Whaddayamean Cultural Studies?

I’ve been reading Andrew Ross’s “Low Pay High Profile” and enjoying it very much, even in its earnestly worthy moments and tone. Am I getting mellow? Can’t say there is a huge amount of it that is going down as notes to use later, but it’s a good book and I’m glad to have put it on my reading list – and not only as compensation for the less favourable review of something else of his that you can find included in its text file pre-published version below.

So what am I doing resuscitating another old thing from the battered filing cabinet? Partly pressure of work means me posting here less often than I might like of late, partly it is to clear out that closet, and partly to refresh memories and a sense of a mission – this was a review of an important book. I had read Tricia Rose’s incredible “Black Noise” and so stumped up money for this one. Andrew Ross later went on to write the “Celebration Chronicles” which was based on a year or so of fieldwork in the Disney town of Celebration – a special kind of torture. Thing was, “Black Noise” and “Microphone Fiends” were part of the blackground for my own forays into the world of music and politics. This even led to my own editing adventures (Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music – eds Sharma, Hutnyk, Sharma). So the questions asked below to Ross were really questions asked to myself – what are you doing editing a book on music??

Well, that was then – the book I helped edit was published ten years ago this month, and so we are having a party (or a wake) to celebrate that fact – come along to the New Cross Inn on 17 November 06 – see the Dis-Orient X flyer Anamik has prepared. There is a workshop on beforehand at Goldsmiths to discuss the changed circumstances in which now the war of terror, the demonization of Muslims, and shoot to kill on the streets/tube etc etc all make the anti-racist, anti-imperialist themes of that book still more relevant, and more necessary to update, than ever.

[Other editing moments from the zone of “music and politics” included:
‘Music and Politics’ special issue of “Theory, Culture and Society” Vol 17 no 3, 2000 (co-ed Hutnyk and Sharma).
‘Music and Politics’ special issue of “Postcolonial Studies” Vol 1 no 3, 1998, (co-ed Hutnyk and Kalra).]

*Whaddayamean Cultural Studies? So hip it hurts to dance*
by John Hutnyk (1994)

Review of Ross, Andrew and Rose, Tricia “Microphone Fiends: Youth Music, Youth Culture” Routledge: New York. 1994, 276 pages ISBN 0-41590908-2 (PB)

Andrew Ross – is he groovy or what? Is he just another one of those writers whose name seems to be always associated with the more interesting interventions in cultural politics, or is he a hyperreal self-cloning media machine? Either way he seems always to be at the forefront of each new fab fad presentation-volume of *culture-interests* to hit academic bookstore display tables. In the latest glossy version of this commodity form he begins his Introduction to the collection *Microphone Fiends: Youth Music, Youth Culture* with a very astute observation. Indeed an astonishing cultural paradox (ma-an). That a recent mainstream hip hop magazine Vibe (Time Publishing) offered “twelve lavish pages” of lifestyle advertising, followed, in one of those “bone-crunching contradictions of postmodern youth culture”, by a “swinging assault” on hip hop commercialism in a feature-length article (Ross 1994:1).

In my view it is possibly also quite contradictory that a cultural critic and baby-boomer like Ross is the one who introduces a work on Youth Culture and Hip Hop. His short essay deserves separate attention as it offers a commentary on a wide range of contemporary cultural problems (much in the same way that Brian Massumi introduced *The Politics of Everyday Fear* in 1993) and is, I think, indicative of a particular malaise that affects academic work in the otherwise excitingly productive era of desk-top/Mac-virtual publishing and consequent proliferation of writing styles. This malaise is one of a verbose and vacuous gee-whiz criticism, fascinated with moments of irony and political curios, but lacking in any deeper analysis or program.

Introductions such as this one entail a proliferation of generalisations (elsewhere in the book another boomer-commentator, Larry Grossberg, who also has a discipline-shaping role as editor of the journal *Cultural Studies*, proclaims the validity of generalities, but I will ignore his paper here in order to concentrate my abuse of Ross), almost as if the time has again come where ‘public intellectuals’ are called upon to provide opinions and views on all manner of things (echoes of Sartre, Marcuse, Adorno and Benjamin very much in fashion). The new popularity of criticism, after years of specialisation, offers a return to earlier times, and to the styles of the cafe or salon. Generalities? Andrew Ross asks, for example, in this collection of fine writing on youth culture, the question “What then is popular music good for?” (Ross 1994:3).

