Last night I finally got around to seeing the Brian Jungen show here, just a few days before it closes. Jungen’s a local boy made good, but I had worried somewhat that I wouldn’t like the exhibition, thinking him perhaps just a one-trick pony. And indeed he is. But what a trick.

And the “Prototype for New Understanding” series, all 23 of which were in the show, is justly renowned. Here, Jungen takes Nike Air Jordans, cutting them up and reshaping them to resemble indigenous masks. From a distance, they could very easily be taken for “authentic” native art. From close up, the doubletake.

Jungen has added human hair to some of these pieces, in order to enhance the illusion. And some are more complex than others. But I liked best the simplest, the ones that were still recognizeable as a basketball boot, albeit topologically transformed, soles cut away, other incisions made, and reshaped. For what you realize is just how odd these shoes actually are. The decor, the little gnarls and buttons, the swoosh, the stitching. They are of course in their own way totems of contemporary consumer culture.

Prototype for New Understanding
Or as Cuahtémoc Medina puts it in his interesting catalogue essay:

Implicit in [Jungen’s] Prototypes is a crucial sociological observations: shoes (and particularly designer trainers) are the contemporary consumer’s mask, a tool for the Western ritual of impersonation [. . .]. That shoes are a shamanic tool of sort can be easily attested by advertisements, which usually portray them as quasi-magically transforming their user, fusing the phantasm of the sport’s idol with the consumer. (34)

More here.


Somewhat late in the day, there’s been a minor dust-up in the Spivak event over the concept of a “higher eclecticism.” See Scott Kaufman’s post at the Valve, “Arguments about Higher Eclecticism, as Illustrated by Two Paintings with One Name”.

Sketch for Sgt Pepper album cover(Oh, and let me say that I have never liked Mark Tansey’s work. I remember seeing him speak once, and asking a question suggesting he was just a highbrow Peter Blake.)

I felt myself rather misrepresented in that post (as I try to clarify in the subsequent comments). But the fact that my name was invoked arises in part from my suggestions at various times that it’d be worth formulating some kind of defence of eclecticism, if not necessarily a “higher eclecticism.”

As a place-holder for such a defence, let me rescue and elaborate slightly upon a comment I made elsewhere, in the discussion that originally led up to the Spivak symposium…

I have no real idea what John Holbo means by “higher eclecticism,” but in many ways I’d happily admit that my own work is concerned with, and operates though, a form of (perhaps lowdown and dirty) eclecticism.

Put it this way: I enjoy and find productive the activity of bringing together apparently divergent traditions of thought and cultural enquiry, and seeing what emerges from the ensuing collision.

I do that both with theorists (Deleuze and Bourdieu, for instance, who are certainly unlikely bedmates), but also more generally with Area Studies and Theory, and/or with Latin American reflections on culture and Anglo-American approaches to culture.

I wouldn’t want to argue that there’s some natural affinity between these traditions, nor that their contradictions or differences can be resolved. It’s not an attempt to totalize or homogenize. Far from it, in fact; I’d rather preserve their heterogeneity. But I do think that the sparks that fly off in the encounters or clashes between divergent series is indeed illuminating. I’m thinking here in part of Deleuze’s reflections on the series, and the “strange attractor” that communicates between them like a lightning flash.

Anyhow, I’m not necessarily advocating this as some kind of transferable master plan. (There might after all be some self-contradiction were I to do so…) But it works well enough for me.

And if that’s “higher eclecticism,” then so be it.

Though if I were to be suitably self-regarding and self-conscious, I’d probably turn to concepts within the traditions I work with–such as “mestizaje” or “transculturation” or “hybridity,” say–as my own personal descriptors. After all, these terms (hybridity and so on) are crucial to the way in which we’ve understood Latin American (and more generally, postcolonial) culture. Why not work with them? Even if we have to differentiate between different modes of eclecticism (higher vs. lower, dirty vs. clean, I don’t know), just as Alberto Moreiras distinguishes a “savage” hybridity.

