“Pondering Information and Communication in Contemporary Anti-Capitalist Movements” From The Commoner. July 2001.
Weekly Worker 489 Thursday July 17 2003
From Guantanamo to Kumingting to Campsfield, detention without trial is used to divide and rule. John Hutnyk calls for an international working class response…
LIKE A PACKED CUPBOARD BUT QUITE
UN CADDIE RENVERSÉ DANS L’HERBE
(the back cover includes a quote from Critique of Exotica, and see track 6, thanks un)
Against Mother Theresa
John Hutnyk’s Rumour of Calcutta, reviewed byMcKenzie Wark
Wednesday, 10 September 1997
dead link above, but republished HERE.
The Pinocchio Theory never lies.
Cultural studies, political comment and other curios from the USA
The Box Brownie camera, circa 1962, was clearly designed for ease of use. Anyone can just pick it up, focus, and shoot. Rather hard to see the image in the viewfinder if I remember correctly – but I am not so sure I do remember this – its taken on the veranda of grandfather Thomas Tate’s house in Melbourne. Jx
This is the abstract and first couple of paragraphs of an essay I have coming out in the journal Social Identities in January. I include it here because I’ve just heard that Sivanandan will speak at Goldsmiths on Oct 5 2005 (4pm).
The Dialectic of Here and There:
Anthropology ‘at home’ and British Asian Communism
Ethnographers in Britain seem to have by and large ignored left political activity among South Asian settlers on these islands. The lustrous career of South Asian communists active in the UK is however not to be romanticized and of course there were many more people not involved in class politics than can be registered in the annals of communist champions. But it is clear that the groundwork for many of the kinds of political positions taken for granted today were forged in adversity and struggle under scarlet flags. That this again means that not everyone is involved in left wing groups and causes today goes without saying, and again it should not need to be pointed out that an overly rosy view of the inheritance of South Asian politicals would be inappropriate and misguided (but all those slightly strange left wing uncles and aunties do have an influence). The point is that given the really existing conditions into which most South Asian youth are born in multi-racist Britain, and given the heritage to which they can, if they wish, lay claim, it should be no surprise that comprehension of the struggle is ‘imbibed as if with mothers milk’, as one informant described it to me. Why has scholarship singularly failed to register this?
Keywords: South Asian, communists, anti-racism, imperialism, history, Britain.
Anthropology ‘at Home’
‘labour in the white skin cannot be free if in the black it is branded’ (Marx 1867:301)
In a short story collected in Where the Dance Is, Ambalavaner Sivanandan tells the tale of a meeting of a Marxist study group in a pub in Hampstead, probably sometime in the 1970s. In this engaging story, (semi-autobiographical?) a Sri Lankan PhD student at the London School of Economics, going by the name of Bala, is invited to a meeting by Clarence, an acquaintance from home now resident in the ‘mother country’. Bala is uncertain as to just what is required of him:
I was not sure how to play my role: as a red insurrectionary or as black militant (Sivanandan 2000:48).
The four white comrades bought him drinks for both affectations, but when the discussion turned to the issue of immigration into Britain it was Clarence, the ‘senior immigrant’, who won the most approval, and a kiss from one of the women, for a position that should readily be recognised even amidst the smoke and fug of the mid afternoon local boozer. As the story tells it, Clarence ‘mumbled and spluttered incoherently about the responsibility of the mother country to its children and ended up declaring, “we are here because you were there”‘, something Bala had heard before. The meeting broke up, with the next Saturday scheduled as a discussion of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire.
The story goes on with various intricacies, the woman who kisses Clarence cooks a curry for Bala, Bala gets to know something of Clarence’s life in Britain, but the main point in retelling this scene is neither appreciation of Sivanandan’s accomplished literary talents, nor to rehash some scenario in mockery of the curry-cooking patronising white left woman Tessa, but to register the movement that Sivanandan always tries to effect: the complication and extension of thought beyond platitudes and slogans, achieved always also from an activist’s perspective. The formula ‘we are here because you were there’ may in fact have the ring of truth, and it makes an excellent chant, and must needs be said. But saying it for approval, saying it into the ether, saying it without consequence deserves critical attention too. Sivanandan questions the motives and context of sloganeering even in the very heart of a Marxist cell meeting discussion of immigration in the days when Compendium bookshop was still a fixture and visits to Cuba were the norm. Sivanandan shows us exactly where romantic attachments and the deceits of too easy acceptance only allow platitudes when more is required. As to what happens at the end of the tale, without giving the story away – its called ‘The Man Who Loved the Dialectic’ – a nuanced Marxism makes more sense of the predicament of contemporary life than that afforded in any other conception.
What then for writing about South Asians in Britain that would do more than rehearse either the trite axioms of identity politics or the romantic attachments of essentialist stereotype? On two sides there is a seductive danger and all too easy exoticist trap – playing the ethnic card and falling for ethnicist stereotypes have been the preserve of many who would write, with good intentions, the history of South Asains in Britain. On the one hand those who have appropriated the role of documenting Asian identities in the metropole, on the other metropolitan identities playing up to expectations. For convenience sake this essay identifies this double trap in the congealed positions of anthropologists writing on South Asians in Britain, and in their identitarian informants – and it uses the critical position of a British – South Asian communist history (the subject matter that stems from Sivanandan’s fictional study group) as the counterfoil that disrupts this duality.
The procedure of taking category and classification in advance of observation and discussion has reified and fixed a conservative set of stereotypes. To assume that caste, kinship, arranged marriages and religious tradition are the main keys to comprehension of the social and political experience of South Asians in Britain is a common delusion. A delusion born from the work of anthropologists bent on finding rural and village subjects conveniently replicated in metropolitan settings. This is a conservative anthropology in the extreme, owing more to allegiance to old categories found ‘over there’ than politics and experience of people with agency ‘over here’. Not to say, of course, that caste, kin and religion are or were unimportant, but, as we will see, equally worthy of attention could be workplace and neighbourhood organisations, trades unionism, political activism, socialist and communist party affiliation, rallies and other such associations. It can be argued that the organisational history of South Asians in Britain has been particularly obscured by a blinding culturalism attuned only to the exotic. The worst consequence of this exoticism is to reduce the ‘migrant’ worker to a timeless and rural pre-political unconsciousness – an imperialist oversight that replicates ethnicist fantasy and depoliticises by means of reified culture…..JH
I have to give a talk in Athens on friday. Here is the abstract I sent. For a paper to be written on the plane (well, the notes to be reassembled and rearranged again and again, as ever rewritten in the hours leading up to the talk…). Its for the European Art Education Congress.
On the relation between art and theory
John Hutnyk (Reader in Cultural Studies, GoldsmithsCollege)
I work at GoldsmithsCollege where there are two competing agendas reshaping the nature of University (art) teaching. My work has been in part a political exercise to explore these contradictions. On the one hand there is great interest in practical and engaged research, or art-research/research-practice, as a series of interventions and interruptions interweaving both practice and theory, or relating both productivity and research not as opposed but simultaneously cross-referential and co-constituted with one another.
On the other hand there is an increasingly bureaucratised, compartmentalised and accounting-ified regime of documentation and forms which hinders all creative theoretical exchange and reduces teaching and creativity to drawing-by-numbers.
Art has become commercialised and instrumentalized to an astonishing degree both in terms of consumption and as practice (examples: Tate Modern and the tourist economy; Banks and mining industry sponsorship of artists; the branding of Goldsmiths as cool brand Art College).
The commercialisation of teaching is also well advanced; the teaching factory and its ‘improving’ functions are more and more instrumentalized and industrialised as a part of a general trend (examples: fee paying programmes to earn export revenue; productivity gains, increased class sizes, degraded facilities; reduction of teaching to ‘technique’, not pedagogy).
