The Task of the Transgressor – Paul Bowman

[T]he refiguring of theory, made as a result of having to think questions of culture through the metaphors of language and textuality, represents a point beyond which cultural studies must now always necessarily locate itself. The metaphor of the discursive, of textuality, instantiates a necessary delay, a displacement, which I think is always implied in the concept of culture. If you work on culture, or if you’ve tried to work on some other really important things and you find yourself driven back to culture, if culture happens to be what seizes hold of your soul, you have to recognize that you will always be working in an area of displacement. There’s always something decentred about the medium of culture, about language, textuality, and signification, which always escapes and evades the attempt to link it, directly and immediately, with other structures. And yet, at the same time, the shadow, the imprint, the trace, of those other formations, of the intertextuality of texts in their institutional positions, of texts as sources of power, of textuality as a site of representation and resistance, all of those questions can never be erased from cultural studies. (Stuart Hall, 1992: 283-284)

A ‘point beyond’ Deconstruction

As in so much of his work, the above epigraph, from Stuart Hall’s ‘Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies’ (1992), is virtually saturated in deconstruction. Yet there remains something of an ‘ah, yes, but‘ tenor to it: an invocation of a sense in which cultural studies is not simply deconstruction and should be more and other than deconstruction. But the claim that cultural studies must locate itself and operate somehow ‘beyond’ or ‘after deconstruction’ seems deeply problematic, especially when one understands culture the way Hall represents it here: namely, as something pointedly ‘textual’ and ‘in différance‘. Given that Hall’s understanding of ‘deconstruction’ (not to mention ‘culture’) is evidently far from naive, we should enquire as to where or what this ‘beyond deconstruction’ is that cultural studies should be, as well as asking how we are supposed to take such a call seriously anyway. For it sounds worryingly familiar: from all over the arts, social sciences and humanities, come never-ending calls for everyone to somehow simply ‘abandon’ or ‘reject’ theory and to deal directly with ‘things themselves’. Such injunctions are generally impatient of thought and, frankly, often half-baked. So how are we to make sense of Hall’s simultaneous acknowledgement of cultural studies’ deep and profound indebtedness to deconstruction, of our having to think questions of culture deconstructively, of textuality ‘always‘ being ‘implied in the concept of culture’, with this assertion of the need for cultural studies necessarily to be ‘beyond’ deconstruction?

I will argue that the answer relates to politics. For, as Hall puts it elsewhere, ‘if we are concerned to maintain a politics it cannot be defined exclusively in terms of an infinite sliding of the signifier’ (Hall, 1996: 258). For him, cultural studies is concerned with– indeed, is even a form of– politics: culturalpolitics, that is; not politics ‘proper’; not necessarily parliamentary or state politics. Rather, it is intimately interested in the fundamental contingency of culture, its changeability, its imposed-ness, and the alterability which attests to what is often termed culture’s constitutivelypolitical character (Arditi and Valentine, 1999). Laclau and Mouffe, for instance, who are an influence on Hall– at least in terms of providing a comprehensive, fluid and fluent-making ‘post-Marxist’ paradigm of discourse analysis — regularly use such formulations. Jeremy Valentine explains why cultural studies tends to subscribe to such a perspective as follows:

Because cultural studies maintains that action is meaningful, and is thus not simply behaviour, and that power is structured, and is thus not simply random, political action necessarily entails a cultural dimension. By the same token, because the referent of culture is by its nature limitless the relation between culture and politics extends beyond the restricted domain of politics understood as the mechanics of a formal system so that culture entails a political dimension. One might say that cultural studies reaches the areas of politics that Political Science does not, and succeeds in this ambition to the extent to which a relation between meaning and power can be shown. I think that Stuart Hall and those influenced by his work have incontrovertibly established the necessity of this perspective . . . (Valentine, 2003: 191)

This sense of ‘cultural politics’– that is to say, the understanding that institutions, beliefs, practices, and arguably even our very subjectivities and identities, are contingent and alterable, the insistence on the political character and consequences of cultural formations, and the understanding that, as Hall puts it, ‘culture will always work through its textualities’ (1996: 271)– clarifies why connections are claimed between the political (in this extended ‘discursive’ sense) and culture, and why representatives of cultural studies and deconstruction often feel themselves to be doing something political. This may strike many as either delusional (as in ‘but it’s merely academic!’) or controversial (as in ‘academia should not be politically motivated or tendentious!’). But it is based on an understanding of cultural, political, and social reality as discursive and hegemonic, meaning that even the ‘merely academic’ is an active part of the circuits, networks, relays and forces of culture, and is therefore always already politically consequential. This also means, of course, that everything, including academia, is inescapably politically motivated and tendentious (however ‘unconscious’ this may be).

In this view, ‘reality’ is at once material and textual, as Hall intimates, or as Laclau and Mouffe (1985) would have it, ‘discursive’: constituted in both material and textual ways. Now, without denying materiality, the ‘textual supplement’ to reality and to any understanding of it, engenders something of a doubly deconstructive situation. For even though it is material, reality is nevertheless discursive and therefore always either imminently or actually ‘in deconstruction‘ (Royle, 2000: 11). Moreover, one will never be able understand, grasp, express or articulate ‘reality’ adequately without deconstruction. As John Mowitt explains, the problem here, as noted at least since Jameson in 1975 (see Jameson, 1988) is this:

