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Taking Care with Bernard Stiegler

In Stiegler on April 29, 2012 at 11:35 am

Review article by Richard Iveson (forthcoming in Parallax as “Rewiring the Brain, Or, Why our Children are not Human”)

Bernard Stiegler Taking Care of Youth and the Generations trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford University Press, 2010)


A hugely prolific writer, for more than fifteen years philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been seeking both to articulate existence itself, and to ameliorate its contemporary woes. In what is a vast undertaking, Stiegler moves from the originary emergence of humanity to the safeguarding of its future by way of multi-volume analyses that range widely between and across technology, political economy, art, palaeontology, television, democracy, and industrial and hyperindustrial societies.1 Focussing on education and the changing role of the school in contemporary Western societies, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations continues this project, while at the same time going some way to explain the sense of urgency, which characterizes much of Stiegler’s previous writing.

According to Stiegler, we are forever engaged in a ‘battle of intelligence for maturity’, a battle ‘concomitant with the history of humanity’ (p.29). Today, however, this battle has been transformed into the life or death struggle of humanity itself. Unless things change rapidly, Stiegler insists, humanity as we know it will be destroyed, displaced by a dystopian posthuman future whose inhabitants would be incapable not only of heeding Stiegler’s warning, but of even reading it. Proclaiming himself thus a prophet of and from potentially the last generation of mature adults, Stiegler seeks to hastily recall us to rational critique before the new media has its way and irretrievably restructures the connections which constitute intelligence so as to render such constitution impossible (p.33).

To instaurate critique, however, is no easy matter. It is not simply a question of education reform, but of a revolution that impacts upon every level of society and beyond, intervening ceaselessly even at the neurological level. Moreover, a revolution by its very nature offers no guarantees. As Stiegler admits, the remedy he prescribes might also turn out to be the worst kind of poison. Indeed, one can all too easily envisage the appropriation of his discourse in the service of a right-wing defence of ‘family values’, and even in a renewed eugenicist discourse which (by way of A Clockwork Orange) deems synaptic rewiring a remedy for ‘delinquency’ within a regime of enforced ‘care’.

Throughout, Stiegler draws on three main philosophical supports in order to establish his notion of ‘rational critique as noopower’. First and foremost is Plato’s theory of anamnesis. A theory, which, according to Stiegler, constitutes ‘the basis of all instruction as the dialectic transmission of apodictic or formal knowledge’ insofar as it ‘requires a kind of attention the learner forms itself as a knowledge […] by individuating it’ (p.172). Secondly, rational critique requires the establishment of a ‘republic of letters’ such as formulated during the Aufklärung and by Kant in particular. Finally, Stiegler offers a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault, extending the latter’s notion of the ‘writing of the self’ while at the same time disputing Foucault’s earlier claim that the school is ‘only’ a prison of surveillance and control. Instead, through Plato, through Kant, Stiegler argues that the school in its broadest sense in fact constitutes the primary pharmacological site of the battle for intelligence. It is the school, in other words, which has the potential to produce both the curative individuation of rational critique (noopower) and the poisonous disindividuation of psychotechnologies in thrall to the market.

To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to understand the specifically pharmacological nature of what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, a nature, which makes of them always both poison and remedy at once (pharmaka). Social or cultural memories that have subsequently become materialized as memory supports (the book being the privileged example), tertiary retentions are for Stiegler the building blocks of the human world. During the process of instruction, these tertiary retentions must be re-internalized in order for knowledge to be individuated, as we saw with the Platonic dialectic. Such circulating intelligence is thus already collective at every level, forming an ‘organological milieu linking minors and adults, parents and children, ancestors and descendants’ (p.34). It is this which constitutes the ‘organological history’ of humanity. These same material supports, however, are also what allow for the destruction of intelligence. Thus it comes to pass that this history of humanity now finds itself increasingly under threat from the emergence of what Stiegler calls ‘grammatized media’, television and new media being his primary examples. These new symbolic media, he writes, constitute ‘a network of pharmaka that have become extremely toxic’ (p.85).

Stiegler, however, is by no means offering a simplistic rant against technology, nor a reactionary call to return to some mythic bygone era. While grammatized media – and their toxicity – are indeed unprecedented, they are, he insists, nevertheless the only ‘first-aid kit’ we possess with which to remedy the poison of their carelessness. In other words, insofar as they are necessarily pharmaka, the new grammatized media must therefore also constitute the condition for a new maturity, a new critique. It is here, Stiegler writes, that the contemporary battle for intelligence must begin, with a re-forming of ‘psychosocial attention in the face of these psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower’ (p.35). Such reformulations are what he calls nootechniques aimed at producing transindividual knowledge, as opposed to its short-circuiting in the fulfilment of base human drives under control of psychotechnologies…

continue reading this review: NXRB Stiegler by Iveson

New Cross Fine Dining

In Food, New Cross on April 27, 2012 at 10:35 am

Restaurant review by Sophie Fuggle

Kung Fu Kitchen, New Cross Road, SE13

In the first of a series of features on the many culinary wonders of New Cross, NXRB samples the wares of the latest addition to the gastronomic centre of South East London. With its name taking full advantage of both alliteration and affectionate cultural stereotype, Kung Fu Kitchen, suggests a veritable assault on the tastebuds. It should also be noted that by name alone, the establishment sets itself apart from the less imaginatively named establishments adorning Lewisham Way which range from the feebly metonymic Noodle and Rice to the ironically grandiose The Thailand.

