Back to Left Curve no. 22 table of contents
Souvenirs, Music and Tourism as Appropriation, or Crispian Does the Magical Mystical Tour and Saves the World
White appropriations of African-American culture, sentimentalizing images of disappearing Native Americans, condescending caricatures of inscrutable Asians or hot-blooded Mexicans have a long and disreputable history... Their consequences are no less poisonous when well-intentioned... identification with otherness has become an essential element in the construction of whiteness (Lipsitz 1994:53).
In the early part of 1997, on MTV Europe, a young white male popstar stood outside a Hindu temple in India and looked into the camera to say: "Did you ever get the feeling you were in a Star Wars movie?" His comment on the project of filming in India was: "What happens here is about what you feel, you can't necessarily show that on camera." When filming local tribal musicians he explains: "This is the tribal stuff, everyone has a good heart and they put it into the music... they are just happy... them living their culture just seems completely natural." (Mills, MTV March 1997).
If our project is to argue for a transnational perspective, it is crucially important that it is not one which becomes the ideology of a new universalist liberalism.1 The transnational here cannot be merely some form of touristic culture appreciation society (slide-shows of the most boring kind imaginable, sanctified by the new editing facilities of documentary television and staged authenticity). Instead what must come to attention are the international networks and interrelations that are the co-ordinates of contemporary culture and politics, the integrations and disjunctures of the inter-state and inter-commercial systems, from the disproportionate distribution of benefit from production, to the concerted global effort to push through a new geo-media satellite hegemony via CNN etc. Within these processes tourism also has a place, since tourists are in large measure engaged in the very processes that bring the transnational to attention, but only as one kind of process amongst others such as migration, media, warfare, liberalisation, etc. (Appadurai's famous essay gives a useful code already).
This chapter is a reflection on the politics of music and travel which places theoretical and political concerns alongside the popular culture visibility of "Asia" in the work of white male "pop" groups like Kula Shaker. Clearly South Asian musical and cultural forms can be appropriated by global commercial interests even at the point of claims to "radical alternatives." Kula Shaker's lead singer, guitarist and poseur Crispian Mills, makes souvenirs of "real experiences, man" by meeting sadhus and priests at Indian temples and buying trinket versions of cosmic harmony, singing dirge-like cliché versions of devotional tunes while strumming his six-string guitar... Of course this souveniring of sound and culture is only possible on the basis of a long history of colonial power and theft (and nostalgia for that idealised exotic India - one that is other and which was resilient despite, or even because of, the British visitors). I also want to tie in the ways in which this nostalgia and souveniring travels now to the UK and Europe. Not just MTV, but the general population flocking to curry houses etc., dining out on twisted appropriations of colonialism brought here in new packets (the red hot fucking vindaloo as England's national dish2), the wearing of bindi-spots and nose-rings, world music festivals and the popularity of the new Asian dance music at fashionable nightclubs. This also follows the economic structure of the souvenir - exotica deliciously snapped up at cheap prices because the "tourists" won't pay full price/the workers and producers of the exotic are underpaid (both the cut-rate club prices and the low remuneration of the curry houses workers).
In this chapter, tourism is singled out for the very reason that the form exhibits the kinds of reification and appropriations that I would want to examine in other media as well - especially, for example, that of the importance of authenticity, the status of representation and the "authority" to report back (from the local to the transnational, wherever this "local" might be; as Thomas Reuter points out, the local is often a code-word for an attribution of unsophisticated or uncivilised status. The Balinese and Indonesian elites, in his example [Reuter 1997] are as "modern" as any on the planet). This chapter focuses upon the touristic practice of the popstar Crispian Mills, frontperson for the band Kula Shaker. Son of Hayley Mills, Hare Krishna devotee and film actress star of Disney's Pollyanna and much later Whistle Down the Wind, both his estranged father, Roy Boulting, and maternal grandfather, Sir John Mills, were also filmstars in their own right (Grandpa Mills won an Oscar for his role as the village idiot in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter). As a popstar, Crispian Mills is someone usually considered, in an admittedly voluminous, though some would say shallow, archive of writing, in a rather different sector of the cultural studies marketplace than that offered here. But in this case music cross-cuts travel and the media in ways that I find useful in an attempt to stitch and weave between usually separate but to my mind highly complimentary domains. At least from the transnationalist point of view of the critique I want to make, the processes and structures seem clearly part of a similar conjuncture of contemporary capitalism. What is also required for any adequate transnational cultural studies is a programmatic political context that goes beyond the too easy and too often comfortable cynicisms peddled about the place, and instead attempts to take up hard political questions about culture and to feed these into a transformatory project that is interested in changing the world for the better. Some may squirm at the recalcitrant optimism of this, but fashionable poses and pomo disguises for apathy are just that: fashion, and not even in the designer sense, but nowadays available at the cheapest and most mass-produced outlets. Instead of this ready-to-wear cultural cynicism, I want to attempt a reading of tourism, television and music in the domain of the political, or at least to begin to point out some of the ways in which this might proceed.
