Is it possible that truth is always retrospective? That truth– a truth, The truth– is only accessible after the fact? We live in a culture of immediacy– one perpetually suspended in contemporaneity– a state of overstimulated amnesia, according to some, in which we are incapable of imagining any future except as another version of the present. Thus odds are most of us would more readily recognize a photo of Justin Bieber than, say, this fellow right here:
Or does the hat give it away? Even further, the emphasis on ephemeral Pop occludes even our recognition of those figures whose acts fundamentally affect our lives. See if you know who this is:
Does he look as though he’s about to start screaming? The flag indicates some official role, and that cornered expression tells us he is the Secretary of the US Treasury, Tim Geithner, who has captained the later stages of the global economic apocalypse. Why do we know Justin so well and fail to identify the man who dumped trillions into the laps of the very institutions which kneecapped the world’s finances? There is a lesson here.
More to the point concerning our Final Exam: culture has many particular functions and its prominence in daily life, its imperial character, is remarkable– to the extent that it can overshadow the knottiest problems in our lives. If the Rapture came suddenly and locusts swarmed through streets littered with the dead and the dying, there are some of us who’d only notice once the internet connection went down. This is culture as dope– as a space for fantasy-work, for escape and evasion– though of course there are other purposes which culture pursues. As a means of identity construction, for instance, as we saw in Buddha of Suburbia (and even Iran Awakening and Brother, I’m Dying if you think about it). As a situation where social contradictions are engaged with and perhaps overcome. Culture dominates our waking lives (and even the landscapes of our dreams are frequently constructed out of the Pop detritus scattered through our subconcious)– a fact that underscores the lengths travelled from Culture’s original significance as described by Raymond Williams.
Speaking of Williams, another of his critical concepts we addressed in reference to Kureishi’s novel was “structure of feeling,” a difficult term which attempts to capture lived experience. When Charley watches the Punk band he achieves a kind of epiphany, immediately reaching out for its crude vitality and leaving the residue of the Hippie Era behind. The difference between those cultural modalities is a difference in structure of feeling. Contrast the core values of hippie-ism with those of Punk and you’ll see what I mean. More significantly this spark of recognition on Charley’s part is a form of desire, a kind of cultural lust. He isn’t the only literary character we encountered this semester who felt that rush. Think of Eva, her love for Harry, the ersatz yogi of the suburbs, and her attachment to the symbols of the Orient. There is a deeper, more fraught aspect to these particular desires which reach back to the Orientalist paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, a fantasy-projection of the Cultural Other which continues to animate “Western” thinking. The Veil is perhaps the sharpest example of this convoluted attraction and repulsion. The meaning of the Veil is ultimately situational, determined according to a set of conventions of which Western media are profoundly ignorant. To the liberal mind, the Veil signifies female subjection, the intolerance of tradition, and resistance to modernity’s enlightenments. To different women who dressed hijab over the longer historical term, on the other hand, the Veil could communicate social status or cultural belonging. In fact in the Maghreb, Tuareg men wear veils which they constantly adjust the way Indian men fiddle with their dhotis. We could attempt to push through the seemingly mutual incomprehension of “the Muslim world” and “the West”– designations which in any case only occlude the fractured, variegated nature of the regions and cultures they purport to describe– and point out that until very recently Christian women often covered their hair, that masking and concealment occur daily in the West, just as there are many Muslim women who forgo hijab entirely.
Like culture itself– text, practice, value– the bearers of culture (cultural identity) changes as it travels. Appadurai called this process indigenization, though we should be careful to note that the transformation referred to does not mean that culture is “pure” at its point of origin. If we agree that Hip Hop has been exported to most of the rest of the world where it has been adapted to local imperatives, we should also acknowledge that Hip Hop was already a hybrid (“mongrel”) creation which emerged from the Atlantic slave trade and the massive population displacements it forced. In a sense, then, Hip Hop, the product of the African Diaspora, shoots “back to Africa” and elsewhere, embellishing the musical repertoires of other diasporic traditions. Remember that our world is the product of these flows, and recall the reasons those flows began. Underlying the attractions of cultural mix-and-flow is a material and economic substrate, a set of conditions which impels movement, changes lives, and pushes individuals into wider personal networks such that today the inhabitants of many nations possess truly transnational affiliations. The key word here, one we’ve confronted before, and which by now you ought to be able to define promptly and with some depth, is neoliberalism or neoliberal globalization.
The final exam is your opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual and imaginative chops rather than to simply regurgitate semi-digested soundbytes. Take the exam seriously and strive for lucidity but don’t be afraid to test the limits. Open book, open note, due 10.30 at turnitin.com on Monday Dec. 20.