Communication and Identity Formation – Chappelle meets Bakhtin

Dave Chappelle – Samuel Johnson Beer from amsellen on Vimeo.

This post is dealing with the subversive powers of resistance within language. Starting out with some general thoughts about communication and identity formation, climaxing in a short analysis of one of my favorite Chappelle Skits.

Dave Chappelle reintroduces the body to the language. And by doing so he reintroduces the body to the white mind that had so thoroughly ejected blackness, i.e. the body as a whole decades ago. What seems like a game of mockery is a serious form of resistance against white supremacy.

Both Rap and Dave Chappelle use profanity as a means to playfully reintroduce the body to the mind. Standard English as an indicator of “high culture” is most often a subject to self-imposed censorship when used by the “purified” white mind.[1] Profanity in this sense can also be regarded as telling dirty (inside) jokes. Raps, as well as Chappelle’s ribald humor is deriving its pleasure from bringing back to mind that which white culture has sought to hide from sight; “namely the ‘material bodily stratum’, those ‘organic’ aspects of human life that involve fucking, pissing, shitting, puking, menstruating and all the other ways in which the body can act in what [white] high cultural norms define as ‘disgusting’ fashions” (Inglis 106).  Apart from the ‘material bodily stratum” profanity consists also of a verbal violence, that can already threaten its addressee by mere loudness. In Chappelle’s “Samuel Jackson Beer” commercial, profanity is taken to the extreme. The skit features Chappelle as a very profane and extremely loud Samuel L. Jackson advertising his new beer brand in a bar to a group of white businessmen. The skit consists of Jackson/Chappelle yelling famous Samuel L. Jackson catchphrases, like: „IT’LL GET YOU DRUNK!!“, „YOU’LL BE FUCKING FAT GIRLS IN NO TIME! YOU MIGHT EVEN FIGHT A NIGGAR OR TWO! MM-MMM BITCH!!“, „GOOD MUTHA FUCKING CHOICE, MUTHA FUCKA! and „HOW’S IT TASTE MOTHER FUCKA?!“, Jackson/Chappelle ends the skit with „SAMUEL JACKSON! IT’S MY BEER! YES THEY DESERVE TO DIE, AND I HOPE THEY BURN IN HELL!“

The skit – a parody of the Samuel Adams beer commercials – confronts its (white) audience with the bawdy, anti-establishment humor I have mentioned in the introduction: A “low cultural invasion of bourgeois proprieties…. [That] signifies unruliness and disorder, a ‘profane’ interruption of the staid pieties of middle-class life” (Inglis 107). The skit itself – as many others I have described – isn’t just about profanity. Dave Chappelle as an inverted depiction of the famous patriot Samuel Adams suggests a profane body within the ‘purest’ white minds; the black stereotype of the violent beast becomes part of Samuel Adams: One of the founding fathers of the United States, a philosopher, a key architect of American culture is exposed as an unfinished body, a distorted image shaped by American historiography. About the body that is lying behind the kind of humor Chappelle deploys Bakhtin says:

 …the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principal of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body…. (Bakhtin)

Samuel L. Jackson is the grotesque body that, in the white mind has been engraved as being beyond any respectability. In most of his films Jackson reminds his audience of the typical Blaxploitation protagonists (in the “Shaft” sequel from 2000 he actually played Ernest Tydiman’s hero of the same name, the archetype of the Blaxploitation genre). In his movies Jackson beats up and kills people, (even though his favourite victims are white he doesn’t hesitate to give black people their fair share of ‘ass whupping’), he uses profanity and embodies the (sexual) masculinity usually ascribed to the black buck. By incorporating Jackson into Adams, Chappelle unifies the assumed anticlimaxes of black and white. The result is a creature that looks so pathetic, that once again the audience has to admit that stereotypes are hardly a template to provide sufficient orientation to social, political and cultural reality.

[1] In the last few years white censorship was associated with Tipper Gore, co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC). “She is protecting us from those who say the wrong words and thus compromise our culture […]. White culture, in the person of Tipper Gore, can consume and enjoy black cultural production as long as it stays in its place” (Sartwell 187).

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