This instrumentalization is common to our total social world – everything, even our conversations, becomes a calculus, and a resource. The same logic infects children’s fantasy novels right through to the global war of terror – our ‘model’ way to understand these things is too often merely profit and loss. We now even draw up such tables to evaluate the most esoteric of our practices. Heidegger’s notion of Enframing, and Adorno’s notion of the Culture Industry suggest we need more than a revaluation of Art teaching, rather a fundamental rethink of the relation of theory to practice, and of intellect to production.
On cultural nationalism – Slavoj Zizek has recently debated Geoff Boucher in the pages of Telos, and from their discussion its possible to glean a revealing set of conections between the Symbolic or Law and how it is supplemented by the real, or ‘solicited excess’.
Enlightened cynicism is supplemented by ideological enjoyment of ethnic nationalism such that cynical distance through to protestations of support for democratic politics are supplemented by the perverse or obscene excess of bureaucratic enjoyment, such that liberalism, multiplicities, even ‘alliance politics’ are the symbolic forms that are secured through the unacknowledged superego support of the obscene. The meaning of the former is secured by the latter – the secret dependence of democratic politics upon national enjoyment takes varied forms, whether it be the novelty of the ‘third way’ politics, the love-thy-neighbour posturing of multicultural tolerance, or ‘radical’ reforms (drop the debt campaigns perhaps), even ‘Struggles for cultural recognition …[are] secretly supported … by compliance in deed, if not in words, with nationalistic rituals’(Boucher 2004:160). The best these modes of ‘politics’ can claim is to be the human face of the obscene enjoyment generated by the capitalism-nationalism nexus. Zizek points to the need to break from these supplements to destroy the logic of their excessive unconscious attachments – discursive unity is secretly supported by venal enjoyment (Zizek 2004:164) and he would have done with this kind of ‘rainbow coalition’ against populist fundamentalism in order rather to ‘aggravate’ class difference into class antagonism (Zizek 2004:186).
Zizek/Boucher – ref in Telos 2004.
On inoculations – “Apocalypse Now”
There is a scene in the film Apocalypse Now where Kurtz (Brando) is telling Captain Willard (Sheen) of the incident where a South Vietnamese village’s children had been inoculated against smallpox by the US forces. In a vicious ideological hack job, we are told that when the marine medics had left the village, the Viet Minh returned and hacked off each inoculated arm. A pile of little limbs in a heap in the middle of the village. The ‘sheer genius’; of that, says Kurtz. ‘We will never defeat them’.
Remember that Kurtz, and Willard, are on a wholly western quest. Upriver, towards ‘the Horror’ (Conrad’s manual replaced by special ops documentation). What book does Kurtz throw at the spaced out photographer (Hopper) to silence him? An anthropology text – The Golden Bough – by the consummate armchair anthropologist, Sir James Frazer. Famed for never having gone on any quest, ‘heaven forbid’, Frazer is reputed to have said at the prospect of meeting the savages he wrote about. Something here stands for the futile arrogance of those questing inoculators who, surely, just want to help the other (to health, to democracy). To want to help in this way is the same complicity that anthropology always had as handmaiden of colonialism, only nowadays this is reconfigured so that the social sciences, and culture, is to be reworked in the service of globalisation.
(From an essay ‘The dialectics of European Hip Hop: putting the fun back into Fun^da^mentalism’, published in the most recent edition of the journal South Asian Popular Culture 2005).
The demonization of Islam – which was established in the wake of Soviet Communism’s collapse. The early moves that manufactured a new enemy have now been replaced by the crusading ‘war on terror’, which targets Asians of all stripes within and beyond national borders and the rule of law, and irrespective of any consideration of allegiance to peace, civic life, evidence, coherence. With this context in mind, we might consider earlier skirmishes of the music market as little more than incidental. But politicized motivation was never more explicit than in the response of Paul Simon to Fun^da^mental’s ‘crossover’ efforts on the album ‘Erotic Terrorism’ (Nation 1999). The reconstructed world music impresario’s follow-up album after ‘Graceland’ (Warner Brothers 1987) was called ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’ (Warner Brothers 1990). It used recordings of a town square performance by the Brazilian percussion ensemble Olodum, which were taken back to New York where Simon ‘improvised music and words over them and added other layers of music’ (interview with Bob Edwards, quoted in Taylor 1997:64). Taylor adds that it is Simon who profits – his position in a powerful economic center – the United States, a major corporation – means that he cannot escape is centrality, despite his assertion that he works “outside the mainstream”’ (Taylor 1997:203). It is then curious to compare the moment of appropriation – another key misleading term – with a parallel incident. When Fun^da^mental recorded a version of Mr Simon’s song ‘The Sounds of Silence’ for inclusion on ‘Erotic Terrorism’, their request to clear copyright for the sample was refused. Asked for permission once again, Simon was offered the publishing rights for the new version, with an additional backing vocal, but Mr World Music again said ‘no’, citing legal precepts and refusing further discussion (author interview with Aki Nawaz). Noting the power of some musician-entrepreneurs to own and control, and the cap in hand reliance on name stars and gatekeepers for those who might want to breach the conventions of music industry protocol, the track was renamed ‘Deathening Silence’, sample removed. The retelling of these conjoined tales about Mr Simon is not to make an equation between the selfish, or rather self-interested, conceits of copyright legalese and the more serious debacles of racism, anti-Islamic profiling and the anti-people pogroms of the state machine. But who would be surprised if someone did equate such ‘cultural’ power with the way the war on terror legislates special rules that permit detention without charge or trial in the USA, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, etc? Even though such a connection was anticipated in Fun^da^mental’s ironic album title reference: ‘Erotic Terrorism’. Thinking of the Detention Camps in Afghanistan and Iraq, certainly there is some credence to Fun^da^mental’s pre-September 11, 2001, prophecy that ‘America Will Go to Hell’ – in their anti-war anthem EP release from the same period as ‘Deathening Silence’ (America Will Go To Hell Nation 1999). The use of hip-hop to express a critique of American (and United Nations, NATO or British Military) imperialist activities makes Paul Simon’s legal enforcement of silence something less than neutral and this conjunction surely indicates also a more nuanced relationship between politics and content than the unidirectionalist historians of hip-hop might warrant. The ‘deathening silence’ here is not only a comment on record industry ownership of lyric and melody, but also references the ways commercial imperatives sanction quietude about the politics of so-called anti-terrorism and the inadequacy of romantic and liberal anti-racism. No mere hybridity, Fun^da^mental’s call is to fight against the seductive terrorisms of complicity and conformity, the manipulation of market and law, the destruction of culture and civilization in pursuit of oil.
What kind of change in the apparatus of the culture industry would be required to orient attention away from the industrial military entertainment complex? What would displace the ways people in the music press and mainstream academic community consistently deploy categories that are far removed from the actualities articulated in the Fun^da^mental discussion? These critics appear deaf to ideas. I think it is clear that many misconceptions come from well-intentioned deployment of arguments around terms like ‘visibility’, ‘appropriation’ ‘complicity’ and ‘commerce’. That it is no surprise that intentions and their effects are readily undone is almost a platitude. The solution is not to insist on the correctness of an alternate interpretation (see Kalra et al., 1998, Sharma et al., 2000) and it is equally not the case that insistence on fidelity to the source material will redeem all (but a listen to the albums and a check of the websites is worthwhile – combating sanctioned ignorance advanced through media bias is an obligation we must all take up). These are probably the predictable moves that others have already made, but if raising questions about complacency in commentary adds impetus to the work of showing where a critique of unexamined complicity and marketing zeal restrict possibilities, then the opening is important.
 The term ‘sanctioned ignorance’ is from the always-insightful Gayatri Spivak (1999) Critique of Postcolonial Reason Harvard. The ref to Kalra 1998 is a special issue on ‘music and politics’ of the journal Postcolonial Studies. Sharma 2000 is to a special issue on ‘music and politics’ of the journal Theory Culture and Society vol 17, no 3. For other refs just email me.
