Issue 3/2001 - Global Players

From the »Commodification of Everything« to »Everything Is Being Made Cultural«

Jeff Derksen

[i]We may say that the historical development of capitalism has involved the thrust towards the commodification of everything.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism [/i]

[i]Everything is being made »cultural.«
Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. [/i]

[b]Fade-In Intro: The Cultural Dissolve [/b]

In order for cultural production to be something more than a symptom, an artifact or a limited agent, it must have a field to act on. The imagination and speculation of cultural production would otherwise circulate freely and unconnected to the world. Yet, with the generalization of culture within globalism theory, the category of culture expands to overtake other categories. Culture functions not only to obscure other social and economic relations, but culture itself can then act only within a closed logic of the cultural field without effects in the social sphere.

As if the sheer scope of globalism needs a totalizing approach to scope or map it, globalism gets viewed as a collection of effects spread evenly throughout the world. Yet, as Peter Hitchcock remarks » - all our causes are effects today -(71). This flip of cause and effect has positioned culture as the »cause« which overrides others within the present global era, or the present formation of globalism. But how has culture made the move from being understood as an effect to being read as a cause? How has the process of culturalization taken root within both theoretical and popular discourses? How has it happened that social, economic, and political »causes« have become understood as cultural effects? And can the cultural, as a field with effects within the social, be reclaimed from culturalization?

The causes of culturalization, or the discursive formations that have enabled culturalization to get a grip in the more popular media, are obviously woven into a number of theoretical formulations. But it is not only the privileging of culture as a frame for understanding the world which fuels culturalization, but an expansion of the category of culture and its merging with the economic sphere. These movements are not a narrative that brings culture back from an autonomous position into a more complex relationship with the social and the economic, sees the breakdown of the distinctions between high and low culture and then somehow democratizes culture by it being integrated into the everyday lives of world citizens. It is not a narrative that moves between base and superstructure, though modernity and postmodernity, etc. Rather there is a contradictory movement of disarticulation - or separation - of the cultural from the social which results in culture absorbing the social while merging with the economic.

A key figure in this movement has been Frederic Jameson, who for the last decade has promoted that »[t]he becoming cultural of the economic and the becoming economic of the cultural, has often been identified as one of the features that characterizes what is widely known as postmodernity« (Global, 60). However, Gayatri Spivak and other theorists of »non-dominant« cultures are at odds with Jameson. For Spivak, »[t]o recode a change in the determination of capital as a cultural change is a scary symptom of cultural studies, especially feminist cultural studies. Everything is being made 'cultural' « (412). The difference Spivak emphasizes is on the verb »made,« altered from Jameson's »become.« It is a symptom of Jameson's methodology, for Spivak, that everything has been »made« cultural, rather than it being a social fact read back into the analysis. Even in Jameson's recent work, it remains nebulous whether the »dedifferentiation« of the cultural, the economic, the social and the political is an analysis of the structure of globalization or a projection which consistently renders culture as both spearhead and symptom. However, the continual U.S. challenges to existing international trade laws, which keep culture relatively separate from strictly economic trade laws under NAFTA, show that the process of the »the becoming economic of the cultural« is still in the making.

But this fluidity of categories and effects is both an oscillation and overlap of terms and a movement of absorption and disarticulation. The contradictory movement in the relationship of the social, the economic and the social that I am outlining is in three parts:
1) there is a becoming economic of the cultural;
2) a becoming cultural of the economic;
3) a becoming cultural of the social. And there is a potential - as yet downgraded or disregarded - of a fourth and reciprocal movement; the becoming social of the cultural. In the processes of articulation and disarticulation, this becoming social of the cultural can also be understood as a remaking of the cultural as the social.

These first three movements result in the limited roles that the cultural is given in globalization, while the fourth potential movement opens a clear role for culture within globalization. And this process of disarticulation and then absorption inflates the category of culture so that it overrides the social, so that social relations are read as cultural effects. All of our causes become cultural causes.

What, then, are some of the sites and effects of culturalization? Neil Smith expansively yet accurately locates culturalization as a mechanism that is both tied to and a cause of »specific strategies of globalization visited on the social conflicts that emerged from colonial and postcolonial administration« (182). As a mechanism of globalization, in Smith's formation, culturalization obfuscated the causes of »so-called tribal violence« in the Rwandan genocide. But despite warnings of the potential effects, culturalization, as an ideology, drove the World Bank to fund projects in Rwanda that led to the economic and social conditions and antagonisms that caused the genocide.

