Complex Entanglements Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, edited by Nikos Papastergiadis

Reviewed by Ian Maclean

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The name of the conference from which this multi-disciplinary anthology is drawn, Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference – On the Edge of Change ,1 points to the book’s main achievement: catching a sense of the fast moving debate on globalisation and culture. The anthology’s energy derives from the diversity of opinion within postcolonial scholarship, which seems as varied as the global confluences of cultures it studies. Its editor, Nikos Papastergiadis, rightly believes that the book’s energetic and diverse debate should help us rethink ‘the concepts of the “contemporary” and the “international”‘. However his further hope that it will ‘initiate new South-South circuits ‘in order to ‘pluralise the possibilities of being global’ is not realised.

By looking sideways rather than always to the centres of Europe and the USA, Papastergiadis believes an ‘alternative cartography for directing the flow of cultural exchange’, (5) can be established. Despite being forthrightly put in the first pages of the book, this is more a future agenda of the editor than an achievement of the book. A quick statistical overview reveals why. Roughly half the contributors are based in North America and Europe, and the other in Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) – with one exception from Cuba. There are none from the Pacific, an obvious place to source authors for such an anthology, none from Africa or the Indian Ocean rim, and none from our immediate north, Asia.2

You might think this is a pedantic criticism, for surely where we live matters less and less in the instantaneous temporality of the new global transculturalism addressed in the essays of this book. Like most of the authors, many of us (myself included) were born and have lived significant parts of our lives elsewhere, yet feel we have remained more or less singular subjects. According to Papastergiadis, however, the space of our lives actually matters more and more because it is all we have in globalisation’s accelerating fragmentation of cultural and genealogical identities. A persistent theme in his writing is the necessity to map ‘spatial’ rather than ‘cultural’ identities. Arguing for ‘the constitutive force of space [rather than place] in identity formation’ (165) that is, for a dynamic identity remade by the turbulence of migration, rather than an indigenous identity fixed by our place of origin, Papastergiadis believes that what we are is where we are now, rather than where we were from.

Not all the essayists agree with Papastergiadis – which is one reason why this book is interesting. For example, the first sentence of the essay by Indigenous curator Hetti Perkins flatly contradicts Papastergiadis’s argument, especially when you realise that she has lived and worked in Sydney for many years: ‘As an Arrente and Kalkadoon person, I’d like to acknowledge the original people of this country, the Cadigal and surrounding Sydney Aboriginal communities, and our elders’ (57). Because Papastergiadis, as editor, keeps such differences in play – even fans the flames in his own essay – the book successfully creates the sense of a moving debate, and especially of a divide opening up between older postcolonial paradigms and new yet undefined ones. As such it should be compulsory reading for all critics of contemporary culture – whether they live in the south or the north.

If the book charts the fast moving debate on globalisation, contemporary culture and identity, inevitably the change is never fast enough. Indeed it might seem that the essays (originally written in 2001) are already out of date. While the attempts by some authors to escape the orbit of postcolonialism remain prescient, perhaps the most noticeable feature of the essays is their failure to anticipate or be ahead of the game of global capitalism, and thus their inability to offer any alternatives to it.

This failure, which as Marx realised is inherent in critique itself, is exasperated by the drag of an historical consciousness which capitalism has jettisoned. As Rasheed Araeen (the most historically conscious critic in this anthology) realises, this was not always the case. Avant-garde artists and capitalists once shared an equally acute and compelling historical consciousness, both being agents of rebellion against older cultural and economic paradigms. Now, in the post-Cold War era of globalisation, this is no longer the case. With capitalism totally triumphant it has no other paradigms to resist (except nature). The problem of the future is reduced to a merely technical one. Hence history has ceased being a discourse of hope, and avant-gardism, which as its very name suggests was founded on an historical consciousness, on its sense of difference from the past, is no longer critical or emancipatory. The problem for critical practice, however, is that without an historical consciousness it loses its principal lever and, as many cultural practices of modernity have long since done, morphs into the economy it represents.