‘Hutnyk packs more dynamite in his sentences than any other writer I know.’ Amitava Kumar, Penn State University
Cultural Studies commonly claims to be a radical discipline. This book thinks that’s a bad assessment. Cultural theorists love to toy with Marx, but critical thinking seems to fall into obvious traps. / After an introduction which explains why the ‘Marxism’ of the academy is unrecognisable and largely unrecognised in anti-capitalist struggles, Bad Marxism provides detailed analyses of Cultural Studies’ cherished moves by holding fieldwork, archives, empires, hybrids and exchange up against the practical criticism of anti-capitalism. Engaging with the work of key thinkers: Jacques Derrida, James Clifford, Gayatri Spivak, Georges Bataille, Homi Bhabha, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Hutnyk concludes by advocating an open Marxism that is both pro-party and pro-critique, while being neither dogmatic, nor dull.
Pluto Press 2004
If you are in London, this is important. A film made by friends with work from Goldsmiths students and comrades… Shoot to Kill does not make the tubes safer. Police who kill must be prosecuted. No Deaths inCustody…
———- Forwarded message ———-
Press Release: 1/9/05 No Embargo
POLICE CUSTODY DEATH FAMILIES DEMAND END OF SHOOT TO KILL POLICY
POLICE CUSTODY DEATH FAMILIES DEMAND END OF SHOOT TO KILL POLICY
There will be a special screening of ‘Injustice’ , the controversial
film about police killings that has been banned by UK television, in
support of the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and Azelle Rodney.
The screening, under the theme ‘No Shoot To Kill’, will be followed
by a Q&A session with the families of the victims of other police
shootings as well as families of controversial deaths in police
custody that have taken place since the death of Jean Charles. Also
present at the Q&A will be the films directors. The event is being
hosted by the United Families & Friends Campaign and several families
will attend to demand an end to the controversial shoot to kill
Date: Friday 2nd September 2005
Venue: Prince Charles Cinema, 7 Leicester Place, London, WCRH
Jean Charles de Menezes, 27 years old, was shot and killed by armed
police inside Stockwell Tube station on 22 July 2005 in front of
several witnesses. His family are demanding the prosecution of the
police officers involved. Jean Charles mother Maria Otoni de Menezes
said: “They took my son’s life. I am suffering because of that. I want
the policeman who did that punished. They ended not only my son’s
life, but mine as well.”
Azelle Rodney, 24 years old, was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police
on 30 April 2005 in Edgware North London. He was shot seven times. The
Police Complaints Commission are currently investigating the death.
Azelle’s family have the following demands: (1) The immediate
suspension of the officers responsible for killing Azelle. (2) An
answer from Sir Ian Blair to this demand. (3) The IPCC answer the 53
questions the family have asked. (4) The surveillance/intelligence
techniques that the SO19 officers used are disclosed to the family.
(5) That Azelles case be given the profile that it deserves, it has
now been four painful months and the family are not able to grieve
Derek Bennett, 29 years old, was shot dead by police on 16 July 2001
in Angell Town Estate, Brixton South London. One of the marksmen
involved was later promoted. In December 2004 an inquest returned a
verdict of lawful killing. The family has recently announced that it
is taking a judicial review on the grounds the inquest was fatally
flawed. Daniel Bennett brother of Derek said about the de Menezes
case: “This just shows the police seem to be willing to lie at the
highest level to justify their actions, they get away with it time and
again because they have and know the power of the media. They tell
blatant lies to the nation and a lot of people swallow it. A public
enquiry is a must for the Menezes family”.
Harry Stanley was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police service
specialist firearms unit SO 19 in Hackney East London on 22nd
September 1999. He was shot once in the head and once in the left
hand. The first inquest returned a verdict of misadventure and was
challenged by the family and a further inquest returned a verdict of
unlawful killing which was later overturned in court. The officers
involved are now facing possible criminal charges after the discovery
of new evidence. IreneStanley, Harry’s widow said: “On hearing of Jean
Charles Menezes death I was devastated and it brought my own grief all
back again. My whole family send their support to the Menezes family
in their fight for justice”
James Ashley, 39 years old, was shot dead by officers from Sussex Police in St Leonards, East Sussex, at on 15 January, 1998 PC Sherwood was subsequently charged with murder and manslaughter but was cleared at the Old Bailey on the judge’s direction. Two of the officers involved in the death were later promoted. Pauline Ashley, sister of James, said: “All we have wanted is to find out the truth about what exactly happened on that night. Wherever we go we are hitting a brick wall. We will continue our fight until we get some answers.”
Press contacts: firstname.lastname@example.org 07770 432 439
A limited number of seats will be available for press.
Notes to editors:
1. Injustice (98minutes/2001/Cert:15) is a radical documentary about
the struggles for justice by the families of people that have died in
police custody in the UK. Further details: http://www.injusticefilm.co.uk
2. United Families & Friends Campaign was set up after a spate of
police killings of young black men in London in the mid nineties. It
is the national coalition of family led death in custody campaigns.
Centre for Cultural Studies
Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry
London: Pluto Press, 2000
In this innovative book, John Hutnyk questions the meaning of cultural hybridity. Using the growing popularity of Asian culture in the West as a case study, he looks at just who benefits from this intermingling of culture. /What does it mean when Madonna dons a bindi or Kula Shaker incorporate sitar music in their music? When Cherie Blair wears a sari to a public dinner? When the national dish in the UK is chicken tikka masala? Is this a celebration of multiculturalism or cultural appropriation?/Focusing on music, race and politics, Hutnyk offers a cogently theorised critique of the culture industry. He looks at artists such as Asian Dub Foundation, FunDaMental and Apache Indian to see how their music is both produced and received. He analyses ‘world’ music festivals, racist policing and the power of corporate pop stars to market exotica across the globe. Throughout, Hutnyk provides a searing critique of a world that sells exotica as race relations and visibility as redress
TOURISM, CHARITY, AND THE POVERTY OF REPRESENTATION
John Hutnyk 1996 Zed books, London.
An original study in the politics of representation, this book explores the discursive construction of a ‘city of intensities’.
The author analyses representations of Calcutta in a wide variety of discourses: in the gossip and travellor-lore of backpackers and volunteer charity workers; in writing – from classic literature to travel guides; in cinema, photography and maps. The book argues that Western Rumours of Calcutta contribute to the elaboration of an imaginary city which circulates in ways fundamental to the maintenance of an international order.
Throughout, the focusis on the technologies of representation which frame tourist experiences of Calcutta, particularly Calcutta as an image site of decay. For example, volunteer charity workers’ explanations of their experience fit into a framework which attributes blame locally. In this perspective tourist volunteers cannot acknowledge complicity in its own production of the city as a phantasmagoric space of poverty. Travellers visiting Calcutta are shown to be located in a place through which ideological and hegemonic effects are played out in complex yet coordinated ways which are to be analysed within the context of international privilege and domination. Here specific practices and technologies, of tourism, representation and experience, are intricately combined to reinforce and replicate the conditions of contemporary cultural and economic inequality.
A provocative and original reading of both Heidegger and Marx, the book also draws up on writers as diverse as Spivak, Trinh, Jameson, Clifford, Virilio, Bataille, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari.
Available from Zed books
7 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF
Tel 020 7837 4014
Languid, tropical, monsoonal time?:
net-activism and hype in the context of South East Asian politics.
[From The Next Five Minutes3 Workbook…]
We have to agree that the relentless extension of electronic media across the webs of our lives is there to be used, enjoyed, captured, redeployed. But sometimes the speed-hype that is in fact a sales pitch blurs possibilities. Sometimes new media work may require different speeds – slower reading, longer planning, temporal depth…
Some of us might argue that the most visible moments of media and net activism in South East Asia have been transparent power plays in geopolitics. The well-publicised ‘secret’ of Indonesian net-organising in the protest movement against Suharto, and the almost fable like stories of democracy activists in Hong Kong sending faxes into China during the Tiananmen crisis. Consider how that story of streaming faxes arriving on unnamed ‘Chinese’ fax machines correlated all too well with the widely transmitted scene of the CNN being forced to close transmission in those first days of June. The white noise stain on our screens which was CNN’s interpretation of a transmission blockage replaced analysis and told the story just as the West wanted to see it. What was ‘actually’ going on was less ‘the news’ than the technological interruption.