Likewise, in its flip of causes and effects, culturalization confuses the site of »cultural resistance« or »culture jamming.« Naomi Klein's No Logo, a popular account of globalization simultaneously recommended on The Rolling Stone magazine's »hot list« and winner of the Canadian Business Book Award, enacts this flip by proposing that the increase in consumer-good corporate advertising budgets and the emphasis on cultural branding is the cause of the exploitation of labor. In emphasizing marketing over a structural history of globalization, Klein presents globalization as a new phenomenon aided by American marketing techniques that pushes an Americanized cultural homogeneity cloaked as »diversity.« This emphasis on branding as an engine of an emergent globalism builds the impression that Nike is the cause of what Spivak calls the »feminization of super-exploitation.« Rather than understanding this as a structural element of a form capitalism of that has been accelerated by the uneven historical development of globalization, Klein points to an effect - advertising - as a cause.

In a rather astounding exchange of the political for the cultural, a New York Times review of »Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years« crowns this presentation of Jackie O's wardrobe (with accompanying photos and newspaper clippings) as »a first-rate show of political art, perhaps the most startling example of the genre since the Met presented the exhibition 'Harlem on My Mind' in 1968.« The 1961 Vienna summit meeting of Krushchev and JFK might not have been such a flop, the writer speculates, if Jackie could have talked fashion with Krushchev. A few style tips and you can imagine they could have ended the Cold War. Reading the political aspects of US cultural policy during the Cold War years and to view »the First Lady« as part of that »arsenal« does articulate culture and ideology, but it leans toward an excess of cultural studies which reads ideology culturally rather than reading culture ideologically. The assertion that the cultural and class signifiers of Jackie's clothes could form the most effective political art show in three decades expands the category of cultural diffusely. More problematically, it grants little value or effect to politicized cultural production that takes an oppositional stance to US foreign policy; in this sense, the Jackie show can stand in for a politicized art practice.

Obviously these examples of effects within the culture of consumption and national style are also causes of other effects - that is, causes and effects are not strictly separated - but there is a certain neo-liberal triumph in the discourse of globalization's ability to simultaneously locate its effects everywhere while making itself appear both nebulous yet natural.

[b]Becoming Global Culture [/b]

In saying that causes have become cultural causes, I point to a process within the theorization of culture. Globalization therefore provokes a crisis in the methodology of reading culture. Specifically, the limited model of the role of the cultural in globalism theory leaves culture open to an appropriation as an expansive site that simultaneously eclipses and absorbs the social. This weakened concept of culture, like international trade tribunals, is toothless to react to its own positioning.

While the local, the national and the global are commonly joined to form an escalating trajectory for the circulation of culture, it can create the illusion of a seamless world system where culture - along with capital, and racialized and commodified bodies - flows through porous borders shedding and regaining meanings as it is produced anew through the agency of local consumers. Within this model of globalism as fluidity and motion, national and local cultures are imagined as being either in danger of or already effectively absorbed (without a ripple) into a homogenizing global culture defined and managed by transnational corporations (hence positions such as Jameson's and terms such as Disneyfication and Americanization). Culture is given a rather bleak role in this narrative (with its structural resemblance to sci-fi films); cast, on the one hand, as a cultural agent of globalism's economic mission or, on the other hand, resisting the universalizing force of the expanding world capitalist system through the defense of particular national and local cultures. Culture either acquiesces or sets up a resistant roadblock. Here the basic Marxist reflection theory of culture has a deflection function added on. »Reflect or deflect« emerges as the model.

Therefore John Tomlinson's aphoristic statement, »Globalization lies at the heart of modern culture; cultural practices lie at the heart of globalization« (1) epitomizes a general position on culture in globalism: central and embedded either as the noun culture, or the adjectival cultural. Yet whereas culture may have previously been understood as an enmeshed and interactive process within a social whole, or conversely, in some measure autonomous from the social, it is now synched up as a structural feature of a globalism defined predominantly by the interpenetration of the economic into the cultural. Culture is drawn into the economic struggle of expansionism and universalism (global culture, commodification, market expansion) against particularism and boundary preservation (local uses of global culture, preservation of local cultures, defense of identity). In this »scalar dynamic« between the global and the local (with the nation-state as an ambivalent mediating space), Arjun Appadurai, in his Modernity at Large, isolates a defining friction which reverberates today as a slogan: »The central tension of today's global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogeneity« (32). Yet, if culture is at the center of the process and tension of globalization - or if it is »the ideological battleground of the modern world-system« as Immanuel Wallerstein proposes (Geopolitics, 158-183) - then it must also be understood as interactive and constitutive of globalization and not only a vehicle (willing or unwilling) or the site on which globalization is fought out. That is, there must be a becoming social of the cultural.

