At Some Sort of Tangent
Piers M. Smith
University of Kuwait
Copyright © 2000 by Piers Smith, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
Nicholas B. Dirks, ed., In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
* Nicholas B. Dirks. "In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the
* Gyanendra Pandey. "The Culture of History"
* Robin D. G. Kelley. "Check the Technique: Black Urban Culture
and the Predicament of Social Science"
* E. Valentine Daniel. "The Limits of Culture"
* Marilyn Ivy. "Mourning the Japanese Thing"
* John Pemberton. "Disorienting Culturalist Assumptions: A View
* Adela Pinch. "Rubber Bands and Old Ladies"
* Lauren Berlant. "Live Sex Acts [Parental Advisory: Explicit
* Laura Kipnis. "Fat and Culture"
* Michael Taussig. "Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another
Theory of Magic"
* Marjorie Levinson. "Posthumous Critique"
- This collection grew out of an inter-disciplinary conference on "Culture" at
the University of Michigan, USA, in 1993. The participants, Nicholas Dirks
tells us, had hoped to transform themselves and their practices by
"detaching some core theoretical and methodological concerns" and
"moving into new spaces of argument" (vii). The disciplines the essayists
work from -- anthropology, literary criticism, English, history, cultural
studies, women's studies and media studies -- and their common interest in
representation and textuality indicate the extent of the inter-disciplinary
focus and also, perhaps, the unsustainability of all such hopes in an age
of Fast Theory and consumer culture. If core theoretical and methodological
concerns have been detached, it is only to be converted into the ready
currency of buzzwords -- displacement, magic, deferral, fetishism, hybridism,
transgression, viscerality, the sublime. Something of that earlier hope
survives in individual essayists' grounding in ideology critique, rather than
in the book's overall recursiveness and sensitivity to closure.
- The hint of metaphysical pathos, even defeat, in the title, may have as much
to do with the essayists' locations as with disenchantment with what Taussig
refers to as "the Enlightenment transparency project" or any blighting of
utopian aspirations. The book aims to transcend the geographical limitations
of its list of contributors by including -- alongside its accounts of USAn black
urban culture, USA citizenship and USA fat porn -- analyses of popular
Hindu histories, rubber bands and old ladies in the fictional world of
Victorian Cranford, Javanese court archives, spirit mediums and mourning in
Japan. It attempts to move beyond cultural studies' fascination with the
present-day urban exotic through backward looks into eighteenth-century Javanese
myth-making, nineteenth-century British industrial capitalism, sham and
shamanism in classic anthropological texts, or the 1983 anti-Tamil riots. In
so doing, it hopes to address a wider audience than that which assembled
in Michigan. The book wants to provide "the ground for a new kind of
historically and critically based cultural studies . . . that seeks engagement
not just with the contemporary West but with cultural forms and movements across
the globe" (ix).
- This search for global engagement may seem decidedly ambiguous to an
already embattled nonUSA-based audience. However, while conceding the
book's dependence on voices from within the USAn academy, Dirks takes the
inclusion of a lone voice from outside -- Gyanendra Pandey's at the University
of Delhi--as an opportunity to qualify any ideas about ethnocentricity in the
rest. Pandey's essay is one of the most reader-friendly. He investigates "the
new Hindu history of India" (19) through a reading of popular histories of Ram
Janmabhuni, birthplace of Ram and site of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya.
Pandey notes how these histories' use of "mythic time" (in which the Hindu
version of events takes place), of epic qualities of changelessness,
circularity, heroes and villains, collaborates with mainstream versions of
culture to demonize and alienate others. He goes on to suggest that "the fundamental mode of history" may always be nationalistic and marginalizing (34). Arguing that an archaic "scientism" in the Indian academy effectively closes off
debate about difference and individuals, shutting out the ambiguities that
would otherwise work against any unified narrative of the past, he warns
that this must encourage ideologies of sameness and authenticity (35).
Against this, he reminds his interlocutors that meaning is context-based
and that contexts change; his call for ideological self-awareness, as well
as ideology-critique, is appropriate in a collection such as this. For
Pandey, the task of the historian is not only to ask how unities of history,
culture and nation are constituted but also to wonder how other unities
might come into being (36).