On [Jameson’s] account, textuality is nothing but an intellectual expression of what [he] later calls ‘the cultural logic’ of the latest phase of capitalism.. . . The point is not that textuality is simply ideological (Jameson accepts Marx’s and Engels’ discussion of ideology as the struggle for hegemony in the realm of ideas), but that in its putative bracketing of history (the referent), textuality cannot help but affirm those social changes which condition its emergence. The model of the text is therefore problematic because it is incapable of either generating or sustaining a critical ideology. Here we have the deepest aspect of Jameson’s concerns about modernism and, for that matter, postmodernism. Obviously, insofar as textuality can be affiliated with modernism in this way, then it too can be reduced to sheer, that is capitalist, ideology. (Mowitt, 1992: 12-13)

Jameson’s problems with ‘textuality’, too, relate to politics, connecting with Hall’s concerns with deconstructive/textual understandings, as apparently being unable to maintain a politics, or as Mowitt puts it, as being ‘incapable of either generating or sustaining a critical ideology’. The question therefore is what it is that makes deconstruction both so appropriate and so inappropriate, both necessary and insufficient? To answer, we might wish to establish what ‘necessary’ means in the era of anti-essentialist deconstruction. We certainly need to know what ‘sufficiency’ and ‘insufficiency’ are supposed to be (Brown, 2001) — if, that is, cultural studies is indeed ‘a practice which aims to make a difference in the world’ (Hall, 1992: 278).

Of ‘extremely fine intellectual work’ and ‘intellectual practice as a politics’

The archive of explicitly deconstructive thought, deriving from the Tel Quel group (Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Sollers) who rigorously theorised and provided the now familiar, ubiquitous, and arguably indispensable concepts of text, textuality, intertextuality, and so on, seems to offer something singularly appropriate to Hall’s very conceptualisation of culture and the political. Yet, he insists, ‘culture will always work through its textualities– and at the same time . . . textuality is never enough’ (1992: 284). The answers to the immediately arising questions of ‘never enough of what’ and ‘never enough for what’, I contend, refer to politics, and specifically to the matter of establishing and maintaining a politics, to trying to make a difference, that counts. For this, Hall argues, is the particular and acute obligation, orientation and defining aspiration of cultural studies:

That is to say, unless and until one respects the necessary displacement of culture, and yet is always irritated by its failure to reconcile itself with other questions that matter, with other questions that cannot and can never be fully covered by critical textuality in its elaborations, cultural studies as a project, an intervention, remains incomplete. If you lose hold of the tension, you can do extremely fine intellectual work, but you will have lost intellectual practice as a politics. I offer this to you, not because that’s what cultural studies ought to be, or because that’s what the Centre managed to do well, but simply because I think that, overall, is what defines cultural studies as a project. Both in the British and the American context, cultural studies has drawn the attention itself, not just because of its sometimes dazzling internal theoretical development, but because it holds theoretical and political questions in an ever irresolvable but permanent tension. It constantly allows the one to irritate, bother, and disturb the other, without insisting on some final theoretical closure. (1992: 284)

That textuality is ‘never enough’ is far from a straightforward call to ‘return to reality’ or to return to ‘real political practice’, as if there were a clear-cut choice between theory and practice, or a clear division between academic work and political work. Indeed, to conceive of culture and politics as complex discursive formations implies rejecting such distinctions as facile simplifications. Instead, what is at stake here might be clarified by making a distinction, between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ (Beardsworth, 1996). In terms of this distinction, one could say that everything is contingent and alterable (the political), and that cultural studies desires to alter it, to intervene (politics). Thus, anything new or different, anything which might alter a state of affairs, might itself be or become ‘political’.1 But, invoking this potential or immanent aleatory politicality is not good enough when one’s concerns and aspirations are interventional, specific, pressingly present and real (whatever they may be). Maintenance of this ‘metaphysical’ desire could represent one difference between deconstruction and cultural studies, if cultural studies is something that understands culture and politics deconstructively but nevertheless desires the very thing it understands to be ‘constitutively impossible’. That is to say, cultural studies desires definite, precise, certain, fully present and knowable, unmediated interventional power and agency in the present of the institutional terrain of culture and society. This desire is ‘impossible’ and ‘metaphysical’ because the institutional terrain of culture and society is never fully present, but constitutively mediated, in deferral, relay, and referral (différance), prone to the ‘slippage of signification’ and dissemination (Derrida, 1981). We should note, though, that Stuart Hall maintains this frustrated tension, and thereby actually remains impeccably Derridean, insisting upon the ‘double bind’ of this situation. This explains his assertions that we must operate on ‘two fronts at one and the same time’ (1992: 282), maintaining a deconstructive understanding of the political that problematises all metaphysical notions of politics, hand in hand with metaphysical political desires and orientations that that very deconstructive understanding would seem ‘logically’ or ‘necessarily’ to forbid.

For Hall, a deconstructive understanding of culture (Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘discursive terrain’) is the condition of possibility for establishing ‘the way things are’. Establishing ‘the way things are’ is necessary before one can possibly know how to confront, engage with or intervene in reality properly (politics: intervention). But a textual understanding actually makes the aim of a decisive intervention impossible. As Hall puts it, ‘it has always been impossible in the theoretical field of cultural studies — whether it is conceived of in terms of texts and contexts, of intertextuality, or of the historical formations in which cultural practices are lodged– to get anything like an adequate theoretical account of culture’s relations and its effects’ (Hall, 1992: 286). Textual understandings (if this is not an oxymoron) are not amenable to grand system-building, unlike, say, dialectical or behaviourist positivist understandings. The only universally true picture or system that deconstruction might claim to be able to draw would be the picture or system that clarified how and why universally real and true pictures and systems are impossible. As Geoffrey Bennington (1993) once put it, deconstruction is not formalisable, but for reasons that can be formalised; or, as Slavoj Žižek argued less hospitably:

