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Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the Destruction of Today's Youth.

Giroux, Henry A. 1997. New York: St. Martin's. $22.95 hc. 248 pp.


Channel Surfing is a series of critical elucidations on some of today's most disquieting examples of popular culture, in particular as regards youth and race. Chapter one, for example, examines Calvin Klein's controversial, quasi-pederastic, and wildly successful jeans advertising campaign. Chapter two details the predatory voyeurism implicit in Larry Clark's film, Kids. Subsequent chapters describe the Right's demonization of the 1960s; certain pitfalls inherent to the critical study of whiteness; the media-franchising of the Black public intellectual; O.J. mania; and the racist charlatanism expressly manifest in Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

But it would be a serious mistake to reduce the book to being merely a set of putative musings on how bad, how politically retrograde, how manipulative, and so on, popular culture is. A more careful reading reveals the kind of theoretical nuance and political commitment featured in the best of what, after all these years, is still contestably called Cultural Studies. In the end, Channel Surfing offers rare insight on the mass mediation of power.

Channel Surfing begins autobiographically. Giroux asks: "how to reconstruct my own experience of youth" (5) as white and male; and, by extension, how to think critically about white masculinity as the implicit beneficiary of past political ignorance? This book is not a confessional, however. Memory here occasions specific lines of inquiry into the "systemic inequalities" inherent to growing-up "working class" (12). Giroux's "reconstruction" of his own youth in the book's initial pages thus introduces certain perplexities about the here and now. These ultimately signal alternative forms of identifying, new recognitions made possible by bringing the past up close. In this way, remembering designates the thresholds of political change which reaches beyond identity politics. But it does so precisely through them.

Giroux writes, for example, that while "I loved black music . . . whiteness in my [working-class] neighborhood was a signifier of pride, a marker of racial identity experienced through the dislike of blacks" (9). Note the division implicit in this recollection. It consists, on the one hand, of recognizing the white-boy lurking in one's past, manifest here as the author's former "pride." But his memory allows, on the other hand, the presence of a more complex association than simply allegiance to the (white) self. This association, writ as the love and hate of "blackness," embodies a contradiction which, while repressed by youth, makes for new beginnings in its tellingly awkward recollection. Memory thus becomes the exploration of internal divisions. And these divisions are central to imaging more egalitarian relationships, both with oneself (indeed, first with oneself), and with others.

Such insight into the psychodynamics of race belongs in no small part to W.E.B. Du Bois's account of the "psychological wages of whiteness" (one sees the issue explored later by Frantz Fanon). Du Bois observed about the nineteenth-century white working poor how an unreconstructed race consciousness paid allegiance to a system of domination that, in fact, violated its own obscured best interests. As distinct from these earlier workers, the memory of his own psychological wages, Giroux hopes, will no longer have purchase: "racial and class differences," he recalls now, "were the disruptive forces in my life" (12).

So one remembers for the future, for the sake of imagining change. Throughout the book, Giroux calls this "memory work" (5, 12, 130): a semi-deliberate process of autocriticism, which is as scarce in mass culture as on the academic scene. In a crucial chapter on the turn to whiteness as "a rising academic specialization" (89), Giroux warns that there are competing rationales for white "self-criticism" (101). And he is skeptical about what I have elsewhere called "inverse narcissism," that is, the unintentional degeneration of white self-inquiry into victim chic. Giroux advances this charge in another form when he alleges a racial essentialism in the seminal work on whiteness by David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev. (Ignatiev is the founder and editor of the journal Race Traitor, and race treason is something Roediger has been keen to support.)

But what about inverse narcissism and self-criticism? Does the distinction finally blur in the "memory-work" attendant to this book? Less sympathetic audiences will suspect that white self-abjection is really a stealthier form of white privilege, stealthy because white memory-workers persist in denying the wages that whiteness goes on (no matter what we'd rather think) to buy for white folk. Does the memory of white masculinity recenter white men by default, as political spectacle or is something (someone?) else also at work in the "memory-work" Giroux describes?

