Politics of culture, culture of politics

by Azfar Hussain
September 12, 2007
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S37Culture, like class, is political. Of course, there are traditions and practices that have not only narrowly demarcated the terrain of culture as such, but have also reckoned it as a hierarchy-producing category — one that has been taken to mean, embrace, and legitimise ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’, to use the nineteenth-century British poet-critic Mathew Arnold’s words. But who gets to decide and determine the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ of human thoughts and expressions in the world? In this instance, of course, Arnold and Arnoldians do, marking a tradition — Western, even Eurocentric, and unabashedly elitist as it is — in which culture designates a territory almost exclusively inhabited, or even owned, by the privileged few, who, for instance, know their Greek classics or their Shakespeare well, and who know how to appreciate classical music or abstract art.
And it is this tradition that not only keeps the notion of ‘classics’ (see how ‘class’ is inherent in the very notion of ‘classics’, of course) fixed and frozen in time and space, but also accords it such status as to produce and justify hierarchical divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between ‘culture’ and ‘philistinism’ (on another but almost similar register, one sees the division between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’), and even between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. Even Goethe — whom many of our middle-class educated folks continue to celebrate in our part of the world — endorses some of such elitist hierarchies. I certainly admire the ways in which Goethe points up the narrowness or even inefficacy of ‘national literature’, while welcoming the emergence of ‘world literature’. Yet I see how Goethe ends up underlining the superiority of Greek literature and culture over other literatures and cultures across the world.
Mark, then, what Goethe says in his letter to Eckermann: ‘National literature is now a rather meaningless term. The epoch of world-literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach. But while we thus value what is foreign, we must not bind ourselves to some particular thing and regard it as a model. We must not give this value to the Chinese, or the Serbian, or Calderon; but if we want a pattern, we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of mankind is constantly represented. All the rest we must look at historically, appropriating to ourselves what is good, as far as it goes.’
Notice how Goethe pronounces ‘all the rest’ vis-à-vis the privileged pronoun ‘we’, and mark the ideological framework within which he formulates and mobilises his notion of world literature and promotes its study. For Goethe — one can certainly argue — to study world literature (and by extension culture) is to see how other literary productions come to appear as inferior to their European counterparts. Comparison, thus, is pressed into the service of enacting a self/other dialectic between the superior and the inferior. Confronted with the challenge of reading world literature, does Goethe feel insecure and does he feel the need to preserve the superiority of Greece — of course appropriated as part of Europe — as a model? For me the answer is yes.
S38Goethe’s own Eurocentrism finds its philosophical counterpart in Hegel — one who, in his Philosophy of History, notoriously declares that Africa has no history, and that to understand the world is to understand Europe only. In fact, Hegel boldly affirms the superiority of Europe vis-à-vis ‘all the rest’ of the world. And while speaking of ‘a people without history’ (Africans, for instance), Hegel also means a people without culture. The idea that there are people who are ‘uncivilised’, ‘without history’, and ‘uncultured’ keeps drawing ideological sustenance from Hegel and by extension the entire European Enlightenment project — a project that has in turn ideologically nourished European colonialism in a number of ways.
In fact, the tradition from Goethe to Hegel to Arnold — pressed as it is into the service of Eurocentrism and colonialism — has given rise to all kinds of hierarchical binaries between, say, the ‘cultured’ West and the ‘uncultured’ East, between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’, between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and so on. I’m aware that I’ve quickly dwelt here on a small segment of the history of European/Western thought, and that one can certainly cite numerous examples to make a case for the historically produced hierarchical relationships between the West and the East, between people who are ‘cultured’ and those who are not. But I hope the point has meanwhile emerged clearly: that the tradition in question takes culture as a terrain onto which the superior-inferior divide is not only grafted and established but is also celebrated by way of reproducing and reinforcing class-race-gender-nation lines, for instance. And it is this very tradition that keeps playing out in various ways in our own parts of the world from, say, the nineteenth century to the present — from the days of high colonialism to today’s late colonialism, marked as it is by US imperialism today.
I will later take up the issue of what I’ve called late colonialism as it keeps affecting culture(s) in Bangladesh. But let me, meanwhile, look at other ways of treating culture — ways that run against the grain of the high-idealist or Goetheian-Hegelian-Arnoldian tradition of culture that, as I’ve already indicated, defines and delimits culture as a demarcated territory hospitable to the privileged few, who of course keep centralising themselves — their culture, of course — by way of marginalising or even erasing numerous others. That counter-tradition of culture, then, takes culture as ordinary, while embracing the practice of everyday life.