Emerging from the ruins of a former pie shop, known only (at least to this reviewer) for its distinct lack of pies, Kung Fu Kitchen appears to offer all the staples of the average high street Chinese takeaway. While the only real benchmark of both taste and quality can be discerned by way of their Singapore noodles and accompanying chilli oil, on this occasion, the reviewer opted for the hot and sour soup, the salt and pepper chicken wings with a side of prawn crackers.

After Singapore noodles, hot and sour soup tends to offer the most insight into the inner workings of a Chinese takeaway. The ability to create a soup which is both hot and sour in equal measure is no mean feat. It is also important that individual ingredients do not overwhelm the dish. A common error is to bombard the soup with either carrot or tofu. This is where otherwise perfectly respectable establishments lose all credibility along with the patronage of this reviewer. In the case of Kung Fu Kitchen, the hot and sour soup had an unorthodox prawn focus. While this did not result in any imbalance to the overall flavour of the dish, it was clearly intended to compensate for an aporia of pork and the limited and lacklustre presence of some weary chicken. However, at around 50p cheaper than Go-Sing and other local competitors, these minor shortcomings shouldn’t obscure the good work Kung Fu Kitchen are doing in bringing a passable hot and sour soup to the masses during a recession.

The salt and pepper chicken embodied a similar paradox. The outer coating was a joy to behold and eat – perfectly combining crispy, greasy and spicy in accordance with this reviewer’s personal predilection. The meat itself, however, was an unwholesome shade of pink. Although it may be safely assumed that the quality and cookedness of the chicken itself is not at stake here, for reasons of objectivity, it seems important to make note of this.

Where the prawn crackers did not cause any particular offence, being neither overcooked, too thick or too thin, they were also not a major source of inspiration. More importantly, perhaps, was the dearth of appropriate reading material available for patrons awaiting their orders. Besides a Cantonese version of LOOT, there was nothing in the way of the two week old Tv Choices that adorn the tables of Go-Sing. Given the Baltic winds blowing in through the open door, this made waiting even 5 minutes something of an ordeal.

Thus, while this review must remain inconclusive given the lack of data on the Singapore noodles, the quest for the ultimate hot and sour soup continues…

Different Drummers Review

In Munro on April 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Review by Jennifer Otter

Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (University of California Press, 2010)

Race is one of the most talked about and taboo topics.  Few writers have the chutzpah to openly question racial stereotypes, let alone trace the historical roots, which may provide insight into the origins, or, dare it be said, search for any truth behind assumed ideas of race still prevalent today.  In his book, Different Drummers:  Rhythm and Race in the Americas, author Martin Munro confronts the notion of innate rhythm being a trait attached historically to black culture.  Using this framework of rhythm as the common thread stitching together the struggles and triumphs of black culture over several centuries in the Americas, Munro successfully demonstrates how “rhythm is a contested concept that is sometimes vilified and repressed, sometimes glorified and valorized” (23).

Munro begins the journey exploring the perceived connection between blackness and rhythm in 1800’s Haiti.  The theme of tension between the perceived “threat” of black music and dance to white culture with the paralleling allure and pull to blackness has a legacy in the region.  Slaves were “prohibited” from “drum playing and singing other than when engaged in field labor” (27).  Celebration, religious rituals and practices such as Vodou, “incorporated dance and music…music was less of a social entertainment than a link to metaphysics and an identity that had their roots in Africa, but were inevitably mutating and being translated into their new context” (28).   Munro describes how “…African-derived music and dance were potent tools for insurrection, both in reality and in the white, European imagination” (38), as “some of the principal means of spreading news among New World slaves about [any] uprising[s] and of disseminating the “idea of Haiti,” were music, song and dance”  (38).  This allowed for “informal networks, oral communication and traveling songs” as a vehicle to convey information, “news of the revolt across the Caribbean, to Virginia and Louisiana in the north and to Brazil in the south” (38).

Munro then brings the reader to Trinidad, where “the history of creolized Trinidadian music” is the “classic case of colonial fear and repression of rhythm” (78).  He begins the voyage with Christopher Columbus’s first encounter of the area in 1498.  In an early example of wrongly interpreted meaning, the explorer’s crew attempted to show their “good intentions” to the islanders with dancing, and playing “fife-and-drum music” (79).  The natives responded “by paddling back to shore and raining arrows on the ship” (79).  This illustrates Munro’s idea of “music [holding different meaning] to different social groups,” and the way that “meaning [can] change according to context and…audience” (80).  He traces these varied meanings through Trinidad’s history of “planters- white and colored- and their slaves,” as they “transform not only…society and economy but also its culture and its rhythms” (83).  Munro pays close attention to Carnival, where white and black both participated in “transracial parodies,” demonstrating that “categories of race and class…were far more fluid and far less entrenched” than previously believed.  As Munro points out, “for all their purported disdain for “uncivilized” black culture, the white elites and especially the French Creoles reveled in this kind of interracial parody” (88).

In a seeming foreshadowing to the rise of hip-hop in the 20th Century, “Trinidad’s white elite seems to echo the reactions of contemporary white audiences in the United States to minstrel shows.  Whites in both countries tended to view black culture with a mixture of disdain and envy:  disdain for blacks’ perceived crude manners and primitive culture, and envy of their supposed expressive and sexual freedom” (110).  This infrastructure was further underpinned by “the commitment of Trinidadian music to disc” which “seemed to increase its acceptability to the rich elite, those who could afford gramophones and records…thus a subtle chasm was opened up between the people, who were always the source of innovation (and also the most reliable reminders of tradition), and the music” (118).