Surely we agree it is important to recognise the “level and attention and meaning invested in music by youth” (Ross 1994:3), even if it’s unclear why mild ironies about the use of Fleetwood Mac songs by a campaigning US President might be relevant in a book about youth culture, hip hop and dance. (I think Ross actually likes Clinton; well, I can’t tell if he hates him or not). But then I was also annoyed by Ross’s first words which address themselves to northern hemisphere types who identify parts of the year with the word ‘Fall’. Its all well and good for subcultural entrepreneurs like Ross to write about the fabrication and commercialisation of categories like ‘Generation X’, but to then present Beavis and Butthead, The Simpsons, Roseanne and other manifestations of post-Brady Bunch middle-class entertainment as providing “a genuinely critical response to the simple functionality of the American family” (Ross 1994:5) is too much. In my view, despite Ross’s dismissal of the show, watching Beverly Hills 90210 is an experience which evokes critical thinking in a way that the sit-com rehearsed transgressions of Simpsons et al do not. (Surely everyone recognises 90210 as satire?). It was the cartoon rebellion of Bart himself which became clear to me after hearing a trade union speaker from Thailand talk of her experience leaping from the third story of a burning factory onto the bodies of her fellow workers, who had been forced to jump before her and who cushioned her fall and saved her life. These women, aged between forteen and twenty-eight, had been locked into their mass production factory for fear that their low wages would otherwise encourage them to run off with the merchandise – they were making plastic Bart Simpson dolls for export. Sentimental, perhaps, this story even brought tears to the eyes of Mr John Halfpenny, the tired reformist leader of the Victorian trades hall, at the meeting where the Thai worker was speaking – showing that there is yet a point where such life experiences cut through the crap that is televised sedation.

Ross also provides cartoon explanations of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx and of the entrepreneurial independent record sector which “exploits social prejudice – as nasty as they wanna be – as unscrupulously as the lords of narcotraffic exploit poverty and social despair” (Ross 1994:6-7). This ‘lords of narcotraffic’ stuff would qualify Ross for membership in one of the late 80s Nancy Reaganite stormtroop patrols marching double-time through the backstreets of urban suburbs in riot gear chanting ‘War on Drugs, War on Drugs’ (apologies to Thomas Pynchon). Little here of the larger institutional and economic interests behind these scenes. Certainly the fact that some few black males in America can eke out a career in music or in the informal economy, or end up dead or in jail at a rate of one for every four in the twenty to thirty age group (“In other words they can rise to the top or crash to the bottom” (Ross 1994:7)) seems no justification for the comment that “the gap in opportunity between youth of colour and white youth is not as wide as it used to be” (Ross 1994:7). What is Ross trying to say here – that Clinton, Fleetwood Mac and the glories of capitalism are eroding racial inequality? All the throwaway lines in the world about the dead-end nature of jobs in the fast-food industry could not redeem the placatory republicism of this suggestion that things are getting better (they are not), or that Black males are not subject to continued capitalist exploitation (they are).

To me, Ross seems intent on leaving the system intact. There is a case for suggesting that cultural studies, with all its guerilla tenured (ex)Marxists, does little more than offer palliative support to a reconfigured but unchanged system. This might be elaborated again in the contemporary period: “in its monopoly stage, capitalism needs sociologists as critics even more than in the former role of apologists and ideologists” (Piccone 1976:137). There is less need for ideological legitimation where oppositional thought has been discredited – so we don’t need comprehensive ‘theory’ – and yet the decline of the national market as regulation in a context of internationalisation means it becomes useful to support a regulatory criticism for the time being – an internal control mechanism, also prefigured in the Westminister Democracy as the notion of the Loyal Opposition, now generalised to all aspects of culture. This of course can be permitted to appear, in its most ‘radical’ forms, at best in social democratic and revisionist manifestations, but more often than not it is a celebrated lifestyle leftism, repleat with dark glasses, sportscar, and invitation to all the right parties (champagne ones, not Leninist). All this happens in cartoon form and on MTV. Full integration of the global order may again obviate the need for this tolerance of hip sociology – cultural studies – but for the time being it exists as repository of a dissenting view that is corraled in such a way that it provides no threat, and rather maintains the system through a role similar to a dysfunctional steam valve.

It is, however, insufficient to think that the new productions of pop sociology, critical anthropology and cultural studies, et. al., are merely ideological and/or co-opted components of bourgeoius life. In a letter to a newspaper (‘On Proudhon’) in 1865, Marx pointed out that economic categories were “theoretical expressions of historical relations of production corresponding to a particular stage of development of material production” (Marx 1865/1950:356). It is today clear that the interests of the culture industry – both academic and commercial, if there is a difference – must still be considered in the same way. The poverty of philosophy, which in the guise of Proudhon imagined theoretical categories to be eternal and preexisting ideas, remains a relevant accusation – impoverished – as a corrective to the ways we think of culture today. Complacently, within the frame. Get with the program. Museums and satellite television, coffee table reproductions, critical conferences. The new cultural studies seems very much like the old salon of the ancien regime, where booty plundered by imperial adventurers was shown for the edification of select guests in bourgeois drawing rooms. This is an inadequate, and elitist, forum which offers little hope for political intervention. We need to do far more than point like grinning monkeys at the ironies of the cultural system that attends global exploitation (hitherto cultural studies has done little more than this, anthropology hasn’t even come close).