Postcolonialism is perhaps the last avant-garde. Its incorporation into the cultural economy of global capital was so swift that one wonders if it was stillborn. This sense is behind a central debate of the book on the efficacy of postcolonial art and theory, and its advocacy of multiculturalism, hybrid cultural practices, and identity politics. The most interesting essays to address this (in that they most effectively set up the terms of the debate) are by Araeen and Papastergiadis, and should be read in that order before reading the book’s other essays.

Araeen launches into an attack on contemporary avant-gardisms, especially those associated with multiculturalism and the related identity politics of postcolonial, feminist and gay art. At first this might seem strange, for Araeen is a prominent postcolonial artist and the founding and continuing editor of the pioneering postcolonial journal, Third Text. However, because Araeen retains an allegiance to modernist principles, especially those bound up with Hegelian notions of historical overcoming that are at the heart of avant-gardist and Marxist practices, for him postcolonialism was always strategic and to be discarded as soon as it had outlived its critical or historical potential.

Araeen’s targets may be too widely dispersed to offer a conclusive attack – there is a book in the ambition of his essay – but he shows how effective Marxist criticism can still be. Sketching out a long historical trajectory he argues that the oppositional practices of avant-gardisms always served ‘Eurocentric bourgeois consciousness’. By the twentieth century avant-gardisms were readily, even eagerly, accepted into bourgeois institutions as exemplary representatives of bourgeois culture. Contemporary postmodern and postcolonial avant-gardes are no different. Their emphasis on subjectivity (as in ‘identity or body politics’ and multiculturalism), he says, only aids the new global capitalist economy.

Araeen is sympathetic to earlier modernist avant-gardisms because, while they justified bourgeois values, they worked against repressive feudal and tribal traditions in Europe and its colonies, and also, he believed, worked more creatively with non-Western art forms. But with capitalism’s victory over history (or the past) and socialism, its emancipatory rhetoric became hollow and self-serving. Paradoxically, the very tribal and feudal traditions that Araeen felt we needed to be emancipated from in the twentieth century are now, he says, ‘the vanguard of change and progress’ (154).

Papastergiadis dismisses Araeen’s argument in a vigorous defence of postcolonial notions of hybridity and the multicultural practices it inaugurates. Indeed, Papastergiadis makes Araeen the nemesis against which the other essays in the book are written, thus giving him a privileged position. While, like Araeen, Papastergiadis recognises the complicity of multiculturalism and global capitalism, he refuses to conflate them because, to him, ‘it leaves no room for critical manoeuvre’ (5). He thus draws a sharp distinction between managerial or State multiculturalism at the service of global capitalism, and what might be called street or oppositional multiculturalism that occurs in the everyday practices of life especially in its most marginalised spaces. He points out that the hegemonic schemes of globalisation will always be resisted at local levels and within the new fields of practice and subjectivities they open up. Araeen does not deny this; he questions that such practices have agency or power, and argues that even in their resistance they invariably replicate bourgeois individualism. Certainly the examples Papastergiadis gives, such as the character of Ari in Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Loaded, would seem to confirm this.

Because identity always originates in hybrid multicultural exchanges, Papastergiadis argues that we should not reify particular moments or types of identity but always keep them open for further translations. While this seems reasonable enough, Papastergiadis does not always do this here. Previously he has written widely, cogently and critically on the complexities and complicities of postcolonial terrains. However, in this essay, he is overly defensive of postcolonial and especially migrant paradigms, and at times applies them too narrowly and inconsistently. From his account (in the book under review) it would seem that the only truly hybridising force in Australian culture is the Greek migrant. His essay tends to flatten Anglo-Celtic Australia as a monolithic xenophobic culture that was creatively and belatedly transformed by migrants, while Indigenous cultures and the rich interactions between settler and Indigenous cultures are ignored.

