Utopianism and its discontents – Marcus Breen

‘Postcolonial Studies’ Volume 4, Number 3 (November 1, 2001). ‘Utopianism and its Discontents’ is a piece of slime from Marcus Beem. My second worst review ever. And my reply, which the journal was kind enough to include in the same issue. You complete and utter wonker, Breen.

Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry
By John Hutnyk
Pluto Press, London, Sterling, Virginia, 2000.
Reviewed by Marcus Breen

Mere mortals have to approach the writing of a review of a book by an author such as John Hutnyk with trepidation. Nothing that I write can be deemed worthy in the face of the scathing style of critique employed by Hutnyk. For a start I am a cultural studies person, a policy wonk, a consultant and a theorist. As such I am little more than an extension of the grand capitalist edifice which stands as a testament to a failed human civilization. Mea culpa, mea culpa, ad infinitum. At any point and at every turn, the type of polemic that defines this text runs counterpoint to my own life and experience. While reading the book there were times when it seemed that the wisest course of action for me would be to inform the reviews editor of this journal that this book and I were a marriage made in hell. Nothing I do or say, could hope to speak to and for Hutnyk’s challenge to the world I inhabit – his evangelical zeal for the communist revolution inspires a nostalgia for some purer past, and a hope that one day he will join the normalized masses in the present. But mere mortals can only hope.

It follows therefore that Critique of Exotica comes from a place which I do not inhabit. The author is a utopian, searching out locales where perfect vectors of light and knowledge converge in a mess of praxis. In such a world, the realities of everyday life appear to be of insignificant consequence, as all forces collapse into a perfected state of egalitarianism. We should be so lucky.

While I admit to knowing little of the vagaries of anthropology, the processes of human investigation are not entirely lost to me. In this sense, Hutnyk’s methodology – such as it is – is flawed, due as much to the fact that this book is really a collected set of essays (variously published from 1994 -1999), loosely collated under the convenience of a publishing strategy that seeks to pass them off as an extended essay. Bad idea. At a purely functional level I recall a talk by Michael Taussig (in 2000 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) where he described the process of gaining seniority in the academy by having one’s essays collected as an anthology while between books. This seems to have befallen Hutnyk and he is the poorer for it.

Furthermore, the essays do not make a coherent whole. Rather, at times they read like Socialist Worker’s Party tracts where the first thing you notice is the polemic. Is this what has become of anthropology? The one with the loudest voice wins? I would also hope that the style of leftism promoted by Hutnyk can be contained in such a way that the microhistories of various socialist factions cast within the history of the Second International do not become accepted as a type of anthropology, where the participant-observer seeks the status of revolutionary investigator-agitator, in some sort of recidivist sociological strategy of the oppressed. Presented in this collection, the “methodology” of academic activism had little to offer, as almost every non-revolutionary yet informed and discursive intellectual engagement is preempted by the author with eviscerating attacks on such bourgeois notions as research, academic careerism and theory. So for example, any suggestion by me that Hutnyk’s investigator-agitator persona fails to recognize the complexity of the world in which we live, is countered by Hutnyk in the penultimate paragraph of the book, where he writes that we should not “cower in the face of some rampant ‘complexity’ or ‘uncertainty’ (p. 233). In the daily grind of the affairs of humanity, I can only wish for such certainty, clarity and simplicity with which Hutnyk attends to existence.

At a detailed level, Critique of Exotica attempts to put the case for the politicization of Asian music in its contemporary forms from the perspective of London, England. This is an important project – just as the subtext that ultimately becomes the main text is overwhelmingly necessary: globalization is the core tenet of the book, but surfaces like almost all other concepts with little convincing detail (which is why the polemic becomes a frustrating signifier, as if that’s what really counts). This is hardly surprising given Hutnyk’s critique of mortals who live in the everyday. Theorists are caricatured as “the interests of the metropolitan class who see theory-production as the driving force of society,” acting apparently in cahoots with the “chattering classes who provide the theoretical smoke screen” (pp. 226-227). Cultural studies scholars (I am one, yet have some sympathy for this view, which is now dated) become the enemy:
“Culturally hip academics are the ones to watch out for, the agents of incorporation, domestication and pacification in the service of new elitism.” (p. 9) In reality, the way of the world is that it is reinvented in more remarkable forms by those very same new elites, in this case the cultural studies factions that became the tidal wave of new university education for otherwise tired masses, that Raymond Williams wrote about in the 1980s. Surely this was and is an achievement, a forward progressive step – but apparently not.

Similarly, “the white left” and academics in general are pretty well bereft of value, while any apparatus of the state is suspect due to its association with the capitalist enterprise. After a while, the polemic becomes a strategy and a literary ploy, a means to subvert demanding theory building, astute observation and even good will. (How do some people manage to get out of their front door some days? The absence of pleasure must be deadening).

