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.

Review of:

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 Century"
    * 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 from 'Java'"
    * Adela Pinch. "Rubber Bands and Old Ladies"
    * Lauren Berlant. "Live Sex Acts [Parental Advisory: Explicit Material]"
    * Laura Kipnis. "Fat and Culture"
    * Michael Taussig. "Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic"
    * Marjorie Levinson. "Posthumous Critique"

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. 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 their producers.

  9. 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 organized removal.

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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 project" (241).

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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 the millenium.

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