John Hutnyk on Sat, 25 Jul 1998 22:59:33 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Identity

I was faffing about on another list, but lots of nettime related stuff
crept into this particular rant, so here you go:

Identity is a Fiddle.

Today ‘identity’ issues dominate the landscape of the chattering
classes, resulting in conferences such as, for example, one at the
University of Bristol planned for September 1999, entitled ‘Nationalism,
Identity and Minority Rights: Sociological and Political Perspectives’.
Admirable as such topics may be, it is curious to note in the promotion
material that the conference will provide an ‘international and
interdisciplinary forum in which assertions of social, cultural, ethnic
and religious identity and difference ... may be fully explored’
(leaflet April 1998). Conspicuous here in a conference that will examine
the ‘varied political mobilisation’ of these identities is that
‘political identity’ itself is absent. In the context of both
nationalism and political struggle it seems that identity excludes
certain kinds of politics from the outset. Even as the conference hopes
to include ‘papers on the full range of social, cultural and political
movements’, it is evident that a certain tension determines priorities
as ‘questions of nationalism and ethnicity are a principle concern’,
though there may be comparative examples represented ‘including those
relating to transnational and diasporic identities’ (leaflet, May 1998).
The organisers - Stephen May, Tariq Modood and Judith Squires - seem to
struggle with inclusion and exclusion of the political.

Why does identity seem to exclude politics, or at least reduce politics
to identity and the competition of various manifestations of difference
for the limited resources of the Nation's allocated public welfare (arts
council grants and the like)? Where did the politics of material
equality and the project of transformatory justice go in the work of
these ‘identity theorists’? Has the international division of labour,
social inequality, material wealth for sum and shit jobs for the rest
etc., all disappeared with the advent of the information economy,
difference and hybrid culture? Theorists of identity locate politics at
the level of self-fashioning, rhetorical fabulation, discursive
construction of self and consumption of images. In a way we are al seen
to be subject to the theory of shopping (Miller). But even those who
would identify the rise of difference and identity as a manifestation of
the move to a post-industrial information and service-economy (Castells)
cannot be blind to the fact that the service jobs that have replaced
industrial production primarily in the metropolitan West are less secure
and less well-remunerated Mcjobs and that for the rest of the world,
increasing industrialisation still implies immiseration and exploitation
based upon astonishingly high extraction of surplus (formal subsumption
and accumulation at mercantile levels in the third world exceeds the
trick of surplus value appropriation and real subsumption in the first).

As James Heartfield writes in his booklet 'Need and Desire in the
Post-Material Economy' (SHU Press, Sheffield), there can be ‘No catwalk
without a rag trade, no Britpop without a plastics industry, no internet
without and assembly line in Korea or Silicon Valley’ (Heartfield
1998:22). His withering critique is aimed against those who would keep
their analysis of culture only at the level of consumption, and thus
forget that the relations of wage to capital, and labourer to capitalist
are relations that determine - in that lonely last instance which
Althusser said may never come - the struggle of identities that passes
for politics today. Without the appropriation, on a massive scale, of
surplus, ‘the cultural experimentation
that identity theory thrives upon’ would be unlikely. ‘No surplus, no
endless play of difference’ (Heartfield 1998:28). The point is, however,
not as Heartfield argues, that identity theory, post-industrial
information economy and the endless play of difference is only a
reflection of the interests of the metropolitan class who see theory
production as the driving force of society. Although he lampoons the
neo-Hegelian hype of those who offer a ‘description of the world of work
in which the future belongs to writers, administrators and the
intelligentsia - the very people writing the advertising copy ...
[people from] think tanks which see the country peoples entirely by
people who work in think-tanks’ (Heartfield 1988:10), I would argue the
case that the extension of the information and service economy,
especially insofar as it operates out of the metropolitan West, but also
in tourism, cinema, and the so-called placeless virtual of the internet,
are historically specific responses to the stagnation of world
capitalist production and that rather than invest in a new round of
productive activity in the West, the smart money is on the quick
recuperation of profits via encouragement of consumption, circulation
and expenditure. Of course in this scenario the chattering classes of
London, and the layer of intellectuals, artists and advertising
executives live a luxurious life of parties and cocaine, but the real
accumulation still occurs in the accounts column of old Moneybags,
temporarily limited to profiteering in the third world, recouping what
profit can be had at ‘home’. That cool Britannia, with Blair playing his
electric guitar, or even Urbane USA, with Clinton on Sax, merely provide
the covering soundtrack (Nero fiddles while the city burns) does not
indicate more than the participation in this rip-off end-game on the
part of the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, and the complicit
deception of the chattering classes who provide the theoretical

Mesmerised by the new horizons of the informational economy, it is
perhaps the capacity to exploit English language technology and
world-wide markets for English language cultural products that provides
investors in the cultural, information and service industries these new
opportunities to recoup profits (without reinvestment in production in
the metropolitan zones). No longer having a competitive edge in
industry, nation states such as Britain, or industrial conglomerates
like RCA, rely upon the sale of ‘culture’ as a locus for recuperative
profit. To the extent that it exists in contemporary capital and its
slump condition, massive profitable productive investment occurs
elsewhere (and slides further into stagnation with the Southeast Asian
crisis). The factor which governs the larger shifts of life for most of
us on the planet is that an obscure elite few able to extract wealth
from the world system are no engaged in a bitter end-game to recash
their capital reserves through speculative investment in the cultural
arts, in the warehouses of the East End of London, in internet and
multimedia technology investment and in information and service industry
ventures... There is no reason not to enjoy the efflorescence of
culture, but it is also incumbent upon analysts to point out that
extension of the service economy, whether it be the proliferation of
South Asian restaurants fuelling the culinary transformation of Britain,
or the global success of Brit-pop, or of Hip-Hop from the USA, is
dependant upon this stagnation of overall world production. And that
listening to the Chumbawumba, Public Enemy, Fun^Da^Mental or
Asian Dub Foundation is not yet a revolutionary politics.

John Hutnyk
Heidelberg in transit to London
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: