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Rethinking Culture

Review of Michael Denning, Culture in the age of three worlds (London: Verso, 2004), 280pp. ISBN 1-859-84449-9 [ISBN-13: 978-1859844496].

Christine Boyko-Head

Denning, Culture in the age of three worlds, cover image
Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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Within the last fifty or so years, culture, as a topic, has moved into the foreground of history, criticism, politics, current events and our daily lives. It is no longer merely confined to the quiet spaces of art institutions, or the yellowing pages and memories of the keepers of folktales and myths. An awakening occurred that "the masses had culture and culture had a mass . . . what's more culture mattered" (Denning, 1). It contributed and contributes to the wealth of nations in ways that move beyond the accumulation of treasures in museums, galleries and collections, and "the general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development" (Williams, 90). It is, in fact, a way to "win the battle of democracy" (Denning, 225) as we see "new forms of struggle and solidarity in places we never thought to look" (Denning, 234).

Michael Dennings' book Culture in the age of three worlds discusses the rise of cultural studies as a phenomenon generated from the demise of the three worlds and the rise of global economies and politics. At the onset, Denning plays the role of the omnipotent sage analyzing and interpreting cultural developments over the last fifty years; Denning does not side with one definition of culture over another, one theory of its force, or manifestation in our evolving global civilization. Nor, does he answer Jonathan Tomlinson challenge that "What we need to understand is not what culture is, but how people use the term in contemporary discourse" (5).

Instead, Culture in the age of three worlds is about the emergence, development, detours, obstacles and advances of cultural studies as a discipline. The text chronicles the definition and re-definition of culture and cultural studies during a time when the world was "neatly" divided into thirds—the Capitalist first world, the Communist second world, and the decolonizing third world, a period roughly between 1945-1989.

While Denning's focus is on the cultural turn marked by this historical period, he is also intrigued by the present cultural crisis caused by the shift from a plural worldview to our current, singular global vision. In essence, then, Culture in the age of three worlds is a meta-cultural event that could only exist in the here and now as Denning looks into a mirror of the past only to see in the reflection a window of the present. This reflection provides the reader with an interesting overview of cultural studies, many intriguing questions concerning dominant assumptions and views of cultural practices, and "new forms of struggle and solidarity" (Denning, 234). By chronicling the development of cultural studies, Denning eventually brings us to a visionary search "for identity and difference in the face of impersonal global forces" (Hall & Jacques, 237). This search takes him to the domains of labor, the trailers of migrant workers, the dens of writers, the studios of musicians and the attic lofts of artists to redraw the maps of "a new cultural front" (233). It is this visionary forward looking perspective that moves the book from history to practice/praxis, thereby signifying his contribution to the field of cultural studies and (r)evolutionary thinking.

Denning's book differs from other commentaries on cultural studies because of its Janus-faced broad and narrow perspective on the emergence of cultural studies across the globe. His wide angle shot of the subject sees it as a global phenomenon developing out of the "cultural and ideological struggles between the three worlds" (2), rather than a successfully packaged program concocted in first world universities. Yet, the emergence of the cultural studies movement in post-secondary towers links Denning's broad focus to his sharper close-up of the phenomenon. This focus, he argues, is due to historically specific conditions marking the age of three worlds, and its disintegration and re-formation under the new term globalization. The conditions and circumstances that lead to this shift include a revisioning of the humanities and social sciences, the emergence of powerful cultural industries, mass media, mass communication and the rise of a new relationship between culture and social movements such as the New Left and its subsequent transformations after the fall of Communism.

Yet within Denning's omnipresent view of cultural studies is a vital thread weaving culture and politics into a mass(ive) tapestry entwining what Gramsci called "national-popular" practices into "a site and form of political resistance" (6). Viewing the cultural turn across the globe in this way, Denning relates culture to social movements and views the spread of cultural studies as greater than "the globalization of North Atlantic academic trends" (6). Rather, "parallel or analogous cultural turns" (7) inspired by the New Left occurred in each of the three worlds. The conditions mentioned earlier, not limited to North America, were contributing factors from Bengal to Calcutta. But "it was not until the three worlds dissolved into one. . . That one cannot only see the beginnings of a transactional cross-fertilization but also re-imagine the elective affinities between the earlier projects" (9). This is where Denning and Culture in the age of three worlds sits: looking backward and forward, noting the by-gone age of three worlds and the ever-present current age of global connections and practices, and highlighting its different yet similar conditions and manifestations.

The book is divided into three parts: "Rethinking the Age of Three Worlds," "Working on Culture," and " The American Ideology: The Age of Three Worlds as the American Century." The first part, "Rethinking the Age of Three Worlds," draws attention to the shift from the plural culture of three worlds to the circuits of global flow that mark our present, singular world view. Denning outlines the history and the debates over the "promise or threat of globalization" (21), and articulates globalization's struggle to name itself through its cultural texts and artifacts. At this early point in the book, it is clear that Denning's material springs from course syllabi and a critical testing of his thoughts on students that he cordially acknowledges.

In chapter three he focuses on social movements and how they relate to the era of globalization. He begins with the WTO protest in Seattle in order to explore the relation between insurrection and social movements. This chapter provides an intriguing glimpse into various riots and eruptions while positioning these activities within a semiotic tradition "that if they share a common foe, even a common struggle, they don't always share the same analysis, strategy, or even name for that foe" (49). The significance of this understanding forms the groundwork for Denning's final section and what I think is his contribution to the field of cultural studies. More on this later.

