Culture as fluid assemblage

To begin with, I am proposing here a homology between deconstruction and the practice of Cultural Studies premised on a particular conception of culture, following Raymond Williams’s guide definition for the studies (Williams 1983: 87-93). Below is a recent re-translation by Spivak of some passages in Derrida’s famous Of Grammatology.

The movements of deconstruction do not shake up structures from the outside. They are neither possible and effective, nor can they set their aim [ajuster leur coup], except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits and all the more when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that is to say without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction is always, in a certain way, swept away by [emportée par] its own work. (Spivak 2011: xxxii).

It can be argued that Cultural Studies’ conception of culture bears a striking resemblance to deconstruction’s relation to its own practice—‘swept away by its own work.’ Catherine Gallagher (1995) describes this rather positively as an ‘absence of specifics’, a proposition that also furnishes us with a reluctant opening onto a certain consistency with tradition, regarding its conception of ‘culture’:

It is this absence of specifics conjoined with a heavy investment in the idea of specifics that gives the word culture as used by cultural critics an uncanny resemblance to its much-maligned Arnoldian twin, high culture with a capital C. We may have rejected the restriction of culture to a privileged realm of ‘art’ and the belief that its value derives from transcendent human universals rather than from concrete historical circumstances; nevertheless, our use of culture and Arnold’s have more in common than is generally recognized. (Gallagher 1995: 309)

The mere mention of Derrida’s deconstruction and its relation to cultural studies is not given certain theoretical affordances here as to simply amplify the significance of deconstruction to the discipline. What I wish to convey rather is that deconstruction is what the use of ‘culture’ is all about, that is, culture as a text in itself which resists interpretation of the positive representational sort; what Heidegger would describe as presence-at-hand (Heidegger 2001), that which is rendered in and through language. Here, cultural studies’ guide definition for ‘culture’, nonetheless, is not impermeable to critique.

The basic supposition of culture as text is a product of the infiltration of psychoanalysis and its notion of the unconscious to Cultural Studies (Williams 1983: 320-23). I like to note here though that Williams himself in a number of occasions felt that the infiltration of psychoanalysis left more to be desired (Williams 1981: 167). Even so, the force of psychoanalysis is still there, and with Adorno utilizing psychoanalysis in relation to mass media, the infiltration cannot be ignored (see Adorno 1991). The unconscious qualifies, in a manner of speaking, as a dark precursor (physical or biological) that precedes language (which is readily associated with bringing things to light, thus, to illuminate). In Heideggerian terms, it is rather described as the pre-ontological horizon of intelligibility (see Heidegger 2001), that which no amount of representational language can penetrate. Nonetheless, as it is with negentropy in physics (or negating entropy), the use of language to represent a dark assemblage as the unconscious, presumably, a storehouse of forces and energy essential for life to emerge (yet also a minefield that can threaten life’s continuity), comes with the risk of provoking the return of the repressed (Freud 1965; Lacan 1988:171). Language amounts to blowing up a pristine homeostatic condition in which forces of life and death are suspended in a mutually non-active state (Schrodinger 1992). It is in this sense, taking things from here a bit fast to drive home our point, that human organization which is always already mediated by language (language co-arises with the human species) is a risky negotiation with what Freud, and later expanded by Lacan, called the death drive (see Lacan 1988: 27-92). Much to the concern of a cultural theorist like Nietzsche, for instance, it is for this reason that life bears the mark of in-security and thereof the will to negate it (see Nietzsche 1996) by means of securitizing culture. What culture amounts to, in extreme terms, is a biopolitical repression of the death drive.

In general terms, the culture that we believe we can represent in a number of helpful terms can be traced back to the beginnings of agriculture which subsequently evolved into the practice of usury and debt—the first forms of biopolitical organization for the control of population perfected in modern finance capitalism (Graeber 2011). Yet, the control of population is inscribed within the very terms of controlling life, or the deprivation of life, its enabling resources, to those who could be utilized, or made to stand as reserves (in Heidegger’s coinage [1977]) for sustaining a condition in which the maximum goal is to fend off the return of the repressed, the death drive. In the history of humankind this ‘return’ has been objectively qualified as apocalyptic, with the negative connotation accruing upon its destructive power. As a side note, I would like to propose here that the apocalyptic complex that has defined the way life has been hitherto organized is broadly anchored on agri-culture, or the manner in which the sedentarization of people’s movement since the introduction of farming and husbandry has repressed, not without certain positive features (but are now at risk of totalizing human life itself), the nomadic or exilic character of human existence whose model is the pre-primitive (vis-à-vis the ‘primitive’ as a modern ascriptor of the progress of human history), or the pre-historical, pre-sedentary mobility of the nomad.