What is political about tourism? There is much that can be said here: largest global industry, massive infrastructural investment, astonishing integration of sectors, from transport and banking to building industry, book production and suntan oil manufacture, etc. A global apparatus. But tourism's most esoteric aspects are wholly political as well, be it the sun-seeking break from the rigours of work (the leisure industry as refuelling time for the clapped-out workers of the first world, serviced by the underpaid workers of the third) to the monumental romanticism of world domination, where Kaplan writes: "Imperialism has left its edifices and markers of itself the world over, and tourism seeks these markers out, whether they consist of actual monuments to field marshals or the altered economies of former colonies. Tourism, then, arises out of the economic disasters of other countries that make them 'affordable'." (Kaplan 1996:63). Donald Horne's description deserves repeating, where he saw tourism as walking among "monuments to the wreckage of Europe's greatest ambition - to rule the world."(Horne 1984:211) To speak of tourism then is to speak of the politics of those who conquer, and in this context it is important to listen with a degree of cynicism to the travel tales of megalomaniacs. We have long learnt that authentic histories are not told in the official histories.
In the search for authenticity it has become fairly commonplace to acknowledge that authenticity is a sham. Indeed, the more sophisticated poses available on the theory and tourist marketplace, not to mention in the popular music scene (consider the carefully crafted and annually remodelled identities of Bowie, Madonna or more recently the Spice Girls), is that the conscious recognition of the staged character of "authentic" per-formance does not compromise, but can in effect enhance, authenticity. Dean MacCannell, in an early work, called simply The Tourist, suggested that the search for authenticity is born of an anxiety in the face of the disorienting experience of capitalist modernity (MacCannell 1976:14). Dis-orienting or not, it has become more common now to note that such anxiety can also be repackaged and sold as touristic Mana. Among others, John Urry is probably the most prominent commentator on this complexity, with his notion of the "post-tourist" (for which, deservedly, he has been criticised for succumbing more to the need to coin new terms, than to the presentation of argument or content). Against this post-tourist sham-consciousness, the role of the souvenir, the photograph and the travel story has not lost, but rather has regained, status as a marker of authenticity. Seemingly impervious to the onslaught of deconstruction (as if deconstruction was only about destroying so as to find ultimate hidden truths or nothing at all), the souvenir gains, and the holder of the souvenir deploys, authority and authenticity. Once again, with a family similarity to the astonishing capacity of the commodity form to manifest in so many endless shapes and sizes, the global reach and interchangeability of the souvenir suggests an imperialist ambition. This, I will argue, is never more so the case as when Crispian goes to India.
First of all, the travel adventure with baba Crispian Mills, sage of all India. Another rerun, this time still more naff, of the old popstar-goes-to-see-the-gurus routine. Best of luck to the temple touts that manage to redistribute a few of the popstar's royalty monies; but in terms of influence, media visibility and contribution to international understanding and/or the flipside of this, prejudice, young Crispian's pronouncements are fundamentally dangerous.
India is the Ibiza of concepts - Crispian Mills, Kula Shaker
Now cool Kula Crispian's search for the alterity of Asia through music, like that trek of George Harrison thirty years ago, today means we could also be talking about "whiteness in crisis" here.3 I agree there is a crisis to be examined and that crucially the discussion needs to avoid a cul-de-sac of political options and self-indulgent brow-beating. Even leaving aside for the moment the anxieties and limited horizons of mainstream commercial actors, the political capability of the white Left, and the political role of popular culture, such approaches too often tends towards conservative introspection that alibis power. Discussion of such a crisis should go on in tandem with recognition of how such a crisis is only possible on the back of the old colonial game, how it posits a nostalgia for an imaginary India that wasn't plundered by British imperialism but which cannot ever really admit to that history, and so now warbles on - in song, from The Beatles to Loop Guru - about that cosmic temple tolerance. It's a kind of displacement we do need to look at.
If the desert was the white space inside the dark continent which provided another chance for the heroic European invention of self (Lawrence of Arabia through to Bertolucci's Sheltering Sky), then the populated, history-laden, olfactory, sensuous abundance of India for Crispian can be seen as another site of reinvention based on the power to do what you like to the planet - here, the reinvention of self by way of a lament and longing for what is missing inside. He has said, in what amounts to a commonplace Western backpacker truism about India, that "It's a place you go to when you are looking for something, and you will usually find it" and "that's what it's for, it's a place for changing your life." (Popview interview 1997). In this routine India becomes the biological/genetic/conceptual repository and archive for values, concepts, styles and "life-essences" that are considered absent in the individualistic "developed" West. As if India were not also subject to development, and as if loss (this feeling of inadequacy, or at best alienation) could be assuaged by yet another round of plunder and pilfering. This time the theft is spiritual, but yet again by way of gross miscomprehension. What seems perhaps at first to be "something completely different" becomes a comic parody of whatever degree of counter-establishment sentiment the notion of "alternative" might once have held. "Alternative" becomes just one, rather empty, safe and non-threatening, lifestyle choice among others, and ends up affirming only a return to the heyday of commerce and more of the same. Kula Shaker's psychedelic India is not even a substantial chance for the teenage ritual of rebellion anymore, not the pursuit of experimental mind-expanding chemical experience, nor wild creative forays into communal living, or even the licentious practice of multiple relationships and polyvalently perverse sexualities. What is on offer is a safe rehash of tame Victorian morality glitzed up in gaudy out-of-date fashions and third-rate replays of sounds better done elsewhere. Everything, it seems, can be taken and sold a second time around, but the more significant factor might be how this reveals a sense of cultural anxiety and collapse and an incapacity to do anything much about them, which is Crispian's wasp affliction. Rehearsing the parable of alienation and failing to see any scope for action to improve his lot at home, such a figure looks towards the (fantasy) horizon jealously - like the dumb bovine beast who scrambled over the fence to taste the same green grass on the other side - and can take no responsibility, has no ambition, no confidence and no capability to do anything but moan about the horrors of self-abuse and the end of the world. Crispian's mysticism is not some form of solidarity with the marginal, esoteric, or a minority religion, but is instead an opportunist cashing-in that steers dangerously close to support for a quite pernicious form of Hindutva right-wing cultural politics.4 Relativism and cultural sensitivity sometimes plays with such fire. Though there is not much danger of the Bharatiya Janata Party's electoral fortunes being furthered by support from this band, the effect of the anthropological gesture of relativist understanding without judgement is somewhat similar to the role played by ethnographers in revitalising Brahmanical ritual traditions without consideration of the context of a resurgent Hindu chauvinism and the contemporary political ascendancy of such groups. The selfish project of temple tourism played out by Crispian on the influential media circuits of satellite imperialism cannot be wholly separated from this political context.
