'Plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us'. Cultural studies in the shadow of catastrophe.
I think I am perversely obsessed by this Kafka anecdote. I tell it in the mosaic of fragments with which I close my book 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora. I also found myself referring to it in 'Untimely Meditations', a series of fragments published in Arena Magazine in 2001 reflecting on both the Tampa refugee crisis and the crisis in world history posed by the shocking events of September 11, the attack on New York, the collapse of the twin towers: the ultimate aestheticization of politics. (2) And now Afghanistan has been bombed, and Australia's Prime Minister, loyally supported by the Labor opposition leader, enjoys vertiginous levels of popular support for sending troops there as well as turning away refugee ships, creating new voyages of the damned, including hundreds of deaths on one ship near Indonesia. We seem to be living in a society of intensifying hatred, hatred of those designated internal enemies, hatred of the stranger. Fascism is a possibility, a threatening shadow. One thinks of all those critiques of democracy in the nineteenth century warning of the tyranny of the majority that will enforce conformity and mediocrity and attempt to destroy independent thought, destroy, that is, intellectual life and intellectuals.
In recent times I have--I suspect like many of you-experienced brooding despair, pessimism, foreboding, melancholy.
What can Cultural Studies be like after such events, such cataclysms so bizarrely appropriate to a new millennium? Can Cultural Studies now transcend its limitations?
A kind of side-aim of my book 1492 was to attempt to explore a new kind of cultural theory that challenged--silently, allegorically, not confrontationally and directly--what I felt during the years I was writing it were and are the limitations of Cultural Studies. In particular, in my view, the framing stories of Cultural Studies have been and still largely are not only determinedly secular but also blindly and contentedly recent-minded, as if all that is really significant in world history belongs to the last couple of centuries of modern empires and their aftermaths and dissolutions. The iconic events of September 11 certainly invite Cultural Studies analysis of the relation of screen images to contemporary society; here Cultural Studies will be able to bring to bear its cultural capital of the last thirty or so years in productive, sophisticated ways. Yet other aspects associated with September 11 challenge the recent-mindedness of Cultural Studies. In particular, statements by Osama Bin Laden and others associated with avowed hatred of the United States of America as signifier of the West in its intrusions and interferences in the Arab and Islamic world, have referred more than once to their enemies as Crusaders and Jews. And the Pharaoh. Another follower of Bin Laden I recall being quoted as saying: 'Remember Andalusia'.
I was watching a program on SBS hosted by Jana Wendt during the final week of October 2001, a program apparently produced by the New York Times, on the alleged origins of the current wave of extremism emanating from the Islamic world, in particular Egypt, since Egyptians were involved in both the car bombing of the World Trade Center earlier in the 1990s and the assault on Manhattan. An interviewer for the program engaged a young Egyptian prisoner, member of an extremist group, in discussion of Egyptian political leaders like the assassinated Sadat and present incumbent Mubarak, who has survived an assassination attempt. The young Egyptian man referred to Mubarak, as he had to Sadat, as Pharaoh. The American interviewer looked blank. 'Pharaoh?' he said. 'Pharaoh,' said the young man. The interviewer then began to talk about other things that seemed more accessible to modern reason.
Practitioners of Cultural Studies and of contemporary cultural theory more generally like Edward Said, Stanley Fish and Arundhati Roy, have written brilliantly on September 11, writings that fortunately came round by email off the Web. Indeed, like many appalling events in world history, it has provoked into being writing of a very high order. Said in particular in his essay 'The Clash of Ignorance' refers to the complex history of Islam's interactions with Europe, not least in the preservation of and transmission to mediaeval Europe of the Greek and Roman classical heritage; Europe in and from the twelfth century advanced by drawing on Islam for its humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and historiography. Said also writes that we have to illuminate and question the dubious legacies of monotheism in the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. We should recall, he says, that the Jihad has always had its equivalent in the Christian notion of Crusade. (3)
Yet I feel that in its recent-mindedness contemporary Cultural Studies in general would be at a loss--would lack the cultivation of relevant cultural capital--to be able to comprehend the saliency and urgency in the contemporary Middle East of hatred towards the Crusaders, the Jews, and the kings of pre-Islamic Egypt; would not be able to understand the cry to recall Andalusia. Here are fervent histories obviously living in the present that go back hundreds of years, thousands of years. I feel ever more strongly that Cultural Studies has to deepen its sense of time, has to become more historical because it remains too present-centric. (4) In my 1492 I attempt what I refer to as 'diasporic readings', or what now might be termed 'transnational readings', to see in iconic cultural texts, happenings and events the meeting, the clash, the interweaving, of diverse world cultural histories.
