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The Ethics of Cultural Studies

Review of Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies (London/New York: Continuum, 2005), xiii + 176 pp. ISBN-10: 0826475248 [ISBN-13: 978-0826475244].

David Colclasure

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Joanna Zylinska's The Ethics of Cultural Studies endeavors to present a set of new, guiding, albeit tentative, principles for the contemporary field of cultural studies, to demonstrate not only that cultural studies as an (inter)discipline has always already had an ethical impulse, but also to develop ethical concepts and possible ethical approaches for new, critical engagements with cultural phenomena in the present day. Following a theoretical introduction and general overview of the connections of her work to the field of cultural studies as a whole, which spans the first two chapters of the book, Zylinska turns to a series of ‘case studies’, ranging from hip-hop culture and gun violence, to immigration policy in contemporary Western democracies, to anti-Semitism in today’s Poland, to bioethics and cyberfeminism, further fleshing out her view of ethics in cultural studies as a radical openness of the self to the alterity of the other. A compact 176 pages including footnotes and bibliography, Zylinska’s study manages to address itself to a broad array of intriguing topics, deploying insightful modes of questioning and reaching (at times all too) provocative conclusions. While some of the theoretical discussion in the volume remains fundamentally unintelligible through its reliance on Derridean deconstructionism and its tiresome, self-absorbed rhetoric and meanderings, the book still delivers on its implicit promise to engage thoughtfully on political and ethical issues of interest in today’s world. Altogether, the book is a satisfying read in its treatment of issues of contemporary ethical and political interest, and provokes a critical engagement with the theoretical and ethical underpinnings of the field of cultural studies itself.

Beginning with a “User’s Guide to Culture, Ethics and Politics”, Zylinksa first sets out to establish the conceptual foundations of the studies that follow and articulates here, most importantly, her understanding of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics, which serves in large measure as the basis for her own conception of the ethics of cultural studies as a respect or radical openness and responsiveness to the otherness of the other. Departing radically from Kantian ethics, which posited the existence of obligations to others based on the faculty of one’s own reason and the rational universalizability of maxims of action, Levinas argues that the other is the source of our reason and hence the site where our obligations to others are generated, not in some faculty that inheres in the self, as with Kant. (Ethical) obligations therefore precede us, and the other from which they issue, therefore, constitutes us as selves. The central point behind Zylinska’s use of Levinas is thus that the engagement with issues of difference and identity, central concerns in cultural studies, should be informed by a radical respect for what makes the other other. The fact that we have a choice to respond, i.e., to be responsible toward others, or not, is what generates ethics to begin with: ethics is possible only with the potential for unethical behavior.

Zylinska then goes on to evaluate the worth and applicability of this conception of ethics for specific ‘cases’ in cultural studies. In her account of ‘moral panics’, one example of which being gangster rap and the rise of gun crime in urban centers, Zylinska is out to demonstrate how the creation of these panics by ‘moral entrepreneurs’ such as the mass media, the latter’s manufacturing of ‘folk devils’, and the analysis of such cultural phenomena within the field of cultural studies, require an ethics of responsibility toward the other, “an ethics that calls for judgment always anew” (Zylinska, 59), one that “will call for a permanent vigilance –towards the injustice and power games committed by the third party but also towards our own prejudice” (Zylinska, 60). Her reflections on the ethical stance (or lack thereof) of specific texts from the field of cultural studies on this set of topics do not render judgment on the field as such, but rather serve as an injunction to its practitioners to constantly question the foundations of their own inquiries into their objects of study. In some sense, what Zylinska delivers, though she would likely deny this claim, is not unlike a very concrete sense of professional ethics for the field of cultural studies.

In her treatment of the (for most of us) mass-mediated experience of 9/11, Zylinska is out to develop an “ethics of the sublime”, one derived in part by reading Kant and his concept of the sublime ‘against itself’. “Negative pleasure which mixes fear with delight” (Zylinska, 67), the sublime informed the public’s experience of 9/11 through a complex mediation of an event of ultimate horror to a self that has the sublime experience of survival in the face of the other’s death. As responsive openness to the alterity of the other, here to the other’s suffering and death, the ethics that Zylinksa is out to develop calls into question, she argues, the logic of retributive justice, the equivalence of guilt and punishment, that frames the discourse on terrorism that ensued from this event and continues to this day, she argues. Here Zylinska’s musings wander into dangerous territory, however, as she goes so far to suggest that 9/11 is a “gift” from bin Laden to Western society: “Even though it may be a scandalous, unwanted and unthanked-for gift – because it disturbs our sense of Western socio-economic comfort, justice and rightfulness […]” (Zylinska, 79). Zylinska steps over a moral line herself when she suggests that the real horror of 9/11 feared and felt by those who beheld it involved the idea that the Western-dominated economic world order itself crumbled to the Ground Zero point that fateful day. An offensive and fatally misguided moral equivalence, to say the least.

