"They Speak English in What?":
Burkean Consubstantiality in The Boondocks

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2011, Volume 10, Issue 2


Lauren DeGraffenreid
University of Nevada, Reno

For Kenneth Burke and his adherents, identity is a tenuous and ever-shifting condition. Though difference exists between individuals, tensions between their common humanity and more narrowly defined tribal/racial identity render personal identification susceptible to the vicissitudes of usurpation, reassignment, and unconscious alliance-making; shared non-tribal interests can easily result in non-tribal group formation and non-tribal identification/peership, creating an ambiguized sense of self.

Popular culture provides an ideal medium in which to examine this phenomenon. The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder's notoriously pugnacious comic strip (1998) and animated series (2005) about Huey and Riley Freeman, two ten-year-old black boys uprooted from the Chicago projects and transplanted into an affluent white suburb, affords an excellent case study; immediately following their move, the boys encounter two twenty-something white men who, despite their wealth, periodically engage in armed robbery and auto theft, dressing in stereotypically "black" fashions, engaging in stereotypically "black" pastimes, and speaking in a stereotypically "black" cadence. Most surprising, however, is the fact that both Ed Wuncler III and Gin Rummy are immediately recognizable as being voiced by celebrities Charlie Murphy and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively - celebrities widely adopted by and accessible to mainstream (youthful and culturally attuned) black and white audiences.

These ambiguities of identification are further complicated by the consistent direct referencing of the ubiquitous (espoused by both blacks and whites) popular culture the celebrities themselves embody. This cultural substance - a mixture of popular films, recognizable political satire, and contemporary comedians - constitutes the common substance whereby the signifier of individual identity is permitted to slide. Like an ice rink (a slight modification of Burke's own defining paradigm), the slippery sub/culture below one's tribal/ racial stance permits the swift reallocation of perspective - a partial "side-switching" that raises the possibility of shifting identifications (peership groups) in the viewer. This shift, in turn, allows for what Burke deems communicable identification; recognition becomes, in effect, a pathological process, capable of transformative transmission between one body and another. Such activity serves ultimately to "unify" the viewing collective, obviating the need for the "policing" of cultural boundaries or outright dismissal of McGruder's characters as products of monocultural satire against whites, behaviors characteristic of an "exclusionary" or "diametrically polarized" cultural paradigm. In other words, because Ed and Rummy are recognizable as bicultural products, they cannot be claimed as embodiments of a single cultural entity, and therefore excluded from critical, bicultural analysis.

In The Boondocks, popular culture becomes the protoplasmic "stuff" of identification, which Kenneth Burke, in his seminal A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) calls "substance." For Burke, this common substance takes the form of anything that can be cited as mainstream or popular - an interest shared in common with the larger collective. This common substance allows for the process of identification, or the critical overlapping of interests and reference points in tandem. Thus, though person "A is not identical with his colleague, [person] B...insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so" (Burke, Rhetoric 20). Further, "In being identified with B, A is 'substantially one' with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives...he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another" (21). As Krista Ratcliffe points out in Rhetorical Listening, when exposed to a particular Burkean substance, a subject experiences the sensation of being both himself and an incorporated part of a larger, more inclusive, "merged" entity:

Burke defines identification as a consubstantial merging of substances that helps constitute a person's identity. In a place of identification, a person is consubstantially this and that, simultaneously "me" and "not me." Each identification offers new opportunities for consubstantiality, which, in turn, influences a person's substance and, hence, a person's identity; thus, identity is continually informed by, but not totally determined by, each new identification. (Ratcliffe 57)

Exposure to substance therefore results in a complex identity and inclusive set of identifications. Further, under the Burkean paradigm, no cultural act or product may be considered innocent of attempting identification with the viewer/listener (Ratcliffe 1). And because identity is intrinsically psychoanalytic (in that it involves constantly-shifting tensions between ego, id, and superego [49]), "rhetorical listening may precede our conscious identifications...[thereby allowing for] the plethora of unconscious identifications over which we have little, if any, control" (48). Thus, if popular culture is the sub lurking below - and therefore always a foundational and widely shared part of - one's tribal/racial stance; and if identification of peer groups occurs without an individual's conscious control, then continuing exposure to a substance held in common by multiple (usually non-tribal) groups may allow the subject's identity to "slide" to the other side of the "ice rink" of social and racial identity, regardless of intentionality and potentially in spite of it: to manipulate exposure to substance is to affect one's entire identity.

