Anthropology in the postmodern landscape: the importance of cultural brokers and their trade

Anthropology in the postmodern landscape: the importance of cultural brokers and their trade

Ade Peace


As befits a discipline with a long-standing interest in how local populations maintain their boundaries, anthropology has long been anxious about its own. Political science (occasionally), political economy (more recently), history (from time to time), and sociology (for as long as most of us can remember) are all cognate disciplines whose boundaries with anthropology have caused some degree of insider alarm. Whether this adds up to yet another crisis in anthropology or not, there are several reasons why this topic surfaces for debate at the present time. One of them, recently detailed by Rosaldo (1994) and thus possibly more specific to the American context, is the employment potential in cultural studies for graduates trained in other disciplines, including anthropology. Faced with the possible loss of the more able of our novitiates, questions of boundary maintenance inevitably surface with some urgency. Another reason is that the proponents of cultural studies incline to issue disparaging comments on long-established disciplines, anthropology in particular, without much inclination to substantiate them. Then again, and more to the point of this paper, the present situation underscores the limited progress which continues to be made in the anthropology of postmodern society, the societal type which cultural studies stakes out as its own (see Marcus 1995:204, Traube 1996, and Wright 1998 for comparable assessments).

Several kinds of reply have been prompted from different quarters to this situation. They range from an uncompromising insistence that anthropology remains true to its origins in, if not pre-capitalist, at least non-Western societies, through to a modus vivendi in which practitioners of both disciplines rethink the central concepts and analytic issues which variously engage them. Rosaldo sketches out one such scenario when, having conceded to cultural studies at least part-ownership of the concept of culture, he writes, without, one notes, much enthusiasm

Losing a monopoly need not be such a bad thing: maybe there is something to be gleaned from working in more rough-and-tumble arenas where conflict and misunderstanding reign alongside innovative transformations brought by fresh applications and the remoulding of familiar terms. (Rosaldo 1994:529)

This is not the position adopted in the present paper which, to put the matter straightforwardly, argues that the anthropology of postmodern society should aim to mount strategic and specific forays into those fields of social life where the relation between power and knowledge is central to the production of culture. Faced with the audacious appropriation of some of our integral concerns, I propose that anthropologists must selectively mount raids into, rather than sublimely compromise over, the landscape of postmodernity to which cultural studies lays claim, and there practise the art of ethnography which is our discipline’s hallmark.

The problem with cultural studies

One of the reasons for adopting this position is that I am less impressed than commentators like Rosaldo at the way the competition goes about its business. For at least in Australia, cultural studies seems especially prone to the repetitive interrogation of literary texts or other forms of representation in order to throw light on special qualities of the national character or psyche, but this without due attention to the social circumstances and specific understandings of those who have created such representations in the first instance. Such a disconnected or disembodied approach to texts is in no sense limited to Australian practitioners (see Knauft 1994:133-4): but the proliferation of arbitrary semiotic readings is marked here, and not just vis-a-vis literary texts but non-literary ones as well. Elements of the landscape, architectural features, popular television programs, as well as day-to-day activities which can be caricatured as ‘myths of Oz,’ all seem prone to intense exploration – yet without much clarity over the vantage point being assumed by the interrogator.

The central questions which have to be cast back in the eye of such arbitrary interpretations are those posed by Trigger in his astute review of Dark Side of the Dream (Hodge and Misra 1991): ‘How adequately can “Australian culture” be read from literary (and other) “texts” alone? Should there not be at least some attempt to present empirical evidence from careful study of social action, ie. from what members of Australian society actually do and say in the course of their everyday lives?’ (1993:608)

Especially wanting on this score is the work of Morris, doyenne of cultural studies in Australia. She writes, for example, in her oft-quoted piece ‘At Henry Parkes Motel’

So the reflective tourist arrives at a scholastic dilemma where Miles Street meets Rouse Street, Tenterfield. On the one side of the road, a myth of the Modern Universal: seriality, chain self-reference, territorialisation by repetition-and-difference: ‘a Homestead is a Homestead everywhere.’ On the other, Postmodern Particularity: a bricolage individuality-effect, pluralist pastiche coding, localisation by simulated aura: ‘this motel is The Motel in Tenterfield’. (Morris 1993:245)

In truth, there is not the slightest evidence that ‘the reflective tourist’ weighs up the choice between one night’s bed and breakfast and another in anything like such ‘scholastic’ terms, any more than there is indication that Morris has talked with a single traveller so agonisingly impaled upon this ‘dilemma.’