I’d like to know how they let this guy loose as co-editor of an otherwise interesting collection of papers? He doesn’t contribute anything other than the introduction, while the other editor, Tricia Rose contributes both an article and an interview. The interview is great stuff, an expose of the music industry – indeed, the whole book is good, and it would be disastrous if anyone was put off by the intro. The ‘editor’ Ross has made some good choices. advised no doubt by Rose, but good nonetheless. Perhaps he just rushed the first bit. Whatever. All this makes me wonder how contracts for edited volumes are awarded today? Who gets the funds? How the work gets divided up? (Who are the people mentioned in the acknowledgements – students? and what parts of the production process were theirs?). Having done a similar job myself, all this makes me suspicious of the role of an ‘editor’ – which seems to me to sometimes border on that of the pimp, at least of the broker, and too often the real estate agent. I wonder what this does for one’s career – to write a book about hip hop without writing on hip hop; or to write a book with Andrew Ross; or to be shelved in the library as author (is this still important for tenure? Or research grants?). The importance of how these cultural artifacts circulate today, under whose auspices and patronage, and to what ideological and political gain, I wouldn’t want to guess. It would of course be very mean to underline the subcultural ‘contacts’ afforded to Ross as Director of the American Studies Program at New York University. But there you are: he is the man with his finger on the pulse. Hola.


Massumi Brian (ed) 1993 “The Politics of Everyday Fear” University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Marx, Karl 1865/1950 ‘On Proudhon’ in “Selected Works Vol 1”, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.

Piccone, Paul 1976 ‘Review of Helmer, The Deadly Simple Mechanics of Society’ in “Theory and Society” 3(2):135-8



6 thoughts on “Whaddayamean Cultural Studies?

  1. Am I getting mellow?

    Yes. I was the one who recommended this book to you a while back, but I didn’t tell you to read this book because it’s good. It’s soooper bleeding heart liberal. I only like the chapter on Italian garment industry as blind praise of entrepreneurism, the chapter on Labour Gays though is AWFUL! Mainstream gay consumerism and (privileged, because uptown fashion-retail) access to labour-rights are all conflated in that article! I really don’t want to see labour rights reduced to the spectacle of a fashion cat-walk. Sure, it’s entertaining, as entertainment, but what a gross misrepresentation of the labour rights struggle (their very own struggle even).

    Anyways, I actually recommended that you only read the final chapter of the book about the tradition of self-sacrifice (or: unpaid work) in academia, and how this tradition is abused to extract unpaid work from academics. Something like: if you’re really doing science for science, at the service of “the greater good”, then you are not in it for the money < -- this non-reasoning is self-destructive according to Ross. Ross quotes a Public Enemy rap about “getting paid in full” (to demonstrate his street-cred?) and urges academics to reject the ideal of self-sacrifice. IMO he should be rejecting the abuse of this ideal. Is the academic ideal of self-sacrifice itself the problem? (Natalist feminism has successfully recuperated the sexist variant of this same self-sacrifice ideal, a self-sacrifice that old school feminism had battled against and lost the battle.) Ross glosses too quickly over the more existential debate that the ideal of self-sacrifice is directly related to – terrible questions such as “who are we doing it for?” and the like. “For our children and our children’s children” is an answer (transnationalist) feminists reject, because even natalist feminists have to then ask: “WHOSE children are we doing it for?” Just like those natalist feminists, academia cannot avoid the ideal of self sacrifice because that ideal (or myth) is often its only source of legitimacy. How else can you justify useless studies (biologists researching worthless rare bacteria, or theorical wanking such as post-structuralism or Queer Studies), or even the meritocratic system itself, than to allege that these talented uber-intelligent academic people are unselfishly giving it all away for free? Academia’s alleged social use is its last line of defense. Tex.


  2. Thank you for plugging my Sputnik Monroe post. It is taken for granted, that an Afro-American, can sit in a sports arena, anywhere the ticket price can be paid.

    It is funny how “talking blues”, became rap and hip-hop.


  3. I want to talk a little more about the essay on the gay workers. It’s really bad.

    All the yada-yada about the kewl catwalk show is a gross misrepresentation of their true labour rights struggle.

    Read the article: their struggle was mostly *diplomatic*, i.e. behind-the-scenes negotiations in association with a labour movement that was already seasoned in such behind-the-scenes bargaining.
    Why are we told more about their wardrobes than the specifics and details of how such bargaining took place?

