politics of hierarchy and domination. Yet for privileged class groups to write about marginalized and disenfranchised ones does not in itself amount to a gesture of solidarity. It can be as much a colonizing act of appropriation as the more apparent, conventional modes of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal dominance.

Writing cultural criticism to be hip and cool, especially when the subject is popular culture, allows critics to indulge in appropriation without risk. The titillating criticism that looks at the popular without engaging a radical political agenda actually helps maintain the barriers and hierarchies of domination. Critical writing counts for little when critics speak of eradicating racism, sexism, and elitism but don’t change their individual habits of being, don’t allow those ideas to work in their lives and on their souls in a manner that transforms.

To engage a politics of transformation we surrender the hedonistic space of intellectual “cool” that covertly embraces old notions of objectivity and neutrality. Certainly my own work is often seen as not “cool” enough, precisely because it always frames ideas politically and calls for active resistance. Yet a lot of cultural criticism gains a hearing precisely because its writers are not afraid to take political stands. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it is often the cultural critics in the academy, who depend on its structures of valuation for regard and reward, who most invest in the production of new hierarchies that keep patterns of coercive competition and domination in place. A lot of the critical writing on underclass and poor black experience, done by intellectual elites of all races, falls into this category. It is as though black popular culture had become the latest frontier to be colonized, occupied, and made over in the interests of the colonizer. Being “down” does not mean that any of us have surrendered our will to colonize.

As a cultural worker on the left, I labor in my thinking and writing to name the concrete strategies for radical intervention that I use in everyday life to resist various politics of domination. It is because of this conscious strategic choice that individuals and communities in resistance find their concerns addressed by the politics of transformation in my life and work. The labor of critical thinking and theorizing is itself an expression of political praxis that constructs a foundation in which individual action can be united with collective struggle. The mutual interplay between critic and reader is a site for contestation and confrontation.

Dissenting critical voices are easily co-opted by the longing to be heard, admired, and affirmed. Subculture stardom can be as seductive a distraction as speaking in the interests of mainstream cultural politics of domination. Critical writing that remains on the edge, able to shift paradigms, to move in new directions, subverts this tendency. It demands of critics fundamental allegiance to radical openness, to free thinking. June Jordan has said that “if you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable.”6 I was reminded of this recently when I was not invited to a conference engaging the work of my close comrade Cornel West. When I asked an “insider” why, I was told, “You insist on being an independent thinker. You’re a wild card. No one knows what you’ll say. You’re too unpredictable.” (Presumably it was feared that I might be critical of West’s work and thought.) Exclusion and isolation, whether overt or covert, have always been a powerful way to coerce individuals to conform. No insurgent intellectuals in this society escape the pressure to conform. This is especially true of those who work within hierarchical institutions, where rewards and benefits are awarded in relation to service rendered. Irrespective of our locations, however, we are all vulnerable. We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace to rescue any of us. There is only a constant struggle to keep the faith, to rejoice in an engagement with critical ideas that is itself liberatory, a practice of freedom.

That moment when I whirl with words, when I dance in that ecstatic circle of love surrounded by ideas, creates a space of transgression. There are no binding limitations, everything can be both held and left behind. This intimate moment of passionate transcendence is the experiential reality that deepens my commitment to a progressive politics of transformation.

Writing these words, I look down at a passage by the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi that is taped to my desk. It challenges me: “Do you want the words or will you live what you know? . . . Do you want the words or will you live what you know?” I write to live.



1. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, epigraph.

2. Joan Cocks, “Theory’s Contemplative Relation to the World,” The Oppositional Imagination, New York: Routledge Press, 1989, p. 93.

3. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic, New York: Routledge, 1990.

4. Ibid.

5. Cocks, p. 143.

6. June Jordan, Technical Difficulties: Afro-American Notes on the State of the Union, New York: Pantheon Press, 1992, p. 193.