The second failing in Australian cultural studies lies in the alacrity with which the spirit of resistance is discerned in the most innocuous of responses to prevalent hegemonies, especially the hegemony of the mass media. The theme of ‘resistance through rituals’ is, of course, one which emerged from the early work of the Birmingham School. It gained proper prominence in the ethnographic work of analysts like Hebdige and Willis on youth sub-culture. By contrast, it is all too often the case that, in contemporary Australian interpretation, political ardour substitutes for empirical rigour. The analyst’s urge to convince that the rebellious spirit survives all efforts by those with authority to crush it reaches unwarranted and, more significantly, unsubstantiated heights in Fiske’s (1988) idealisation of the young as ‘urban guerillas’ within the shopping mall complex, as well as his account with Hodge and Turner of ‘subversive surfing’ (1987:72.) But one encounters much the same indifference to matters of analytic rigour when it is readily assumed that, for example, the consumption of minority literatures, the savouring of “po-mo” art forms, or the wearing of avant garde dress, somehow qualify those involved for the credentials of the rebellious.

The third weakness in cultural studies is that its leading practitioners repeatedly refuse to render problematic the material conditions from which they construct their privileged interpretations. Although making their conditions of production explicit would mostly enhance the plausibility of their readings, in the event they often fail to explore them at all, and thus weaken otherwise impressive efforts. A striking example on this score comes from the prolific analyst Wark who, at the beginning of Virtual Geography (1994), proclaims and parades his Australian status. He writes: ‘I want to create my particular understanding of the global, as seen from the antipodes’ (1994:xiv); and again in the opening chapter, ‘there are quite particular challenges and obligations which I felt I had to honour in writing about the global from a very particular site and out of a very particular culture within the matrix of an emergent virtual geography’ (1994:xii). Wark then provides detailed accounts of four events of undoubted global significance – the Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tragedy of Tiananmen square, and the Wall Street Crash of 1987 – and he uses the concept of vectors, drawn from the work of Paul Virilio (1990), to detail the information flows which traverse the globe, blurring the distinction between reality and unreality to which we falsely lay claim.

Wark’s presentation is relentless: his writing is intended to be provocative as he strives ‘to create a postmodern style of writing about postmodern culture without thereby reproducing just another reified knowledge’ (1994:xi). Yet despite this admirable ambition, this prominent advocate of cultural studies stands at an exceptional distance from all the events he describes, and this inevitably restricts the significances which he can extract from media coverage of them. What the local populations of Baghdad, Berlin, Beijing, and New York, themselves made of media coverage of them, plays no part in these accounts: so much for radical claims about rejecting reified knowledge. More importantly, there is no account of (i) the American conglomerate sources on which the Australian media so heavily relies, (ii) the media channels inside Australia which covered these events most closely, (iii) the way expert commentators were wheeled out to explain the relevance of these events on regional lines, or (iv) the symbolic devices and speech forms which a host of newscasters characteristically deploys in order to translate such international events as these into an Australian framework of interpretation. Yet the claim is – to repeat – that this is to be ‘the view from the antipodes,’ an attempt to write about the global ‘from a very particular site and out of a very particular culture . . .’

Cultural brokerage in its global context

I take this to be broadly symptomatic of the conspicuous extent to which cultural studies has failed to address the fundamental property of Australian popular culture, namely its situatedness within the global cultural system and its dialectical relatedness to that wider order. It is surely incontestable that a great deal of our popular culture is imported, that it bears the hallmarks of production by institutions and agencies other than our own, and that, besides being foisted in vast quantities on Australian consumers at large, its ‘fully imported’ character is proffered as one of its major selling points. It may well be that the considerable cohort of cultural analysts is unaware of, or indifferent to, all this. But it is certainly not lost on a wide range of social commentators of different political persuasions who have to be taken seriously. Whether dressed in apocalyptic terms or argued with restrained rhetoric, expressions of concern that ‘the national culture’ is being fast eroded by an unceasing avalanche of imported commodities are commonplace, if uneven.

