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SUPPLEMENT OF POLITICS Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands VOLUME 6 NUMBER 1, 2007

 


REVIEW

The Supplement of Politics

Paul Bowman, Post-Marxism Versus Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Intervention (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).


David Huddart

Chinese University of Hong Kong

 

 

1. Writing about conspiracy theory, gossip, and other popular knowledges, Clare Birchall considers the ways in which they are both included and excluded by the university institution. While such knowledges (for example, gossip) are incorporated into hiring or tenure decisions, the closer they come to the business of academic research, the more they are excluded. But as we know, there is at least one place in the university which takes popular knowledge as its object, to the point at which it has appeared a form of popular knowledge itself - that place is cultural studies. Burchill writes that "cultural studies' relatively marginal position, its status as the university's whipping boy [...] means that it shares at least some of the cultural value ascribed to popular knowledge" (2006: 156). Rather than recommending that cultural studies becomes more a discipline, more like the other forms of university-sanctioned knowledge, Birchall maintains that it is this feature of cultural studies that makes it most important because responsible. Popular knowledge is an example of the kind of others, the kinds of objects, that the subject of cultural studies is supposed to be open to, and through which the subject-object opposition of knowledge is broken down. Cultural studies can take on the challenge of post-disciplinarity, even if it sometimes or indeed often does not face this challenge. Which is where Paul Bowman comes in with his contention that cultural studies, in becoming enthralled by the post-Marxist rhetoric of comprehensive logical rigour, is endangering its oft-proclaimed openness to otherness. Indeed, post-Marxism rather seems to reinstate the logic of outside and inside. Nonetheless, it seems that we can hardly be satisfied with extricating cultural studies from its relationship with post-Marxism's seductive rigour, but instead must pass through post-Marxism, right to the other side, as it were. If this book's title implies a balanced face off, then it is misleading, in the sense that cultural studies comes out very much the winner. However, this winner is cultural studies but not as we know it , and this is true in at least two senses. First, Bowman's own register is broadly philosophical to a much greater extent than is usual in cultural studies (although in this he is part of a tendency), to the point where cultural studies becomes philosophy. Second, this becoming other of cultural studies is what Bowman indeed advocates, although he is hardly limiting this to becoming-philosophy . There is something in cultural studies that demands and enables a kind of anti-disciplinary mutability (is that something deconstruction? 'In' cannot quite be correct, in that case). Post-Marxism, meanwhile, lacks this something, whatever its claims about its own debt to deconstruction 'itself'.

2. I used the word 'misleading' about the title, but that should not be taken as a criticism. Once the author of this book reviewed a collection of essays edited by Chantal Mouffe titled Deconstruction and Pragmatism (See Bowman, 1998). He wondered about the exact status of that 'and', suggesting that Richard Rorty's work was hardly given the 'equal attention' implied by the title. And yet, he knew that he was rather in sympathy with the bias of the collection, at least its bias toward the work of Jacques Derrida. Here I find myself in a similar situation. It may well be the case that, as John Mowitt suggests in the blurb, neither post-Marxism or cultural studies comes out of Bowman's book unscathed. However, in most respects it is clear that post-Marxism is rather more scathed than is cultural studies. And, in the end, I find myself entirely in sympathy with the bias found here. Early on, Bowman asks, "Should everyone involved in cultural studies simply 'do' post-Marxism?" (5). Perhaps not long afterward it is clear that he cannot answer in the affirmative. It just is the case that questions of institution and intervention are an aspect of (at least some versions of) cultural studies in ways that they are not in post-Marxism. It is the admirable achievement of this book to follow the trajectories of the various thinkers involved with a lucidity that leaves us in little doubt that post-Marxism simply does not pose the question of its own paradigm, whereas cultural studies, in its various forms, at least some of the time (when it is being most Derridean, perhaps), puts its paradigm into question in a most radical way, raising the issue of what Derrida calls 'university responsibility'. Deconstruction may well be "irreducibly cortical to both cultural studies and post-Marxism" (10), but cultural studies is rather more in keeping with Derrida, and that is at least partly to do with its doubts about certain readings of his work.

3. What cultural studies at its most Derridean tends to do is to refuse the production of a Derridean cultural studies paradigm, or indeed any other paradigm (at least, for any length of time). Indeed, it is arguable that (as my hedging with "cultural studies, in its various forms" suggests) there is a multitude of paradigms implied by cultural studies. That situation, at least, is what this book recommends. If, as Bowman points out, "there is clearly nothing outside of the paradigm" (7), cultural studies at least holds out the hope of both other paradigms and othering paradigms. It wants to interrupt itself, to disrupt the fluency of its own theoretical language about culture, and to produce what Bowman calls an " interruptive orientation" rather than "a smoothly fluent orientation" (203). By contrast, post-Marxism produces a radically predictable knowledge, one that is irresponsible to the extent that it confirms what its paradigm already sets up as worth knowing or worth thinking. In Derridean terms, it cannot be open to the future except as a kind of future present. To operate thus is, Bowman writes, "arguably to live in repetition" (80). Cultural studies can often do the same thing, legitimating what is already known. Indeed, as Bowman suggests the post-Marxist paradigm (centred on discursivity and hegemony) sometimes seems prevalent in cultural studies. However, it can be said that cultural studies tends to occlude less than post-Marxism, particularly when it comes to the site of academic practices. At least some of the time, cultural studies paradigms presuppose the analytical relevance of institution and institutions. They often foreground the question of intervention, and what it is that they might achieve through the production of knowledge. They are therefore more responsible, and are more germane to the establishment or institution of 'university responsibility'.