While Papastergiadis acknowledges that the ‘trafficking of symbols and knowledge across cultural boundaries’ has always occurred, he believes that never before has it occurred with such intensity. This, he says, has ‘necessitated a closer scrutiny of the ways we understand mixture’ – thus the recent development of postcolonial theories of hybridity and the ‘appreciation of the complex and contradictory ways in which local and global cultural forms constantly draw from and against each other’ (156). It is a view that also informs Fazal Rizvi’s essay, which argues that because ‘hybridity is a basic characteristic of cultural globalisation’, ‘we cannot know cultures in their pristine and authentic form’ (235). This historical understanding of hybridity is the main flaw in postcolonial theories of hybridity, which mistakenly reduce hybridity to a migrant condition to be used as a critical tool against the supposed fixed identities of national and indigenous (be they Anglo-Saxon or Aboriginal) ideologies. Thus postcolonial theory has never served indigenous cultures very well, even in colonial situations.

If he was consistent, Papastergiadis would recognise that all cultural formations, even those founded on national identity and an indigenous sense of place, are just as fragmented as migrant ones. There is nothing fixed about national identity, which is a broad church of many identities that jostle for legitimacy through citizenship (which is why the imagined communities of nationhood are generally emancipatory in character). The hybrid nature of national identities does not make them good or better; indeed the very hybridity of national identities is responsible for the loss of many local identities, just as globalisation is today eroding national allegiances. As Ien Ang and Gerardo Mosquera argue (and Papastergiadis also admits), hybridity is often an oppressive instrument that erases differences. It is, however, also a fact of life. Thus Rizvi misses the point when he argues that ‘in a world increasingly constituted by flows of finance, technology and people, … hybridisation has become a condition of social existence, and not something that can be regarded as exceptional’ (235). Rather hybridisation has always been an essential structural condition of social and, as it happens, natural identity. Indeed there is nothing more authentic than hybridity; it is how biological life as well as consciousness is structured. This is why hybridity is not a useful critical tool – it describes the structure of all identity formations, not an alternative identity or even an historical one.

Darwin developed from age-old agricultural practices of hybridity (breeding) his theory of evolution or natural selection. Arguably postcolonial theory is a Darwinian   (though not Social Darwinian) paradigm – for natural selection proposes serial hybrid beginnings that open onto multiple and diverse species rather than the singular creation of a set range of species or identities. Moreover, the hybrid exchanges between local and globally dominant cultures has long been a feature of colonial discourses – well before Darwin made his natural history discoveries in the colonies. Indigenous cultures are also dynamic entities that have long exchanged knowledge and symbols – as Paul Carter recognises in his article (209). Papastergiadis, however, idealises the space of postcolonial multiculturalism, migration and global capitalism as the privileged site of hybridity; and in doing so is unable to imagine other identities or future possibilities outside of the postcolonial time capsule. Interestingly, modernist ideologues once did the same in respect to their own values.

If Papastergiadis depicts Araeen as the nemesis of the progressive thought that otherwise occurs in the book, this is not always borne out in the articles. While Ghassan Hage’s essay near the end of the book does not directly address postcolonial theory or theories of hybridity, it succinctly confirms Araeen’s diagnosis – that contemporary cultural formations and especially multicultural ones serve what Hage calls the ‘socio-economic aesthetic’ of global capitalism (the city of Melbourne is exemplary in this regard). The new nomads of capital, he argues, are completely upturning the old identities of nationhood. While Papastergiadis pins his hopes on the hybrid practices of the poor and excluded who accumulate on the edges and in the blind spots of the ‘global aestheticised city’, like Araeen, Hage argues this underclass are being rendered increasingly powerless by globalisation.

