Tag Archives: cultural studies

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


Quoting Marx for the slums? – Žižek’s Parallax Viewpoint.

Žižek thinks the revolution begins in the slums. The point at which his new book gets real is urban. He takes a while to get there though. These are my reading notes as I work through the new book.

Žižek’s corrosive attacks on hypocrisy and liberal illusions interrogate the gaps (parallax, dialectical, distort, invert, pervert) in which ideological justification thrives. Politically incorrect and sometimes obscene moves are the only way to expose the weak, self- serving self-deceptions of those that betrayed the end game of Star Wars, the impossible resolution of the Matrix, and the traumatic unconsummated assault on Laura in Wild at Heart. An overabundance of examples illustrate Žižek’s new book – Woody Allen; Rashomon; Henri Bergson; Heidegger in the forest, writing greetings to Argentina; Trotsky (defended); Kurtz upriver; the Jews, Jesus and drug-induced religious experience; Minority Reports; Obi-Wan; Claude Lévi-Strauss; broken eggs and demonic chickens; Marilyn Munroe with Humphrey Bogart; and far too many laments for the ‘sad’ decline of the Left (he does protest too much).

I do not at all mind if Žižek is contradictory; precious; obscure or bitchy at times – often all at the same time. But I do mind when his endearing idiosyncrasies provide an alibi for less contradictory, more precious, wilfully ignorant obscure and boring bitchiness on the part of minor acolytes. Let me demonstrate my own implication here and make some serious points in the end about, of all things, what I think is wrong with Žižek’s answer to the question of: ‘what is to be done?’

Underprepared for the acolyte path, I am not able to get into all the ontological ontofukcery about the status of the parallax, its relation to Kant and Hegel, and the significance of Lacanian in-jokes (often for an in-group of one, though there are many in that schizo-group) and nor am I interested in the Pauline Church stuff or the petit a as it pertains to philosophy or paedophilia. I am much more interested in the implications for Marxist-Leninism and struggles against capital. This I take it is a shared interest – Žižek himself has done more of late than many to return the proper names of the revolutionary tradition to mainstream discussion, with texts on Lenin, Stalin, and his championing of Badiou’s Maoism. I prefer this roll call of communist thinkers to that other popular fat book which rescued such names from apparent obscurity – Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) – since in that book the tone was far more dismissive (but better than the barren fields of Eagleton’s prose; the opportunism of Hitchens; the sectarian squibs of Jonah Tennick – if that is The Left, then we really are in sad trouble). Žižek however has done much to redeem serious discussion of Lenin, Stalin, Mao et al, even as I think he is far too sympathetic to Hardt and Negri, whom he neologises as “HN” (giving credence to their own pretension to be a new M&E for the 21st Century – as inaugurated in Žižek’s cover blurb for their far too thick book).

Žižek says he has laid some ‘cruel traps’ here and there in his book for the resolute ‘democrat-to-come’ (Žižek 2006:11), so while I am not baited by that, let me get started and fall into a few of my own anyway. Žižek is well informed on Heidegger; on Lacan he seems like a chorus girl (can can kick, cha cha kick); on the Soviet terror contrite; on Lévi-Strauss perfunctory; on Trotsky correct (to denounce and qualify); on Hitler and Stalin he is euro-obsessive; and on Marx, he is mostly fine. Mostly? I am sorry to say that Žižek sometimes gets things wrong on Marx. My trap here is pedantry, but I cannot help pointing out that he twice quotes the wrong ‘opening sentences’ of Capital. I must presume Žižek quotes from memory. Speaking of ‘subjective illusion’, he says:

‘Let us read carefully the famous opening sentences of Chapter 1 of Capital: “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its anaysis shows that it is, in reality, a very trivial thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceities” (Žižek 2006:171 – emphasis is Žižek’s)

The actual opening sentence of Chapter 1 of Capital occurs some 38 pages earlier (in the Penguin edition). I feel curiously compelled to point out that the page reference Žižek gives for his ‘opening’ is to p163 of the [I think, superior] International Publishers translation of Capital. However, in that edition, p163 occurs a few pages into chapter 5 on ‘Contradictions in the formula of Capital’, and the quotation Žižek uses is from the beginning of section 4 (to be found on p163 of the Penguin edition, not the International Pubs cited). Nevertheless, Žižek correctly quotes his lines later on page 371, at least insofar as, second time, he identifies these lines as belonging to subdivision 4, and he gives the appropriate footnote to the Penguin (qwa qwa qwa)..

