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Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

In 21st century capitalism, Marxist theory remains a crucial means to interpret the socioeconomic present and potentials for political change. But Marxism as a method is also important culturally, in understanding the ideas, attitudes and beliefs that exist today, and how they have developed historically through various social forces. In her recent book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto, 2019), Barbara Foley aims to emphasise the continuing value of a Marxist analysis of literature and culture, and introduce core concepts – historical materialism, political economy, ideology critique – to a new generation seeking to comprehend the ongoing class struggle. In this interview, I discuss with her some of the ideas she raises in the book.

Barbara FoleyBarbara Foley is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research and teaching focuses on US literary radicalism, African American literature and Marxist criticism. Throughout her career, her work has emphasised the centrality of antiracism and Marxist class analysis to both literary study and social movements. She has written six books and over seventy scholarly articles, review essays, and book chapters. Her previous books include: Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (University of Illinois, 2003); Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Duke University, 2010); Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution (University of Illinois, 2014).

Why did you feel a new book about Marxist literary criticism, and specifically an introductory text, was important at this time?

Barbara Foley: For two reasons. First, because there haven’t been any introductions to Marxist literary criticism in many years – since Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976 ) and Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977). (I consider Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) to be seminal; but it is a difficult book, hardly an ‘introduction’.) Second, because there’s clearly a revived interest these days – especially among young people – in left ideas, as these pertain not only to culture but also to economics, politics, and history.

Since even the very useful works noted above largely take for granted the reader’s prior acquaintance with fundamental principles of Marxist analysis, though, I decided that my book should outline key features of historical materialism, political economy, and ideology critique before addressing Marxist approaches to literary criticism and interpretation. Besides, since there’s a good deal of confusion these days about what constitutes a ‘left’ political position – or a ‘left’ act of cultural analysis – I wanted to clarify where Marxism overlaps with but is also distinct from a more broadly leftist critical orientation. READ MORE

One Question
Social Media

One Question
Social Media

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Have social media become a divisive force?

With responses from: Paolo Gerbaudo, Christian Fuchs, Lizzie O’Shea, Geert Lovink, Eva Anduiza, Joss Hands, Zizi Papacharissi, Alfie Bown, Panos Kompatsiaris, Eugenia Siapera, Eran Fisher, Dal Yong Jin, Tanja Bosch.

Social Media

Paolo Gerbaudo

It is fair to say that there has been a 180-degree turn in the debate on social media and politics. At their inception in the late 2000s, there was much hope about their democratic potential. The US Department of State Internet Freedom agenda pursued by Hillary Clinton in particular stressed how social media could be the harbinger of freedom of expression and democracy in many authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring in 2011 and the wave of movement that ensued from the Indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street in the US seemed to be proof of that idea.

These were indeed movements that were largely organised and mobilised on social media, hence the rather cheesy moniker ‘Facebook revolutions’ was not all that misplaced. These movements had realised the political potential of a time in which internet and social media access, for long the preserve of a tiny minority of scientists, artists, and journalists, was eventually becoming more of a mass space for ordinary people, with average income and education levels, to join the fray.

Yet in recent years, social media seem to have become in the public imagination much more a weapon for the extreme right. Notably Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and other right-wing populist insurgencies have had a very strong social media component. Furthermore, we have become aware of how much social media platforms are conducive to fake news, extremist political cultures such as the alt-right, forms of aggression and symbolic violence of all sorts, and how they embolden fanatics who were previously isolated and marginalised.

Faced with this situation it is important not to fall to prey to the ‘liberal panic’ that has become common in commentaries about the present situation, and which leads to a very pessimistic and ultimately self-defeating posture. We need to realise that we now live in a ‘plebeian’ internet, one that is more representative of the actual sentiments and views of society, including some that we as progressives would have preferred not to be too exposed to.

Rather than retreat and disengagement, or wholesale condemnation of the internet ‘deplorables’, what is required from Left activists is a great effort of political education both online and offline that may counteract the tide of right-wing populist hegemony. Young alt-right bloggers and YouTubers that are now often dominating attention need to be met with a new generation of socialist bloggers and YouTubers that may explain complex political ideas in simple way that is persuasive to social media publics, and thus turn against the present tide of resentment and xenophobia. READ MORE

Catherine Rottenberg
Neoliberal Feminism

Catherine Rottenberg
Neoliberal Feminism

In recent years, it has become increasingly uncontroversial in parts of mainstream discourse for women to identify as feminist. In much of popular culture, feminism is no longer depicted as a marginal, radical ideology and has instead become a desirable ethical stance promoted even by the elite. But what is actually meant by ‘feminism’ in these instances, and how does it relate to a project to improve the rights and freedoms of women in general?

In her 2018 book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, Catherine Rottenberg explains how the popular concept of feminism that has emerged actually tends towards supporting the status quo and the dominant rationality of competitive individualism. In the following interview I discuss with her the ideas and issues she raises in the book.

Catherine Rottenberg

Catherine Rottenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent book is The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (Oxford University, 2018). She is also the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature (UPNE: 2008) and the editor of Black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East Side: Narratives out of Time (SUNY, 2013). Her research interests span 20th-century American literature, feminist theory, cultural studies, feminist media studies, and critical race studies.

 

What are the core characteristics of ‘neoliberal feminism’?

Catherine Rottenberg: In a nutshell, I understand neoliberal feminism as a particular variant of feminism that has emerged and become dominant on the Anglo-American cultural landscape in the past decade.

This feminism is a hyper-individualising feminism, which exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve ‘a happy work-family balance.’ It also incites women to perceive themselves as human capital, encouraging them to invest in themselves and to be empowered and ‘confident.’ Ultimately, it produces a new feminist subject who is incessantly pressed to take on full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care.

This feminism can and does acknowledge the gendered wage gap and sexual harassment as signs of continued inequality, which, I suggest, distinguishes it from what Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill call postfeminism or a postfeminist sensibility. Yet, the solutions it posits to such inequalities are also individualised – such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse – ultimately eliding the structural undergirding of these phenomena. Neoliberal feminism is thus a form of feminism that not only disavows the socio-economic and cultural structures shaping our lives, but one that has abandoned key feminist terms such as liberation and social justice.

READ MORE

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

The concept of ‘identity politics’ is central to a great deal of mainstream political discussion, both on the left and right. On one side, it is a form of politics that asserts the rights of marginalised groups against entrenched cultural (white male) privilege. On the other, it is an elitist drive to curtail free speech and undermine traditional values. But how does it relate to a more radical left-wing project? Has identity politics become a politics of the establishment? What kind of role must it perform in a mass movement for radical social change? In his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers the history and modern form of identity politics, and what it means for the development of collaborative social movements. In the following interview I discuss some of the important points he raises.

Asad Haider

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018)

How was the emergence of identity politics in the 1970s important as a critique of the socialist politics of the time? Does modern identity politics continue to perform the same function?

Asad Haider: I advocate being very specific about terminology, so I associate the emergence of the term identity politics with the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977, which posed an essential challenge to the class reductionism of past socialist movements – that is, the assumption of these movements that economic exploitation was experienced in a unitary way, that other forms of domination were peripheral, and that struggles against other forms of oppression were subordinate to class politics. It was also a challenge to the black liberation movement and the feminist movement, because the specific position of black women was not taken into account. ‘Identity politics’ in this case meant producing a more radical struggle against all forms of oppression.

In my book, I jump from the introduction of that term to its usage during the 2016 primaries in the US, during which it was used to defend the Democratic Party elites and their agenda against challenges internal to the party, but which were riding the wave of previous social movements. ‘Identity politics’ in this context was seen in opposition to socialism, which was represented as necessarily exclusionary. This was not an attempt to enrich socialism and realise an emancipatory potential that had been suppressed by exclusion; it was a weaponised deployment of identity to prevent a shift to the left.

The point is that, like any word, the meaning of ‘identity politics’ is highly contested, and that its usage today is frequently diametrically opposed to its original usage. I am sympathetic to those who want to reclaim its original usage, but it seems to me that this will be very difficult, because the whole apparatus of the media and the liberal intelligentsia have appropriated the term, and have reshaped its meaning in such a way that it carries new effects; it will never simply return to its ‘pure,’ original usage, but will now also carry with it the resistance to coalitions, the opposition to socialism, the reduction of politics to a demand for recognition by the state. My intention in the book is to recognise the valuable and necessary contribution of the founders of the term, while criticising its contemporary appropriation and beginning to look for other languages that can carry on that emancipatory project. READ MORE

Anamik Saha
On Race and the Media

Anamik Saha
On Race and the Media

The question of how race is represented in the media remains as pertinent as ever. Most notably, the social media campaign #Oscarssowhite has highlighted the continued racial imbalance within the Hollywood film industry, but this low level representation of racial difference, as well as its misrepresentation, are issues that cut across all forms of mainstream news and entertainment media. In his new book, Race and the Cultural Industries (Polity, 2018), Anamik Saha explores the politics of racial representation in popular culture. He focuses especially on how cultural industries, such as music, TV and film, actually function to exclude or stereotype racial minorities, often by following capitalist logics. Here, I discuss with him some of the central points he raises in the book.

