The Liquid Racism of Ali G
Ali G produces numerous meanings as an assemblage and in some instances any or all of these meanings can construct racism. This layered racism, or racism inside of layers, will be called ‘liquid racism’. In Bauman’s liquid modernity, where accelerated social change means discursive ambiguity is perpetuated, race semantics become increasingly complex. With this in mind, liquid racism can be used to describe some occurrences of racism in contemporary society. Liquid racism confronts us as a different form of racism with which to deal. It is fluid, difficult to collect or identify because it may escape or dissolve before it can be contained, and is explicitly encouraged or given coverage in mass media forms. This is a racism that requires reflexivity in the reader when questions are asked on its meaning, social impact or implications for the self. It is also a racism that emerges in an age of multiple constructions of national belonging, and in this case, Britishness.
Bauman, while imprecise on the issue, describes the dominant racism in postmodernity and liquid modernity as one that resembles cultural racism (1997a, 1997b). While cultural racism represents a definition of racism via its semantic content, liquid racism is an additional structural form. Despite its elusiveness, liquid racism can appear as a structural form that reproduces either embodied or culturally racist sign-systems. Cultural racism, in comparison to older racisms, became more complex and increasingly able to deny its racism - its content becomes manipulatively polysemic. This is not identical to the structured polysemia of liquid racism, which sees its own intentionality subverted or erased, rather than disguised. Liquid racism also has the potential for a curtailed duration and can appear alongside quite contradictory or divergent meanings that encourage this curtailment, as racism is seen, then disguised, by the other available meanings.
Racist semantics usually stay in one place and are critiqued on the basis of staying in that one place and not becoming non-racist semantics. Liquid racism in humour dilutes any fixity of interpretation and so leaves the task of critique, and that of the reflexive reader, more difficult. In analysing this problem, we can accept that while racism may be difficult to locate from outside of certain readings, it can still be experienced in one or more of the individual meanings or readings. It is a hidden or furtive racism. Critiquing it involves recording the assemblage, highlighting its connection to pre-existing embodied and cultural racism and highlighting any non-racist meanings that may work to conceal or remove liquid racism, implicitly or explicitly, accidentally or deliberately. It involves critiquing the media forms that encourage it. While the humour has many meanings, any racist meanings still have the potential for racist effects, but these are more confused.
Liquid racism in humour will create a saturation of slippages and meanings, and prevent a dominant or solid connection between the rhetorical effect of the joke and serious racist discourse, or make the linkage seem less solid from particular angles. Hence the rhetorical effects - or support of racism - created by a relatively stable or traditional expression of comic meaning are unlikely to be reproduced. In relation to the rhetorical triangle, liquid racism will construct more than one rhetorical triangle at once. While an increased level of ambiguity would present more opportunities for a divergence of literal meaning and so might suggest an increase in potential rhetorical generation. This generation is propelled in numerous directions and does not develop the same level of collective or naturalised ideological presence. It represents, in essence, a mixing of metaphors. This contrasts sharply with embodied and culturally racist humour, where the recurring similarity of meaning and relative lack of semantic movement outside of the rhetorical incongruity of humour can produce rhetorical effects and support racism in a fairly straightforward or predictable manner. Because of this difference, any racist discourse will only appear momentarily - forming liquid racism - and overall these processes, while showing an increase in ambiguity, will curtail the potential for the humour to act rhetorically to remove ambivalence and anxiety from racism. It is, therefore, less effective as a form of functional humour in comparison to the other forms.
Although liquid racism is not specific to comedy, it is true that comic representations are prone to this form. Liquid racism requires the grouping or layering of signs that produces multiple racist and non-racist meanings. This can occur in serious discourse or in serious imagery, especially where a ‘debate’ is taking place on the practices of minority groups by a majority, especially if the issues discussed are not confined to the ethnic group. It can also occur where nonliteral images or signs are used for serious purposes (such as in the use of logos or music that has meaning for an ethnic group). In addition, where mass media simplifies issues and contextual readings, liquid racism is likely to appear, as the media offers the potential for multiple audience groups to construct interpretations. Despite this, comedy is a key site for liquid racism. Humour involves multiple interpretation, contradictory positions and ambivalence or ambiguity (Mulkay 1988); it requires sign-slippage, connotation and paradox when constructing the incongruity necessary in a joke. The metaphorical structure of comedy sees more than one meaning as a necessary constituent of the successful process. There will never be an attempt to work towards literal meaning in humour, and as many humour tropes actively layer multiple meanings, liquid racism will breed in this linguistic setting. Hidden or lack of intentionality is also an important component in the construction of liquid racism. Where the humour is an impersonation rather than a stand-up performance or a written joke, intentionality can be hidden more easily. In liquid racism there is a confusion or deliberate removal of intentionality, which becomes increasingly difficult to pin down.