Parrots and Owls: Reflections on The Culture Studies Industry

 

Occasioned by Remembering the Nineties, conference at Birkbeck College, London 8 September ’00

 

What is the purpose of an event such as Remembering the Nineties ? It was called a ‘conference’. Yet there was was an implicit conspiracy to minimise conferring. Papers started late, people drifted in, papers were too long and mainly delivered with no sense of audience, there was very little time for questions and discussions. So, if not about conferring, what was it about ?

It struck me as odd that at the very beginning of the afternoon session the first speaker thanked the audience for still being there. Perhaps this was a recognition of the audience-blindness of the majority of speakers: papers delivered at breakneck speed, with a premium placed on cleverness and semi-ironic self-referentiality – all drenched in the obligatory references to Derrida, Lacan and so on. One of the few exceptions to this was a paper on the problem of memory in autobiographies. Its carefully nuanced empirical respect for primary texts showed up in glaring relief the wild speculations of the bulk of the contributions.

It occurs to me that one way of making sense of this culture was the hypothesis that there are two kinds of animal in the Culture Studies Industry: parrots who utter banalities, and owls who utter obscurities. But then I remembered (how could I have forgotten, given where I was !) that Identity is never a fixed essence, but is the site of contesting discourses. That made more sense of it: Most of the speakers shifted from being spoken by the discourse of the banal to being spoken by that of the obscure. I name the first of these discourses ‘the parrot’ in homage to the Python sketch. The second, ‘the owl’ because of what precedes Hegel’s remark that ‘The Owl of Minerva takes wing with the falling of the dusk’.

But whether predominantly banal or obscure, most papers demonstrated a complicity with the language and categories of that which the Culture Studies Industry fancies itself as being opposed to. There was a paper reflecting on a documentary on the fate of Stalinist monuments in the former Soviet states. The speaker continually referred to ‘the fall of Communism’, with no sense that the term was clearly being misused. We should not expect a mainstream journalist to understand that the original meaning of ‘communism’ is a condition in which workers voluntarily associate, collectively decide on the conditions of their labour and on the nature and distribution of the use-values produced. This misuse of ‘communism’ occurred because such linguistic distortion was in the interests both of the Bolshevik despotism and of the world bourgeoisie. So perhaps we might expect someone who is a noted avant-garde movie-maker and film theoretician to have some distance from this – but then again, perhaps not.

The paper which most eloquently expressed the abdication of any critical distance was ‘The Philosopher in the Market-place’. Despite having declared her indebtedness to Marx, the speaker announced towards the end that ‘there is nothing wrong with markets in themselves, humans have always bartered and exchanged’. She then performed a poor imitation of Richard Branson by going on to call for “ethical” markets. Later, during the panel-discussion, she confessed to not recalling the source of her parroting The Flintstones’ Fallacy (i.e. that the market is a necessary feature of all societal forms). It was pointed out that this was actually Adam Smith and that her remark was somewhat bizarre from someone who claimed any allegiance to Marx. It was further pointed out that it is absurd to claim to be in any sense a marxist and then to accept the political neutrality and universality of the market. The speaker’s response to this was : ‘You sound like the early 80s Left!’.

It is worthwhile remembering the point of Hegel’s famous remark. Before the image of the tardy owl he writes: ‘A further word on the subject of issuing instructions on how the world ought to be: philosophy, at any rate, always comes too late to perform this function’ (Philosophy of Right, Nibs trans.). What is remarkable about the sensibility of both the parrots and the owls is their fondness for ‘issuing instructions’. They accept production for exchange, so they accept the market, so they accept that labour be a commodity – yet they baulk at the vast disparities of wealth and the oppression which follows from this. So all that is available is to mouth moralistic platitudes about ethics and fairness. This is not the sensibility of critique, but of do-goodery – perhaps even radical do-goodery ! The parrot was always dead.

But in an intellectual culture besotted with relativism, from what position can such ‘instructions’ be issued? Only that of the victim – hence the infatuation of New Timers with Queen of the Victims, Princess Diana.

So … what was the “conference” about ? It was a self-legitimation exercise. Culture Studies unlike, for example, philosophy, sociology or politics is an academic discipline which constituted itself on the premiss of a critical stance towards the established order. The theorists of Culture Studies defined themselves against a ‘reductionist’ marxism and ended up by junking anything remotely revolutionary. In association with the ex-Stalinists of Marxism Today (was the journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain which led its move into Eurocommunism and its rejection of anything at all resembling marxism) they promoted a political rhetoric which ended up as the common-sense of New Labour.

Meanwhile, at an institutional level, they found themselves teaching generations of students to whom the notion of critique is utterly bizarre. A melancholy fate: to be teaching students ever more rarified theory, when most of these students lack any knowledge of, or interest in, the cultural tradition which nourished the writers of its canon. Doubly melancholy, as most of these students will graduate to be minor operatives in the propaganda apparatus.

So what strategy is open to these ‘idles’, dreaming in the twilight? Only to generate ever more bizarre and convoluted concoctions of their idols, whilst forgetting those authentically critical resources which can ‘alienate the audience in a lasting manner, through thought, from the conditions in which it lives.’ (Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’). Who would have imagined that a tradition which, in its early days, paid lip-service to Marcuse and the Situationists would end up as a paradigm example of incorporation ?

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