    More importantly: did the labour movement share their bargaining skills with the gay workers? Or do they consider the gays a bunch of fashion victim airheads that are easily (ab)used for the frazzle dazzle, but not worth sharing any real political skills with?

    The catwalk stuff and yellow tanning salon whatevers were the public face of the struggle, or what’s usually referred to as propaganda. This article is not a lesson in labour rights diplomacy, but a lesson in selling (political) face. Consumerist propaganda at that. It’s a lesson in cultural distinction becoming political distinction.

    These gay workers being respectable, well-dressed, “classy”, “tasteful”, they had a (consumerist) cultural capital to draw upon that no other gay people would be able to tap into. There is no way that you could make lower income gay workers as palatable to labour, let alone the public at large, as this classy little bunch.

    “We are gay and we are labour” says one of the activists.
    He forgets to mention “upmarket”.

    I certainly am not saying that they shouldn’t tap into their cultural privileges to obtain whatever labour rights they can. Go ahead and work your workin’body to get those labour rights. But don’t kid yourselves. The “add(wealthy) gay for spice” trick is not going to work in lower income contexts.

    What bothers me is that the essay strongly suggests that merely throwing in a bunch of classy well-dressed fashion-cons(umerist)cious gays will somehow uplift the (otherwise boring and bureaucratic) labour movement.

    Not only does it nudge-nudge a horrible appropriation, but, oh puhleez, fuck off already. Labour rights institutions never are and never will be sexee, no matter how many gays you have st(u/a)ffed them with. Labour rights diplomacy does not wear Prada. Labour gays telling an asshole employer to stick it where the sun don’t shine should be anything but sexee.




  4. On sexee labour rights – well… not sure if you would call it sexee but definitely about sex.

    Flickr Sex Work Rally

    photos from the big big rally we held for labour and human rights for sex workers in Brussels last year in Oct


    the GMB / IUSW branch in UK – now let me just say we are redoing the website at the moment – so no harsh comments are needed – I get it – we need a new site asap. In fact we are holding a xmas party / fundraiser on dec 11 (details to follow).


  5. Check http://www.sexworkeurope.org as it has decent stuff – see below —

    Trabalhadores do Sexo Uni-Vos! is now available at http://www.store-book.com

    After a successful launch in Frankfurt, Germany (at Dona Carmen) and in Porto, Portugal, Saturday 4th of November a third book launch will be held in Lisbon at Rock in Chiado.

    “Sex Workers of the World Unite!” explores the formation and the dynamics of labour organising in the sex industry, through action research and ethnography. It presents an analysis of the feminist debate on sex work and the sex industry, arguing for the legitimisation of sex work as labour and demanding the full range of labour rights for all sex workers.

    Written by an ex-sex worker and international sex worker activist, this book represents a view “from within”. It reports on the pioneer process and struggle through which sex workers have finally achieved the landmark of official unionisation in the UK.

    Trabalhadores do Sexo Uni-Vos! – Sex Workers of the World Unite, first out in Portuguese, is published by Dom Quixote and is now available at http://www.store-book.com


  6. Eh, I think there is a terrible misunderstanding here… I am writing the following in response to those posting about unionizing sex-workers.

    First of all, I used the term labour, but it should have been union. Excuse that error, maybe it’s a utopian-Freudian error (I subconsciously wish all labour was unionized, hence I don’t bother distinguishing the two words where it’s necessary).

    Furthermore, the gays described in the essay I was critiquing are NOT sex-workers (unless you are an Arlie Russell Hochschild fan…). They sell clothes at upmarket clothes stores.

    So I really don’t see the relevance of your posts about sex-workers organizing. Besides, I’m an old school feminist of the Andrea Dworkin school, so don’t come to me with all that “sex-work is just work like any work” bullshit, because I will just explode, and hey, that’s work like any work too :-\

    The overrated and hagiographic Dutch movement to unionize prostitutes appeared at the same time that the XIAN government was trying to kick as many “people” as possible off the welfare rolls, because research had shown that most of the new welfare recipients were divorced women.

    The drive for unionization was simultaneously a drive to get women back on the welfare payrolls that the Xian government was trying to bar them from accessing. But the union-hookers will never tell you THAT… neither have any of them ever publicly supported welfare-rights of workers (most of them PRETEND to be rugged anti-State libertarian entrepreneurs).
    But’s it’s all related to Xian attack on WOMEN’s access to welfare as a means of financial emancipation. Don’t fool yourselves and, esp you hip dick American professors who have not visited the Netherlands since the 1960s yet praise the unionization of hookers (not noting that this has only lead to more underground activity), please stop lying about the true reasons behind the unionization of hookers in this country.



Comments are closed.