From time to time, particular developments such as the sale of a national icon (Amott’s biscuits, Qantas, old growth forest as woodchip) produce a welter of commentary about the possible demise of Australian identity and culture. But under more routine conditions too, the sense of concern provides a consistent current in political talk. In late 1996, for example, one of the major exponents of liberal cultural nationalism, in his regular column in The Weekend Australian and under the heading ‘Barb-aryan hordes,’ bemoaned the fact that Australian children were better acquainted with the McDonald logo than the crucifix, from which opening gambit he proceeded to make this claim:

I find the onward march of the US hamburger chain as threatening as Hitler’s invasion of Poland. For when a child’s gob is filled with one of those spongy artifacts his mind is well on the way to being filled with the venal values of the society that invented them. About as tasty as a cat’s fur ball, the hamburger doesn’t merely settle in the child’s tummy but takes over its metabolism. The brain becomes as spongy as the bun. Complete the diet by allowing the kid to ingest copious quantities of capitalism’s elixir of youth, the carbonated slop known as Coca-Cola, and it’s game, set and match. Your child rapidly evolves into a mid-Pacific hybrid, someone who clings to Californian culture like a mussel to a pier. (Adams 1996)

This can be juxtaposed with the opening paragraphs to a mid-1998 issue of The Bulletin with Newsweek (sic) which had as its cover story ‘How America has Changed our Lives,’ accompanied by the cover picture of an American flag spread across an outline shape of Australia, the Statue of Liberty at its centre:

Australia’s orbit around the United States is growing tighter. In a month when Jerry Seinfeld’s choice of pizza toppings, His Airness Michael Jordan’s retirement plans and Monica Lewinski’s flag-wrapped magazine debut have run as top news stories in Australia’s media, it takes a certain courage – or cultural numbness – to shrug off the jibe about Australia becoming the 51st state.

On the face of it, Australia has never looked or sounded more like a chip off the old American block. Malls and Microsoft, fast food and Friends, heavy metal and Hollywood are as familiar to us now as Australian business leaders with American accents . . . and American subcultures with Australian accents. . . . (Bagnall 1998)

This level of dependence on imported popular culture can doubtless be objectively represented in several quantitative ways (see Emmison 1997). My concern is to suggest that this is the kind of qualitative cultural terrain in which a carefully constituted anthropology of postmodernity can thrive, since it is precisely at the boundaries of global and regional cultural exchange that critical processes of translation, transformation, interpretation and concealment are concentrated. The critical space is that interstitial terrain occupied by cultural brokers who mediate the relationship between global culture and Australia’s semi-peripheral marketplace, and collectively exercise enormous power in the course of executing such mediation.

The preliminary point to acknowledge is that, although their influence seems inescapable, the binary oppositions which underpin this entire field of discussion prove consistently inadequate to describe the Australian situation. At the very least, the term ‘semi-peripheral’ serves to separate the continent out from the Third World periphery proper and the kind of ‘cultural dumping’ (to use Karin Barber’s (1987) phrase) which proliferates there, whilst indexing also the marginality of Australia vis-a-vis the cultural core(s) of the global system. The important consideration which follows is that this places the brokers who mediate the relation between core and semi-periphery in a position of exceptional influence. Their entrepreneurial roles are such as to exercise striking authority over society at large. They have to build markets and satiate them at one and the same time, and that means knowing the cultural terrain supremely well. These brokers must be not merely middlemen of renown but also masters in the politics of cultural dissembling.

The spatial metaphor being deployed here is elementary: but at least the specification of brokerage underscores the point that regional-global articulation is, first and foremost, a complex, socio-politically mediated constellation of relations, not just a matter of mere economics. Whether the trade is in the realm of commodities or symbols, icons or ideologies, the concept of the broker emphasises above all the importance of conscious and calculating social agency in what can be too easily and mystifyingly represented as an impersonal marketplace driven by forces of supply and demand. More specifically, it can be coupled with the concepts of ‘mediascapes’ and ‘ideoscapes’ as developed by Appadurai (1990), inasmuch as it is precisely in the deterritorialised commodities of images, ideas, and imaginings, that this trade deals most substantively. Fox summarises the key issue well when he declares that Appadurai’s version of cosmopolitan ethnography ‘would recognise that everyday life is now lived out globally and that the small community is the end point of a cultural jet stream’ (1991:12). But the mechanical nature of that final turn of phrase still needs attention, for there is nothing inexorable about these processes. They have to be calculatingly engineered, carefully fabricated, and that is always and everywhere the forte of cultural intermediaries. Their influence is all the more conspicuously evident, however, as well as the more insistently hegemonic, when a relatively small, cultural semi-periphery like that of Australia proves so vulnerable to the sustained economic pressures of the late capitalist order. (For a parallel case, incisively tackled, see Miller (1997) on Trinidadian brokerage).