As Cynthia Sheard points out in her seminal 1993 article "Kairos and Kenneth Burke," Burkean "doxa...[is the substance which constitutes] the popular beliefs or 'opinion' which provides common ground between rhetor and audience" (296); popular culture is thus the ideal medium for consubstantiality: shared cultural experiences provide a common lens through which all facets of society may view a common social center. In eff/affect, the audience is persuaded to assume a more inclusive identification as a result of the confluence of kairos (the temporal/locational/political site of the exposure [the "scene" of the Burkean pentad]) and doxa (prevailing cultural milieu); after all, "any doxa is passively accepted until it is brought under scrutiny [challenged] at kairotic moments" (Sheard 296). When that challenge occurs, however, the viewers' exposure to the disorienting clash of alternate doxa "informs [their] orientations to experience and serves as [their] guide to what is 'right' when apparently therapeutic, enabling, or otherwise useful deceptions are put before [them]" (296). This new, hybrid doxa forcefully persuades the viewers (in the guise of autonomous decision-making, because it "seems right") to adopt it. Thus, the more ambiguous their cultural exposure, the more culturally ambiguous they are persuaded to be.

In The Boondocks, the phenomenon of consubstantiality is especially evidenced in the cases of Ed Wuncler III and Gin Rummy, the two "white" characters voiced by black performers.Though they speak, act, and engage other characters on a "white" kairotic playing field (their affluent homes, cars, and suburban neighborhood), their "obvious" cultural identities are belied by other, equally obvious, cultural signifiers: namely, their dialect, cadence, and choice of accessories; Wuncler wears a a giant, diamond-and-platinum "W" on a chain (a reference to both his own last name and that of the contemporary president), while Rummy sports an overtly patriotic, red-white-and-blue bandana. They also sound "black." Though this move may seem a mere sociopolitical commentary - a particularly sharp satire critical of white hegemonic social mores and values - the rabbit hole runs far deeper: because both Jackson and Murphy are staples of both black and non-black (particularly white) culture, identification with a single race (as might otherwise be expected in satire) is rendered impossible. In fact, both characters routinely reference staples of both black and white popular culture, such as Pulp Fiction (Jackson reprising his famous "What does Marsellus Wallace look like?" monologue), as well as the famous "Bring Out Your Dead" and "Concord" scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Wuncler assuring a "mortally wounded" white police officer involved in their robbing of a Middle Eastern-American, "terrorist"-owned mini mart that he will not have died in vain). Because the referenced films span a wide (multiracial) range of celebrated American cultural substance, Wuncler and Rummy's dialogue cannot be reduced to a monocultural (anti-white) commentary or critique. Consequently, viewers of black, white, and mixed cultural backgrounds are able to identify and disidentify with Wuncler and Rummy (and hence, with each other); during their viewership of this and similar moments, they are, by means of a form of "reverse Althusserian" narrative interpellation (in that identification shifts from a concrete racial identity into an undefined, miasmic one), rendered effectively consubstantial; their sociocultural and racial identities are given significant play over a diverse range of selves - black, white, celebrity, and fanatic. If traditional Althusserian interpellation solidifies identity - chaining it to a definite sociocultural base - Burkean consubstantiality allows it to slide.

