Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe (New York: Verso, 2002), 447 pages. ISBN 1-859-84379-4.
Other Voices, v.2, n.3 (January 2005)
Copyright © 2005, Other Voices/Joshua Schuster, all rights reserved.
Today, it has become all-to-common for academics begin a discussion of any contemporary political disturbance or action by smugly asking: "Should we take this seriously?" What follows is typically a brief statement of healthy skepticism, a few words beseeching careful consideration (while little is actually offered), and an invariably cynical conclusion which merely reiterates that which dominates contemporary political discourse. Of course, a fine dose of skepticism is always welcome, yet when it overwhelms the daily attitudes of intellectuals and intellectuals exhaust the majority of their energies in its unnecessary defense, when skepticism and cynicism circumscribe nearly all political discussions, then there is a problem.
Verso's recent volume, the Cultural Resistance Reader, edited by Stephen Duncombe, collects staples of committed philosophical critique and political philosophy. It is a reader, that is, a kind of exhibition, providing examples of activist immediacy, social-critical analysis, cultural ephemera, street action, and group liberation movements. Cultural resistance is always aimed, in part, at overthrowing the public's ambient disinterest and disaffection for both culture and resistance among people.
We have to learn how to reign in our collective skepticism, for cynical passivity is as learned a behavior as activity. Educators need a series of tools and tactics to delay the all-too-inevitable onset of cynicism in the face of contemporary politics. At the same time we have to learn how to support activities that meet our most human needs. Since the feeling of "being involved" is one of these needs, we need to study and teach that as well. Perhaps the most important issue this volume might address is: how can one find a way to teach against cynicism, yet for a sophisticated and sustained political critique?
Duncombe's selection of texts address this need by foregrounding instances which create ways to be involved through simultaneous political or cultural intervention. The writings raise questions regarding how cultures form around political resistances, how culture acts as an alternative to established political power, and finally how culture interacts with massive normative political operations.
After a glimpse at the 17th Century radical-millennial outburst by Britain's Diggers, Duncombe selects a philosophical texts by Raymond Williams, Karl Marx, Mathew Arnold, and Antonio Gramsci among others which reflect how the "politics of culture" (Duncombe's phrase) functions as a theoretical category. Under the category of "politics that doesn't look like politics," Duncombe places writings as diverse as Hakim Bey's, an account of working at McDonald's, and, as a kind of warning (though a bit too cursory) that not all forms of cultural resistance are "worth celebrating," an account of white supremacists lynching a black man in Georgia in 1920.
Most of the selections are from the 20th Century, and come from the history of activism - a pamphlet from Ghandi leads to a Riot Grrrl manifesto, feminist texts from Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and Jean Railla's "A Broom of One's Own." Duncombe devotes a great deal of space to resistance tactics of the last twenty years, including raves, culture-jamming, semi-anarchist groups of festive resisters like Reclaim the Streets and Billionaires For Bush (or Gore). It is an asset that Duncombe gives space to current anti-capitalist movements, for the first time publishing essays by relatively unknown activists who clarify for the reader that, after the reading is over, there are methods, groups and venues for political engagement ready-at-hand. John Jordan, an agitator for Reclaim the Streets in England, writes that the do-it-yourself "protest movement is breaking down the barriers between art and protest" (347). Duncomb's selections make the gap between reading an essay and generating one's own cultural critique into a teachable space.
How accomplished are these critiques in the face of what Theodor Adorno calls "pseudo-activity" remains to be seen. Duncombe provides the full text of Adorno's "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening", which serves notice that "the liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation" (281). But Adorno's critique can be directed equally at the techno audiences that this book is likely to serve. There is no easy reconciliation of this debate at the heart of critical culture, but Duncombe's project is to sit them at the table first and allow for cross-discussion - in itself an advance over the ideology of waiting until being served. As such, the book will work best for undergraduates and as a reference to initiate further inquiry.
Duncombe's orientation to how culture works operates mainly at the level of everyday experience, driven more by a kind of sociological sense of how people are moved rather than, for example, the model of poets writing political poetry. Duncombe wants to privilege a sense of political and cultural forms as immediate, lived experience - the singular poet or painter is not his favored figure, perhaps judged to be too self-selective and therefore elite, but still artists are an integral fact of cultural production and only mediated or separated from the political in an ideological sense. Remember, this is a "reader," so the authors' critical projects and the specificities of their arguments are largely ignored for the sake of comprehensiveness. Sadly, outside of essays, there are no cultural documents in the book (a poem would not be too much to ask, or one could even fit in the Declaration of Independence to prove the point that now canonical texts were often first written in the spirit of cultural resistance). The ideal anthology of cultural resistance should include all of the cultural materials available, and should invite traditional forms in. One might object that activists and ravers consider themselves as poets in the streets, but the problem is that the poetic objects actually produced (songs, leaflets, smiles) are good for the moment but are not lasting documents of cultural development. We can support spontaneous dancing, but not at the cost of giving up other cultural works that take a long time to understand but resonate deeply. We need to be able to teach both cultural commitment and ephemeral cultural pleasures as co-ordinated political venues.
Joshua Schuster received his MPhil at Université Paris X - Nanterre and is Ph.D. student in English at the University of Pennsylvania. His areas of research include continental philosophy, literary modernism, poetics, biopolitics and ethics. He is an editor of Other Voices.