In the third and fourth chapters, Munro establishes the connection between poetry and rhythm, as well as rhythm used in the black power movement.  Centering his argument on the French island of Martinique, he focuses on the legacy of key players in the areas “Negritude…literary movement” (132).   Munro then moves onto early representations of James Brown, showing the performer’s “Africanization…was largely brought about by the demands of the contemporary political context” (194).  While the thread of repression and expression is continued from the previous areas of discussion, the last two chapters do not contain the continuity of rhythm as a power leveraging access as the first part of the text.

Views on the View

In All that fits on April 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Exhibition Review by Theo Reeves-Evison

All That Fits: The Aesthetics Of Journalism, The speaker (part one of three installments). QUAD Gallery, Derby. 28th May – 31st July 2011.

When the celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled through the majority world, he always kept two notebooks with him: one for detailed information and factual observations, the other for images and metaphors. According to a new biography by Artur Domoslawski,[i] Kapuscinski often allowed material to stray from one book to the other, writing for the Polish Press Agency on one occasion that the fish in Lake Victoria had grown enormous feeding on the corpses left to them by Idi Amin, a claim as affective as it was false.

Just like some of Kapuscinski’s journalistic prose, many of the artworks in All That Fits – a new three-part group exhibition at Derby Quad – operate in an area similar to creative non-fiction. Eric Baudelaire’s glossy diptych, The Dreadful Details (2006) is a case in point. Caricaturing countless other images of modern warfare, Baudelaire’s photograph depicts the immediate aftermath of a bomb blast somewhere in the Arab world. Complete with dusty shop fronts, grieving locals, and scattered limbs, the photograph was in fact taken on a film set in Hollywood. Referencing not only American war films, but also Goya, Alexander Gardener and a countless other war photographers, it is saturated with memories of other images, vibrating with the visual energy of all wars past. Baudelaire inhabits clichés in order to make us aware of how little they affect us.

But All That Fits is not just another exhibition about the plasticity of truth. What it really wants us to think about is the way truths are framed, the way they depend on rhetoric and convention in order to be perceived as truth. Curated by Alfredo Cramerotti and Simon Sheikh, the exhibition takes its name from the New York Times slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print!” According to the curators, the title refers not only to the content of the news (we’ll print anything that adheres to our ethical standards), but also to its formal characteristics (we’ll print anything in news-style, structured according to ‘the inverted pyramid’). In this regard many of the works in the exhibition highlight, emphasise, or flout journalistic convention, offering us a ‘view of the view’[ii], or a means to unmask truth-framing devices. The problem is, by reflecting on journalism and its determining structures, whether professional or semiotic, many of the works in All That Fits forget to deliver us back to the world journalism depicts in the first place. As an exhibition experience, it’s like someone reminding you that you’re looking through a camera by replacing the lens cap, alerting you to the fact that your gaze is mediated, but blinding you to what you were looking at in the first place

Writing of Renzo Martens’ Episode 1 (2004), Cramerotti and Sheikh claim that ‘The film is not about some external phenomenon, but about the terms and conditions of its own existence.’[iii] Episode I is a travelogue through war-ravaged Chechnya in which Martens plays the part of a narcissistic interviewer, waltzing through refugee camps and devastated cities in order to ask the disenfranchised what they think of him and how they think he feels. Like many of the works in the show, Episode 1 operates in a self-reflexive feedback loop approaching Peter Hallward’s category of ‘the singular’.[iv] In other words, it operates irrespective of geographical and historical difference, unconstrained by any logic outside the immanent critique of its own operation. Episode I could have been shot in any crisis zone, because it chooses to focus on a particular media figure – the popular news reporter – rather than a specific situation and its historical and cultural determinates.

Like much of the postcolonial theory that followed the ‘linguistic turn’, the first part of All That Fits concerns itself with enunciation in general (the subtitle for this section is The Speaker) rather than what is being enunciated itself. This is quite literally the case in Katya Sander’s Televized 1 (2006), in which the artist interviews anchor men and women about their use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. While Sander’s succeeds in exposing a journalistic device designed to give television news its air of objectivity, the curators stop short of applying the same logic to their own practice. Accordingly, All That Fits presents itself as an objective, balanced and impersonal ‘view on the view’. Wall texts and exhibition design follow conventions of their own, (the fist person pronoun notably absent) and subject positions are left unexamined. The exhibition would be a lot more rigorous if it married forms of institutional critique with a lesson from the notebooks of Kapuscinski. Namely, that by playing with convention, format and enunciatory effects, one need not eclipse the issues they frame.

[i]    Artur Domoslawski, Kapuscinski Non-Fiction (Greenville: Agapea, 1990)

[ii]   Alfredo Cramerotti and Simon Sheikh, All That Fits: The Aesthetics of Journalism [Publ. In Conjunction with Exhibitions at Derby Quad, 28 May – 3rd July 2011] (Derby: Quad publishing, 2011), p. 6.

[iii]   Ibid., p. 14.

[iv]   Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)

Admitting the Indifference of Dogs

In Benjamin on April 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

Review article by Richard Iveson (first published as “Negotiating Without Relation” in Parallax, 17:3 (2011), pp.105-108)

Review of: Andrew Benjamin Of Jews and Animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

Dogs run throughout Andrew Benjamin’s new book, both as figures and in their particularity. While Heidegger faces his dog facing him in the silence of indifference, another dog insists upon his or her presence before Goya. A third dog, meanwhile, forever awaiting a drowned human companion in a Turner watercolour, constitutes at once an icon of devotion and the moment of a “founding tear” – a rupture which opens the work to an unthought modality of friendship. Finally, in a doubling and displacing of the Heideggerian absence of relation, the indifference of the dogs of Piero di Cosimo announces a transformative co-presence which, incapable of being determined in advance, can thus only be lived. It is in running together, in this movement from indifferent silence to the in-difference of an undetermined co-presence which, Benjamin will argue, inaugurates not simply an importantly different philosophical project, but rather “a transformation of the philosophical itself” (p.19). In this, Benjamin’s latest work remains resolutely preliminary, in the sense of the tracing of a limit which marks both a closure of potential and the possibility of a radical new beginning and which, in the process, makes explicit the importance of the so-called “question of the animal” to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. As a result, Of Jews and Animals is set to become a key text, alongside such works as Elisabeth de Fontenay’s Le silence des bêtes (1998) and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), in constituting a further and necessary move beyond the utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism within which “animal philosophy” has for so long remained mired.