At once insightful but also beyond the pale in its implicit suggestion that the only just policy would be none at all, Zylinska’s narrative continues by taking on immigration policy in Great Britain in particular, and in Western democracies in general. Engaging with Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter, Zylinska explicates how asylum seekers and illegal immigrants come to be represented in today’s society as parasitical on the body politic, as infecting viruses or bacteria, as the abject other that nevertheless becomes necessary for the “healthy body”. In a Hegelian dialectic turn, the healthy body turns out to be parasitic on the intruder, the self is parasitic on the other, and it is no longer evident what would constitute the self without the other. It is no longer clear, Zylinska argues, what ties of kinship and nationality mean today, which leads us to the imperative that we at least consider a “carnivalesque political strategy of abandoning all laws, burning all passports and opening all borders” (97-8). Zylinska turns around to reject the idea that such a non-policy be enacted, but the question raises itself what the mere consideration of such an idea brings us, if not, in fact, an injunction to fundamentally challenge all existing immigration policy. Radical to the point of irresponsibility, the implicit suggestions of the chapter are certainly fruitful for academic discourse, but hardly for policymakers on the ground.

Perhaps her most insightful case study, chapter 6 of Zylinska’s book deals with the Jedwabne incident, the massacre of some 1600 Jews by their Polish neighbors in a small town in northwestern Poland during WWII, tying the publication in 2000 of the book revealing and detailing the event to issues of contemporary Polish national identity and Poland’s recent accession to NATO and the European Union. Highlighting the disbelief and even anger felt by many Poles when confronted with the facts of the case, Zylinska offers a compelling analysis of how Poland must, in its move to ‘join’ the West, be willing and able to challenge "rigid ideas of Polish history, memory and identity on its route to 'full membership'” (Zylinska, 118).

In the most entertaining and playful chapter of her study, Zylinska takes a look at discourses on bio-ethics and cyberfeminism, concerning herself in particular with the notion of “soft cyborgs.” A departure from the machine-based Terminator of the 1990s, the concept of soft cyborgs refers to those products of bio-technology, those hybridizations of silicon and carbon, even of animal and human, such as Dolly the Sheep or OncoMousetm,(a ‘nude’ mouse onto which a prosthetic human ear can be grafted) or even the mere human hand attached to the prosthesis of the computer mouse, that begin to take the stage of public attention in the early 21st century. What the existence/creation of these cyborgs requires of us is, for Zylinska, is ethical consideration, but not a mere ethical injunction to respect these other forms of life by analogy, as extensions of human life, but rather one which problematizes the distinctions between animal and human, and even between human and machine. Zylinska argues in her own manifesto for an “ethics of hybrids that is hybrid in its origin” (Zylinska, 155), and thus calls for an ethics of consideration, of responsibility toward the other which recognizes that the other is perhaps prior to the self.

Unfortunately, Zylinska’s study ends somewhat abruptly after finishing her own brief proposal for feminist cyberbioethics, which lends her book a fragmentary character, one which may well have been intentional, yet the lack of a summarizing chapter leaves the reader without a sense of the author's overarching conclusions concerning her ethics of cultural studies. As a whole, however, the book is rich in its selection of topical areas and ambitious in its theoretical aims, an ambition which it largely delivers on.

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About the Reviewer:

David Colclasure received his Ph.D. in German Studies and second M.A. in Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, and currently teaches German Studies, Ethics and Human Rights Theory at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. His research interests include contemporary German and European politics and culture, as well as moral philosophy, ethical theory and applied ethics. His recent work includes a new translation of nine essays by German philosopher Immanuel Kant on the topics of politics, peace and history in a volume edited by Pauline Kleingeld. He is currently on sabbatical, at work on a volume that deals with aesthetic theory and its connections to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas's theories of communicative action and the political public sphere.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Colclasure, David. "The Ethics of Cultural Studies: Review of Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. January 19, 2018 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dcolclasure/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
David Colclasure, The Ethics of Cultural Studies: Review of Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dcolclasure/index.php› (accessed January 19, 2018)

APA Style Citation:
Colclasure, David. (2010, March). The Ethics of Cultural Studies: Review of Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dcolclasure/index.php


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