September 2009

Recently, I tweeted:

Katie Couric: “Ppl want to know–what is White Culture?” GB: “I– I don’t know” #dumberthanpalin

(The GB stands for Glenn Beck.) I’ve only recently been able to force myself to watch clips of Glenn Beck, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so viscerally nauseated from hearing someone speak. All the same–I don’t know what “white culture” is either.  And I can see myself throwing down the phrase in conversation/writing. I’d use in the sense Christian Lander, of uses it, as a critique of upper-middle-class privilege. E.g., White Culture places a high value on “saving the earth,” and thus forms social bonds through sharing tips on recycling and on how to “fly” to far away places in the world more often for less money.

While I was running today (another ritual prevalent within White Culture), I had the idea of tentatively renaming my po-co list “Globalization, Post-Colonialism, and ‘White Culture'” (it had been previously tentatively renamed “Globalized Subjects, Globalized Objects”). Here are some possible white cultures I’ve come up with in their relation to globalization:

  • OTOH, there’s the comfy globalization of the white liberal who values multiculturalism, believes “globalization” is inevitable, but in the long run will be beneficial to people both in the “First World” through access to different “cultures” and the “Third World” through economic “development.”
  • OTOH, there’s the racist “White Culture” Beck appeals to for which fundamentalism is the best answer to globalization. (Sadly, it might be.)
  • Overlapping with this group, though, are the white working classes, however broadly defined, who have lost out due to globalization.
  • And as for the anti-globalization crowd (or alter-globalization crowd), the crowd who has heard of the “post-colonial,” isn’t that another white culture? (A recentish article in the Guardian by some Oxbridge lecturer in postcolonial studies drew some incredulous comments regarding her field.)

Here’s four white cultures in varying degrees of opposition to each other. What if it’s possible to think of all four as the same “white culture,” though, like Tyler’s definition of culture as a “complex whole”? (Although George Stocking warned us not to take that definition too seriously.)  I’m not even going to attempt to speculate on how this might be, but I suspect that a historical perspective will be useful.

Or think of it this way: is the “culture” invoked by the “cultural turn” around 2000 the same as the “culture” of post-war cultural anthropology? “Culture” in the former instance is often invoked dialectically with economics in the former instance, as in, globalization works both by cultural and economic means in a mutually reinforcing relationship. “Culture” in the latter instance is invoked in contrast to western modern “society” and nation-states. It’s past 3 am, so all I’ll say is that it’s reminding me of Hardt and Negri’s contrast between our current Empire and the imperialisms of the modern era. Maybe I’d like H and N better if the book was called capital C Culture, as opposed to modern lowercase c cultures.

I’m not sure what to do about my PoCo list. I’ve been toying with the idea of titling it “Globalized Subjects, Globalized Objects.” I’m not quite sure why, so I’ll try to think aloud in this space.

First, my rationale behind the list is very much “anti-” in intention, like everything I do and am. I’m anti-colonizer/colonized binary. Mainly, this is because I don’t think China in the 19th century (or any other, for that matter) works within that model. Either you’re disciplinarily encouraged to ignore it, since only a small part of it was part of the British Empire, or you say it’s an “unofficial” colony, which, someone in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans says, means that British policy could be more cruel. I still think this is too reductionist. Focusing on antagonism between China and the British Empire threatens to obscures the antagonisms within “China,” and Victorians were far more likely to be aware of these antagonisms than we are. An example from the Ishiguro book: Britain’s role in the Chinese Opium War forms the backdrop of the book, but it’s not imperial hegemony that makes the crucial twist, but black-market deals with “China,” done as much for expediency as for profit.

I’m also anti-culture. I’m not sure why. I realized this when I saw the title of Frederic Jameson’s The Cultural Turn (1998), and I decided that “culture” had been done to death. Maybe part of the reason behind this is that I feel myself completed disaffected by whatever “culture” exists around me today. Which of course gives me the alienation that’s the ticket to white-cultural-elitism of a certain kind although I’ve yet to find a place to gain admission. Culture, too, just seems to me to be hopelessly reductionist.

I’m reading Hardt & Negri’s Empire for this nebulously conceived list right now, and I was particularly struck by one line from the preface:

We intend this shift of standpoint [from the realm of ideas to that of production] to function something like the moment in Capital when Marx invites us to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and descend into the hidden abode of production.