According to Burke, language (and therefore dramatism) is only able to operate in this fashion because it is predicated upon separation: "to begin with 'identification' is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implication of division" (Rhetoric 22); identification with one group usually implies division from another. Wuncler and Rummy (and Huey and Riley), therefore, serve to highlight the differences between their represented demographics (black, white, celebrity, fanatic) as much as to unify them. Thus, rhetorical strategies like those evinced in McGruder's work operate, whatever the intentions of its authors, as "unavowed... stylistic subterfuges for presenting real divisions in terms that deny division" (Burke, Rhetoric 45). After all, "If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to [unconsciously] proclaim their unity" (22) or consciously present their ambiguity (as in the case of McGruder's decision to cast black celebrities in "white" voice roles). This slippage, for Burke, is the blight and benediction of ultimate "God/Ur-terms" like "Race," "Demographic," and "Identity" while they "enable us to adjust to the changes that occur beyond our control and to initiate changes ourselves by converting a current system of orientations into another," they simultaneously serve as "a source of division" (Sheard 299), fostering the erection of new, "non-divisive" barriers. If the function of symbolic language is to enact identification, then all rhetoric "is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" (Burke, Rhetoric 43). For Burke, these consubstantial ambiguities serve a vital, anthropologically requisite social function; this "line-blurring" effectively (and affectively) aligns the audience, mobilizing them into a cooperative aggregate (Rhetoric 21).

What radical re-orientations like McGruder's ultimately accomplish, then, is to cement a new series of critical divisions; an alternate set of identifications with which viewers immediately identify: viewer vs. non-viewer. One is either a fan of The Boondocks, or one is not. One either identifies with the peculiarly unified corpus or one is Other, a non-member outside the fanatic tribe. In this way, McGruder has redrawn the lines: identification is refocused from race, class, and gender and predicated primarily upon one's viewership. Of course, this identification should not be confused with the elimination of difference; as Naomi Rockles points out in her own analysis of McGruder's work, the rhetoric of non-race acts as one of Burke's terministic screens (proposed in Language as Symbolic Action), a literal "color- filter" which permits only the rhetoric of hegemonic (white) consilience ("I'm ok, you're ok," etc.) to penetrate the viewer (Burke 45). McGruder's work, on the other hand, thwarts these attempts at consilience by highlighting the discrepancies between apparent (visual) and vocal (aural) realities; we are not all the same, nor will we ever be; but it is only through the ambiguization of identity that the terministic "screen" can be pierced, thereby allowing for sliding identification of the tribal stance over the cultural sub of fan vs. non-fan.

Ironically, this profoundly tribal re-unification is also responsible for "that most tragically ironic of all divisions, or conflicts, wherein millions of cooperative acts go into the preparation for one destructive act. We refer to that ultimate disease of cooperation: war" (22). Communizing rhetoric played, for example, a highly substantial role in the Rwandan genocide. According to Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, the artificial Belgian-issued "identities" inscribed upon the Rwandan people created conflict by "framing" individuals "as opposing negatives: a Hutu was what a Tutsi was not, and vice versa" (50). Because these "class" identities were greatly exaggerated to suit a fabricated political motive, "identities took definition only in relationship to state power" (50). That motive proved potent enough to spawn genocide: Rwandans "who sought to make the most of these distinctions were compelled to amplify minute and imprecise field marks" (50). In most cases, these "field marks" were wildly inaccurate - an indication of how easily identity may be manipulated in the presence of persuasive rhetorical dialectic. In the case of The Boondocks, however, visual rhetoric serves a very different purpose (though it operates by the same mechanism): to transpose social, racial, and gender identities to and from black and white groups normally segregated by overtly polarized entertainment/celebrity roles. The attractiveness of the powerful celebrity portrayals, coupled with their overt ambiguities of race, persuade the viewer to realign his or her identity with that of the speaker (Wuncler, Rummy, Huey, Riley).

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's frames of color-blind racism are evaded in much the same way: because viewers cannot identify a perspective from which to frame the argument, they cannot be in violation of Bonilla-Silva's imperative. Bonilla-Silva's first frame - that of abstract liberalism - dictates the following: "By framing race-related issues in the language of liberalism [equal opportunity, etc], white can appear 'reasonable' and even 'moral,' while opposing almost all practical approaches to deal with de facto racial inequality" (28). Thus, "regarding each person as an 'individual' with 'choices'...[justifies] the right of choosing to live in segregated neighborhoods or sending their children to segregated schools" (28). McGruder forestalls such abstract liberalism by preventing viewers from identifying with a single racial, sexual, or sociopolitical group; viewers are literally stripped of the individual agency that would allow them to adopt a hegemonic perspective. A similar effect is achieved in relation to the argument of naturalization: the viewer cannot establish "preferences for primary associations with members of [his] race...as nonracial," rationalizing these precedents "as nonracial because 'they'...do it too" (Bonilla-Silva 28), because the viewer can no longer establish a "them." Cultural racism (the statement of generalities about a group) is obviated for much the same reason: the viewers' own identity dissociation prevents them from making such generalizations. Finally, minimization of racism (the "suggest[ion that] discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances" [29]) is avoided because racial issues are here presented from the outset as being pressing social realities.

