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Who Needs An Identity?
Lisa Orr

Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, editors
Questions of Cultural Identity

Sage, 1996.

Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall,
Linda Janes, Hugh Mackay, and Keith Negus
Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman

Culture, Media and Identities Series, Sage, 1997.

Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay both have a hand in these two new publications from Sage, but the intended audiences differ greatly. Questions of Cultural Identity is clearly meant for the reader already familiar with the main issues of cultural studies, although Hall's introduction offers a summation of the controversies surrounding the term "identity" which is so basic it might better fit in Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. The latter is set up as a textbook, complete with definitions of terms and points to keep in mind while reading such foundational texts as Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

Question Identity might be a more appropriate title for the admirably varied, though uneven, edited collection. Its strengths lie in its insistence on the "real and particular," as in Kevin Robins's essay on the vexed relationship between Turkey and Europe. Robins tackles the book's central dilemma by positing a "relational identity"; he takes us through the complexities of Turkish history to demonstrate that an acceptance of the forces of modernity, such as technology, need not also mean Westernization. Unfortunately, Robins's repeated references to the "real Turkey" rather confuse his argument (or at least this reader); while he does not believe in "cultural authenticity," which he argues serves the interests of Western powers by its divisiveness, he does believe in "the realities of Turkish culture," which would seem to locate an innate identity within the people inhabiting what he already has shown to be a politically and religiously contested geographic site.

Zygmunt Bauman's essay, "From Pilgrim to Tourist - or a Short History of Identity," also brings in the "real," though a real more familiar to Western readers. Bauman offers a fascinating consideration of how the material realities of postmodern life (supermarkets, malls, downsizing) affect personal relationships and lifestyle choices. Simply having an identity is a liability when the job skills one learns today may be obsolete tomorrow, when the permanent relationship of one's life may be terminated next week, when one's hometown can change dramatically in the course of a decade.

Considering all the work feminists have done on the limitations of a fixed identity, it's unfortunate that the one overtly feminist selection is the weakest essay in the book. Marilyn Strather's "Enabling Identity: Biology, Choice and the New Reproductive Technologies" starts with the promising topic of "what people are able to make of identity through kinship." But the very breadth of this subject gets the writer into trouble: she can only hint at generalities, not move far into what would be much more interesting details. She is left in the odd position of saying both too much and not enough. Genetic screening, for instance, leads her only as far as the ironic observation, "Sever ourselves from our disabilities, and then we shall see how we want to live, and how we want to create the certain identity we feel, like children severing themselves from unsatisfactory parents." No more surprising is her claim that "developments in reproductive technology have made newly explicit the possibility of choosing whom and what one desires to call family." One might be surprised, however, to find that gay marriages play no part in Strather's discussion of new familial forms, especially since the essay does not elsewhere confine itself to technological changes. Examining one topic in depth might have allowed Strather to reach a more stirring conclusion than this:

How much value Euro-Americans place on their ability to do things, including doing things to their sense of identity. But then again, they enhance their abilities only to enhance their critiques of them at the same time. There will always be more of both.

For Homi K. Bhabha, identity becomes a dangerous quest when "cultural totalization" sometimes hides behind multiculturalism. His emphasis on the "borderlines" and "boundaries" of identities and cultures invokes for an American reader the work of Gloria Anzaldœa, where this argument is much more fully examined. Like Anzaldœa, Bhabha links spatial borders to temporal ones. Anzaldœa's mestiza takes with her on her journeys both modern technological devices, such as tape recorders, and traditional symbols, such as feathers. Bhabha's "in-betweens" re-understand, "resignify," the past so as to avoid repeating it.

As if in direct comment on Bhabha's essay, Lawrence Grossberg notes that "discussions of multiculturalism too quickly assume a necessary relation between identity and culture." Grossberg's essay is a close examination of cultural studies, filled with shrewd observations: too rarely are dominant and marginal identities studied together, as they should be if we agree they are "mutually constitutive"; Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe "reread Foucault as if he were Derrida," to the effect that the very idea of the other has been universalized (what I think of as the "we-are-all-mestiza" problem). This is a strong essay, worthy of many rereadings, but I wish Grossberg had spent more space (no pun intended) developing his idea of identity as a "marker" of belonging to a specific place. I need more convincing that those who gathered in Tiananmen Square shared "no common identity, no property that defines them apart from the fact that they were there, together, in that place."

This sense of the contingency of identity also surfaces in Simon Frith's interesting claim that music forges an identity that is both individual and collective, through the acts of gathering together to perform, listen, or dance. Frith makes a claim for music's "difference" - for example, that it has never been subjected to the "high/low, mind/body distinction... [because] even high music making and listening remained a physical as well as a 'spiritual' activity." But of what art form has this not been true? Frith might say the same of dance and theater, of course, but what about gripping the pen or hunching over the keyboard, what about the smell of paint or the feel of the brush on canvas? When has the mind/body distinction ever been anything other than illusion? Frith notices the ways that discussions of music "became detached from how people (musicians and listeners) felt about it." But why couldn't books or artwork be substituted for music? I am sympathetic to Frith's attempt to link identity with (collective and individual) emotional response, but I don't see that music has a monopoly on emotional appeal.

Instead of finding the self within the collective, Nikolas Rose looks deeper into the fragmentation of the individual, to challenge the idea that a given culture forefronts one notion of subjectivity. Rather, competition exists among different ways of "relating to oneself" - economic, psychological, religious, etc. From this he concludes that, to call these conflicts resistance "is itself perspectival; it can only ever be a matter of judgement. It is fruitless to complain, here, that such a perspective gives one no place to stand in the making of ethical critique" because we cannot "ground ethics" without reference to some "transcendental guarantor." Nonetheless, complain I must. Laclau has described the fragmented subject, formed but not sealed in by overlapping ideologies, as making resistance more possible, not less. If resistance is futile, why am I bothering reading this book? Why is cultural studies necessary?