An overdetermined image of net-activism, faxivism, and the like, has all too often been singled out for attention by the mass media in ways that furthered a conspicuous liberal cause. What was the underlying agenda? Of a continuity with the Californian Ideology, it seems no accident that faxivism so neatly fits the ongoing communications transition – the extension of a new mode of production to the entire social fabric. Everyone – even those who make it their business to resist – now needs to buy a computer, sign up for provider account, set up a website, and dedicate themselves to net time (time on the net, not just the list).
We wanted to recognise these all too obvious complaints and list some of the ways activism came up against organisational constraints. Speculative observations which come out of compromised participation in the very net activism we’d want to interrogate. Some of the criticisms are simple, some intractable – all of them, at least to some degree, may need to be remembered before pressing the forward button on the web browser. ^FN1^
The most commonly recognised dilemma for activist groups who use new media in South East Asia has to do with cost. Given the ‘third world’ status of so many in the region (this applies far less to Japan, South Korea, Singapore of course) it is obvious that access to facilities remains the preserve of the elite classes. In activist circles cost determines decisions about priority and focus. In this context, celebrations for the internet as a ‘public discussion’ forum are somewhat hollow in the face of economic constraints. The question of ‘access’ is not simple, and never without convolutions. In many cases even the most media active NGOs are unable to participate in this discussion without considerable investment which simultaneously acts to limit activity. The investment is not only in terms of hardware, but also the software of person-hours required to read, and reply to, digest and regurgitate net correspondence (or editing time making documentary news for global media). It must be considered that it is also a ‘cost’ that time spent engaged with new media is also time disconnected from other activities of organising that may be of greater priority for the organisation (a fact far too often overlooked by the organs of well-meaning solidarity who request ‘news from the front’ reports from under-financed groupings). There needs to always be a dedicated person in an organisation who will feed information to the rest. Is this practical? What mechanisms might facilitate this work? Resource requirements for participation in net activism are sometimes beyond the capacity of a small ‘third world’ organisation. In addition there is the fluctuation cost of net access at levels accepted at an ‘industry standard’ which always seems on the move. Add to this the exponentially growing cost to the organisation in time and person hours to respond to requests for information in the ever increasing ‘online world’ and webification of the struggle seems a decreasingly appealing option. This applies to so many little areas of work – consider the fate of web page set ups: too often when the funding runs out the home page is necessarily left as out of date refuse at the curbside of the superhighway. Resources that might better have been used generating other activity is drained.
It is of course the case that oftentimes information sent from a campaign group could provide the basis for application of outside pressure – there is reason to appeal for solidarity, and the established heritage of international solidarity action should never be ignored. But what would it mean to recognise that there are often limited gains for activists from South East Asia to continuously send information to (careerist?) ‘activists’ in the west? The media machine is not the only hungry monster here – anecdotal but common reportage notes that after going to a conference such as this the demand for ‘contact’ escalates and it soon becomes impossible to respond to all the requests from other conference goers – practical decisions must limit inter- and internet- communication, there are only a few things on which there can be time to co-operate, the rest must sadly be treated as waste of time.
A second order of problem has to do with discursive reach. Whatever the level of ‘crisis’ which may be recognised from near and from afar, and whatever the solutions proclaimed or ordained by the lap-toppers and webucated elites, if the general population have no access, no time, no resources or no habit of making sense of the discourses of ‘crisis’, responses, or mobilisation, then net activism feeds only itself. It is clear that there are many opportunities afforded by the new media and communications, but we want to ask what does net activist talk about the economic crisis mean to those who have no respite from the immediacy of struggle, who are in the midst of reaction and the ‘realities’, what does it mean for those who are trying to get alternative information but who do not have ready resources and the luxury to stop, read and evaluate, before they must react?
We believe this has to do with the kind of forum envisioned for electronic media. Taking another tack, the idea of individual lap-top activists rapidly exchanging information and ideas via unmediated cyberspace is well and good in theory. In practice perhaps there are questions to be asked about the kind of civic space this is, the quality of the exchanges and the direction in which this form may lead. Is the ease of communication always a good thing – by hitting return we can send everyone the latest rapidly assembled data on, say, the resettlement of villagers threatened by a hydro electrical scheme, or some grab of statistical information from a web site dedicated to econometric returns. However, what level of analysis, interpretation and application do we provide, or accept, when we participate in this kind of exchange? Is our participation in the flow of information across the channels of the information revolution adequate to contend with the agendas of its corporate advocates and the economic hegemony of which it is the means? This is not a call to stop these exchanges, but a plea to consider how much the tendency of rapid response mitigates analytical sophistication. Fulfilling the admonition to act globally while thinking locally has not always been simple.
The danger of the big hype of the new media and internet is that it is wide open to a tendency to distract attention from the immediacy of political and organisational practicality. The town hall cannot be replicated on the internet in any case, certainly not in forms that readily open themselves to participation by the general population. For some, net activism suggests only a salon for the educated classes, whereas what is needed are mechanisms that prompt, provoke, agitate. Some say there are not clear ways that the internet can achieve this without it being carefully secured, and emphasised as useful but limited tool, only for wider organisational work. The co-option gambit of elite distraction is real, especially insofar as the new media become more and more specialised modes of communication among the already organised.
Let us not romanticise however. There may or may not be all sorts of alternative news and counter hegemonic communications and reporting advocated by net activists and those who proclaim the need for a ‘free media’, but without a political base for developing a context for these claims, this can be nothing but hype. Some might say that the problem is that the emphasis of the internet is increasingly on the need to write, and the direction of that writing is outward bound – a feeding function in support of the liberal sensibilities of the West. Without a mass political struggle and a mass organisation for which writers write ‘for’, there is no clear point. To fail to consider the question of adequacy valorises only the intellectual fantasy of some well-written critical forum, whereas the political necessities of struggle demand more material forms of organisation – people need finally to meet, people need to sit together and argue, plan joint action and mobilise. Maybe its not too late to still say the battle is also still out on the street? Not everything can be collapsed into the realm of representation and transmission. Some ‘content’ cannot be expressed, some will always be misrepresented because of inequalities and interpretation. The new media may offer opportunities to disrupt and transform the established channels of transmission, but if there is no civic or public discussion, the liberal romantic notion of a civil society in which polite ‘town hall’ discussion of pressing social concerns occurs, with all free speech amendments you like, can never replace an activism that organises against powerful forces in the recognition that it is necessary to fight to win.
All this comes as no surprise since the new media replicate already existing structures and there is nothing exceptional in the recognition that many of the same problems, and possibilities, apply. Time and again we are returned to the question of utility. We make decisions about net activism on the basis of its usefulness for getting the message out, for communicating with each other, for generating analysis, and for refining critique. Its potential for sector to sector communication, for collaboration across sectors, for co-operation across diversity and for inter-connectivity cannot be ignored. Potential usefulness of the net – well, it would be stupid if these were denied, but utilities do need to be evaluated, subject to critique, prioritised and maintained.
It may be too easy to critique both the form and characteristic of the internet as dualistic. It is good for information provision, but sometimes information flow is such that it cannot be readily translated into local relevance for users and digested. The factors of cost, class and analytical depth limit participation in the global net-festival. It becomes a practical organisational question answered differently in different areas: does internet enhance unity and solidarity? Since the form of information transmission of the new media is on or off – you need to be an active searcher, you have a choice to listen or not – is this the most useful communications format for a campaigning organisation’s investment? As through the internet it is not possible to reach people who are not interested – its not invasive/aggressive enough as compared to the loudspeaker – perhaps the evaluation must recognise the net as too passive a propaganda tool? Consider how our liberal friends would feel the discomfort of that!