The point to immediately acknowledge about Australia’s cultural brokers is their occupational diversity. At the forefront of this intense traffic in metropolitan culture stand the television producers, editors, cameramen and journalists, both inside Australia and overseas; so too with those involved in radio (which seems remarkably ill-attended to by social analysts, but not the bulk of the population who put it to use throughout the working day). Alongside this category stand those in the print media, editors, sub-editors, photojournalists and the like, all of whom are critically involved in defining the cultural Other in relation to mainstream society, and establishing with some accuracy what the parameters of its cultural boundaries look like. Any edition of Foreign Correspondent, to chose an example somewhat arbitrarily, indeed any performance by George Negus, entails an exoticisation of Australia’s cultural Others which leaves for dead efforts by earlier generations of anthropologists. I surmise that a folk conception of ‘an anthropological perspective’ on ‘other cultures’ is one that persistently informs this weekly program and similar ones. But never was the boundary between ‘the civilised’ (in the form of the presenter at his desk) and ‘the uncivilised’ (Afghan rebels, refugees in Zaire, the homeless of Bosnia) more unrelentingly drawn out.

On a clear ideological par with such occupations are the image-producing, icon-manipulating merchants, who work for either overseas-based transnational corporations or Australian ones, yet are equally devoted to the production of a hierarchy of consumption patterns in which the superior quality of imported commodities is proclaimed over local ones. The advertising industry, however, is not only pivotal to the management of consumption: it is integral also to the management of crisis. No recent event has displayed more clearly the power of sustained advertising campaigns than that directed to contain the political fall out from environmental destruction caused by BHP’s Ok Tedi mine. Few contemporary advertisements can have exploited more deftly (or unashamedly) the image of ‘the primitive.’

The important consideration, then, is that it is not only the anthropologist who interprets and translates the significances and meanings of ‘other cultures’ into the interpretive frameworks considered prevalent ‘at home.’ So does a raft of social commentators and media analysts whose work is with potent and pervasive images and icons. We can make these exercises in power/knowledge accessible and interpretable through fine grained ethnography. Inasmuch as the cultural landscape is now so strikingly pockmarked by spectacle of the type dealt with by Debord (1983; for comparison see Palmer sup:265-72), we could do much worse than start with pop concert organisers, tour and travel operators, through to the organisers of the 2000 Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. On certain important counts, there may be rather little to separate the commercialisation of The Ring from the selling of Sting, not much to distinguish between promoting the Harlem Globetrotters and an exhibition of French Impressionists. But on others, inventiveness in the practices of interpretation, innovation in the presentation of meaning, and ingenuity in the colonisation of collective sensibilities, are surely fundamental to the effective mounting and elaboration of contemporary spectacle. Even in such modest preliminaries as the video advertisement for an American pop group, the banners hanging on a museum exterior, the glossy brochure for a cultural festival, or the decorated shopfront of a tour operator, all involve sequential acts of cultural translation, and each may signal too the social and political intricacies which are negotiated and fought over in offices and studios behind the public facade.

Even a peremptory reading of newspaper and magazine accounts, as well as some viewing of television representations, quickly establishes that the influence of prominent cultural intermediaries lies as much in their informal social networks as it inheres in the institutional complexes to which they belong. Behind the facade, brokers often do not have fixed places of work: they are spatially and socially mobile inside Australia and beyond, which is important in underscoring the pivotal cosmopolitan dimension to their occupational stature. Such a coupling of institutional influence and informal network has, of course, long been grist to the anthropologist’s mill. So too with the Bourdieuian conversion of different forms of capital within the same social arena which such couplings markedly facilitate. The important addition is intervention by the contemporary State. King rightly points out that in late capitalist society the State does not just promote culture, it organises it (1991:17). Although the point must be impressionistic, the Australian State appears especially interventionist by comparison with other Western societies in the promotion of particular genres of spectacular cultural performance. And although in the first place this takes the form of ‘seeding finance’ in order to ‘get the project off the ground’ (as the customary metaphor has it), temporary engagement so frequently translates into long term commitment.