. . . the ultimate lesson of deconstruction seems to be that one cannot postpone the ontological question ad infinitum, and what is deeply symptomatic in Derrida is his oscillation between, on the one hand, the hyper-self-reflective approach which denounces the question of ‘how things really are’ in advance, and limits itself to third-level deconstructive comments on the inconsistencies of philosopher B’s reading of philosopher A; and, on the other, a direct ‘ontological’ assertion about how différance and archi-trace determine the structure of all living things, and are, as such, already operative in animal nature. One should not miss the paradoxical interconnection of these two levels here: the very feature which forever prevents us from grasping our intended object directly (the fact that our grasping is always refracted, ‘mediated’, by a decentred otherness) is the feature which connects us with the basic proto-ontological structure of the universe. (Žižek, 2001: 204)

Žižek claims that deconstruction (and ‘deconstructive cultural studies’) can be construed as entailing ‘prohibitions’ against enquiring into the truth and reality of things (2001: 204-205), because such enquiry would be ‘metaphysical’. But Žižek never really pursues the question of why deconstructively orientated work might insist upon such ‘prohibitions’. To clarify what is at issue here, we could note that Žižek’s own (postmodern) bricolage of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelianism, and Marxism, amalgamated into a new paradigm, illustrates the universal problem of all paradigms: they offer a particular perspective/construction that masquerades as the way to see ‘how things actually are’. Accordingly, they all provide different versions of what proper intervention and political agency are. Change the ingredients, and the answers change too. . . ‘whence the abyss — that’s the whole problem’! (Derrida, 1998: 9-10) Because all paradigms offer different answers, certainty is therefore the very thing that becomes dubious. This is arguably what both Stuart Hall and Derrida wrestle with. In this sense, Žižekian certainty is the antithesis of a deconstructive (or) cultural studies relation to questions of knowledge, orientation and agency.

However, as a certain deconstructive understanding of the undecidability of knowledge and effect might seem to apply equally to any articulation, to any statement, or to any act, then why should cultural studies exist in and as the kind of frustration that Hall seems to insist upon anyway? If anything might be consequential, then mightn’t anything be an intervention? Why not be content to produce ‘extremely fine intellectual work’? What’s the difference, the specificity, the challenge, the task, of and for cultural studies?

Making Sense of Intervention

Gary Hall argues that ‘by definition, cultural studies is regarded as a politically committed questioning of culture/power relations which at the same time theoretically interrogates its own relation to politics and to power’ (Hall, 2002: 10). The reasons for this relate to construing modern cultures and societies as being constituted in, on and as contingent institutional bases and relations, meaning that they are fundamentally political. Therefore, as John Protevi puts it, everything, even ‘[w]riting, inscribing a mark to render it iterable, is a performative signifying and a meaningful performance– we could call it making sense. Making sense is the construction of a hegemonic formation of forces in which meaning or iterability is produced from the clash of force vectors’ (Protevi, 2001: 63). This specifies further the politicality of the cultural: ‘the reading of marks is institutionally enforced. Reading strategies outside the institutionally enforced reading code make no sense, as anyone who reads the bewildered responses to deconstructive readings can tell you’ (Protevi, 2001: 64). The impossibility of ever occupying a position or perspective outside of the contingent cultural-political terrain is precisely why cultural studies views itself as Gary Hall says it does, and as Stuart Hall implies it must.

The justification for explicitly adhering to the ‘double bind’ Stuart Hall identifies relates to remaining frustrated with what seems to be merely ‘theoretical’ or entirely ‘academic’ work, but never deluding oneself that theory could somehow be dispensed with. As Jeremy Gilbert puts it, ‘everyone has a theory, they just don’t always know what it is’ (2003: 151); or as Godzich has it, ‘Knowing is essentially theoretical’ (1987: 163). Similarly, academic institutions and their productions do not amount to nothing. One is always in the ‘game of hegemony’ (Hall, 1992: 281). According to the implications of the deconstructive understandings of both Stuart Hall and Gary Hall, cultural studies must never simply occupy either end of the binary that constitutes the parameters of Žižekian thought, for example, which oscillates between an academia-is-everything position and an academia-is-nothing position. Or, as Mowitt spells it out:

Once we acknowledge that what enables a reading to ‘make sense’ reaches well into the institutional field of the social, then it becomes possible to extend the range of what a reading ought to concern itself with. . . . [As such, we should not believe] that ‘mere readings’ must give way to action when ‘real’ social issues are at stake. This perspective has already produced enough intellectual paralysis within the academic Left, and it is no more worthy of perpetuation than is the self-indulgent complacency that leads academic intellectuals to think that simply writing a textual analysis of a Hitchcock film is tantamount to the articulation of an oppositional politics. (Mowitt, 1992: 217)

For Žižek holds quite traditional understandings of the political, of agency and of intervention, sometimes advocating a ‘to the barricades!’ notion of political action, whilst at others seeming to believe that revolutionaries ‘out there’ require academics ‘in here’ to be their teachers or consultants, providing academic texts as revolutionary pamphlets, or even viewing such work as ‘in itself’ revolutionary political action. Mowitt, meanwhile, offers a much more ‘transgressive’ understanding of the political force and propensities of academic intellectual work, related to what he calls ‘antidisciplinarity’:

What antidisciplinarity . . . depends upon is a notion of reading that understands how its specificity as a practice derives from the institutional field which surrounds it. Since this means that all readings have institutional implications, isn’t it time that we began reading it so as to undermine the institutions of disciplinary power at the very points where they have typically reproduced themselves with the greatest efficiency? (Mowitt: 1992, 218)