Additionally, once this process of dissociation has been initiated, it cannot be stopped: once exposed, McGruder's rhetoric becomes viral, spreading rapidly and effectively from vector to host, augmenting all previously-held personas and translating them into a more culturally-inclusive viewership, one capable of critiquing the hegemonic establishment from a "unified" front - a front made critically aware of its own transitory divisiveness by an equivalent rhetoric of parody (Wuncler and Rummy present racial absurdities of both blacks and whites); because no party can truly "say, once and for all, just where 'cooperation' begins and [another's] 'exploitation' of the other begins" (Bonilla-Silva 25), no party is capable of identifying against another. The viewer cannot tell if a line has been crossed, for the apparently simple reason that there is no line; it has been so "ambiguized" as to have been effaced completely. This blurring, then, is the "sustained rhetorical effort, backed by the imagery of the richly humane and spontaneous poetry" Burke speaks of as being capable of forcing us to "fully sympathize with people in circumstances greatly different from our own" (Rhetoric 34). Thus, viewers are free to associate with black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, male, female, privileged or underprivileged identities, irrespective of previous identity/identification.

The most prominent example of sliding identification occurs in Episode Five of the animated series, "A Date with a Health Inspector," in which Wuncler and Rummy team up with Huey and Riley to find "The X-Box Killer," in order to exonerate the falsely accused black prosecutor Thomas Dubois. On their way to question "witnesses" in the projects, Rummy and Riley discuss WMD's (both Rummy and Wuncler served in Iraq):

RUMMY: Well, no - we ain't find 'em. But I always say: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
RILEY: What?
RUMMY: Simply because you don't have evidence that something does exist, does not mean that you have evidence that something doesn't exist.
RILEY: What?
RUMMY: What country you from?
RILEY: What?
RUMMY: What ain't no country I ever heard of. They speak English in What? RILEY: What?
RUMMY: ENGLISH, MOTHERF-----! Do you speak it?
RUMMY: So you understand the words that I'm sayin' to you?
HUEY: (tearfully) Yea.
RUMMY: Well what I'm sayin' is that there are known knowns and that there are known unknowns but there's also unknown unknowns - things we don't know that we don't know.
HUEY: (after a pause) What?
RUMMY: Say what again. Say - what - again. I dare you; I DOUBLE dare you, motherf-----. Say what one more time.

Though Rummy's allusion to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (also reflected in his name) clearly satirizes mainstream American politics, the allusion to Pulp Fiction sends a more ambiguous signal. Because Pulp Fiction (the film to which Samuel L. Jackson alludes) is accessible to both black and white audiences and is an accepted, positively coded (as opposed to the Iraq War) part of both black and white cultures, a viewer's identification is easily transferrable between white/black Rummy and Wuncler and the black/white audience, most of whom have previously appropriated an ambiguous identity by quoting or enjoying the original cinematic sequence; this episode, then, simply serves as a gentle reinforcement of that initial consubstantiality.

Charlie Murphy - who only became "relevant" to white mainstream America as a result of the equally-mainstream (for both black and white audiences), equally-quotable Chappelle's Show - serves a similar function in his role as the voice of Ed III. (Chappelle's Show represents a commercially and memetically lucrative part of mainstream [and therefore hegemonically dominating] white culture and is itself an ambiguous cultural entity.) It should be noted, however, that while Jackson remains an A-list celebrity (a reflection of his acceptance in a white-run celebrity power structure), Murphy is still widely known in white circles as "Eddie Murphy's brother," marking him as a B-list celebrity from whom white culture still prefers to maintain a rhetorical (literally, word-based) distance. This fact, in turn, makes him more identifiable with those black and less-mainstream white audiences more aware of his role as an entertainer (not just Eddie Murphy's brother). Thus, Ed and Rummy signify the mores of both privileged white mainstream and subverted, hegemonically-dominated black entertainment paradigms.

