A Prisoner of the Modern (response to J. Fornäs) – Lawrence Grossberg

While I am pleased to have the opportunity to engage in conversation with someone whose work I have admired for some time, I obviously face a certain dilemma about how to respond to such a critique. And I apologize in advance in case I do not fulfill my responsibilities adequately (for my work stands in as well for the work of a larger community), or if, on the other hand, my comments are too predictable. I don’t want to argue with Fornäs’ interpretation of my work, although I will inevitably touch on such issues. Instead, I want to try to clarify the differences between Fornäs and me, partly because they are not always as great as they may seem, and partly because I want to try to make clear what the stakes are where we do disagree. This will require me to elaborate on my own project a bit.

Let me begin by somewhat artificially distinguishing three intersecting issues: materiality; cultural specificity; context and power. The first issue involves the question—is there a reality outside of culture that must, somehow, enter into our researches. Here, there is no disagreement; both Fornäs and I would answer in the affirmative. Fornäs clearly has lots of things outside of texts – at the very least, subjects and contexts, and he does acknowledge the importance of the empirical studies of social practices. More to the point, his favorable reference to Peirce’s semiotics – with its distinction between firstness, secondness and thirdness (or to put it simply, the sensory, the existential and the symbolic) – would seem to support my reading. Of course, the question is, as Fornäs correctly perceives, how one can talk of relations of and to firstness and secondness without assuming some kind of innocent immediacy or presence. So here, on the crucial question, we are all materialists of some sort, possibly different sorts (and these differences no doubt have important epistemological consequences).

The second question is ‘what is culture?’, or better, ‘what are the effects of culture? ’ Here we do disagree, but perhaps not in quite the way it has been suggested. Apparently, Fornäs believes that cultural practices are necessarily – always and only – about the production of meanings. (I assume that he has in mind something like ‘signification’ or ‘cognitive meaning’.) I don’t want to deny that sometimes cultural practices produce meanings – in specific contexts and in response to particular questions that we might pose to these practices as cultural researchers – and that sometimes these meaning-effects will be the most pertinent. But, I am simply not willing to make that assumption for all contexts and all questions. I believe that cultural practices can produce many different kinds of effects. They can be articulated to multiple regimes of discourse. I think we need a theory which enables us to leave the question open. We need to be aware of what sorts of questions (and answers) our particular theory poses and what sorts it prohibits.

This begins to take me to the third question. Fornäs apparently believes that it is possible and desirable to have a universal theory of culture, a theory that then, paradoxically, denies that other forms of universality are possible. Hence, it is necessary for Fornäs to decontextualize my argument, following modernism’s peculiar universalizing demand. But I have repeatedly argued that I am not interested in transcending modern thought in some pure philosophical debate, but rather, I am engaged in a much more contextual and pragmatic attempt to find something useful to say about some of the changing relations of economics, culture and power. I am trying to look at the complex contemporary relations between the multiple forms of modernization, modernity and modernism that are, I believe, radically reshaping the world and peoples’ lives, in ways that I fear will lead to even greater misery and injustice.

So I come to the third question, where I think the serious disagreements between Fornäs and me are located. And here I must say something, not about Fornäs’ interpretation of my argument, but about the rhetoric that my argument produces in his discourse. For I must protest that I have been framed, not only in the sense of interpreted but also in the sense that I have been set up. I am positioned as a criminal, charged and found guilty of attempted murder (of meaning and the text). Moreover, I am part of a larger band of criminals who are threatening the established boundaries of reality. I have dared to try to criticize modern thought (and in particular, Kant’s assumption of the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon, which as Ricoeur has suggested is the beginning and the space of all modern thought. (I wish I could just jump out of modernism or ignore it but unfortunately, it is real, although an historical invention and therefore, not the only possibility for living and being.)

I have questioned the logic of mediation as a particular discursive structure or regime – I have never denied that there are many very real kinds of mediation – which is offered as a philosophical answer to the question of the specificity of the human. This logic says that mediation is the human condition because we lack something (and in this way, at least part of its project was to protect the autonomy of the human from science). And as it developed, this logic equated mediation and (cognitive) meaning.

Now Fornäs, in the role of rhetorical prison guard, tells me that escape is impossible. I am apparently attempting to escape from history or an idea of history in which all tradition and time are equated with the logics of North Atlantic modernity. Hence, it is not me who believes that history has come to an end but Fornäs, since apparently the future can only be an endless elaboration of North Atlantic modernity (and all thinking must be a footnote to Kant, or perhaps more accurately, Hegel). I, on the other hand, do not think the past is gone, but that we are witnessing significant changes (some things are new) that demand some new theoretical tools.

Even worse, the attempted escape brings with it the charge of monstrosity, of totalitarianism, since the prisoner has clearly not accepted his (i.e. my) guilt (or ‘lack’) or punishment, and hence cannot be rehabilitated.