In fact, in this counter-tradition, culture constitutes an open-ended terrain in which the material life of the masses is produced and reproduced in various combinations and configurations, a terrain which is preserved, coordinated, and altered by the people themselves. Maulana Bhashani’s pronouncement comes to mind: ‘Culture belongs to the people.’ Bhashani reminds me of the Italian Marxist-Leninist theorist-activist Antonio Gramsci who says, ‘Everybody is already cultured.’ Gramsci, of course, contests the elitist, exclusivist tradition of culture, as he maintains, ‘[Bourgeois] culture is a privilege. Education is a privilege. And we do not want it to be so.’
In other words, in the counter-tradition in question, culture does not merely mean composing poems or singing songs or visiting art-galleries; nor does it come to designate a territory exclusively owned by intellectuals-writers-painters-musicians-sculptors as such. Peasants have their own cultures, while middle-class politicians in Bangladesh, for instance, have their own. Thus it is possible, for example, to speak of the political culture of theft and plundering — the lumpen-bourgeois culture of ‘neo-primitive accumulation’ for that matter — in Bangladesh; or the ruling-class culture of ideological slavery in our country (think of the relationship between our ruling classes and US imperialism, for instance).
In fact, culture embraces the entire range of lived human practices, practices that are materially grounded, historically produced, and ideologically vectored. This is precisely why culture can have many forms, features, functions, and names. Thus, for instance, one can speak of democratic culture, autocratic culture, political culture, capitalist culture, patriarchal culture, militarist culture, bureaucratic culture, folk culture, national culture, and so on. Some folks have already spoken of even ‘sub-cultures’, as we know.
Of course, there are neo-Hegelians and neo-Arnoldians in the world — ones who make distinctions between what they themselves call ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’. According to them, Greek tragedies, for example, belong to ‘high culture’, while slave-songs belong to ‘low culture’. There are of course deshi counterparts of those neo-Hegelians and neo-Arnoldians, ones who keep waxing lyrical on the need for ‘refined taste’, ‘urban sensibility’, ‘pramito Bangla’, ‘civil behaviour’ (mark that there are instructive notional and ideological interplays among ‘civility’, ‘civilisation’, and ‘civil society’ in Bangladesh), and the need for practising Rabindranath, to take but a few examples, thus reproducing certain class-marked distinctions in favour of valorising urban, civil cultures as opposed to folk ones.
Then there are deshi shahebs in our country. Some of them believe, following Nirad C Chaudhuri, that British colonialism — despite its ravages — has done at least certain ‘great’ things for our own good. Mark, then, what a Nirod-Chaudhuri-intoxicated Bangladeshi academic has to say at the beginning of the twenty-first century: ‘After all, who can deny the truth of his [Nirad Chaudhuri’s] major thesis that the supreme achievements of modern Bengali culture would have been impossible without the coming of the English and the introduction of their language and the exposure to the enlightenment values of the west in the nineteenth century?’ Ah, ‘enlightenment values’! Ah, the outright construction of the ‘truth’! But whose truth? Or whose values? And for whom are they intended? And whose culture is it, as in ‘modern Bengali culture’? These are the questions that remain unaddressed in our deshi shaheb’s uncritical, colonialist, Nirad-Chaudhurian defence of Nirad Chaudhuri himself.
Given the foregoing discussion, it is likely to be clear by now that culture is political — decisively so — a point that I made at the beginning. In fact, culture is fundamentally political in the sense that it remains implicated and imbricated in the actually existing power-relations in a society, and that culture can challenge those power-relations, while it can even forge and foster new ones. But power-relations are not exclusive of production-relations, while production-relations themselves in turn imply, involve, entail, and create power-relations. Well before Michel Foucault — the famous French theorist of power-relations — it is none other than Karl Marx, who, at one point in his Grundrisse, at least briefly theorises power-relations by indicating how they turn out to be production-relations and vice versa. And to the extent that production-relations as power-relations come to inform and influence culture and vice versa, one can see how unequal relations — along class-gender-race-nation lines — affect the politics of culture and the culture of politics here in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
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Cultures in Bangladesh — yes, to put the category of culture deliberately in the plural — can be viewed in terms of unequal power-relations and unequal production-relations, that is, in terms of domination and subordination as well as in terms of resistance. So what does, for instance, the dominant, even ‘hegemonic’ culture look like? To put it in fairly broad strokes, what is called ‘hegemonic’ culture is constituted by those sets of actual practices — including those ideas, ideals, values, outlooks, and so on — that preserve, justify, and reproduce unequal power-relations on the basis of class-gender-race-national differences, among other things. This hegemonic culture is of course the culture of the ruling class, although the ruling class alone cannot ensure the power, production, and persistence of this culture as such. Those who are ruled or governed must at least partially give in to the dominance of the culture in question.
