On Popular Culture - reply to Gary
J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Mon Jan 13 16:07:45 MST 2003
As regards culture, I have a very long way to go yet personally before I get
to where I want to be, and therefore I don't want to talk about it too much.
People in Holland wanted me to make cultural contributions rather than
being, say, a dour bore, but I haven't done it, so I cannot say a lot about
"culture" beyond my very modest experiences.
The "field" where I labour, Cultural/Media/Screen Studies, has been
captured by the avatars of neo-liberalism. John Hartley by boss here at
Queensland University of Technology is a classic instance. He opposes
above all "critique" - the critical analyses of popular culture. He does
this in the name of populism. He accuses critics of being elitist and
against the people. Also of being 'Manichean' and opposed to sensuality. So
in effect he champions the current cultural level of the working
people. To do so is of course to champion their oppr4ession.
Since this is related to my thinking on alienation/reification (maybe a
little bit like Marx's 1844 Paris manuscripts), I will make a few
suggestions on some aspects from my own point of view.
Strictly speaking, social science does not exist for neo-liberalism because
there is no object of study for social science (see Hayek on this). For
neo-liberalism, strictly speaking, society does not exist, macroeconomics
does not exist, they are unknowables. You just have more or less cultured
individuals, businesses and markets, which you can describe. You can
describe them statistically, but some social phenomena you simply cannot
count, because they do not exist, they are just malabstractions. So then you
need statistical classifications (groupings of observations and data) which
reflect the market process and nothing else. "Social" just refers to an
aggregate of individuals or taking a cooperative, receptive attitude.
History has no dynamics or laws or specific direction, all you can do is
relate particulars to other particulars with regard to a specific question
you have in mind, but you cannot make statements about "the big picture"
beyond statistical (or stochastic) inferences.
So then cultural studies would focus on cultural markets, cultural
transactions and transactors, the buying, owning and selling of culture,
culture as a product which is produced and consumed on a market basis. From
a neo-liberal point of view, more market means more culture, the market is
the great driving force of cultural development, and the question is how we
can convert non-market cultural activity as much as possible into market
This goes very far indeed, also in language, thus, a woman seeking to marry
(or at any rate looking for a relationship) is said to be "in the market"
(often this is associated with the idea of having a certain amount of cash
ready as a basis for the new relationship).
Michael Camdessus also put the neo-liberal idea quite well in the bubbly
days of the 1990s, he said, "the market is in our genes" (or was that our
jeans ?), an elaboration of an original idea by Adam Smith about the natural
propensity of human beings to "truck, barter and exchange".
Out of this you get the neo-liberal personality, which is basically a human
transactor, a product of (successfully) negotiated transactions, which
requires learning various techniques to produce specific outcomes. So now
you can extend this idea and say simply that culture is all about
negotiating deals, negotiating life, negotiating everything. To be
"cultured" is simply to be a good negotiator, somebody who is good at
exchanging, in such as way that he gets what he wants. To be a good
negotiator requires above all being able to engage in meaningful
communication so that a successful deal results. So culture is important in
neo-liberalism in the sense of understanding the meanings required to do
deals. Psychological problems arise when negotiation is unskillful, and
these require market adjustment. Problems for neo-liberal cultural studies
are such questions as: how well are we negotiating ? Are impediments to
cultural markets being removed ? And so on. When, as I mentioned on the
list, I attended a course on flirtation for men here in Amsterdam, the
emphasis was likewise on negotiation skills.
So how does elitism fit into this ? Well, the consumer knows what s/he
wants/needs, if not, s/he would not buy the product or service. If
therefore, let us say, you criticise his/her consumption (or lack of it),
you are making subjective value judgements about other people's consumption,
but there is no serious epistemic basis for doing that, because one cannot
say in any objective sense that one form of consumption is superior to
another, it is a question of personal taste. That is, there is no special or
privileged vantage point from which consumption can be objectively
evaluated, beyond describing what people actually do produce, buy and sell,
and consume (within appropriate categories which exclude fictitious social
entities). Therefore, all that is happening in a "cultural critique" is
that one is telling somebody else what they need or what they want, from an
allegedly superior vantage point which doesn't really exist. Insofar as one
is actually able to enforce or impose a consumption norm, this is moreover a
restriction of freedom which has totalitarian implications.
It is of course quite easy to respond to this, but I leave that to you as
the cultural expert. Essentially what somebody like George W. Bush does, is
combine neo-liberalism with christian values. The market after all has no
morality, so you need to get your morality from somewhere.
It is true that the word "critique" has been appropriated by post-modernists
from Marx, Hegel and Kant and abused in all manner of ways. It becomes a
waffly way of saying "I have an idea about something" or "I have a criticism
of something", with the difference is that it sounds more important and
sophisticated if you use the term "critique". But for Marx critique has a
specific meaning. In Australia (you are Australian aren't you ?), the person
who best defined this meaning was a chap called Wal Suchting, whom I regard
as an important Marxian scholar, although I was less keen on Althusser than
he was. If I remember correctly, Suchting refers to it in an article in
Science & Society, this would be in the 1980s probably. You could track that
I don't see why cultural critique has to be Manichean or non-sensual, this
makes sense only from the vantage point of a purely subjective theory of
value. In bourgeois society, people can of course subscribe to a subjective
theory of value, except when their own money is concerned, then all of a
sudden value becomes an "objective reality". Marx points the way beyond
In part, the reference to "non-sensual" and "manichean" is really about the
attempt by neo-liberals to integrate sexuality completely in the logic of
markets, so that the maturation of the human organism and market signals can
be perfectly adjusted and attuned to each other.
For a bit of culture, here is a translation of the election campaign song of
the Dutch Socialist Party:
Een mens is meer (a human is more)
Een dier is meer dan een lap vlees (an animal is more than a hunk of meat)
Een mens is meer dan een consument (a human is more than a consumer)
Een land is meer dan een bv (a country is more than a corporation)
Wat je doet is wat je bent (wat you do is what you are)
De school is toch geen markt (schools are surely not a market)
En de zorg toch geen product (health and social services are surely not a
Wie rijkdom niet kan delen (whomever cannot share wealth)
Is als mens totaal mislukt (has failed as a human being)
Het rijke westen is geen eiland (The rich West is not an island)
En Europa is geen fort (and Europe is not a fortress)
Wie bang is voor wat vreemd is (whomever is scared of foreigners)
Doet vooral zichzelf tekort (does himself especially a disservice)
Blijf niet mokkend aan de kant staan (don't stay complaining on the
Stel een daad en toon je moed (think of an action and show your courage)
Laat je woede hand in hand gaan (let your anger go hand in hand)
Met het goede dat je doet (with the good things that you do)
stem voor (vote for, vote positively)
stem SP (vote SP)
Musically I still have to hear a really good version of it (obviously people
from different social backgrounds respond better to some tonalities rather
than other tonalities), but the words are rather good.
Hope this helps
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