[b]The Long Drift of Culture [/b]

If there is such slippage or traffic between terms - of the cultural, the economic and the social - how have their meanings been altered? Here, I want to briefly clarify the term culture by following its drift. Culture has proven to be a notoriously slippery concept to define, particularly since it has carried multiple meanings that have been deployed differently over time. A central point of Raymond Williams' definition of culture is that it indeed develops as a historically determined and shifting term. Williams traces culture from synonymous with »civilization« (with its high-cultural connotations) and »as a general classification of 'the arts', religion, and the institutions and practices of meanings and values« to a »metaphysics of subjectivity and imaginative process« and on to more a »social concept« (Marxism 14-16). Williams' well-known statement is: »I would then define the theory of culture as the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life« (Long, 46). This »whole way of life« is not merely the configuration or sum of activities and relation but rather it is defined by »actual experience through which these were lived« (Long 47). In order to refute the notion of culture as an ideal, culture is more actively defined as having a role on the construction of society as a whole and not placed in a mirroring superstructural capacity to an economic base.

The emphasis on culture as a form of praxis woven into other social practices does not lose the distinction between the cultural and the social, for culture (as a praxis) acts on the social rather than being merely determined by it. In a subtle contrast, although one that invokes a more specific anthropological sense of culture, Appadurai shifts from the noun culture to the adjectival form, cultural. Appadurai favors cultural, for »the adjective moves one into a realm of differences, contrast, and comparisons« (12) rather than culture being understood as a thing or a substance. »Stressing the dimensionality of culture rather than its substantiality,« he writes, »permits our thinking of culture less as a property of individuals and groups and more as a heuristic device that we can use to talk about difference (12-13).« Through this sense of culture and the cultural as differential, Appadurai seeks to complicate the relationship of culture and ethnicity, so that ethnicity is not »primordial« and dependent on a »unidirectional process,« but rather instrumental; ethnicity (like Williams' way of life) is inscribed through an assemblage of smaller practices.

What is at stake in these definitions of culture? Williams breaks down two dominant senses of culture to saturate culture with the social and to make culture a form of praxis. Appadurai redeploys culture (and the cultural) as a process which can »articulate the boundary of difference« and against a use of culture as a substantiation which is seen as »shared« universally at a national level. The consequence in Appadurai's work is that culture and the cultural are at a remove from the social; simply put, the cultural tends to work on culture, marking boundaries of differences which can be utilized to articulate a group identity. What tends to be strangely obscured in Appadurai's work is culture as a form of praxis that acts on and has effects on the social. I say strangely because Appadurai constructs a very flexible and fluid model of culture based on global flows; yet, fluid, »irregular and complex as they may be, the six global »scapes« that he defines remain cultural as well as relatively autonomous from each other. Without lifting »difference« and the deployment of differences out of the social or to pose them as deterrents to coalitional social formations, there is the possibility in Appadurai's formulation for culture to not act on the social but to take on a more differentiating role within and between cultures. In this sense, it can function as a form of multiculturalism.

But to invoke another viewpoint on the relationship of difference, the cultural and the social, Appadurai's position risks being read as a symptom of culturalism itself. For Slavoj Zizek, the foregrounding of difference comes as a result of a limiting of the social imagination within globalization: »It is effectively as if, since the horizon of social imagination no longer allows us to entertain an eventual demise of capitalism - critical energy has found a substitute outlet in fighting for cultural differences which leave the basic homogeneity of the capitalist world-system intact (48). While Zizek's position on the usurping of the primacy of the working class by the micropolitics of a siteless multiculturalism may itself be a symptom of globalism, his general point that »cultural« difference can overtake the economic and the social is salient and signals both the expansion of the category of culture and its disarticulation from the social along with its simultaneously absorption of the social as a field. But Judith Butler opens this debate by proposing that »cultural differences« are never »merely cultural.« Butler queries why new social movements get relegated to the »merely cultural.« Behind her questioning, along with Spivak, is the assumption that something which is more than cultural (here social, political, and economic) is being »made« cultural.

[b]The Counter Touch of Cultural Production [/b]

A theory of globalization can draw some strength from Williams' initial fusion of culture and social practices by imagining the cultural as a form of praxis that is not isolated to the cultural field. That is, there needs to be means to imagine a counter touch of the cultural - one that works against culturalization and reveals the articulations of the social, the economic, the cultural and the political. At the same time, we must be careful not to block potential roles for the cultural by a methodology that can only read the economic determinants of a symptomatic culture or to expand culture as a category to the point where it curiously disarticulates the social through an absorption. That is, we must not make the cultural merely economic just as it must not be seen as a wholly autonomous field of production operating within its on rules and laws.