In other words, the ruling class must win the consent of the masses. But this consent does not fall from the sky; it is usually manufactured through cultural practices themselves. Also, in order to win the consent of the masses, or in order to be able to manufacture it, the ruling class needs certain apparatuses such as supportive media, supportive legal structures, the police and the military, an army of intellectuals including other ideologues, and so on. In fact, consent is won through all kinds of persuasions; through exercising all kinds of tricks, and through offering all kinds of temptations.
But, again, history has decisively proven that people’s consent, if won by force — that is, if won in the face of bayonets and bullets and bombs — fails to initiate, let alone sustain, hegemony in the sense of ideological domination and intellectual-moral leadership. Of course, I’ve hitherto been rehearsing Gramsci here to make a few points concerning the dominant culture. But, to invoke Gramsci again, even ‘hegemony [let alone dictatorship] is never absolute, never complete’; it cannot fully exhaust the field of oppositional possibilities. In fact, there is no domination in the world that can fully either convince or coerce everyone. Hegemony provokes counter-hegemonic moves; repression prompts resistance. This dialectic is rendered evident by our own history of people’s movements, uprisings, revolts, and rebellions.
Now, in order to account for the dominant culture in Bangladesh, it is important that we relate it to the very political culture that has emerged in Bangladesh since 1971. As I keep arguing rather repeatedly, it is possible to map out certain distinct patterns and trends that have evolved and taken shape in the domain of what might be called the culture of politics in Bangladesh. Such trends, for instance, include the commercialisation of politics and the politicisation of some form of ‘primitive accumulation’; the bureaucratisation of politics and the politicisation of the bureaucratic; the militarisation of politics and the politicisation of the military; the politicisation of religion and the communalisation of politics, including of course the pervasive criminalisation of politics itself. And, of course, there have been all kinds of transactions — political and cultural — between our national ruling classes and US imperialism in particular.
In fact, there has hitherto been no government in Bangladesh that has proven its ability or willingness to pronounce a real no to the dictates of US imperialism as well as the World Bank and the IMF. Mark, for instance, how those anti-people, profit-fetishising corporations are now trying to stage their comeback — despite our people’s movements in the recent past — or how the IMF, to take just one example, keeps targeting Bangladesh with virtually no opposition from the government. The present military-backed interim government is of course not yet in a position to inaugurate a total rupture with the dominant political culture that has emerged and evolved in Bangladesh over the last thirty-six years, although this government has decisively moved in the direction of spelling out an end to the old style and form of politics and by extension in the direction of what I wish to call politicide in ways in which Bangladesh, however, is being increasingly rendered vulnerable — economically and otherwise — in the era of the re-colonisation of the third world, from Puerto Rico to Palestine to the Philippines, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Bangladesh itself. And this is the conjuncture of late colonialism, if you will, ‘one that is dominated by the US’, as a whole host of theorists-activists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have suggested time and again.
And, yes, while the old politics in Bangladesh is breathing its last or is at least imprisoned, the new one is yet to come. Within the horizon of all this, then, the imminent new politics cannot but rethink, re-track, radicalise, and re-form the questions of democracy, national liberation, and imperialism —questions that are differentially but profoundly interconnected at this late-colonialist conjuncture, one that itself throws up the primary contradictions of our time: the people of Bangladesh versus imperialism and its national allies. What Maulana Bhashani himself once called ‘people’s culture’ at the famous Kagmari conference — the culture of resistance, that is — cannot help taking up and mobilising people’s own issues of struggle, as history keeps stubbornly telling us. History also tells us that the culture of domination and the culture of resistance are always in conflicts, sometimes dormant and sometimes open. And, of course, history offers resources of hope: ultimately people come to triumph. But ‘claim no easy victory’!

Azfar Hussain is associate professor, Grand Valley State University in the United States.

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