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Ching-Yu Lin & John McSweeney (eds), ...

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Review: Ching-Yu Lin & John McSweeney (eds), Representation and Contestation: Cultural Politics in a Political Century. Amsterdam and
New York: Rodopi, 2010. 255 pp. $80.
Ben Garner (University of Manchester, UK)

This book, part of the At the Interface/Probing
the Boundaries series developed by the dynamic InterDisciplinary.net, presents a collection of eleven pieces of original work examining the contemporary relationship between culture and politics.
It is framed by the editors in their introduction as
occupying and exploring “the critical space between the apparently enduring
political vitality of cultural representation and contestation into the twentyfirst
century, on the one hand, and the possible limits of a ‘cultural’ politics,
on the other.” This focus is explained in reference to two key recent developments:
first, the ongoing evolution of information and communication
technologies and media of representation that continue to present analysis
with questions familiar to the established modes of enquiry associated with
the “cultural turn” and second the political limitations of this “cultural turn”
that have become increasingly apparent in the wake of economic crises and
the critical work of theorists such as Badiou or Žižek. In taking up such issues
the book therefore offers a timely contribution. The contributions cut
across disciplines and touch on disparate topics, from detailed explorations
of cultural phenomena (examples include explorations of the negotiation of
political ideology amongst Taiwanese youth and the political implications of
an internet-based public sphere) to more methodological-theoretical discussions
of the contemporary intersections between culture and politics (addressing
issues raised by the work of Nietzsche, Foucault, Rancière and
post-Marxist currents of thought). To the credit of the editors, the introduction
and conclusion to the book somehow manage to thread all this together,
particularly through the inclusion of a “living conclusion” between two of
the contributors in the final chapter, where overarching themes and further
questions are skillfully brought out and addressed in the context of contemporary debates.
By exchanging ideas on questions such as “when is culture
political?”, the nature of the relationship between the global and local, the
place of ethics in the culture-politics nexus, and the emancipatory potential
of new media, the reader is given access to a dialogue that touches on some
of the dilemmas of contemporary theory and practice.
Unsurprisingly perhaps the book’s aim to grasp the nature of “the
nexus of twenty–first century culture and politics” ultimately proves to be
elusive, and the reader is also left with the feeling that this theme has been
stretched over what is after all a disparate collection of empirical and theoretical
studies. To raise the question of the nature of the relation between
culture and politics today requires some broader exploration of the historical
specificity of the way that culture is conceived and experienced in the first
place as related to the sphere of political contestation. There is little attention
within the book, to recall Tony Bennett’s Culture: A Reformer’s Science
(1998), to the historically mutable nature of the imbrication between
the cultural and political spheres and the limitations and opportunities that
the constitution of the “cultural” creates for theoretical intervention and political
action. Yúdice’s The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the
Global Era (2003) offers one example of a more sustained thematic investigation
into how the culture-politics nexus is coming to be defined under
neoliberal globalization, examining how cultural politics is being transformed
not only through developments in media and information communications
technologies, but also in their shifting relation to international technologies
of development, policy, trade, democratization and human rights.
Despite such limitations, it should be remembered that the book’s strength
lies in its interweaving of a collection of interdisciplinary exchanges and
conversations and this will undoubtedly offer nuggets of interest and sparks
of inspiration to those working in this field.