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for anything to do with Marx, but there’s something tremendously poetic, and yet mystifying (in a bad way) about this. I think in recent years, this has actually become a cliché, one which I’ve participated in as well. It goes something like this: take an everyday object around you, like the coffee you’re drinking, and trace it back to its “hidden abode of production,” become horrified by the injustice, and there’s your critique. Here’s how the NYRB review of Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker-winning The Inheritance of Loss begins:

There are certain fictions upon which fair-minded, relatively affluent citizens of good will base their lives, the first being that we are indeed people of good will. This fiction is allowed by the belief that the infrastructure that makes life possible comes at a cost that is borne mainly by us. We vote to raise taxes, send money to the less fortunate, drink fair-trade coffee, and drive hybrid cars, all in a genuine effort to do the right thing. If, as Aldous Huxley says, the only completely consistent people are dead, then we are very much alive, failing most of the time to wonder how the food got on our plate, or the shirt got on our back, or where the man on the bicycle delivering Chinese take-out lives, or how he got there, too.

Seek ye out the hidden abode of production, rather than solely making “good” consumer decisions. It’s laudable, but it’s not enough–and I realized this when I hit a part where the reviewer (whom I will not name) completely misses the point:

Here is the immigration debate summed up in two words: can’t and won’t. The economies of scale that allow a place like the Gandhi Café (or the Stars and Stripes Diner, the Baby Bistro, Le Colonial, the Queen of Tarts, and Freddy’s Wok, to name a few of Biju’s previous employers) to compete require the fugitive labor of people like Biju who are willing to work long hours for little pay no matter how miserable the conditions, and no surprise, there are no Americans among them. It is globalization in our front yard, though blessedly hidden from us by the lawn ornaments saying cheap and plentiful, no questions asked. (And anyhow, inexpensive ethnic food makes us feel like global citizens ourselves!)

It’s not just “inexpensive ethnic food” that’s produced by “fugitive labor,” as Desai shows. At one point, Biju works in an expensive French restaurant (he’s fired when he gets into a loud fight with a Pakistani employee), and wonders if in Paris, French people cook French food. No: instead of Guatamalans, Mexicans, and Dominicans, it’s Algerians, Morrocans, Lebanese. White people upstairs (no matter where); coloured people downstairs (no matter where). It’s something I  particularly appreciated. When I was 18 or 19, one summer in Montreal I was having lots of trouble finding a job–not francophone enough, not white enough, not Chinese enough, not man enough, not woman enough. The only thing I found was some dishwashing job in a huge touristy restaurant that served lots of meat. (I’m vegan now, I was vegetarian then.) Dishwashing is fucking tough work. Most of the kitchen staff was brown (the one white quebecois I remember was particularly mean to me), mostly from Arab countries. Most of the wait staff, on the other hand, was white. That’s when I realized how shitty life is for most people in this world, especially most people of colour. But there was nothing particularly “global” about that restaurant, and the food wasn’t inexpensive either. This part of the book was probably the only thing in literature that reminded me of that miserable, eye-opening three-week period of my life before I quit the job.

What’s going on here? I’ll blame the culture model. Id est, “our” culture of middle-class multiculturalism depends on the exploitation of other cultures. I’m not going to deny that, but I think the economic model is more important. Meaning, global-north consumption (whether it’s ethnic, eurotrash, or american-as-apple-pie) depends on the exploitation of global-south production (and it doesn’t really matter about which culture of the global south). If we’re going to look at the “hidden abode of production,” our scope must be as narrow as possible (looking at the hidden basement kitchen of a chichi Manhattan restaurant) and as global as possible (looking at all those hidden basements, both in the global north and the global south). And this process has no end point, unlike tracing the history of one particular product.

Globalized subjects, globalized objects. Subjects and objects, as opposed to cultures. Subjects that can only be  fucked over by culture after culture, or fuck over culture after culture, or both. An axiom, maybe: economic relations within the Hardt & Negriian Empire always far exceed cultural intelligibility. Even if you could track down the producers of your globalized objects, you’d be far from understanding the economic relations constraining all the agents involved. But even the recognition of that aporia is a cop-out. A starting point: the cultural model is apt to posit that the “relatively affluent” are free to roam between cultures, while the benighted underclass are victimized due to their cultural boundedness. No: the cultural underclass is forced to move, or to desire to move, between cultures, outside of kinship networks, outside of legal systems. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes hard work pays off, so you fuck other people over. Sometimes you’re not lucky.

My resolve to blog more frequently seems to have failed rather quickly. I’ll try to start back up again–I was inspired with Anne’s words on the department’s guide to the orals saying how she did a brain dump two days after finishing a book.

I spent about 6 or so hours reading the Illustrated London News in the Butler stacks at Columbia on Tuesday (you should go there just to see how spooky it is). My impressions?

  1. It’s heavy. I took two volumes, for the first and second half of 1860. The issues aren’t incredibly long–it’s a weekly, and the first of each month seems to be longer, and then issues can get down to about 8 pages. But it’s bound in a folio volume. The paper’s done really well–it didn’t feel fragile, so it must be rag paper, and hence doesn’t have to suffer the “slow fire” that’s making other nineteenth-century periodicals almost literally turn to dust when handled. So yeah, heavy, especially when it’s two volumes.
  2. The writing is tiny–like less than 8 point, I think. I get annoyed by small writing, but I usually have no trouble reading it–but I can imagine going blind reading this on a regular basis. I wonder–did many Victorians require a magnifying lens to read their precious periodicals? Why is the writing so small when the text in books tends to be so much bigger and spacey than current books? Is it because the rag paper was expensive and they wanted to economize? Or to make postage costs lower? The writing’s tiny, but the pictures are huge. Most issues have a centerfold (actually, it’s folded twice) with text on one side and either one big picture, or two pictures side by side, or a panorama and other pictures/texts beneath it. And these are BIG pictures–given that a single folio sheet is probably about the same size as your average Playboy centerfold. I would imagine.
  3. I did get a sense of the paper’s politics. One of the things that I’ve been ashamed of from having most of my knowledge of the archive done through database searching is that I haven’t been able to appreciate individual journals’ political stances. The ILN is conservative, although very much a don’t rock the boat conservatism rather than the mindlessly indignant “conservatism” of today. They’re pretty much fine with whatever the government does, like the books reviewed, and the journals they review. Yes, there’s a section once a month reviewing the major monthlies (Blackwood, Fraser, Cornhill (started in 1860), New Monthly Review). They can be either average or good–kind of like academic book reviews these days. Very little editorializing, and a focus on reporting what other people are saying–which of course can at times be very revealing nonetheless.
  4. Characteristics of supposedly postmodern features of media are in full effect. There’s one section called “Epitome of Foreign and Domestic News,” where each “story” is a maximum of two lines long. And news items in other sections can be really short too. E.g. “Mr W. Nichol, of Peckham, shot himself through the heart on Wednesday at the Lambeth Baths.” And that’s it. There’s fashion reporting once a month, with usually three dresses illustrated. They comment on the fashion of the month–and fashion these days seems to be periodized into the season at the smallest span of time.
  5. When they review literature, they don’t just mean novels. I think the majority of works were non-fiction: biography, history, popular science.

I chose 1860 since I was interested in illustrations of the Second Opium War. I don’t think I’m going to incorporate those illustrations into any current project, but it definitely gave me a much better sense of the “synchronous” at 1860. I.e., instead of thinking, first Crimean War, then Sepoy Uprising, then Second Opium War, my impression was: conflict between Spain and Morocco, tension and then commercial treaty between England and France, Napoleon trying to annex Savoy and Nice, Garibaldi in Italy, and the expedition and then warfare in China, the formation of Rifle Volunteer groups across Britain, scattered mention of the controversy around Darwin (they were not impressed–only negative review I saw was of a book called Pre-Adamite Man)–all going on at the same time. The Second Opium War was a major news event, despite all this going on. It was often mentioned as the top item of concern in parliamentary discussions. It was interesting to see that there was a big build-up to it–as in, there’d be updates every week about what troops were rallied where.
And–it felt weird reading it. When’s the last time anybody read those pages? I kept on thinking about the brilliant title-screen at the end of Barry Lyndon that reminds us that the people in the story are all dead now. Who was this “Mr. W. Nichol, of Peckham”? Does he have any descendents who are alive today? Why did he kill himself, shoot himself in the heart? (Suicides, completed and attempted, were a fairly standard news item to report). It felt eerie writing down the name about somebody who will probably never be named again, and about whom we’ll probably never know anything more about. And yet–when he killed himself, could he have dreamed that almost 150 years later, some Chinese-born-Canadian queer grad student in New York would be writing about him?