Mowitt’s injunction to begin ‘reading it so as to undermine the institutions of disciplinary power at the very points where they have typically reproduced themselves with the greatest efficiency’, amounts to a strategy of pressuring borders, boundaries, demarcations, conventions, limits and established facts, values and proprieties, of all orders, in a pedagogical-political strategy of transgressing norms. The claim that cultural studies, along with a variety of other ‘studies’ (women’s, race, gender, African-American, and so on), have always tended to operate according to an impetus to transgress, to de- and reconstruct the intellectual landscape of the academy, is nowadays quite familiar. Indeed, the ‘generalized transgression of boundaries’ (Laclau, 1989: xiii) is nowadays itself arguably becoming the norm. But the main flavour of the transgressions undertaken throughout the arts and humanities since the 1960s have often been justified by appeals to an ethical obligation to transgress the extant in the name of difference (or alterity, or ‘the other’, ‘to come’, and so on.: sometimes called the ‘ethics of alterity’). To paraphrase this movement, the transgressiveness of cultural studies and deconstruction can be justified by invoking an ethical relation to alterity, the minimal coordinates of which are a belief in the virtue of pressuring the limits of the extant with a view to achieving a lesser violence in the name of alterity. This can be discerned in Hall, Derrida, Laclau and Mouffe and many others, and is explained by Protevi as follows:

But why deconstruct . . .? In the name of what does deconstruction release its forces of rupture? Derrida answers: in the name of justice. Derrida’s political physics looks like a ‘might makes right’ position. And in one sense indeed it is, in the sense that might makes droit, that is, the fact that positive law can be analysed in terms of social power. Derrida reminds us, however, that might does not make justice. Instead, ‘Force of law’ tell[s] us that ‘deconstruction is justice’. Institutions, or sets of positive laws [droits], are deconstructible because they are not justice. Deconstruction is justice, that is, ‘deconstruction is already engaged by this infinite demand of justice’. Deconstruction also finds its ‘force, its movement or its motivation’ in the ‘always unsatisfied appeal’ to justice. . .. We might want to say here that democracy is the future, the ‘to come’ of this transformation, intensifying itself to the point where instituted bodies that muffle or distort the calls of others are overflowed and reinscribed in other contexts. Deconstruction is democratic justice, responding to the calls from all others. (Protevi, 2001: 69-70)

Essential Anti-Essentialism and Systematic Obsolescence

Yet, such justifications notwithstanding, the Jamesonian objection keeps returning. This objection runs as follows: because capitalism itself can be construed as a radical form of ‘deconstruction’, deconstruction might therefore be a symptom of capitalism. Hardt and Negri, for instance, argue that the dominant form of power today itself is deconstructive and anti-essentialist. Power ‘itself’, they say, chants along with anti-essentialists, ‘Long live difference! Down with essentialist binaries!’ (2000: 139). ‘Power’, they contend, ‘has evacuated the bastion [that anti-essentialist intellectuals] are attacking and has circled round to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference’ (2000: 138). Similarly, Timothy Bewes contends that:

The revolution ratified by deconstruction, in fact, is the capitalist one, which effects the gradual anonymization and atomization of society. This revolution lacks any ‘end’ other than itself: it involves, as the Communist Manifesto puts it, the ‘constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation’. (Bewes, 2001: 92)

But capitalism ‘deconstructs’ institutions because they are not oriented exclusively towards profit. Derridean deconstruction, however, takes aim at that which is not just. These are radically different. The same goes for the ‘capitalist revolution’ versus the ‘democratic revolution’. Put bluntly: deconstruction is on the side of democratisation and the infinite demand for justice. In Laclau and Mouffe’s (or Claude Lefort’s) terms, deconstruction would not be a symptom of the capitalist revolution, but an instance of the democratic revolution. But leaving the rhetoric of origins aside, what is clear is that, differently from individualistic and capitalist practices, both cultural studies and Derridean deconstruction have an acute interest in the question of and quest for responsibility (Derrida, 1992: 199; Hall, 1992a: 281-282). Thus it is easy to agree with Joanna Zylinska that ‘a sense of duty and responsibility has always constituted an inherent part of the cultural studies project, and already manifested itself in the early adult education movement, the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and in the writings of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall’ (Zylinska, 2001: 177). In this regard, at least, there is a deep solidarity between Derridean deconstruction and ‘Hallian’ cultural studies. As Derrida says:

If it were only a question of ‘my’ work, of the particular or isolated research of one individual, this [scandalised denunciation of deconstruction] wouldn’t happen. Indeed, the violence of these denunciations derives from the fact that the work accused is part of a whole ongoing process. What is unfolding here, like the resistance it necessarily arouses, can’t be limited to a personal ‘oeuvre’, nor to a discipline, nor even to the academic institution…. If this work seems so threatening to them, this is because it isn’t eccentric or strange, incomprehensible or exotic (which would allow them to dispose of it easily), but as I myself hope, and as they believe more than they admit, competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction in its re-examination of the fundamental norms and premises of a number of dominant discourses, the principles underlying many of their evaluations, the structures of academic institutions, and the research that goes on within them. What this kind of questioning does is to modify the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicize and democratize the university scene. . . (Derrida, 1995: 409-410)

