Friday, 7 September 2007

Werber: Tolkien and Biopolitical Discourse in Contemporary Germany (Part 2)

I had composed a long reply to Joseph's comment on the excerpt from Werber's piece on Tolkien, but then blogger crashed and I've lost the work as a result. Working briefly from memory, what interested me in putting a tiny selection from the article on this blog was that I thought it raised some interesting questions. Is Werber claiming in Gramscian terms that the hegemony of popular culture, predicated on its notion of "common sense", (tantamount to Joseph's comments about the irreducibility of art to its original contexts of production and dissemination), is threatened by a historic bloc composed of biocultural interests, that works by recuperating "innocent" entertainments such as Tolkien? Or is the irony somewhat greater, that Werber's warnings are themselves the paramnesiac symptom of that which they are trying to disavow i.e. colonisation of common sense by biopolitical discourses?

But doesn't this undecidability prove Gramsci's original point, that what constitutes common sense remains contested in hegemonic struggles? Hence Joseph's preferred option may be credible in its own terms, but ultimately it is unable to indemnify itself against contestation. Moreover, isn't the interesting point, which I tried to raise by posting Werber in the first place, how Nazism has to some extent undergone postmodernisation? While not an empty signifier by any means, it has a "floating" capacity in today's media culture to attach itself to other discourses. By tagging that post as "bioculture", I am really asking why today is this one of the most prominent forms of articulation? Are certain problematiques recurring or would they be better understood as novel? Should we see this "ambivalence" as one of the problems of living our relation to history in our late/post modern times? Dery seemed to be pointing in this direction, which is why I earlier posted his "Why the Nazis Matter Today".

Furthermore, even though I have pointed more to a struggle between discourses, which is implicit in what motivated Werber's calculated reference to "hegemony", even without this, I question whether Joseph's points would withstand close scrutiny, even on their own restrictive terms. Afterall, little support was forthcoming for Bryan Ferry when he earlier this year made his comments about the "beauty" of Nazi aesthetics....In any case, the associated critical imperative to police these boundaries is indissociable from tension, difference, (if not contradiction), and we need to be alert to the blindness of the observer and the subsequent undetected re-entry of the originally exluded term in another guise. I say this because Werber is a student of Luhmann as well, and he would surely be aware of the potential of this contingency to undercut the premises of his own argument. To be consistent though, he would also be appreciative of how they could work to undercut the attempted drawing of distinctions by critical observers such as Joseph.

I think the final point relates to some of the more general issues about "hauntology" that have featured on this blog. Part of what could be extracted from them is an awareness that past, present, and future, cannot be neatly cordoned off from each other (not surprisingly, the notion of a "return of the repressed", even when risking trivialisation or banality in cultural representations of this theme, makes for potent material for a horror themed film. One could consider not only the upcoming Dutch film, "Worst Case Scenario", trailers for which I've posted here, but also precursors such as "Shockwaves"). In other words, I recognise Joseph's critique as characteristic of certain reservations others have expressed about cultural studies, as per, for example, Janet Wolff's and Andrew Goodwin's assessment of one scholar's efforts to contextualise the singer Sam Cooke. For them, the irony is that the scholar can demonstrate, in keeping with the lyrics of Cooke's song a great deal of knowledge about "history" etc, but is apparently unable to explain anything about why he actually "likes" Sam Cooke. This kind of argument thereby works well in its own terms. Where it encounters difficulties though is in accounting for public forms of enquiry, of deciding who can participate, and for whom such distinctions would "work". At issue would be the extent to which post-war generations in Germany feel a responsibility for transparent public disclosure, even if this means engaging with articulations that may be abhorrent or unexpected to them. It was certainly in this spirit that I welcome Joseph's comment, but it is also affirmative of the positive sense I got from travelling in Germany a few years ago. By extension, Werber is arguing that drawing too great a distinction between "the downfall" and what now is, and may be to come, is a notion worthy of critical attention in as many forums as possible.

Who would want to disagree with this democratic imperative, even if they think Werber is drawing some very long bows? I feel we should applaud his principle of public enquiry, whilst recognising its paradoxical effects: by reinscribing its subject within larger frameworks of meaning, it is freed up for other forms of engagement. And which artists or democrats could credibly disagree with that?

Finally, the reference to "symptom" earlier might alert some to Zizek's Lacanian style of cultural analysis: it too would question whether things can be enjoyed simply on the basis of what they appear to be, or whether the enjoyment is really symptomatic of something else. I chose in this post to place Werber closer to Gramsci and Luhmann as it seems like a tighter fit to some of the terms he actually uses, both in that article quoted, and in his other work. There are also demonstrable problems in Zizek's accounting for "common sense", which Andy Robinson documents in the link below.

Baudrillard, Zizek and Laclau on "common sense" - a critique

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