Guns n’ Rappers: Moral Panics and the Ethics of Cultural Studies – Joanna Zylinska

Guns, Youths and Hip-Hop — a Few Familiar Stories

The Wessex Scene, 23.01.031
It may sound absurd, but Birmingham is increasingly being compared to the worst parts of Los Angeles, while some areas of London are said to be more dangerous than Soweto. And while this street warfare has caused many deaths, there have been few convictions, as English gangs practice their own Mafia inspired code of silence. 
Organised crime is on the increase not only in Britain, but worldwide, particularly in Europe, and many argue that much of the so-called ‘gun culture’ is inspired by American gangsta-rap. Artists such as Snoop Dogg, NWA and the late Notorious B.I.G are frequently condemned for espousing the values of violence, intolerance and the idealisation of guns in their music, with some US rap stars gaining greater prestige for their personal gun convictions. Closer to home, Ashley Wallace, aka Asher D of So Solid Crew, was jailed for 18 months last year for the possession of a revolver and live ammunition. 

Following a dispute at a New Year party in a hairdresser’s salon in Birmingham in the early hours of January 2nd, 2003, two teenage girls were shot dead and another two were injured. Charlene Ellis, 18, and 17-year-old Latisha Shakespeare, both died in the attack. Charlene’s twin sister, Sophie, and another young woman, Cheryl Shaw,17, were wounded. The four black teenagers were hit by a hail of bullets when, together with the other revellers, they stepped outside the salon for some air. They are considered to be innocent victims of the ‘turf war’ between local gangs. 

The UK Home Secretary, David Blunkett, embraced a familiar line of reasoning in response to the Birmingham events — a reasoning which had previously associated the 1999 Columbine school massacre with the music of Marilyn Manson, and the murders carried out by the alleged Satanist Robert Steinhaeuser in a German school in April 2002 with the lyrics of the death metal, hardcore and hip-hop band, Slipknot. Blunkett announced that he was ‘appalled’ by some lyrics in rap and hip-hop music, and called on the record industry to stop glamourising murder and black-on-black violence. In a similar vein, Culture Secretary Kim Howells suggested that rap groups, in particular London’s garage collective So Solid Crew, were at least partly to blame. Fuming that ‘Idiots like the So Solid Crew are glorifying gun culture and violence’, Howells insisted ‘people’ should stand up to ‘idiot macho rappers’. In a bizarre logical twist, the argument that the two teenagers killed in Birmingham had been avid fans of rap music was also frequently quoted in the media debates about their killing. 

TIME magazine Europe, 20.01.032
[T]he Jan. 2 shootings and the gun-crime statistics don’t surprise those who live in Britain’s inner cities, where drug gangs, particularly Jamaican dealers, protect their multimillion pound profits with weapons ranging from replica pistols and modified air guns to lethal Uzi submachine guns. [The race adviser to the London mayor] Jasper says guns, many smuggled in from the Balkans, are easily bought or rented, and that while the gangs are often homegrown, top killers, or ‘shottas,’ are sometimes flown in from Jamaica to carry out assassinations.  Although Britain’s inner cities are not nearly as violent as America’s, the combination of guns, drugs and gang culture makes for a volatile atmosphere. In gangland interactions, perceived slights — over an inadequate display of ‘respect,’ say — can bring the guns out. One young Londoner says many of her friends have stopped going to parties because even a spilled drink can lead to a shooting. Police say some black inner-city youths use guns as fashion accessories. In London last year, 20 of the city’s 22 gun homicides were the result of black-on-black crime. Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat frontbench M.P. for a South London constituency, says ‘the culture isn’t limited to youngsters of Caribbean extraction but is spreading out into other black communities, and into Turkish and Balkan ones’.

And thus the link between urban youth, gun crime, and rap and hip-hop music was once again confirmed as fixed, as an undisputed object of police inquiry and a problem that the government and other socio-political apparatuses needed to ‘look into’ and ‘resolve’. Through constant comparisons with the United States, through the evocation of its ‘ghettos’, and through the perception of urban crime as a central symbol of tensions besetting Western social and political life in general, race was established as a structuring element in the media and political debates about ‘gun crime’. This kind of rhetoric prepared the ground for a moral panic — a term originally used by sociologists to describe the ‘mounting of a symbolic crusade’ (Cohen, 2002: 3) against a perceived threat in a society at a particular moment in time — connected with young black males. A number of complex socio-economic problems have thus been subsumed under an all-embracing label: ‘black-on-black crime’. However, it was the very impossibility of confining this ‘crime-wave’ to the black community, i.e. its penetration into ‘mainstream society’ through the rhythms of rap and hip-hop, that instigated the panic involving guns, inner city crime and So Solid Crew in Britain at the beginning of the year 2003.

Cultural Studies and ‘Moral Panics’

The above story is symptomatic of the moral panics involving ‘crime’ and ‘race’ that I want to focus on in this article. However, I will not be conducting a sociological analysis of the phenomenon itself — which is not to say that detailed empirical studies of the causes and effects of gun violence, its racialisation and its all too easy associations with rap, hip-hop and garage music are not necessary.3 But I’m more interested here in the structuring of the discourse of moral panics in and by cultural studies, and in developing a cultural studies’ response to such panics, in order to raise some broader questions about cultural studies’ ethics and politics. ‘Moral panics’, I want to argue, constitute significant moments in society’s self-affirmation as they simultaneously establish and legitimate its principles of social conduct and civic duty, i.e. its morality. My study of the principles of right conduct (morality) will nevertheless extend to the investigation of the ‘lived moral philosophy’ (ethics) which underlies — but which also, in some instances, contests and challenges – the established morals. This will lead me to ask whether cultural studies can see ethics differently; whether it can delineate a non-programmatic ethical response to ever-pervasive moral panics. In this respect, what interests me in particular here are the numerous passages from — or rather between — ethics and morality, but also between ethics and politics, that cultural studies has traversed.

My distinction between these various concepts derives from the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, who claims that ‘while morality — operates in the socio-political order of organizing and improving our human survival, it is ultimately founded on an ethical responsibility towards the other’ (Levinas & Kearney, 1986: 29). For Levinas ethics is always already primary; it is an unconditional demand placed ‘before-time’ on conditioned beings that find themselves put in question and challenged by what is absolutely other to them. Thus the only passages that are both possible and necessary for a human society are those from ethics to morality, and from ethics to politics. Levinas argues:

Ethics, as the extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another, becomes morality and hardens its skin as soon as we move into the political world of the impersonal ‘third’ — the world of government, institutions, tribunals, prison, schools, committees, and so on. But the norm that must continue to inspire and direct the moral order is the norm of the interhuman. If the moral-political order totally relinquishes its ethical foundation, it must accept all forms of society, including fascist and totalitarian, for it can no longer evaluate or discriminate between them. (Levinas & Kearney, 1986: 29-30)

While I remain in agreement with Levinas’s diagnosis of ethics as prima philosophia, I want to trouble the directionality of the passages it is supposed to instantiate. The shift from ethics to politics seems somewhat problematic, as Jacques Derrida has demonstrated in his readings of Levinas. It will rather be the (irresolvable) tension, or aporia, between the two in the cultural studies project that will interest me here. But my reading will assert the Levinasian understanding of ‘an excess of the ethical over the political, an “ethics beyond the political”‘ (Derrida, 1999: 61).

