Thursday, April 24, 2003

Week 13, Hall and Bhabha

Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha. Hall’s “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1895-1910). Bhabha’s “The Commitment to Theory” (2377-97).

Page-by-Page Notes on Stuart Hall’s “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1895-1910).

1899. Since Hall defines cultural studies, as a “discursive formation,” a definition of that phrase will help: it is “a group of statements in which one may find patterns of regularity defined in terms of order, correlation, position, and function.” Examples would be philology, biology, political economy, Orientalism, psychology (which asks “what is normal?” and “how to treat what isn’t considered normal, and who is to do the treating?”) The point is that knowledge is related to political and social power. Discursive formations come together from discourses; remember that they produce our subject-positions and are not the product of autonomous consciousness but of “archive” texts in the Foucauldian sense. That is, such discourses are referential; they constitute their objects and generate knowledge about them. They relate to non-discursive formations (institutions, political events, economic processes), but are partly autonomous. One can’t reduce psychoanalysis, for instance, or notions about mental health generally, to hospital procedures. Stuart Hall wants to defend cultural studies form the charge of laxness and undisciplined incorporation of theories and poorly defined objects of study, as in “anything anybody does” and “cultural studies is what the critic says it is.” But the question isn’t “who is to be master” when it comes to the field. Cultural studies is rife with tensions, and it can’t claim that its methods offer closure. Hall affirms that the origins of cultural studies are heterogeneous, and says he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.

1900-01. In what sense are cultural studies “worldly”? First consider the complex relation to Marxism. Hall opposes monolithic, Soviet-style communism, a metanarrative that brooks no dissent. So Marxism was more of a “discursive formation” or point of departure, an enabling formation. We may recall that Foucault describes Marx as a special author along the same lines. Cultural studies as a field embraces the reality, the relative independence and significance, of what Marx didn’t deal with fully enough: culture, ideology, language, the symbolic order. Modern Marxist or Marxist-inspired critics deal with these things more successfully, though: Gramsci and Benjamin, to name a few. The difficult areas just described require theoretical “contestation” with Marxism; there is no unified, easy way to handle them. Marx is dealt with here in Hall as problematic, as a system of unspoken questions that predetermine a range of responses; a close reading of him shows gaps in the “story” Marx tells about history. As Hall writes, “The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency” (1901).

1902-03. Antonio Gramsci offers a model for expanding upon earlier Marxism. Gramsci accounts for cultural hegemony as a condition of economic domination. The “organic intellectual” is an attractive concept, but cultural studies has found it hard to explain what historical movement the it is organically connected to. It must relate its sense of belonging in the optative mode, as a kind of “optimism of the will.” Otherwise, pessimism sets in, and the cultural studies practitioner gives up the responsibility of imparting ideas refined by theoretical inquiry at the highest, cutting-edge levels. The risk is that cynicism leads to elitist intellectualism, an aestheticist attitude that ends up being like Matthew Arnold’s aloof, “disinterested,” stance, with promises to help someday by not helping now.

1904-05. Cultural studies becomes more worldly and expands by means of confrontational “interruptions.” The field becomes more vital because of such interruptions. Feminism in particular (along with criticism having to do with racial discourse) opens up cultural studies to the operations of power on the female body, not just in the public sphere but in a broader, Foucauldian sense. Feminist theory introduces questions of subjectivity, gender, sexuality, and psychoanalysis: in that way, female authors point out the blind spots in cultural studies. Without such interruptions, the men at the center of cultural studies encounter the biases that had been determining what they questions they could ask and what phenomena they could perceive. It seems that whatever doesn’t kill cultural studies makes it stronger, so to speak. This field is the dominant mode of criticism and theory today.

1906-07. Cultural studies has undergone a necessary linguistic turn; it has become imperative to deal with textuality, with representation. Who gets to “represent,” and how is representation linked to power? It is appropriate that this linguistic turn has taken place because “culture” is relatively independent from other areas, just as texts and language present themselves as self-referential, wrapped up in their own workings and devices. Culture resists easy reduction, but it also seems frustratingly involved in non-discursive realms and in the operations of “power.” Culture is displaced, decentered. So how can cultural studies, an interrupted, textualized field, make a difference in the real world? How can theoretical or intellectual work intervene in the political realm? Cultural studies is a set of discursive practices, and by now a very “textual” enterprise that respects the complexities of the objects it constitutes and examines. It is rightly dissatisfied with its failure to reconcile culture to all of the affiliations that affect it, to all of the forces that permeate it. An insistence on textuality must strain against formalization, closure, and mere self-referentiality. Theory and political questions are in tension because theory is a disturbing force; perhaps eventually theoretical examination will disintegrate structures that need disintegrating. The project of cultural studies should not constitute a withdrawal from life, as in Arnold’s aloof prescription for the culture-critic who is enjoined to carve out and protect a space for the free play of the mind. Intellectual practice can’t be entirely divorced from the realm of politics.