If these are the characteristics of the internet as media, some of the dangers flow directly from the ways the high skill level required of new media reproduces the class privilege of those already authorised by written literacy etc – the ‘educated internationally aware people’ become more educated and internationally aware. This is the development of an information technology mode of production based comprador class. At the same time as the wealth of information available on the globally hyped net announces and celebrates the informational density of modernity, the need for analysis is obscured, and the need for making the predicament of the global-political scene relevant to local conditions is forgotten. Here again information becomes tributary to the agendas of the Californian Ideology. The danger of excessive costs is not only that the purchase of computers and related skilling furthers the agenda of Mr Gates and CNN, but that resources most pressingly needed for campaigns etc are siphoned off into a spiralling international media drainage – servicing the information needs of well-meaning European forums and the careers of excellently sympathetic and all too comfortable ‘internationalists’.
The hardest task is to adequately name the conditions in which we find ourselves – the beast of capitalism takes such forms that require more than documentation. The danger would be if the internet encourages only an information rich, but analysis poor, edification. More education is more important than more information. Though of course the new media and the need to organise come together – it would be absurd to suggest that the information resources of new media are not to be embraced, but as with all technologies, the point is to utilise these to best effect. This discussion suggests only a breathing space in which to interrupt the flow and density to think, organise, analyse, and make some suggestions about how we might best do so.
Anna Har and John Hutnyk
(from the ‘Workbook’ for N5M3 conference, Amsterdam 1999)
FN1. Shouldn’t someone devise a web browser that throws up a dialogue box each time you go to forward a message – the dialogue could ask: Have you read this message? Can you provide an analysis? Do you expect the recipient to do so? Of course this mechanism would not be applied to the forwarding of those witty e-jokes that come from whoever it is that makes those things up to amuse us.
This is the abstract and first few paragraphs of my entry in the New
Encyclopedia Project first issue (out in TCS journal in April 2006):
The entry is called Culture !!
Culture is considered as a key term in Anthropology, now in critical mode, and to be worked through powerful tropes that lead to issues in politics, interpretation, translation, stereotype and racism. Anthropology is described as a cultural system itself, with a large supporting institutional apparatus, not unlike the culture industry as critiqued by Adorno and the FrankfurtSchool. The high culture-low culture distinction is considered and some distortions explained (away). Street culture and culture as (development) resource are evaluated, leading to an assessment of culture as souvenirs, trinkets and the ephemera of tourism as a modern commodity fetish. How this measures up to political struggles is again considered in the light of work by critics such as Fanon and those engaged with anti-imperialist struggles worldwide.
Keywords: culture; Malinowski; Adorno; trinkets; translation; commodity, anti-imperialism
‘You are on earth … there’s no cure for that’ – Beckett Endgame
Every commentary on culture must begin with a ritual acknowledgement of the local and the global, and of the twinned inextricably bound antithesis of becoming universal and becoming particular, of identity and difference, and contest over these terms. Of course any easy model of culture is delusional in its simplicity, and the local-global nexus obfuscates, and enshrines an untenable and thought-congealing homology that is so fragile it should immediately be toppled (‘what is falling down should be pushed’ – Nietzsche). The task of denoting Culture in encyclopedic mode is fraught with the impossibility of capturing an always-morphed term – multiple meanings, multiple sites, political struggle. In this sense the categories of Culture are infinitely varied, and so this entry begins with a necessarily incomplete survey: taking account in turn of anthropological notions of culture, mass culture, high culture, cultural translation, culture as a resource, political cultures and cultural movements. Some considerations of the state of culture today are ventured at the end, but with no end in sight, encyclopedia, for mine, would include, or even start with, Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephale, which self-consciously included the most disparate things: from ‘big toe’ to ‘ritual’. No doubt the parameters must be dialectically open ended, both expansive, and collapsing categorization in on itself. Borges/Foucault’s list of the Emperor’s animals, some of which from a long way off look like flies, might also suggest a model. The open-ended and incomplete encyclopedia cannot merely mouth the words of openness in its own destabilization, and it should be more than an application of hyperlinking to old hierarchies. All that said, culture was pretty much presented as a kind of complete compendium in the good old days. Thus we could begin with anthropology (not just because that is my disciplinary training).
The anthropological notion of culture has a certified and defended heritage in anthropology since Sir Edmund Burnet Tylor – culture as that collection of pots and pans, bit and pieces, that we all have: ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’ (Tylor 1871/1986). This notion was not the leveling egalitarianism that some anthropologists perhaps thought it was – despite everyone having ‘a culture’, there were from the beginning tables and grids, and hierarchical schemas aplenty, setting out differences. In the 19th Century cultural development ranged from the savage to the civilized in Louis Henry Morgan (1877/1965), or was based on the developmental model of the organism in Herbert Spencer (1901). Culture here was bounded, specific to groups and places, and could be named – though anthropologists like Sir James Frazer were loathe to meet those they wrote about (‘Heaven forbid’ he is supposed to have said when asked if he had ever spoken to any of the heathen). Culture, nonetheless, was global from the start for anthropology, and it was the scholar’s task and duty to set it down and explain it, albeit from afar, with attendant distortions. Later this task and duty enters the Malinowskian project of cultural transcription through ‘fieldwork’ in which the anthropologist spends time (conventionally a year or two) living ‘the life of the natives’ in order to discern, and present, ‘the native’s point of view’ (Malinowski 1922). With some hesitations along the way, and revisionist anxieties a plenty, this remains the dominant methodological precept.
Critiques of fieldwork need to be foregrounded, including their historical context. Bronislaw Malinowski arrived in Australia just in time to become an enemy ‘intern’ during WW1. In a subsequent deal with Governor Hunt, who saw the advantage in having the anthropologist assist with ‘native administration’, Malinowski was permitted to conduct research in Papua New Guinea. He arrived on his first visit to a PNG village accompanied by the local colonial constabulary. It is a matter of record that he established and championed close work with ‘informants’ in order to glean the particulars of a specific cultural group through ‘participant observation’. Though it was many years before he was able to get his Trobriand ethnography into print (after many rejections from publishers he wrote to his wife to say that he would have to enter the margarine industry if Methuen did not take the book), his career was a success. He was responsible for training a generation of scholars (Firth, Evans-Pritchard, Leach – see Stanton 1997) who in turn carried out various field studies, and, along with Radcliffe-Brown in Sydney and South Africa, and Franz Boas in the USA, he established fieldwork as the modus operandi of anthropology departments throughout the world. It was only with the unraveling of colonialism in the face of anti-colonial movements that fieldwork became more difficult in some places. A re-evaluation rocked the discipline throughout the 1970s and 1980s (see Hymes 1974, Clifford and Marcus 1986). Yet the sanctity of fieldwork was sustained despite the excoriating critique, and slowly fieldwork was brought ‘home’ and applied to minorities at the margins of the metropole, just as it was to the ‘natives’ of colonial times. A subsequent backlash against critical reflexivity was perhaps encouraged by the institutional need to promote a distinctive methodology (contra sociology, cultural studies or geography) and this idea of a distinctive disciplinary mode of inquiry has buttressed postgraduate training programs (now fee-paying) and kept a significant number of practitioners in gainful employment ever since.