What is my point with this footnote fetish? It is time to carefully look at the actual (and also famous) opening sentence, which reads:

‘The wealth if societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as and “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/1967: 125 penguin edition).

This is a great opening line. Remembering that Žižek has italicised the words ‘at first sight’ and ‘in reality’ in the important, but different, passage he quotes (I shall now drop this petty routine on his sloppy referencing and sloppy Marxography – its unseemly and clerical anyway), the point is to illustrate an inversion in the ‘standard procedure of demystifying a theological myth’ where Marx is not bringing myth down to earth through critical analysis, but that ‘the task of critical analysis is to unearth the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” in what appears at first sight to be just an ordinary object’ (Žižek 2006:351).

What this ordinary object is, of course, is the commodity [trinkets!]. And the many readers of the first chapter of Capital have had much much fun with commodities; with coats and linen; with spindles and thread; sugar and iron; with tables that have wooden brains, that dance off to market and the like (Derrida had made them spectral beings). All well and good. But I am inclined to read the place of commodities at the opening of Capital in a more fundamentally calculated way; as a crucial feint giving access to the organisation and purpose of the whole book, indeed to the entire architecture of Capital as presented by Marx. The authorly Marx mentions several times that there is a difference between the mode of presentation and the analysis. I think it is crucial that the commodity is the opening scene of a drama that has a wider purpose for demystifying – it is the opening to a work that will provide the ‘implied reader’ of Capital (I follow Gayatri Spivak 1985 here) with the x-ray vision to see through the trick of commodity fetishism, market exchange, control of production, distribution, valourisation, credit, the varieties of subsumption and the crises of capital, so as to sublate the productive power of capital away from the exploitative production for profit of commodity wealth into a more plentiful abundance of life and creativity for all…

What clinches this argument? The very wording of the opening sentence includes two visual references – remembering that Žižek had italicised ‘at fist sight’. In the Penguin edition the German word erscheint is translated as appearance. The German reads:

‘Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine “ungeheure Warensammlung”, die einzelne Ware als seine Elementarform.’

Erscheint occurs just the once here though, rendered as two instances of appears in the English as given earlier. This is grammatically acceptable, translation is no pure calculus, but I think there is significance in it as well. In the International Press edition the translation is better: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”; its unit being a single commodity’ (Marx 1867/1967:35 my italic). Both editions then go on to say that our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. My point is that revealed in the gap between the two English translations of Erscheint is the entire burden of Marx’s project – to expose the trick of commodity as a way to teach the working class to see. Erscheinung, in German usage, has a double sense. It has the sense of appearance both as how something looks, and the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, staging something. The ‘presents itself’ of the International Edition gets closer to this sense, but does not capture the double, the trick that is perpetrated by the animated commodity – animated by the masses themselves, though they do not see it as such, yet.

So why am I concerned to pick up on this micro moment of Žižek’s book that covers so much other ground? I will illustrate with a diversion into the really lived experience of the masses. Žižek is my guide when he heads for the slums. To prepare the way, Žižek, in several sections of the book, has discussed Marx’s exemplary analysis of the civil wars in France, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Boneparte. This amazing text, also much discussed by everyone from Spivak to Levi-Strauss, is full of phrases well know even to those who have not read much Marx: ‘history repeats itself the second time as farce’, ‘let the dead bury the dead’, ‘potatoes in a sack’, ‘they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented’ and so on.