In the spirit of diasporic or transnational readings, I'll now offer some reflections on 'September 11', beginning with--
In 1492 three key happenings occurred within a very short time near the beginning of that fateful year. Columbus sailed for the Americas. Eight centuries of Moorish Spain--al-Andalus, Andalusia, to Arabs, Sefarad to Jews--finally ended in the surrender by the emir Boabdil of Granada, with its legendary fortress-palace the Alhambra. And the Jews of Spain, the Sephardim, except for those who in perilous circumstances had chosen or had been forced to convert to Christianity (becoming known as the conversos, and some as the marranos), were subject to one of history's recurring crimes against humanity, mass expulsion. Most of the expelled Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire, the sultan sending ships, though many Jews also crossed into Portugal where they were forcibly baptised in the late 1490s and became known as New Christians. Resented by the Old Christians, they were occasionally massacred, as in 1506, in riots and killings led by Dominican priests, of both converted Jews and Moors (known as Moriscos). Many Moors after the fall of Granada journeyed to North Africa, hoping that one day they could return to a land, to Andalusia, where Muslims had been since the eighth century and where there had been a Muslim Golden Age of cuisine, mysticism, architecture, poetry, art, music, philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, science, medicine; a Golden Age which is associated with great names in intellectual history like Avicenna and Averroes, and in which Jewish culture and philosophy also flourished, as with Moses Maimonides. For almost eight hundred years the three Peoples of the Book, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, enjoyed convivencia, a pluralist society that was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural. The interactions and intermingling of these peoples and cultures began to wane from the mid-eleventh century, with the emergence of the Crusades and Crusader sensibility in Europe. (5)
It is said that when the Moors, exhausted by forced flight and facing long exile away from al-Andalus, reluctantly set up new homes in North Africa, they kept the keys to their homes in the lost and fabled city of Granada.
It is said that the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella referred to their final assault on Granada as La Cruzada; and that General Franco referred to his campaign to establish Fascist rule in 1930s Spain by the same name. In an interview before his assassination by Franco troops in 1936, the famous Granada poet Lorca said: 'I believe that being from Granada gives me a sympathetic understanding of those who are persecuted--of the Gypsy, the Negro, the Jew, and of the Moor which all Granadinos carry inside them'. (6)
In recent times anti-Zionist Jews--I am thinking of Ammiel Alcalay and Ella Shohat in particular--have evoked a utopian desire to recover in story, imagination and explication the mediaeval pre-1492 Judeo-Islamic trading and social world of plurality and convivencia that stretched from Moorish Spain to India and China; to recover a poetics of heterogeneity, of mixing and interaction, of internationalism and cosmopolitanism through time and space, that they counterpose to Zionism, the attempt to make the ancient land of Canaan coincide with one religion, one people, one language: an assault on a thousand years of pluralistic tradition in the Eastern Mediterranean. (7) I see my 1492 as a contribution to this utopian desire and Jewish critique of Zionism, while knowing that utopian desire is always shadowed by delusion, disappointment, failure. How few--how utterly depressingly few--there are of us, those who say, Not in My Name.
Anti-Zionist Jews live in bitter exile from their own people, their own bodies.