I thus want to postulate that the cultural studies project, traditionally defined in more overtly political terms, has always been underpinned by an ethical injunction; that it has always been, in the last — but perhaps also firstinstance, ethical (even if it has allowed its ethical vigilance to slip at times). Cultural studies has perhaps come closest to acknowledging this ethicality in its interrogation of morality in the ‘moral panics’ phenomenon, something which has been a focus of a number of significant works. Drawing on two such ‘classic’ texts – Stanley Cohen’s 1972 Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers, and Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts’ 1978 Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order – I will explore some of the ways in which cultural studies has engaged with ethics and politics. Cohen and Hall et al.’s texts are well worth revisiting because of the role they have played in shaping the discipline of cultural studies, in providing its ‘foundation’ and a justification for its political commitment. Significantly, for both Cohen and Hall et al., moral panics are not really ‘about’ morality: the actual battle is seen to be taking place on the political front, where personal and group values and beliefs are being mobilised in the service of the dominant ideology. And it is on the political front that Cohen, Hall and a number of other cultural studies theorists often attempt to fight against ‘moral panics’, arguing that the panics are both a response and a control mechanism which arises in times of the loosening of the socio-political order. The discourse of panic is said to introduce or defend a set of concepts which are supposed to ensure the continued dominance of the leading class, with its institutions, ideologies and values. But in my reading of Folk Devils and Moral Panics and Policing the Crisis I hope to provide a different interpretation of those classic texts.

The inspiration for my reading comes from the thought of Jacques Derrida, whose work on deconstruction has been crucial for the reconsideration of the law, legitimacy and justice in the ethico-political context. Indeed, it has enabled us to think about ethics and politics in a radically different way.

Intervening into the field of oppositions, deconstruction results in a displacement of the system which relies on these oppositions; it consists in ‘reversing and displacing a conceptual order as well as the nonconceptual order with which it is articulated’ (Derrida, 1988: 21). We can thus speak about the revolutionary potential of the deconstruction, of its inherent promise of (socio-political) transformation which also entails a certain danger. And yet, due to Derrida’s unwillingness to articulate a programme, manifesto or even a coherent theory, and due to his insistence on the ‘deferral of meaning’ which always escapes ultimate fixing, deconstruction has been ‘accused of encouraging procrastination, neutralisation, and resignation, and therefore of evading the pressing needs of the present, especially ethical and political ones’ (Derrida, 1994: 31). In response to those criticisms, Derrida has explained that deconstruction, or différance, is a thought of ‘a relation to what is other’ which ‘relates to what is to come, to that which will occur in ways which are inappropriable, unforeseen, and therefore urgent, before anticipation’ (Derrida, 1994: 31). In its opening to the other deconstruction takes place ‘ethically’, if ethics is understood in Levinas’s terms as an ordering ‘towards the face of the other’ contracted as a debt ‘before any freedom’ (Levinas, 1998: 10-11).4 Set in motion by the idea of justice – an idea that for Derrida delimits an ‘undeconstructible horizon’ against which all ‘concrete’, political decisions take place – deconstruction becomes ‘a thought of the pressing need’ (Derrida, 1994: 31). The need in question is that of responding to the other, to the future, to ‘the event’ understood as something I can neither (ultimately) avoid nor appropriate. It is this pressing need to intervene into the systematic structures of authority and power that I take from Derrida’s deconstruction of the law, and it is in this sprit that I propose to revisit the discussion of morality, politics and the law in Folk Devils and Moral Panics and Policing the Crisis. Deploying my own armoury of what I will call, somewhat tentatively, ‘deconstructive manoeuvres’, I will now turn to examining the assumptions regarding morality and ethics which organise Cohen’s and Hall et al.’s studies.

Beware the Folk Devils!

On the whole, most sociologists and lay commentators have a fairly clear sense about what constitutes a moral panic. There are disagreements and difficulties over most social science concepts, but this is one that has been widely accepted and put to good use. (K. Thompson, Moral Panics)

In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen uses the term ‘moral panics’ ‘to characterize the reactions of the media, the public and agents of social control to the youth disturbances — the seaside fights between Mods and Rockers — in 1960s Britain’ (Thompson, 1998: 7). He explains that a moral panic usually starts with a nomination of somebody (Rockers) or something (drugs) as a threat to dominant values or interests. This perception is then picked up and developed by the media — one of society’s ‘moral entrepreneurs’ that both shape and guard the dominant values. Media reporting of the panic results in a rapid build-up of public concern and a response from a number of other ‘moral entrepreneurs’: figures of authority, experts and opinion-makers (see Thompson, 1998: 8). Significantly, the panics are never actually resolved, even though they might result in some social changes; instead, they tend to develop a ‘spectral presence’ which envelops the allegedly regained ‘normality’.

Tracing the subsequent stages of the panic’s development, Cohen does not look closely at its moral side — for him morality seems to take the form of what cultural studies will later describe as an ‘ideology’, a ‘taken-for grantedness’, a common sense belief in ideas and values. In his constant emphasis on the ‘sociological’ approach of his work, his embracing of the ‘labelling’ theory, and in leaving the discussion of morality to the philosophers, Cohen constructs his argument on a foundation (i.e. the moral panic ‘label’) that he himself is in the process of elaborating. It is thus perhaps not surprising that Cohen cannot in fact engage with the morality that allegedly shapes these panics. His argument points to, as if from outside, and simultaneously establishes, the morality that causes the panic, even if this morality is firmly ascribed to the ‘other’: the news journalist, the social preacher, the ‘law-and-order’ guardian. I am not claiming here that, before Cohen, the British society of the 1960s and 1970s did not have morality; that it took a critical sociologist to give it morals. Rather I want to draw attention to the performative character of ‘morality’, to the fact that the critic’s articulation of it participates in the process of drawing moral boundaries, of naming what belongs within their limits and what does not.