Hutnyk relies on enthusiastic discipleship to the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and to a lesser extent Paul Gilroy and Lisa Lewis, for his key ideas. If he had spent more time working through Spivak’s suggestion for a “broader perspective…that takes the trouble to acquire transnational literacy in the New World Order that has come into being in the last decade of the second millenium” (p. 150), the book would have got closer to realizing its objective. Namely, questions associated with the exoticization of culture, of everyday life are desperately needed, and need to be proposed in ways that both acknowledge the growing complexity rendered by globalization while making a case for dealing with it in practical ways.

Closer textual work would have provided the necessary substance to this book – the promise of the title – a study of the exotic. The absence of theory means that the challenge to employ conceptual tools to build a model that explains the established, new and emerging formations of exoticism within music and politics does not get the explicit treatment it deserves. In my opinion, it does not suffice to offer up opinions about the ‘myopic blindness to exploitation typical of culturalist agendas’ (p. 224), as if culture (music especially) is a singularly unified whole that fits a predetermined de-politicized model. Exotic engagement with musical expression are the bread and butter of the sensuous life in the mediated, globalized world which we inhabit, and they are all political. What I want to know is how to make the politics work within the meaning systems of popular music and mediated living, where ready access to the exotic is taken for granted. (I should also add that rock and popular music in general is in need of a lot of work on the exotic, be it African Americans posing their gangster rap – especially exotic to white middle class consumers I am sure – to South Asian bhangra – a new sensation for inner city Londoners – to Ecstasy/rave experiences for suburban teens. Elvis could be seen as the mediator of the exotic poor black southerner. The boundaries are fuzzy in the extreme, yet an important part of our contemporary musical experience and backdrop).

During the time I was reading this book the first of the UK race riots reached some of the front pages of news reports around the world. During the first week of June 2001, the city of Oldham in the British Midlands, was a zone for furious fighting between Asian and Caucasian youth and the police. The 5.5 percent of the UK population of nearly 60 million showed little interest in the skirmishes – at least according to media reports on the absence of media reportage (!). My understanding of the issue was somewhat enhanced by Hutnyk’s reading of the long-term disinterest of the British public in the incorporation of Bengali migrants into the center of British capitalism. Hutnyk’s appeal for a politics that goes beyond readings of hybridity and multiculturalism make sense at a superficial level, when read against the background of race-defined civil unrest. His suggestion that music can function as a politicizing and organizing tool is less convincing, given the incessant demands he makes for a non-commercialized cultural politics (p. 204). Hutnyk’s retelling of part of the story of Indian-Bengali communist party factionalism, in trying to explain the position adopted by Asian Dub Foundation in their song ‘Naxalite’, is historically informative, but unconvincing in providing any explanation for how race is played out on the streets of working class England.

Seeking deeper understanding of the issues being played out will probably not be found in analysis of mainstream laws such as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, introduce in 1994 to stop mass protests, squatting and raves. This hardly seems to be a point around which to focus a discussion of popular music, but Hutnyk tries. Taking a variety of subcontinental and South Asian popular music practitioners as examples -Apache Indian, Asian Dub Foundation, Kula Shaker, Fundamental – Hutnyk suggests a direct claim can and should be made for pop music as agitprop. (And by the way, do not attempt to engage in political activism and eat vindaloo anything, given Hutnyk’s maddening obsession with cheap shots at anyone who eats or partakes of anything “other” than bangers and mash)! This raises the fundamental flaw in this type of anthropology – it is ultimately demanding guarantees of a relationship between specific ‘other’ forms cultural production and political activism. Anything less, such as cultural studies in its mainstream manifestations is doomed to fail Hutnyk’s political test of inciting revolution.

If I should apologize for these comments, I cannot find the good will to do so (much as I would like to). The gaps in this work are severe. Music is given a role in explaining political phenomenon while the popular music theory and scholarship that has developed over the past 20-30 years is hardly visible. Popular music studies, audience studies, media studies, cinema studies, political economy, all melt under the withering demands of Hutnyk’s criticism. Occasionally – in chapter 6, ‘Critique of Postcolonial Marxisms’ drawing extensively on Spivak and in the conclusion, which suggests a theory of media, by drawing on Theodore Adorno and Jacques Derrida – the book offers some ways forward. But ultimately it is a backward looking text.

For example, anyone writing about popular music should make note of the fact that Adorno has been dead for more than a generation, and that purely re-reading Adorno, as if 50 years of communication theory and practice has not taken place, is disagreeable in the extreme. But the utopianism in play in Critique of Exotica presents the surface reading of cultural industries as so many corrupted forces injecting images of consumption into the unsuspecting public. Granted, there are massive abuses of mediated communications, but contemporary understanding of media calls for much more than this. Could it be possible to see the media as a liberationary tool, whereby ideas and theories of social and personal development are diffused to the world to be made in pleasurable acts of resistance, co-optation and celebration? Not according to Hutnyk. MTV has no virtue. Madonna represents the capitalist. Ergo, scholarship is wasted.

