Where did all the Questions Go?

As we reach the end of a decade full of technological innovation and cultural bankruptcy, there will be an increasing slew of backward-cum-forward looks – including, needless to say, on my own website. We already have about as good a review of the Noughties as it would be possible to write, courtesy of Marc Nash, so I’m not going to add to that here.

I am, however, intending to be a little reflective, and a little prospective. I want to be, in fact, a little retrospective, and ask – what of the wider implications for those who write? What of our relationship as writers to our communities? What of language and, er, pardon the swearing, politics?

I want, in short, to revisit myself as a student, twenty years ago, at the break of the 90s. I was a classicist at the time, about to become a theologian and philosopher. Even I was aware, though, from that cultural backwater, of the one genuine superstar in Oxford, a professor in the English department called Terry Eagleton. I wasn’t overly au fait with the subtleties of his arguments, but I was aware of the questions he was asking. As the 90s progressed, I was made aware twice more, as I discovered first the work on language and gender  of Luce Irigaray, and later the music of Skunk Anansie.

I want to take a look at what that student would make of the cultural world on the verge of another decade, and have him ask some questions. Most of all I want to have him remind us, and all other writers, in the words of Skunk Anansie, that “yes, it’s fucking political.”

One of the great breakthroughs the technology of the Noughties has brought us is connectivity. Creatives are still working out what it means, but already we have a proliferation of crowdsourcing and collaborative projects emerging on Facebook, twitter, Google Wave, and even just using the internet to get people from all over the world involved in “real life” projects. I’ve used this kind of connectivity, and it’s a great toy. It’s a great democratiser of culture. It genuinely does get people involved in culture and working together, sparking off each other, who would otherwise have been on the outside.

But. But but but. I’ve already looked, on an article on this site, at the fact that this is no guarantee of cultural newness. And I’ve already looked elsewhere at the dangers of the digital divide.

What I want to bring our attention to here is another danger, one that we easily overlook in our enthusiasm. It’s the danger of creating a new kind of cultural imperialism, or cultural patriarchy, depending on one’s standpoint on the relation between those terms (I don’t really want to go into that – this is a place for raising new questions, not rehashing old ones).

And I want to ask what, as writers, our response should be. What, indeed, our responsibilities should be?

What do I mean by suggesting that technology has left us standing on the verge of a cultural imperialism? Surely it liberates us from that because it allows everyone to do what previously only a few could do.

Well, yes, of course – and technology, inasmuch as it gives access to the production and consumption of culture to those previously denied, is great. And inasmuch as it raises questions of “what IS culture?” and what has value, it brings us back as Young British Art did, and Eagleton before it, to remembering just which comes first in the apparent chicken and egg of culture and society. BUT.

As ever, I don’t want to go into too much detail. I want to raise a succession of points, and leave them open-ended for discussion. And at the end I want to offer a roadmap forward (roadmap – didn’t the 90s invent all the great jargonese!).

Taste arbitration – we have been through centuries of obvious imperialism, where a minority of curators has arbited the cultural content to which the rest of us have had access. Publishers, gallery owners, programme makers, have dictated the content of culture for the masses (for me, reviewers who’ve said what of that is good are less to blame than those who have chosen the stock from which reviewers select).  This is obviously exclusionary. The internet has changed that. Reality TV has played its part too. But there is a subtler imperialism at work. Taste is now arbited by those who have access to the media in which culture is being produced. Those on the technological fringes are still excluded. But we realise it less.

Digital dependency – technical knowledge and access is increasingly required in order to produce culture. Yes, there are open access portals to format and make accessible your work, but its production still requires technology. And the more we rely on new tech rather than new thought, the more culture will revert to the old elite of the money and time rich. I am very privileged to have access to basic computing and internet facilities. But the tech like iphones, digital cameras, and anything made by Apple is beyond my financial capability. My work will never LOOK as good as that of my richer peers. And in a cultural world where what matters is technique, that puts me at an instant disadvantage. And I’m one of the lucky ones. The vast majority of the world’s population is further down the socio-economic tree than me. I would suggest digital culture is in danger of going the way of art in the installation era – it’s in danger of becoming a culture of technique and access to materials, and not one of communicating a message through materials.

What happened to the old debates? When I was a student, we pretty much all knew that language wasn’t neutral. We at least knew there was a debate. Eagleton, Foucault, Irigaray – language was imperialistic, patriarchal, a tool of power. And language was the tool we had for communicating. So literature always had a standpoint vis a vis the political debates of the day – it could not be neutral, by dint of the very fact it used words. And 99% of it played into the hands of power – it was recognised that you had to explore new ways of doing language in order to escape the clutches of power.

A few voices speaking about culture aside, like Guy Gonzalez and Charles Dickey (and I’ve tried to do my bit), these debates just don’t seem to exist in relation to the new means of production (other than crude attempts to talk about the insidiousness of business’ role – and important but over-obvious point). I have no answers, but the lack of questioning worries me – are we all robots for goodness’ sake? Where’s the gender politics of the new tech? Why have we stopped answering questions – because new tech has done SOME good in shifting power, have we lost the ability to question it altogether?