Now, in many ways, both cultural studies and deconstruction agree with Laclau and Mouffe’s anti-essentialist ‘discourse’ paradigm,2 which insists that agencies and identities are discursively constructed– always ‘part of a whole ongoing process’. (In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), they even in/famously argued that straightforward ‘referential’ thinking causes errors and all sorts of ‘confusion’ (1985: 119).) So theirs is a reconstructed political thinking for a postmodern world, wherein identities and agencies are partial, plural, diverse, shifting and transient. Their anti-essentialist, deconstructive perspective does not deny the existence of the referent (‘real things’), but rather guards against ‘essentialising’ agents, agencies, and identities. In de-essentialising our view of the socio-political world, we can, and should, according to Laclau, thereby ‘move from purely sociologistic and descriptive account[s] of the concrete agents involved in hegemonic operations to a formal analysis of the logics involved’ (Laclau, 2000: 53). Such anti-essentialism helps us to avoid fetishistic fixation on essences – such as, for example, an attachment to the value of what we think ‘proper’ working class politics must always be. Attachments to fixed ideas about politics can cause us to miss important developments, including changes in the form and character of politics and the political. This is the danger of presuming politics to be a certain thing, of looking for certain things in certain places. If we presume to ‘know’, for example, that politics is class politics and will always take its nineteenth century industrial form, then we are blinding ourselves in advance by making an essentialist mistake (see also Hall, 2002). This is important, Laclau explains, because we:

. . . gain very little, once identities are conceived as complexly articulated collective wills, by referring to them through simple designations such as classes, ethnic groups and so on, which are at best names for transient points of stabilization. The really important task, is to understand the logics of their constitution and dissolution, as well as the formal determinations of the spaces in which they interrelate. (Laclau, 2000: 53)

Now this ‘task’ is clearly very different to that of, say, a Hoggartian ethnomethodological celebratory description of agencies and identities; and it is one that many within cultural studies continue to baulk at. For what Laclau sees as the task of politicised intellectuals is not descriptive or synthetic, but rather purely logical, formalising, and analytical. Of course the question for a politicised intellectual is to decide whether this task (‘to understand the logics’) is in fact the be-all and end-all of an effective intervention. There are many reasons to doubt that it is, and many justifications for holding that a ‘proper’ or more ‘rigorously’ thoroughgoing, exhaustive and complete cultural studies project should– ‘logically’, as it were– constitute itself as distinctly different in orientation from the ‘discourse analysis’ approach of Laclau and Mouffe et al (Mowitt, 1992). However, I will limit myself here to the consideration of only one troubling possibility to do with a dimension of the discursive transformation that was spoken of by Derrida, theorised by Laclau and Mouffe, and inhabited by cultural studies. This is the ‘transformationality’ of contemporary thought and academic practice.

This is to say that, insofar as ‘anti-essentialism’ constitutes a multiple movement, (de)formation, or transformation within academia and beyond, it is becoming apparent that ‘knowledge’ and the task of academic/intellectual work have also been transformed, away from being the pursuit of exhaustive and incontestable knowledge of all the properties of all things. Gayatri Spivak even claims that that kind of knowledge is ‘obsolete now’ (Spivak, 1999: 392). Knowledge about stuff, knowledge of essences, is on the wane, increasingly obsolete. The most important modality of knowledge today has become knowledgeof logics:of transformation, deformation, alteration, substitutability, combination, reciprocity, translatability, effectivity and performativity (Weber, 1987: x-xi; Peters, 2001: 29, 42, 66, 69). Hence, in a manner eerily reminiscent of the uncanny coincidence of Laclau/Mouffe and Thatcher’s almost simultaneous declaration that ‘society does not exist’, Laclau is once again embroiled in the revolution of our times in identifying this transformed perspective about what is to be learned and what is to be done. The eeriness and uncanniness arises because this characterisation equally describes the knowledge of technoscience, of capitalist hegemony, bureaucracy, professionalism and managerialism, performativity, and in fact all the bogeymen, all the antiheroes of the traditional and contemporary Left (what is left of it), in its many guises. The deconstructive, cultural studies, and cultural theoretical concern for ethical or hospitable translations, classifications, representations, articulations, performances, and all the rest of it, shadows or is overshadowed by the hegemonic formation it so often claims to want (appropriately, uncannily) to alter. Academic/intellectual practices, including– and maybe even primarily– those of cultural studies and deconstruction, are perhaps themselves being translated, altered. There remains, then, a possibility that that which influences, leads, guides (hegemon), may well be the very thing to which we might otherwise claim to be explicitly opposed.

The issue, therefore, circles back to the extent to which cultural studies and deconstruction are related or articulated to certain impulses or discursive tendencies of capitalism. If they are not simply capitalistically deconstructive and transformative in terms of money and profit, they might yet be modifications, modes, in and of translation, symptomatic of capitalism, operating according to a Lyotardian logic of performativity and productivity, among ‘paralogical islands’, within an intricately variegated but ultimately homogenous institutional terrain. The risk is that this de-essentialisation, with its focus on logic and systems, its formalised technical, institutional languages and other forms of standardisation and separation, this ‘radical’ academic tendency, may well remain exemplarily (perhaps even ‘sublimely’) ideological. I have suggested (following Derrida, Laclau, Protevi, Hall, and also Rancière (1999), among others) that the democratic supplement to and the quest for responsibility within cultural studies and deconstruction would help to provide a certain ‘leverage’. But what of the potential (Lyotardian or other) critique, which casts us as separated into distinct islands, and made-inconsequential because placed in institutional ‘enclaves’?