My understanding of performativity here is indebted to Derrida’s deconstruction of the opposition between constative and performative utterances in Austin’s speech-act theory, i.e. between statements perceived as true or false ‘descriptions’ of facts, which always involve a citation of a referent which is structural to them (‘The sky is blue’, ‘The morality of British society is like this’), and singular events which accomplish something through speech itself (‘I pronounce you man and wife’). In Limited Inc, Derrida questions Austin’s assertion that performatives need to be seen as ‘special cases’ in language due to the fact that they do not have their referent outside of themselves. Introducing the notion of iterability (1988: 13-19), Derrida argues that performatives cannot be perceived as structurally different from constative utterances because, for the former to succeed (i.e. to lead to a ship being named or a couple being married), their very formulation also needs to repeat a ‘coded’ or iterable formula, which has to be identified in some way as a ‘citation’. If citation is at the core of every utterance, the distinction between speech acts that ‘merely’ name the status quo and those that actually produce it is revealed as untenable. And, further, if the production of reality is accomplished through a process of iteration, if iterability is creative rather than just repetitive — as was assumed by Austin in case of performatives – all speech acts which belong to the ‘ordinary language’ can be seen as productive, even if, in the speaker’s intention, they are used only to describe reality. There is creation involved in every all speech act, even if this creation remains obscured, unintentional. For Derrida, all utterances are thus performative, but performativity can be, perhaps to some extent must always be, unconscious. One of the most significant points in Derrida’s reading of Austin comes for me in his taking issue with the logic of Austin’s passing off ‘as ordinary an ethical and teleological determination’ of utterances (1988: 17). In this way Derrida links performatives (i.e. all forms of human communication) with an ethical and teleological determination, but he also points to the fact that this determination recedes into the unconscious, and is often presented as natural. (On the social level this process, which always involves operations of power, will be later described by Ernesto Laclau with the Gramscian term ‘hegemony’ — a point to which I will return later on in this article.)

Derrida’s exposition of the ethical determination of articulation allows us to cast a different light on Cohen’s engagement with moral panics. The overlooking of any thorough discussion of the question of morality in Cohen’s book, his treatment of the process of the ‘drawing and reinforcement of moral boundaries’ (2002: xxxv) in the moral panic as transparent, obscures the very mechanisms involved in the production of ‘society’s’ ethos, a process that involves both the observer and the observed, the critic and ‘his’ object of study. However, morality and ethics enter Cohen’s argument ‘through the back door’ — even if he himself remains somewhat oblivious to the arrival of this unexpected guest. It is precisely in this ‘ethical invasion’, in this ‘hospitality by stealth’, that the promise of Folk Devils and Moral Panics lies for me. Cohen argues that most people in a society share common values and are able to recognise when the violation of these values occurs. In times of moral panic they are more open to this consensus than ever, but in order to maintain the sense of their own moral boundaries, to forge and confirm their morality, they need the figure of a deviant, a ‘folk devil’. ‘The deviant is seen as having stepped across a boundary which at other times is none too clear’ (58). Two sets of boundaries (or oppositions) are being established in this pronouncement. On the one hand, we have the boundary separating ‘society’ from its ‘deviants’ — and this is the level that Cohen focuses on when describing the process. But there is also another level to this analysis — one that draws a boundary line between ‘society’ and the sociologist — although it remains unidentified in Cohen’s argument. For me, these two levels of analysis imply the existence of two different forms of morality represented by the different groups or ‘entities’. The first opposition, that between ‘society’ and its ‘deviants’, sets morality understood as fear of losing an established way of life (but also, in Cohen’s implicit interpretation, as irrationality) against the (a)morality of delinquency, understood by Cohen as a ‘reaction — to growing up in a class society’ (Ixvii). But it is in the second opposition — that between ‘society’ and the sociologist (society’s critic) — that morality, understood as the ‘hardened skin of ethics’, to paraphrase Levinas, opens up to ‘the norm that — continue[s] to inspire and direct the moral order’. This norm reveals itself in the commitment to exposing hegemony – i.e. the sedimentation of social identities and structures — and to rearranging (rearticulating) these identities and structures according to a principle of justice (a principle that in itself requires a prior ethical investment). Cohen’s book thus seems motivated by his own ethical investment; his commitment to a political intervention against the control of ‘the means of cultural reproduction’, his desire ‘to identify and conceptualise lines of power’ and the forms of manipulation used on ‘us’ by those in power (xxxv). He himself tells us as much in his Introduction to the third edition of the book, but his approach is still presented as a social science methodology, not as an ethical proposal. The political and ethical significance of Cohen’s sociological analysis of subcultural events that are perceived as criminal activities due to their non-conformity with the prevailing norms and values should not be underestimated. And yet at the same time there is something rather unethical, I dare say, about his disavowal of ethics.

Cultural Studies’ Ethical Blindspot

The possibility of a more up-front ethical response to moral panics is something that is brought about by another ‘key’ cultural studies text: Policing the Crisis by Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts. Traditional interpretations of the book written both from ‘within’ and ‘without’ cultural studies have usually foregrounded its political aspects; i.e. its diagnosis of the crisis of capitalism and a consequent increase in state authoritarianism. Reflecting on these interpretations, Kenneth Thompson explains that Hall et al. saw the moral panic around mugging as manufactured by the ruling elite to divert attention from the crisis in British capitalism (Thompson, 1998: 10). For Thompson and a number of other critics, Policing the Crisis dealt primarily with structural tendencies in British political life, that is with the ways in which institutions tended to favour certain interpretations of events that had the effect of maintaining social order, because they were ‘structured in dominance’ (18-19). However, what I want to suggest here is that, as well as being a political intervention into the workings of hegemony, the book can be read as delineating an ethics that provides an alternative to the ethos of capitalist individualism and middle-class respectability. In this way, it develops further an ethical proposal which only remains a glimmering promise in Cohen’s work. I thus want to revisit Policing the Crisis in order to look at the foundations of the moral panics Hall et al. analyse, and at their links with ethics. Drawing on the development of Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ (which informs Policing the Crisis) in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Simon Critchley, but also on the ‘deconstruction’ of state laws and institutions performed by Jacques Derrida, I want to explore the ethical dimension of hegemony. My ongoing contention, however, is that the ethical dimension has been something of a blindspot when it comes to moral panics — overlooked not only by the co-called moral entrepreneurs who orchestrated those panics but also by many a cultural critic who diagnosed them.

Policing the (Racial) Crisis

The moral panic that was of particular interest to the authors of Policing the Crisis concerned ‘mugging’ in Britain in1972-3, a phenomenon that ‘fits in almost every detail the process described by Cohen’ (17). Hall et al. set out to investigate why the society entered a state of moral panic about ‘mugging’ at that particular historical moment, which they define in terms of a ‘crisis’; but also ‘how the themes of race, crime and youth — condensed into the image of “mugging” — came to serve as the articulator of the crisis, its ideological conductor’ (viii). The ‘mugging label’ itself arrived from the United States; it had an aura of sensationalism about it and carried anti-crime, anti-black and anti-liberal connotations. Acknowledging that it is impossible to explain the severity of the reaction to these crimes by using arguments based solely on the objective, statistical facts (as no considerable increase in these incidents had been recorded at the time), Hall et al. look at the ‘progressive naturalisation’ that the ‘mugging’ label played in the development of the moral panic about ‘mugging’, a term initially used to describe a general breakdown in ‘law-and-order’ (11, 23, 26). The adoption of this label indicates an exaggerated response, ‘a reaction by the control agencies and the media to the perceived or symbolic threat to society’ (29). This kind of response, representing an ‘ideological displacement’ performed by the ‘control agencies’ such as the media, the police and the courts, constitutes the fibre of a moral panic.

