|John Hutnyk, Critique
of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry, (London: Pluto
Press, 2000) 256pp. Pbk. ISBN: 0-745315-496 £14.99
Reviewed by Richard Smith
Who controls the past controls the
The history they teach you is the voice
of the victor
(Memory War, Community Music, London Records, Asian Dub Foundation)
John Hutnyk has written a significant work, one that everyone working in the area of contemporary cultural studies needs to engage with. He deals with the central issues of hybridity and authenticity in the context of the appropriation of diverse cultural forms (‘Exotica’) within the global cultural industries by key popular cultural stars. At the heart of the book is a personal commitment to a form of radical politics. A politics which not only sees the possibility of genuine radical forms of popular culture but also that these very radical forms can be found within the disadvantaged social groups in contemporary Britain. Hutnyk’s intellectual interest and one can only assume from the tone of the book his personal commitment as well, is to Asian youth culture. It is the analysis of the more radical forms of contemporary Asian music that forms the backbone of this book. In the process Hutnyk raises important questions about the optimistic readings of cultural appropriation within contemporary cultural studies.
However, lets begin at the beginning with Hutnyk’s attempt to argue for the possibility within the domination of global capitalism of a genuine radical form of popular culture; that this culture expresses a resistance to that very domination. In this sense he is both arguing against the tendency within cultural studies to over-emphasise the possibility of subversive readings of popular culture and thus marginalise production over consumption; and at the same time revitalising older Marxist categories of cultural analysis. This is made clear in his critique of the way in which “world music” in general, and the whole Womad phenomenon in particular, has become another way of representing a de-politicised form of music. Central to Womad and its production arm Real World (the very name itself a statement of the authentic over the inauthentic of mainstream music production), is not only making “real music” from around the world available to an international audience, but also new forms of hybrid music that arise from the interaction between artists and different musical forms. A marked feature of Womad festivals, then, are the hybrid musics of, for example, Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System, or collaborations such as those between Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Michael Brook. To Hutnyk this is not enough: “Womad sanitises difference into so many varied examples of a world music culture that it is everywhere the same, fits the scenario Adorno described in the 1950s” (p.48).
This may well be bad enough in itself but to Hutnyk what is even worse is the appropriation of south Asian culture by the likes of Kula Shaker, what in its liberal form he terms “touristic culture appreciation society”(p.87). In this sense south Asian culture comes under the gaze of cultural tourists who selects whatever they wish, in the process reifying indigenous culture. What is left is some form of post-1960s hangover in which the history and social conditions, within which these cultures have emerged and sustained, disappear to become another commodified product on the shelves of the Body shop or emerging from our CD players.
So if the liberal end of contemporary culture that embraces difference is, to Hutnyk, actually the site for sanitising the true meaning behind cultural forms, where is it possible to see, hear and experience popular cultural forms which are intrinsically engaged in articulating political and cultural resistance?
For Hutnyk the answer is in the disadvantaged ethnic groups of contemporary Britain. The core of the book is a description and analysis of key South Asian bands and collectives such as Fun^da^mental and Asian Dub Foundation and the record label Nation (founded by Kath Canonville and Aki Nawaz of Fun^da^mental). Nation Records is similar to many dance labels, in that it is the centre for a community of artists rather then the hierarchical star system of rock music. As the epigraph from Asian dub Foundation shows, this is a form of contemporary music with sharp political analysis and a radical agenda. Here is a constellation of young Asians creating a genuinely political music within a popular form renowned for de-politicised hedonism (the anti-CJA movement has long disappeared).
Hutnyk is not afraid to take on even those one would naturally assume to be intellectual allies. For example, he deals with the influence of Afro-Caribbean culture within contemporary youth culture withn a brief discussion of Paul Gilroy’s work. Hutnyk regards Gilroy’s comments on contemporary British Asian music “as somewhat begrudging of Asian creativity and participation” (p.39), and goes on, “Gilroy’s reluctance to work with the notion of black that includes Asian politics in Britain raises difficulties” (p.41). Again Hutnyk is looking to an older politics which sought to unite different groups in terms of their “commonality of racial subordination in the UK” (ibid.). However, this raises as many questions and difficulties as it seeks to answer, as the whole idea of a formation of ethnic groups around a “unifying notion of …blackness”(ibid), is highly problematic. There is a wide resistance to the incorporation of such diversity into such an idea. To Hutnyk this facilitates the possibility of a genuine radical hybrid culture arising from the young.
Ultimately Hutnyk both agrees with and disagrees with Adorno. Adorno is correct, in that popular culture is mass deception and one of those deceptions is the exotic hybridity of the likes of Madonna. However, Adorno is also wrong. Whereas Adorno, unlike Benjamin, saw no possibility for a genuine progressive (politically and one would also hope musically) form of popular, Hutnyk sees in the music of the Asian artists he discusses the expression of just such a music. Long may it continue.