Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-3168-3.
In her article ‘Resisting Left Melancholia,’ Wendy Brown castigates ‘a left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past’ (2003: 464). Following Stuart Hall, Brown blames the ‘crisis of the Left’ less on the Left’s internal divisions or on the brilliance of the Right’s political strategy than on the ‘Left’s own failure to apprehend the character of the age and to develop a political critique and moral-political vision appropriate to this character’ (2003: 458).
I was reminded of Brown’s article while reading George Yúdice’s The Expediency of Culture, in part, of course, because the ‘crisis of the Left’ is foremost in every progressive’s mind in the U.S. these days, but also because of Yúdice’s intention to clear the field of outmoded models of culture and habits of thought about culture, and his understanding of the dovetailing of analysis and political commitment: ‘cultural analysis necessarily entails taking a position even in those cases where the writer seeks objectivity or transcendence’ (38). Yúdice evinces no nostalgia for better days of the Left in this book and yet his analysis is directly concerned to enable the social justice agenda of critics and activists.
Yúdice’s central claim is that ‘the role of culture has expanded in an unprecedented way into the political and economic at the same time that conventional notions of culture have been emptied out’ (9). Culture no longer serves as a realm of legitimation, but, rather, must itself be legitimated on the basis of its explicit political and economic utility. As he points out,
today it is nearly impossible to find public statements that do not recruit instrumentalized art and culture, whether to better social conditions, as in the creation of multicultural tolerance and civic participation, through UNESCO-like advocacy for cultural citizenship and cultural rights, or to spur economic growth through urban cultural development projects and concomitant proliferation of museums for cultural tourism, epitomized by the increasing number of Guggenheim franchises. (10-11)
Yúdice concludes that, under such conditions, ‘it is not possible not to make recourse to culture as a resource’ (28). He eschews focus on the ‘content’ of culture in order to explore culture as a resource with an eye to making such as much an expedient for social justice as it is for global capital (9).
Yúdice attributes culture as resource to a number of intertwined causes, including the waning of the nation state, the increasingly global nature of economic interests and the ascendance of neoliberal doctrine. An increasingly global economic order brings far flung peoples into contact with one another and requires strategies for the management of difference that go beyond national identity. In addition, the end of the cold war weakened the nation state’s need for cultural legitimation. In the United States, for example, ‘the end of the cold war pulled the legitimizing rug out from under a belief in artistic freedom, and with it unconditional support for the arts, as a major marker of difference with respect to the Soviet Union’ (11). After the cold war, culture is no longer understood as transcendent or disinterested and is increasingly legitimated through claims of its utility (12). It is ‘used as an attraction for capital development and tourism, as the prime motor of the culture industries and as an inexhaustible kindling for new industries dependant upon intellectual property’ (4). Furthermore, the ascendance of neoliberal doctrine has shifted responsibility for social welfare from the state to civil society, making culture a site of ‘new forms of social management’ (6). Ironically, it is the state’s withdrawal of funding from social programs which provides the ‘condition of continued possibility’ for nonprofit arts and cultural activities, which are now claimed to ‘enhance education, salve racial strife, help reverse urban blight through cultural tourism, create jobs, reduce crime and perhaps even make a profit’ (12).
Culture as resource functions on analogy with nature as resource: both ‘trade on the currency of diversity’ and in the rhetoric of official doctrine ‘must be fostered and conserved to “maintain (their) potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”‘(1). Yúdice doesn’t take issue with this impoverished model of culture, however. As a self-professed Foucauldian, Yúdice focuses on the ‘spaces for activism’ and empowerment that are opened up within this new order (6). ‘There is no outside of institutionality,’ he claims; ‘suffice it to suggest, however, that institutions can be reconverted, particularly within broad historical changes like those of the past two decades that have transformed their significance and function’ (317).
And indeed, the best parts of Yúdice’s book are dedicated to case studies of just such institutional reconversions. In examples that range across the Americas, he presents detailed analyses of particular examples of complex negotiations within expedient culture. He explores funk dance enthusiasts (funkieros) and Afro Reggae activism in Brazil; the Zapatista movement (EZLN) in Mexico; the ‘globalization of Latin America’ in Miami, and the inSITE festival on the San Diego/Tijuana border. Each such analysis shows culture as a site of conflicting interests and highlights resistance at work within the terms set out by the various institutions involved to manage culture as resource. The Grupo Cultural Afro Reggae, cultural activists from the Brazilian favelas, for example, are able to empower their constituency only by ‘working many strategies at once on many different fronts’ in negotiation ‘with certified social activists, community elders, church officials, journalists, lawyers, academics, businessmen, philanthropists, the music and entertainment industries, international solidarity groups, and foundations officers’ (3).
