E. San Juan’s “Racism and Cultural Studies”

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Rachel Peterson

Racism and Cultural Studies: Critiques of Multiculturalist Ideology and the Politics of Difference by E. San Juan Jr. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), $24.95 paperback.

E. SAN JUAN JR.’s latest book, “Racism and Cultural Studies: Critiques of Multiculturalist Ideology and the Politics of Difference,” deftly explores current trends in academic thought and political theory to show the complicity of postmodernism with global capitalism.

Setting his study in the period marked by the police assault on Rodney King and the Battle of Seattle, San Juan observes the mystification of exploitative social relations in a broad range of work, moving energetically from the popular entertainer Madonna, to the influential ethnologist James Clifford, to the widely read postcolonial theorist Edward Said, for a few examples.

Additionally, the author exposes contemporary discourses and practices generated in the United States that endeavor to obscure the nation’s racist basis, a structure that perpetuates abusive global labor conditions in order to maximize profits.

Indispensable as a critique of some current directions in Ethnic Studies and Cultural Studies and an unsheathing of the dangers in some high theory, the book is also useful in its projections and suggestions for what must be done in opposition to these forces.

San Juan’s experience in Ethnic Studies departments gives him important insight into trends within the field, with which he is able to demonstrate that the factious atmosphere dominating many Ethnic Studies departments reflects the divisions occurring on a more general social level. The contradictions integral to capitalism are managed with the help of “postmodernist and ludic academics” whose work in Ethnic Studies provides “a new orientation more adapted to the imperatives of globalization.” (151-2)

San Juan also charts how neoliberal agendas have enlisted multiculturalism especially to diffuse ethnic and racial conflict through identity politics that encourage tolerance and obfuscate the need to recognize and eradicate structural inequality. (In teaching Ethnic Studies, I too found that students were predisposed to discussing ethnicity as a part of national diversity, yet highly resistant to assessing the historical and current role of race and ethnicity in perpetuating structural disparities.)

San Juan skillfully shows how conservative resistance to multiculturalism evidences the nativism and racism so foundational to American national identity, and then analyses the ways in which liberals use the concept to seemingly address issues of race and ethnicity while ignoring political economy.

The move toward comparative studies of cultures indicates the confluence of cultural studies and ethnic studies that focus on difference to undermine metanarratives, or “totalizing” approaches that could elucidate the coherence of individual and group oppressions.

Struggle Or Discourse?

San Juan’s awareness of the corporate university’s compulsion to sustain capitalism leads him to pose the crucial, difficult question “What can a department or program of Ethnic Studies offer as a means of resistance when it has become transformed into an instrument to camouflage, if not directly advance, the interest of universal commodification?” (158)

Such questions recur frequently in the text, posed with an urgency that conveys San Juan’s sense that many recent practitioners of Cultural Studies (given a concise and nuanced genealogy here) have transformed the field from a political intervention into a fetishization of discourse and representation.

Central to this degradation has been the selective appropriation of Gramsci, in which scholars robbed the critical concept of hegemony of its insistence that organic intellectuals and workers reject this domination through counter-hegemonic efforts. Instead, when scholars invoke the popular term counter-hegemony, it is used to describe quotidian, individual resistances bereft of the sort of large-scale, organized and united struggle necessary to defeat, not merely to alter the reality of, capitalism.

Such perversion is only possible because of the postmodernist preference for the celebration of difference, rather than the examination of domination. This proclivity, however, is not merely a reflection of the fact that it is more fun to talk about, for example, subversive television than of the exploitation of child labor.

San Juan brilliantly unfolds the purposes and results of postmodernist cultural studies, showing that through the “legitimizing” (224) work of such celebrated scholars as Ernest Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and John Fiske, who substitute an “an inflated and universalized” study of culture into politics, the field of cultural studies itself becomes “nothing else but an apology for commodity fetishism.” (228)

Postmodernist preoccupations with identity and positionality are further linked explicitly to postcolonialist Homi Bhabha’s notion of hybridity in its attempt to expose the complexities of “difference” that inhabit the (purportedly) ex-colonial subject. As scholars grant the symptoms of colonialism an autonomy unfettered by consideration of the plague’s source, one finds that “Loss of critical reflexivity is the price one pays for fetishizing discourse and the deterritorialized psyche.” (249)

In emphasizing performance and discourse over history and socio-economic conditions, postcolonialists effect a renunciation of supposedly repressive Marxist models.

Unfortunately, as San Juan demonstrates through astute analyses of the field, such “mediation of the hybrid, interstitial, and borderline experiences with the concrete totality of the social formation is rejected as `essentialism’ or `totalization,’ hence the only alternative is opportunism or anarchist posturing.” (252)

Such interpretation is crucial to understanding San Juan’s purpose — far from merely critiquing high-profile scholars, San Juan seems motivated by a disarmingly (in the academic world) sincere compulsion to generate scholarship that can aid mass revolutionary movements, whatever the cost.

Toward Analysis and Action

Accordingly, San Juan offers several examinations of figures whose work provides critical opportunities for analysis and constructive action, including Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral.

Despite widely divergent conditions of composition and political involvement, these figures share a dedication to mass democratization determined by the particular imperatives of their given arenas — and a sense of the utility of place attachment as an organizational force as well as apprehending “the dialectics of local/global long before journalists seized on . . . `globalization.’” (304)

As Cabral’s efforts to create a “nation-for-itself” (283) evidence, cultural, economic and political expressions and conditions cannot be compartmentalized into spheres (as those who denounce “reductionist” Marxism charge); instead each is contingent upon the other in the waging of collective resistence and the forging of a nation.

San Juan also reveals the appropriation of Fanon’s key works and concepts by postcolonialists, and does an admirable job at reclaiming Fanon and others and contemporizing those aspects of their work that many today would like to occlude.

Of particular value in the discussions of these figures is the innovative, galvanizing analyses of Marx’s and Lenin’s writings regarding the national question and historical change — San Juan recovers the utility of their dialectical analysis for current struggles, a utility never lost but rarely presented today with San Juan’s clarity and conviction.

These analyses and critiques culminate in San Juan’s call for a “cultural revolution,” an invocation of William’s structure of feeling as exemplified by Fanon’s struggle for national liberation which “[d]emonstrates the mediated articulation of categories of class, nation, gender, and race that we need today in confronting the hierarchization of cultural differences — a postcolonial regime — in the globalized marketplace.” (330)

In doing so, San Juan shows that agency, a term so prevalent lately that it has almost lost relevance, is a matter of united struggle, or of building a “selective tradition” (297) to counter others.

Overall, “Racism and Cultural Studies” eloquently and at times wittily traverses a wide range of recent trends that have moved away from collective struggles, and social analyses in favor of individualized “modes of resistance” that undergird the culture of consumption that characterizes late capitalism. In the process a host of academics are debunked while a selection of activists/theorists are given new life, as part of the book’s trajectory wherein our contemporary academic and global terrain is elucidated and the direction we ought to follow is mapped out.

ATC 107, November-December 2003