1908-09. Why does theory matter in the world at large? AIDS is a good example. It’s more than a disease: it is a site of struggle over the definition of political power groups. In the 1980’s, during the Reagan/Bush 41 era, this disease became a site of cultural and political struggle, with conservatives condemning “sodomites” and even refusing to acknowledge the acronym AIDS. The disease got caught up in the so-called “culture wars,” with the majority using the dreaded illness to isolate and identify its enemies and to consolidate its collective moral identity and political clout. To see this “usefulness,” one need only compare the spread of HIV/AIDS in the American 1980’s to what is now happening in Africa, Russia, and other parts of the world in the early C21, where AIDS isn’t considered a “gay disease,” even though it may be stigmatized in other ways. Other kinds of theory define their objects more rigidly and might have to exclude questions like “how are people with HIV/AIDS represented, by whom, and to what end or effect?” Would formalism or pure deconstruction be able or willing to deal with such questions? How would they define this syndrome as a legitimate object of study? At its best, cultural studies allows for contestation about real-life issues at a theoretical level that should have real-life consequences. It can do this within academic institutions and the intellectual arena generally. There has been quite a proliferation of cultural studies work in American colleges.

1910-11. Hall’s final remarks in our selection might well be compared to Gramsci’s articulation of the “organic intellectual.” Even if no organic point of reference emerges, “optimism of the will” is vital. It is necessary to think of a world in which intervention would make a difference. Avoiding cynicism is also vital since that is one threat posed by institutionalization. When a cutting-edge practice goes mainstream in the academic environment, it risks being tamed and rendered merely fashionable. Genuine insights tend to be turned into “styles,” while ventriloquists multiply and commodify those insights without much depth. Fashion works by co-opting and assimilating what has gone before. It’s best to admit the incompleteness of cultural studies as a project and to avoid complacency about its limitations. It isn’t a discipline that should not really “get comfortable about itself.” Oscar Wilde said that a map with no utopia wouldn’t be worth looking at, and while cultural studies offers no universalist theory or humanistic metanarrative to point the way towards utopian shores, the idea should at least be honored. Cultural studies isn’t opposed to the Arnoldian idea of creating a current of fresh ideas that can be brought to a larger audience’s consideration, but such fresh ideas shouldn’t be derived by means of Arnoldian disinterestedness. Instead, the field’s dissatisfaction with textual analysis as a sole means of advancement should move it forwards. On 1903, Hall had mentioned Edward Said’s idea that texts can be studied in contexts that respect their worldliness. One of cultural studies’ virtues is that it has a chance to share its dissatisfaction with traditional limitations on “appropriate” objects of study. Finally, cultural studies by no means dismisses literature, even if it de-emphasizes literature as a pure formal category or object available to formalist methodology. The “linguistic turn” in cultural studies has led to a strong interest in the analysis of literary works, and there’s no reason to suppose that if someone in that field would read Milton’s Paradise Lost the same way he or she would read a newspaper article.

Page-by-Page Notes on Homi Bhabha’s “The Commitment to Theory” (2377-97).

2379-81. Is theory only the west’s new way of constituting and containing the Other? Does its heterogeneous quality reflect a diverse globalized world? Bhabha says that isn’t necessarily so. Just as artistic media are supple means of altering our perceptions and cultural practices may be more influential than direct politicizing, theory should be acknowledged to have the same potential. The point isn’t to reaffirm a pre-colonial culture or notion of the self—things easily put down by westerners as “primitive”). Hybridity, Bhabha’s interest, doesn’t give in to polarized oppositions that have to do with race, gender, and culture generally. Cultural hybridity occurs continuously in the context of the meeting-grounds between first- and third-world countries, and it leaves neither worlds untouched. We must use the site of hybridization creatively, and in that effort, theoretical writing can help. It is not necessary, either, as Bhabha points out on 2380 (end of first paragraph), to abandon the craftsmanship proper to one’s medium. Sticking with literary methods of analysis in dealing with literary works, for instance, may be more worthwhile than deriving straightforwardly political claims from literary texts.