As indicated earlier by Cohen, the success of the ‘control agencies’ in orchestrating the panic depends on their appeal to the central value system shared by ‘the whole society’ (minus its ‘deviant’ elements). And yet the authors claim, after Gramsci (and this is where their argument regarding shared morality goes further than Cohen’s), that the consensual nature of society which allows the formation of such a shared system of values is hegemonic, that the subordinate classes are won over — initially through persuasion, but also through coercion in the moment of crisis — to believe that it is their morality, their system of beliefs, that is the only possible, ‘normal’, set of values they might have. By drawing on Marx’s conclusions that ‘the media reproduce the definitions of the powerful’ (57) and in this way exert control over ‘mental resources’, Hall et al. demonstrate how social and political definitions become objectified, thus ‘providing the moral framework for the entire social system’ (Parkin qtd in Hall et al., 1978: 59). The authors argue that the media play a key role in reproducing the dominant ideology by the selectivity of its reports, by using the language of its readers and by relying on the ‘consensus of values’ which is deeply embedded in all forms of public discourse. The consensual value system is consolidated through an application of the principle of reflexivity – a difficult and, one might perhaps even say, ‘illusionistic’, philosophical concept which names ‘the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates’ (Hayles, 1999: 8). Normative statements issued by the (predominantly tabloid) newspapers with a view to putting forward some new moral propositions – e.g. calls for moral discipline in a society in which the traditional family structure is disintegrating, appeals to the calculable rule of justice in which crime needs to be ‘paid for’ and in which ‘no mercy to the victim’ means that there should be ‘no mercy to the offender’ (Hall et al., 1978: 133) — can only be articulated through an appeal to the existent value system of ‘everyday decency, accepted morality, established values of living’ (119). Significantly, it is the autopoietic closure of the traditional value system on a structural level, rather than its content, that plays a dominant role in its perpetuation. One can perhaps go so far as to say that the system itself needs to be content-free (even though it does temporarily get filled in with different contents) for it to accommodate the emerging new panics and folk devils. What binds it together is the ‘ideology of common sense, known to all “normal” people as the right and proper way of life’ (113).

But the authors of Policing the Crisis do not just explore the structuring of dominant social values; they also point to the structural discrepancies between different groups in society, discrepancies that need to be eliminated, forgotten or denied for the consensus to emerge. Looking at the role of print media in the production and affirmation of dominant values, Hall et al. explain that ‘The contradictions of everyday social experience were suppressed by shifting the debate to the more abstract level of the law. — Concrete social experience was dissolved by the editorial discourse into an abstraction — “society” — so that the morally totalising viewpoint aimed for in editorials was both generalised and mystifying’ (92-3). However, the recognition of the underlying antagonism between different groups is extremely significant. It ensures the possibility of a socio-political change; it serves as a permanent guarantee of the breech of the consensus and the emergence of different, more just, value systems. Policing the Crisis does not thus only diagnose the status quo; it also articulates a promise inherent in consensual governmentality, while also revealing its secret. This ‘secret’ concerns the empty place of hegemony at the heart of the traditionalist consensus about values. Its perpetuation depends on the continued obfuscation of the system’s foundations, on affirming the belief in its ‘normality’ and thus refraining from, or — to use another concept which is important in an ethical context — sacrificing, its investigation. But what is it exactly that needs to be sacrificed for the value system to hold? And what kind of sacrilege do the authors of Policing the Crisis perform in order to open up the political promise that has become one of the driving forces of cultural studies?

Cultural Studies Before the Law

The Telegraph, 14.11.03⁵ (reporting the trial of the four men accused of the Birmingham New Year party killings) Before the men, who were all wearing trainers and casual clothes, were brought into court, district judge Rod Ross warned members of the public gallery to remain silent during the proceedings. He said: ‘This is an emotional time for the relatives and stressful for the defendants. This court has draconian powers to deal with any outbursts. I will take the appropriate action to deal with any outbursts’.

To answer some the questions raised in the previous paragraph, we should turn to the analysis of the legal system in 1970s Britain provided in Policing the Crisis. Drawing on press reports of ‘mugging’ cases which were themselves based on court proceedings and judges’ comments, the authors argue:

To understand fully the context of judicial action (and its relation to the ‘mugging panic’), it is necessary — to pass beyond the ideological interdependence between the media and the judiciary –, in order to look at those processes peculiar to the internal organisation of the judicial ‘world’: to look at the judicial apparatus itself, to go behind its routine practices and attempt to reconstruct the ‘judicial mood’ in the period leading up to ‘mugging’. This task of reconstruction is not an easy one. The law stands, formally, outside of the political processes of the state, and above the ordinary citizen. Its rituals and conventions help to shield its operations from the full blaze of publicity and from the force of public criticism. The ‘judicial fiction’ is that all judges impartially embody and represent ‘the Law’ as an abstract and impartial force: individual differences of attitude and viewpoint between different judges, and the informal processes by which common judicial perspectives come to be formed, and by which the judiciary orientates itself, in a general way, within the field of force provided by public opinion and official political or administrative operation, are normally shielded from public scrutiny — . The judiciary remains a closed institutional sphere within the state, relatively anonymous, represented in its institutional rather than its individual person, and protected, in the last resort, by the threat of contempt. (33-4)

Significantly, this paragraph does much more than point to the ‘bias’ of individual judges or even the institutions within which they function. It questions the ‘judicial fiction’, which involves the interrogation of the very structure of ‘the Law’ and what Derrida calls the ‘mythical foundation’ of its authority (1990: 939). The interpretation takes place on two levels here. As well as investigating the concrete material institutions of the British judiciary, the authors span the bridge to the level of the ‘universal’, or, one might even be tempted to say, ‘spiritual’ or ‘mythical’ — the level at which the belief in the authority of the law is consolidated. It is precisely the embodiment of the law in the minds and hearts of different judges as a closely kept secret that leads to its consolidation — but it also works towards the development of a ‘judicial mood’. Elevated to the sublime heights, ‘above the ordinary citizen’ (just as it was envisaged in Kant’s third Critique), the law is nevertheless subject to the ‘judicial mood’. A number of questions arise out of Hall et al.’s reading. Guarding the judicial fiction which in turn sustains it, is the law itself not in danger of seeming somewhat ‘moody’, of revealing its capriciousness? If it is held together by the exclusion of contempt, as the authors indicate, does it not also mean that it is worthy of contempt (otherwise, why impose an injunction against it?), or indeed that it is founded on contempt as its condition of being and its limit? Does it not make the law a usurper, acquiring its authority through violence and force? That would in turn allow us to see violence as the very condition and principle of the law’s functioning. Speaking of the ‘enforceability of the law’, Derrida indeed points out that

there is no such thing as law (droit) that doesn’t imply in itself, a priori, in the analytic structure of its concept, the possibility of being ‘enforced’, applied by force. There are, to be sure, laws that are not enforced, but there is no law without enforceability, and no applicability or enforceability of the law without force, whether this force be direct or indirect, physical or symbolic, exterior or interior . . . (1990: 925-7)