Yúdice’s description of the emerging model of culture and his attentiveness to the effects of international monetary policy and global economic interests on culture are convincing and they serve well as a corrective to an overemphasis on issues of representation and interpretation in the practice of Cultural Studies today. And, indeed, it is reassuring to see instances of resistance flourishing and hope persisting even in the darkest days of neoliberal ascendance. But Yúdice’s stronger claim, made, admittedly with some hesitancy, that the condition he describes constitutes a new episteme that defines the parameters of agency for our era is, I think, still caught in the legacy of a melancholic Left and works against his implicit goal of empowering a progressive political agenda (28).
Yúdice seems to presume that it is possible to avoid addressing the ‘content’ of culture, that his is a purely structural or descriptive model of analysis, that indeed a cultural theorist must choose between content and structure. But the two are undoubtedly complexly intertwined and one of the difficult tasks of cultural analysis is being attentive to the complexity of this intertwining. To dismiss the persistence of ideology too soon, is to lose the battle before it has been joined. To again quote from Brown’s article: ‘Certainly the course of capital shapes the conditions of possibility in politics, but politics itself “is either conducted ideologically, or not at all”‘ (2003: 462).
Just as nature can never actually be reduced to a mere resource, because it is the condition of possibility of human society, so too culture cannot be a mere resource since it is, among other things, a sine qua non of economic rationality. Yúdice accepts too readily the already packaged model of culture as resource as the only way to understand the emerging global order. Perhaps culture as resource has not superceded culture as a sphere of ideology, as Yúdice suggests, but is the ideological form of this order. In which case, the proper response of the Left is not to (or not simply to) work within its terms to reconvert its institutions for social justice projects, but also to attempt to develop an alternative ‘moral-political vision’ which would still be true to the shape of economic, social and political reality.
The stakes here can be seen in Yúdice’s chapter ‘The Social Imperative to Perform.’ Drawing upon the work of Judith Butler, Yúdice contrasts what he identifies as the ‘performative force’ evident in U.S. and Latin American politics in order to frame the style of politics in the U.S. and, among other things, to explain the failure of the Left in the U.S. to challenge the success of the Bush administration.
Yúdice begins this chapter with an account of the reaction of Brazilian graduate students and professors to a video lecture of Donna Haraway on her ‘A Cyborg Manifesto.’ According to Yúdice, the video showed sly complicity between the speaker and her audience, which got all the jokes and laughed on cue; the Brazilians, undoubtedly well versed in the issues Haraway engaged, were perplexed by the laugher. What the Brazilians missed in Haraway’s lecture, according to Yúdice, was the ritual irony common to academic performance in the U.S. and so well mirrored in the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s. According to Yúdice,
this irony instantiates and corroborates a pact between speaker and listener, writer and reader, performer and audience. Those with whom the pact is established or establishable (the implied audience) are invited to laugh at those (the other, target audience) who are projected into the opposing position of racists, sexists, homophobes, colonialists, civilationalists whose assumptions are subject to deconstruction (42-43).
The culture wars work analogously; in the battles over funding of the National Endowment of the Arts, conservatives in Congress and ‘cultural radicals’ enact, according to Yúdice, a ‘national fantasy’ (44). They are locked in an agonistic embrace of inverted extreme formulations: an extreme formulation of normativity (in the case of conservative Senators) and the nonnormativity (in the case of cultural radicals). The effect is a polarized political discourse that bypasses what the majority of Americans feel about the whole range of issues involved.
Although Yúdice’s book came out before the last elections, his analysis is still apt. There is no question that politics in the U.S. have become increasingly polarized. However, Yúdice says, ‘with the exception of divisions around abortion, there is no evidence to support the view that “Americans’ opinions on social issues have become more extreme”‘(45). Indeed the research finds that ‘the public has become more unified in its attitudes toward race, gender, and crime since the 1970s, largely reflecting liberal viewpoints on race and gender, and a harder, conservative line regarding crime.’ (45). So, ‘public politics have become more polarized while private attitudes and opinions have become more united’ (45).
