Brian Holmes on 27 Feb 2001 04:00:04 -0000

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<nettime> Why Defend Cultural Studies?

Prof. MacKenzie Wark denounces "radical thought from Marx to Debord" for
its "intrinsically anti-democratic cast," and he writes: "Its a question of
making the masses into a tool for a mission not of their making. People's
actual wants and desires are to be discounted in favour of what the
intellectual desires that they desire."

With his appeal to "people's actual wants and desires," Wark stumbles right
into the arms of Jon Lebkowsky, who wrote here last week: "It is no
accident that what passes for 'news' for most folks in this world is mostly
accounts of car crashes and baby snatches, casual murders and drug
overdoses, idle gossip and information detritus.  We're not served this
junk food because Rupert Murdoch wants us to eat it - we get it because
most of us, even if we know our diet sucks, prefer to eat junk."

By Warko-Lebkowskian logic, polluting ourselves to death both mentally and
physically is the manifest destiny of global democracy. But that's what
happens when you make the basic mistake that sunk cultural studies:
equating "pop" with "the popular." That means equating the popular will
with the products made specifically to manipulate the popular will. A
brilliant definition of "people's actual wants and desires"!

Let's face it: the only thing you can do in a democracy is to put your
minority ideas to the test - or try to shore up the status quo, by claiming
it's the will of the majority. But the global status quo has been cracking
since the so-called "Asian" (and Russian, and South-American) financial
crisis revealed just one of the weaknesses of globalization. And the can of
worms isn't even fully open yet. Minority ideas from the left, right, and a
lot of other directions are now going to grapple about what to do with this
interconnected world economy. The "people" won't be the same when it's all
over, so why claim to study their "culture"? Why not just honestly try to
make it?


The question is how to do something new. But what still passes for "news"
in this world, unfortunately, is that communication runs in loops in our
societies. The status quo is perpetuated by keeping as many people as
possible within those loops, giving "the people" a chance to respond, vent
and innovate within manageable circuits (preferably electronic ones).
Cultural production (and apparently its theorization too) has been assigned
exactly that function, ever since the old system of imposed, disciplinary
standardization stopped working. Every popular innovation, of whatever
sort, is to be integrated, as a way of keeping tabs on it. Each product
says: "Stay within the loops" (of production for production's sake). The
university lit-crits say: "Study our cultural commerce! Celebrate its

The database/tracking technologies and one-to-one marketing strategies we
were talking about a few weeks ago have exactly the same social
significance. They say: "Let us commodify your individual desire. You'll be
a lot less dangerous that way."

Being an intellectual, a politician, an artist, is about finding ways to
break out of the dominant loops - and about measuring, not denying, the
danger of the break. Which is that the symbolic violence of the individual
act, or "attitude" as David Cox puts it, will be imitated, prolonged,
intensified - and/or manipulated, perverted, betrayed. That's revolution,
that's the risk of Marx and Debord.

Better to leave things as they are, and call it heaven on earth? Millions
of social democrats and neoliberals would have us believe, along with Wark,
that "would-be radicals are doing the far right's job for it in attacking
institutions of global accountability and offering cover for
protectionism." Of course I and millions of others disagree. We're talking
about global _unaccountability_, and the whole point of the challenge to
the international financial and trade institutions is to insist on more and
different kinds of accountability.

The massive ploy shared by the neoliberals and the would-be social
democrats is to ignore all the differences between the way the challenge to
neoliberalism is articulated on the far left and the way it is articulated
on the far right. Wark is directly within the dominant loops when he says
"how one achieves higher levels of productivity using constant improvements
in technique and an open trading space while mitigating the dislocations
and collateral costs to people and the environment is an agenda that few on
the left seem to want to grapple with in good faith." But it's hardly good
faith to ignore something as widely distributed and timely as the
"Alternatives for the Americas" document, prepared for the upcoming Free
Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec, which is a leftist text that
addresses precisely that agenda - staying outside the national-sovereignty
obsessions of the far right, while at the same time using concepts and
values that are explicitly different from the economic doctrines of the 
social-democrats and/or neoliberals. Doctrines that Wark would undoubtedly
ascribe to "the people."


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