Chapter four, the final chapter in section one, focuses on the novel, its death in the age of three worlds and its glorious resurrection under globalization. Denning emphasizes that as the novel's form changed to represent the times, so did its content as the peasantry, exiles, immigrants, and laborers found their voice. The writers that emerged across the globe seemed to be saying, "you are not alone" as they challenged dominant cultural forms. But, according to Denning, the literary tradition lacked a way of dealing with this new voice and the forms it developed. He, too, seems to have trouble dealing with the material since he provides us with an exhaustive list rather than an in depth reading of exemplary titles.

Section two, "Working on Culture," spirals around Denning's attempt to answer his own question: "what concrete development enabled the 'general abstraction' of culture? What allowed the reduction of such a wide range of human activities to the peculiar common denominator we call culture?" (78). Rather than forcing a tunnel-visioned response, Denning provides a survey of the field and the various critical arguments put forward by the "biggest" names in the cultural debate. He outlines definitions while examining what was left out and neglected. He points to the paradoxes and contradictions within various arguments until finally resting upon a labor theory of culture that is not intended to replace other theories, but does manage to address their weaknesses. It is in this location that Denning, picking up on the work of others, questions the "rethinking of mass culture to considerations of working-class history and culture?" (98). Relying heavily on the works of Jameson, Hall, Gramsci, Williams, and others, Denning brings us to the discussion of cultural studies as "fundamentally about theorizing peoples" (141) and as such, a "useful and important intellectual space" (149) that reconsiders the relation of culture to society where everything is open to critique. Holding nothing sacred, and everything susceptible to questioning, cultural studies, according to Denning, transforms into emancipatory moments involving cultural resistance, the struggle for cultural justice and cultural revolution. This is exciting material and leads into Denning's final section.

The third section in Culture in the age of three worlds concentrates on the energy of America and the feeling during this age that "the world was entering an American century" (170). Denning offers an interpretative history of American studies, its curious relation to the New Left renaissance in Marxist thought, the uncontested image of its Puritan past, the failure of socialism in the United States and a dislodging of the word "democracy" from its mythic American roots. He provides one possible explanation as to why socialist practices never took hold in the United States. Although, I do think a comparative look at other countries—especially ones sharing the continent would have added depth to his observations. (Yet, such an inclusive view might have defeated the sub-textual understanding that Ameri-centricism is one of problems of cultural studies in the age of globalization).

As mentioned earlier, this section is where Denning's previous, conscientious summarizing of the cultural turn becomes a cultural activity in itself. Here, Denning enters the looking glass to show us cultural questioning at its finest. In the chapter "Neither Capitalist nor American" Denning dislodges the word democracy from its "made in America" construct and places it in an ideological and lexiconal process of development with "the working class, not the middle class" (215) as its driving force. By quoting Norberto Bobbio's observation, "the present problem of democracy no longer concerns 'who' votes but 'where' we vote," (220) brings Denning to his final chapter where he places the development of cultural studies where it belongs—within working class, cultural practices. Denning positions the struggle for democracy in a cultural front that uses the cultural practices of society such as magazines and novels, television shows, films, popular music, and university publications as its means of emancipation.

Although the shortest chapter in the book, "A cultural front in the age of three worlds?" is written with vigor and passion. Everything Denning writes leads up to this moment. His meticulous survey of the historically specific conditions under which cultural studies made its turn from the age of three worlds to globalization comes down to his call for a new cultural front. This front will not be served by academics or politicians. Instead, "writers, musicians, and artists [who] have long been responsible for the stories and pictures by which we see the world; it is they who can redraw the maps of class and work and workers . . . and allow us to see new forms of struggle and solidarity in places we never thought to look" (234).

No doubt, you have noticed that I have quoted this phrase three times. I have done so because this final statement epitomizes what Michael Denning's Culture in the age of three worlds is about: looking at the future through a reflective mirror opposite an open window. Denning not only provides much food for serious thought, but a litany of cultural criticism and artifacts for further research. He effectively engages the reader as consumer awaiting his next product that will undoubtedly show us these new forms and places.

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Works Cited:

Hall, S. & M Jacques. (1989). New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Tomlinson, J. (1991) Cultural Imperialism. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP.

Williams, R. (1983). Keywords. London: Fontana.


About the Reviewer:

Christine Boyko-Head is a professor in the Creative Arts in Learning program at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. She resides in Southern Ontario and travels to various program sites in the USA and Israel to teach arts integration. Her articles have been published in Slippery Pastimes: A Popular Culture Reader, Journal of Canadian Studies, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Theatre Research in Canada and the Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance to name a few. She is a playwright, poet, freelance journalist, producer and has recently completed her first novel based on the life of Laura Secord. Her second novel will be part of a mystery series for reluctant readers.

MLA Style Citation:
Boyko-Head, Christine. "Rethinking Culture." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. July 14, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cboykohead/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Christine Boyko-Head, Rethinking Culture. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cboykohead/index.php› (accessed July 14, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Boyko-Head, Christine. (2007, May). Rethinking Culture. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cboykohead/index.php


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