The high-profile success of the teeny popstars brings access to public broadcasting opportunities rarely enjoyed by members of so-called minority religious sects. On the heals of the successful K album (discussed below) Crispian and an MTV film crew were packed off to India to explore the "Indian influences" of the band. Embarrassing travelogue this. In one scene a shyly blinking Crispian faces up to a Brahmin priest who mixes and applies red paste to the western boy's forehead. Crispian says he doesn't know why it's done or why the Brahmin says he needs it, but afterwards - well, after an edit cut away to Crispian on his own outside the temple - he explains it's a "third eye" and that it's the sun, just set, on his forehead. This astonishing process of moving from incomprehension to explanation, from letting something happen to explaining it to camera, from participation to observation (and dissemination to the MTV audience world-wide) is the structure of ethnographic storytelling and the way exotica is always coded and consumed, irrespective of local significance and context. Collecting cultural experiences and displaying them provides the pattern for inter-cultural engagement that relentlessly produces meaning and text (or videotape).
The violence of this appropriation is that an already violently marked scene (be it of the imperialist history which allows Crispian to be there in the first place, the authority of the camera which can go everywhere without even removing shoes, or the sinister echoes of communalism and the unacknowledged project of the Hindu right), becomes an object for consumption in a traffic of ideas barely understood. The bindi dot becomes a fashion item, and is recruited as an icon of display signifying experience, otherness and understanding at the very moment when it is none of these things. The spiritual souvenir here is just another example of the flexibility of market appropriation and the ongoing subsumption of all things in all corners of the globe - the capacity to find in even the most esoteric, aural or spiritual realms, material to enhance the sale of commodities; the plunder of such realms for profit means that the simple bindi dot is no longer innocent of power, whatever its originary significances. Crispian smiles.
This appropriation can only be presented as a moral directive. Crispian saves. By paying attention to the spiritual message in the music, the contemporary ills of the planet can be cured. Temporal distortions afflict, however, since this message is "timeless." No matter. He insists, irately to a journalist who asked him if all this India pose wasn't just a bit out of fashion and kitsch, that it's not seen "as incense burning, talking philosophy bollocks, it's always relevant, it always means something. India is the source of all, they hold a lot of secrets... We are in a civilisation about to destroy the planet. Everything is destroying itself... and so where is the rescue mission gonna come from... we have something to learn from India... it's just about keeping a door open in the back of your head... for some people it's just a fashion, but for others it"s timeless." (Popview interview 1997). The moral certainty is presented as instruction, the music is the message, the planet must be saved (this missionary zeal). Indeed, most of Kula Shaker's public relations repertoire is moral and ethical (Why, for example, does Crispian need to tell us he isn't into drugs anymore? How does he cope?). To understand the marketing of the band in this register it's important to remember that cure-alls for alienation and moral-epistemological crises have long been sold in mystic bottles. Call this the snake-skin-oil-medicine-man gambit of the cultural frontier.
Too many Bhang lassi's Crispian. Could it really be that he thinks mumbling conspiracy theories about an imminent apocalypse out of Asia is funny? Important by self-decree and Sony publicity, such amusing speculations from the youthful oracle of things-mystic are too sorry for words. The accusation that Kula Shaker are racists (Time Out) and "racist by ignorance" was always going to be controversial, however substantiated by actually and really offensive comments (Crispian says rap isn't music, its attitude; and so buys into the complaint rock-explanation routine of the right reactionaries). No matter how well intentioned and multicultural the lead singer and snappy dresser might claim to be with his studies of eastern scripture, the consequences of commercial appropriation and decontexted decorative aesthetics were always going to offend. His wasp middle-class ignorance confirmed on the album cover collage and in slide-shows at live gigs, which superimpose (the butcher of the Transvaal) Lord Kitchener over Radha, as well as in the imperial arrogance of already planning to play a turn of the century concert at the Great Pyramid of Cheops on 31 December 1999 (assuming the promised Armageddon that begins with conflict between Pakistan, India and China really will be solved by the saviour St George) - Crispian believes that England is a place of spiritualism destined to free the world.
