In defence of theory, Barry Emslie

On Display: New Essays in Cultural Studies
ed Anna Smith & Lydia Wevers
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734549

Collections of essays by different authors are rarely more than the sum of their parts, although it is invariably the case that some of the parts are worth reading. With a collection of texts on cultural studies the problem is aggravated. The very scope of the field, its tendency to break down into “postmodern” plurality, its huge theoretical reservoir, increase the likelihood of bitsy scraps on whatever has taken the authors’ fancies, tarted up by an introduction claiming a coherence that may not be there. And it certainly isn’t here. True, the editors do at least pose the question “What is the catchment of cultural studies?” If they feel the answer is overt in the intellectually timid texts that follow, they are mistaken. Cultural studies needs to be bold and stringent, needs to claim its own epistemological territory, and then deliver with a kick. It will not silence its enemies by pussy-footing. There isn’t a department of cultural studies in a single New Zealand university, and clearly the editors think, as I do, that there should be. But with On Display fulfilling the superficial promise of its superficial title, they may have inadvertently given more ammunition to their enemies than helpful arguments for progressive friends.

Alex Calder’s piece, which cheekily rejects the discipline itself, offers some compensation. Calder easily avoids gratuitous erudition, for his area of expertise is himself and he gives the impression of not only knowing a lot about the subject but of still being fascinated by it. This is no bad thing in a book of this sort as subjectivity avoids the simplification of theoretical analysis forced by lack of space, while encouraging a direct style of attack.

In fact, Calder does provide, by proxy, a perfectly good definition of what cultural studies is. From New Formations he culls a “sustained critical engagement with the regimes of representation that have become a characteristic and peculiarly pervasive feature of the way power is exercised in contemporary societies.” This may be a bit jargony, but clamping together strategies of representation with the exercise of control is a good beginning. Theory is not only an unpicking of power on the symbolic level; it must be, by necessity, an attack on the empirical apparatuses of power. Cultural studies is nothing if not theory-based, but it will turn into a mere nothing if that theory does not deliver – hard and aggressive – in the “real” world of domination. Calder is right to take the piss out of “theory dazzle”, but mistaken in thinking that that is the self-referential agenda of cultural studies. What he dismisses (lazy inter-disciplinary waffle etc) is either a paper tiger of his own making or, worse, an indication of how feebly the discipline is practised here.

Relevant is Terry Eagleton’s new book After Theory. His enemies – never having pussy-footed he has a great many – are now gorging on Schadenfreude as though the high priest had confessed that it had all been mumbo jumbo all along. Eagleton hasn’t done that, but he has attacked theory for theory’s sake. Perhaps the editors of On Display risk being told that we have moved on. Not anti-theory you understand, but “after” it. Yet New Zealand is a special case in respect of power and its representation. Moreover its intellectuals have never properly realised this. The double irony here is that I know of nowhere better placed to profit from, and push forward, cultural studies. Let us at least try and articulate the challenge.

Ironically, after putting aside pieces on photography in Tasmania and visits to the Cambodian killing fields which show only the most tenuous interest in cultural studies praxis, we discover that all the remaining essays in On Display touch on the key issue: New Zealand’s history as a lived and problematic part of the present. Identity, together with its ugly sister ideological control, is split from the root up in this country by the rival yet profoundly intertwined claims of Maori and Pakeha. All the classic notions of the Other, the gap between signified and signifier, the fight over the individual’s place in language and, above all, the hegemonic strategies by which a dominant ideology is used to disguise the exercise of power but can be in turn colonised and employed to undercut its own validity, are axiomatic to the phenomenon of New Zealand, where the interaction between colonial and indigenous culture is unequalled. New Zealanders need not fear allegedly wishy-washy theoretical inquiry. Rather the contradictions of this country cry out for theory as the necessary underpinning of empirical power struggles. Theory and cultural studies are the yet-to-be-properly-employed artillery of all the great domestic battles. On Display is suffused by this gap – but oh how timidly, apologetically, and shackled by native forms of political correctness, it handles it!

Still, thanks to Damian Skinner for a sharp look at the “tourist” portrayal of Maori meter-maids in 1960s Rotorua. This is cultural studies right enough. Equally worthwhile is Peter Brunt on radical Maori art exhibitions in the 1990s where the central dilemma of the bad, and therefore productive, fit between a culture celebrating an ambivalent tradition and the aesthetic demands of modernism is neatly tackled. Paul Walker’s and Justine Clark’s analysis of the representations in play in Treaty exhibitions at both the National Archives and Te Papa is a nice, but limited, piece of deconstruction. Here New Zealand’s special status is potently clear, for the country’s overriding document of signification, once forgotten and given over to mice and now displayed as the national icon (a sort of kiwi Turin Shroud), is hopelessly cursory and contradictory in language. Surely no culture ever saddled itself with a dominant signifier more likely to cause trouble should anyone start to take it at its word – even if it were possible to decide in either language or either Maori translation what that “word” actually is. Cultural studies should be having a field day here.

All these articles, together with Chris Prentice’s examination of the “local” in forming New Zealand’s identity, are – however much they come up short – some compensation. However, they are not powerful enough to erase the memory of Jonathan Smart’s “A Waltz on the Paepae” which, sublimely untroubled by theory, recalls New Zealand’s participation at the 49th Venice Biennale in the classic manner of the Kiwi whose self-worth is wholly rooted in the admiration of foreigners. Its vapid, travelogue gush reminds me of the room in Te Papa (is it still there?) commemorating “our” participation in the Seville World Fair and displaying in a glass cabinet Dame Kiri’s dress – yes, the very dress! This is the sort of thing that cultural studies should be deconstructing to oblivion, not celebrating.

So, despite the unintentional efforts of some of the 14 contributors to On Display, cultural studies is neither dead nor dying. It has yet to get anywhere near its high-water mark. And if one of our most distinguished novelists can employ the glib equation “Aesthetics + Politics = the Maori Story” as a rationale for rewriting his early novels (New Zealand Listener, June 26 – July 2, 2004), it is clear that the great questions of representation and power in New Zealand are very upfront. Should Witi Ihimaera avoid confusing literary aesthetics with propaganda, something very important will have been accomplished. And should it all go awry, it will give a different, and no less fruitful, impetus to the struggle over national identity and representations of power. There is still everything to play for.


Barry Emslie is a New Zealand writer living in Berlin.


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