It is said that many of the 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948-49 and have never been allowed to return to their homes in their villages and towns and cities in what is now Israel, despite UN resolutions, still keep their keys to their homes, for surely they would be allowed to return if the world were sympathetic to them ...
Yet when has the world ever shed a tear for the Canaanites?
In 1994 a BBC series appeared on the Crusades, accompanied by a book, which stressed the contemporary relevance of events that unfolded from the 1090s onwards; a relevance more evident now than when the series and book appeared. The Crusades were not about gaining Christian access to Jerusalem, since for many centuries there had been well-established tourist and pilgrimage routes to the holy city, and the Muslims in any case recognized Christ as part of their own religion. (8) Even before the first Crusade left Europe there were vicious pogroms against Jews, especially in Germany, and such massacres became a feature of all the Crusades. When the first Crusade got to Anatolia, the noble knights lay seige to the Turkish Muslim city of Nicaea, hurling baskets of severed heads at the walls, followed by infected or rotting animals: bacteriological warfare. When, finally, on 15 July 1099, the Crusaders burst into Jerusalem, they shortly after massacred all the Muslims and Jews they could find, including those sheltering in mosque and synagogue. Some 70,000 Muslims may have been slaughtered. The synagogue in which the city's Jews had sought refuge was set on fire and everyone in it was burned alive. The fanatical bloodlust of the Crusaders in Jerusalem would never be forgotten in the Middle East. The Christians of Europe, however, when they heard the news of the storming of Jerusalem, regarded it as a miraculous achievement. (9)
If President Bush's comment is anything to go by--that he was looking forward to American bombing of Afghanistan as a new Crusade--perhaps Western political leaders still consider the Crusades a great historical achievement, the only regret being that the Crusader presence did not become permanent.
There is a remarkable book offering a Middle Eastern perspective on Crusader barbarism--Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. (10) Like those who produced the BBC series, Maalouf also thinks the Crusades remain of great contemporary significance. The Arabs, enjoying a civilization far more sophisticated, knowledgeable and advanced than their demented European invaders, felt assaulted by Europe itself. Even though they eventually militarily defeated and managed to expel the Crusaders, the Arab world, Maalouf thinks, drew in on itself, refused to learn anything from the Europeans, and from then till now have identified modernity with a Europe they came to fear and despise as the eternal enemy. The Europeans, on the other hand, came through the Crusades to absorb much of the technological, financial, economic, cultural and philosophical knowledge of the East, and so leapt ahead in succeeding centuries. Maalouf believes the Arabs could have learnt much from the Crusader kingdoms that were created in the Levant, in terms of orderly transitions of power, and in establishing rights, in respect of a council to advise the king, of the feudal landowners, the knights, the clergy, the university, the bourgeoisie and even the peasants. By contrast, in the Arab East, the arbitrary power of the prince was unbounded. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of the monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war; a situation, Maalouf says, that has scarcely altered in the Arab world to this day.
In Maalouf's beautiful allegorical novel Samarkand, (11) key characters in eleventh century Persia--the time of Omar Khayyam--are recognized as representing enduring aspects of the Oriental world: reverence for poetry and the word; statecraft in advice to autocratic rulers; and political assassination and extremist political movements.
On the opening page of Maalouf's novel Leo the African, (12) the main character, his family exiled after 1492 from Granada, enjoins the writer of and from the Middle East to partake in a life of wandering in mind and imagination, place and space: 'I come from no country, from no city, no tribe,' Leo declares. 'I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages.' At one stage in the novel Leo, captured and taken to Medici's Rome, suggests that the Islamic ban on representation in art should be challenged, as Christian Europe had spectacularly done despite the biblical commandment against graven images--a commandment that is supposed to hold for Christianity as much as for Islam. At another point Leo feels that a writer and intellectual should not serve a particular religion, indeed, writers and intellectuals should sever themselves from the obsessive and fantastical demands of monotheism in all its forms. (13)
Maalouf himself, formerly a journalist in Lebanon, now lives in Paris and writes in French. He does not write his novels in Arabic, held--like Hebrew--to be the language of God. More than one people through the millennia have considered themselves a chosen people with a covenant, a special relationship to God's word--an exceedingly dangerous, and continuing, idea, as in the influence of the biblical story of Exodus in the history of modern settler-colonial societies like South Africa, Australia, Israel and the United States. (14)
Pharaoh and Monotheism
Why did the young Middle Eastern militant refer to Egyptian presidents like Sadat and Mubarak as Pharoahs; to be targeted for assassination?
