Word salad for future plundering…
Cutting slabs out and leaving them here like meat carcasses hung up for curing…
For example, cosmopolitan and transnationalising nomad that I am (ahem, I wish) I am at present absent-mindedly watching what I assume to be the show ‘Japan Idol’ on an overhead TV in a Korean bbq joint. I am resisting tuning in so I may be wrong. I am in Japan, but given the restaurant, this could also be ‘Korean Idol’; how to tell without attending more carefully? I dismiss the effort, and let this just be, this time, background, even though the sound is awful, cranked out through not very state of the art loudspeakers, although it is not overbearing. I am simultaneously concerned with my meal, typing up notes from reading, and avoiding looking at Facebook. What concerns me most is the preparation I should really be doing, but I am also only attending to it with part of my admittedly lazy brain. I’ve a language lesson and should be better prepared for a test coming up in an hour. Japan/Korean Idol as revision session perhaps? It might be ‘Supergirl’, from China (see Jian and Liu 2009), so I already know that is not really going to help, even though I seem to be able to process popular culture and its moves more than I can the declensions of nouns or the – nightmare – pictographs of Kanji.
My students walk into class with iPhone buds in their ears. They also listen to ‘Japan Idol’, and more or less tolerate my insistence on subjecting them to music from old Indian cinema, or diasporic British South Asian sounds, and commentaries. The point of reference at first, to get them interested, was The Beatles, but they also show me the influence of other traditions and ideas that lead them to an interest in India and this course, and I realise that the direction and question of influence is never straightforward. Despite being able to point to ‘the discursive construction of an “East Asian Popular Culture” as an object of analysis (Chua 2006: 200) the criss-crossing of national borders extends and extends. Of course this is true for film, music, television drama, comic books, magazines, websites and fashion magazines. In Japan the visibility of Bollywood’s cultural product is small (Srinivas 2013: 616), and even more the marginal visibility of Bengali Art film is less than some, but this term rather more than nothing. What they will make of it as they collect points and units for their degree awards is really not clear – the hope that the famous obsessive fandom of Japanese youth can be accessed to promote learning is of course not far away. I have something of that tendency for sure.
Also for the films of Ichikawa Kon, even though my students expected me only to know Kurusawa and maybe Ozu. I am able to introduce them to a great – lost on some – figure from their own film culture. But it is Akira Kurusawa who was the better known in Bengal, and who is famously paired with Satyajit Ray as the twin stars of World Cinema from this part of the world. Ichikawa Kon and Mrinal Sen are perhaps the two antithetical alternatives to that mainstream crown. Kon’s films are sometimes profound, sometimes comic, sometimes political, and while I will not belabour this analogy, and the depth of attachment of the Bengali public to Sen is possibly greater than the Japanese appreciation of their own Kon, I certainly class them together. That other book awaits another time however, even as I note also the potential to write such a comparison through the crucial importance of their wives as partner-actresses and muse-like support. No, that book must wait, my language class first. And in Bengal, Mrinal Sen himself is hopefully still to make another film, even though he is pushing towards his mid-90s as I write.
The terminology most explicitly avoided that I would introduce here, but develop elsewhere, is the language of Maoist analysis of compradore complicities and specific semi-feudal semi colonial associations within media reporting. I once described the Malaysian Multi Media Super Corridor as an example of a semi-feudal, cyber-colonial land grab. This must be further explored today.
A problem perhaps to be addressed is how did militant anti-racist and anti-imperialist organisations from 30-40 years ago, lead to a scene in which we are so atomised and reified into discursive competition the best we have are individual celeb thinker-artists who say all these good things, but practically overlook the ways compliance and complicity are the order of the day.
Sometimes compromised and conflicted; sometimes published in the West, but sometimes not; always engaged, never satisfied with mimicry, hybridity or recuperation. There is an alternative in formation and emergent on the back of a political tradition that does not need to pay the lip service of yore to the powers of empires. Maybe new empires are in formation, but the stakes are open for a critical transformation – which will not need first amendment rights, but take them.
It seems to me that there is a push-me-pull-you kind of denial at the heart of contemporary politics, where an absence of anxiety about the decline of the left exists in a space within which verbose talk about the decline rests somehow in comfortable reassurance that invests hope in media promotional social movements that circulate horizontally, as Hardt and Negri, among others, applauded (2000). Confronted by the entertainment-industrial militarisation of every theatre of the world, albeit with differing levels of war-footing, but combative all the same, the contestation that gains most visibility is a digitised connected one, already recuperated in its very conditions of possibility. It exists as spectacle, contesting in a spectral spectacularity that cancels itself out. Auto-marginalisation and self-deprecatory egoism that things likes or hits or eyeballs can be monetised for change.org.
The self-regard of the online social movements which network according to the algorithms of a geo-demarcated globalism, offer spaces of partial, perhaps potential, disengagement in a staged subsumption. Vernacular globalisations that offer respite for a time, but ultimately wait in line to compromise. The identity and digital compartmentalisation of the political, and the atomisation of parts that any movement, articulated globally, requires, means that questions of strategy and tactics are resolved to simple impossible choices – departure into defeat or the path of endless competition for celebrity endorsement. The political struggle becomes one of recognition by the digital spectacular, and only algorithms of approval count, as like meets like, confirms like, the same. A viable politics of group mobilisation across difference is undermined in such competition, in a zero and one containment.
Working out how it came to be thus is less difficult than refusing the demonisation and disregard of the need to build alliances across difference without becoming sectarian and self-interested. It seems this is only possible outside of the famous mainstream formula circuit, and even then the secondary circuit’s structuring in terms of leagues and scaled promotion, threatens to narrow possibilities there. If there is only one world domain of action, one global agenda, then the possibility of working outside of expectations is already recuperated. That there are some who do not follow the formula is the promise that is still possible to win.
Writing far from the UK, thinking about South Asian film and diaspora from another corner of Asia, and given trends and movements, the angular influences of culture are thrown into sharp relief. How we figure patters of production and consumption of popular culture is never simple. Even influences are not readily tracked when they are apparent: the old reception models, and the dissemination models that proffered a uni-directional distributive formula from an advanced centre, are faulty.
In the face of declining interest in explicit politics there might be reasons to despair if it were not that a desperate necessity means migrants continue to struggle and bring realisation with them across the deadly borders they have crossed. A lament for those who die in the attempt – the sea of bodies that wash up on the Mediterranean shores, the parched deserts of Arizona, the driftwood from destroyed and floundered boats off the West Australian coast – and monuments to tenacity that the privileged cannot even measure, do not diminish the importance of the gift that migrants bring those that have died sedentary in their suburban homes.
A consideration of unpublished – even unwritten – comparative tracts within Asia must immediately take into account the framing that such conversations might have in the wake of the emergence of two new economic ‘superpowers’ in the twenty-first century, China and India – which would have perhaps more significance in terms of encounter than that between east and west (Chakrabarty 2000). I realise the word encounter has a particular history in at least one context here, but I don’t doubt the possibility of separating the brutality of one kind of encounter, with the police, and that more cosmopolitan and engagingly transnational encounter that might add to our cultural repertoire and sensitivities in the coming era.