Anamik SahaAnamik Saha is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London. Anamik’s research interests are in race and the media, with a particular focus on cultural production and the cultural industries. He has had his work published in journals including Media, Culture and SocietyEthnic and Racial Studies, and European Journal of Cultural Studies. With David Hesmondhalgh (2013) he co-edited a special issue of Popular Communication on race and ethnicity in cultural production, and with Dave O’Brien, Kim Allen and Sam Friedman (2017) he co-edited a special issue of Cultural Sociology on inequalities in the cultural industries. His new book Race and the Cultural Industries came out in 2018, published by Polity Press.

In your recent book, Race and the Cultural Industries, you analyse how commodified mass media represents or constructs conceptions of race. Could you briefly summarise the importance of your approach, and how it enables us to understand the mechanisms of representation surrounding race and ethnicity in popular culture?

Anamik Saha: In a nutshell, I am interested in the production of representation of race in the context of the cultural industries. That is, how cultural industries make race. This I feel is a neglected area of study. In media and race research, the main concern is with how racial and ethnic minorities are (mis)represented in the news or in popular culture. Such research mostly entails examining how a particular representation of racial or ethnic minorities works at the point of reception/consumption. But there’s little understanding of how that representation came to be made in the first place. And surely that should have some bearing on how we understand that particular text?

For instance, while this may not be their main motivation, for many cultural producers from minority backgrounds – whether an author, a scriptwriter, a filmmaker, or a musician – one aim is to challenge a particular racial or ethnic stereotype through the stories they are creating. But very often they will encounter (white) creative managers, for instance an editor, a producer or executive, who, armed with sales data, market research, or even just a ‘gut feeling’, will attempt to steer the author/filmmaker/playwright into reproducing the very trope they were trying to undermine in the first place, on the basis that it will work better with the ‘mainstream’ audience. This explains those instances where we find minorities behind the making of what we deem problematic representations of race.

I argue that having this insight into the production process, at a basic level, will shed new light on how we read and interpret the cultural commodity in question. But more than that, it points us to the question of where exactly we need to stage interventions: during the process of industrial cultural production itself. A key argument of the book is that we need to couple a ‘politics of representation’ with a ‘politics of production’, that is, a focus not just on the stories we want to tell, but how we make them. READ MORE

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind. READ MORE

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

This interview was conducted with Judith Butler by email in 2012 and is included in the book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism.

Judith ButlerJudith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her many books include: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity; Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”; Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning; and Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

To what extent, in your view, do the ways in which mainstream media select and contextualise events determine the boundaries of public thinking? You have said on one hand, regarding the “framing” of war and terrorism, that, “Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself”,[1] but also that “specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality”.[2]

Judith Butler: There are surely many ways that this happens, but we can note at the most obvious level the way in which forms of resistance or violence get cast as “conflicts” that assume two sides that are fighting only against one another. We are more often than not asked, for instance, to regard Israel and Palestine as in a conflict of this kind, a framing that sets each of them on equal footing, and implicitly analogizes the political situation to a fist fight, a soccer match, or a domestic quarrel. So if, then, the only two intelligible political positions are “pro-palestinian” or “pro-israeli,” the presumption is that one’s position is determined by a sentiment that wants one side to win over the other. In the meantime, what is lost is any sense that the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonial rule is waged from a situation of occupation or expulsion, that there is a military order that controls the boundaries of what would be a sovereign Palestinian state, that the land on which that state is now thinkable has been radically diminished by an ongoing practice of land confiscation and appropriation. So we set the actors on the scene through the banal discourse of “conflict” in ways that fully deflect from the history and struggle of colonial resistance, refusing as well by that means to link the resistance to other forms of colonial resistance, their rationale, and their tactics.

Obviously, visual renditions of war not only establish what can be seen, and the audio-track established what can be heard, but the photographs also “train” us in ways of focusing on targets, ways of regarding suffering and loss. So photographs can be forms of recruitment, ways of bringing the viewer into the military, as it were. In this way, they prepare us for war, even enlist us in war, at the level of the senses, establishing a sensate regime of war. READ MORE