2383. J. S. Mill’s On Liberty shows an awareness that dissensus is part of any political system: Bhabha writes that “A knowledge can only become political through an agonistic process: dissensus, alterity, and otherness are the discursive conditions for the circulation and recognition of a politicized subject and a public ‘truth’….”

2384-85. Bhabha redefines the process that allows cultural hegemony to emerge. But the aim is not consensus amongst the members of some unified group that one has helped to forge. It is “dissensus”; so Mill’s claims on the previous page illustrate Bhabha’s vision of theory. While imagining and engaging with opponents, we find ourselves and our arguments changed, decentered. Culture and the social are not unified. Why, therefore, should we describe progress or liberation as what makes them unified? A unified politics would necessarily leave out many people. The Lacanian terms on this page reinforce Bhabha’s notion of dissensus: imaginaire refers to a phase of identifying with the specular or mirror image of oneself. Identity formation is at the same time alienating, and we never really leave this alienative process behind. Negotiation is a key term for delineating how theoretical writing and speaking can intervene in real life. Theory negotiates between antagonistic cultural forces, allows “hybrid sites” and “hybrid objectives” to emerge. Theory does not subsume cultural struggles in order to arrive at a transcendent political goal or social order; instead it works within the struggles, helping us to see hybrid goals and phenomena as they emerge. So theory is not a grand philosophical narrative, and it offers no Truth to tidy up a complex social scene. In fact, if contestants try to impose such stories, the theorizer should take them down or deconstruct them.

2386-88. The “temporality of negotiation” involves driving, maintaining directionality or movement, but there isn’t an end or beginning to the direction, and such negotiation “uses the subversive, messy mask of camouflage” rather than coming “like a pure avenging angel speaking the truth of a radical historicity and pure oppositionality” (2386). See 2386 for Bhabha’s description of this directionality as progressive, socialist. His definition of theory is quite broad: “feminism, Third Cinema, whatever.” What do we realize in the process of negotiation? The many linkages between one demand and others, cross-references, how the demands involve one another. There need not be any one common goal that everyone is pursuing. Such goals tend to be imposed by the already dominant group and may in fact diminish or attenuate other goals, controlling progress in the name of power interests. What theory makes contestants or negotiators know is that there is “no space for the unitary or organic political objective.” It may sound as if Homi-World is a lot like Milton’s Inferno, with hordes of theory-devils separating themselves off and discoursing “in wand’ring mazes lost.” But Bhabha opposes political separatism that would shut down “community of interest and articulation.” Those pursuing “progress” would not, if Bhabha’s Theory has its way, be allowed to isolate themselves into separate camps. The negotiation that occurs as political objectives are represented ensures that such closure will not occur. An example is what Bhabha writes about the miners’ strike on 2387-88. What happened in that instance changed the British Labour Party, or at least suggested a need to change it: it was a “hybridity moment.” The political has an imaginative dimension in that it is a site of continual representation and articulation of objectives, where separatism and closure shouldn’t take place: “Denying an essentialist logic and a mimetic referent to political representation is a strong, principled argument against political separatism of any colour….”

2389-90. Hegemony, says Bhabha, seems in some arguments to be the precondition for governing. Always the imperative question comes up: “what is to be done?” But hegemony is not collective will; its work is iterative, displacing, differentiating (2389 top). Bhabha says that blocs must represent a collective will as their projected future if they are ever to “produce a progressive government” (2389). How do you get there from here, from the present time? What would your world and my world look like? Well, theory, which is adept at the complexities of representation and discursivity, can “perform” (is this similar to working out, educating?) the “problems of judgement and identification that inform the political space of its enunciation” At the bottom of 2389, Bhabha suggests that we consider dialogic rituals that help provide people with a sense of community. (I am not convinced because it seems that he’s being vague at this very important point in his argument.) On 2390, he again says there can be no closure in discourse, theory, or politics.