Consider the following claim that, ‘the industrialization of creativity – even seen in the organized and premeditated recorded spontaneity of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Box sessions – is a production process uninterested in how music is used, heard, consumed, so long as it is consumed’ (p. 222). Not only is this wrong, it does an injustice to every performer, audience member and listener, cultural worker, record producer, disc jockey and sensuous creature within earshot! Hutnyk has clearly decided to spend time writing about music without appreciating that it cannot be remade as an ideological tool for every occasion. Popular music is by its very definition open to definition, redefinition, use, abuse and reuse, not a straightjacket of meaning. It would seem that Hutnyk has also not spent time with musicians and record company people, promoters and groupies. Utopianism would not allow for such research.

In the current political and aesthetic context in which I live and work, there are a number of issues that cannot be denied. These may be reduced to the following aphorisms: Capitalism has survived state managed communism. Capital is necessary for human and social development. Media are volatile mechanism s by which human civilization is informed and ideas are explored. Music is a sensuous tool that provides both respite and pleasure for vast numbers of people around the world, whether in live performance or in mediated form. Globalization is about 400 years old. Pop music is not going away!

It is not possible to read pop music as an addition to the political currents of everyday life. Nor is it possible to construct a discreet system of representational politics from which to draw conclusions: the world just does not work that way. If it did we would be veering towards a reinvention of authoritarianism which many people would find an unsatisfactory model for meeting their needs. Call me a pragmatist, or call me a sell out – I want a politics that gives me fun, that offers engagement with the real and everyday, while moving me out of the corrupt world and into a better (yet still corrupt) one.

In the world but not of it, is a fabulously over utilized utopian phrase, used by fundamentalists in a host of religious communities to describe their rare position. I am not, sad to say, a fellow traveler in the utopian approach to political music making. I am however, a traveler who would like to see major change brought about across the globe. Being both in and of the world, I am not convinced that Hutnyk’s approach to music, culture and politics offers a way forward.

Marcus Breen is a consultant for Gartner Inc., concentrating on telecommunications public policy and regulation. He is an adjunct faculty in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Rock Dogs: politics and the Australian music industry, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1999.

Hutnyk: Published Response to Marcus Breen:

Differences aside – and I am happy to acknowledge we have some very big differences – I think the task of reviewing a book at least requires some care in the reading. I do wonder what interests prompt a journal to commission such inadequate reviewing. In the absence of sufficient material for a fruitful debate, I should like at least to correct the more obvious errors.

In Breen, Lisa Lowe is misrecognised as Lisa Lewis, Oldham is somehow relocated from the North of England to the Midlands, the ‘race riots’ are said to have been underreported, rather than misunderstood, and Bhangra is described as a ‘new sensation’ in London, when it is in fact old news in the capital – in my book the music more often under discussion is hip hop, drum and bass, crossover and experimental styles. The essays are not ‘variously published from 1994 to 1999, but rather reworked from things published since 1996, the first chapter pretty much unchanged from the version in this journal in 1998. I argued explicitly that the criminal justice and public order act was not simply introduced to ‘stop mass protests, squatting and raves’, but that public debate focussed only on rave, and not on the more draconian and racist elements of the law. Finally, there is nowhere in the book where I actually advocate the eating of bangers and mash over vindaloo. Never will.

Breen thinks re-reading Adorno today is ‘disagreeable in the extreme’. I quote Adorno exactly as a corrective to the simplicities and avoidances of the audience studies, communications theory and cultural studies careerism that Breen would rather entertain. I will agree we see the world differently. I don’t agree that ‘capital is necessary for human and social development’ and I think the equation of 400 yeas of ‘globalisation’ with the longevity of pop music is laughable. I’m not sure that talking to ‘groupies’ about Islam-influenced hip hop would have made much of a research project – or made me less of a Marxist – but I do appreciate the humour. Funny.

What “Critique of Exotica” tried to do is set out resources that allow readers to make up their own minds about several aspects of racial violence in Britain, issues of community policing, music in relation to politics, the contextualised uses of theory, and, among much else, the complicity of academics (including myself). The referrals to campaigning groups and organisation websites such as CARF, the Free Satpal Ram campaign, Fighting Talk, Red Action etc., which I make throughout the book are never mentioned in the review. The sense of engaged debate in the book is wholly occluded. Some ill-informed fear of the reds and McCarthyite gut-reaction are Breen’s only themes. The man describes himself as a ‘policy wonk’. I must admit I’m awful sorry he got so wound up that the red stain of critique spoiled his day, but I’m not sure he actually needs a ‘policy’ to be such a complete wonker.