Also supporting Araeen’s analysis is the Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera’s observation that postcolonial practices (he calls them ‘transculturating strategies’) ‘reproduce the hegemonic structures [of global capitalism], even if contesting them’ (27). Mosquera’s analysis is in many ways close to Araeen’s: it argues that globalisation is to be feared; that it developed from a world reorganised by colonialism; that it constitutes an international homogenising mac-culture emanating from the United States at the levels of both popular culture and high art; that this internationalist or global culture was pioneered by modernism in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and triumphed in contemporary postmodernist and transcultural art; and that it has replaced the traditional studio bound artist-craftsman with jet-setting nomads, more like managers or engineers exporting ideas. Nor does Mosquera see much hope in the ‘the new [postmodern] attraction towards otherness’ (20) – which is not that new anyway. While it has facilitated the circulation of ‘art from the peripheries’, it circumscribed its content as exotic, authentic and indigenous, thus affirming the coloniality of global capitalism. This globalising culture has merely reproduced the existing structures of power, with the First World enjoying a universal global exchange of finance, technology and knowledge (which are the principle axes of power), while the majority of the world languishes in large zones of silence – hence Mosquera’s call, echoed by Papastergiadis in his introduction, for these silent zones to develop their own independent connections. Mosquera’s only note of hope is that all cultures, whether ‘from situations of domination or subordination’, ‘feed from each other’ (27). Even in enslavement, the oppressed opportunistically appropriate from their oppressors.

This thin ray of hope is the basis for Papastergiadis’s confidence in globalisation producing its own critical strategies (which given his condemnation of Hegel (163) seems odd), and his support of Jean Fisher’s appeal for the traditional ‘trickster’ figure as a means to contest globalisation. Fisher derives her idea of the trickster, in part, from Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. However, as Bakhtin made clear, carnival’s inversions affirm rather than threaten the dominant power. The trickster is a survivor not a revolutionary – as is evident in Carlos Capelan’s highly enjoyable travelogue. The other trickster Papastergiadis invokes is the early nineteenth century Aborigine, Bungaree. Today we may see his jokes as ironic parodies of colonial power, but in his day he was merely laughed at by the colonists – he was considered a sign of the desperate impotence of Aborigines in early colonial Sydney.

Fisher suggests two reasons why globalisation should call forth the trickster. One is that the trickster ‘was global before colonisation’. Because she is referring to the archetypal universality of this figure in cultures around the globe, however, the trickster would not seem to be a particularly postcolonial invention. Secondly, she suggests that because the new postcolonial market is a borderland of colliding differences, it provides a ‘fertile ground for the play of tricky tactics’. This might be true, but it is also a ground where only the fittest survive. It is not the grounds for freedom or self-respect, let alone revolution. The problem with this ‘idea of the cultural mestizaje [melting pot]’, says Mosquera is that it obscures (he says ‘erases’) real differences, inequalities and conflicts. Further, he says, when such ‘hybridisation’ occurs in unequal situations, the dominant element are empowered. Indeed, whatever hybrid counter-tactics the subaltern invents are ‘appropriated by hegemonic circuits and can be used … to make the tools of domination more sophisticated’ (25-26).

A more realistic figure than Fisher’s romantic transgressive ‘trickster’ is Ien Ang’s ‘translator’, who negotiates the ‘complicated entanglement’ (34) of local cultures as they collide and mesh in the global arena. Even though Ang promotes the translator as the only future for those who want to survive globalisation, she has no illusions about this new market place. Because of the differences it contains, she notes, it is heavily policed and regulated by the authorities (37) rather than the fertile ground Fisher imagines.

The book, however, is much more than a debate on postcolonial theory. Whatever take the various contributors have on globalisation and multiculturalism, each seeks an ethical position. This, I think, will prove the book’s real legacy. Postcolonialism was in the beginning primarily driven by ethical concerns – by a desire to hear the other speak. As the various theoretical paradigms of postcolonialism become more tenuous and depleted, its critics have no choice but to retrieve the ethical position that originally motivated them – namely to again hear the Other. However flawed Fisher’s vision of the trickster, at least it derives from her desire to establish a relationship with the Other. She calls for an art that, for ethical reasons, opens ‘freely on to what is beyond itself – to experience not-knownness or otherness‘ – which she (not incorrectly) sees the trickster accomplishing (73). Ang considers the translator in much the same light – as someone who ‘lives in the awareness that there are always other ways and modes of being that are inaccessible to us and perhaps incommensurable to our own ways and modes of being.’ (38) For these reasons, Fisher believes that an ‘ethical’ art is not founded in its content or its “identity” politics, ‘but in the way its material and syntactical organization articulates its encounter with the viewer’ (75).

Araeen’s proposal to develop alternative art practices to those that currently go under the name of postcolonialism in the international art biennales is motivated by similar ethical disquiet about our relationship to the Other. He believes that ‘cultural difference at the moment is being celebrated as a sign of Otherness by which the other is assimilated into the system and its critical role pacified’ (155). While we might disagree with Araeen’s alternative vision for a modernist landscape architecture in Third World places (land art projects that have positive cultural and agricultural outcomes), the nub of his proposal is not the particulars of his plan but the imperative to honour rather than assimilate the otherness of others that is the basis of all ethical social contracts.

Paul Carter’s work, both as a writer and designer, is motivated by a similar ethics. He has built a career on how spaces of incommensurability – not just between different cultural groups but also between individuals in all their encounters – might be articulated. Thus, much like Papastergiadis, Carter argues against identities that create a ‘myth of being their own origin’. Such myths, he says, paradoxically ‘conceal the evidence of beginnings’ – that is, of their own historical becoming and ever-continuing beginnings ‘wherever differences emerge’ (206). For Carter, this ’emphasis on beginnings rather than origins, with its elaboration of a poetics of complex hybrid (and collaboratively produced) forms’, constitutes ‘the ethics of invention’ (217). Carter is mainly interested how such inventive beginnings were played out in the contact histories of Australian colonialism. Rather than being actual origins, as in the creation myths of White Australia’s national identity, contact histories inevitably point to prior beginnings. Carter’s essay, which discusses his own design of Melbourne’s Federation Square, is particularly interested in how these lost earlier beginnings might be articulated in the White Australian federation myth of ‘Australia coming into being’. For Carter it was less an issue of content (of say identity politics), but as Fisher said, of a space of communication. Hence, Carter’s plan ‘claims not to be an imposed design but the recollection of an ideal, but lost, object’ that, as it were, speaks through his design. The genre of his design was, then, ‘mythopoeic’ – it was more like an ancient epic poem whose space of performance reconstituted an ethical space for being, than another monument to the white fathers of federation.

Despite differences of opinion about the politics of postcolonialism, the authors seem to agree on the necessity of an ethical aesthetics and even on the nature of this ethics as a duty to Otherness. Where they disagree is on strategies and tactics. For example, while the hybrid poetics of Carter’s and Papastergiadis’s spatial histories have ethical intentions, Mosquera and Ang point out that in such histories the more powerful usually appropriates the other. Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, the poetics of hybridity operate blindly, or like the capitalist market, the fittest survive – even if, as Papastergiadis rightly points out, in this competition for survival sometimes the most unlikely things can happen at the lower end of the food chain. Admitting this in the creative exchange between Indigenous and European languages in Latin American poetry, Mosquera nevertheless concluded that ‘the European languages come out winning’ and ‘enriched’, able to communicate ‘other meanings’ (26-27). Fitness might have many measures, but how do we measure its ethical value?

The weakness of this collection of essays is that ethics is invoked without a clear sense of what it means, and without interrogating its relationship to aesthetics. If postcolonialism was an ethical turn, its artists and critics need to better understand what this means if it is to remain a critical force. Both ethics and aesthetics are neglected topics in contemporary art criticism. While Fisher provides a brief gloss on ethics (72-3), it is inadequate to the task mainly because the philosophical work it requires has not been done, not just by Fisher but also by artists and art critics generally.