- Where Pandey wants to revision history-writing, through critical self-
reflexion and microhistorical particularity, Robin D. G. Kelley, aims to
overturn anthropologies (which are also versions of history) of USAn
black urban culture through the slamdunks of reverse discourse. Where
Pandey questions the assumptions underlying unified histories, Kelley
chooses to mix it with the interpretative strategies of unified
ethnographies. His essay makes the point that accounts which
routinely interpret so-called "expressive" black cultural forms as
adaptive behaviors, coping mechanisms or pathologies are always
reductionist and usually, if unwittingly, self-serving (40). As an antidote,
he focuses on the perverse stylistic possibilities of the "objects" of such
analyses. "Soul" is to be seen as a discourse, and not a thing, the "Afro"
as a historically situated hairdo, not an epiphenomenon, "the dozens"
as play and cue for laughter, not the demarcation of masculine identity,
"rap" as gritty realism, fun, storytelling, hybrid cultural form, not the
authentic voice of the ghetto or egotistical boasting or some other form
of compensation for a life of pain and poverty. USAn black urban culture
is best understood as a hybrid "process" that resists institutional
taxonomy and the guilt-trips of mainstream social science (58).
- Victorian old ladies might not seem as exciting as Ram or rap but they can
also take cultural form in surprising ways. In a witty essay, Adela Pinch
takes the figure of the Victorian old lady and uses it first to deflate the
currency of modernist genderings of culture, then to remind her readers of
cultural feminism's tendency to over-value women's difference, and finally -- her main focus -- to examine the relationship between nineteenth-century
British industrial capitalism and what she calls "narrative fetishism" (159).
Opening with the British Fifties debate between E. P. Thompson and
Raymond Williams on what culture and culture-criticism should be, in
which (in Thompson's text) the figure emerges as a stand-in for a
masculine, and emasculated, high culture, she traces its genealogy
back through the "ludicrously sinister" female knitter of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another unexpected stand-in for another institution, to the spinsters of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Cranford. Pinch is fascinated by the fact that Gaskell's old ladies are fascinated by things. But their fetishism is not to be understood as some displaced or denegated
phallus-worship. The spinsters of Cranford collect and secrete Paduasoy
shawls, umbrellas, brooches and bonnets, which then take on a magic, a
history, and a politics; the spinsters at once deify these objects and
manage them back into the humdrum. Commodity fetishism becomes a
viable strategy for coping with the effects of capitalism (163).
- The novel's digressive mention of an "India rubber ring" encourages Pinch
herself to digress into an analysis of nineteenth-century industrial
capitalism's "apotheosis" of commodity-fetishism (rubber), which in turn
allows her to flexuously ponder the dangers and possibilities of stretching
a point. Rubber, she avers, is elastic, re-usable, fleshly, imperceptibly
sexual and transgressive. As it is secreted away for further use, its
materiality works to identify poverty as the central fact of life amongst the
women of Cranford and to occasion a certain magic of writing in Michigan.
This both redeems the Victorian old lady from gentility and grants Pinch
an honorable mention in the annals of cultural theory at a tangent.
- If Pinch restores historical context to Victorian old ladies, Lauren Berlant
works hard to rescue modern-day little girls from their role as standard
bearers of adult sexual identity and heterosexual morality. Little girls are
both substitutes for adults in an "infantilizing confluence of media,
citizenship and sex" (184) and prefigurements of women as second-class
citizens, unqualified for full citizenship. Figured as vulnerable, under-age,
they should not be exposed to sex at any level: all live sex (from performance
to record cover) is sex abuse. Berlant's larger target is the assumption, in
USAn public discourse, that private acts of straight sex are paradigmatic of
public values. For her, this assumption is based on the invisibility (and
hence atemporality, or non-livedness) of those acts versus the extreme
visibility of live sex acts; live sex subverts the former's cozy ahistorical mean -- its deadness -- producing unmanageable wildnesses in public. At the same
time, in the "pornographic modernity" of the USA, live sex has become
the mean by which sexual identity, and citizenship, is managed. Berlant
calls for a theory of citizenship that puts the body back into a "live
relation to power, nature, sensation, and history" without fear of any
consequential violence or failure (194).