And yet, for the authority of the law to hold, its foundational violence has to be veiled, it has to be re-coded as legitimate and justified in terms of the common good — of the nation state and its citizens. This does not of course mean that the law’s authority remains unthreatened — Hall et al. claim that, when society becomes more ‘lax and permissive’, ‘the boundaries between sanctioned and illegitimate activity become progressively blurred’. This leads to a ‘feeling amongst some social groups that the erosion of moral constraints, even if not directly challenging the law, would in the end precipitate a weakening in the authority of the law itself’ (1978: 34). Morality is perceived here as being in the service of the law — as its protector and a guarantee of its untouchability. But a certain threat is recognised at the same time. If the erosion of the established moral rules were to result in the weakening of the law, the law itself needs to be hardened; it needs to appeal for the ‘toughening’ of moral standards. The law is thus positioned as both external to morality (legislating and protecting it from outside as its constitutive limit) and internal to it: its own ‘mysticism’ or ‘spirituality’ is nourished on the concrete moral rules and regulations.6 Consequently, it seems that so much has been invested on a socio-historical level in the idea of the law – the idea that in popular imagination connects with the notions of decency and respectability7 – that its defence comes to be seen as a ‘natural’ duty. (One could draw a comparison here with the protection of other ideas whose sanctity and the ‘mythical foundation’ of whose authority has led to enhanced moral vigilantism in the last few decades: the idea of God, of the family unit, of compulsive heterosexuality, etc.)

The foundational violence of the law, of its ‘mystical authority’, is thus silenced by the moral discourse whose alleged transparency obscures the performative processes at the heart of the juridical system. But, as Derrida argues, the role of violence in the law is more complex than that; for even though it serves as the law’s condition and its foundation, violence also threatens the juridical order. This is the reason why British, and more broadly, European law prohibits and condemns individual violence. The reduction of violence outside of the law, the preservation of violence as solely the prerogative of the legal system, is in fact the driving force of the law (Derrida, 1990: 985). In a similar vein, Hall at al. argue: ‘The state, and the state only, has the monopoly of legitimate violence, and thus “violence” is used to safeguard society against “illegitimate” uses’ (1978: 68). Violence itself, which is ‘on the side of the law’, establishes the very boundary between the legitimate and the illegitimate, it draws the social boundaries. According to the authors of Policing the Crisis, the consequence of this drawing of boundaries in a capitalist society, based on the protection of capital and private property, is the consolidation of the class system, with the poor and propertyless being ‘always in some sense on “the wrong side of the law”, whether they actually transgress it or not’ (190). We can conclude that poverty comes to be seen as a form of ‘crime’ in a society whose dominant morality is rooted in the Protestant ethos which embraces what Max Weber described as ‘the spirit of capitalism’: ‘thrift, self-discipline, living the decent life’ but also self-help, self-reliance and competitive success (Hall et al., 1978: 140). The moral panic about crime, the possibility that someone might be ‘on the wrong side of the law’, can therefore be understood as the anxiety about the social divisions that the law establishes and then passes off as natural. Of course, this boundary is very tenuous due to what Derrida describes as the ‘essentially inaccessible character of the law’ (1992: 196): we are all, in some sense, on its ‘wrong side’. This is why the fear is embraced by both the powerful and the subordinate — the former having more interest in perpetuating the status quo, i.e. the illusion of their proximity to the law, the latter internalising the dominant ideas and making them their own. Significantly, Derrida argues that the state (‘being law in its greatest force’) is not so much afraid of crime as such, but rather ‘of fundamental, founding violence, that is, violence able to justify, to legitimate — or to transform the relations of law –, and so to present itself as having a right to law’ (1990: 989).

If what the state fears more than the singular ‘criminal activities’ (that it itself defines and then punishes) is the transformation of the relations of law, and a right to law, then the ‘mugging panic’ of 1970s Britain — but also the ‘guns and rap panic’ of 2003 – can be seen as strategies elaborated for the protection of the law and its authority. This is not to deny the existence of individual cases of street crime, or the increased participation in them of young black youths (and Hall et al. do not deny that). But it is to draw attention to the vulnerability of the British state at those times, a state in the process of working through its relationship to its colonial past and its ex-colonial ‘new citizens’. Threatened by its own spectres, the state (with all its supporting institutions) needs to elaborate a number of strategies that will maintain the law in its authoritarian position, that will permanently keep some members of society both before and outside the law, convinced that the law has nothing to do with them but also unlikely to question its structure. The moral panic is thus one way of ensuring that some ‘unwanted’ social elements — young black youths, teenage mothers, drug addicts — will not attempt to approach the law too closely, that they will stay away from it.

Hegemony and Ethical Strategy

‘Broken Silence’, So Solid Crew I guess we need more stability, It’s like we’re imprisoned in the ghetto and it’s getting to me, To the point where I’m feeling institutionalised, Look in my eyes, U’ll see pain in it, But who can decide? Whether I stay entrapped in, Packed in, Or fly from the restraining of thoughts packed in, Inside my brain but, I proclaim that I will withstand the rain in, In order to get out this game, plus, The media, Government, Tried to blow us, But they can’t doust the flame, Or doubt the name, Sh*t and ur evolution’s about to change

However, the investigation of the hegemonic process of the British state in the 1960s and 1970s and its emergent morality conducted by Hall et al. is not just a simple description of social and political life, or what Simon Critchley calls a value-neutral power analytics (Critchley: 2002, non-pag.). This investigation contains an inherent ethical injunction (by which I mean something more than their commitment to ‘left-wing’ values). I want to suggest that Policing the Crisis can be seen as an ethical proposal, as entailing an ethical promise which is linked to its politics. Let me try to explain what I mean by referring to Critchley’s work, which has played an important role in situating debates on hegemony in an ethical context. Although his engagement has been mainly with the notion of hegemony that has been proposed by Ernesto Laclau — which is a somewhat refined version of the Gramscian-Althusserian framework that Policing the Crisis also draws on8 — I believe that Critchley’s interrogation of the ethical foundations of hegemony is also relevant9 to Hall et al.’s work. Drawing on Laclau’s theories, Critchley describes hegemony as the process of the formation of social identities and relations (Critchley, 2003: 64). He explains: ‘Hegemony reveals politics to be the realm of contingent decisions by virtue of which subjects (understood here as persons, parties or social movements) attempt to articulate and propagate meanings of the social. At its deepest level, the category of hegemony discloses the political logic of the social’ (Critchley, 2002: non-pag.).