4. But this is simply to echo the assertions of Bowman's book without giving a sense of the limpet-like argumentation that licenses his 'preference'. Despite the fact that this is a work that is not about individual thinkers, it is possible to see Bowman's reading of Ernesto Laclau as the central organizing feature of the book. There is really no equivalent organizing figure who stands for cultural studies, which may be because of the rather greater range of figures associated with cultural studies, something that may also relate to the multiplicity of paradigms found therein. Nonetheless, there is a good deal of discussion of figures like Stuart Hall and John Mowitt, particularly following the ways in which they prefer the textual rather than discourse paradigm. In that preference, again, they are rather more Derridean than is Laclau, whatever his assertions. What Bowman is doing through his reading of all these figures is demonstrating what their texts say, sometimes despite themselves, and through that demonstrating the fecundity of the textual paradigm. In a way, he is recalling us (as Mowitt himself does) to the way that the (literary) take on textuality always implied a material and institutional angle: "the textual approach must insist upon the contingency of constructions not only externally ('out there'), but also - and significantly - 'internally' ('in here')" (26). Bowman is following Mowitt here in the elucidation of the anti- disciplinary qualities that are integral to the textual paradigm. If we take the idea of textuality seriously then we must accept that, "disciplinary paradigms play a primary role in constituting precisely what disciplines think they know, what they think they can know, and orientate what they think they can or should do and the way they think they ought to do it" (27). This is true for any paradigm, and it is not that we are being recommended a perspective that comprehends all other foolishly naïve orientations: it is clearly not the argument of this book, for example, that Derrida trumps all other writers with a superior deconstructive paradigm (whatever that would mean). Rather, we are being recommended a kind of constant interruption of paradigm. For Bowman, this is necessary because of what he calls "the universal problem of all paradigms: they offer a particular perspective/construction that masquerades as the way to see 'how things actually are'" (37). Any paradigm drifts toward this kind of masquerade, not because anyone actually thinks it does or should account for everything, but simply because of our perception about uninterrupted fluency: therefore, we must constantly interrupt not only those with whom we are impatient because their perspective conflicts with our own but also ourselves. And this interruption of paradigm, and therefore disciplinary identity, in its production of interdisciplines , provokes doubt, confusion, and mistrust in the apparently uninterrupted and fluent 'single' disciplines.

5. This interruption explains many disciplinary reactions to cultural studies (Bowman analyzes its scapegoat status very effectively [49-50]). Yet these reactions are hardly cause to halt cultural studies' self-interruption. And when we come back to post-Marxism, it would seem that self-interruption has not even (could not have, in fact) begun. Such interruption is emphatically not what is found in post-Marxism, as Bowman persuasively presents it. Although presented as a worry about future work by other post-Marxists, Bowman's reading often suggests that post-Marxism is already (and from 'the beginning') de-politicised. Without some sense of the politicality of its own institution, post-Marxism tends toward de-politicisation. This tendency is also, at least partly, a matter of argumentative style, to put it in a casual way, and Bowman is astute in demonstrating the lack of hospitality found in Laclau's responses to others. The work of Laclau, and also Slavoj Zizek, is emphatically fluent (this surely cannot be denied in the case of ?i?ek, nor would he wish to deny it). And in their fluency, these avowedly radical political paradigms actually seem rather unconvinced that they will have any consequences, or that they will intervene. In taking 'being-heard' for granted, post-Marxism actually seems rather pessimistic about its possibility.   In this, Bowman is again drawing our attention to the status of knowledge, and his reading of post-Marxism suggests that it fails to realise that 'talking' might be more important than the 'talked-about': "like many academics, they still concern themselves almost entirely with what should be said, without considering how it might possibly make any difference" (91). But it is not just post-Marxists, of course, because cultural studies' category of intervention itself is hardly clear, present, and self-explanatory, and so, as Bowman argues, "Just saying 'this is important' or 'this is an intervention' does not simply make it so" (104). Rather like post-Marxism, cultural studies has sometimes forgotten its institutional quality - it is just that cultural studies has spent much time loudly proclaiming that it has not forgotten it.

6. Yet at least both post-Marxism and cultural studies have some kind of belief in themselves. Reading Bowman on Rorty, we find that his conclusion (coming at the climax of an extended masturbatory metaphor) is more or less the following: Rorty thinks that university libraries with shelves full of humanities scholarship banging on about intervention constitute little more than wank banks . He summarises Rorty thus: "[I]n banal terms, the fundamental political and intellectual error of theorists, deconstructionists and/or political philosophers is that they 'fancy themselves'" (132). As many have argued against Rorty, his division of public and private is highly dubious, as is his sense of 'academic auto-eroticism', as we might suggest following Bowman. Rorty has an extremely limited 'common-sense' (his own) idea of what an institution is, and therefore also what a university is, or indeed what a university institutes. Institutions are neither simply public nor private, nor in any way simply positive or negative, as Bowman suggests: "the prime movers - or indeed, often, the prime blockers, limiters, or resisters - of political contexts are 'institutions'" (171). Institution and institutions have no necessary meaning or value, just like interruption. It is not necessarily the case that more interruption means better, just as it is not necessarily the case that less institution means better. Individual instances are to be taken in context, and that context is never saturated.

7. Cultural studies, however, has for many seemed to know where its objects' contexts end, and has gone on to read them in terms of one category at issue in Bowman's face-off - politics. It has been argued that cultural studies is heir to a tradition of criticism that cannot interrogate the category that animates it, politics. Writing on 'post-theory', Geoffrey Bennington insists, without fingering cultural studies in particular, that, "the confusion of the cultural and the political is - or such is my hypothesis - a basic feature of post-theory" (1999: 105). No doubt cultural studies (some of the time) can be shown to make the post-theoretical gesture of leaving theory behind in order to delve into the necessarily political world of culture, without much caring about what 'theory', 'politics', and 'culture' might be or become. Bowman himself, while he might want to resist simple self-mortification on this point, argues that, "cultural studies [...] is not immune from the impulse to indulge in ego-gratifying macro-political diagnostic pontification" (199). But that is not all that cultural studies has to say about the political, and perhaps we can say that this book clearly demonstrates the fact that cultural studies paradigms do not necessarily assume they know what the political is. Therefore, nor do they know what intervention might be. They recall us to the moment of decision, through which rules for being decisive are invented. In another book about deconstruction and cultural studies, Gary Hall is clear on the point that deconstruction is not about to comprehend cultural studies, and that this non-comprehension is structural and formalisable in terms of responsibility. Therefore, Hall argues that a deconstructive cultural studies that would be simply a new paradigm cannot be the future of cultural studies: "there can be no responsibility to culture, and what's more no politics, no ethics and no cultural studies, without the experience of the undecidable; without the constant taking, in each singular situation and event, of the (founding) decision of what culture, and cultural studies, is" (2002: 17). Bowman would be very much in agreement with this, I think, and accordingly this book has no list of 'recommended interventions'. To that extent, anyone seeking some concrete suggestions about how to make cultural studies intervene will inevitably be disappointed, precisely because their search will be operating in terms of a metaphysical logic displaced by Bowman. If we acted as if we knew what intervention might or even must be, then we would not know intervention when it animated us, spoke through us, or indeed hit us.

8. So, what are we to do? Not just hope for the best, of course. Bowman writes that, "today intervention requires a new interdisciplinarity" (177). Yet, as he has made clear through his reading of Mowitt, this is more like being anti-disciplinary. Being interdisciplinary is being anti-disciplinary, at least in the sense that interdisciplinary cultural studies would cease (to appear) to be cultural studies at all, operating strategically through other voices, methods, rhetorics, etc.. As Bowman goes on to argue, "interdisciplinary interventions must necessarily be executed in the language of the other" (179). In this, Bowman is agreeing with Burchill, who wants to highlight the necessarily popular element of cultural studies' knowledge, and suggests that cultural studies is best placed to meet the challenge of post- or anti-disciplinarity. We might only be speaking the language of the other for very limited periods of time, but during that time we must not be reproducing the comfortable and recognisable language of cultural studies; instead we must be 'monsters of fidelity'. And as Derrida's readings demonstrate, fidelity accompanies transformation, this being the structure of iteration. Cultural studies needs therefore to stop reading culture in a comfortable, predictable and indeed programmatic fashion, and so Bowman recommends "the transgression of one's own familiar style of disciplinary discourse" (205). Publishing 'disciplined' cultural studies articles in refereed cultural studies journals constitutes, on this view, intra - rather than intervention. But not all institution is institutionalisation, nor indeed commodification, and a book like this one is necessarily other or more than institutionally self-confirming. Even a book review can be more or other than this, and without wanting merely to intra vene, I can conclude that this book will be indispensable in the ongoing and endless work of deciding what cultural studies and its intervention can be.

 

David Huddart is Assistant Professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and is the author of Homi K. Bhabha (Routledge, 2006) and Postcolonial Theory and Autobiography (Routledge, 2007) .

Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey (1999). 'Inter' in Martin McQuillan, Graeme Macdonald, Robin Purves, and Stephen Thompson (eds.) Post Theory: New Directions in Criticism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999, pp.103-119.

Birchall, Clare (2006). Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip, London: Berg.

Bowman, Paul (1998). 'Deconstructing Pragmatism: A War of Position (A book discussion)', Parallax Volume 4, Issue 4 (October 1998), 141-145.

Hall, Gary (2002). Culture in Bits: the Monstrous Future of Theory, London and New York: Continuum.


© borderlands ejournal 2007

 

 

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