The Malinowskian transcription of bounded culture was supplemented with systemic and comparative analysis such that increasingly notions of change, network, syncretism and flow became commonplace (see Ghosh for example, 1992). Eventually even the venerable institution UNESCO felt obliged to start its ‘World Culture Report’ of 1998, by saying: ‘Cultures can no longer be examined as if they were islands in an archipelago’ (UNESCO 1998:16). The often-unacknowledged anti-colonial context of such critiques was one where there was a return of the anthropological gaze by those increasingly wary of being so intently stared at. This imposed a rethinking of ethnocentrism and eurocentrism, so as to establish discomfort and doubt, and even a kind of paranoia, as a vocation for anthropology. A celebrated story about the pan-Africanist leader and critic of neo-colonialism, Kwame Nkrumah, perhaps best illustrates.
On the wall behind the desk in Nkrumah’s presidential office after he took power in Ghana in 1957, there was displayed a picture of an African man breaking the chains that had bound him. The heroic figure in the foreground was surrounded, in the four corners of the picture, by fleeing Europeans: these were in turn, a colonial administrator, a missionary with a cross, a trader, and an anthropologist carrying the book African Political Systems.
This image is powerful, but also a stereotype as anthropologists sometimes sided with anti-colonial struggles and very often gave material and intellectual support to anti-racist, anti-capitalist and popular-democratic nationalist movements. The work of Kathleen Gough would be a case in point, though her career was largely damaged by rightist criticisms of her partisanship. Eric Wolf was also singled out by Margaret Mead as a ‘communist’ (on the politics of anthropology, see Gledhill 2000), and even the mildly anti-establishment figures of the ‘writing-culture school’ of the 1980s were subject to denigration by their peers (often fairly so, Nugent 1991). Today it is a commonplace view that the anthropologist as translator of ‘culture’ is never an uninterested character, and the championing of ‘fieldwork’ now comes with the routine of automatic reflexivity and critical appraisal. Of course it cannot be denied that the work of cultural translation is important, and despite the ‘methodological absolution’ (Banerjea 1999:18) sought in such reflexivity, the argument that translation is necessary seems plausible, if flawed in interesting and interested ways. In a revealing allegory Clifford Geertz tells an Indian story that has the world resting on the back of an elephant, which is itself standing on a turtle, and that the interpretive winks of anthropology are like the turtles that, proverbially, go all the way down (Geertz 1973). We are told knowledge is perspectival, yet the discipline remains largely based in the enclaves in which it began – in England it is still LSE and Cambridge that receive the larger part of funding for the study of others – the imperial structure of the institutions is not redistributed. And so translation is maimed to the degree to which the distance between the Nkrumah story and the parable of the turtles is calculated ‘reflexively’ and not explicitly in terms of power and privilege.
Thus, anthropology might be better described as a cultural system itself. If it claims to be local in focus, its institutional apparatus has a far wider reach. Anthropology (and cultural studies, social theory, geography) might be characterized as a wholly institutionally-based global system of knowledge about the peoples of the world. It is organized with researchers and research projects, teaching programs and degree structures, publishing houses, theoretical schools (more than one, more than a succession of paradigms), methods, debates, tenure, career, course guides, reading lists, footnotes. And this whole agglomeration is more than a project of transcription, translation and comparison for the instruction and edification of those lucky enough to gain places in the teaching factory. As a privileged system then, anthropology reaches well beyond any specifically local instance of the cultural.
Edited by Raminder Kaur
and John Hutnyk
Zed books, London 1999.
Pb ISBN 1 85649 562 0 Price UK£13.95/US$22.50
(see below for ordering details)
(cover photo Karoki Lewis)
Everyone’s got a traveller’s tale,
but TRAVEL WORLDS tells them with a sting:
African-American musicians head East for Kung-Fu kicks while
paedophiles go for cheap sex pilgrimage; Western bible-bashers adopt
missionary positions in India while heroic Saint George signs on as
an Arab soldier in Britain; the scars of Partition mock the protocols
of transit, while nomadic insurgents resist the Bangladeshi nation
state with lyrical persuasion; Kula Shaker and Madonna trinketize the
‘Orient’ while dead tourists exchange values with travelling
‘terrorists’; British Mirpuris and Black women travel back to the ‘Old
Country’ and beyond in ways that are not quite as they seem; and
ethnographers collide with tourists in the carousel of Goa’s resorts.
Including poetry and fiction alongside academic essays, this book
refuses simplistic dichotomies of north/south and east/west and
confronts head on existing conventions of writing about travel in
post-colonial, literary and cultural studies. In so doing, it sheds
new light on:
– the shortcomings of border theories and nation-state parameters
– the politics of diasporic and transnational travels
– the relations between tourism and terrorism
– the limitations of ‘alternative’ tourism
TRAVEL WORLDS plots the politics of diverse journeys;
it is ‘something of a travel guide,
something of a hold-all backpack,
and something of another compass’.
`Travel Words dares you to embark on a variety of journeys
simultaneously-from magical-mystical tours that promise to fulfil the
private fantasies of jaded tourists and eager missionaries to new
journeys across old borders that have become terribly real by virtue
of being more psychological than territorial. This collection explores
exciting psycho-geographical spaces through journeys that somewhere
along the way become journeys into the self.’ – Ashis Nandy.
In Europe order from Zed books, 7 Cynthia St, London N1 9JF, UK
tel +44 (0)171 837 4014/8466 email: FAROUK@zedbooks.demon.co.uk
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Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music.
eds Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk and Ashwani Sharma, 1996 Zed books.
The image on the cover is from a Fun^Da^Mental album, Sieze the Time.
Blurring the boundaries between academic and cultural production, this book produces a new understanding of the world significance of South Asian cultural production in multi-racist societies. It writes back the presence of South Asian youth into a rapidy expanding and exuberant youth scene; and celebrates this as a dynamic expression of the experience of South Asian lives with an urgent political consciousness. One of the first sustained attempts to situate such production within the study of race and identity, it uncovers the crucial role that contemporary South Asian dance musics – from Hip-hop, Qawwali and Bhangra through Soul, Indi and Jungle – have played in the formation of a new urban cultural politics.
The book opens by positing new theoretical understandings of South Asian cultural representation that move beyond essentialist, outmoded and overdetermined accounts of ethincity in the cultural studies literature. Contributors then go on to narrate the formation of South Asian expressive culture coming out of the UK in a highly charged political context. Part three takes on the task of historical recovery, looking at the antecedents of political South Asian musical performance, autonomous anti-racist organising and problems of alliance with the white Left. The final part of the book engages with the movements and translations of cultural productions across the world, particularly in the fractured spaces of a postcolonial Britian in decline. In opposing all-too-easy ‘world music’ categorisations, the contributors also demonstrate throughout how the liberal alibi of multiculturalism can be challenged across the line of music and politics.
The book as a whole points to more productive ways of undertaking cultural study, a pedagogy committed to constructing forms of political engagement that do not reduce popular culture to the scrutinised Other or simply celebrate new expressive cultures as fragmented and hybrid. *For* a Black politics – this book is required reading for students and academics in cultural studies and social theory; as well as for everyone engaged in anti-imperialist, anti-racist struggles.
The image on the cover is from a Fun^Da^Mental album, Sieze the Time.
Dis-Orienting Rhythms is available from:
7 Cynthis St, London N1 9JF
Tel. 0171 837 4014
From the most recent edition of the journal Left Curve (No 29)
Show Neon Fashions
Accompanying Exhibition/Catalogue Essay for: JOOYOUNG LEE (with CART The airport) Dec 2003 to Jan 2004. Art Space Hue, http://www.artspacehue.com (Seoul)
Fashion! Turn to the left
Fashion! Turn to the right
We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town
Beep-beep (Bowie, Fashion)
Consider what it is to show fashion. The words have a hint of glamour, and a hint of guilt. Guilt and gilt. For many, including the egotist, the exhibitionist, the extrovert, there is always a mild embarrassment at having to show, having to attract attention, showing-off. And there is also a charge, a thrill in the dress-up razzle of performance, of exposure, of risk and sensation. Because the show must go on. Advance. (On with the show, more and more sensations).
It is often difficult to examine something right in front of you in an open honest way. And this is inversely related to the fragility of that close something. Exquisite objects in a room. A plethora of ideas. The show archives such a wide range of our anxieties that it must be significant.