But if the alternative to eclecticism is disciplinarity, purity, respect for lineage… then I’ll choose eclecticism every time.


This post is part of Long Sunday’s “Carnival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”.

Before I attempt to bring some threads together, a bit of anecdotage, that may also prove illuminating about value and global communications.

Blair, The Third WayA few years ago, at a time that I was working in Manchester, England, I happened to be in North Carolina for a conference. There I received an email from my friend Jean Franco, who taught for many years at Columbia (she is now emerita) and is one of Gayatri Spivak’s closest friends. She’d just got back to the States from London and said she had “an immense favour to ask.” Gayatri had phoned her from Hong Kong, “in a state of agitation,” because she needed to get hold of a book by Tony Blair, The Third Way, in advance of her keynote at the British Sociological Association conference in Manchester at the weekend. It was now Wednesday. Jean passed along Gayatri’s temporary email address in Hong Kong so we could make further arrangements.

I forwarded all this back to my partner, Susan, back in Manchester, to see if she might be able to pick up the book and drop it off at the relevant hotel. And I wrote to Gayatri to assure her that measures were being taken to ensure the text’s arrival. She wrote back:

My Ma always tells me, in her heavily (Bengali)accented Sanskrit: swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate (a king is worshipped in his own kingdom, a learned man everywhere). I laugh at her, usually. But Giddens’s books are all over the place, but neither Blair’s nor Clinton’s offerings are to be found in any library or bookstore in Hong Kong or New York! O tempora, o mores.

Susan then chipped in with the information that

I’ve managed to track down a copy of The Third Way for you–though even in his own land, this king’s publications are hard to find!

For it had turned out that a copy of the book was not to be had in Manchester for love or money, either, but that a phone call to the Fabian Society meant that the book would be sent North post haste. And indeed, Susan picked it up and left it at the hotel for Gayatri to collect.

A little while later, a note arrived in the post, written on the back of a scrap of stationery from Air India’s Maharajah Lounge in Hong Kong. Enclosed was the money that the book had cost, thanks to Susan for her trouble, apologies for a “peculiar smudge” (circled and arrowed) and the explanation that “this is the only piece of paper I have, would you believe. My paper was awful. Best, Gayatri.”

I like this story for a number of reasons. First because it shows something of the worries, the charm, the humour, and also the self-deprecation of someone so often described as “difficult” (with all the overtones that such a description carries).

Second, because it’s an instance of a fairly extraordinary ad hoc network coming together to get something done: a phone call from Hong Kong to New York; an email from there to North Carolina, and then on to Manchester and back to Hong Kong; a phone call to London, and a series of deliveries to and within Manchester; and finally the note, its textuality and materiality physically marked and commented upon, and money repaid. It’s a dizzying circulation of information, people, commodities, and money. All kinds of debts and favours and friendships or affects are called in and granted or extended, in a circuit that overlaps with and enables the purchase, distribution, and consumption of a particular commodity, but that is in no way simply reducible to the economic.

And so third, there’s a moral about value–intellectual, academic, cultural, and political as well as financial–as it is translated across borders and across generations, even across languages. “Swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate“: a fable about the relativity of prestige, at first “heavily [. . .] accented” in a language I at least do not understand, gently laughed at by she who does, perhaps because it seems an “inadequate” or naive view of the world; but it’s a saying that becomes more than adequate, something like a durable snippet of wisdom from “Ma” about the limitations of temporal power, even in an age of Empire and globalization.

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.


This post is part of Long Sunday’s “Carnival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”.

I’m going to jump in here with a brief note on continuity and discontinuity in Spivak’s text, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value.”

The nub of Spivak’s argument is this: she presents a critique, first, of what she terms “the continuist version of Marx’s scheme of value” (In Other Worlds 155), but second and more importantly, also of “all ideologies of adequation and legitimacy” (171).

The notion of value as continuity (of unruffled exchange, or even a series of more or less orderly exchanges and transformations) is at best mistaken, at worst ideological, and so complicit.

