This article by writer Jude Blay Yawson is part of the BLACK LENS series, commissioned for the SLG’s Convergence programme.
There is a term that raises anxieties within me whenever I consume content about Black identities and the troubles we have faced. It is called Culture Industry. A term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the notion of the Culture Industry is introduced in their book, ‘Dialectic of Entertainment’ (1972), in the chapter, ‘’The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. In brief, the term supposes that the commercial marketing of culture skewers that culture by processing it as goods for the consumer, who only has the task of consuming it (the forms of culture being media, film, TV, radio, podcasts, books, and press).
The authentic culture within, or the impetus behind, text and image is often lost in translation by a homogenous approach to content. This year, our culture industry has seen the mass production of investigations or approaches to Black content – such as depicting or understanding Black Lives Matter. What could be life changing messages or advocacy embedded in authentic forms of culture is drowned out between the clump and process of the mass produced. As a result, the call to action at the heart of the message is overlooked. In this country, where Black people make up 3% of the population, the majority of those who consume cultural content are doing so uncritically, as merely entertainment.
Having recently watched the third film of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series – the message behind it sat in the back of my mind. Red, White and Blue depicted the lonely path of a Black man venturing into a white space, wading through a racially inspired hate. As I watched Leroy Logan’s story unfold, I was incensed, knowing this intriguing show reflects a fragment of a wider picture and reality. A stellar young man, Logan joined his local police force after his father was beaten by racist police officers. Black and Asian communities have long suffered police brutality and harassment, subjected to a system of structural racism induced by what is acknowledged as “white privilege”. I found the film hard to digest, intensified by the recollection of police harassment I endured over the years, as well as the brutality, unaccounted for here, on the likes of Mark Duggan, Rashad Charles, Sarah Reed, and countless others.
With the mission of changing the police and their interactions with such communities from the inside, Logan joined the force with the intention of becoming an exemplary officer. Nevertheless, he soon realised he must endure racist abuse from his own colleagues while also adapting to the stigma of being a police officer, scorned by the Black community he comes from. The entirety of this episode was nerve wracking, lingering on poignant moments that force you to stop and think about the reality of it all. This was especially the case when we see how deserted Logan felt, which left a lasting impression on his mental state as a Black person looking to make change. We see the same in the likes of Dianne Abbott, the first Black woman elected to Parliament; the backlash Raheem Sterling received for being outspoken regarding racism within the media and the culture of football; or the distaste Stormzy received for openly showing support to his community.
I felt both emotional and physical stress after watching this episode of Small Axe and was led to contemplate the entirety of the Black British experience and the widely unaddressed impacts of structural racism. It is another fragment of the puzzle that is Blackness, conceived through a racial lens in Britain. A puzzle so expansive, with pieces constantly removed and a lack of action from the greatest levels in which it moves. These things are just a part of the Culture Industry’s product – profiting from our pain and merely entertaining the idea of change. Living with such injustice still today, I do question whether it’s acceptable to create content from this dark space – whether it be a TV show, article, documentary, a panel or investigation. It serves no immediate or paradigmatic change. That said, Small Axe and many media products of their kind do become part of our collective education and an important piece of that distraught puzzle. I cannot pretend the existence of such a show doesn’t bother me; but it has been born out of necessity. A necessity born of trauma, recollection, representation and the urgent need for change.
Reni Eddo Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, was widely acclaimed and explores the UK context of Blackness. Earlier this year, Eddo-Lodge stated that the current debate on racism is a game to some, and she no longer wants to play. We should not debate whether or not this country is racist – just the discussion can never be enough. If companies behind cultural production would take up the task of generating content laced with the mindset of really impacting people, our visual culture might look very different. We must act to change, or things will stay the same. Instead of creating the grounds for a monumental shake-up of our systems, we remain fodder to capitalism’s gluttony as it regurgitates our trauma as entertainment. So, I wonder: as culture inevitably moves – and not The Culture Industry moves – can it ever be authentic? Although at times the heart can doubt it, this year has been a moment to sit back and truly think about it.
Jude Yawson graduated in BA Philosophy and MA Cultural Studies . He is a writer of articles, essays, poetry and film reviews. He co-wrote and edited Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far with Stormzy and the Merky team, and is currently working on his debut novel. He blogs at House of Horous. @judeblay
BLACK LENS is an alliance of young Black writers, art historians and curators assembling around Black research, scholarship and cultural production.
This is the last Black Lens post of 2020. Next year we are delighted to announce the Convergence writers’ residency will be with Spread the Word, London’s writer development agency.
Convergence is an ongoing series of critical conversations, screenings and written commissions, facilitated by the SLG and curated and hosted by invited guests.