Anxious feeling. Hesitation. Coy and Halting. The reservations of the self-declared publicist are sometimes a part of the act. Don’t be fooled by the bright lights. One mustn’t be too forward. Show by not showing that you are showing, there’s the trick. The display is ironic, the engagement contrived. Wink. Blink. To put on a show, to make a show of it, show and tell, knowingly. There is a well known injunction against secrecy – yes, on with the show, show-all, tell us true. The metaphorics of showing are well developed in English, as in other languages. We show, demonstrate, reveal, prove, illustrate, explain, confirm, display, parade, exhibit, act, flaunt, expose, bare, exemplify, at a fair, an event, the extravagance of it all.
Appearance itself, like show has multiple meanings – to put in an appearance is a representation that doubles. To appear as one is, and to appear as something else. To put in an appearance on the stage is an act, or not. We should not overlook how to show something may also be to show by proxy, to dissemble, to appear as something else. Crazy diamonds.
I remember something called ‘show and tell’ from school. Each student had to bring an item from home to display before the class and tell a story. I always brought pets. Cute, but pointless really. They may or may not have won me friends – a lizard, a rat, a snake – or told them anything about who I was or how I wanted to be (don’t judge me from this bestiary) but this was one way we learnt to show ourselves. This was a version of hide and seek, for audience and artists, and its no more sophisticated than what we are doing now – looking at material on show, and wondering if what is shown reveals itself and tells us something which may or may not be intended, may or may not tell us a story. This structures our cultural life – the lifelong elaboration of the old fort-da game the child plays with mummy. But we often have our hands over our eyes so we cannot see what we are missing.
Representation – are these works on show re-presented fashion by context or design? We would have to ask how they display (show or fashion) their previous presents, how they carry meanings, contexts, how they show the marks, how they fashion thought and views, of here, of elsewhere. Carry them with them to the new ever new fashion shows of our desire. In this fissure the works themselves show up the fissured character of show business, in showing. Fashioning means shaping, means creating – the fashionista has a distance from the fashioning of the works, and the workers, who are practiced at this art of showing, they have done it before, tried this over and over. Showtime.
So as everyone here knows – no business, no show – the movement of art and ideas from the rarified space of the gallery into some form of commercial space is not the first time the distinction between business and art has been questioned. This topic itself is really in fashion. And just as surely art has always been a ritual showcase of power of fashions – the idea that the galleries were somehow separate space was always an illusion. The logic of the administered society required illusionists, but it was fake nonetheless.
What does all this have to do with the appearance of certain works in a certain space. Each asks a question. Why are these works on show now? Why did they show up here? What are we intended to see? What is revealed? What hidden? What looks important, what not? Where to look so we see just what is supposed to show up with this show?
The participation of some artists in ‘art’ spaces adjacent to or within commercial spaces, with corporate sponsorship, continues an established mode of showing work, but it is one that reveals much. The corporate sponsorship of art is questioned at the moment when it is extended to hitherto unimagined levels of the integration of corporate interest and product placement in ‘art’. Of course commercial concerns have long wanted to be seen as, to show that they are good citizens supporting independent artists and ideas. The explicit critique of this has become boringly routine. Can we show it another way – cutting up the product for example, foregrounding product placement in another? Drawing the viewer into new relations with objects? With ideas? With spaces? With showing?
What of the multiple senses of fashion and show? Verity, to reveal something in its originality. Or copy, to represent by substitution. Or do we need to think through this show more or less laterally, stooping to draw the curtain to this show, to see there is nothing shown here, there is no substitution, no division, only the raw show, the show on display – only what s left exposed on the end of a fork, as William Burroughs had shown us in Naked Lunch? Nothing to see. No show. Neon residue.
But we know this is show business – the emphasis on the second word in this single phrase no longer merely reveals to us that art is a business. There is no show and no fashion without the entire apparatus of grants, funding, organization, contacts, galleries, venues, studios, schools, commentaries, cameras, critics, criticisms, articles, books, bookshops, libraries, footnotes, catalogues, history – an enormous institutionalized and globalising apparatus, a web of interconnections and archival depths, variously ordered. The fashion business is huge, convoluted and controlled. So we know something is going on here. We know we must make sense of the show, to extend it beyond the apparatus to meanings, to see what the business of showing shows.
Convulsed by rituals, the show pretends to separate itself from its context, from the apparatus, from the connection – but it does this at the same time that it stresses them, shows the connections, dines out on them. Makes them visible.
But all this remains philosophical if we do not examine how the fetish character is strong in showing. And we are deceived by the show that does not show more. The displacement of ideas onto objects reflects the fetish of both sexuality and of the market. Things stand in for their others, dissemblance rules, truths are illusions. But visibility leaves too little to the imagination, one needs to think in order to see. Blink. The monotonous stare of convention and compromise can only be cut, as with the razor that cuts the eye in Un Chein Andelou’s most provocative scene, only with a violent rupture. Power is so strong in vision it takes a great crisis to show something else. There are two possible exposures, or more. Let’s cut to these, to see what this show also exposes.
Showing through all this is a hypocrisy that will feed us art in the days of generalized terror. Auschwitz has been generalized for every occasion. And we are encouraged to look away, to know only the most minimal facts about the destruction of the Palestinian people, the direct effects of the bombing of Afghanistan (rubble sifted into sand), Iraq and the rape and death that attends today to Baghdad, the abandonment of the Kurds, the deaths in Turkish prisons, the detention camps in Australia (asylum seekers seen as invaders), the HIV holocaust in Southern Africa, the floods in Bangladesh (annual death tolls beyond calculation), the resource extraction that decimates Papua New Guinea, the demonization of North Korea (news for a week in the west, displaced by the next show), the dictatorship in Burma (not solved by offering Nobel prizes), the civil rights violations in Britain and the US (under guise of the new anti-terrorism bill we have detention without trial) and almost everywhere else (the internal security act in Malaysia, detention without trial) and so much more. Too many signs show there is a new totalitarianism abroad and we do not wish to see that it is also there amongst us, we do not want to be shown the horrors amidst which we live. Hidden in the light, we go about our business as if it wasn’t there, as if our complicity with all manner of new persecutions did not show us up as the storm troopers and camp commandants of world spectacle that we really are. We’d rather just go to a show. Its just fashion. The bright lights shine on you. Blink.
The world of spectacle under Empire – be it of Nero, or the Raj or of the Reich – is no less total because it offers 120 channels and luxury condominiums next to halls of culture. The branded injunction to enjoy the fashion show is the new sound byte of jackboots on your face. There has never not been a time when the choices not made and the examples not examined were simply omissions overlooked. There is so much kept deliberately out of focus, so much behind the scenes. Is it so ugly that we dare not see, or is it a fear of having nowhere left to look once the facade has been brushed away? Perhaps we Emperors are naked once and for all, exposed and cold – no-one cares to say, no-one moves toward the gate upon which the slogan declares that our work shows that we are free … blink. Fashion.
Inspirations for the above:
Adorno, T. The Culture Industry, and Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This was written late 2003 and published in the Bengali paper Anand Patrika Bazaar mid 2004.
The mood in London when it comes to Brother Number One, Tony Blair, is difficult to gauge. His image has been with us for so long – it is ten years since his Cheshire Cat smile took over the Labour Party and removed Clause Four (the nationalization of industry policy). Just a few years later he led the refashioned ‘New’ Labour into Government. Though some of the key back room apparatchiks have now been discredited, the spin-doctored era of Blair has seen a prosperous Britain saddled with the War on Terror and a US-UK alliance-fuelled rush to global war. Neo-liberalism and a new imperialism seem the order of the day, and any opposition goes unheard.