Žižek describes the Society of December 10 as the ‘private army of thugs’ that Napoleon recruits to do his dirty deeds (Napoleon the third is Louis Boneparte; the nephew of the more famous Napoleon with his hand tucked into his tunic) and recites Marx’s alliterative paragraph on ‘vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars’ (Žižek 2006: 335; in Marx 2002:63 – Cowling and Martin translation). Žižek’s point is that this gang, hired from the residue or ‘excess’ of all classes is the ‘excremental remainder’ that, Marx shows, permits Napoleon the third to stand apart from all classes, play class off against class – the gap – and come to be the representative of that class of people who cannot represent themselves, the peasant potatoes in a sack.

In a footnote on page 417 Žižek suggests that Marx had a ‘barely concealed contempt’ for, and dismissed this ‘degenerate “refuse” of all classes’ as ‘lumpenproletariat’ which, Žižek adds, extrapolating from Marx’s case study, ‘when politicized, as a rule serves as the support of proto-Fascist and Fascist regimes’ (Žižek 2006:417n26). He says this apropos of a suggestion that contemporary slum-dwellers should also be classified as lumpenproletariat. This is a volatile suggestion, given questions of politicisation, the importance of an analysis that demystifies, that wants to provide an x-ray vision for the masses to see through the tricks of power. It deserves closer examination.

In the main body of the text (the above was a footnote – a peripheral and minor moment perhaps, set apart from the main story, where) Žižek has been discussing ‘improvisational modes of social life’ in the “really existing slums”. Following Mike Davis, his example has been the city of Lagos, in the context of reports that ‘now, or soon’ the planet will be predominantly urban: more people will live in cities than in the countryside. Žižek makes some apposite comments here about the role of fundamental Christianity as the hegemonic ideology prevalent in the slums, and while he warns us to ‘resist the temptation to elevate and idealize the slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class’ he does suggest, with Badiou, that we ‘should nonetheless … perceive slums as one of the few authentic “evental sites” in today’s society’ (Žižek 2006:268). The excluded here have nothing to lose but their chains, they are free in a double sense (‘from all substantial ties’; ‘from state police regulation’) ‘even more than the classic proletariat’ (Žižek 2006:268).

This is heady stuff, but I think that despite the denial – the resistance of temptation –idealism has entered without an invite. Does Žižek know the slums? I can only think of the bustees of Kolkata that I have visited (bustee means something similar to slum), with their highly regulated codes and systems, their significant social and family ties, where pavement space, shanty huts, roadside and underpass locations are substantially organised, regulated, encoded – and not just by the Christian Church. (And many years of sociological, demographic, anthropological documentation: the work of Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay in Theory Culture Society vol 23 nos 7-8, 2006 might be a starting point, but there is much more). I would refer only to the difficulty of gaining access to these places, especially for a white boy from Australia, or no doubt a Lacanian film critic from Slovenia (see The Rumour of Calcutta Zed books 1996).

But all this is good stuff to debate – evental site and so on. It is when Žižek makes a peculiar parallel, and asks a provocative question, when he telegraphs a link between the slums and Harlem, in the process of advocating a new political programme, that I lose him:

‘The slum-dwellers are the counterclass to the other emerging class, the so-called “symbolic class” (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists and so on) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as directly universal (a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus). Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the “symbolic class” inherently split, so that we can make the emancipatory wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the “progressive” part of the symbolic class? What we should be looking for are the signs of the new forms of social awareness that will emerge from the slum collectives: they will be the seeds of the future’ (Žižek 2006:269)

Quite amazing – two classes contend… There is not yet, for Žižek, a connection between New York academic and Harlem (but this does exist) and he does not immediately say that Harlem equals slum (but his grammar implies it in a way that I would hesitate to attribute to conscious intent). Nonetheless, the conflation is there, and covered by an optimism that is quite touching, if naive. What then for the signs he seeks? There are a number of studies available of slum organisation; with more are emerging (see the forthcoming work of Annu Jalais). But in a world of urgent problems, why is urbanization continually called in to do duty for bourgeois fears (of a ‘population explosion’_ which leads to a threat to ‘us’ from those who now live amongst ‘us’. Perhaps the political project for progressives in the symbolic class will be to go to the slums in some form of a new urban Maoism mission. Žižek prefers Lenin, but his support of Badiou may suggest something else. And his listing of the lumpen is not without significance, naming the terrain of struggle:

‘We are thus witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in dire need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although this population is composed of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them as informal wage-workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security cover … (Žižek 2006:268).