When these tendencies are addressed by political theorists, they are characteristically put down to some inherent failing of the modern State which is reified to the point of being able to take (or rather, not take) crucial decisions. A more persuasive and specifically anthropological line of argument would be that they reflect the sheer, knitted-together strength of interpersonal and group relations between entrepreneurial brokers and political elites. This social adhesion is to be anticipated considering the revolving door through which members of both so frequently pass, the level of informal intercourse pervasive between them, and their investment in, and commitment to, a common culture of corporate capital and growth. Whatever the specifics though, resources of State and civil society are extensively pooled in the promotion of certain kinds of popular culture at the expense of others. What is beyond dispute is that many have a ‘fully imported’ label attached to them, reflecting the overall hierarchy of cultural signification within which their purchase and consumption is to be situated. Again, these are points which surface time after time in newspaper features and magazine profiles. They can only be thoroughly excavated by ethnographic fieldwork.

The most important quality of elite cultural brokers is that they are able to manage the meaning of global culture as it is trafficked into and across Australian society. For by virtue of their institutional power and interpersonal influence, they are not only the gatekeepers of cultural traffic into this semi-periphery, they have the power to impose meaning and interpretation on its varied commodity forms. This is not to suggest that such fabricated interpretations are incorporated without reflection or resistance into the popular mentality. But it is to insist that the two issues be kept analytically separate so that there can be an untrammelled focusing on how key brokers impose their distinctive ideological cast on cultural imports. This is not a context in which to unpack these discursive themes in detail, but it is worth emphasising that the force of many such impositions lies in the linkage consistently established and embellished between domestic conspicuous consumption and societal development in general. Whether it is in television news items concerning employment levels, newspaper coverage on environmental initiatives, or advertisements for breakfast foodstuffs, an indissoluble relation is consistently elaborated between economic growth and societal advancement on the one hand, and on the other sustained consumption patterns and the consumer’s private well-being.

Brokering the Prix

A good deal of enterprise is required from the image makers in order to trade on nationalist sentiment when the cultural items being sold are so conspicuously nonAustralian in origin. One of the more blatant sleights-of-hand is for the regional branch of an American transnational corporation to be symbolically presented as the repository of stalwart nationalism. The possibilities for fetishistic elaboration are wide-ranging, but the basic message is elementary enough: the elaboration of one’s own prosperous life style and the economic advancement of Australian society are two sides of the same coin. If that were all, of course, the point would scarce be worth making, for this is a commonplace in the iconography of late capitalism. In the Australian setting however, what gives these emphases a consistently distinctive quality is the claim that we are ‘not (yet) truly cosmopolitan,’ even that we are ‘not (yet) fully modern.’ In other words, the claim of the intermediaries is that, while we may enjoy many of the superficial attributes of an advanced society, we remain somehow naive and parochial in outlook. This being so, what is required is the further import of transnational capital and culture in order to – as it were – bring us up to global speed.

The theme is an inescapable one, it is articulated from numerous sites of cultural brokerage, and it plays on taken-for-granted ideas about marginality and peripherality within a supposedly integrated and imperial global order. The process which is key here is not just how national communities are imagined, to use Anderson’s (1983) phrasing, but more specifically how these communities are presented in relation to one another by those with the power to impose their interpretations on substantial segments of the broader population (see Hannerz 1990, 1996). In order that this broadcasting of brokered imaginings can be incisively explored, what is required is the setting aside of any insistence that the global order is a fragmented one. It needs to be recognised instead that the global system can be made to retain all the attributes of an imperial order in which cultural supremacy is lodged at the core. Especially important to follow through is the continual building on a ‘commonsensical’ insistence that Western societies in the northern hemisphere – notably, but not exclusively, the United States – remain the source of all things unequivocally cosmopolitan, all things truly modern. It is this unrelenting insistence which pervades newspaper columns, soap operas, television advertisements, and the rest. On this issue, if no other, the cultural brokers speak with one voice: we may not be cosmopolitan yet, but cosmopolitanism can be bought.

