Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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A Review of George Yúdice (2003) The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 466pp. incl. index. 0-8223-3168-3. Pbk.
Tony Bennett once suggested that cultural studies should be less concerned with Gramscian projects for counter-hegemony, and more willing to "engage effectively in the policy arena" by "talking to the ISAs" (34, 31). Bennett bases his argument on the observation that, from its emergence in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "culture is figured forth as both the object and the instrument of government" (26). Culture has long been, therefore, "a historically specific set of institutionally embedded relations of government in which the forms of thought and conduct of extended populations are targeted for transformation" (26). Recognizing this instrumental governmentalization of culture, Bennett suggests, theorists should intervene in the inextricably institutional contexts that constitute and manage culture and its effects.
George Yúdice likewise argues that the horizon of cultural theory and activism is inescapably institutional, and he similarly sees this as a double-edged sword. "There is no outside of institutionality," he asserts, and
it will not do to expect an outside force--the real--to solve the problems of an institutionally bound practice. Suffice it to suggest, however, that institutions can be reconverted, particularly within broad historical changes like those of the past two decades that have transformed their significance and function. (317)
The changes to which Yúdice refers concern neoliberalism and contemporary globalization: as the state withdraws its previous investments in the public sphere, and as communication, transport, and capital networks are increasingly transnational, the institutions producing and managing culture (and to which theorists have to talk) are as likely to be global corporations, private foundations, or international aid agencies as they are to be ideological state apparatuses. Again, we need to go beyond Gramsci: given the "extension of disciplinary institutions (in the Foucauldian sense) beyond the state [. . .] we might say that, from the purview of the national proscenium, a posthegemonic situation holds" (167).
The Expediency of Culture, therefore, ranges across the Americas in its examination of phenomena from the US civil rights struggles of the 1960s to the "culture wars" of the 1980s and from the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared or Rio de Janeiro funk culture to the inSITE arts festival that straddles the border between San Diego and Tijuana. In each case, Yúdice focuses on the institutional preconditions and processes by which culture and its meanings or effects are produced, rather than assaying his own interpretation of the product itself. So his analysis of inSITE, for instance, examines the interactions between state funding and private sponsorship of the festival, between artists, curators, organizers, and audiences, and between the event as a whole and the communities that it interpellates and, by interpellating, helps to constitute and package. In so doing, Yúdice is attempting to outline the mechanisms of an increasingly global civil society, as a set of institutions that stand in for the state but that also "broker" negotiations between states and among non-state actors.
Yúdice has no illusions that the social groups that take part in such negotiations are natural or organic: he follows Judith Butler in emphasizing the way in which identities are produced performatively on the stage set by these brokering operations. But he sees opportunities for empowerment in these performances, as well as the risk that they simply offer up resources that can be appropriated and exploited in a form of cultural primitive accumulation. The rhetoric of artistic collaboration and community involvement that predominates in a festival such as inSITE, then, makes visible the social inequalities upheld by US immigration policies while also generating cultural capital to fuel San Diego's reconversion from a city dependent on now declining defense industry revenue to a tourist destination of cosmopolitan sophistication. In such negotiations, culture becomes doubly expedient as a resource to be mobilized for the resolution of social problems, binding and empowering marginalized communities; and as a service industry that extracts value from difference for a rampant global capitalism. "The notion of culture as a resource," writes Yúdice, is "the only surviving definition in contemporary practice" (279).
But culture is also, as is clear even from Yúdice's own examples, precondition, medium, and ultimate goal. Yúdice refers approvingly to "Jameson's notion of the explosion of culture [. . .] so as to exhaust the space of the social" (166), but in the face of such an exhaustion, and the concomitant "exhaustion of difference" analyzed by Alberto Moreiras, does it make any sense to speak of the utilitarian appropriation of culture as though there were either a clear differentiation between agent and instrument or some clear telos in sight? The discourses of foundations, corporations, artists, and activists alike may all invoke culture as a means to an end, but is not the lesson of Yúdice's analyses that examining the mechanisms that structure such discourses reveals that they, too, are produced in and through culture? If the state is no longer the transcendent instance that can claim to rise above a raw material that it molds and striates, and its functions are now taken up but also transformed by myriad organizations that permeate all levels of the social, is the result not a plane of immanence in which talk of negotiation, brokering, and instrumentality fade away?
Yúdice seems to recognize this in a conclusion written in the shadow of September 11, 2001. Here he quotes the response of "Americans for the Arts" to the destruction of the twin towers. Item one: "Immediately preceding or following performances at cultural events, performers could lead audience members to join them in singing a song of unity" (345). This is almost pathetic nostalgia for an epoch in which culture might actually be thought to have utility. Yúdice appears to agree, at least partially, as he notes the slippage between an official rhetoric of diversity and a silencing of both dissent and memory, and the integration not only of culture and politics but also the media and the war machine--for "a war that is neither of maneuver nor position" (348). The passage to a "society of control" now marks "the unworkability of the notion of civil society" (348). Indeed, the collapse of economics and politics into culture means not the expansion of civil society, but its extinction; not the expediency of culture, but its realization as ontology without end. The thought-provoking accounts of the workings of culture in the 1990s that make up the bulk of Yúdice's book all detail the interregnum between the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the society of control. They chronicle not the expediency of culture, but the last days of expediency: the swan song of attempts to measure and exploit cultural value.
Bennett, Tony. "Putting Policy into Cultural Studies." Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrance Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 23-37.
Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
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