When the Taliban in 2001 destroyed a huge statue of Buddha--remnant of a great visual culture--the Western world expressed horror and revulsion at a cultural crime against humanity.
This is amusing. One of the greatest cultural crimes in the history of humanity was a consequence of the victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire: the destruction of the ancient pagan Mediterranean world; a destruction of art, philosophy, languages, religions, science, medicine, so vast, so catastrophic, that their preservation by the Muslim world in its mediaeval Golden Age has been crucial not only to the development of Europe and the West but to the honour and dignity of humanity.
What Christianity in its fanatical intolerance and totalitarian bent set out to destroy was indeed the polytheism of the ancient Mesopotamian, Pharaonic Egyptian, Greek and Roman world, with its principles of cosmopolitanism, translatability of religions and mythological figures and beliefs into each other, and the notion of the One and the Many. (15)
Islam, too, set itself against pagan visual representation: the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, were after all enjoined by God to destroy images and representation of the sacred. In Genesis and Exodus and Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites they must destroy the images and sacred groves of the gods and goddesses of the Canaanites and even the very memory that such images and sacred sites existed. The promised land, as God kept reminding the Israelites, was already inhabited by a polytheistic people, and he promised to help remove them by any and every means. It became the divine mission of the three monotheistic faiths that polytheism, paganism, animism, be erased from the world; that the world be a terra nullius, on which the word of one God would be universally inscribed. (16)
In my view, monotheism is a disaster for humanity and history, and humanity could well attempt in tire new millennium to return to ancient Mediterranean paganism, and certainly could value and prize the parts of the world that continue to be pagan, polytheistic, and animistic despite the destructive intentions and attentions of the powerful monotheistic faiths. (17)
Let us return to questions of, to questioning, Cultural Studies as a project. In a 1935 letter, Walter Benjamin wrote of his method of cultural analysis of the city as 'the attempt to establish the image of history even in its most inconspicuous fixtures of existence, its rejects'. He would study, as in his Arcades project, the kaleidoscope of urban objects, warnings, buildings, amusements, signs, as means of throwing sudden new light on the modern epoch. (18) Here of course is the incipient program of much Cultural Studies as a discipline as it developed in the latter third of the twentieth century, Cultural Studies as focus on everyday images, representations, banal objects, low styles, sub-cultures, popular cultures, wayward events, that had till then been ignored, indeed rejected as not suitable for detailed critique, by the more usual disciplines of cultural analysis like literary criticism and art history. Benjamin also, again influentially, drew attention to a productive methodology, as in his prologue to The Origin of German Tragic Drama: analysis could proceed by investigating the most singular, eccentric and extreme of examples; examples to be found even in the merest fragment, the minutest thing. Benjamin here is writing about the German mourning play and baroque art of the seventeenth century, with its allegorical ruins: in the baroque theatre of cruelty, history emerges as universal destruction, leading to a proliferation on stage of torture and death and corpses. (19) In these terms, we can say that on 'September 11' New York became the scene of proliferating destruction. The World Trade Center--those twin towers of Western modernist architectural hubris and imperial desire to be the centre point of the world--fell, and New York now will be a city mixing modernity and ruins, an art deco and baroque city, perhaps never more an imperious world-dominating city. New York the great New World metropolis will become an Old World metropolis: its soulscape scarred by heartbreak, suffering, loss and memory.