To the book's great credit, Channel Surfing foreshadows these nettlesome questions. The book maneuvers clearly and carefully between its materialist theoretical foundations and the indulgences of volunteerism that are typical both of the latest wave of autobiography, and much of the so-called "white studies." An idealistic approach to white self-criticism wrongly assumes that skin privilege can be nullified by simply choosing to change sides. Whites need simply select whatever ideal opposite they already have in mind and then call this a better version of themselves. On this order, white critique as inverse narcissism enables white folk to avoid the contradictions otherwise immanent to our own self-recognition. Such an avoidance begs the question, for example, of how white folk can be the beneficiaries of a system they might eventually choose to resist. Thus Giroux is duly circumspect about "race treason." From the materialist perspective he chooses, politics are found precisely within, not by avoiding, white contradiction. Auto-critique as wholly voluntary is therefore what Giroux finds most ineffectual in the work of Ignatiev and Roediger. It tends, if unintentionally, towards political solipsism, Giroux suggests, and disallows white youth the move beyond "sullen silence [and] paralyzing guilt" (130). White critique, as either the root and branch condemnation of whiteness or the unequivocal embracing of color, reduces self-criticism to the pursuit of fetishized alterities, the "desire to be black" (131), but, again, only as whites imagine "blackness."

The crucial difference, then, between materialist and idealist rationales for selfcriticism, and what thankfully lands Channel Surfing in the camp of the latter, depends on moments of what it calls, vis-a-vis Gayatri Spivak, constitutive "bafflement" (128). Similarly, Homi Bhabha uses the term "shared antagonistic . . . terrain" (170). At stake in both ideas is a certain qualification of the "public sphere," as set forth by Jurgen Habermas, maintained to this day by the liberal Left. For Giroux, reciprocity is not, as Habermas and liberalism would have it, a situation of suspended self-interest where equals assume ideal speech communities in the free and open exchange of ideas. To the contrary, it is precisely in the "antagonism" of neutralities as no longer such that memories, and memories of whiteness in particular, work. "Within and against the discourse and practice of racism" (103, emphasis mine), alternatives to white skin privilege might be seriously considered.

While "shared antagonism" on this order is presupposed by any emergent postwhite political consciousness, it is a logic that governs Channel Surfing on the whole. Both in the author's introductory recollections and throughout Channel Surfing, the keyword "youth" bears a great deal of relevance to what might more traditionally be called class-consciousness. where the author's memory sees a white boy compensated by color, but exploited by class, a materialist component is added to identity. Giroux thus remembers himself contradictorily, internally "antagonized" such that he is no longer merely white and certainly no longer "proud." Memories of youth provide a certain invariable disruption that goes all the way to the book's more explicit object of study, (mostly) white youth. The contradictions immanent to being white (and therefore privileged) and working class (and therefore not) have made this kind of disruption inevitable. In thus a properly dialectical manner, class struggle obliges egalitarian transformations of consciousness, in part, on the order of a critical memory.

Indeed, the subject remembering his racism in Channel Surfing's opening salvo (and by so remembering, the subject attempting to "transform" himself there [14]) becomes identical to the troubled objects examined by the book in general. Here the broader political and theoretical stakes of youth begin to unfold. "Lauded as a symbol of hope for the future while scorned as a threat to the existing social order, youth have become objects of ambivalence caught between contradictory discourses [in] the spaces of transition" (36). And similarly, "youths . . . occupy uneasy interstices between the adult world and the future" (85). While "[t]he "crisis" of youth is really . . . a crisis of adult society and democracy in general, [f]ortunately, there is always an indeterminacy in youth" (86). These lines are as applicable to the book's general object of inquiry, the hip young consumers, as they are applicable to the ultimately ambivalent subject/author engaged in that work. In other words, "youth," as Giroux remembers it, retains certain features of the very conditions of today's youths he goes on later in the book to describe. And to the extent that in time one's politics ever arrive, the particular ambivalence of youth becomes something adults might find useful. Whether in the author's own "memory work," or in numerous examples of mass media that "define[s youth] through the lens of commodification" (72), the term "youth" is the theoretical lynchpin of Channel Surfing. It designates less a simple moment in time than an ethico-temporal double-bind that one lives through in order to change. Youth becomes in this book a critically "indeterminate" condition, irreducible to the present by nature of its position between past political ignorance and, one hopes, more equitable futures.

Channel Surfing is replete with sobering statistics that document the rising poverty among children in the US and the world. This makes for thankfully explicit, concrete, and empirical associations between youth and class. But such associations are lived in exceedingly complex manners which necessitate the theoretical explanations the book also provides. Bringing class to bear on youth occurs, as the current jargon has it, "intersticially." This book moves, therefore, between the repressed histories of adulthood, on the one hand, and the more optimistic, more democratic, futures that a radical recollection of youth might, on the other hand, inspire. The critical study of popular culture is given renewed relevance here. For teachers and students, though differently, youth persists in naming a condition where identity leans in political directions that are sometimes worthwhile and sometimes incredulous. This alone ought to be reason for keeping youth in mind. It is certainly a reason to read Channel Surfing.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hill, Mike
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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