The possibility that Crispian is covertly and dumbly rehearsing a kind of grand epic nostalgia for the days of the Raj can be taken seriously. Although for many of his generation, consciousness of family participation in the imperialist venture of England would not be prominent, when forced to consider the variety of likely connections, most can recall some immediate family link to the implementation of global political, economic and ideological power. For example, a grandfather who taught at a mission school on the Zambezi, a great-grandmother tending to the administration of a club in Shimla, a father or uncle in the forces during the war, and not demobbed in 1945, perhaps even participating in the pre and post-war anti-Communist police actions in South and Southeast Asia... Or, in Crispian's case, with thespian relatives in the ideological division, grandfather John portraying the heroic deeds of such likes as Horatio Kitchener (in the arguably mediocre film Young Winston). Further evidence for the unacknowledged but ever up-front persistence of colonial nostalgia is the reproductions on the Kula Shaker album cover, imitating the Fab Four and Sgt Pepper's, with a collage including Rudyard Kipling, Kitchener (towering imperiously over the image of Jomo Kenyatta) and Ben Kingsley (Attenborough's white Gandhi), with also JFK (perhaps this particular arch-imperialist balanced by Martin Luther King), as well as Clark Kent and Captain Kirk to remind us of contemporary US fantasy imperialisms (all K's, but tactfully no Klu Klux Klan, yet no KC and the Sunshine Band either. Old Beardo Uncle Karl is included as fashion statement, alongside Krushchev). Finally among others such as Boris Karloff and Katherine Hepburn, an image of Kali and the centre piece of Krishna and Radha (the only three non-Western representations of things Indian) confirms that orientalism thrives in the days of desktop publishing too, and although it might be a little hard-line to claim that the repressive nostalgia of this imperialism is structured into every cup of tea drunk in the British Isles (the teapot also features on the cover, K is for kettle - but I'd also add Khatam, the war word of the Naxalites in the foothills of Darjeeling, and the name of Manchester's South Asian club night), the possibility of underlining so many of these links does seem overwhelming. Salman Rushdie famously commented that the trouble with the British is that their history happened overseas and they remain unaware of it. I would argue that they are well aware, only that they are in severe denial.
Such denial has been repackaged for commercial gain by Kula Shaker and bands of their ilk. The representation of Indian mysticism by Crispian can be read as a kind of guilty rehearsal, parallel to the paradoxical - or hypocritical - structure of imperialist nostalgia recognised by Rosaldo: "A person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim." Rosaldo goes on with contemporary resonances: "In a more attenuated form, somebody deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to intervention. At one remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature. In any of its versions, imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of 'innocent yearning' both to capture people's imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination." (Rosaldo, Culture and Truth, 69-70). Kaplan, following Rosaldo and indeed quoting the same passage, adds that: "Imperialist nostalgia erases collective or personal responsibility, replacing accountability with powerful discursive practices (or in Crispian's case, tripped out loopy ones): the vanquished or vanished ones are eulogised (thereby represented) by the victors. Kaplan includes "the recent rash of 'Rajî nostalgia' as an example in a narrativising of the Euro-American past as 'another country'" (Kaplan, 1996:34), although her focus on history does not necessarily mean that the history that is denied here is so long past. Indeed, the India fantasised by the Raj and by Kula Shaker, however distorted, does still exist, is subject to ongoing participation in capitalist production, structural adjustment programmes, tourist and service industry expansion and so on and so on. Neither vanquished nor yet vanished, except in Crispian's complicated psycho-sexual pathology.
In some ways the notion of imperialist nostalgia requires flexible adaptation to the practice of those present day "mystics" who find that through the mechanisms of the tourism industry and telecommunications, that which is feared lost in the West (spiritualism, meaning, harmony) can be sought out in the temple trails of the subcontinent, and broadcast again. Another parallel denial process is necessary for this nostalgia to work - contemporary India must be completely ignored, kept off screen. The extent of this process is profound. Codified into budget travellers' experience of India from the word go - even the Lonely Planet set find Delhi to be only a starting point for travels to real India (credit due to Tony Wheeler, he wrote that "real India is on the trains" - positivist!). In the MTV special, Crispian repeats this denial of Delhi, adapting half-understood snippets of Vedic philosophy to sweep industrial development and urban culture aside as an illusion (if only it were true that years of imperial plunder were just so much Maya). There is another dimension to this temple tourism that can be read in the code of anxiety. The crisis of guilt for the brutality of colonialism alongside the lost honour and glory of strong Empire is resolved by Crispian's visit. On MTV, as global witness and tribunal, the white boy-knight can demonstrate that the temple was not desecrated, the traditional remains intact, the contemporary sensitivities of a caring sharing world sigh with relief that the violence of the past can now be safely ignored (along with the politics of the present - structural adjustment and Hindutva). If the temple was not desecrated, as evidenced by the presence of Crispian - and so all other western tourists - in that temple, then the horror stories of imperialism are erased as well. Hail Deliverer. This kind of nostalgia fits India up again as a site for consumption, a nostalgia directed at, and intrinsically part of, the politics of the present.
Kula Shaker plays at a struggling rerun of the psychedelic late 1960s because that was the last moment of excitement before the crisis really caught hold (yet even the '60s UK music scene fascination with an "otherworldly" India of peace and good vibes was in large part in denial of, and even counter to, a sharp and strident world-wide political movement - eclectic and disorganised in some ways, but with serious student politics and worker alliances in Chicago, Paris, Algeria, Japan). Today, the rules of retro '60s mean operating a tamed psychedelics without the counter-establishment threat (neither Crispian nor Clinton inhale these days). Looking for parallels with the era of Satanic Majesties, Sgt Peppers, Traffic, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis, Jim, Jimi and all those oldies who are now fit only for daytime television and glossy entertainment magazine history love themes, seems particularly bizarre given that the opportunity to extend the parallels to political issues is never taken. Whatever the tactical incoherence of the Situationist International at the Sorbonne in '68 or of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin's exuberant Youth International Party (Yippies) in Chicago, it was at least possible for the vehicle of music to convey concerns about Western imperialist aggression in Vietnam and racist exclusion and white supremacy at home. This is not matched in the rerun of the '60s sold to us today (what is Crispian's view on structural adjustment in India? On the bombing of Baghdad? On anti-Muslim sentiment in the media? On racist violence and murder on the streets of Britain? On import/export quotas? On Rajastani mirrorwork vests? On teenage love? On his favourite colour? His star-sign? pah...).What is more astonishing is the abject failure to recognise that the retread character (caricature) of the Kula Shaker sound is blind to the circumstances of its own production even at the point where it tries to claim some sort of heritage (in George Harrison, for wailing out loud). That K-S sitarism can place itself on the eastern end of British pop in full knowing ignorance of the myriad presence of Asian musics in the UK is not only naive. The wilful failure is of the Sony music-signed stars to recognise the full heritage of Asian musics in their own country at the very time when Sony was attempting to market those very musics (with the signing of Bally Sagoo and release of a sample double LP called Eastern Uprising) to capture a hitherto recognisably huge but decidedly not Sony-buying South Asian audience.
What does Kula Shaker know of music in Britain? They trace their interest in Asian music to white "innovators" (like Australia was "discovered" by Captain bloody Cook): The Byrds, the Incredible String Band, Donovan and later Quintessence (Shiva Jones), Magic Carpet (Clem Alford) and the Teardrop Explodes, right on up to Paul Weller's Parisian sitar experiments on "Wild Wood." Yet this is only the white Britpop side of British Asia (are Kula Shaker Britpop like Oasis? What does Oasis signify if not T. E. Lawrence's mirage desire for a green and pleasant island in an inhospitable desert?). There is much more going on in British music than the market hype of guitar bands. It would be plausible to think of groups like Cornershop, Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) as an avant-guard of a sound only now becoming saccharinised for commercial purposes in the Sony production sampler and in popular mixed club nights like Anoukha in London. This does not mean that outfits like Fun^Da^Mental and ADF have not also sought commercial success; but as much as the publicity machine cranked up around the Fun^Da^Mental videos produced for MTV, the Nation posse equally made efforts to use the media space, their time and energy, in projects like bringing Pakistani Qawaal Aziz Mian to British audiences, campaigning against the removal of Asylum rights from British law and against the draconian Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (see Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma 1996 and Hutnyk 1997). The political aspects of the so-called "Asian Underground" (or the New Asian Dance Music, or any other of the competing terminologies such as Asian Cool, Desi Sounds, Tantric Factory) are lost in the attempt by Sony to claim mainstream sales and in Kula Shaker's all-white historiography. Previous research (Banerji,1988 and Banerji and Baumann, 1993) has shown that the immense cassette market for Asian musics in Britain does not pass through the chart-relevant High Street music stores, but rather through local cornershop outlets. Hence, Malkit Singh or Bally Sagoo can move as much product as any of the major top-line acts, and this is never charted and often bootleg - yet the significance of this point is really only in the fact that Sony has woken up to the size of the market, but failed miserably to capture it. Sony's sampler attempt to break into this arena does include tracks by some of the best of the new Asian dance music practitioners, including ADF, Black Star Liner and respected Bengali outfit Joi, but the album's four sides fail to deliver a sense of the diversity and sophistication of the sounds, or of the political context. Instead, the liner notes read like the script of one of those awful package-curry dinner advertisements from the telly: "Cor blimey! Strike a light. By 'eck What the f**k is going on." [Sony's asterix]. "The embers of the empire shimmer like a distant blood-soaked sunset as
the urban subtopias of downtown blighty rumble to the rhythms of a brand new internationalism." The cover mocks a serious politics and instead proposes that the listener "take a stroll" (good old English pastime, this) through inner city Britain and you will be bombarded... The cab drivers are all clued up and glued down to Bhangra FM... BMW nightriders cruise the streets issuing menace with bruising drum'n'bass and the cornershops echo to the shrill syncopation of the Bollywood thrillers. This language is part fear of muggers and drug addicts; the respective code-words are menace and BMW nightriders (at one point the text refers to safe European streets), and part-orientalist romanticism: "the lustre, melodrama and breathless panorama of Asiatic culture and tradition... Top! Wicked! Safe! Who? Where? Why?" (Sony Corp 1997 Eastern Uprising: Dance Music from the Asian Underground Double LP)
The Sony text waxes lyrical and is perhaps not a total loss. Written most likely by more than one hand, it is possible to distinguish the "cor blimey" and "safe" citations from knowledgeable sentences about the scene in Brick Lane and the pernicious effects of boom and decline in British manufacturing and its ravenous need to chew up and then spit out the "legions of Norjawan." However, the unintended irony of a sentence that describes the music as the sound of a new breed of urban Asianite "Freed from the dead end of industrial employment, liberated from convention and able to juggle duality and pluralism with more skill that a pre-coke Maradonna" is striking. Can the Sony copywriters have intentionally been quoting Marx's famous passage about the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a sly commentary on the consequences of post-industrial Britain in decline? The allegory deserves close reading. In the Economic Notebooks of 1857 (The Grundrisse), Marx sets out his moment in a vivid, if abstracted, "sketch":
when the great English landowners dismissed their retainers, who had consumed with them the surplus produce of their land; when their tenant farmers drove out the small cottagers, etc., then a mass of living labour power was thrown on to the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense: free from the old client or bondage relationships and any obligatory services, and free also from all goods and chattels, from every objective and material form of being, free of all property [eine Masse, die in doppeltem Sinn frei war]. It was reduced either to the sale of its labour capacity or to beggary, vagabondage or robbery as its only source of income. History records that it tried the latter first, but was driven off this road and on to the narrow path which led to the labour market, by means of gallows, pillory and whip (Marx 1857/ 1987:431 my italics, trans from 1857/1974:406)
The goods that had previously been consumed by the feudal lords and their retainers, and the released produce of the land, are thrown on to the exchange market, as are those who would be henceforth known as labourers. That the sale of labour power must be instilled by discipline - the gallows, the workhouse, the prison (Michel Foucault's work on asylums, clinics, punishments etc., emerges here) - becomes the only choice. Even the poorhouses and their charity instil the discipline of work (only Dickens' Oliver dares ask for "more"). That this was conceived by Marx as part and parcel of capitalist development can be confirmed from other (re)writings of almost the same paragraph.
