Bell hooks | Critical Review by Jerome Karabel

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
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Critical Review by Jerome Karabel

SOURCE: "Fighting Words," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 27.

Karabel is an American educator and sociologist. In the following review, he discusses Teaching to Transgress: Educating as the Practice of Freedom and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Although he complains of hooks's occasional excess of language, he states that "hers is a voice that forces us to confront the political undercurrents of life in America."

Like her friend Cornel West, with whom she wrote an absorbing book of dialogue, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, Bell Hooks (nee Gloria Watkins) is an unconventional scholar, constantly crossing the boundaries separating the academic disciplines as well as the division between scholarship and politics. Ms. Hooks has produced a formidable body of work, including more than a half-dozen books on topics ranging from feminist theory to representations of blacks in popular culture.

Now Ms. Hooks, who is a Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York, has published two new collections of essays, both bearing her distinctive combination of autobiographical narrative and cultural critique.

The first, Teaching to Transgress: Educating as the Practice of Freedom is inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, a radical Brazilian educator known worldwide for his advocacy of education for "critical consciousness." Ms. Hooks attempts to put Mr. Freire's pedagogy of liberation, which holds that students should be active participants and not passive consumers, into practice in America's multicultural context. Situating "identity politics" based on race or sex, which has become so pervasive on American campuses, as emerging "out of the struggles of oppressed or exploited groups to have a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures," she nevertheless acknowledges that the militant assertion of group identities can itself become "a strategy for exclusion or domination." A genuine pedagogy of liberation, Ms. Hooks suggests, will honor the need of marginalized groups to assert positive identities while rigorously challenging their own myths about themselves and the sources of their oppression.

As in much of Ms. Hooks's work, the strength of Teaching to Transgress resides in the jarring character of its insights. She evokes a shock of recognition for me, for example, in reminiscing about her days as a Stanford undergraduate, when she attended classes taught by "white male professors who wore the same tweed jacket and rumpled shirt." The real message of such professors, she says, is that they are in the classroom "to be a mind and not a body." Only the powerful, she notes acidly, have "the privilege of denying their body."

Unfortunately, the collection is often marred by a disconcerting reliance on pop psychology. A truly liberatory education, Ms. Hooks insists, will do more than stimulate critical consciousness; it will also be an experience in which "healing" and "recovery" can replace the "pain" and "abuse" of childhood. By forcing the radical third-world pedagogy of Mr. Freire into a troubled and unlikely marriage with the quintessentially American language of self-help, Ms. Hooks ends up at times sounding more like Norman Vincent Peale than Nelson Mandela.

Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations ranges widely over the American cultural landscape, as Ms. Hooks looks at contemporary cinema, rap music, feminist thought and the racial politics of beauty. She brings to the task of cultural criticism an astute eye and a courageous spirit, and her judgments—as in her essays on the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the writings of Camille Paglia ("sensational sound bites that often appear radical and transgressive of the status quo") and Katie Roiphe ("Roiphe completely ignores the connection between maintaining patriarchy and condoning male violence against women")—are frequently discerning.

Perhaps the best essay here is a penetrating discussion of censorship. Drawing on her own experience, Ms. Hooks notes that censorship is not simply a matter of state repression (though her book Black Looks: Race and Representation was seized for a time by Canadian authorities as "hate literature"). Candidly describing her fears of publicly criticizing an essay on the Op-Ed page of this newspaper by the prominent black writer Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ms. Hooks acknowledges that repression can take the form of self-censorship, especially when what one wishes to say seems likely to elicit disapproval and even reprisals from one's peers. Particularly among members of marginalized groups, pressure to conform can be overwhelming because of the fear that dissent will undermine group solidarity. Yet in the end, Ms. Hooks argues, even oppositional movements must find space for their own dissenters and "the courage to fully embrace free speech."

Though often evocative, Bell Hooks's prose suffers from lapses into academic obscurantism. One passage in Outlaw Culture speaks of feminists who "experience our most intense sexual pleasure in the oppositional space outside the patriarchal phallic imaginary." Yet to dwell on excesses in Ms. Hooks's language would be to miss her considerable power as a writer. For hers is a voice that forces us to confront the political undercurrents of life in America.

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This section contains 814 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jerome Karabel
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