Identification is also possible between not only the real-world actors, but their movie-quoting, on-screen characters themselves, thereby adding another layer of "sub." It is this broad-based ambiguity that allows for non-black and non-white identification with all four characters when they become involved in the politically-charged robbing of a Middle Eastern-American-owned mini mart:

OWNER: Hey, guys; you know the rules. No exceptions. Cash only.
ED: (looking over a bystanding white police officer, pulling a handgun) Look! He
gotta weapon!
RUMMY: (drawing an automatic rifle from his trenchcoat) Whoa! Wait a minute,
now, put the gun down.
OWNER: Gun? What gun? I'm not holding a gun. Guys, it's me. Ed, your father
helped me build this store.
RUMMY: (looking over at white police officer, who now has his gun trained on
the owner) I don' know you, motherf-----! Now! Put down the weapon! Put it down!
OWNER: (holding both hands aloft) There is no weapon! Look!
RUMMY: Drop the weapon!
POLICE OFFICER: (shaking) I...I...I don't see a weapon!
HUEY: (pointing at Rummy and Ed) There is no weapon! They're robbin' the store!

The scene is clearly a clever commentary on the Iraq War, as well as the far more ambiguous "war on terror." More relevant to our discussion, however, is the black/white viewer's own pathological slide from identification with Rummy and Wuncler (bastions of white/black adult popular culture) to the black adolescent Huey, who is forced to take cover during an altercation he did nothing to engender, and who constitutes the only sane voice in the literal and metaphorical room; in other words, Huey actually signifies the viewer, who, like the main character, is literally caught in the crossfire in an unyieldingly ambiguous clash between race, class, age, and gender.

Meanwhile, however, the almost uncomfortable length of time spent on polemic against a white mainstream president and white conservative political agenda re-allows space for the question of cultural divisiveness. Thus, McGruder must salve over the division with rhetorically inclusive humor: Rummy and Ed must return to their "pan-cultural" usage of both black and white popular culture. Their usage of Monty Python, for example, affectively shifts any cultural anxieties back to a state of comfortable consubstantiality:

RUMMY: Yo! Officer...wha-wha-wha-whatever your name is.
OFFICER: (lying on the floor, after taking several hits to his bulletproof vest)
My name's Frank!
RUMMY: Oh-ok, Fred. Whatever. I want you to know: you are not going to die.
(pauses) In vain.
OFFICER: (after a pause) I don't think I'm dyin'.
RUMMY: Oh. Well, I want you to know you wasn't mortally wounded. In vain. OFFICER: Actually. I think I'm gonna make it. (rises)
ED: You hear that, you sweaty bastards? Freddy ain't dead. Freddy say: bring it on, b---h! (rises) Bring it! (He fires above shelf. Officer is caught in the crossfire.)

In true parodic (as opposed to satirical) fashion, the officer is only hit in the region of his bulletproof vest; thus, his ritualized (rather than real) carnivalesque death serves as a recognizable signal that established orders of racial and cultural identification are officially upset; during the carnival, personal identity is free to float between, leap over, and subvert under previously rigid, socially "obvious" markers of tribal identity, the hegemonic bastions of which have been completely (and comically) inverted (the fool seated upon a throne, the king presented as a caricatured fool, etc).

This literally "cartoon" violence, then, situates the scene in the realm of comedy, which must affect "its [persuasive] cures through cooperation and engagement" (Sheard 303), rather than through the rhetorical brutalization of tragedy. Comedy, of course, does not render McGruder's work any less aff/effective: before the scene closes, McGruder's bold challenge of American political ideology has already eff/affected its goal: for Sheard, such an action irrevocably levels "the fortification of an old system of orientations...[meanwhile] the threat of a new one results in a kind of dis-orienting behavior...which leads the frustrated subject [the viewer] to seek some kind of transcendence from the discomfort provoked by such a challenge to his or her beliefs" (Sheard 300). In other words, the viewers are forcibly evicted from the confines of their previous identification and forced - hermit crab-like - to adopt a new, preferably (and in this case) larger, more-inclusive one. Indeed, as Sheard points out, "such 'conversions' always require some sacrifice...the merit of which is ambiguous and subject to interpretation" (301). And so, while it is true that the transformed viewers possess the same physical and basic psychic features of their original selves, their entire sphere of experience - and their resultant arena of potential and rhetorical action - has already crossed the Rubicon.