Stuart Hall, too, notes that the ‘institutionalisation’ of cultural studies represents a ‘profound danger’ (1992: 286). Moreover, he relates this to ‘theoretical fluency’, which threatens to ‘formalize out of existence the critical questions of power, history, and politics’ (286). So, systematic systematising– perhaps as exemplified by the Laclau-Mouffe-Žižek tendency– and the facility to diagnose and ‘know’ power and the political in a highly refined technical language, may well paradoxically represent the political neutralisation of desirously interventional practices like cultural studies, post-Marxism and deconstruction. For specialist languages clearly ‘separate’, and perhaps always threaten ‘anonymization’ and ‘atomization’. To the extent that anything is institutionalised this way, this might constitute an enervation of its propensity to intervene in anything other its own enclave. In the face of the ineradicable ‘paralogicality’, dissensus, mutually unintelligible, specialist character of the institutional terrain of contemporary societies, where does this leave us?

Into Disciplinarity (and off the soap-box)

At this point we might recall interdisciplinarity. Invocations of, and the state of play within, interdisciplinarity have always occupied an important place in cultural studies’ conceptualisation of its own interventionality and consequentiality. Of course, the invocation of interdisciplinarity does not necessarily relate to reality. The claim of interdisciplinarity might merely be a fantasy projection, and not at all a group or cross-disciplinary reality. For it is difficult, if not constitutively impossible, in theory and practice, to agree across disciplinary divides about how to do interdisciplinary work ‘properly’ (Mowitt, 2003). Even where there is interdisciplinarity, its consequences and effects remain undecidable. One might nevertheless retain a hope that one’s own discourse or field will ‘influence’ those nearby– perhaps even ‘positively’, despite the inevitability of ‘scandalised reactions’ and resistance. One might even retain a hope in the possibility of ‘knock-on effects’, reverberations, ripples, tremors . . . and so on.

Despite its many pitfalls and problems, this conceptualisation at least underscores the importance of the institutional dimension for intervention, agency, and therefore for politics and the political. Its saving grace is that it construes consequentiality, effect and agency as operating outside of intention– outside of any intending ego’s complete control. As such, it is far better than what could be termed the dominant ‘soap-box’ conceptualisation of political agency– the facile assumption that ‘soap-box’ style preaching (even and perhaps especially in the media) is necessarily politically effective or consequential. ‘Clarity’, ‘directness’, ‘being heard widely’, do not necessarily make any difference to anything, anywhere. (Such notions as simple, unproblematic clarity and directness are impossible ideals anyway.) To make a difference that counts in the ‘real world’ (however defined) relates rather more to the institution, to institutional relations, than it does to some clear-talking, truth-toting ‘organic intellectual’ or even ‘phallic hero’.3 This is to emphasise that it is a mistake to assume that merely saying something, in an academic article like this, for example– or even ‘clearly’ and journalistically, somewhere in the press or other media– constitutes a consequential intervention in itself; as if saying ‘this is political and consequential’ in itself means that it is political and consequential, or as if saying ‘I hereby intervene in this matter’ constitutes an intervention (see also McQuillan, 2001). ‘Stop the war, down with Bush and/or Blair, careful with genetic engineering, mind that nanotechnology, drop the debt, deploy education and medicine and not troops or arms, don’t be sexist, racist or homophobic, don’t kill people, Stuart Hall for Prime Minister, stop cutting down trees, no to fossil fuel, overthrow capitalism, be nice to asylum seekers, criminalise Blunkett, etc.!’ There. Is my conscience clear? Is the job done? Have I acted responsibly? Said what needs to be said?

There is more to the question of intervention– and, by the same token, more to the question of ethico-political responsibility– than determining what needs to be said. Cultural studies should therefore hesitate before accepting the journalistic imperative as its own, or at least before making it its ‘one and only’. The belief in the necessary efficacy or significance of ‘speaking out’, clearly and popularly, rests on very shaky and highly idealistic theoretical foundations. Too often politics, political force and agency, seem to be construed in the soap-box way, as if we have one speaker holding one microphone talking to one audience, with the audience construed as listening and desiring to learn and to follow, such that when they hear they thereafter follow in some programmatically predictable manner. Few things are less certain today. Yet critical intellectuals continue to concern themselves almost entirely with what should be said, without attending to the fact that they aren’t often listened to, or audible, heard, hearable or even intelligible. Obviously, academics and intellectuals cannot easily interpret their responsibilities as necessitating anything other than finding out and speaking the truth. But there are also secondary, supplementary truths that should equally not be ignored, such as those concerning how what is said gets ‘heard’ in any meaningful or consequential sense. As Spivak pointed out, a key ethico-political issue is not just that of who should speak, but ‘who will listen?’ (Spivak and Gunew, 1993: 193-202). We might add that what the consequences of that listening will amount to is surely immensely important, too, but that the determinants of all of this are not simply rooted in consciousness: it relates ‘directly’, as it were, to hegemony, to articulation, and to relation. ‘After all’, says John Mowitt, ‘why should we reconceive the social as discourse if, in the final analysis, we are only really interested in the consciousness motivating agents?’ (Mowitt, 1992: 17).

Always Universalise!

Consciousness is important, but it is not the be all and end all of the political, or of intervention. According to Rancière (1999), politics is always also constitutively an aesthetic matter.4 The political is constituted on the basis of a fundamental ‘disagreement’, which is something very different to any particular difference of demands by particular parties on the same stage. Fundamentally, the constitution of the political dispute relates to the very establishment of the existence of the parties to it (of each party recognising the other), and to establishing that they actually are ‘face to face’, in ‘confrontation’, or on the same ‘stage’ (Rancière, 1999: 26-27). Part of this battle, the battle of the emergence of the political, relates to audibility, to intelligibility. As such, politics comes about solely through and as interruption (Rancière, 1999: 13, 17). And ‘interruption’ need not purely be construed in terms of meaning and logos (as in ‘Ahem!’). It could also be construed in terms of aesthesis, just as it could be in any interruption to ‘business as usual’ (which is what makes any new technology also political/transformative: see Benjamin, 1999; Derrida, 1998a). Derrida, too, has variously intimated that the key political strategy of deconstruction is to ‘derail’ established, sedimented, becoming-invisible institutions of communication, sedimented relay- and referral-systems and mechanisms (Derrida, 1987: 20, 177; 2002: 53; Protevi, 2001: 20); while Stuart Hall emphasises the double importance of interruption (1996: 268). For Hall, theory, thinking and analysis must seek to interrupt the established, or the powerful other of the status quo. He views politics as interruption (1992: 282 ff.), and locates the value of ‘Theory’ in and as its interruptive capacities (and precisely not in any ‘theoretical fluency’: comfortable fluency in a theoretical language implies for Hall stability and regularity — hence the ‘problem‘ with Laclau and Mouffe).

