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Duncombe's Cultural Resistance Reader


Cultural Resistance Reader. 2002.

Stephen Duncombe. New York: Verso, $20. ISBN: 1859843794.

While the debates over the dis/connections between theory and practice have become essentially metaphysical, it is still useful to distinguish between micro, grassroots struggles and macro, ideological political agendas. In a world in which one of the Left's (old, new and contemporary) main achievements has been to merge the micro and macro in the popular imaginary, this distinction helps one appreciate the myriad of forces affecting social change that are condensed in primarily ideological narratives. A similar perspective is called for when one turns to cultural forms of resistance, which are usually erased by political narratives or mystified beyond hope for those wishing to participate: from the Frankfurt School's somewhat ecstatic pessimism to the Situationist's hyper-paranoia of consumerism to Judith Butler's deconstructive dykes and trannies, the analyses of cultural politics have glossed over the diversity, humor and power of cultural resistance through abstraction and absolutist ideologies.

Because of this eradication and abstraction of in-your-face resistance, it is exciting to see a reader organized by someone with experience in local, cultural activism. Steven Duncombe, the editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader, has advocated the alternative culture of zine making, taken busts with Reverend Billy, and been a member of ACT UP and Reclaim the Streets (as well as numerous other "real" political organizations). Duncombe brings both his politics and insider perspective to this book. Tracing his political enlightenment to "punk rock culture," Duncombe's intense feelings about the transformational nature of cultural politics are communicated not only in his excellent introduction, but also in his diverse and inspiring selection of readings. Although Duncombe adopts a predominantly Marxist orientation, the 40+ readings are not limited by a single (or coherent) definition of culture and range from Gandhi's rejection of British machines to Riot Grrrl's struggles with capitalist co-optation. While including important theoretical writings from the Birmingham and Frankfurt schools, the pages are littered with empirical studies and first person accounts of real people actively resisting the culture machine. Overall, the CRR accomplishes Duncombe's goal of supplying activists with a variety of tools and methods to incorporate into their own struggles.

The reader is organized into eight main sections, the first of which is comprised solely of an account intended to be an "archetype" of cultural resistance: the Digger's land seizures in seventeenth century England. Next is a review of broad cultural theory that contains essential writings from Marx and Engels, Gramsci, and Benjamin, with a short selection of Mathew Arnold's elitism for a touch of flavor. The following two sections, the strongest in the book, explicate "A Politics That Doesn't Look Like a Politics" and "Subcultures and Primitive Rebels." The former is interested mainly in popular and spontaneous forms of resistance, taking its main paradigm from Bakhtin's analysis of carnivals and beneath-the-underground anarchist Hakim Bey's call for "temporary autonomous zones." The latter section brings in the outlaw tradition, including Robin D. G. Kelly's brilliant analysis of the Los Angeles rap scene, as well as some of the Birmingham School's analyses of how subcultures negotiate their existence via the dominant culture. Both of these sections also include criticisms of these perspectives, such as an account of a lynching as an attempt to cure infatuation with any popular uprising and Stuart Hall's deconstruction of popular culture in favor of the political.

It is after the Hall piece that the reader starts to go awry. The disastrous next section on resistance to colonialism, termed "Dismantling the Master's House," which inexplicably starts with a dismissal of the Sioux ghost dance as a "pitiful delusion" in a first person account by a white schoolteacher, is barely redeemed by an excellent analysis of American slave songs by Lawrence Levine. The following section on women's cultural politics concentrates primarily on creative resistance in the private sphere, with the exception of John Fiske's portrayal of shopping as subtly subversive. Yet Fiske's perspective is thoroughly critiqued in the next section on "Commodities, Co-optation and Culture Jamming" that opens with Adorno on the homogenizing and repressive qualities of commodified music and maintains his pessimistic mood throughout. Sadly, the only examples of culture jamming are extremely short selections of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin's adolescent-male bravado -- not to mention that their viewpoint was completely debunked in Thomas Frank's preceding article on how the Yippies' "revolutionary impulse" fits in with consumer capitalism. And yet, the final section on "Mixing Pop and Politics" counters the previous section's no-escape mentality with descriptions of specific and contemporary organizations. Beginning with a description of the quasi-anarchist methods of new social movements, this section provides insider accounts of "Reclaim the Streets" anti-road protests, Reverend Billy's crusade against the Disneyfication of Times Square, and the hilarious Billionaires For Bush (or Gore) campaign. The reader ends with a brief life history of cyber activist Ricardo Dominguez, which concentrates on his involvement with the Zapatistas' Internet campaign and points to the future of on-line activism.

Although this ending fits nicely overall historical narrative of the reader, I was left wondering why a Western, cyber-activist perspective was included instead of the Zapatistas' writings themselves. Even though there are obvious parallels between them and the Diggers, the Zapatistas fell victim to the subtle theory of historical evolution inherent in this reader. Returning to the two weakest sections, colonial and women's resistance, one notices that the writings in both of them are structured chronologically and move from a radical rejection of the dominant (white male) culture to a more compromising and strictly cultural position. Thus, while these two sections begin with Gandhi's and the Radicalesbian's calls for self-definition, they end with analyses of new ethnically-mixed forms of music and the subversive potential of shopping. True, these are important forms of resistance and not to recognize them as such is quite frankly oppressive, but they are not the only "new" or fully evolved form of cultural politics as the historical structure suggests. Similarly, ending the book with both the problem and necessity of resistance to corporate-sponsored consumerism brings us dangerously close to the one-sided ideology of media activists, as exemplified in Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn's miserable attempt to formulate a paradigm in his Culture Jam. My other strong reservation about this reader is why a member of ACT UP did not feel the need to include a section on gay, lesbian and queer cultural resistance. A review of the debates found here about the strengths and risks of defining an identity and community around cultural lines, the capitalist incorporation of the subculture, the use of campy appropriation of dominant images as resistance, the benefits and weakness of cultural and textual methods against political and legal ones, and so on, would have been a much better way to end the book. But, despite what is suggested (or rather left out) by the arrangement of articles, the Cultural Resistance Reader is useful and unique in the broad debate about cultural theory that is either dominated by esoteric and absolutist theories or dismissed outright as ineffective. With Duncombe's emphasis on practical examples and action as well as theory, the reader is a good overview of issues and examples for future generations of culture jammers, even if its fundamental perspective remains somewhat problematic.

Adam Reed