2391-93. As for post-colonial studies, Eurocentric critical theory tends to constitute non-white people as passive “others”; even in being praised or privileged, such people are “spoken for.” The same goes for the celebration of diversity; such celebration tends to isolate what it praises. But since theory is necessary, how do we avoid making it the province of Europe and the United States Academy? Bhabha argues for the relocation of our attention to historical junctures where the modern west is emerging, defining itself in meeting cultures it has colonized. Neither culture survives this process unchallenged. It’s best not to allow the west to keep promoting its unified image: it was never really so unified, something that studying the history of the colonial process should teach us. An example of the colonial process: British discursive formations meet up with Indian “translation.” The “language of the master becomes hybrid” (2393). Bhabha says that during this process, “The written authority of the Bible was challenged. . . . The Word could no longer be trusted to carry the truth when written or spoken in the colonial world by the European missionary” (2393). These claims are central to Bhabha’s optimism, so they deserve examination. Perhaps Bhabha’s ideas account for the continued ability of Indians to resist the British even as they were changed by them. But it’s also true that the resistance he describes didn’t directly end the colonial presence in India: that took quite a long time. What is the status of Gandhi? This British-trained lawyer understood British morality and held the mirror up to England’s failure to live its morality. His Satyagraha campaigns turned the tide against the imperialists. The point is that Gandhi wasn’t simply reasserting pre-colonial Indian values; he was instead working in an “in-between” space. I recall an example of Gandhi’s hybridity on the order of Wildean wit: he was asked if he liked western civilization, and he suggested that the west should try it.

The history of the British presence in India is that the East India Company went to India around 1600. The India Act of 1784 made the government responsible for India’s political and civil affairs, while the Company controlled commerce and patronage. The Sepoy soldier mutiny of 1857 came about because of British arrogance and quest of expansion of their power. They used to grease the Sepoy’s cartridges with cow fat, which was of course an insult to their Hindu beliefs. British education attacked Hindu customs, and industrialization began to change their lives. Indians became rebellious, and even taking away all of the British East India Company’s political clout didn’t keep nationalist sentiment from increasing. Gandhi came along and was able to work with that sentiment. The 1919 Act granting India further autonomy was insufficient, and independence came in 1947.

2394-95. The object to focus on is cultural difference: “Culture only emerges as a problem . . . at the point at which there is a loss of meaning in the contestation and articulation of everyday life, between classes, genders, races, nations.” Cultural difference, explains Bhabha, “focuses on the problem of the ambivalence of cultural authority: the attempt to dominate in the name of a cultural supremacy which is itself produced only in the moment of differentiation” (2394). Multiculturalism and diversity only celebrate and maintain distinctions in the service of an allegedly benign relativism, which in turn serves global late capitalism, a total system. By contrast, those who theorize the key moments of emergent cultural difference are at work undermining claims of supremacy. Such claims can only be produced discursively, in a representational space that takes and alters as much as it gives. Cultural enunciation is crossed by différance: culture, like language in Derrida’s view, is not referential, or at least not simply so. The movement of signification involves cutting off origins and final destinations or full meanings. Bhabha describes iteration as the work of hegemony; it’s not possible to repeat cultural fixities from the past because “repetition” would require an original, stable identity. On 2395, he writes, “The reason a cultural text or system of meaning cannot be sufficient unto itself is that the act of cultural enunciation—the place of utterance—is crossed by the différance of writing.” On 2394, Bhabha defines Fanon’s “nationalism” along these lines as well: Fanon would probably agree, I believe. Even strong nationalism isn’t simply a referral back to pre-colonial traditions, it is creative, directed, tactical, forwards-looking.

2396-97. Bhabha emphasizes a post-structuralist notion of language based on “enunciation” as third space integral to culture itself. Culture is hybrid; this insight is the key to Bhabha’s internationalism. Final comments: the goal is to “emerge as the others of our selves” (2397). There’s a Nietzschean quality in Bhabha’s argument in that he makes a potentially threatening insight central to his belief in progress. The movement from colonial encounters to a post-colonial present and future is/will be difficult. It’s best not to dwell on lost unities; instead, says Bhabha, we should look forwards, move, embrace change and hybridity. At the end, Bhabha writes, “The native intellectual who identifies the people with the true national culture will be disappointed. The people are now the very principle of ‘dialectical reorganization’ and they construct their culture from the national text translated into modern Western forms of information technology, language, dress. The changed political and historical site of enunciation transforms the meaning of the colonial inheritance into the liberatory signs of a free people of the future.” Perhaps, but some might say that this line of thought seems like the “textualization” that Hall is uneasy with. One could plausibly imagine darker possibilities in first/third-world relations.

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