Hence Spivak’s recourse to “the concept-metaphor of the text” (171) and textuality, to indicate the overdeterminations, the loose ends, the “situation of open-endedness” that characterizes the process by which value is produced as “an insertion into textuality” (161).

But the point is that there are discontinuities and then there are discontinuities.

For if capitalism puts forward ideologies of continuity, the latest of which is the dream of unregulated world-wide instantaneity effected in globalization, in fact it functions always by means of a series of ruptures, of breaks in that flow. Globalization can only be a tendency, another version of the same basic ideology of continuity. In practice, “even as circulation time attains the apparent instantaneity of thought (and more), the continuity of production ensured by that attainment of apparent coincidence must be broken up by capital” (166). Here, maintaining a distinction between productive center and comprador peripery, between the First World and “the dark presence of the Third” (167), is crucial. But also even immediately in the production process: value arises from the discrepancy between use and exchange, from the super-adequation of labour power. It is discontinuity, not continuity, that constitutes the ruse of capital.

Yet Spivak will have no truck with any notions of flow and immanence counterposed to capitalist segmentarity. From the outset she brackets off “the anti-Oedipal argument” of Deleuze and Guattari as “but a last-ditch metaphysical longing” (154). Moreover, and for all her agreement with the notion of capital’s liberating aspects, its “‘freeing’ of labor-power” (161), she is harsh in her critique of any utopian faith in what we might call the deterritorializing powers of Empire. “Telecommunication” (for which we could substitute now the powers of cognitive or communicational labour) only “seems to bring nothing but the promise of infinite liberty for the subject” (167; my emphasis). And this is because “economic coercion as exploitation is hidden from sight in ‘the rest of the world'” (167).

No. Against discontinuity: more discontinuity, or perhaps better, other modes of discontinuity. Against the capitalist ruse of extracting surplus in the discrepancy between labour power and exchange value, Spivak defends what she describes as the “radical proto-deconstructive cultural practice” of “bricolage, to ‘reconstellate’ cultural items by wrenching them out of their assigned function” (170). This is, no doubt, a defence of eclecticism. And here, incidentally, Deleuze and Guattari somewhat surprisingly reappear, now applauded for their concept of desiring-machines as “originarily unworkable” (170).

But here’s the question, and in some ways it’s a question for Deleuze and Guattari too: can in fact these two modes of discontinuity, the one governed by capitalist expansiveness, the other by a principle of avant-garde defamiliarization, really be distinguished so easily? Can we still say so unreservedly that “the computer, even as it pushes the frontiers of rationalization, proves unable to achieve bricolage” (170)?

Or to put it another way: Spivak recognizes a certain ambivalence in the word-processor, and so in the machinic and the collaborative communicational labour it enables; but does she explore that ambivalence far enough?

1980s word processor
Cross-posted to Long Sunday.


I’m taking Latin America on Screen out of mothballs. I aim to blog a film or so a week over the summer. Do check it out. I start again with a post on The Wild Bunch and the interregnum. Here’s how it begins…

The Wild Bunch posterThe bloody action in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch takes place either side of the US/Mexican border–and in one memorable scene, on a bridge directly on the border itself–as a new nation is being born to the South, and an old one is dying to the North.

The film depicts, therefore, a moment of transition. All such transitions are times of violence: the painful uprooting of old traditions and the hard-fought emergence of the new. More violence is around the corner, as the film indicates, with World War One ushering in a global realignment of forces, and the definitive mechanization of death. This is foreshadowed by the use, here, of an automobile as instrument of torture, and a machine gun as agent of unparalleled, indiscriminate mayhem.

At first sight the border between North and South may appear blurred, but only at first sight, or so suggests the Wild Bunch’s one Mexican. “Mexico lindo,” exclaims the character Angel as the group arrive at the Rio Grande. “Just seems like more Texas as far as I’m concerned,” replies one of his partners. “Then you have no eyes,” responds Angel.