In Capital Marx returns more than once to this scene:
Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system (Marx 1867/1967:737)
Over and over Sony and Marx "free us from employment." One ironicaly, the other obscenely. The obscenity is from Sony, because here the way out of the ghetto is the old often-repeated trick/panacea of popstardom or forced wage slavery. That MTV and the music industry can market this lottery dream as a vehicle for selling ever more records (you can't actually be the popstar with the escape clause, but buy the album and you feel like it could be you) is no longer a surprising point. The trick is that we are free to endure this; we volunteer to be retold the improbable tale over and over, we walk willingly into the record store:
For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power (Marx 1867/1967:169)
That this too is no equal exchange, though it would seem that in the marketplace the capitalist offers a "fair" price - money for labour, wages, and that the entire history of reformist unions has been to ensure the "fair trade" of this exchange - is of course the biggest trick of capitalist appropriation, since the capitalist does not pay for every hour that the labourer works (nor for every cost of reproducing labour power). Here, at the crucial point of the labour theory of value, the expansion of the trick of the market is played out. This moment is exported universally. It would be worth reading the history of Asian labour in Britain as a variation on the dynamics of this market trick. Here I can draw upon the work of Virinder Kalra in his recently completed PhD dissertation at the University of Manchester6: disciplined by the inequities of the international division of labour, workers from the colonies are brought to the UK to work the mills in shifts. Irregular employment means they do not benefit from the welfare net of superannuation and pensions, and with the decline of the mills, they are freed into unemployment, taxi-driving (the Sony text again) and service work (kebab shops and the like (see Kalra, 1997).
Again, towards the end of Capital labourers are again "free" workers in a double sense:
The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale (Marx 1867/1967:714)
This was only a "sketch" (but the history of this expropriation is written "in letters of blood and fire" (Marx, 1867/1967:715). In a letter to the editors of the paper Otechestvennye Zapiski in the last years of his life, Marx warned that the chapter which set this out in the most detail (chapter xxvii) should not be "transformed" from a historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe to a "theory of the general coursefatally imposed upon all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed." (Marx, 1878 in Shanin 1983:136). Far too often the technical abstractions necessary in setting out Marx's Capital, which begins with commodities and expands in complexity to encompass trade, circulation of capital, rent etc., lead to orthodox fixities and dogma. Nevertheless, the general point of the expansion of the logic of market exchange can be illustrated thus and it makes sense to use it to understand the circumstances in which the politics of the Asian dance musics might be elided by a commercial outfit like Sony Corp.
There is little need to go further into the hagiographic mode of repeating Marx as oracle when we have Crispian. There are sufficient other examples - Felix Guattari: "it is clear that the third world does not really 'exchange' its labour and its riches for crates of Coca-Cola... It is aggressed and bled to death by the intrusion of dominant economies." (Guattari 1996:238). Harry Cleaver, summarising, quotes Marx pointing out that "the veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world." (in Cleaver 1979:76) [Marx adds a footnote to make it clear that he is talking about the global cotton trade (Marx 1867/1967:759-760), which again makes it relevant to link this section to Asian workers in British mills]. In any study of the ways colonialism "had to use force to make the indigenous populations accept the commodity form at all" (Cleaver 1979:77), the various examples would range from slavery and death to persuasion and, today, co-options of all kinds. Though it might not have been his (worthy) intention, and though the outcome is not guaranteed (Sony fails to market Bally Sagoo and they agree to "mutual separation"), the ambition of Kula Shaker belongs to the wider propensity of capital to always insist on being free to take whatever it chooses to market. This trick is nowadays articulated through the rhetoric of the "open market," the "level playing field" and "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay" (and equal access to the popstar dream for all) necessarily subservient to the master trope of the direct equivalence of exchange values mediated through the universal standard of the money form. Not everyone has the same resources to bring things to market, so what is it that enables Crispian to appropriate India as the "Ibiza of concepts" and take this booty to Sony for a multi-million deal, while the Sadhu and Brahmin custodians of the concepts barter bindi dots for rupees? The rough discipline of inequality and colonial (white) supremacy. Why is it that the trick of the market is not ready to play out for those South Asian practitioners in the UK such as Fun^Da^Mental, ADF or Punjabi MC, who have been working with community for many years without corporation support? Why does culture defer to Crispian's grasp? Cleaver lists "massacre, money taxes, or displacement to poor land" as the ways that capital dealt with resistance and refusal to be put to work, and I would add cultural appropriations and the repetitive drone of a Britpop monoculture that absorbs all into its pre-packaged grip. On the basis of this comes the "civilising" mission of the West, that would teach "backward" peoples the values of thrift, discipline, saving, and a snappy melody. In addition to this, I would want to read Sony's wayward attempt to capture the Asian music market from the cornershops and the bootleggers as an institutional instance of pretty much the same missionary zeal run aground once again on the rocks of the foreign.