Some of these points can be briefly amplified ethnographically. I have argued at some length elsewhere (Peace 1991, 1998) in relation to the mounting of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Adelaide over the past decade or so, that apocalyptic versions of the encounter between global and local culture have little merit. The myth of global, American culture as uncontrolled juggernaut, is the construction of a handful of cultural studies analysts (see Emmison 1997) and popular commentators (see Bagnall 1998) who consistently overstate the hegemony of transnational cultural forms (Ang 1994). I have argued instead the anthropological position that the trade in global culture is just as likely to illuminate the integrity of regional cultures as it is to overwhelm them. But this makes it all the more pressing to acknowledge that this mammoth event – a kind of superexhibitionary, postmodern circus – was presented to the regional population as the very pinnacle of international, cosmopolitan culture. It was argued that its arrival would close the gap between the global order and this particular periphery as Adelaide gained recognition on the international stage. The leading personnel were characterised as members of a cosmopolitan elite, and their life styles were both savoured and dissected accordingly. And finally the Grand Prix was endowed with the capacity to create regional prosperity on a substantial scale, all in the best traditions of commodity fetishism.

These insistent claims emanated from a seemingly orchestrated cacophony of cultural brokers. Despite different institutional allegiances, despite different material interests, and despite varying relations to the State which was throughout a key player, the brokers’ concerted imposition of meaning was much the same. Through their comprehensive influence over all forms of media transmission, they realised to the full the power/knowledge nexus which is especially accessible to them within ‘the overarching mode of information,’ to use Poster’s (1984) phrase. The second, equally important point is that any attempt, however modest, to moderate – still less contest – the highly organised and disciplined structure of control of this mega-event, proved either ineffectual or shortlived, usually both. It was certainly the case that local people attempted to wrest maximum advantage from the exploration of weak spots in this otherwise rigorously controlled exercise in high consumerism. In choice fashion, local folk amplified what de Certeau calls ‘the trickery, la perruque, [which] is enabled by cross cuts, fragments, cracks and lucky hits in the framework of a system’ (1984:38). They deployed their local knowledge to access free viewing sites, to evade monopolistic price fixing, to get better seats than they paid for, and much else besides.

All this was intriguing to the urban ethnographer. It allowed cumulative insight into ‘(the) countless ways of making do’ (de Certeau 1984:29) which local folk devise under such circumstances. But it would be indefensible to overstate the lasting significance of such activities, for whilst they assuredly enshrined the local knowledge of experienced urbanites, they were rapidly and decisively shut down by cultural brokers who exercised their expertise in response, and this with all the non-coercive and coercive authority of the State behind them. More to the point, most present at this exceptional spectacle in high consumerism accepted it on much the same terms that it was offered to them: and that is here the critical consideration, for it stands as unqualified testimony to the expertise and experience of the cultural brokers as an integrated cohort. They exhibited to the full their collective ability to mount and project this postmodern spectacular in such a way as to constitute, expand and finally satisfy the varied expectations of a huge, semi-peripheral, urban population.

To put it another way, perhaps we need to be reminded occasionally that, notwithstanding the prevalent emphases from cultural studies, popular culture is not meant to be interpreted, it is meant to be consumed (see Appadurai 1990:307). And it is meant to be consumed under conditions which render maximum profit to those who provision it while reinforcing the mammoth facticity of the status quo. This is the material significance of the new class of cultural intermediaries who exercise enormous sway in a society such as Australia. Not only do they exercise control over the mass culture which parades before us, they also have the power to establish in (at the very least) preliminary fashion what we are to make of it as well, and that necessarily involves a good deal of fetishisation and dissembling in, and around, the institutional apparatuses of cultural production so paramount in postmodern society. These qualities alone ensure that cultural brokerage should be one focus of the selective raids we make into the terrain increasingly occupied by others. Cultural brokers should become a prime target for those who wish to contribute to the ethnography of postmodernity. On that front, just as in relation to more conventional anthropological terrain, we would be well advised to take on board the appropriately feisty assessment from Marshall Sahlins: ‘Some cultural studies types seem to think that anthropology is nothing but ethnography. Better the other way round: ethnography is anthropology, or it is nothing’ (1993:9).


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