- The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies by John Frow
In his book’s extraordinary closing essay, the preeminent Australian scholar John Frow calls into question—or, to use his term, “unsettles”—the dominant narrative cultural studies has developed for “thinking about strangers.” Such a narrative begins with the myth of lost Gemeinschaften, of “homogeneous, face-to-face communities,” before critiquing persistent, dysfunctional “habits of sociability” and calling for “a cosmopolitan politics based on welcoming heterogeneity and overcoming parochial narrowness” (279). Frow maintains that the problem with such a narrative lies not in its “propositions” as much as in the “assumptions,” or axioms, from which it proceeds: not only does it take as given the Gemeinschaft’s “historical reality”, it rests on a fundamental binary opposition between “us” and “‘them’, the strangers.” “This means,” Frow further maintains, that this narrative “doesn’t really come to terms with [End Page 516] the reality of a world in which we are all each other’s strangers, or rather where familiarity and strangeness constantly intermingle and the positions of native and stranger change depending on context” (280). Such intermingling and changing of positions also describes the experience of the U.S. reader of Frow’s collection, and thus points toward its value for anyone interested in the immense challenges, and opportunities, facing literary and cultural scholars today.
The operations at work in Frow’s analysis—the unsettling of reigning axioms, regimes of value, and institutions; emphasis on context; and call for other ways of doing things—are evident throughout this rewarding collection. The volume’s fourteen essays—all but one originally published between 1998 and 2012—are divided into four sections, which gradually move the reader from the universal to the particular and from the familiar to the strange. The first and longest section, entitled “Regimes of value,” offers productive engagements with Western notions of the literary; textual reception, or “the conditions under which texts become and remain readable” (24); thing theory; and the concept of waste in cultural theory. The section comes to its climax with the volume’s title essay, which Frow opens by claiming, “Judgment is the inescapable horizon both of work in the humanities and social sciences, and of everyday life; it is built deep into the process and institutions of textual culture” (87). He then proceeds to map out the “varieties of judgment” in which he engages during one not-untypical day, in order to advance the key axiom: “all acts of judgment of any complexity involve interpretation: that is, an assessment not only of the fit between the particular and universal but of the constitution of the universal itself as it operates in this context” (100).
The three essays making up the second section, “The commons in information,” explores transformations in global intellectual property law in relationship to such concerns as the contiguous systems of the signature and brand, the commodification of scientific publication, and “what uses one text may make of another” (149). The essays in part three, “Disciplines,” undertake a further unsettling of the institutions and practices organizing contemporary scholarly labors. The first uses Elvis Presley’s undiminished celebrity to bring home what Frow sees as “the failure of cultural studies—with rare exceptions—to come to terms with…religion in both its organized and disorganized forms” (184). The second turns to the question of the reproduction of any discipline and the role played in such a process by “the master-disciple couple” (200). The third essay productively investigates “whether and under what conditions it might yet be possible to cross the boundary between literary studies and the social sciences” (211).
It is in this third section that American readers will feel themselves becoming strangers to Frow’s community and its concerns. This is evident on the final page of the first essay, where Frow notes, “for many Australians these lessons have come from our increased awareness of Aboriginal spirituality, and our sense both of the need to respect and honor traditional belief systems, and of the...