The question of a postcolonial ethics is most acutely, though tangentially, put in Marcia Langton’s article on Aboriginal art. Her focus is not what most easily fits the postcolonial subject: such as urban Aboriginal art or the role of Aboriginality in the current multi-cultural identity of Australian nationalism (though she does address the latter); but the traditional Aboriginal concept of Dreaming as performed in the post-Papunya acrylic canvases (and also Arnhem Land bark paintings). Langton emphasises the hybrid poetics of these Dreamings in their geographical, cultural and social contexts (44-45), and their respect for and elaborate protection of an incommensurable Otherness – called the ‘secret sacred’ (46-47). Langton does not go so far as to call it an inherent ethical aesthetics, but she lays out the ground for such a claim by singling out the authentic spiritual content of this art for special attention.

This is a risky and very un-postcolonial move (it might seem to some New-Ageist), but an essential one if such Aboriginal art is to be given its due, to be treated as its artists and Elders ask. While entering into an ethical relationship with such art rests on trust rather than knowledge because, as Langton makes clear, the uninitiate’s knowledge of the work’s iconology will always be minimal, the uninitiate’s trust parallels the artist’s own faith in the secret sacred (i.e. unknowable). In the end, faith is the secret of all secrets and the only path to the spiritual. However despite her commitment to the authenticity of the Dreaming, Langton infers rather than explicates such ideas. Her interests are more mundane or political. She considers the different roles of Indigenous spiritualism in the reception of the art in the global market and its production in contemporary Aboriginal communities, and suggests that the relationship between these apparently incommensurable roles might be ‘the basis of an ethical and intelligent relationship’ (51). For this to occur, she argues, the authenticity of the artists’ spiritual practices must be taken seriously rather than assimilated into the universal aesthetic of global modernism as another postmodern hybrid art.

It is exactly the notions of authenticity and spirituality that postcolonial and postmodernist critics have most trouble with, just as the apparent inauthenticity of these acrylic canvases once troubled anthropologists and art curators. Langton, however, measures their authenticity by her own ethical commitment to the Dreaming. She insists on the necessity of accepting this authenticity in forging an ethical relationship between Aborigines and settlers for three reasons. Firstly, because this authenticity ‘interrupt[s] our enjoyment’ of the art, it forces ‘us to interrogate our pleasure at such apparently simple, startling beauty’ – thus making us settlers, now global nomads, question our own ideological investments in the art. The second reason is to do with the content rather than structure of the Dreaming: ‘it makes available a rich tradition of human ethics of relationship with place and other species to a worldwide audience.’ Thirdly, against Papastergiadis’s postcolonial notion of spatial identity, an authentic Aboriginal poetics of place rather than space (in which settler Australians are still lost), allows ‘the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands’, a way to ‘belong to this place rather than another’ (55) or, as Papastegiadis would more accurately put it, to no place at all.

Papastergiadis began his introduction with the question: ‘When we look outside our cultural space in which direction do we look? Up, down, to the side? Do we look towards the force that is above us [by which he meant Europe and USA, not Asia]? Or do we seek to find something in the space that is adjacent to us [he named New Zealand and South Africa]?’ He doesn’t say what we see when we look down – Carter’s Federation Square or the earth beneath our feet, perhaps, a spatial or even natural identity? But, if Langton’s essay is to be taken seriously, we, and particularly we Australians, need to be looking somewhere else all together. Where do we look to see the unseen Aboriginal beginnings of our beginning? Maybe, as Hetti Perkins suggests (in the other essay on Aboriginal art), to a ‘parallel universe, other worlds.’

Ian McLean is at the University of Western Australia.

Complex Entanglements Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, edited by Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), was published in London by Rivers Oram, in 2003 and is distributed in Australia by UNIPRESS. 0854891537, $46.00.

 1. Held at Artspace, Sydney in July 2001

 2. Papastergiadis plans to address this issue in a conference at Melbourne in April 2004. See

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