We can also speak here, not without the risk of being misunderstood, that this character of the human can be identified as pre-cultural. Notwithstanding though, as the notion of ‘the human’ may appear to be pre-fabricated as to warrant a strong correlation between human and culture (in the ‘agreed’ sense, human and culture are synonymous), we are at the ready to extend our assumption further into a more adversarial position—that ‘we have never been human’ in the first place, hence, the questionable term ‘culture’ as coterminous with the human.

That ‘we have never been human’ is our propositional challenge to the unopposed assumption of the human that provides the context for cultural studies. Lest I provoke more criticisms than can be warranted, I must clarify that the proposition ‘we have never been human’ is not a denial of the existence of the species that has for some time now called itself, or has been accustomed to call itself ‘human’. It is rather the particular organization or investment of values to the species (which, I believe, what ‘culture is in a nutshell), in a manner that decides for it, on its behalf, that becomes our target here. For certainly, this kind of investment is neither neutral nor anonymous (see Rosaldo 1989).

A cultural critic may readily oppose us here, especially, in light of deconstructive practice that is still very much a guiding force for cultural studies. A deconstructive ‘use’ of culture for the studies certainly exhibits fluidity, never aspiring to a treatment of culture as a fossil. Yet, deconstruction cannot deconstruct what is undeniably an ontological priority for language—the human who is capable of the highest culture (animals have culture too) which language evidently represents. We can radicalize our critique of deconstruction here to as far as declaring that deconstruction’s influence on cultural studies has made the studies the epitome of the humanism of modernity—this despite the much avowed description of culture as historical and contingent, thus providing theoretical arsenals for the studies to challenge the notoriety of humanistic assumptions prevalent in the West (see Rosaldo 1989:32). The rise of post-colonial studies that complement the study of culture is a case in point. Even so, we have reached a point where post-colonial discourse has to give way to a diffluent force of time.

I am deploying the term ‘diffluent’ (or flowing away) to underscore the fact that not only are we compelled to interrogate our assumptions vis-à-vis the shifting tides of the time, its ebb and flow, but also, in the face of the withdrawal of time itself, its force and influence upon the contemporary in a manner that makes time ironically stand still. To paraphrase Heidegger, we have to learn how to be ‘in the draft’ (1993: 375), and be cast into the sea change at the same time that we are pointing towards that which withdraws. Nevertheless, the greatest challenge lies in how we can still point to time as it withdraws while appearing to be at rest; in more precise terms, the appearance of things that their capacity for change has already been saturated, leaving us with nothing to hope for.

Perhaps, this conviction is best expressed in Fredric Jameson’s words which caution us rather than wallow in defeatism: ‘It is easy to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ (Jameson 2003). The apocalyptic weight of history has been exhausting the political imagination of the species in such a way that the biopolitical control of life (that we mentioned earlier) has totalized the rest of the earthbound, including us. What we need here, and this is our proposal, is to untangle the humanity ‘at work’, the humanity as ‘material’ for political economy, for biopolitical control, and release this humanity to a serialization process, a de-familiarization process (to parenthesize Bahktin), or better yet a de-materialization of which the species is no stranger after all (imagine here how this once animal assemblage has leaped into consciousness). We can also mean here to de-culture the species. Yet, more than this connotation, we are talking of the nomad as a model whose never-ending quest for virtuality in the sense of resisting finality and organization has never ceased to infiltrate ‘our’ existence as a species, especial mention here is the case of nomad peoples of Southeast Asia (Scott 2009), despite the planetary securitization of culture whose first form was the concentration of life to agri-culture. It is in this sense that humanity has never been in ‘it’, in a culture; rather, most of us, if not all, are formally economized which has made us into the humans that we believe we are, at least in appearance.

And that is the precisely point: what matters for biopolitical control is the formidable appearance of culture.


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