Where does this leave writers?

Well, it leaves us in a great place, actually, because bankruptcy is one form of blank canvas. BUT only if we fill it, and fill it well. If I have one call for the next decade it would be this:

Switch your political brains back on!

Going digital is not an excuse for opting out of the class war, or the gender war. It is not a neutral space you can go to because you’re “not really interested in politics” and just want to be creative. I’m not expecting instant answers – but we have a duty to ask the question. We are part of a new cultural landscape that’s being created piecemeal in front of our eyes. And none of us seems to have the slightest interest in the political foundations of that landscape. At the moment it’s a shifting thing, new and liquid and malleable. Let’s for heaven’s sake start asking before it starts getting fixed!

(For those of you who will, rightly, point out my own by and large silence, I wrote an article yesterday on my personal blog on why webcourse is feminised, and why this is a good thing)

~ by yearzerowriters on December 30, 2009.

10 Responses to “Where did all the Questions Go?”

  1. Gets no argument from me. I regard all my work as political (in a non-Party sense). But there has been very little appetite for the political within the market place for some 20 years now. As a society, we in the Uk at least do not encourage public debate and public discourse. The voters were happy delegating that to a political class, will they still be happy to do so this time round remains to be seen. But in the arts, there is no taste at all other than wooly hat tipping in Hollywood films, parochial single issues every now and again raised on a theatre stage and **** all within literature emanating from these shores. In the US they do still have room for political fiction – be it high politics such as “Primary Colours” or ground root politics such as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”.

    I have mixed feelings towards the new media. potentially it could liberate us from all government and allow us to directly legislate for ourselves, but it in all likelihood won’t. As you point out, the media heads still set and control the agendas, so people are happier voting for X-Factor than in a By-Election. I also remain unconvinced by the quality emanating from this great opening up of art to democratic entry – yes the curators of old were elitist and exclusionary, but we could do with some sort of curatorial service nowadays when good work risks being swallowed up amidst all the effluence.

    The populace are cynical and jaded about politics, but rather than seeking a root and branch reform of the system, just seek an escapism from it. An impulse encouraged by the market and media arbiters of taste and trend which thereby reinforce one another. Modern life is too deracinated, people too atomised for them to engage in questioning it. It all appears just too overwhelmingly impermeable, yet the artists who in the past might have been able to shine a torch to point them a way in, have been so stripped of status in this country that no one gives a flying **** what they say. In France they had novelists in Cabinet, in Nicaragua they had poets making laws. In Britain we had disgraced perjurers sitting in the House of Lords. Says it all really.

    I don’t think Britain has ever really trusted its artists.


  2. I don’t share your cynicism over the “new curators” – i just think we’re at a point on the evolutionary curve where we wouldn’t expect a new system to be fully formed.

    I agree with everything else you say. I also think, though, that as writers we have an obligation to think and to force others to think. I don’t mean about “Politics” I mean about “the political” in the sense of our engaement with a widre discursive history and set of power matrices. we have a duty to show people where their puppet strings are being pulled, where they think they are free but they actually are not – and there I’ll leave it because you’ll have recognised the synopsis for my next novel already 🙂

    • As you know I’m with you 100% of the way. But unless the UK slides into a real crisis of some sort, rather than bumbling along enjoying the craic, I just don’t think people are in the mood to be told or forced to do anything anything. Rampant individualism means it just is no concern of theirs.


      • Indeed. But as writers we should nver “tell”. We need a way of connecting at a much more subtle level. I think Generation X was the last time that happened, and Trainspotting over here in the UK. Or maybe Fight Club – either way a long time ago.

  3. Oh you bet, we’re asking questions, Dan. I particularly liked what you said about digital dependency. My father-in-law has just retired but he was an architect who worked his way up to partner in an architectural firm.
    He drew everything by hand. He was/is a master-class with his fingers. He couldn’t believe that recently the firm has been hiring youngsters who had no ability to draw anything on a piece of paper. Everything is being done digitally.
    What happens if they go abroad to help build a school in Malawi (for example) and have to change the plans a little? What then? Digital will be useless then.
    As artists (and architects of words and pictures) I think we deserve to save ourselves some of the old-school thinking time. Our value of the work we do should never be overshadowed by what the fast-moving societies are forcing us to do. Make use of it, but don’t let it constrict or shape what we do.
    Anne LG

  4. Great thoughts here. I wrote a an essay a while back you might like. http://allenpd.blogspot.com/2009/07/technology-addicts.html

  5. Wonderful essay, Dale. I recommend it to everyone.

  6. […] Where did all the Questions Go? « Year Zero Writers Going digital is not an excuse for opting out of the class war, or the gender war. It is not a neutral space you can go to because you’re “not really interested in politics” and just want to be creative. (tags: questions journalism) […]

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