Benjamin is exemplary for Cultural Studies in another way. He was characteristically interested in the deep long past, not only in the baroque aesthetic of the seventeenth century but in figures of the classical Greek, the Judaic, the Oriental, the Mediterranean.
In his studies of popular culture, as in his 'Work of Art' essay, Benjamin saw in silent film complexity, insight into the unconscious, collective modes of reception; a new aesthetic that challenged all previous notions of the aesthetic, which yet also connected to ancient culture as in the epic. Here he contrasts, as I have argued in my Postmodernism and Popular Culture, with Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, who looked down on popular screen images as mere realms of conformity, of obedience to a fallen society. My feeling is that Cultural Studies has veered between these two approaches. On the one hand, contemporary popular cultures are regarded as like ancient polytheistic mythology, a realm of ambiguous, contradictory, fascinating, polyvalent stories and images which can never be reduced to a single meaning and never dismissed as ideologically subservient to power. I think this approach would answer to what many of us have tried to do and continue to do. On the other hand, there is the approach of figures like Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, or Barthes in Mythologies, or Lyotard in his notion of the sublime, with Marx's phrase 'commodity fetishism' as bass note in the background. (20) Here is pervasive suspicion of representation and images as signs of worship of the idols and icons of capitalist society. And perhaps this approach too, the haunting fear of mass conformity, is inescapable.
We might say that in this contrast of approaches to mass culture, to images and representation, there lives an abiding conflict in Western cultural and intellectual history between 'Israel' and 'Egypt'. In the story of Exodus, 'Egypt' is regarded by the Israelites as their scene of bondage and slavery, as a past that has always to be suspected. The polytheism of Pharoanic Egypt, the apparent worship of images, not least of the golden calf, has to be rejected and a new approach to being, and perhaps a new aesthetic, has to be forged in opposition to representation for God is held to be invisible and certainly is averse to being imaged forth: think now of Lyotard saying the sublime is so valuable because it is unpresentable.
'Egypt' as figure of polytheistic mythology, of many gods and goddesses, of the pagan as being spellbound by images, is to be excoriated in Judeo-Christian history.
But 'Egypt' was never extinguished in Western history. 'Egypt' lived on as the possible source of the wisdom of the ages, as mystery religion, as subtle mysticism, as the notion of the One and Many, the single invisible creator god of the universe and the many visible gods and goddesses of creation: the One and the Many, a notion very like Bakhtin's heteroglossia; a notion as well to be found in Indian religion. (21)
Cultural Studies wanders between 'Israel' and 'Egypt', wisely deciding neither is a single truth.
Is there hope for Cultural Studies? In his essay in Illuminations, Benjamin says that Kafka feels there may be hope for a group of very strange figures, whom Kafka enigmatically refers to as the 'assistants', those who have escaped the family circle. In Indian mythology, these are the ghandharvas, celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state. Kafka's assistants, says Benjamin, are of that kind, neither members of, nor yet strangers to, any of the other groups of odd figures, but, rather, messengers from one to the other: 'It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the bunglers, that there is hope'. (22)
We in Cultural Studies are the unfinished and the bunglers. We are odd and strange, picking over rejects. We are not in the family circle of established disciplines, rather we are messengers between various disciplines and fields, creating conversations between them, bungling any attempt at epistemological certainty. We leave knowledge and methodology unfinished, preferring rather to be self-reflexive, to doubt and hesitate, to stay dissatisfied with any single approach--hopefully including our presently present-centric own.
* This is the edited text of a talk oringally given at the Interdisciplinary Studies Symposium, 'Diaspora in Cultural Studies', University of Newcastle, November 2001.
(1.) W. Benjamin, Illuminations, trans, II. Zohn, introd, H. Arendt, London, Fontana, 1992, pp. 112-3.
(2.) J. Docker, "Thirteen Untimely Meditations', Arena Magazine, no.55, Oct-Nov. 2001, pp. 9-11. This has been reprinted in slightly different form as 'Untimely Meditations: The Tampa and the World Trade Center', borderlands e-journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2002.
