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  • The Emergence of Culture and Cultural Emergency: The Conflicting “Demands” of Cultural Studies
  • Irene Wei (bio)

“Opposed to an other, the “I” is its own self, and at the same time it overreaches this other which, for the “I,” is equally the “I” itself . . . But, in point of fact, self-consciousness is the reflection out of the being of the world of sense and perception, and is essentially the return from otherness.”


“We demand the right to opacity. Today, opposed to the universal transparency imposed by the Occident, the élan of marginalized peoples anxiously awaits the planetary drama of Relation and the clandestine multiplicity of Diversity.”

—Edouard Glissant

“The diversity of human cultures must not lead us to an observation which both divides and is divided. Diversity is less a function of the isolation of groups than of the relationships which unite them.”

—Claude Lévi-Strauss [End Page 454]

The field of cultural studies is experiencing an unprecedented international boom. In the United States, where the boom is particularly strong, many academic institutions—presses, journals, conferences—have created significant investment opportunities in cultural studies. As a recently consolidated field of inquiry which often declares its own political progressiveness against the supposed conservatism of literary studies, cultural studies generates and is generated in turn by debates about “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism.” The ever-multiplying debates about the analytic and political stakes of these terms seem driven by a shared sense of urgency to respond to the implications of the prefix “post-.” For that constituent of cultural studies which expressly concerns itself with the problem of “culture” in relation to the mounting critiques of Eurocentrism, “post-“ signals both methodological uncertainty and ethical responsibility after what Jacques Derrida has analyzed as the moment of “decentering,” the moment “when European culture—and, in consequence, the history of metaphysics and of its concepts—had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference.” To be sure, “it is not first and foremost a moment of philosophical or scientific discourse;” rather, “it is also a moment which is political, economic, technical, and so forth.” 1 In the period following decolonization and in the face of ever-increasing international and intercultural contact on a global scale never before imaginable, the demystification of “Western cultures” predictably leads to the search for “alternative” perspectives outside the “hegemonic” space of the “First World.” As the academic West comes to critically scrutinize itself, the “Non-West” becomes a significant territory of investigation. It is in this context of the growing demand for internal self-critiques in the West that one can begin to understand the implications of the recent emergence of “Third World” or the “Non-West” as an invested signifier.

The explosion of interest in “otherness” in general and so-called Third World literatures and cultures in particular cannot, therefore, be taken for granted. If the integrity of a Eurocentric frame of reference has been fundamentally challenged, and its cultural authority seriously undermined, by the deconstruction of a dominant Western philosophical conceptualization of the subject, the question of how one responds to this historically and politically decisive [End Page 455] moment of “decentering” and what comes after the subject—if the question could be thus phrased—is enormous. Institutionally, it has been addressed by liberal, pluralistic notions of “cultural differences,” “cultural diversity,” “cultural relativism,” and “multiculturalism.” More and more, as a gesture of respect for the particularity of a given culture and tradition, and out of a certain diplomatic modesty, the now presumably “decentered” academic “West” as a self-staged unity tries to speak from a position delimited by its own cultural particularism about other particular cultural and social formations that are foreign to it, as if it could know in advance how culturally and linguistically its perspective is delimited and prejudiced. In assuming that “Western” cultures and “Non-Western” cultures can be compared with one another on the same plane, one cannot but speak from the position of some invisible and transcendent universalism. Diplomatic modesty is too often totalizing hubris in disguise, and seeming intellectual openness, a reinforced tightening of imagined closures.

It goes without saying that cultural...

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pp. 454-469
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