Central to the book is how the “work of figures” institutes what Benjamin terms the “without relation.” Exemplary in this regard is the positing of the figure of “the animal” in a singular relation to “the human,” a positing which, unifying both elements in their absence of relation, serves to efface both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations in the construction of an identity whose function is “predominantly external to the concerns of the identity itself” (p.4). Against this, not only does Benjamin disclose the insistent and originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the interarticulation of such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating “work” which both underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals in the title (an entitling which fully acknowledges the attendant risk which might appear at first glance to equate the one with the other) and at once serves to efface the working of this very conjunction.

By way of the naturalising construction of the other as “the enemy” within Plato’s Republic, Benjamin argues that, through the working of such figures, the threat of particularity comes to be excluded in the name of the universal; an exclusion, moreover, which, in its continuous reiteration, sustains that same universality. Hence, if this machinery is to be stalled, it thus becomes necessary to think a certain way of being just to particularity. One will recognise here, and in addition to the overlapping nexus of concerns with Derrida’s later work, the relation between Benjamin’s transformative project and that of deconstruction, a relation directly explored by Benjamin in this book both through Derrida’s notion of “play” [“jeu”] and through a critique of Derrida’s reading of Pascal in which, Benjamin suggests, Derrida fails to take account both of the doubling of “force” and of the link between justice and the figure of “the Jew,” both of which are integral to Benjamin’s own position. While never failing to acknowledge this indebtedness, Benjamin contends however that his argument for “a differential or relational ontology” necessarily leads in “another direction” (p.128). Indeed, by way of the notion of the “anoriginal” (which receives perhaps its most rigorous formulation in The Plural Event (1993)), Benjamin has been pursuing this project for many years. While the question remains as to whether the positing of a differential ontology can be so easily directed away from the founding gesture of deconstruction – a gesture which affirms the impossibility of a “finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by [a] differential of forces”1 –, Benjamin’s new book, in seeking to systemically mark and in so doing move beyond the work of dualisms, nonetheless constitutes a highly original and provocative opening, the implications of which for the ecological and the aesthetic, as well as the philosophical and the political, cannot be overstated.

Beginning with the production of  … please continue reading this review HERE

In search of deeper veins

In Storey on April 18, 2012 at 11:05 am

Review article by Steve Hanson (2010) originally published in the now-austeritized Networks.

John Storey Culture and Power in Cultural Studies, The Politics of Signification (Edinburgh University Press)

These essays and chapters were originally written between 1986 and the present day, and are re-published here under the themes of ‘power’ and ‘the politics of signification’. This is not just an introductory book, or an arbitrary anthology, it bears repeat reading and contains a complex, well-linked set of critiques. Storey essentially begins where my students do, with Raymond Williams and his notoriously widescreen explanation of ‘culture’, before moving into its re-theorizing, via the work of Stuart Hall and others at the CCCS, who imported Gramsci and ‘hegemony’. Storey then takes us through ‘culture’ and ‘power’ many times, weaving example after example into theory. Raymond Williams began a similar journey across borders and ideas, through the lives and ruins of cultures, only a short walk from the lecture theatre in which I teach, for his essay ‘Culture Is Ordinary’, in 1958. Williams was collapsing high and low culture, moving away from F.R. Leavis and his generation. Fifty-odd years have changed nothing in that sense, ‘culture’ is still upper-case Ordinary, everyday, but worthy of serious attention, and Storey’s book holds strongly to that idea.

The point of this text is to allow people access to the tools with which they might take culture to pieces and see how it operates. Understanding signification creates more effective communicators in any media industry, and sharper contemporary artists. In my experience, students who are just starting out either leap right through cultural artefacts, searching for ‘deep’ meanings, which may ultimately be fugitive, or they remain on the thinnest of surfaces, tending to naturalize them. ‘Depth’ is a misleading term to use here though. What Storey often does is account for the way any one cultural artefact brings other significatory surfaces into play. In his example of recent car advertising, he shows how the automobile is often presented as solitary, rather than just another atom of congestion, essentially using discourse analysis to show that what is missing is just as important, sometimes, as what is presented or re-presented. The car advert reveals the myth of the individual, lone vehicle. This is a point Storey makes in passing, to illustrate something else, but it alerts me to the usefulness and scope of this text. It also serves, for me, as a metaphor for the doing of cultural studies, which should link isolated objects up to the wider social world and its issues.

Raymond Williams took his journey on a bus, Storey occasionally arrives in a Rolls Royce, grandly stepping out to declare it a charabanc: ‘Ceci n’est pas une Roller!’ He describes the increasing visibility of opera in advertising, on film soundtracks, tracing this back to the invention of opera as art, in nineteenth-century Manchester. He collapses the continuing distinctions between art and entertainment, rightly seeing the danger in elitist discourses. Storey then describes how ‘the sixties’ are articulated in an imaginary form, in and through the 1990s. Key to this is understanding how some seriously edgy narratives get channelled into consumerism for profit. This could be what Marcuse called, in that notorious mouthful, ‘repressive desublimation’, only Storey allows for agency at the same time as he accounts for the entertainment market’s unstoppable assimilation, on permanent cruise control. ‘Agency’ here is a kind of lower-case ‘resistance’, the often-overlooked caveat to Foucault’s work.