These ambiguities are further complicated by Huey and Riley themselves; though nominally male and individuated, the children are voiced by a female Regina King. Often, viewers generally are not "in" on the irony until the credits, when King's name appears onscreen. This newly-visible identity allows for what Clara Rodriguez calls "a readjustment of status" (qtd. in Alcoff ix). From "I thought you were one of us" the male characters move, in the male viewer's consideration, to "you're an other" (qtd. in Alcoff ix). Similarly, the myth of autonomy is thwarted by the audience's realization that the apparently diametrically opposed brothers are, in fact, one person. By this time, however, the invasion of the substance is already complete; the factional divides of gender have already been broached, and the signifier is free to roam the fuzzy borderlands; the viewer is forced to accept the "changeability and capricious social meaning" (Alcoff ix) of "personal" identification. In this way, then, Alcoff's Visible Identities can indeed possess an "apparent" "reality...[which] often comes from the fact that they are visibly marked on the body itself [Huey and Riley are visibly male], guiding if not determining the way we perceive and judge others and are perceived and judged by them" (5). The Boondocks demonstrates that these "realities" of identity are subject at all times to subversion and usurpation.

In addition to the prospect of consubstantiality thrown up by McGruder's individual characters, the viewer is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that an apparently American rhetoric is being presented in a Japanese medium - the show is, after all, an anime, its artist basing his characters on the conventions of Japanese animation and animatics (enlarged eyes, limited [or stock] background movement, exaggerated/reinforced facial features during times of emotional duress, etc). Further, the principle character (Huey) routinely engages in martial arts and feats of samurai swordsmanship, occasionally while dressed in Chinese communist fatigues; though clearly influenced by blaxploitation and martial arts films of the 1970s, his character nonetheless defies the normative markers of sociocultural identity. This cultural (and therefore doxic) anachronism also raises the possibilities of temporal identification; in fact, Huey is often directly offset by his brother, Riley, who chooses to wear/speak/demonstrate an affinity for the conventions of twenty-first century adolescent black American culture.

Ultimately, The Boondocks serves not only to highlight the similarities inherent in a divisive American superculture; it works to create a cultural citizenship. According to Avi Santo, "Cultural citizenship is an expanded notion of citizenship rights that extends past civil rights to encompass the protection, preservation, and depiction of identity-based cultural differences" (255). He also states, "Whereas earlier notions of citizenship are based on civil rights - equal access and opportunity to resources under the law - cultural citizenship advocates the right to different treatment with equal opportunity" (156). Santos argues further that "the community that has formed around The Boondocks TV series uses it to...articulate a differentiated black cultural citizenship" (252). This point presents a model of culture exclusive to a single point of interpretation. However, the consubstantial ambiguity afforded by the show also serves to indoctrinate non-black viewers who stick around long enough to pick up on the operant sociocultural memes. What would normally be considered an exclusive, heavily culturally-policed medium becomes a means of transformative perspective. Thus, while black and non-black viewers are not afforded true cultural citizenship (within non-black and black communities, respectively), the show, in scrambling and realigning previous identifications by means of a common doxa, at least issues them a passport to the country of "What," where we do, in fact, speak English.