Though I cannot disagree, except where Žižek suggests Marx was contemptuous of the lumpenproletariat, this list of complaints itself reminds me of the standard enumerations of symbolic class academic coding. I have written elsewhere on Derrida’s ten symptoms [in Bad Marxism]; and here am again reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s rewriting towards the end of her Critique of Postcolonial Reason, though I see her work as exemplary contrast, not only because it is symptomatic in Žižek that women are left out. There is perhaps still much to be learnt from a New York academic such as Spivak, who herself lives in Harlem, and does not ever seem to appear in Žižek’s reading lists. She makes much of the ways the financialisation of the globe, neo-liberal oppressions, structural adjustments and even well-meaning programmes, with NGO opportunism, have the most severe impact today on women (Spivak 1999).

In that footnote on the slum-dweller as Lumpenproletariat, Žižek perhaps is correct to suggest that a ‘closer analysis should focus on the changed structural role of these “lumpen” elements in conditions of global capitalism (especially large-scale migrations)” (Žižek 2006: 417n25). But he does not provide this analysis, nor refer us to those who do this difficult and necessarily nuanced work. I am starting to think this is more than just sloppy referencing. There are massive problems of a conceptual, practical and organisational nature that are rarely discussed in theoretical tracts like this even when they call for some new emancipatory movement (of signs from the slums, or of a multitude). What of the difficulty of speaking with, let alone organising with, the lumpen of the Paris suburbs (cf the work of Francoise Verges). The tactical, political, ethical error of sending ill-prepared cadre to the slums, the suburbs, or the mountains was a lesson learnt the hard way in Bengal, not learnt yet in Paris, and not helped by the comic image of ‘symbolics’ armed with Kant and Deleuze heading out to the shanty towns to compete with Pentacostalists for the souls of the oppressed. The obvious pun on Žižek in the slums is that his work may have a parrallaxative effect – a kind of Delhi-belly. Though it’s a pity that this is not very funny. Has the time has come for progressive symbolics to be better equipped, sent to training camps to brush up on class composition research methods, on questions of Leninist organisation, or the practical rules of engagement for ensuring Maoist party discipline? Time for something more than parallelograms to be deployed perhaps? Trapped as we are in academic theology, it may take some time before we are ready to act if we cannot even quote Marx with enough care to learn what his critique was about.

to be continued…JH

correspondences of theory – citation

– a reply to a fav student on our MA Postcolonial in CCS who asked about ways to present his work on charity/WTO etc. My reply turned out to be as much for me as for him, got me thinking about how trinketization in anthropology left us adrift, bereft of purpose and value, and how critique, curriculum, and theory might be transformed so as to… anyways… –

Hi Timo

You ask which theorist? Of course this was exactly the problem I had with my Calcutta book – looking for a theorist to say the sort of things I wanted to say: that charity is a way of assuaging guilt; that it would never do for redistributive justice; that issues of representation still matter – but matter more than the those who wrote of the crisis of representation in anthropology could see; indeed, that the crisis – at least in anthropology – led us to a politics without radicalism; that the constant talk of crisis is a substitute for a sustained politics of change; and from there that the anthropology curriculum needs substantial reform; that universities have lost their capacity for critical appraisal of their role; that the current vogue for difference is misplaced and under theorised; that anti-racist work in the university and metropolis is more about avoiding guilt that acting against really existing racism… and all this I ended up writing about as “trinketisation” – how our discrete studies became fascinated with discrete items, unable to theorise how it all fits together as neo-cultural imperialism. Of course Marx was the theorist that mattered, but who uses him in a way that addresses these specificities? Well, only Gayatri Spivak. Who is the one person I will always read first.

Well, and maybe in a lesser way George Yudice in ‘The Expediency of Culture‘ – though that book does not go far enough.

Hmmm, this is becoming a speech – guess I will post it somewhere (everything is a blog-athon nowadays).