Storey turns things over thoroughly, viewing them as prisms. The range of examples he works through is appreciated. Taken together they explain how we can go in any historical direction, making different sized leaps, from the 1960s to the 1990s, or the 1880s to the 1980s, and make some very potent insights about now. Grand-narrative history may be off the curriculum for good, but Storey does what Fredric Jameson urges – he always historicizes. We know that Santa doesn’t exist, but the essay on how Christmas was invented is a gift, not a disappointment. Exposing historical ‘invention’ is Storey’s craft. He reveals the hidden, understanding how culture is made and re-made, rather than imagining it as developing from some original point of authenticity. This book does what all great cultural studies courses and texts should. It shows that the floor we stand on is less stable than we previously thought. As room-shakers we run risks though, if students leave lectures ever so slightly disturbed, things are going well. If they are so alarmed that they never return, we have gone too far. This book will rattle cages, but it also provides some advice on how to rattle back.

The humanities often unwittingly present easy targets for critics. This book’s index features ‘The Beatles’, ‘Ulrich Beck’ and ‘Beethoven, Ludwig van’, because Storey considers high and low culture to have been shaken from the shelves, through the history of cultural studies, and its aforementioned little quakes. ‘Foucault’, ‘The Four Tops’ and ‘The Frankfurt School’ are only a page away, but Storey presents a fast-moving target to the enemy, explaining how discourses are saturated with power at every step, staying with that core, undeniable drive. He takes his subject seriously, describing how signifying practices such as melodrama and acid rock can reach outside their spaces of signification, for instance in a three night theatre run, and point to issues and debates outside that space. These are crucial things. To see how power both shapes meaning and shape-shifts through it is possibly one of the few guaranteed transferrable skills left. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I, and perhaps I should also point to myself pointing it out, in a review of a book on cultural studies and power, by a cultural studies lecturer.

On my return from Planet Meta-, I find a country preparing to measure research via ‘economic and social impact’ again, so we do need to remember these points. Software packages change faster than Vice-Chancellors, but these issues remain, for media students as much as fine art acolytes, and understanding how signification and power courses through both Photoshop and institutional hierarchies can only prepare them for the ‘real world’, which critics of this kind of book claim to exist beyond its pages.

Each case study confirms this. Storey re-inserts politics into the work of Matthew Arnold, claiming that he was hegemonic, as essentially a reformist, urging for the middle classes to step up to leadership and displace the aristocracy, rather than the more revolutionary recommendations posited by Marx. Arnold had some unpleasant things to say about the middle classes, but Storey reveals how cultural critics need to go further than the rhetoric on the surface, locating deeper veins, and even blacker track marks, on the skin of culture. His ‘symptomatic’ reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shows how it attempts to construct ‘bad’ imperialisms, which are bracketed off from British forms. In this case, the ‘bad form’ is Belgian, re-situating Heart of Darkness in a nationalist discourse, even though it is identifiably anti-imperialist, thus teasing out and revealing hidden strands of hegemony. Storey returns us to the way in which cultural texts refer to grand-narrative power discourses such as imperialism at the same time as they resist them, creating ambivalences, as well as meanings, in their semi-lit, beating centres, with all of their shadows. This level of nuance in Storey’s critique is exemplary. At the end of this last chapter I sense a way in which reading Conrad like this might lead us to question more contemporary cultural documents and ask the ‘imperialism’ question of them all over again, in the manner Storey so ably demonstrates.

I have described how certain ‘c’ words have shameful connotations on this island before, connotations which need inverting, and so here ‘c’ stands for both ‘clever’ and ‘compliment’.


In film on April 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Film review by Sophie Fuggle

In Time (2011, written and directed by Andrew Niccol)

A film which obviously got short schrift when it came out last year but despite a somewhat bland performance from Justin Timberlake and his instantly forgettable leading lady, Amanda Seyfried, offers an interesting take on the accumulation of capital in a world where the cliché time is money gains a whole new currency (sigh).

Set in a dystopian future where everyone is genetically engineered to stop ageing at 25, time is now the only form of currency. On their 25th birthday, every individual is given a year which will count down to zero unless they earn more time either through their own labour or by transferring the time of others onto their own clock – the digits of which are embedded onto their arm. Everything is measured in time – a cup of coffee costs three minutes, a bus ride, two hours. Society is carved up into time zones. This is less a question of geography and more a division of wealth. But isn’t this already the case in contemporary Europe and North America? Those who have accumulated decades and centuries of wealth live in New Greenwich (see what they did there?). Trapped in the same bodies for eternity, the time-rich elite live in perpetual fear of dying by some careless mishap without getting to spend their time since time cannot be transferred postmortem. The poor live in the ghetto – anyone in possession of more than a month worth of time is at risk of having it stolen by time bandits or confiscated as suspicious by time keepers, the police force, led by the unrelenting Cillian Murphy. Hence, those in the ghetto live from day to day, hand to mouth, forced to work increasingly harder to survive until the next day.  Here, we are confronted with Žižek’s question about life and death – who is really alive today? No one, it seems. Those in the ghetto have no time to live let alone reproduce (the overpopulation in the ghetto seems unlikely given there is no time for the shameless depravity that was the scourge of the nineteenth century working class although there is still plenty of time for alcohol abuse). Those living in New Greenwich are sick to death of living but feel compelled to proceed with their tedious quest for immortality.