Toni NegriThe Brock conference “Metastasizing Capital” left much to think about. I didn’t catch everything, in part because I also took the time to do some sight-seeing. But of what I saw, there were plenty of good papers, even among those I disagreed with.

In the end, though, no doubt the point of the thing was to hear from Toni Negri (and Judith Revel), and to engage in some dialogue with them. Kudos to Brock, by the way, for being as far as I know the first place in North America to host Negri.

But as we’ve started to discuss in comments to my previous post, the reception of what Negri actually had to say was far from completely favourable.

He pointed to some important issues–not least, the problem of evil, that haunts any philosophy of affirmation. Other tidbits included he denial that the disturbances in the banlieus had anything to do with the logic of (post)coloniality (huh?!), and Revel’s aside suggesting that we have to distinguish between “good” and “bad” multitudes.

But Negri’s over-riding theme, taken up also by Revel, was the “rupture” between what he here framed as modernity and postmodernity. And the more he discussed this rupture, the less convinced I became.

While listening to Judith Revel, I grabbed a piece of paper from Nate (who’s already posted some initial reactions to the conference) and came up with the following tables:

Negri today
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri and Revel’s oral presentations at Brock.)
before after
dialectic between labour and capital NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system
modern subject, defined by rights postmodern, but not postcapitalist, subjectivities: minorities, multitude

Negri beyond Negri
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri’s published work.)
before after
NO dialectic between labour and capital [MBM] NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation replaced by pure command [E]
modernity traversed by the multitude, a subject misrecognized as people etc. [I] postmodern, postcapitalist, subject, the multitude, comes into its own
Key: MBM=Marx beyond Marx; E=Empire; I=Insurgencies

Now, I’m as big a fan of rupture as the next person, but there is some incoherence here. Moreover, what’s important is surely the relation between continuity and discontinuity. One of the insights of the workerist and autonomist tradition from which Negri comes (but which, in public at least, he continues rather oddly to underplay) is the notion that it is working class power that’s continuous, continually pressing upon capitalist domination. And that capital in response is forced into a discontinuous series of restructurations, which in turn force a series of class recompositions (elite industrial worker -> mass worker -> socialized worker). Still, the red thread remains working class power.

Ironically, though, in that the force of working class power is against its confinement, as a class, within capitalist relations of production, and in that its aim is autonomy, the working class envisaged by the autonomist tradition is a class not for itself, but against itself.

Should the multitude emerge on its own account, then, that would mean the end of the working class as a class, and also the end of exploitation. In so far as that has taken place, in so far as social productivity now has no need of capitalist structures, i.e. in so far as any putative labour/capital dialectic is broken, all that remains is a command that is cruel and unpredictable precisely because it no longer has its roots in economic exploitation. Corruption is all.

After all, “corruption itself,” Hardt and Negri argue, “is the substance and totality of Empire” (Empire 391). It is “not an aberration of imperial sovereignty but its very essence and modus operandi” (202).

More on this anon, I’m sure…


Well, I had to do this…

My pirate name is:
Black John Read

Like anyone confronted with the harshness of robbery on the high seas, you can be pessimistic at times. Even through many pirates have a reputation for not being the brightest souls on earth, you defy the sterotypes. You’ve got taste and education. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from


“A true multitude” [“una vera moltitudine”]

–Toni Negri on the protesters in the recent French disturbances.

Meanwhile, on other fronts, the dialectic between capital and labour is now broken, we’re told. But labour power continues to be central.

That’s the news from Brock.


Monday Arguediana

Here is a list of the posts I’ve written over the semester on the Peruvian author José María Arguedas (1911-1969; a brief biography in English is here).

They trace a reading of what is essentially Arguedas’s entire published work (except for his correspondence and translations), in rough chronological order.

And then, adjacent to the above series:

  • vendetta (Todas las sangres alongside V is for Vendetta)
  • blocks (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo alongside Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature)

Finally, the essay I’ve written on Arguedas, the machinic, and affect:

See also: