Cultural Studies and the Neoliberal Imagination
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Cultural Studies and the Neoliberal Imagination 1


What remains of the liberal vision of a common public culture in a world of asserted differences? What mechanisms of consenting or dissenting identification sustain a democratic public sphere when politics becomes spectacular? And isn’t the representation of publicness always the performance of a division, an exclusion, a minoritization?

In order to put the issues that I think are at stake in these questions as pointedly as I can, let me take as a brief example the rhetoric deployed in Australia at the moment by a politician called Pauline Hanson. Hanson is a right-wing populist in the mould of Le Pen, appealing to a broad working-class and rural constituency who have been damaged, and feel damaged, by the downsizing effects of globalization, by the decline of the rural sector, and by what they perceive to be favorable treatment given to indigenous and immigrant Australians. Her politics of grievance is expressed most economically in two statements: “All Australians should be equal,” and “All Australians should speak English.” The first of these statements means: “Indigenous people should not claim a separate cultural identity, nor the separate forms of political and economic recognition that might flow from it.” The second (which has its American counterparts in, for example, the Californian legislation deeming English to be the sole language of official business) means: “Asian migrants are not welcome in this country because they steal jobs from white people.”

These are demands for cultural commonality and for shared civic values; they are at once perfectly reasonable and deeply racist. Note, however, that their illiberal force is expressed in the language of Enlightenment civility: the principles of the equality of citizens, of resistance to privilege, of the rule of law, of civic responsibility. To make this point is not to condemn that language but to say that its uses are always strategic, positional, overdetermined by the secondary codes that translate it for particular knowing audiences.

A similar semantic instability holds for many of the concepts that make up the contemporary discourse of culture and which have rather different meanings in different national contexts. Unlike Australia or Canada, multiculturalism in the United States has to do less with the mediation of diversity within a framework of common citizenship than with the assertion of ethnic or other identity in a pluralized polity. Cultural studies is likewise more closely tied in the United States to a politics of identity understood as a defining difference. The American vernacular use of the concept of liberalism, finally, quite different from its European counterpart, [End Page 423] aligns it with the state rather than against it and reflects a real ambivalence within the tradition of American political liberalism, which has had to be an ethos at once of free-market anti-communism and, in the absence of a major social-democratic party, of state regulation. To these let me add the notorious and universal incoherence of the concept of “culture” itself, which not only oscillates between normative and inclusive senses but is used to cover very different levels of generality, from whole civilizations to the customs of the local football club; one reason why it is so difficult to define the level at which commonality and difference work is that they do so at many levels.

It is because of these semantic instabilities that I want to avoid casting this paper in terms of the relation of a “common” culture to cultural particularity, since it seems to me that the problem can’t properly be posed or resolved in this form. In an important sense there is no conflict here: the tradition of cultural studies in which I work would not necessarily argue that there is or should be no common culture, but it might want to say that it is popular culture, in one form or another, that has assumed that role. This is the position taken, for example, in Paul Willis’s oddly neo-Leavisite book Common Culture. 2 The argument against both the notion of a common culture and those notions of cultural boundedness which underlie a politics of identity, however, is that in complex societies...