And yet Critchley is not content with leaving politics ‘to itself’. Drawing on Derrida’s deconstructive thinking and Levinas’s ethics ‘before philosophy’, he argues that the category of hegemony is and has to be ‘a normative critique of much that passes for politics insofar as that politics attempts to deny or render invisible its contingency, operations of power and force’ (2002: non-pag.). If the theory of hegemony is not going to risk collapsing into the arbitrariness of a thoroughgoing decisionism, if — in other words – it is not to assign equal ‘value’ to fascism and democracy, for example, it requires a normative presupposition: an ethical dimension of infinite responsibility to the other. Taking a cue from Critchley, I want to ask: what drives the analysis of hegemonic social structures in Policing the Crisis? The category of hegemony that Hall et al. employ in their study allows them to trace the meanings and origins of social relations in the British society in the 1960s and 70s – its power structures, the social actors involved in consolidating them, its beliefs and morals. In other words, it allows the authors to reactivate ‘sedimented social strata’. Although Hall et al. do not articulate any specific proposal, any manifesto — and indeed insist that the book is not ‘a practical manual’ (1987: vii) — I want to postulate that this exposure of the sedimented social structures as unjustified and unjust occurs against a certain (undeconstructible) horizon.

To explain this further, I would like to return to Levinas’s discussion of the relationship between ethics and politics. He argues: ‘The state is usually better than anarchy — but not always. In some instances — fascism or totalitarianism, for example — the political order of the state may have to be challenged in the name of our ethical responsibility to the other. This is why ethics must remain the first philosophy’ (Levinas and Kearney, 1986: 30). It is in this ethical responsibility to the other – which moves the authors of Policing the Crisis to attempt to do things otherwise (i.e. to shift the boundaries and limits of the law, to think about the possibility of a different race politics) — that the ethical injunction of their book, and, more broadly, of the emergent cultural studies project developed in the Birmingham Centre by Hall and his colleagues, lies for me. By pointing to the possibility of transforming the relation to law (although not in an overly optimistic or uncritical way), Hall et al. sketch an alternative to what they diagnose as the dominant moral paradigm of the day – a petty-bourgeois ethic (1978: 161-64) which is still very much with us today. In exposing the hegemonic invisibility of politics in Britain, they allow for a rethinking of the accepted notions that are consolidated by it: work, family, decency and respect. To use Gramsci’s words, they demonstrate that ‘hegemony is ethical-political’, as well as economic (qtd in Hall et al., 1978: 227).

The possibility of the transformation of the relations of law, of the right to law, which Policing the Crisis implies, inevitably entails violence, but this does not mean that such an intervention will be unjust, that it will be unethical. Perhaps we can go so far as to postulate that it belongs to the regime of what Levinas terms ‘justifiable violence’,10 which entails the possibility of a different justice beyond capitalist calculation that brings about ‘some different good’.11 The debates about ‘muggings’ in 1970s’ Britain,12 about black youths and crime, but also, to draw on more recent examples, about the panics concerning guns in British and American inner-cities, about ‘black-on-black crime’, about gang warfare, can only ever, will only ever, be conducted from a position of violence, because, as Derrida has it, ‘violence appears with articulation’ (qtd in de Vries, 1997: 26). So even ‘the denunciation of violence must engage in an intricate negotiation with violence itself’ (de Vries, 1997: 25). This is not to suggest that black culture which constitutes the background of Hall’s analysis (or the background of the recent moral panic involving guns and So Solid Crew) is ‘intrinsically violent’, but rather to point to violence as foundational to any sense of identity. Of course, there is no absolute and prior guarantee that this particular moment of intervention (revolution, ‘crime’ or ‘mugging’) will be good, that it will be just. But it may inaugurate discursive transformation; it may loosen up the boundaries of the law and allow for their redrafting. Following Levinas, we may conclude that the very idea that the state might need to be (perhaps violently) challenged in the name of our responsibility to the other, that its totalitarianism may need to be interrupted, is founded upon an ethics of the interhuman. A ‘pure’, non-violent analytical position, on the other hand, could only ever be an autarchic fantasy that would be both transcendental and totalitarian in its origin.13

Indeed, it is Policing the Crisis‘ engagement with violence, rather than a naïve distancing from it, that is the source of its ethical promise. And it is in its interrogation of who the victims of crime are (is it only ordinary hard-working citizens remaining on ‘the right side of the law’, or is it also ‘muggers’ themselves?) that its ethicality is revealed. This interrogation does not amount to ‘promoting moral relativism’ but it does allow us to turn an ear to the story of those whom the more traditionally racialised moral and political discourses have already sentenced ‘as if in advance’; it does allow us to see them as victims of discourse. It is here that the lesson of Policing the Crisis becomes extremely important for cultural studies’ engagement with the current ‘guns and rap’ panic. By saying this I do not intend to impose an identification between two sets of socio-political circumstances — those of the ‘mugging’ panic in 1970s Britain and those of the ‘guns and rap’ panic emerging at the beginning of the 21st century. In fact, I remain convinced that to even begin to engage responsibly with the latter we need a more thorough sociological analysis that takes its specificity and difference into account. We need to deal patiently with its context, in the way that Cohen and Hall et al. did in case of the respective panics they dealt with. But I want to postulate that Policing the Crisis carries an important lesson for cultural studies practitioners today.14 Even though the actual socio-political context of the ‘guns and rap’ panic is different – the issues of racism have changed today; the division between ‘mainstream culture’ and the ‘the black (sub)culture’ is less evident in case of rap, hip-hop and garage; the ‘hedonist’ consumer morality that Hall et al. only diagnosed as emerging in the early 1970s today underwrites most transactions in the music industry – some of the mechanisms that Hall et al. identified in 1970s Britain are still embryonic in our current ‘global’ media culture. Simplistic analogies between events and acts are still being violently imposed; moral rhetoric is still used as a controlling and repressive mechanism; victimhood is all too often pre-decided, while violence frequently remains ascribed only to ‘the other’, the social ‘folk devil’. Policing the Crisis does not thus provide us with a ready-made formula for investigating the current media culture, but it does indicate that any responsible forms of social critique need to be underpinned by ethical thinking.