For those readers who slugged through pages of jargon for jargon's sake in Rose's essay, the last two chapters offer surprising rewards: a defense of bureaucracy, and an argument for the political necessity of "identitylessness."

Du Gay's essay, "Organizing Identity: Entrepreneurial Governance and Public Management," is, despite its title, a model of clear, engaging writing. Du Gay argues, with more evidence than I can detail here, that bureaucratic organizational structures actually serve as protection against corruption and unfairness, so that no one should be surprised at the increase in both as public-sector managers are encouraged to imagine themselves as entrepreneurs, loyal and responsible to no one.

The responsibilities of identity also concern James Donald in his consideration of who or what is a citizen. Seeing a citizen as a "type of person" is inherently antidemocratic, he argues, because it separates out the culturally different, as happened in Hitler's Germany (though this American reader might suggest a more contemporary example). While Donald admits that "the citizen as empty space or as pure Cartesian cogito may seem a pretty anaemic answer," his final recommendation, reached after an interesting mini-history of selfhood in the West, that "we should learn to respect the opacity of others" is much meatier. Donald's willingness to leave the question of identity unresolved makes this the perfect essay with which to close this collection, which has steadily tended toward this conclusion.

Doing Cultural Studies marks the beginning of a new series meant to serve as an introduction to cultural studies, and as such does an excellent job of defining the major arguments of the field, and then using the case of the Sony Walkman to explore them. For example, the authors question what they call the "production of consumption perspective" - where consumers and their desires are created by producers - by noting that market research influenced design decisions even after the Walkman hit the market. The original model had two headphone jacks, but research soon showed that the Walkmans were being used by individuals rather than shared, so later models had only one. The product is thus at least partially constructed by the consumer; the equation does not work in only one direction. Such illustrations of complicated theory with concrete examples make this book an undoubtedly useful teaching tool.

This same example, however, also demonstrates a weakness in du Gay et al.'s approach: outdated arguments serve to set up strawmen. Horkheimer and Adorno, for example, are said to view industry as "tainted by the evils of capitalism" and leading "inexorably to the pollution of the 'higher' values of the world of culture," thus displaying an understanding of the culture/consumption interface which is both elitist and naive. Du Gay et al.'s ironic paraphrases of their opponents' arguments are especially troubling since the authors include no readings or even quotes from either Adorno or Horkheimer, even though they do include other difficult texts (such as Raymond William's "Mobile Privatization").

I argue not so much with the criticisms themselves as with the means used to make them. By stating that those who focus on production are "rather patronizing" because they imply that "people's everyday practices...are unworthy of serious study because they are superficial and inauthentic substitutes for a denied alternative existence," the authors bash a tradition I know perfectly well and can judge on my own. But will this be true for the college freshman?

These and other snide asides obviously seem meant to distance cultural studies from classical Marxism. Unfortunately, in their haste to do so, the authors greatly underestimate the role economic factors play in consumption. In a chapter on the social groups that purchase the Walkman, they rightly note that Pierre Bourdieu's well-known study of taste as a class construct, Distinction, though useful, treats class as an a priori and essential category. But their claim that Sony chairman Akio Morita's insistence that the price of the new product be kept down to about $130 dollars meant "that different sorts of youth - rich and poor, male and female - could have a chance to own it" flattens difference to the point of absurdity.

Similarly, the authors' brief nod at feminism notes that gender makes a difference in the Walkman's production, but steers clear of particulars. Calling the women who staff the assembly lines the "mothers" of the Walkman, in deliberate correspondence to a long discussion of which Sony official functioned as the "father," attributes an authority and control to the workers which would no doubt surprise them. The authors correctly note that the "importance and significance of the female assemblers have been undermined," but they cannot right this by the sloppy use of a feminist catchword rather than by examining the women's working conditions.

Doing Cultural Studies remains a fun and interesting read despite the fact that someone, perhaps an editor, has done his or her best to make a fascinating subject dull by "textbooking" it: including long tracts of recapped material in summaries, and other possibly less deliberate repetitions; introducing a topic paragraphs before discussing the details of it; and bringing in complex terminology (like "global-local nexus") which disappears after the space of a paragraph and wasn't necessary to explain the concept in the first place. The mix of sophisticated analysis and high school text format - not to mention the chatty asides, like "It is quite tough-going, isn't it?" - I suppose could be read (generously) as echoing the mixture of high theory and pop culture the book represents. The decision to include all the readings at the back of the book rather than running them in the text - as sidebars or even simply with a grey screen to distinguish them from the main text - is another minor annoyance, as are the numerous typos.

The authors clearly demonstrate that the Walkman's history is worthy of study, but even as their argument convinced me, I could see how such work could be read as a further example of Euro-American middle-class navel-gazing. Cultural studies needn't be represented this way. Questions does a more serious job of looking at the international scene, and of attempting to do justice to difference. Doing Cultural Studies earns some protection from the charge of parochialism through its brief examinations of so-called "japanese business culture" and "japanese aesthetics," and of ad campaigns in Italy and Japan (which also neatly demonstrate how the same product can be represented to appeal to different cultures). But it could have examined more thoroughly how the selves formed by and forming the Walkman through consumption are "mutually constitutive" of the selves who assemble it, or those who cannot buy it, or who never even see it.

 

 

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