Freedom in the double sense can also refer to the double bind of this trickery. Some are free of chattels and possessions, and may ever so freely choose when to sell their labour if they ever want to eat. Some, though, are free to travel the world in search of trinkets. The old colonial adventure is performed with Lord Kitchener as overseer. Capital drives hard to subsume pre-capitalist, non-capitalist (and even post-capitalist retro reruns) into its cannibalising orifice.7 The "free flow of ideas," the free operation of the market, the freedom train. In a mercifully brief psychedelic moment in their career The Rolling Stones sang: "I'm free, to do what I want, any old time." This arrogant freedom is now in crisis, but Britpop wants to defend it. Cor blimey. The posturing moralism, holier-than-thou spiritualism, and good-ethics-guide preachery of Crispian Mills is a still more zealous example of the same righteous sermon.
So when Sony and Kula Shaker present themselves as a "rediscovery" of the Asian sound and its crossover into popular music they manage to ignore the significance of political and musical histories that at the very same time they must acknowledge, but only to appropriate and convert, and this is nothing more than the operation of business-as-usual. It is still about wanting to rule the world.
The 1996 single Govinda is a dirge which hasCrispian singing semi-obscure devotional mumbo jumbo in Sanskrit. The accompanying video deploys a clichéd narrative of fire and brimstone followed by redemption, placing the band in the symbolic space of a monotheised Krishna. The versions of Krishna often deployed in western tourist versions of India rely on a translationof three major Indian deities into a Christian-style triumvirate which then allocates Krishna a Jesus-like position. The popularity of cartoon versions of this part of the Mahabharata among travellers has been documented (Hutnyk 1996) and is especially appealing to those of the banana-pancake trail backpacker-bhang-lassi set where Krishna seems to bestow a psychedelic experience on his follower Arjuna. This popularity was repackaged on a Kula Shaker CD release (Hey Dude) which featured the dulcet tones of Crispian reading from the Mahabharata.
How such "translations" and associations appeal to backpackers can be clearly heard in the Kula Shaker repackaging of souvenired knick-knack mysticism in tracks like Tattva and Govinda; but when, in the MTV travelogue, Crispian was faced with an unscheduled performance at a conveniently "found" Hindu party at a Roadside Hotel stop, the most uncomfortable and awkward moment of "intercultural relations" is shown in full glorious colour. The mix of popstar prima donna and nervous pre-stage appearance tension, the embarrassing, halting, jangling, acoustic and discordant - though mercifully short - performance, and the attempt to authorise this difficult moment as the culmination of Crispian's India pilgrimage only underlines the hypocrisy. The disturbing image of consumable India presented to audiences in this version at least has the merit of being too naff for most viewers and fans to swallow whole - though it may be feared that anything about India is so unknown to European audiences that even this could be somehow taken as representative of a real and available India. The only image that conveys the possibility that there is also a political domain in India is a split second still of a red protest banner declaring "Coke-Pepsi Quit India," but you need a dextrous hand on the pause button to read it. Music industry reception of the band has in large measure been sceptical,8 but tourist package promotionals on MTV travel far. Sales suggest something big is going on in the marketplace; and in any case, any degree of scepticism and cynicism from the music press (or academic commentators) is insufficient to undo the ideological stereotyping achieved by the new media orientalisms that Kula Shaker and Sony Corp are able to deploy. The post-tourist, post-guru, post-psychedelic revival has the air of sanctimonious and righteous truth.
In the end we are left with an apocalyptic vision of a scary alternative universe: what should we make of Crispian's interest in Arthurian legends, his St George English flag pasted onto his guitar (ironically?) alongside the Sanskrit Om. The sort of eulogy for the Empire that display of this flag evokes is here conjoined with nostalgia for the East (as a career?), as if a different outcome to the Raj can be imagined into being through Crispian's mystical trip. If the quest had been taken on by a spiritualised knight such as St George instead of Viceroy Mountbatten, perhaps glory and honour would have been preserved (and Britain might still dominate the world). Admittedly, this sort of exoticisation/trinketisation and marketing of others continues among all sortsof progressives, not just Crispian. Consider Zapatismo, the possibility of purchasing SubComandante cigarette lighters at conferences in Spain while the Mexican military rounds ever more heavily upon the internationally celebrated rebels. In the "free" world, those with leisure have the time and technical, material capacity to head off to India to shop, sample the sites, and nod along to the sounds of Goa trance (nothing to do with Goa) and Govinda dance mixes. Trinket trinket sound-bites souvenired and shown off as displaced baubles in an ongoing Raj powerplay. The sitar sound and temple touring philosophy are the knick-knacks of a struggle to retain Empire.