There is significant opposition to the warmongering of Blair. But public sentiment wavers between absolute mistrust and what seems to be a resignation that more Blair is all there is – no viable alternative is on offer. The Conservative Party shoots itself in both foot and head with its racist policies; the Liberal Democrats seem incapable of making anything but small gains; and the Socialist Left are mired in organizational disarray at a time when they should be riding success. How can this be?
We cannot say the opposition to Blair has been lazy. Just over a year ago almost 2 million people marched in London against the plan to bomb Iraq. Valiant, if perhaps naïve, “Human Shields” traveled to Baghdad to stand in front of the bombs; senior members of the cabinet resigned in protest; critics wrote in the press (for and against – but we knew who was on which side); and school students played truant to join the vigils against war outside the parliament. Opinion polls – of course these are unreliable – told of more than 60% opinion against the war. BBC commentators were asking critical questions of Government ministers and spokespersons. A chief Government analyst told a journalist about the ‘sexing up’ of the dossier on Iraqi weapons, and another dossier was exposed as the plagiarized work of a doctoral student.
The troops, however, were committed, and the War on Terror found another set of innocent bystander victims in the markets of Baghdad. The Prime Minister insisted the war would be waged on the moral ground of removing the dictator “Saddam” (first name only). “Tony” assured us that this regime change would ‘make the world a safer place’. He has not yet admitted just when he told Bush he would join the ‘coalition of the willing’, and he has not yet admitted when he knew that there were no WMD. Nor has he survived the various scandals unscathed, but – he smiles here – he has survived.
Protest on the streets during the war was almost as large as in the run up – with the notable exception of the Liberal Democrats, who decided to keep quiet once the shooting began (at best they called for the troops to be brought home ‘soon’). At the demonstrations there were unprecedented scenes – not just the huge numbers of people, but the fact that many of whom had never been to a demonstration before. As a personal observation, I tried to start the usual chant “one, two, three, four…”, thinking the response would be something like “we don’t want your stupid war”, but instead the inexperienced but enthusiastic reply came back: “five, six, seven, eight”. I found this encouraging. Other protesters carried home made banners (not the usual party sponsored ones) which said “Make Tea, Not War”, misspelled the leader’s name to make a point: “Bliar”, and carried pictures of a bush with a poodle (a play on the great Emperor’s name and Tony’s role as the US President’s pet Foreign Ambassador).
In the wake of the war, and the death of the weapons expert who had exposed the ‘sexed up’ dossiers, the Hutton Inquiry was a whitewash in which the BBC was targeted with allegations of bias and an anti-Government stance. The heads of the corporation were forced to resign; wrongly as it turned out. Another Inquiry, led by Lord Butler, and reporting in July, 2004, found the journalists to be largely correct when they said the dossiers had been doctored to look more convincing (the ‘sexing up’ included the removal of ‘caveats’ which would have made the claims seem less certain as a case for war). Butler’s report shows that Government information was inaccurate, inappropriate and based on very flimsy intelligence, but no-one was actually found to be to blame. Collective responsibility for an ‘intelligence breakdown’ meant that as yet there have been no resignations by politicians or secret agents. Blair has smiled through it all; though that charismatic grin sometimes looked a little forced as week after week was declared “a difficult week for Tony Blair”.
Difficult weeks indeed, but after seven years in Government, the failure of opposition parties to present a viable alternative to Blair is disturbing. It is not that there has been a universal shrug of indifference on the part of the electorate; rather perhaps problems of organization have limited the options. The Stop The War (STW) coalition had been massively successful in rallying people onto the streets at protests, but when it came to an electoral alliance, factionalism and opportunism undermined the gains. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – the largest of the Trotskyite sects – undermined an emergent progressive parliamentary initiative by postponing the annual congress of the ‘Socialist Alliance’ and proposing instead a pact with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). That left wing parties should work closely with Muslims in Britain was welcomed by many, especially as it built on experience from the protests, but the nature of the SWP deal was debated in relation to the MAB because of its links to conservative religious elements. Secular and other left Muslims were largely ignored in favor of those organized through the mosques. This in itself was built on the back of the alliances formed after September 11th 2001, where some white left activists had joined defense vigils outside London mosques that had been attacked. What was unfortunate perhaps was that SWP eagerness to trade the size of the anti-war demonstrations for long dreamt of electoral success meant that more sustained modes of organizing and alliance were neglected.
It had been the case historically that British Muslims voted predominantly for the Labour Party – and a number of times in recent years they had been wooed by the Prime Minister’s wife attending elite South Asian business functions wearing designer versions of Salwaar Kameez. The spin-doctors saw this as a multicultural vote-winner. However, it came at the very time that bombing of other South Asians, in Afghanistan, rather undermined allegiance to the Blairs. In the run up to the war, support for Labour rapidly evaporated among Muslims, although the alternate second party, the Conservatives, with their history of xenophobia, were hardly a viable representative option. There was subsequently no vehicle for South Asian political expression other than one they could build themselves.
As elsewhere, Muslims in Britain have been increasingly targeted in the wake of September 2001. There were a number of racist attacks reported in the days after the New York and Washington events, and subsequently racist attacks have risen across the country. At the same time the Police have increased ‘stop and search’ methods on the streets of British cities. Where previously it was Britain’s African-Caribbean population that was disproportionately questioned by street patrols, today young South Asian men (Muslim or not, born in the UK or not) are targeted. Add to this the calculated hysteria whipped up around immigration and asylum laws, fuelled by inflammatory comments by the Home Minister, David Blunkett, which referenced the old Thatcherite charge that ‘some people in this country were feeling swamped by people from other cultures’ (Blunkett also used Maggie’s swamping word when referring to Asylum seekers). With both major parties on attack at home and abroad, there is an urgent need for solidarity from progressives for South Asians in Britain.
What was an important alliance between South Asians and the anti-war left in the STW coalition may yet translate into a political party that could displace Blair, but not in its present disorganized form. The numbers who marched against the war included a very broad mix of London’s population: black and white; middle and working classes; students and unemployed; activists and concerned omnibus passengers from Clapham. Could the alliances be forged into a political threat to Blair? The SWP-sponsored vehicle called RESPECT has had a difficult birth, but it does exist. It has not gone unnoticed that support for RESPECT in the elections is best achieved alongside more local modes of organizing that will address wider community concerns around policing, racism, immigration law and war. A genuine progressive party needs a broad social(ist) platform. The singular goal of getting rid of Blair is not the main prize, even though his war-mongering is disguised by a smile that no longer works, and his religious zeal threatens now that we realize he thinks ‘God wants him for a sunbeam’. (The writer Gore Vidal amusingly pointed this out, noting that both Blair and Bush are ‘god-botherers’ who have access to world-destroying nuclear weaponry and an unsubstantiated belief in both their historical role and the reality of the here-ever-after. Sunbeams indeed). What would secure the world from the terror that confronts it now if not the immediate disarming of Blair’s grin? It is a serious question as to whether Muslim and anti-war elements can combine with general progressive and anti-Blair opinion to find a way to organize and mobilize an alternative to dodgy intelligence, spin doctoring, and neo-liberalism as it comes in the guise of caveat-free ‘New’ Labour. But if this question can be answered positively, London might even surprise us and lead the world to a better place.
Hi. This is a test. The next one is a pic of Sean James and I (me in the middle, makers mark bourbon in hand – they can send me a crate of the stuff for this free product placement). Ha Ha. John
Capitalism and Cultural Studies
Publication Date: June, 2004 / Extent: 264pp / Size: DEMY (215x135mm)
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Critical political analysis of how Cultural Studies has used and abused Marxism, offering a close reading of Derrida and Negri. “
CRITIQUE OF EXOTICA: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry
Publication Date: November, 2000 / Extent: 256pp / Size: DEMY (215x135mm)PB: 0745315496
Discount offer: £5.00 – $9.25 – €7.50 Hutnyk challenges academic complicity in the reification of exotica, cutting through media hype to offer a critique of music, race,