Thus, a 19th century model of labour achieves its apotheosis in Deleuze’s society of control. Individuals are reduced to the digital clocks on their arms. Ageing has stopped and so, therefore, has the reification of youth. Of course, we are encouraged to appreciate the obvious milf and even grilf references here. There is also some cursory exploration of the concept of speed, riffing on Paul Virilio’s notion of dromology. How quickly one does something identifies one’s social class. The rich have time to waste, the poor don’t.

The film posits the idea of what might happen if time was redistributed – a very thinly veiled attempt at critiquing the power and inequalities of today’s global financial markets. So the obvious criticisms are posed by both the time magnates and the time keepers. The system must be maintained at all costs. The stakes are upped here since there is now a direct link between the wealth one possesses and one’s mortality – ‘for a few to be immortal, many must die’ – a link often obfuscated in debates about the global economy. Yet, unsurprisingly the film doesn’t go far enough. There is the token emancipatory moment where the inhabitants of the ghetto awaken to a bright new dawn where there is enough time for everyone. But that’s as far as it goes. Timberlake and Seyfried assume the roles of Bonnie and Clyde posing as Robin Hoods, stealing time through a series of bank heists – a somewhat archaic form of robbery for a society which has dispensed with money altogether. We’re not given a glimpse of what a society in which wealth is fairly distributed might look like – just one in which fear has been (temporarily) transferred from poor to rich.

Still, a different perspective on timebanking (currently championed as preferable form of exchange to money). Where money functions precisely because it has no real value behind it, In Time inspires some (albeit superficial) reflection on the social reconfigurations – which are really only intensifications of existing social hierarchies and divisions – that would inevitably occur if alternative modes of exchange were to acquire primacy following widespread depletion of resources, environmental disaster and overpopulation. No longer a question of biopolitics but temporo-politics.

Heard the one about the Jewish rock star?

In Billig, Melnick on April 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Review article by Les Back (2002)

Michael Billig Rock’n’roll Jews (Five Leaves, 2000)

Jeffrey Melnick A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song (Harvard University Press, 2001)

The cheroot smoking ‘fat cat’ businessman, raking in cash on the backs of gifted jazz, blues and soul musicians is the dominant stereotype of Jewish involvement in music.  This portrait can be found in an alarmingly diverse range of settings: from beer commercials to the movies of Spike Lee.  Implicit in this is the charge that Jewish media moguls merely profitted from the creativity of others and in particular that of African Americans.  The thought that Jews contributed to the making of the music itself is viewed as almost laughable. Michael Billig begins his beautiful new book Rock’n’Roll Jews by recalling a scene in the spoof movie Airplane. A passenger asks for some light reading and is given ‘The Complete Guide to Jewish Sporting Stars.’  Every page in the book is blank.  Billig comments that “one can imagine the joke being applied to Jewish rock’n’roll stars” (p. 3).

Beneath such stereotypes is a hidden history of fraught alliances and enduring divisions – a story of creativity and exploitation. It is the complexities in this history that Michael Billig and Jeffrey Melnick seek to explicate.  Melnick’s book A Right to Sing the Blues focuses on the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly the involvement of Jewish composers and publishers in popular music and jazz.  His prime concern is the relationship between figures like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and African American performers and artists.  He is interested not only to seek evidence about the quality of ‘Black-Jewish relations’, but also to examine critically the narrative construction of this discrepant association.

For Melnick what is crucial is the work that the talk about Black-Jewish affinity does.  In this field of representation hopes are licensed, aspirations expressed and racial alignments defined.  For him, the ambivalent racial status of Jews in America was navigated through their role as intermediaries within culture and music. He argues that Jewish composers like Gershwin and Berlin and singers like Al Jolson were able to portray their gift for writing and performing ‘black music’ as  a product of their Jewishness.  Paradoxically, it was their skill as intercessionary figures, adept in black forms, that provided them with a passport to whiteness. As cultural intermediaries, Jews could figure themselves in a privileged position to preside over the blending of the American cultural ‘melting pot.’  Gershwin told his first biographer that he aspired to “write an opera of the melting pot, of New York City itself, which is symbolic and the actual blend of native and immingrant strains” (p.77). Irving Berlin, who was less confortable with his nascent Americanness than Gershwin, wrote the enduring patriotic homage God Bless America.  The prize was that Jews became central in the work of nation building and Jewishness itself could be cast as a stable white identity.   The power of Melnick’s insight here is considerable, indeed this is the main contribution of his book.

Prominent African American figures like writer James Weldon Johnson spoke positively of Jewish involvement in jazz.   In Melnick’s view there was mutual interest at play here because Johnson’s support of Jewish musicians furthered the cause of the music and meant that African American culture was taken seriously as an art form.  However, the down side of this was that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess  competed directly with the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance over the definition of Blackness and the African American experience.

This powerful line of critique is picked up by Michael Billig in Rock’n’ Roll Jews. For those Jews who made America their refuge, the impulse was strong to show that they belonged to this new land and it’s dominant Christian culture.  As a result some of America’s key seasonal hymns were written by Jews.  Irving Berlin penned ‘White Christmas’ and Jewish songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’ for Elvis Presley.  The high point in this assimilationist irony was in 1963 when Phil Spector recorded an entire album of yuletide hits called A Christmas Gift for You.  Billig draws a parallel between the Christmas music written by Jews in America and a comment made by Walter Benjamin on the public festivity made by the Jewish bourgeoisie in pre-Nazi Germany. Benjamin, a German Jewish Philosopher who committed suicide after failing to escape the Nazis, complained that affluent Jews in Germany not only had Christmas tree but also bought large visible ones as effigies of their assimilation.  Billig, making a direct connection between Benjamin’s observation and Jewish dreams of belonging to America, concluded that “A Christmas Gift for You was Spector’s enormous, public Christmas tree” (p. 107).