Is saying this enough, then? Do we now know how to interrupt and what to interrupt? Has this interrupted anything? Is the ultimate political lesson that of the terroristic act, with terroristic ‘interruption’ being the paradigmatic political gesture? I think not, insofar as a theory of hegemony relates to articulation, linkage, connection, engagement, alliance, ‘friendship‘ (Derrida, 1996), rather than either the individualistic isolated act or warlike, opportunistic, violent destruction. The political interruption must first be the effort of making oneself intelligible to the other, in order to supplement and interrupt the other’s code, its smooth workings, and hence its effects (Protevi, 2001: 63-64).

And so on. But I must interrupt myself here, and stop myself from diving once more into another fluent rendition of deconstructive categories as Ur-paradigm of the political, and accordingly merely facilely repeating what is already known and has already been said– at least by the people I have been using and mentioning throughout.

Instead, let me try to say something slightly different – not for its own sake, but out of a hope that it might possibly come to do something different. It is this: that the best political interventional supplement amounts to a lesser-violence-engagement not in one’s own mother tongue, but in the other’s tongue. In speaking not in one’s own easy fluency to one’s own kind (or to oneself), the aim is to be, as Derrida once called it, a ‘monster of fidelity’, who thereby amounts to ‘the most perverse infidel’ (Derrida, 1987: 24). In this regard, in this construal of cultural studies and deconstruction as a politicised interventional movement, it may no longer do to do as one pleases and to choose the objects one simply prefers. If we now tend to acknowledge the political and ethical importance of openness to alterity, and if the ‘high polemical phase’ of cultural studies and radical deconstruction have passed (deconstruction and cultural studies now inevitably becoming relatively institutionally familiar and familial), but if the ethico-political demand that is so constitutive remains, and if intervention remains an ideal of cultural studies, then we are arguably on something of a ‘new stage’.

But to avoid becoming too embroiled in the troublesome trope of ‘the new’, maybe we should supplement the Jamesonian injunction of ‘always historicize’ with a less paradoxical injunction: always universalise. Accordingly, instead of posing this universalistically in terms of the old versus the new, I’d rather position it as the eternally returning matter of the tired and tedious versus the effectively interruptive; and invoke tired and tedious cultural studies and deconstructions versus effectively interruptive cultural studies and deconstructions. By this I mean to suggest that an interruptive deconstructive cultural studies is opposed to a smoothly fluent deconstructive cultural studies. This is to reiterate that an effective cultural studies must remain, as Gary Hall puts it, ‘by definition, . . . a politically committed questioning of culture/power relations which at the same time theoretically interrogates its own relation to politics and to power’ (Hall 2002: 10). But in addition, now, the choice of object becomes paramount. Or rather, given that, despite an ethos or mantra of openness to other objects, cultural studies has actually tended to prefer certain kinds of objects (overwhelmingly selected in terms of their status as either marginal, elite or popular, or associations with the media, youth, class and issues of gender, race, sexuality etc.), you might say that an effective deconstructive cultural studies now requires a transformation in the kind of objects that it chooses to attend to.

Put more polemically: an effective, interruptive, politicised deconstructive cultural studies can no longer simply be the deconstructive cultural studies of Art, Literature, Philosophy, media, TV, film, subcultures, the canon, disciplinary boundaries, conventions and so on. Rather, attention must be given to the intimate deconstruction not of ‘identity’ but of technoscience, managerialism, bureaucracy, efficiency, ‘effectivity’, performance, performativity, productivity and production. This is not the first time this has been said. Far from it. It is merely a reiteration and, hopefully, a strengthening of the call for a thoroughgoing reorientation along such battle lines. Nor is it to renounce or throw away ‘the cultural’ as a domain that ‘seizes hold of your soul’, or to forget the achievements of cultural studies. In fact, it presupposes and seeks to prolong and deepen them both. For any desirously interruptive analysis of technoscience, managerialism, bureaucracy, efficiency, etc. will be orientated in terms of questions of marginalisation, elites, the popular, media and mediation, age, class, gender, race, sexuality and other such issues to do with cultural identity and value.

This would both transform and remain faithful to the object of deconstruction and cultural studies, requiring that each be faithful to itself, and in so doing transgress itself, its own discourse, its own identity, in attaching itself to what it seeks to alter. Needless to say, this poses insurmountable problems — and possibilities– of identity, legitimation, modality, orientation and ultimately therefore of voice. What would it entail? The efforts of engagement, listening, forging links, translation, evaluation, communication, of moving outside of one’s own home. What would it prevent? Comfort, complacency, internality, enclave isolation, inoculation, smooth repetition of the same, disengagement. What would remain of deconstruction and cultural studies? Constitutive impossibility, universalism, radical democratising, antagonism, ‘antidisciplinary interdisciplinarity’, effective, motivated, tendentious engagement, derailment, transformation of protocols, faithful transgression, cultural values. What would it promise? Making differences that count.