Coda: Visibly Transformative Language

Interestingly enough, the transformative nature of communicable language is made visibly manifest by the same Pulp Fiction monologue alluded to by Rummy's character. This reference is made possible by the relatively recent phenomenon of kinetic typography. These "moving text" microfilms are now ubiquitous; the most recent incarnation of Ford truck advertisements (featuring Denis Leary) also engage active, morphing text to pitch their product. Perhaps the most viral of these is an adaptation of Samuel L. Jackson and Frank Whaley's famous "What does Marsellus Wallace look like?" moment from Pulp Fiction (available on YouTube). In this sequence, a moving transcript of Jules Winnfield and Brett's signifiers (words) actually transforms itself in accordance with the signifieds they reference. For example, when Jules overturns the table, the words onscreen tumble and crash. The large, bold typset accorded to the verbally (and visually) dominant Jackson grows, shrinks, speeds up, or slows down in tandem with Jules's cadence. And when the subordinate Brett is shot, his small words, like his physical body, become bloody, effusive, and uncoordinated, literally bleeding across the screen. In effect, the typography comes to signify not only the rising action, but the speakers themselves. Nor is this literal verbal identification limited to the purely physical; the confluence of visual and expressive elements raises the spectre of apparent race and gender, as well; after all, the entire conversation aims to determine what Marsellus Wallace looks like, and therefore, who Marsellus Wallace "is." The vicissitudes of the text, however, demonstrate that an elucidation of Wallace's identity is inherently problematic: in the kinetic typogram, Brett is unable to form a coherent pronoun - at 0:30, the referential "he's ______" persistently mutates into various non- signifiers. By the time the viewer is able to establish that Wallace is, in fact, black (to which Jackson responds with a probative, challenging "go on," as though he anticipates a racially-motivated challenge or slur), Jules provides further ambiguity by asking if Marsellus Wallace looks "like a b---h," ambiguizing not only his race, but his gender as well.

More important to our purposes, however, is the ambiguization of the viewer's identity. Jackson/Jules is able to transform the viewer/listener/Riley/Brett to a literally alien, expatriate Other through the use of his own language, using his own pentadic 'What?' to isolate him from the authoritative, American group. The viewer/listener/Riley/Brett is forced into this crisis of identity (Riley does, after all, become emotionally distraught) because he is now literally no longer an American; he belongs to the country of "What." The viewer thus directly observes the mutation of his/Riley's/Brett's identity as it takes place - a highly visible form of reverse Althusserian interpellation. In other words - and in accordance with the Burkean paradigm - words are acting; in this case, as agents of infection. As Diana Fuss points out in Identification Papers, Freud's tripartite model of identification is glaringly pathological; his most common metaphors include "gravity, ingestion, and infection" (qtd. in Ratfliffe 61). For Ratcliffe, such identification is best represented as a transformative invasion of the body by "external forces (i.e., discourses, images, other people)" (61). In other words, the language of identification is literally viral.

This point, in turn, leads us to Richard Dawkins's (of Selfish Gene renown) theory of memetic cultural production, in which units of cultural identity (memes, a term coined by Dawkins) function, like genes, for their own survival and propagation; according to Dawkins, "unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display" (198); identity (and the cultural productions that "carry" it) functions as a literal pathogen. Yet while it is, essentially, pathological, this fact does not necessarily imply that memetic identity acts as a parasite upon the host; on the contrary, regardless of race or hegemonic positioning, watching The Boondocks ascribes/inscribes upon the viewer's symbolic identity a series of intronic mutations and textual ambiguities that, like the Darwin/Wallace theory of natural selection by means of selective mutation itself, afford the viewer greater cultural viability in a rapidly globalizing human culture; memes are, after all, more than simply hortatory: they are memetic.


Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. "The Pathologizing of Identity." Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 5-19.

Alcoff, Linda. Preface. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. vii-xi.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists. Third ed. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 30th Anniversary ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Gourevitch, Philip. Foreword. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rawanda. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Rockles, Naomi. "Race, Whiteness, 'Lightness,' and Relevance: African American and European American Interpretation of Jump Start and The Boondocks." Critical Studies in Media Communication 19.4 (2002): 398-418.

Santo, Avi. "Of Niggas and Citizens: The Boondocks Fans and Differentiated Black American Politics." Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. Ed. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: New York UP, 2009.

Sheard, Cynthia. "Kairos and Kenneth Burke." College English 55.3 (1993): 291-310.

"A Visit from a Health Inspector." The Boondocks. Adult Swim/Comedy Central. 1.5. Dec 2005. Television.

"What Does Marsellus Wallace Look Like?" Pulp Fiction YouTube. YouTube, 22 Feb. 2007. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.


Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2011 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture