Are cultural politics worse than no politics at all?


This is truly enjoyable analysis. There’s a lot of Marxism in it, probably a bit too much for me. And in my opinion it is too blunt in its assessment of pop culture but that aside, this is a great argument..

(And hold someone close as you read this because you’re fine with hating Swept Away but he’s going to slaughter a few sacred cows too, starting with Firefly).

On Firefly:

What [shows like Firefly] do perform regularly is liberal multiculturalism, which no doubt reinforces a sense that the show’s gestural anti-statism is at least consonant with an egalitarian politics. And that is a quality that makes multiculturalist egalitarianism, or identitarianism, and its various strategic programs — anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heteronormativity, etc. — neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. Their focus is on making neoliberalism more just and, often enough, more truly efficient.

On The Help:

In both films the bogus happy endings are possible only because they characterize their respective regimes of racial hierarchy in the superficial terms of interpersonal transactions. In The Help segregationism’s evil was small-minded bigotry and lack of sensitivity; it was more like bad manners than oppression… The Help trivializes Jim Crow by reducing it to its most superficial features and irrational extremes. The master-servant nexus was, and is, a labor relation. And the problem of labor relations particular to the segregationist regime wasn’t employers’ bigoted lack of respect or failure to hear the voices of the domestic servants, or even benighted refusal to recognize their equal humanity. It was the labor relation was structure within and sustained by a political and institutional order that severely impinged on, when it didn’t altogether deny, black citizens’ avenues for pursuit of grievances and standing before the law.

On Django Unchained:

Defenses of Django Unchained pivot on claims about the social significance of the narrative of a black hero. One node of this argument emphasizes the need to validate a history of autonomous black agency and “resistance” as a politico-existential desideratum. It accommodates a view that stresses the importance of recognition of rebellious or militant individuals and revolts in black American history. Another centers on a notion that exposure to fictional black heroes can inculcate the sense of personal efficacy necessary to overcome the psychological effects of inequality and to facilitate upward mobility and may undermine some whites’ negative stereotypes about black people. In either register assignment of social or political importance to depictions of black heroes rests on presumptions about the nexus of mass cultural representation, social commentary, and racial justice that are more significant politically than the controversy about the film itself.

On Hell on Wheels:

That’s the happy face of adolescent patriarchy, its expression that doesn’t usually involve a restraining order, though it’s probably best that the brooding loner hero’s sainted wife is nearly always a martyr and thus motivation for, instead of the object of, his sadistic violence and mayhem. But in Hell on Wheels that device also reinforces the reduction of slavery to slaveholding as an individual act, a consumer preference to be negotiated within a marriage – like owning a motorcycle going to the strip club with the guys every weekend, or painting the living room magenta.

On Beasts of the Southern Wild:

The film validates their spiritually rich if economically impoverished culture and their right to it. (Actually, the Bathtub’s material infrastructure seems to derive mainly from scavenging, which should suggest a problem at the core of this bullshit allegory for all except those who imagine dumpster-diving, back-to-nature-in-the-city squatterism as a politics). Especially given its setting in south Louisiana and the hype touting the authenticity of its New Orleans-based crew and cast, Beasts most immediately evokes a warm and fuzzy rendition of the retrograde post-Katrina line that those odd people down there wouldn’t evacuate because they’re so intensely committed to place.

On Won’t Back Down:

Being a progressive is not more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world. The best that can be said for that perspective is that it registers acquiscence in defeat. It amounts to an effort to salvage an idea of a left by reformulating it as a sensibility within neoliberalism rather than a challenge to it.

On Swept Away:

.. their abomination completely erases the original film’s complex class and political content and replaces it with a banal – aka “universal” – story of an encounter between an older woman and a younger man, while at the same time meticulously, almost eerily, reproducing, scene by scene, the visual structure of Wertmüller’s film).

From “Why ‘cultural politics’ is worse than no politics at all” by Adolph Reed.

My problem with this debate is where does it leave us exactly..? So, too much left-wing politics is about repositioning within neoliberalism and not challenging it, and pop culture’s use of history without real politics is obscuring and undermining the very social justice causes it seeks to highlight, and our approach to making sense of racism has been derailed by a preoccupation with individuals rather than systems, and we fail to recognise in our analysis the extent to which class politics is at play in inequality because most of our analysis is done by one particular occupational class*  … now what?

* Also from Reed: “the politics of a stratum of the professional-managerial class whose material location and interests, and thus whose ideological commitments, are bound up with parsing, interpreting and administering inequality defined in terms of disparities among ascriptively defined populations reified as groups or even cultures”.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, culture wars, economics, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, history, Politics, social justice, Sociology

3 replies

  1. And I know this is a LONG article I’m linking to.. but you skim readers need to take it easy in the comment thread because I get frustrated when the debate becomes what was the article about and you didn’t actually read the article. Though I’m a terrible skim reader too so I am not going to get all pious on you and say what’s wrong with long reads and how your Internet-clicking habits are ruining your ability to enjoy true intellectual thought etc.

  2. It is an interesting argument, with great points about distinguishing between individual quests and narratives of liberation, and about the self-congratulatory nature of a lot of “criticism” of movies and shows like the ones discussed here. I still don’t quite get the purpose of targeting cultural politics/studies, rather than the hegemonic movie/media industry that produces these shows and the award/review culture that determines how they’re received by audiences, however. Like you say, a little too Marxist, or, to put it another way, rehashing the familiar line that economic inequality is the only real inequality. I think it is questionable to suggest economic exploitation precedes racism in slavery; exploitation and violence of course use objectification/dehumanisation to justify the use and misuse of some by others, however I think the lynchings of the 1930s in the US and the targeting of Jewish people in Europe at the same time suggest that the relationship between racism and economics is more complicated than the simple defense-of-people-as-property relationship suggested here. The comparison of reactions to The Help and Django Unchained also struck me as lacking consideration of sexism as a factor in the reception of these films. Both are execrable (The Help, at least, literally), but I think it’s worth at least asking what effect the fact that The Help is a film about women, and aimed primarily at a female audience, has on the willingness of critics and other viewers to categorically pan it, while the hearty, meaty masculinity of Django Unchained renders it more palatable. And while I really enjoyed reading a challenge to the idea that strong black characters make an anti-racist story — and, as a parallel, that strong female characters make a feminist story — I was a little confused by the implied argument that personal stories are not political. But it brings up an interesting dilemma at the base of storytelling, which is the fact that telling individual stories (what Reed disparagingly calls “human interest”) is critical to generating empathy and engaging audiences at an emotional and visceral level, while political change requires historicity and context. I suspect narrative interest requires individual stories to be situated in a collective context, too, since all individual stories ultimately end the same way. But I think the criticism of heroic quests in movies and tv needs to be teased out to reflect the fact that, although exploitation (and, perhaps, resistance) is performed by institutions or systems, the suffering it causes happens to individual bodies. Returning to the criticism of cultural studies as a political project, however, I have just been thinking over the past few days of the seemingly (and I know there are many things that could contribute to the appearance of change without real change taking place) relatively rapid change in many broad social/cultural areas, at least in Australia and the US, where I’ve lived, over the last few decades, and its relationship to mass media storytelling and literacy. I’m thinking, primarily, of the rapid shift in attitudes to homosexuality and queer culture, as an example. In my adult life there’s been a visible shift in mainstream opinions, which is heartening. It may well be that these overt changes conceal reactionary conservatism at the level of institutional behaviour (failure to change marriage laws to recognise same sex marriage in Australia, for example). There are, of course, also material conditions that might make societies less resistant to change in sexuality politics than race, class and gender politics — there aren’t clear divisions of labour around sexuality, for instance. But I have a strong suspicion that, flawed as they are, mainstream movies and television have a role in the shift in opinion. That’s no excuse for not addressing the persistent homophobia, racism, sexism etc in stories, however. Which is why debate about these things is so great …

  3. Thank you for this terrific comment! I appreciate you taking the time to expand on it here after we discussed this on Facebook.

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