Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for globalization, education and social futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.
The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.
Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure.
Whereas it would be equal parts wrong, pretentious, and not particularly useful to speak of “the” way of doing cultural political economy – in fact, one of its strongest points, in my view, is that it has so far successfully eschewed theoretical and institutional ossification that seems to be an inevitable corollary of having (or building) ‘disciples’ (in both senses: as students, and as followers of a particular disciplinary approach) – what it emphasises is the interrelationship between the ‘cultural’ (as identities, materialities, civilisations, or, in Jessop and Sum’s – to date the most elaborate – view, processes of meaning-making), the political, and the economic, whilst avoiding reducing them one onto another. Studying how these interact over time, then, can help understand how specific configurations (or ‘imaginaries’) of capitalism – for instance, competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy – come into being.
My relationship to CPE is somewhat ambiguous. CPE is grounded in the ontology of critical realism, which, ceteris paribus, comes closest to my own views of reality [*]. Furthermore, having spent a good portion of the past ten years researching knowledge production in a variety of regional and historical contexts, the observation that factors we call ‘cultural’ play a role in each makes sense to me, both intuitively and analytically. On the other hand, being trained in anthropology means I am highly suspicious of the reifying and exclusionary potential of concepts such as ‘culture’ and, especially, ‘civilisation’ (in ways which, I would like to think, go beyond the (self-)righteousness immanent in many of their critiques on the Left). Last, but not least, despite a strong sense of solidarity with a number of identity-based causes, my experience in working in post-conflict environments has led me to believe that politics of identity, almost inevitably, fails to be progressive.[†]
For these reasons, the presentation I did at the conference was aimed at clarifying the different uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘civilisation’) in cultural political economy, and discussing their political implications. To begin with, it might make sense to put culture through the 5W1H of journalistic inquiry. What is culture (or, what is its ontology)? Who is it – in other words, when we say that ‘culture does things’, how do we define agency? Where is it – in other words, how does it extend in space, and how do we know where its boundaries are? When is it – or what is its temporal dimension, and why does it seem easiest to define when it has either already passed, or is at least ‘in decline’, the label that seems particularly given to application to the Western civilisation? How is it (applied as an analytical concept)? This last bit is particularly relevant, as ‘culture’ sometimes appears in social research as a cause, sometimes as a mediating force (in positivist terms, ‘intervening variable’), and sometimes as an outcome, or consequence. Of course, the standard response is that it is, in fact, all of these, but instead of foreclosing the debate, this just opens up the question of WHY: if culture is indeed everything (or can be everything), what is its value as an analytical term?
A useful metaphor to think about different meanings of ‘culture’ could be the game of Pokémon Go. It figures equally as an entity (in the case of Pokémon, entities are largely fictional, but this is of lesser importance – many entities we identify as culturally significant, for instance deities, are); as a system of rules and relationships (for instance, those governing the game, as well as online and offline relationships between players); as a cause of behaviour (in positivist terms, an independent variable); and as an indicator (for instance, Pokémon Go is taken as a sign of globalization, alienation, revolution [in gaming], etc.). The photos in the presentation reflect some of these uses, and they are from Bristol: the first is a Pikachu caught in Castle Park (no, not mine :)); the other is from an event in July, when the Bristol Zoo was forced to close because too many people turned up for a Pokémon lure party. This brings in the political economy of the game; however, just like in CPE, the ‘lifeworld’ of Pokémon Go cannot be reduced to it, despite the fact it would not exist without it. So, when we go ‘hunting’ for culture, where should we look?
Clarifying the epistemic uses of the concept of culture serves not only to prevent treating culture as what Archer has referred to as ‘epiphenomenal’, or what Rojek & Urry have (in a brilliantly scathing review) characterised as ‘decorative’, but primarily to avoid what Woolgar & Pawluch dubbed ‘ontological gerrymandering’. Ontological gerrymandering refers to conceptual sliding in social problems definitions, and consists of “making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends. (…) Some areas are portrayed as ripe for ontological doubt and others portrayed as (at least temporarily) immune to doubt”[‡].
In the worst of cases, ‘culture’ lends itself to this sort of use – one moment almost an ‘afterthought’ of the more foundational processes related to politics and economy; the other foundational, at the very root of the transformations we see in everyday life; and yet, at other moments, mediating, as if a ‘lens’ that refracts reality. Of course, different concepts and uses of the term have been dissected and discussed at length in social theory; however, in research, just like in practice, ‘culture’ frequently resurfaces as a blackbox that can be conveniently proffered to explain elements not attributable (or reducible) to other factors.
This is important not only for theoretical but also, and possibly more, for political reasons. Culture is often seen as a space of freedom, for expression and experimentation. The line from which I borrow the title of my talk – “When I hear the word culture” – is an example of a right-wing reaction to exactly that sort of concept. Variously misattributed to Goering, Gebels, or even Hitler, the line actually comes from Schlageter, a play by Hanns Johst, written in Germany in 1933, which celebrates Nazi ideology. At some point, one of the characters breaks into a longish rant on why he hates the concept of culture – he sees it as ‘lofty’, ‘idealistic’, and in many ways distant from what he perceives to be ‘real struggles’, guns and ammo – which is why it crescendoes in the famous “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”. This idea of ‘culture’ as fundamentally opposed to the vagaries of material existence has informed many anti-intellectualist movements, but, equally importantly, it has also penetrated the reaction to them, resulting in the often unreflexive glorification of ‘folk’ poetry, drama, or art, as almost instantaneously effective expressions of resistance to anti-intellectualism.
Yet, in contemporary political discourse, the concept of culture has been equally appropriated by the left and the right: witness the ‘culture wars’ in the US, or the more recent use of the term to describe social divisions in the UK. Rather than disappearing, political struggles, I believe, will be increasingly framed in terms of culture. The ‘burkini ban’ in France is one case. Some societies deal with cultural diversity differently, at least on the face of it. New Zealand, where I did a part of my research, is a bicultural society. Its universities are founded on the explicit recognition of the concept of mātauranga Māori, which implies the existence of fundamentally culturally different epistemologies. This, of course, raises a number of other interesting issues; but those issues are not something we shouldn’t be prepared to face.
As we are becoming better at dealing with culture and with the economy, it still remains a challenge to translate these insights to the political. An obvious case where we’re failing at this is knowledge production itself – cultural political economy is very well suited for analysing the transformation of universities in neoliberalism, yet none the wiser – or more efficient – in tackling these challenges in ways that provide a lasting political alternative.
Later that evening, I go see two of my closest friends from Bristol. Walking back to the flat where I’m staying – right between Clifton and Stokes Croft – I run across a fox. Foxes are not particularly exceptional in Bristol, but I still remember my first encounter with one, as I was walking across Cotham side in 2014: I thought it was a large cat at first, and it was only the tail that gave it away. Having grown up in a highly urbanised environment, I cannot help but see encounters with wildlife as somewhat magical. They are, to me, visitors from another world, creatures temporarily inhabiting the same plane of existence, but subject to different motivations and rules of behaviour: in other words, completely alien. This particular night, this particular fox crosses the road and goes through the gates of Cotham School, which I find so patently symbolic that I am reluctant to share it for fear of being accused of peddling clichés.
And this, of course, marks the return of culture en pleine force. As a concept, it is constructed in opposition to ‘nature’; as a practice, its primary role is to draw boundaries – between the sacred and the profane, between the living and the dead, the civilised and the wild. I know – from my training in anthropology, if nothing else – that fascination with this particular encounter stems from the feeling of it being ‘out of place’: foxes in Bristol are magical because they transgress boundaries – in this case, between ‘cultured’, human worlds, and ‘nature’, the outer world.
I walk on, and right around St. Matthew’s church, there is another one. This one stops, actually, and looks at me. “Hey”, I say, “Hello, fox”. It waits for about six seconds, and then slowly turns around and disappears through the hedge.
I wish I could say that there was sense in that stare, or that I was able to attribute it purpose. There was none, and this is what made it so poignant. The ultimate indecipherability of its gaze made me realise I was as much out of place as the fox was. From its point of view, I was as immaterial and as transgressive as it was from mine: creature from another realm, temporarily inhabiting the same plane, but ultimately of no interest. And there it was, condensed in one moment: what it means to be human, what it means to be somewhere, what it means to belong – and the fragility, precariousness, and eternal incertitude it comes with.
[*] In truth, I’m still planning to write a book that hybridises magical realism with critical realism, but this is not the place to elaborate on that particular project.
[†] I’ve written a bit on the particular intersection of class- and identity-based projects in From Class to Identity; the rich literature on liberalism, multiculturalism, and politics of recognition is impossible to summarise here, but the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a decent summary overview under the entry “Identity Politics”.
[‡] I am grateful to Federico Brandmayr who initially drew my attention to this article.