- Berlant takes no position on pornography, only seeing it as a context for
the critique of sexuality and citizenship. Laura Kipnis, on the other hand,
sees it as a "free-zone" where sexuality, bodies and aesthetics can be
reformulated in defiance of mainstream norms (219). Some might object
that only those with an investment in the normative produce pornography,
and that any radicalism inherent to the form is already tamed, bound and
gagged by the marketing processes that package it. Kipnis's implicit
subject, however, is the viewer of porn, especially that viewer who can
see, in the fat sub-genre, anarchic free-form -- that which is anti-aesthetic
rather than only sexist, and who can use its imagery to reframe the
connection between sex and the social. Accordingly, she recalls the
historical and social meanings of fat (in the West), noting fat's association
not only with ugliness and ill-health but also with class and social growth.
Drawing on the idea of the grotesque body as that which is out of control,
voracious, reveling in its conventionally loathsome bulk, spilling over the
boundaries of bourgeois taste and decorum, she highlights both the
hypocrisy of the culture that would control it (by simultaneously shunning
and exploiting it -- as, for example, through the diet industry) and suggests
ways in which some kinds of pornography can have fun at the expense of
- Other essays employ trickier deconstructive moves to displace
conventional readings of cultural others. John Pemberton argues that
'Java' was produced not by "culture" or "tradition" -- which are modernist
notions and hence retrospective ascriptions -- but by a particular "deferral".
If this occurred in reaction to Dutch colonization, it was not an imitation of
foreign epistemological interests (things Javanological); rather, it was a
response to, and a writing up (by local court scribes), of the actual move of
a royal court from one place to another. The deferral, then, consists in both
that physical displacement and in the contemporaneous writing up of Java
as a flourishing well-ordered kingdom when it was not. For Pemberton,
this means that Java (scare-quoted) becomes a figure which later
Javanese writers and politicos can use to fashion a modern Javan
tradition of culture and a national identity. This argument complicates
both the postcolonial view that nation-states and national identity
developed out of the epistemological and military demarcations of
colonialism, and were thus imposed from outside, and the culturalist
tendency to partialize history. Rather than pose the question of 'Java'
within the either/or simplicities of colonial epistemic violence versus
native self-fashioning, Pemberton explores the way that modern Javan
culture could emerge through the concrete instance of a locally
- The argument is given a further spin by Marilyn Ivy who proposes that
Japanese modernity arrives as both a reflection of and a reaction to the
drives of Western industrial capitalism. Indeed, there may well be no
modernity imaginable outside of that configuration. Like Pemberton, Ivy
sees modernity as a sine qua non of nation-states and one which always
involves the construction of a usable past; unlike Pemberton, she locates
the impetus for this construction in the "phantasmatic relation" non-Western states bears to Western ones -- particularly that of the USA (95). After a
somewhat turgid introduction, leaning heavily on the language and
theoretical models of Zizek (on the national "thing") and Bhabha (on split
subjects and mimicry), she concludes that Japan's imitation of Western
modernization is, at least in the USAn national imaginary, always more
threatening than slavish. One source of this threat is located in a "temporal
deferral", whereby losers in World War II become winners in global market
wars (96). If this grants Japan a belated sort of victory, it also confers a
desire for difference within the Japanese national imaginary which is
structured around a sense of loss of tradition.
- Ivy's understanding of historical processes is psychoanalytic rather than
materialist. In her view, denial of loss (of tradition) works with assurances
that nothing has been lost in order to affirm some thing (or that thing which
defines us, in opposition to you): in this case, the Japanese thing. The
subject of this psychically contradictory move becomes split and anxious.
One way out is through memorialization and mourning. On Mt. Osore on
Honshu, spirit mediums (itako) call down spirits of the dead, to help
mourners cope with their grief. The spirit mediums are not interested in
being intelligible or convincing; but their intercession still works. Ivy
argues that this calling down (kuchiyose) is "a spurious transgressive"
(106), producing genuine effects even as it fakes contact with the dead.
The itako's voice produces a Zizekian "sublime non-object of desire"
(109). Tradition, as an "arbitrary selection from the past" -- embodied
here in kuchiyose -- reveals the "estranged familiarity" of the national
thing itself. Where postcolonial theorists of the voice might seek
unambiguous self-namings, Ivy finds both "promise and betrayal" (112).
