Summary

Ali G and the liquid racism produced by the character represent a further development in race humour, one that is situated in relation to a postmodern frame, and one that sees the multiple meanings of comedy perpetuated indefinitely. This is a contemporary form, although the biological and cultural styles of early chapters do still exist. It is also an emerging type, and one that has consequences for how we might view comic race representations in the future. While multiple meanings in race humour are not new, and were evident in minstrelsy, the emerging and possibly dominant form today, of which Ali G is central, is a form of liquid race representation (we can also argue that liquid racism is represented in Baron

Cohen’s Borat, and the feature film Tropic Thunder, written by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux. This is a task for another study).[1]

Ali G can be read to create a number of liquid racisms, and three have been expanded. They are liquid because they erase each other, have led to the character being described as both racist and anti-racist by commentators, and to the character being theoretically difficult to analyse and critique. Baron Cohen’s Ali G produces multiple meanings simultaneously, none of which can be privileged unproblematically in terms of situational logic, textual stability or the preferential intention of the author. In a state of liquidity, this comedy cannot attach itself to or support a serious discourse in the same non-contradictory way that other forms of humour can. None of the meanings gain dominance and so serious racism is not supported as uniformly through this type of comedy. Non-racist readings were highlighted as adding further confusion before proteophobia and proteophilia were shown to emerge as responses to the character, each as readings of the ambivalent comic form. Overall, none of the meanings become dominant and so serious racism is not rhetorically supported as much through this type of comedy.

At this late stage in the Ali G debate it seems to be a sociological truism that Ali G is polysemic. What has not been established in a convincing fashion is how to deal with the racist readings of the character. On this, the concept of liquid racism can explain how polysemic expressions do not play by the same rules that older embodied or cultural racisms observed. While Ali G may leave the analyst in a state of reflexive ambivalence, or, if old concepts are relied on, in a vulnerable or untenable position, liquid racism as an analytic concept allows for a more complete description. Importantly, it is in the habitus that the humour receives any fixity. It is in the specificity and relativity, or the potential univociality of the habitus that experiences of racism in Ali G have effect, but these racisms are never total, and always remain in a process of erasure.

Liquid racism is not just constructed in contemporary comedy, and further research will uncover more examples outside of the comic frame. Its appearance in humour does, however, tell us something important about the socio-cultural role of contemporary comedy. We know that humour and comedy have long been a site of expression for race, ethnicity and racism. With the addition of liquid racism, we can account for where racism is reproduced without or despite intentionality, and where it is reproduced alongside anti-racism. This is what the concept of liquid racism adds to our analysis of racist comedy. It is not possible to simply examine intentionality, or to forthrightly assert a favoured reading and expect to ‘win’ a debate or achieve ideological or discursive fixity. In postmodern styles, which involve an intersection of polyvocal media and identity politics, multiple interpretations are more likely than ever before. In Ali G, meanings are far too saturated for a ‘true’ reading to develop and media attention has not developed a stable interpretation on which to build critique, remaining in a debate over meaning. It is these issues that signify how Baron Cohen has altered the terrain on which British comedy interacts with racial representation. On the one hand, Baron Cohen has reintroduced race into the mainstream, in a not unproblematic way. On the other hand, through the complexity, irony and multiplicity of the material, he has perhaps advanced cultural criticism, which will likely make older forms of race representation in comedy far less likely.

  • [1] On the spread of this style, there are parallels between Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedyand that of the performers Santo Cilauro and Andriy Danylko. Cilauro, an Australian actorwho created Zladko Vladcik, a pop singer from Moldova, uses a number of malapropismsand is perhaps more similar to Baron Cohen’s Borat. Danylko, a Ukrainian, performs thedrag act Verka Serduchka, and formed the Ukrainian entry in the 2007 Eurovision SongContest. Danylko develops multiple meanings and is similar to Baron Cohen in this sense.There is also the parallel that both Verka Serduchka and Ali G are impersonations recognisedas celebrities at various stages of their performance.
 
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