Policing the Crisis also shows that certain discursive concepts that bear the marks of criminality and exclusion can in fact instantiate ethics, as they enable the transformation of the relations of law, order and justice. The authors offer an example of how this ‘discursive revolution’ can work by engaging with the concept of ‘hustling’. Described in Policing the Crisis as a sub-cultural activity in the West Indian ‘colony community’ in the 1960s Britain ‘on the border of the law’, the notion of ‘hustling’ contains the seed of this transformation, of enabling the redefinition of what belongs on the side of the law and what does not. Identified in the traditional police discourse as criminal activity in the black community — mainly consisting of brothel-keeping, living off immoral earnings and drug pushing — in Hall et al. hustling is conceptualised as an alternative mode of survival. They explain:

Hustling is quite different from professional or organised crime. It certainly takes place on the far or blind side of the law. Hustlers live by their wits. So they are obliged to move around from one terrain to another, to desert old hustlers and set up new ones in order to stay in the game. — They work the system; they also make it work. (1987: 352)

The ethical alternative that arises out of the pages of Policing the Crisis does not translate itself into a set of rules and regulations. The authors do not naively suggest that we should all move to the interstices of the law, that we should dis-respect it, that we should give up ‘legal or ‘legitimate’ ways of earning our living and create new urban colonies. But they indicate that a decision about ‘crime’ — be it hustling, joyriding or drugs (as crimes often associated with ‘the black community’) — cannot be innocently and thus ‘justly’ taken once and for all. To be an act of justice rather than an implementation of a programme, every decision has to look at the law always anew — thus appealing to the law’s authority, reinstating it, but also ‘inventing the law’ by reinterpreting it, and thus simultaneously conserving and destroying it.15

Of course, this is not to suggest the total abandonment of the law (were such a thing at all possible), but rather to indicate that any just decision which is not to be merely a (thoughtless, and thus irresponsible) application of a legal paragraph has to exist in a tension between establishment and innovation, between the old and the (radically) new. It is precisely this possibility of thinking anew about crime that Policing the Crisis inaugurates, and it is in its rethinking that the transformation of the relations of law, and a right to law, lies. In this way, the authors sketch the possibility of a different economic order in which values of propriety and property are redefined beyond the traditional lines of power. Their consistent use of the word ‘mugging’ in inverted commas is a graphic indication of the term’s unstable status — but it is also a call for thought, for a response and responsibility to those who have been interpellated by it. Hall et al. can thus enable us to reevaluate moral panics and to think differently — ethically, responsibly — about the Birmingham shootings, So Solid Crew and street crime. Any such response would need to involve a suspension of prior judgement, a decontextualisation of the ‘crime’ from the panic rhetoric in which any such debates have so far been rooted, a search for a new language and a new understanding.

BBC News website, 13.11.03¹⁶ For starters, So Solid aren’t a neatly-moulded group like the Spice Girls or Westlife. They are a self-made collective of men, women, children – oh, and there’s even a dog in there somewhere. But as I talk to DJ Swiss, one of the massive’s more vocal members, it’s clear that So Solid’s roots lie at the heart of everything they do. ‘We come from a different environment from where you grew up,’ says Swiss, scrutinising my clipped tones. ‘We’re segregated there, and people don’t really want to know about it.’ This sense of alienation is the message behind the Crew’s new single You Don’t Know, which has given them another top three smash. ‘It’s a tune from the heart,’ explains Swiss. ‘It’s says that as much as people want to speculate about who we are and what we do, they don’t really know.’ But doesn’t mainstream pop success pull you further away from your roots? My question causes a rumble of disapproval amongst the Crew.

This does not mean reiterating the stereotypical distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between society and its folk devils, no matter if we were to ascribe their ‘intrinsic’ difference to their race or their ethnicity, to ‘nature’ or ‘culture’. Instead, this kind of ethics — which, to be ethical, has to go through a suspension of judgement and morality — could perhaps turn to what Levinas describes as ‘the listening eye’ (1998: 38). ‘The listening eye’ does not attempt to fix the essence of being but rather ‘regards’, i.e. respects and listens to the other’s story which always has to remain, to some extent, theirs. This kind of ethics would, for example, advise vigilance to a BBC journalist ‘with clipped tones’ who interviewed So Solid Crew before he ventured to ask the ‘massive’ ‘from a different environment’: ‘But doesn’t mainstream pop success pull you further away from your roots?‘. ‘The listening eye’ would hear the traces of imperial history and its consequences in this sentence, it would pick up the signals about the distribution of capital according to the lines of power established and protected by the colonial institutions – by the schools in which one gains ‘clipped tones’, by Oxbridge and the BBC. Revealing the desire to keep the capital away from the ghetto, not to allow ‘the likes of’ So Solid Crew to get the share of it, and thus to keep them in the ghetto, the listening eye would also grasp inner city divisions in which some ‘subcultures’ are established along racial as well as financial lines. And it would attempt to avert the gaze in order to stop the (well-meaning, perhaps) journalist (but also the cultural studies practitioner) from fixing, i.e. totalising, the other’s otherness in an account that speaks of ‘cultural difference’ without reflecting on its socio-historical structuring. But ‘the ethics of the listening eye’ would also create problems for some forms of ethnographic cultural studies research which engages with ‘groups’ of people (‘young black youths’, ‘hip-hop fans’, ‘teenagers’) that it actually produces as its object of study. This is by no means to say that cultural studies would have to renounce its engagement with ‘people’ — but rather to suggest something we might call ethico-graphy, in which ‘the extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another’ in not superseded by one subject’s totalising theorisation.

‘But They Can’t Doust the Flame’

Policing the Crisis can thus be read as instantiating an ethics of cultural studies which offers a passage to the political, while also keeping a check on it. It is an ethics that calls for judgement always anew; that explores ‘the contingencies involved in specific, historically situated encounters’ (Campbell & Shapiro, 1999: ix). That it may seem suspiciously ‘like’ the Levinasian-Derridean ethics of alterity should not be seen as an attempt on my part to just transplant a set of ready-made ideas ‘from’ philosophy ‘into’ cultural studies, and then call them something else. Although inspired by Levinas’s and Derrida’s questioning of ethics, justice and the law, the ethics of cultural studies I speculate about here does not have an essence; it is rather an idea and an intervention which is always already rooted in the material, specific and ‘concrete’ reality (all the terms beloved by cultural studies!) of its texts and contexts, its practices and people. So, even though this ethics of cultural studies may look like ‘the stuff that Levinas and Derrida talk about’, it would not have been possible without Hall and the Birmingham School, without Gramsci and Policing the Crisis. What is most significant about it is that, in posing questions (about morality, politics and justice) to both cultural studies theorists and their ‘objects of study’, it enables the performance of one of cultural studies’ most important tasks – a task on which its idea of itself as a politically committed field rests: the overcoming of the distinction between ‘academia’ and its ‘outside’.

This kind of ethics will allow us a way out of the social scientist’s impasse, which Cohen perceives in terms of a dilemma between moral absolutism and moral relativism — when ‘The same values of racism, sexism, chauvinism, compulsive masculinity and anti-intellectualism, the slightest traces of which are condemned in bourgeois culture, are treated with a deferential care, an exaggerated contextualization, when they appear in the subculture’ (2002: Ixviii). Cohen admits he shares the horror of ‘peering into abyss which yawns in front of us’ when faced with different values for ‘different cultures’. I am not going to state here what kind of exit to the dilemma between, for example, the absolutist condemnation of racism and sexism and the subcultural celebration of terms such as ‘nigga’ and ‘bitch’ in rap, will be offered to us by this new, tentatively called ‘ethics of cultural studies’. It is not possible to respond to this dilemma without looking in detail at the particularities of a given subculture, its modes of protest and its cultural productions, but also at the relationship between the history of colonialism and women’s movement and the linguistic reappropriation of some of its terms at a given moment in time, as well as the actual process of the delineation of cultural and subcultural boundaries. But I would not like my readers to see this refusal to provide an up-front resolution to this dilemma as a retreat to incessant ‘theorisation’ and thus as ‘procrastination, neutralisation, and resignation, — evading the pressing needs of the present, especially ethical and political ones’. (These accusations, as we know, have frequently been levied at any ‘deconstructive’ modes of thinking). The ethics of cultural studies will (carefully, slowly and deliberately) engage with ‘moral panics’, its folk devils and ‘moral entrepreneurs’ but it will not provide a corrected version of morality in advance, even if it was to come disguised as political intervention. Instead, motivated by the relation ‘in which our responsibility to the other is the basis for reflection’ (Campbell/Shapiro x), it will call for a permanent vigilance — towards the injustice and power games committed by the third party but also towards our own prejudices.

