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Crystal Bartolovich, Benjamin's Moor

Crystal Bartolovich, Benjamin's Moor

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N
igerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare has made a career of cultural mélange. His installations have featured staid Victorianinteriors reupholstered and repapered in shockingly brilliant “Afri-can” prints. He has likewise dressed Gainsborough’s “Mr. and Mrs.Andrews” (those smug symbols of private landed property andEnglish respectability), along with numerous other historical, futur-istic, and contemporary
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gures, in purposefully outlandish fabrics(often rendering the overall effect of the tableaus more unsettling by beheading the mannequins as well). He emphasizes that the tex-tiles his work evocatively deploys represent a far-
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ung geography:Indonesian batik techniques were appropriated by Dutch traders andtaken over in turn by English manufacturers, who shipped the brightly colored fabrics to colonial markets in Africa, where theyhave since become markers of “authentic” African identity. Of his
Cultural Critique 52—Fall 2002—Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of Minnesota
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE INAN IMPERIAL
WELTSTADT 
THE CASE OF BENJAMIN’S MOOR
Crystal Bartolovich
[Southwest Africa] must be inhabited by white colonists. Therefore the nativesmust
disappear
or rather put themselves at the disposal of the whites, orretire into the reserves that are set apart for them.
—Evans Lewin,
Germans and AfricaWe cannot draw closed the net [of capitalism] in which we are caught. Lateron, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it.
—Walter Benjamin,
“Capitalism as Religion”[T]he traces of imperialism can be detected in Western modernism, and areindeed constitutive of it; but we must not look for them in the obvious places.
—Fredric Jameson,
“Modernism and Imperialism”
 
own “return” of these fabrics to Europe, Shonibare muses: “by mak-ing hybrid clothes, I collapse the idea of a European dichotomyagainst an African one. It becomes dif 
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cult to work out where theopposites are. There is no way you can work out the precise nation-ality of my dresses, because they do not have one” (Waxman, 36).Although Shonibare tends to read his own work consistently in thisculturalist way, as a critique of authenticity and as an evocation of identity crises in a globalizing world, it is nonetheless possible tosee his vibrant fashion statements and satiric interiors as exposingsimultaneously a political-economic “unintentional truth” in which a“dichotomy” is far more evident: the (occluded) reliance of Europeanwealth on imperial control of global trade, which literally put clotheson the backs and furnished the houses of European elites in the colo-nial period, and continues to underwrite global inequalities today.
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Economist
magazine—hardly a left-wing publication—recentlyenumerated some of the metropolitan strategies that reinforce globalstructural inequality in relation to Africa, confessing:
The World Bank reckons that, if North America, Europe and Japanwere to eliminate all barriers to imports from sub-Saharan Africa, theregion’s exports would rise by 14%, an annual increase worth about $2.5 billion. Another calculation shows that developed countries’ farm sub-sidies amount to over $360 billion a year, some $30 billion more thanAfrica’s entire GDP. And while the prices of rich countries’ exports have been rising, those of Africa’s primary products have, on average, beenfalling (by 25% in 1997–99). Nor has the rich world always been at painsto promote good government in Africa. During the cold war, it washappy to
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ght its wars through African proxies, to prop up corruptregimes and sell them weapons with which to suppress their subjectsand swell their foreign debt. Partly as a result, that debt has been crush-ing for Africa: several countries have been spending more on servicepayments than on education and health. Meanwhile the aid that helpedto assuage western consciences has often been tied to western exports.(“Africa’s Elusive Dawn,” 17)
When confronted with such political-economic realities (and theseare merely the tip of the iceberg, being limited to mainstream econo-mists’ understandings of what matters), any suggestion that it is“dif 
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cult to work out where the opposites are” starts to look suspect.
CRYSTAL BARTOLOVICH
168
 
The point here is not to suggest that Shonibare’s intended critiques of  binaries in order to combat racism are irrelevant, but rather that theyhave swept the metropolitan critical
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eld (where Shonibare has beentaken up quite alacritously) so decisively that attention to speci
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chistorical conditions that serve to anchor and privilege certain geo-political (or even local social) relations often go by the wayside.However salutary poststructuralism has been in making theoret-ical room for
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uidity and hybridity, then, it still behooves us toremember that Britain would never have become “itself” withoutimperialism. As Raymond Williams has put it in the course of hismonumental
The Country and the City
: “what was happening in ... themetropolitan economy, determined and was determined by whatwas made to happen in ... the vast regions beyond it, in other peo-ple’s lands” (279). Recognizing de
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nite dominators and dominatedin this way provides a rationale for reparations and redress that areotherwise obscured by what Cynthia Enloe has called the “politics of invisibility,” in which the fundamental assumptions and practices of capitalism, abetted by everyday habits of consumption, ignorance,and averted eyes in the metropole, enable miserable working con-ditions, poverty wages, unequal trade and the reproduction andmanipulation of gender and racial hierarchies (149). Thus, in Enloe’sview, reading our way beyond the world according to transnationalcorporations and their governmental and cultural support systemsdemands that we recognize that there is actual “blame, credit andresponsibility to apportion” for the current state of the world, and,most important, that if this world has been made to serve certaininterests, it can be unmade: “it becomes possible to imagine alterna-tives” (3). The work of imagining alternatives to capitalism is, how-ever, hampered when potentially devastating critiques (such asShonibare’s installations) are tamed by reinscription into more palat-able narratives, such that identity crisis displaces domination and theendless play of signi
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ers elbows exploitation from view.
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Against sucha dynamic, this essay, taking Walter Benjamin’s
Berliner Chronik
as itsfocus, asserts that his critique of the “phantasmagoria”
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—or dehistori-cizing mythos—of capitalism in his later work, as well as the readingstrategies he proposed to resist its allure, remain relevant to the taskof anticapitalist struggle (which must necessarily be anti-imperialist
FIGURING THE (IN)VISIBLE IN AN IMPERIAL
WELTSTADT 
169

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