But I would suggest that Fornäs’ logic here is precisely reproducing one of the reasons for the enormous success and power of the particular configurations of reality, thought and power that is North Atlantic modernity. And it points as well to why the logic of mediation is so central to it: for once you enter it, apparently championing the human against ‘tradition’ and authority, you can’t seem to find a way out. One will constantly here Derrida echoing somewhere in the background, you can’t escape logocentrism.

But this entire edifice of reality, discourse and power is a historical and geographical invention. Not everyone has lived in it and I dare say that there are some who still do not (or at least who live in it differently or are trying to resist). I think we need to find ways of imagining new futures, new possibilities for re-configuring reality, for finding counter-modernities. In fact, I think we are, perhaps unknowingly, being moved into another modernity or, more accurately: there are already a number of competing modernities which are strangely related. For example, we can point to the emergence of a new set of religious and moral discourses and practices (which may be trying to exit us from Foucault’s disciplinary society). And, we can also point to new forms of the economization of society, including the project of neoliberal Globalization. Here I would want to at least consider the possibility that relations between commodity (labor), subjectivity and agency within North Atlantic modernity do not need to be deconstructed because, as I believe Foucault was suggesting (unlike the so-called post-structuralists), neoliberalism/capitalism is already challenging this historical compromise, instituted and accepted in the eighteenth century, and theorized to some extent by Kant.

I am suggesting that the logic of mediation as a crucial part of North Atlantic modernity, was the historical invention of the ideology (universality) of ideology. And that today, neoliberalism (including, crucially, emergent forms of global capitalism and neo-colonialism) is itself selectively dismantling the apparatuses of ideology, civil society and the liberal subject. By the way, I think this is why Foucault rejects ideology as a useful category.

[A brief aside here: Cultural studies in Europe emerged after the Second World War partly in response to the reconfiguration of labor and classes, and it has been sustained by the fear of American contamination coming in through the back door of culture. In the 1990s, as we are witnessing another reconfiguration of labor and classes at least as great (and which we now understand as always articulated to race and gender), Americanization is coming anyway, and through the front door of neoliberalism – which is neither independent of culture nor is simply a matter of ideological meanings.]

How do we oppose this reconfiguration of power and reality? Echoing Audre Lourde, can we use “the master’s tools”? Ironically, we seem to be caught defending the old capitalism/liberalism/nation-state project (in order to rescue civil society and the subject). Or else, equally ironically, we are deconstructing that which neoliberalism is itself already attempting to deconstruct in even more radical ways. I would not want to go so far as to suggest that we are spending our time and energy attacking things that are already becoming irrelevant, but I do want to be able to raise the question. While at one point we might have celebrated the culturalization of nature, I now wonder whether, in the face of environmental disaster and biotechnology, we don’t need to rethink such matters.

The logic of mediation has produced a crisis of relativism which, to some extent, cultural studies must face head on, but it must do so by at least thinking about Bauman’s suggestion that this is a permanent crisis (within modernism) which serves to legitimate the authority of the intellectual. The solution can only come, I believe, by escaping the text and meaning, in order to explore the relations between discursive, social and economic practices, experience and power. I welcome here the sophisticated complexity of Fornäs’ [“Popular Passages”] project in its attempt to map the complex spaces of people, discourse, social practice and what Mikko Lehtonen has called “intermediality.” Fornäs compares this project to Benjamin’s Arcade Project (Passagenarbeit). And it is the distance between these that disturbs me. For Benjamin’s project was an attempt to understand the changing material configuration of power and reality in the twentieth century. And it was a significant moment in his rather despairing vision of the present and of the commodity as a ruin, as a dead signifier.

To put it simply: where is power in the “Popular Passages”? Where is inequality, injustice, exploitation, etc., in all their complexity? That is to say, from my own cultural studies perspective, I want to ask ‘what is the question?’. Fornäs presents a rather harmonious, untroubled vision of consumption and media in the contemporary world. Now I don’t mean to suggest that the context of modernity or the questions of the theoretical inheritance of modernism that I have been raising here are the only urgent issues, or that they define the only necessary level of analysis. But I do mean to argue that questions of context and power (including that of our own theoretical assumptions) are central to cultural studies.

To conclude, I am afraid that what I have called the logic of mediation is preventing us from asking some of the questions that need to be asked if we are to see what is going on – in culture I want to emphasize – and from imagining alternative or counter-modernities. All I am suggesting is that we may not yet have found the questions that need to be posed – and all my work at the moment is trying to pose such questions, to say nothing of the means for answering them. Hence, in the end, I believe we must do more than communicate or read, we must communicate about something; and it matters to us as cultural studies scholars, what that referent is and how we understand the status of the referent. It matters as well that we communicate in languages that are up to the task.

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