There is more to the story of the involvement of Jews in American twentieth century popular music than assimilation and compromise.  Melnick’s moral commitment to argue that Jews manipulated ‘black sounds’ for their own ends, blinds him to some of the ambivalences in the lives of those who followed Gershwin and Berlin. In particular, he treates Jewish jazz musicians like Mezz Mezzrow and Artie Shaw as sociopaths. He reduces them to little more than absurd ‘white Negroes’ recalling Norman Mailer’s famous phrase.  There is little attempt to understand how the complicated lives of Mezzrow and Shaw challenged assumptions about  race and culture.  They breached the colour-line in a time when to do so posed serious risks.  Melnick has little time for these acts of transgression and reduces them to ‘authenticity mongering’ and cultural ‘one-upmanship.’ It is perhaps easy to dismiss the likes of Mezzrow and Shaw as such now, but this kind of presentism misses the palpable dangers involved and there is something close to bad faith in Melnick’s denuciation.

He foregrounds Mezzrow’s comment that he felt he came to look “physically black” in his autobiography… continue reading Rocknroll Jews

Review Essay: Thinking with Berger, Global and Local/Dialogue.

In Papastergiadis on April 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from New Literatures Review, 27: 1994)

Review of Nikos Papastergiadis 1993 Modernity and Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s Writings Manchester: Manchester University Press

I imagine him straining over the shoulder of the rider to watch, through blurred eyes and at hell-raiser speed, the approaching bend. On the road up a wild mountain, a motorcycle roars towards an adopted village, with a passenger from the city; another visitor, another stranger come to visit, a visitor among others. Drink lubricates words well into the night, and after a working day in the fields it is memories that evoke an evening of talk. To be remembered. Remember John Berger? In a book which defies the safety of conventional biographies, Nikos Papastergiadis has given us a memoir of the writer in exile.

Much more besides. This study, Modernity in Exile, also takes up theoretical and political issues that have importance beyond the specific exile of a certain Berger. This review is difficult to keep on track, the road twists and turns, other themes emerge and vie for attention. In more convoluted terms; what is at stake is a conception of dialogue that will speak to/with difference and name the violence that attends our global condition.

Perhaps Berger was always in exile. As an art critic and columnist for The New Statesman, before his decision to leave England in favour of life in a remote French village, Berger was already an oppositional figure, even amongst the oppositional critics of the British left. His art criticism was always more than an orthodox art history; connecting the “life” of a work with the lives of viewers, he tried to challenge the gap between freedom and alienation. His longer writings were even more difficultly poised; he was interested in both the success and the failure of Picasso, where others either (and only) praised or scorned. He was, importantly in “the midst of the cold war” (NP:39), someone who resisted the easy symmetries of exclusive positions. He was, he claimed, both a Marxist and a Romantic. To all of this Papastergiadis attempts to remain faithful in his retelling of Berger’s positions — which makes Modernity in Exile a difficult and rewarding book.

Berger’s work spans more than forty years, and deals with so many of the critical issues of our time that the study of his oeuvre easily becomes a kind of kit-bag for rethinking the epoch. Modernity in Exile began as a doctoral dissertation in politics at Cambridge. Here, Berger was assigned only a secondary role in the earliest drafts (NP:191), before a gift fell across Papastergiadis’ path, enabling scattered thoughts to be woven together and held fast. In Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, writes Papastergiadis, “we do not see England through the estranged eyes of an exile, but rather with the alienated eyes of a local who looks up at an exile and from there looks down at his culture” (NP:156). A crucial moment. I like to think of this book as crafted by a writer carrying quotations in cupped hands to the workbench, choosing their position with care. This work reads like a mosaic of ideas so arranged. At another point Berger is seen to write himself autobiographically into the novel as the character Janos, for whom “a perpetual distance between England and Hungary casts a shadow over any neat reconciliation of the two” (Berger quoted in NP:151). To follow the itinerant thoughts of this book, always with a danger of becoming lost, offers the promise of an arrival if there is a thread to hang on to — Berger is that thread. Leading somewhere? Where? This is not Ariadne, guiding Theseus through the labyrinth created by Daedalus.[1] There is no linear development or step by step guide to Berger, and Papastergiadis offers “no totalising text, no definitive essay, not even a strict code” (NP:37) — and yet the sense of Berger is tracked throughout. How is this possible in the “absence of an established discipline that can examine the dynamics of displacement in modernity”(NP:4)?

Perhaps it can be achieved with an emphasis on what can be shorthanded as “the dialogical relationship”; the dialogue between author and subject which carries Berger away, and which organises the trajectories of each of Papastergiadis’ chapters. It is “a dialogical mode of writing” which may be capable, for both Berger and for this biographical study, of avoiding “the pitfalls of critical distance, appropriation and displacement, which tend to dominate so much of contemporary writing on the other” (NP:4-5). The pitfalls include certainty, arrogance and the self-serving authority of objectivity, and these are to be avoided by an empathetic approach which requires “a code of interaction between the self and the other that admits the reflexivity of both positions” (NP:5). It is by attention to this dilemma of the other that, for Papastergiadis following Berger, the “gift of empathy” allows a “heightening of new subject positions in the dialogue with the excluded” (NP:16). The possibility of a dialogical turn in literary and cultural studies has a long history, and its place in contemporary theory has frequently been rehearsed.