1 This suggests, therefore, potentially anything at all, according to one possible interpretation. For the ultimate significance, consequences, status and effect of anything might always possibly turn out to have been ‘in the post’, as the Derrida of The Post Card (1987) or Resistances of Psychoanalysis (1998) might have put it, in the awkward-sounding future anterior tense. Derrida uses this tense because it cannot be known in advance what anything may in the future turn out to be, or to have been and to have done.

2 Derrida once called Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony (1985) ‘a novel elaboration, in a “deconstructive” style, of the concept of hegemony‘ (Derrida, 1994: 180, n. 31). For the vital and vitalising relationship of post-Marxism to cultural studies, see Angela McRobbie (1992) and Jeremy Gilbert (2001).

3 This is not to write off or denounce Habermasian, Rortyan, and Chomskyan strategies, but rather to draw attention to the fact they substantially fail to work on what Hall describes as ‘two fronts at one and the same time’. Schematically put, although Chomsky, for example, insists that something in ‘institutional’ media forms constitutes a fundamental censorship and deleterious skewing, he does not pursue this constitutive institutional dimension to the political to anything like the extent he pursues the ‘real issues’ (‘content‘). However, institutional transformation would provide the conditions of possibility for hugely consequential advances politically, according to Chomsky’s own theory itself. To this extent, and taking Chomsky as exemplary of a far wider tendency of ‘engaged intellectual’ work, his eminently egalitarian and democratically orientated journalistic work nevertheless fails to attend to the secondary but constitutive dimension of institutional protocols of all orders. Such orientation is idealist.

4 Rancière is not necessarily at odds with Benjamin’s (1999) insistence that the introduction of aesthetics into politics leads to war. Rancière’s construal is one of divergent aesthetics constitutively ‘in disagreement’; one which does not, however, differ too much from Benjamin’s materialist understanding of technology as constitutive of (ultimately political) consciousness. Benjamin’s argument that the injection of aesthetics into politics leads to fascism and war is a comment of a different order and orientation to Rancière’s. Paradoxically, though, they need not necessarily be construed as ‘in disagreement’.


Arditi, B., & Valentine, J. (1999) Polemicization: The Contingency of the Commonplace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Beardsworth, R. (1996) Derrida and the Political. Routledge: London and New York.

Bennington, G. & Derrida, J. (1993) Jacques Derrida. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations. London, Pimlico.

Bewes, T. (2001) ‘Vulgar Marxism: The Spectre Haunting Spectres of Marx’, in M. McQuillan (ed.), Parallax Vol. 7, No. 3 (July-September).

Brown, W. (2001) Politics Out of History. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, J. (1981) Dissemination. London: Athlone.

Derrida, J. (1987) The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’ in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1992a) ‘Canons and Metonymies: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Routledge: London.

Derrida, J. (1995) Points. . .Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, J. (1996) Politics of Friendship. London: Verso.

Derrida, J. (1998) Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, J. (1998a) Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Gilbert, J. (2001) ‘A Certain Ethics of Openness: Radical Democratic Cultural Studies’ in J. Zylinska & M. Devenney (eds), Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics, Vol. 14, No 2 (November).

Gilbert, J. (2003) ‘Friends and Enemies: Which Side is Cultural Studies On?’ in P. Bowman (ed.), Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics, and Practice. London: Pluto.

Godzich, W. (1987) ‘Afterword: Religion, the State, and Post(al) Modernism’ in S. Weber, Institution and Interpretation. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Hall, G. (2002) Culture in Bits: The Monstrous Future of Theory. London: Continuum.

Hall, S. (1992) ‘Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies’ in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson & P. Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies. New York and London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1996) ‘New Ethnicities’ in J. Donald & A. Rattansi (eds), ‘Race’, Culture and Difference. London: Sage/Open University Press.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Jameson, F. (1988) ‘The Ideology of the Text’, The Ideologies of Theory, Vol. 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (1989) ‘Preface’, to S. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (2000) ‘Identity and Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau & Z. Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso.

McRobbie, A. (1992) ‘Post-Marxism and Cultural Studies’ in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson & P. Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies. New York and London: Routledge.

McQuillan, M. (ed.) (2001) Parallax Vol. 7, No. 3 (July-September).

Mouffe, C. (1996) Deconstruction and Pragmatism. London: Routledge.

Mowitt, J. (1992) Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object. Duke: Durham and London.

Mowitt, J. (2003) ‘Cultural Studies, In Theory’ in P. Bowman (ed.), Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Practice. London: Pluto.

Peters, M. (2001) Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

Protevi, J. (2001) Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic. London and New York: Athlone.

Rancière, J. (1999) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Royle, N. (2000) ‘What is Deconstruction?’ in N. Royle (ed.), Deconstructions: A User’s Guide. Palgrave: Basingstoke.

Spivak, G., & Gunew, S. (1993) ‘Questions of Multiculturalism’ in S. During (ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press.

Valentine, J. (2003) ‘The Subject Position of Cultural Studies: Is There a Problem?’ in P. Bowman (ed.), Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Practice. London: Pluto.

Weber, S. (1987) Institution and Interpretation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Žižek, S. (2000) ‘Da Capo senza Fine’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau & Z. Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2001) Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion. London: Verso

Žižek, S. (2001a) On Belief. London: Routledge.

Zylinska, J. (2001) ‘An Ethical Manifesto for Cultural Studies . . . Perhaps’ in J. Zylinska & M. Devenney (eds), Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics, Vol. 14, no 2 (November).

Leave a Reply