Can the Subaltern Dance? I know this is a conceit, Crispian is no subaltern, but in the post-Empire the struggle to retain a faded glory now appears as a parody of the old psychedelic appropriations. Of course the serious side of this is the Sony Empire that finds contingent convenience in marketing this nostalgia (since it can't yet find the code to market Asian musics to Asians). But can Crispian keep to a different beat, or will the Mosley and Thatcher anxiety of swamping require a reversal back to orthodox Fortress Oasis Britpop? So much of cultural life in the UK today is South Asian (it is no longer just a joke that the national dish is curry; the immigration departments, medical, dental and pharmaceutical industries are staffed by South Asians, the legal profession too, and the sound in the clubs is Jungle, Soul, Hip-hop and Bhangra - though never noticed in academia, parliament or the upper echelon corporate boardrooms of industry), so much so that the inevitability of marketing incursions into South Asian cultural production for general sale can only mean further Sony forays into the zone. The backlash will not be long coming, but the logic of the market undermines this too. The issue is not whether Britain can be Asianised, but whether Sony can. And here there is space for a cultural politics. Hegemonic, institutional in all significant class, gender, race and socio-economic categories, Anglo-Saxon dominance remains; but it has done so increasingly only on the basis of nostalgia (both Britpop and Kula Shaker trade on the '60s revival, white flight glosses urban abandon as a return to old rural values). Dining out still on the benefits of empire, dining out in the curry corridor (Rusholme, Manchester; Drummond St, London) as the last feast of colonial power. Eat up, Crispian, desert is on its way.
1. The project of a transnational cultural studies correlates dangerously close to the market niche agendas of the media empires of Murdoch, Time/Warner and MTV. The notion of a shared "electronic community" celebrated by audience studies "ethnographers" like Ien Ang (1996) fits all too neatly with the target audiences of specialised satellite television provision and the theoretical arabesques of "diasporic" cultural studies personnel, such as James Clifford and even Paul Gilroy. The transnational does not mean the economics of the capitalist nation has gone away; rather, insofar as it may have been displaced to some degree by new cross-border markets, the nation-like economic and demographic scope of these markets remains the same. No, the nation has not disappeared, it's just become a cross-border frequency and a corporate sponsored timeslot.
2. See Koushik and Parlha Bererjea as well as Koushik Barejea and Jatirder Barn in Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma, 1996.
3. The formulation here was originally written in discussion with Ashwani Sharma. Thanks, Ash. See his forthcoming article in Theory, Culture and Society special issue on Transnational Music Production. Further aspects of this are discussed in the forthcoming volume: TravelWorlds: Culture Vultures, Value and Violence, edited by Raminder Kaur and myself, for Zed books, London. The current paper will also be included there.
4. Hindutva, especially in its Mumbai Shiv Sena form under Bal Thackaray, has been explained as a consequence of Hindu nationalism mixed with "casino capitalist" black market speculation and Green Revolution pay-offs enjoyed by the landed Marathi elites. There may be resources within Hinduisms that would not lead to support for the far right, but ignorant participation in the "natural" celebration of Brahminical and fascist Hindutva populism by white pop stars cannot pass unacknowledged.
5. Also: "They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as "voluntary" criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed." (Marx 1867/1967:734).
6. It is work like Kalraís that Featherstone has in mind when he writes: "One could envisage a... book on cotton which would focus upon the relations between Manchester capitalism and imperialist presence in the Indian and other colonies. He interestingly continues: "we should add that this and similar topics (chocolate, tea, etc.) are being addressed as student projects on cultural studies and communications courses." (Featherstone 1995:156). Indeed, it is non-tenured and sessional Asian researchers who have been teaching such courses; the absence of full-time employment opportunities for Black academics ensures the citation remains anonymous.
7. Of course subsumption arguments cannot be simply stated and left as self-explanatory guardians of what goes down. Complicated processes of co-option, recruitment of comprador classes, hegemonic cultural and political struggle and the myriad local variations that anthropologists love to point out would need to be accounted for in any comprehensive study. It is sufficient here to note that good, worthy, zealous dim Crispian has been sequestered by the ideological division of such processes, aware of it or not (indeed, if he were "taking a piss" it would be less offensive, but unfortunately the "seriousness" with which Kula Shaker take themselves is never ever shaken).
8. Especially over Crispian's comments about the swastika. In an astonishing response to one journalist's reporting of the controversy, Crispian offered a long letter, subsequently posted on the Sony www page, which in part reads: "I have travelled to India many times and have been influenced greatly by its people and philosophy, especially that of Bhakti or devotional love. It is my love of Indian culture, and its artistry, music, rich iconography and symbols that prompted my comments in the NME. My comments were not in any way a support of the crimes that are symbolised by the Nazis' use of the swastika... I apologise to those who have been offended by my comment and humbly ask that they accept that I am completely against the Nazis... Lately I have considered how confusing some of the things I have said appear, especially when they are taken as sound bites and, on occasion, out of context. Communication seems challenging at the best of times, and I now appreciate that my bundling of themes like the Grail, Knights Templars and Hinduism has not done much in the way of helping deep understanding. You are correct when you comment on my 'complicated and intriguing mystical worldview' saying that you, 'find it hard to understand in simple terms' the co-mingling of all these ideas. I think the only way one can reconcile their relationship (if indeed one accepts that there is one), is if one looks at them from a mystical or spiritual point of view. There are of course lines of thought that suggest how eastern ideas made their way to the west, especially via the Crusades, but it is true that for the most part they do not have a currency in modern thought. Thus in essence, the co-mingling is largely a personal expression of a desire to know and understand the deeper secrets of a spiritual or inner life. From the little that I know or understand, I see that somehow similar themes appear in different cultures and settings. ... I appreciate that my own special mix of themes is at best eccentric."(Crispian Mills, letter to Mr Kalman, The Independent, 17 April 1997. Full text: http://www.music.sony.com/Music/ArtistInfo/KulaShaker/reviews/inde_fax.html)
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