Berger struggles “to find a sympathetic space within modernity in which identity can be relocated” (NP:181). Dialogue is not a neutral “exchange”. Still it may be possible for Papastergiadis to invoke the metaphor — and its incommensurability — to help bring out a critique of those who profess to engage equally (take turns) with “others”. It is evident that any simple acceptance of the “dialogic turn” is an ideological creation of a speaking exchange which occludes differences — it is clearly the burden of Berger’s work to struggle with this problem. At the same time, that social commentators like Berger, and indeed Papastergiadis, are also bound up within cultural and political forms which condition “dialogic” encounters may sometimes be overlooked in enthusiasm to find a path out of this mesh.

This Exilic Shuttle

In Modernity in Exile, a sustained confrontation and detailed exploration of the methodological status of any more complicated understanding of dialogue is cunningly displaced into debates about positioning and metaphor. This text on Berger has a guiding metaphor, or at least a series of related metaphors grouped around one found, with more than rustic irony, amongst the village life of Berger’s retreat…  continue reading NP review


On the Need to Supplement Ethnography

In Ang on April 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from The Sociological Review 1998)

Ang, Ien 1996 Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World, Routledge, London.

Although restrained in tone where scaremongering might even have been appropriate, Ien Ang’s comment on a ‘wider recent trend in the advertising community’ where anthropologists are hired to do ‘observational research’ on the ‘minutiae of consumer behaviour’ (Ang 1996:63) is most interesting where she links this trend to the growing popularity of ‘ethnography’ among critical cultural researchers. Job prospects there might be. However, anything insidious and new about this is past its use by date, as such compromise was long ago factored in to the methodologically vaguery of ‘ethnography’. Evidence for this could be gathered from a brief survey of what, even in Ang’s presentation, passes as ethnographic method here. Anything from a few unstructured interviews in a studio, through to deep ‘hanging out’ seems to be gathered under the one term. Methodological discussions were nearly always only camouflage for those who hadn’t yet done their research or those who hadn’t quite got the results they expected (of course both these epistemologically thought-provoking predicaments are preferable to that of those who found exactly the right questions for the answers they already had).

A key to the book, all of chapter five serves to set up the final coup de gras in favour of ethnography as a tool of use for both audience studies and for capital, showing that statistical and mechanical methods of viewer behaviour assessment fail and every new technique has only raised yet more complicated questions. Necessarily, Ang ignores here the notorious ‘failures’ of ethnography and instead simply presents the horribly all-too-real scenario of anthropology in the direct employ of commerce with merely a side glance to the epistemological debates that have destabilised ethnographic practices within that discipline. It would not do to simply condemn such recruitment of anthropology to commerce (television studies of course will still have to struggle to be considered ‘real’ anthropology vis a vis witchcraft, pig-exchange and kinship taboos) on moral or ethical grounds, but neither is it enough to say this is ‘perhaps thought provoking’ (Ang 1996:63). Instead, it is necessary to choose and push a political programme.

Ang raises questions that could be recruited for such work, especially where she asks what is the politics of an ethnographic rendering of television audiences (Ang 1996:71). The drift towards ethnographic methods is considered in part a response to the crisis within the industry around the reliability of ratings research, but unfortunately Ang leaves ‘aside’ the economic and institutional aspects of this crisis. There is much work that could be done here, but in this context more deserves to be said about the institutional role of ‘ethnography’, and the theoretical debates and context in which it becomes possible on the one hand for educational and media researchers to show a heightened interest in the method, and for anthropologists to have spent the past twenty years fighting over its very plausibility.

In a footnote – indeed the first of chapter two, and one so important I don’t see why it is not in the text proper – Ang notes that the term ethnography ‘within anthropology’ refers to ‘an in-depth field study of a culture and its inhabitants in their natural location, which would require the researcher to spend a fair amount of time in that location, enabling him/her to acquire a nuanced and comprehensive insight … [and] … enabling him/her to produce a “thick description” of it’ (Ang 1996:182). She admits that ‘most qualitative studies of media audiences do not meet these requirements’ (Ang 1996:182), though she still considers use of the term ethnographic justified. From any familiarity with debates ‘within anthropology’ it would be clear that not that much anthropological research fits her strict definition of ethnography either. The deployment of essentialisms like ‘a culture’ and ‘its natural location’ returns us to an, admittedly not too distant, anthropological past which simply does not wash. A quick survey of some of the conventional and now dated (e.g. Geertz, see Hutnyk 1989) critiques of ethnography notwithstanding, Ang’s discussion is rather tame on the role of ethnography, though her inclusion of a citation of Talal Asad makes the important point that ‘the crucial issue for anthropological practice is not whether ethnographies are fiction or fact … what matters more are the kinds of political project cultural inscriptions are embedded in. Not experiments in ethnographic representation for their own sake, but modalities of political intervention should be our primary object of concern’ (Asad 1990:260)

Where Ang cites Meaghan Morris there is perhaps more scope for the kind of ethnographic political interventionism that Asad envisions, but Morris’s rather jaundiced abstractionism defeats the purpose. She may have a worthy point, that ‘thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variation’ (Morris 1988:20 – she says this is her ‘impression’) but in Ang’s ‘freely translated’ précis this becomes just the ‘impotent generalisation’ that ‘the ethnographic perspective on audiences has led to a boom in isolated studies of the ways in which this or that audience group actively produces specific meanings and pleasures out of this or that text, genre or medium’ (Ang 1996:136). Resistance has disappeared in the reformulation and the mockery of everyday life as merely the locus of many forms of coping, or of complexity, fails to move the argument forward.

Ang makes a good point that the ‘existence of diversity’ is not … continue reading

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