- Michael Taussig chooses to approach the fraudulences and successes
of magical healing through the more familiar portals of mimesis and
alterity. In his contribution, he moves -- in a self-consciously circuitous,
deferred fashion -- through classic anthropological accounts of magic
and shamanism, arguing, on the way, that the success of magical
healing depends not in concealing but in revealing trickery (222) and
thus that faith necessarily coexists with skepticism. Circular reasoning,
deferment and doublings back, he adds, are the movements of
intellection required in such practices (247) -- and, by implication, of
magical writing. In particular, Taussig circles through the texts of Franz
Boas and George Hunt on Kwakiutl magic and E. E. Evans-Pritchard
on Zande sorcery, always addressing the sorcerous play of
Anthropology in counterpoint to that of the shamans it purportedly
explains. The twist in Taussig's analysis of these texts on magic is that
in the same way as the witnesses to magical acts wittingly collude in a
deception (as the texts show) so his essay does not aim to "reveal" or
"unmask" some truth -- like the trickery of magical healing, these are
already revealed and unmasked -- so much as to assume, in the spirit
of Nietszche, the "well-being provided by error and untruth in human
and social life" and to practise a more generous version of shamanism
than that practised upon "us" by the "Enlightenment transparency
- Doublings back and reflexivity also characterize Dirks' title essay. Dirks
approaches his analysis of cultural theory's near-ruin via the image of the
nearly ruined Villa San Girolamo in Michael Ondaatje's novel The
English Patient. In this bombed-out place, there lies a man who has
"forgotten his name and lost his history" (1). If Ondaatje's novel elegizes
the decline and fall of Western civilization, the English patient is its
moribund subject. This "man burned black" was clearly misguided,
his unrealized hopes for the past ("All I desired was to walk upon an
earth that had no maps") only a romance, a dead colonial metaphor.
The rising subject of history is Kip, the Indian sapper, who on
confronting the emblematic Almásy -- who is neither "white" nor English
--undergoes "national awakening" (4). Rather than pursue this lively
potential, Dirks reverts to the ruin in the novel as pretext for an autopsy
of other such figures and an inventory of their significations in Western
culture generally. Ruins iconize both history and the death of history.
Ruins are also ruinous. Major names of Western cultural theory are
laid out for forensic examination: Burke on the ruin as catalyst for the
sublime, Kant on the sublime as an escape from history, Benjamin on
history as inescapable, more Benjamin on the revolutionary potential
of popular culture, Adorno on the banalizations of the culture industry,
Nietzsche and Bataille on culture's excessive and violent alter-images.
Finally, in the recursive strategy of the collective text ("But we keep
coming back to the ruins of culture"), Dirks returns to the Villa San
Girolamo, now significantly filled with books and concealed
explosives, sign of Culture's imminent collapse, a circular ruins on
the point of decomposition.
- Other essays use the big names to make less desperate points. In "The
Limits of Culture," E. Valentine Daniel invokes Kant (on the sublime again)
and Peirce in order to theorize the unspeakable in experience, and, more
particularly, to find a language appropriate to the ethnographic
representation of violence -- his example is taken from the 1983 anti-Tamil
riots in Sri Lanka. In the process, he sets out, in dense Peircian terms, the
internalizations by which any event may be interpreted and made knowable.
If the violent act appears to resist meaning, like the Kantian
thing-in-itself, itcan also enter semiotic meaning-production -- and hence culture, and history -- through the ameliorative codes of further experience. But whose experience? Where is it to be found? And how much does it cost?
- A central preoccupation of the book is what Dirks refers to as "the relentless operations of commoditization" (xiii) or what Marjorie Levinson, in her closing essay, worries over as the way critical discourse, or the economy of
critique, is subsumed under the sell-by dates of late capitalism. Every act of
writing is equivalent to cooking up another Big Mac. Wittgenstein may have
made language games respectable, but it was the producers of Wheel
of Fortune who made them profitable. Nothing that circulates can escape
the grasp of the market-place and hence of the purging mechanisms of
consumer culture. Jameson's grim remark that it is easier to imagine the
end of the planet than the end of capitalism is quoted twice in the
collection, once by Taussig near the end and once by Levinson at the
end. Levinson does her best not to be nauseated. For her, the likeliest
methodological cure is "heterology" -- "the study of what exists at some
sort of tangent to the identity principles of the culture in question" (269)
-- and the best technique for its use is unreadability (of which her essay
offers a pretty good example); under these conditions, work need not
circulate and so generates no value. While this, too, points up the
pathos that marks some essays' theoretical density and occasional
drift into recursive stalemate, Levinson is finally programmatic in her
disposableness: offering a list of twelve experimental opportunities for