The performative force that leads to such polarization ‘has a long history(,) dating back to abolitionism and subsequent strategies of empowerment by and for blacks and other minorities’ and has long been the strategy of the Left (51). The strategy, says Yúdice, quoting Stanley Aronowitz, ‘tacitly challenges the ethical legitimacy of the majority’: it seizes the moral high ground and demands representation from a position outside of the mainstream (51). The problem with this strategy now, however, is that it is even more successful for the Right. Consider, for example, the utter surrealism of George W. Bush, a man from a privileged, wealthy New England family, whose father was President, running for office in 2000 as a political outsider from Texas. The strategy has worked for evangelical Christians as well, who are able to frighten their constituency into thinking that ‘traditional values’ are at risk from abject eastern liberals. It is always the beleaguered outsider who wins in U.S. elections.
Yúdice contrasts the failure of cultural radicals in the culture wars, and the performative force of the Left in the U.S. more generally, to the successes of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who by their mere presence shamed a government. Yúdice admits that the Madres and the U.S. case are both examples of what Diana Taylor calls ‘bad scripts,’ meaning that ‘those who contested the performative force of the power-holders did so by making recourse to the roles projected by that power’ (74). For Yúdice, however, ‘the problem is not so much the scripts but the stage (force field) on which they are enacted’ (74). Unlike the culture warriors in the US, the Madres ‘helped transform the stage on which performative force suffused Argentine society. They did not interrogate family roles and their impact in public spheres so much as demand that a traditional performative pact be honored’ (74).
The lesson here is underscored by the way that Yúdice grounds his project in an ethical model he associates with Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Judith Butler, according to which one must ‘forge his or her freedom by working through the “models that he finds in his culture and are proposed, suggested, imposed upon him by his culture, his society, and his social group.”‘ (39). In keeping with his commitment to strategic thinking, Yúdice positions himself between the Latin American model of performativity and the U.S. one, hoping to be able to productively negotiate the difference, but the thrust of his view certainly places him closer to the Madres, who worked from within given social identities to resist state oppression.
Yúdice’s analysis of the U.S. political scene doesn’t end there, however. Again following DiMaggio, Yúdice points out that though attitudes on critical issues are close in the US, where people do differ is on the facts (46). This point was well documented prior to the last elections in a report entitled ‘Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters’ from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. PIPA’s study found that Bush supporters had a significantly distorted view of the facts surrounding the war in Iraq and a serious misunderstanding of Bush’s views on a number of critical foreign policy issues. Kerry supporters, on the other hand, had a much firmer grasp on the facts surrounding the war and demonstrated a much stronger understanding of their candidate’s policy positions. Bush supporters showed a significant tendency to ignore dissonant information which subverted their attachment to the president. The report cites the trauma of 9/11 as lying at the roots of this resistance to dissonance. But the need for a coherent narrative that respects key beliefs is strongly evident here as well. Indeed, it seems that, especially in times of crisis, narrative coherence will be maintained despite strongly dissonant information. This is in keeping with DiMaggio’s account, cited by Yúdice, that the explanation for political polarization in the U.S. ‘hinges on the strategy of Republicans to articulate a rhetorical frame within which it would be possible to “persuade Americans to accept their views on social issues (not on a one-by-one basis but) wedded together into a compelling narrative frame”‘ (46).
Yúdice cites such as an example of the conservatives having ‘poached the rhetorical suasion of identity politics and steered it in a more conservative direction’ (46). But another lesson is clear: that resistance and strategic thinking on the part of the Left will not substitute for providing a compelling alternative moral-political vision that can make sense of the world while respecting the views of ordinary people.
As the PIPA report suggests the gap between the right’s narrative and the facts is dangerously large. The report’s analysis suggests that Bush’s refusal to admit mistakes is a symptom of the extreme fragility of the Right’s political narrative: ‘The number of people in the public who see through the illusion will likely continue to grow, eating away at the implied mandate of an election’ (PIPA, 2004:14). Yúdice’s criticism of the Left’s tendency to act-out, polarizing political discourse is an important critical insight, especially if, as evidence suggests, there is greater unity among the views of ordinary people than the political discourse admits. But if the Left is going to be able to respond to the opportunity opening with the gap between the Right’s rhetoric and the facts, it will do so by producing its own narrative, one which coheres with the facts, acknowledges the views of the citizenry, but which articulates them within a moral-political vision which orients them in an entirely different direction. Such, however, will require something more than a politics of resistance and a culture of expediency.
Brown, W. (2003) ‘Resisting Left Melancholia’, in Loss: The Politics of Mourning’ (eds), D. Eng and D. Kazanjian. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
PIPA (2004) The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters. http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Pres_Election_04/Report10_21_04.pdf
Accessed January 22, 2005.
Elizabeth Walden teaches philosophy and cultural studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, US.