(3.) E. Said, 'The Clash of Ignorance', The Nation, 22 October 2001. Roy's essay is entitled 'The Algebra of Infinite Justice' and in Outlook. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2001, p. 11, has an article reprinted from The New York Times saying that her writing on the Afghan war has been embraced by its readers: 'They have inundated the magazine with hundreds of letters more than it has ever received in response to any single article'. Roy's further essays on the topic have been rejected by 'all main US newspapers and magazines', but they have been published in England and Europe in The Guardian, Le Monde, and El Mundo.) See also S. Fish, 'Condemnation Without Absolutes', The New Yolk Times, 15 October 2001. Fish here replies to a charge that 'postmodernist relativism' has left Americans 'with no firm basis for either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back'.
(4.) Concerning deep time, see W. E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
(5.) See E. Disney, 'Al-Andalus--Remembering Islamic Spain', Journal of Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, no.1, 1993, pp. 104-14; R. Fletcher, Moorish Spain, London, Phoenix, 1994; 1. Docker, 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, London, Continuum, 2001, pp. 53-5, 185, 249.
(6.) E. Disney, p.107. Concerning the Moriscos, see also B. Fuchs, Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam, and European Identities, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
(7.) See A. Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, and E. Shohat, 'Taboo Memories and Diasporic Visions: Columbus, Palestine and Arab-Jews', in M. Joseph and J.N. Fink (eds), Performing Hybridity, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, pp. 131-50.
(8.) See T. Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2001. In The Koran, God says that He recognizes the scriptures of the Jews and admires biblical figures and prophets like Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus: see The Koran, trans. N.J. Dawood, London, Penguin, 1999, 'The Cow', pp. 13-4, 18, 22-3.
(9.) T. Jones and A. Ereira, Crusades, BBC Books, London, 1994, pp. 11-48, 71-8.
(10.) A. Maalouf, The Crusaders Through Arab Eyes, New York, Schocken Books, 1985.
(11.) Maalouf, Samarkand, London, Quartet, 1992.
(12.) Maalouf, Leo the African, London, Abacus, 1994.
(13.) Docker, 1492, pp. 192-201.
(14.) Docker, 1492, ch. 7. J. Moses, in 'Justifying War as the Will of God: German Theology on the Eve of the First World War', Colloquium, no. 31, vol. 1, 1999, pp.3-20, argues that in modern German history there developed a kind of national Protestantism which felt that the German nation had been chosen by God as His agent on earth; consequently Hitler, promising German national regeneration in opposition to wicked and disobedient peoples who would undermine it, was supported by German Protestants until the final defeat of 1945.
(15.) See M. Rodinson, Cult Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question, London, Al Saqi Books, 1983, p 94. Cf. J. Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1997, pp, 20, 45-54, 136, 168, 193, 209, 217.
(16.) Docker, 1492, p. 146.
(17.) See Docker, 'In Praise of Polytheism', Semeia, no. 88, 2001, pp.149-72, and "The Challenge of Polytheism--Moses, Spinoza, and Freud, in J. Bennett and M. J. Shapiro (eds), The Politics of Moralizing, New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 201-22.
(18.) Benjamin, One Way Street and London, London, Verso, 1992, Publisher's Note, p. 35.
(19.) A. Curthoys and J. Docker, Time, Eternity, Truth, and Death: History as Allegory', Humanities Research, no. 1, 1999, pp. 5-26.
(20.) Concerning 'Commodity Fetishism', see J. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001, p.118. See also the fascinating analyses of Kakta in this book.
(21.) Cf. V. Mishra, Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime, New York, Slate University of New York, 1998, Preface and pp. 2-16.
(22.) Benjamin, Illuminations, p.113.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
|Previous Article:||Stem-cell alchemy: techno-science and the new philosopher's stone.|
|Next Article:||Left out? Marxism, the new left and cultural studies.|