The Dominion of Signs
Auckland University Press, $34.95
A few weeks ago a debate appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement which Colin MacCabe (head of research and education at the British Film Institute) and Graham McCann (a sociologist and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge) wrestled the question, or fate, of cultural studies. In the interview MacCabe argues that cultural studies had failed and the reasons for its failure were located in a lack of historical perspective and a refusal to question comparative value. To this charge, McCann countered with an argument which insisted that while there was some truth to MacCabe’s criticism, the larger questions which cultural studies seeks to address remain vital and worthy of support.
In this, McCann calls for help from those he defines as cultural studies’ “elderly academic neighbours”. The price for this help, according to MacCabe, is the demand for intellectual rigour – in a sense they are, of course, both right, Cultural studies as either a discipline or a method has produced academic work which is, according to McCann, “arrogantly pointless” and yet, when intellectually rigourous, cultural studies is academic work at its very finest.
I place Nick Perry and his study of contemporary New Zealand culture, The Dominion of Signs, in the middle of this argument because he can be read as both a helpful representative of the elderly academic neighbourhood (he is a senior lecturer in sociology) and as an example of what befalls academics when wrangling the questions of culture. I take the liberty of placing Perry in the company of MacCabe and McCann because in an international sense he would not be placed there otherwise.
Perry’s work is important because it marks a New Zealander’s engagement in a battle which has been raging in Anglo/ American intellectual circles for some 30 years. As a scholar Perry has a tough job. He is attempting to bring kiwi culture to an intellectual party which began some time ago and in a very real sense he is doing this without the support of the wider intellectual community. For this reason alone The Dominion of Signs deserves praise. Yet as an intellectual exercise it is flawed.
Read as a whole, which is perhaps unfair as a large number of the essays were published as articles, Perry’s book is a fragmented and occasionally stylistically sluggish text which seeks to draw a varied range of texts (television ads, popular magazines, New Zealand literature, British and New Zealand television) under the umbrella term “dominion of signs”, a term, or sign system, which he defines as the “items” which operate as sites of cultural fictions.
In his introduction Perry calls upon the work of Roland Barthes to develop, rather vaguely, an argument which rests upon the premise that “the world is full of such signs, but they are rarely simple and never innocent”. He suggests that we all have in our daily lives access to this sign system, that we engage in readings of the “messages they carry and in tacitly deciphering the social, moral and cultural values that they imply”. One of his aims then is to “slow down that acquisition of meaning and to subject it to scrutiny”. To this Perry adds the additional aim of establishing a tension between the reader, or the audience, “as active constructors of culture and towards the signs [themselves] as a system of constraints”.
In this Perry is attempting to occupy a position which is located in between cultural production and consumption and argues that this position is one which allows the critic to play with both “the resources of cultural tradition, the claims of contemporary populism and the border patrols of different academic disciplines”, and in turn to “confront forms of complexity” which exceed the limits of these disciplines.
I read Perry’s introduction and his bibliography as an attempt to place himself within the domain of cultural studies as a practice. Perry’s argument is sound in the sense that cultural studies certainly attempts to create friction and to draw upon a variety of academic disciplines as an intellectual practice. Yet in the body of his text it becomes evident that it is Perry’s training as a sociologist which ultimately informs his critical readings. Furthermore, it is this training which both provides the strengths of his work and at the same time undermines the theoretical tensions he seeks to explore. Perry may be a good sociologist but good sociology alone does not necessarily make for good cultural theory.
The strengths of Perry’s work lie in his abilities as a sociologist, particularly in his ability to draw upon empirical data as a tool for cultural criticism. Particularly in his readings of New Zealand and British television, Perry carefully constructs and explores the socio-economic contexts in which his chosen texts were both produced and consumed.
A good example of this is seen in “Toyota Country and Toyota City: Urbanism and the Representation of Community”, an essay which uses New Zealand’s geographic size, population, dependence on an export economy and domestic spending practice as a means of contextualising and reading the well-known Toyota ads which featured Barry Crump. In this essay Perry easily and effectively explores the tensions between the idea of rural New Zealand and the importance of this “fiction” in a country which in 1986 had 83.3% of its population defined as urban.
Within this empirical framework Perry hits his stride. He effectively argues that there is a paradoxical relationship between New Zealand as an urbanised nation and also one deeply dependent upon a national myth which is embodied by the idea of Barry Crump, rural hero and good kiwi bloke. Perry uses this paradox to explore what he calls a “blind spot” in New Zealand culture, a critical and cultural space which demonstrates the “legacy of (a presumed) cultural homogeneity” which informs a particular version of a popular national vision.
Perry’s work here and in his readings of Telethon and the Americas Cup “saga”, represent the best work in his collection. His critical readings are not flawless, but they are sound and provide useful models for further exploration of popular culture in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the chapter “Flying by Nets: The Social Pattern of New Zealand Fiction”, which in many ways illustrates the ways in which Perry’s sociology undermines the intentions of the collection as a whole.
“Flying by Nets” is, and I regret the words already, intellectually suspect. The essay begins with the intonation: “In the domain of signs language neither reflects nor selects reality. It refracts it. Within the realm of print, how the world works becomes how words work.” These three sentences betray a profound lack of understanding or misreading of literary and cultural theory.
It is not so much that Perry is wrong, as that his statement is so oversimplified that the definition of language it suggests is rendered meaningless. In this essay Perry is playing fast and loose with literary theory and the sociology of literature (an idea which has long been rejected by literary and cultural critics). Furthermore, this play lacks the intellectual rigour required to render the larger textual readings and theoretical arguments credible.
Some of the most glaring examples of Perry’s tendency to oversimplify appear in his descriptions of literary texts. For instance, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is described as “a morbid story about a man who undergoes an involuntary change”, James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus is apparently given to “rhetorical flourishes [which] may be very priggish” and Janet Frame is redefined as possibly “the best political theorist we have got”.
That these simple and inaccurate descriptions of what he implies are in fact socio-political arguments are intended as a foundation for Perry’s own argument which suggests language can be defined by the use of “the net [as] a metaphor for theory” is at its very best questionable and at its worst unintelligible. The metaphor of the “net” itself is never sufficiently explained nor, one suspects, particularly useful. Instead, one gets the sense reading this chapter that Perry has read a great number of books, and that his decision to represent these books in such a fragmented and often simple-minded fashion serves only to assure us that he has, in fact, read a great many books. There is always a danger when, in the name of cultural studies the critic begins to use a large library (and Perry tells us on the first page that his numbers “about 2000”) as evidence of academic worth.
I am harshest on this chapter because I read it as the most disjointed in the collection. The chapter worries me because it reminds me of Colin MacCabe’s charge that cultural studies lacks intellectual rigour and its practitioners are unwilling to be critiqued according to the traditional disciplines. As someone formally trained in literary study, I am uncomfortable with Perry’s method, his piecemeal approach to theory and his willingness to reduce complex concepts such as language to a metaphor as ill-defined as Perry’s “net”.
Yet, as an advocate of cultural studies I frame my misgivings by applauding the effort. Perry’s work is important and is part of a process which should and will continue once those of us in the academy and the media choose to engage, support and criticise cultural study as an intellectual exercise.
Laura Kroetsch is a Fulbright scholar and has an MA in English. She is a participant in the Stout Centre’s current series on popular culture in New Zealand.