Globalization presents a particularly vague target however. Globalization does not say, to paraphrase Althusser, »I am ideological,« but rather says, »I am natural, inevitable.« The effect of this ideology is, of course, to naturalize ideology and to make resistance seem futile (»get with the game!«). If the ideology of globalization naturalizes globalism as the only form that the world can take, then resistances at the local level remains localized, or absorbed as the endless »production of the local« rather than say, the production of the world. A question facing this model of resistance is if the production and reproduction of the local concedes an imagining of the world?

The fusion of the global and the local into a mutually constitutive relationship has led to the adoption of the dead-end slogan, »the glocal,« from management discourse to cultural debates. In this conjunction, the nation state drops away - despite its role as an engine of globalism and the predominant frame of culture (in visual art exhibitions in particular) - and is replaced as the designated site of cultural and political resistance by the local. But what if the local can also act as a stupid, oppressive structure as well? What if, in the words of Canadian poet Kevin Davies, »Hometowns are reformist idiots!«? In the flip of the nation and the local, can there not be, to adapt Wallerstein's designation of nations, »localities of dominance« as well as »localities of liberation?«

Taking critiques of locality as the site of authenticity as a starting point, Vancouver artist Brian Jungen's sculptural works, collectively titled Prototype for New Understanding, assert themselves into the global to tangle with the management of spatio-temporal relations and representation.

The Prototypes are Nike Air Jordans (late nineties models) disassembled into their constituent pieces and then remade into masks remarkably like classical Northwest Coast Indian (or as they are more commonly called now, First Nations) ceremonial masks. Yet, as curator Reid Shier has pointed out, the formal and material disjuncture here from »global« shoes to »local« masks is not as great as it would seem; the graduated curve of the trademarked Nike swoop and the white, black and red color scheme adapt to the existing semiotics of Northwest Coast art. In fact, Jungen's refashioned Nike masks refer to the historical figurative masks familiar in anthropology textbooks and on display in anthropological museums; killer whale, raven, D'sonoqua (cannibal woman), and frog.

Jungen's Prototypes rematerialize this highly recognizable global product (and a symbol of the consumerist cultural logics of globalization) as »postmodern« Northwest Coast Indian art which is shown in a gallery (present, urban) rather than a museum. This profoundly shortfuses the bad trope of anthropology (which has been carried over into other discourses) which lodges First Nations culture in the past as a culture which had its peak »pre-contact« and just after. In Jungen's configuration, the spatio-temporal management of globalism is cross-circuited by its own complex connectivity and conjuncture. The global - figured as the dominant and inevitable form of the future - is brought into the local, but into a local that is imagined as the past, bypassed by modernization, and part of a non-consumerist »gift« economy. From the other side, First Nation's culture is launched »forward,« straight into the homogenizing global flow of Nike and out of a bound authenticity that limits its spatial claims by collapsing it into the local and denying its present dialogic and dialectic cultural and social influences by holding it in the past. This is not a tactic of resistance seeking the outside of globalism's ideology or a reification of the local, rather it is a strong strategy which brings First Nation's culture into globalism on a symbolic level in order to rearticulate the spatial relations within the discourse of globalization.

By approaching the global and the local as both constructed temporally and spatially, Prototypes for New Understanding addresses, through the different forms of labor dematerialized and rematerialized in the sculptures, what David Harvey calls the »hidden spatiality« within the geography of capitalism. Displayed on armatures and in glass vitrines, the Prototypes reveal the deconstructive labor of Jungen (the cut seams, the cleaved glue joins) in tandem with the labor of the workers who originally assembled the Air Jordans in Nike's South Korean plant. By transforming the Air Jordans into a cultural commodity which acknowledges both the labor and the hidden global spatial relations of the shoes, the existing commodity fetishism of these Nikes is bluntly turned inside out. Here the cultural is not collapsed helplessly into the economical, as it generally is within theories of globalization, but the cultural counters the ideology of the economic.

Prototypes for New Understanding are remarkable in their resistance to absorption into liberal discourses and to the process of culturalization. These beautiful and oddly compelling sculptures can not be »understood« merely as the labor of a global cultural dialogue or of a hybrid subjectivity. Nor do they present culture as being outside of political economy and global social relations. The masks strikingly open the relations of the global and the local as speculations toward prototypes for new [spatial and temporal] understanding: They refuse the spatial and temporal relations of globalism, on one hand, and refuse the cultural designation of First Nations culture as a thing stuck in the past, on the other. At a moment when First Nation bands are legally negotiating, through the Supreme Court of Canada, for their sovereign control of large sections of British Columbia - a massive spatial, historical and political re-arrangement - these Prototypes are exemplar of a social and political deployment of culture towards what Edward Soja calls »spatial justice.«



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