So let me round off by employing one of Derrida’s favourite mottoes as a justification for this foundation-less and content-free ethics of infinite responsibility which calls on both cultural studies theorists and ‘the people in the outside world’: ‘Those who want to simplify at all costs and who raise a cue and cry about obscurity because they do not recognize the unclarity of their good old Aufklärung are in my mind dangerous dogmatists and tedious obscurantists. No less dangerous (for instance, in politics) are those who wish to purify at all cost’ (1988: 199). Should these words seem aggressive and violent, and thus inappropriate to justify any ethical project, I hope the hard work (Derrida’s, Hall and his colleagues’, mine) that has gone into the argument that precedes them, and that is not yet at all finished, will soften the blow of an ethical sword.

A Post-Script

‘Young and loaded — It’s not just about having a gun but the right kind of gun’. (‘Guns and Rap’, BBC2, 9.12.03)

Just as I was finishing writing this article, BBC2 broadcast a programme titled ‘Guns and Rap’ (9.12.03, dir. Fatima Salaria). Composed out of a collection of clips from the rap music scene, it was interspersed with ‘sound-bite’ interviews with music journalists, rappers and ‘black teenagers from a council estate’, and accompanied by a voiceover. The message transmitted through the programme was clear. Presented with a close-up of a selection of hand guns, we were told: ‘These weapons aren’t in the hands of contract killers. They are stylish accessories in the hands of Britain’s new generation’. And then: ‘Black youths are dying and the rappers are glorifying the gun but the industry says it is not to blame.’ With rap and hip-hop playing in the background, the voices were punctuated by the regular beat, drumming a message home. ‘It seems nobody can believe how young this gun generation is’. ‘Rap has never been cited in court as a reason for anyone picking up a gun but it does promote a luxury lifestyle. Guns and extravagant excess — a must have culture’.


1 Sarah Bennett, ‘Gangster Culture’, accessed on 18.01.03. Online Scene is the Internet website of The Wessex Scene, a paper which is written and produced by and for students at the University of Southampton in the UK.

2 Helen Gibson, ‘Bullets over Britain’, TIME Magazine Europe, 20.01.03, accessed on 18.11.03.

3 See Thompson (1998) for an extensive list of sociological works on moral panics.

4 For a detailed discussion of deconstruction in an ethical context see Critchley (1992).

5 Nick Britten, ‘Mothers face four accused of New Year party killings’, The Telegraph, 14.11.2003, accessed on 18.11.03.

6 Hall et al. argue: ‘The law thus comes to represent all that is most impartial, independent, above the play of party interests, within the state. It is the most formal representation of universal consent. Its “rule” comes to stand for the social order — for “society” itself. Hence a challenge to it is a token of social disintegration. In such conjunctures “law” and “order” become identical and indivisible’ (1978: 208).

7 Hall et al. claim that ‘respectability’ became a ‘universal social value’ in late 1960s and 1970s Britain, although it had different inflections in middle and working classes. Strongly connected with the ideas of self-help and self-reliance, and with conformity to established social standards, for the middle classes it was translated into an ethos of competitive success, keeping up appearances and affording things which supposedly befitted their social standing. For the working classes, in turn, respectability meant hard work, thrift and making-do in the face of adversity. The authors of Policing the Crisis emphasise the role of respectability in disciplining society, in ‘holding the nation together from the inside when it is under stress’. They argue: ‘Respectability is the collective internalisation, by the lower orders, of an image of the “ideal life” held for them by those who stand higher in the scheme of things; it disciplines society from end to end, rank by rank. Respectability is therefore one of the key values which dovetails and inserts one social class into the social image of another class. It is part of what Gramsci called the “cement” of society’ (1978: 141). See also (1978: 140-46).

8 I am grateful to Jeremy Gilbert for raising some of these points in an email conversation.

9 This ‘relevance’ works nevertheless in a somehow anachronistic way, as it is only in Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, published in 1985, that the concept of hegemony is developed into a theory of society.

10 In ‘Who Shall Not Prophesy?’ Levinas writes: ‘[T]he origin of the meaningful in the face of the other nevertheless calls — before the factical plurality of humans — to justice and knowledge; the exercise of justice demands tribunals and political institutions and even, paradoxically, a certain violence which all justice implies. Violence is originally justified as the defense of the other, of the neighbor (if he be my parent or my people!), but it is violence for someone’ (Robbins, 2001: 220-21).

11 Another example of a challenge to the older Protestant ethics and to the economic order it supported came in the form of ‘new hedonism’, an ethos of narcissism and spending, which emerged in the early 1970s together with the arrival of Rolling Stones and the development of the mods subculture. However, this form of the loosening of traditional morality was not politically significant from the point of view of the cultural studies project, as it was quickly co-opted by the neo-liberal ethos of consumerism which allowed to conserve or even strengthen the traditional economic structures. See Hall et al. (1978: 234-40).

12 I’m using ‘mugging’ in inverted commas just as Hall et al. did in order to draw attention to the discursive nature of this term, to its ideological sedimentation, as opposed to it being an objective description of what happened.

13 If violence is everywhere, if it is at the foundation of every identity (of humans, states, institutions), then any debate on violence, any ethico-political intervention into the legal system (whose foundations are inevitably, even if not explicitly, violent) ‘takes place under the submission to — or negotiation with — the general economy of violence’ (de Vries, 1997: 27).

14 Significantly, the forthcoming fifth ‘Crossroads’ conference — the biggest and most prestigious event in the international cultural studies calendar, which will be held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign from June 25-28, 2004 – focuses on ‘Policing the Crisis’ (as both a key text and a concept). Indeed, the conference Call for Papers stipulates further that ‘In light of these uncertain and violent times, cultural studies scholars have a moral obligation to police this crisis, to speak to the death of people, culture and truth, and to undo the official pedagogies that circulate in the media’ (emphasis added).

15 I discuss the notion of ‘decision’ in cultural studies in an ethical context in Zylinska (2001). See also Derrida (1990: 961).

16 ‘So Solid Crew’s “heartfelt” tunes‘, BBC News website, 13.11.01, accessed on 17.11.03.


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