I hope you can find a way forward – sounds to me that you can/are already.
Thanks for the nice words – stay in touch.
Its a good time to be in Berlin.

be well

Diaspora and Hybridity

New Book

Diaspora and Hybridity

Authored by:

Virinder Kalra Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, UK
Raminder Kaur University of Sussex
John Hutnyk Goldsmiths College, University of London

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What do we mean by ‘diaspora’ and ‘hybridity’? Why are they pivotal concepts in contemporary debates on race, culture and society?

This book is an exhaustive, politically inflected, assessment of the key debates on diaspora and hybridity. It relates the topics to contemporary social struggles and cultural contexts, providing the reader with a framework to evaluate and displace the key ideological arguments, theories and narratives deployed in culturalist academic circles today. The authors demonstrate how diaspora and hybridity serve as problematic tools, cutting across traditional boundaries of nations and groups, where trans-national spaces for a range of contested cultural, political and economic outcomes might arise.

Wide ranging, richly illustrated and challenging, it will be of interest to students of cultural studies, sociology, ethnicity and nationalism.

Celebrating Transgression essay part file 2

This is Steadman, but William S. Burroughs’ art work is showing in London for the next couple of months. – see

The Unseen Art of William S. Burroughs

79 Beak Street, Regent Street – W1F 9SU

So, since he’s named as an anthropology ancestor, here’s some more from my essay on fieldwork/filed works – from Celebrating Transgression (forthcoming with Berghahn in November)

2.1Instead of a litany of names that founded schools, which constrict and contrive, how about those who enact openings to thought? With Louis Aragon, in The Adventures of Telemachus, the disenchanting of the gods proceeds apace as Mentor opens a bottle the gods had failed to uncork by simply smashing it on a rock (Aragon 1988: 87). Is it already too late to be contrite, to be polite, to not offend with a smart-alec radicalism? The disenchanters have not yet taken over the asylum, indeed they (we) have barely worked out how to fill the forms that give tenure. Fieldwork is over. Malinowski is dead (shock!)

2.2With William Burroughs at Harvard in 1936: ‘I had done some graduate work in anthropology. I got a glimpse of academic life and I didn’t like it at all. It looked like there was too much faculty intrigue, faculty lies, cultivating the head of department, so on and so forth’ (Burroughs 2001: 76).

2.3 Burroughs ‘defines paranoia as “having all the facts”’ (Burroughs in Lotringer 2001: 476) but also thinks ‘we are all black centipedes at heart’ (in Lotringer 2001: 168). Did he learn any more anthropology on his ‘fieldwork’ trips to South America in search of Yagé? From where does that critical countenance come? He says: ‘if a large number of people defy the whole question of boundaries, thousands of people walking across borders without passports, that sort of thing seems to me a useful form of demonstration’ (Burroughs in 1968, in Lotringer 2001: 106). And reflects: ‘I would love to see… in England “they must” get rid of the idea of this bloody Queen. That bitch. Sitting there soaking up the energy of forty million people. People say “The Queen isn’t important. She’s just a figurehead.” A Figurehead of subservience. A figurehead of kissing her ass. Worthless wench. She should be sweeping floors’ (Burroughs in 1968 in Lotringer 2001: 102). Burroughs’ routines expand the field.

2.4Complicity – it is never a matter of automatic accusations of complicity over against assertions of purity or righteousness; even if all encounters were complicit this would not be grounds for invalidation. What is more important is debate and discussion, even with wrong ideas and false gods. Would it that a Burroughs or an Aragon were offering the introductory lectures for the discipline.

2.5Anthropological paranoia. To treat paranoia as a productive value makes sense where the paranoid distrusts codifications and established routines as the very traps that must be avoided by a non-paranoid consciousness. Salvador Dalí would be the patron of this impossible anthropology then, that would validate disruptions and deviations to the codes of common sense and conventionality. The paranoid-critical method might be useful. Teaching Dalí as proto-ethnographer to students in the 1980s did more for experimental ethnography than anything else I could imagine.

[Burroughs at Riflemaker is open mon-sat till 6pm each day]


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.


John Hutnyk