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The Three Nexal registers: Identity, peripheral cultural industry, alternative cultures

Nikola Janović and Rastko Močnik

11.6. The nexus as camera obscura

Our reflection upon the socially productive effects of the nexus starts from an intuitive observation that, in certain cases, the nexus works as an operator of inversion. Certain cultural genres, and quite dramatically the "turbo folk" music, seem to change their social "character" when moving from the country of their “origin” to “other” countries. The very use of an expression like "origin" in this connection indicates a theoretical insufficiency. As it may be expected, this music and the culture that develops around it, have the status of a “low” culture in opposition to the “high” culture. More surprisingly, and also more relevantly, the “newly composed folk music” and its presumed sub-category the “turbo folk”, are, in their “home countries” regularly an object of strong negative emotional reactions by the amateurs of certain (“alternative”) other genres of the “low”, or “mass” or “industrial”, cultural forms. When displaced, though, the "newly composed music", while firmly asserting its grip upon its standard audience, recruits, in addition, new fans from the very groups whose socio-cultural parameters (class and “taste”) would classify them among its opponents in the “home” countries.

This phenomenon of “inversion” can be expressed in purely musical terms: while, in the “home” country, “newly composed folk” is incompatible with the “alternative” musical genres, this is not the case when it operates under the nexus conditions. We should immediately add two caveats. On the one side, we should dispense with the terms such as “home”, “native” and the like; in the sequel, we will try to develop a frame which could explain the “native”-effect. On the other side, we should be wary not to ascribe any automatic consequences to the nexus situation. We will assume that the nexus context only offers a possibility which, to become reality, needs the intervention of some other factor still to be defined.

Two further field observations seem to indicate where to look for the supplementary condition. One is the popularity of the “Balkan” music at the alternative locations or, more generally, within the context of socio-politically oriented or committed art/culture. The other is the observation that phenomena of multiculturalism, syncretism, et cetera most often emerge (or even exclusively happen) within the so-called “low” cultures.

Since the two oppositions – “high vs. low” and “arts-oriented vs. socio-politically committed” – do not really coincide, we need to enrich our scheme. The needed complication of the scheme seems to be provided by a further observation that has imposed itself during our field research: it is the “socially committed” or, for the lack of a better word, “civic”XXXIV cultural practices and the “commercial” cultural production that practice and promote “trans-” or “multi-culturality”. Although opposed in many ways, “civic” (or “socially committed”) and “commercial” cultural practices fall together under this particular aspect. To account for this analogy in the socio-cultural impact of the two otherwise opposed cultures, we will first collate the two oppositions “high/low” and “civic/commercial”, by classifying “civic” and “commercial” together under the “low” culture. As a second step in schematising, we will connect the two opposed levels of “high” and “low” cultures by conceiving the “commercial” “low” culture as a projection of the “arts-oriented” “high” cultural practices upon the “lower” level. And, in fact, “commercial” mass-production can be regarded as “doubly articulated”: on the one side, it is a “low” version of the dominant “high” culture – while, on the other side, as a type of the “low” production, it is opposed as “populist” to the “civic-committed-politicised” popular production.

 HIGH  

LOW

arts-oriented

COMMERCIAL

 populist

ALTERNATIVE

popular

Scheme 11.3 Typology of cultural production

Under the domination of the “canonical” or “normative” aesthetics, practices that enact it and products that embody it are considered to be “artistic”. Consequently, arts-oriented cultural production is considered to be “high”, and is opposed to the “low” types of production. While the “high” culture is (to a certain degree still) intimately linked to the state, and acts as its agent in  “civil society” through various ideological state-apparatuses, both commercial and “civic” cultural productions are firmly situated within  “civil society”: they are free productions/consumptions of concrete individuals caught within concrete and heterogeneous “real” social relations. Within the “low” cultures of the “civil society”, a class-struggle is being fought between the dominant (mainstream) cultural production represented by the “commercial” sphere, and the subaltern practices of the “civic”, socially committed and politicised cultures.

As “commercial” and “civic” are extrinsic categories, we will reformulate the opposition within the “low” cultural sphere in intrinsic terms. Since our material is music, the distinctive criterion should be purely musical. One of the features of the “low” cultures in general is their capacity to incorporate, or maybe even their propensity to import, patterns from other genres, types, formulations. The selection of the imported elements can accordingly indicate where to locate a particular musical practice. Certain practices will import elements from the dominant aesthetic canon, for example , from the bel canto tradition: in this case, the result is pop-music in the manner of a Severina.XXXV Others will prefer to incorporate elements from the globally dominant musical industries, such as disco or  techno music: the result will be turbo folk à la Jelena Karleuša.XXXVI In both those cases, the operation would be the projection of a dominant aesthetics onto the sphere of subaltern cultural production. Alternatively, a “low” or subaltern production can import elements from the jazz tradition, as Šaban BajramovićXXXVII now does: since jazz can be styled as itself originating in cultural practices of resistance, such an import would situate the subaltern practice on the “socially responsible” or “civic” or “alternative” side of the “low” culture.

A direct transfer of a dominant pattern upon the level of the “low” culture thus yields a “commercial” or “populist” product (sweet pop or turbo-folk). On the other hand, transactions among subaltern, resistant and other formulations result in popular or “socially responsible” music. The opposition between the two poles of “low” cultures arises from their opposed relations to “high” culture. In other words, “low” cultural practices are the scene of a cultural class struggle between the dominant canon and other types of aesthetics, under the domination of the dominant types of aesthetics.

Combining the “high // low – populist / popular” scheme with our previous schematisation of cultural production according to the co-ordinates of orientation (culture- or profit-oriented) and domination (dominant or subaltern), we get a more suggestive scheme, into which we can easily add vectors of exchange: one-way exchange is “parasitic”, while two-way exchange is “reciprocal”. “High” cultural production is the dominant culture-oriented production that relies upon the state-intervention; “low” cultural productions are further distinguished between the dominant profit-oriented “global entertainment industries”, and the subaltern culture-oriented “alternative” production and the equally subaltern profit-oriented “peripheral cultural industries”

dominant

subaltern

 culture-oriented

 profit-oriented

 HIGH  

parasitism

LOW

GLOBAL

- parasitism -

- reciprocity -

ALTERNATIVE

PERIPHERAL

Scheme 11.4 Relations among types of cultural production

The two “populist” formulations, the dominant global pop and the subaltern peripheral turbo, relate to two different kinds of dominant aesthetics: pop is parasitic upon the “traditional high” (or should we say “bourgeois”?) aesthetics, while turbo draws on aesthetic resources of contemporary dominant global music industry. The two aesthetic ideologies belong to two different types of domination: the traditional one is secured by the ideological apparatuses of the state – while the contemporary one results from electronic technologies as articulated within the structures of neo-liberal global domination. It follows that the turbo, as a fusion of global electronic serial stereotypes and repetitive formulas of the local musical craftsmanship, is the authentic aesthetics of peripheral globalisation.

Since turbo is an aesthetisation, it is a form of reconciliation: it reconciles or "totalises", in an aesthetic whole, what, by itself, is a contradiction in itself: the relation of domination/subjection, a relation which cannot have the same aspect if looked upon from the side of domination or from the side of subjection. And yet, turbo not only offers a unified vision of this relation - it produces this reconciled unity and wholeness in a process of constructive fusion of the dominating and the dominated patterns. To the produced aesthetic whole, the dominated elements bring authenticity, while the dominating element contributes productive competence: the heart and the machine fuse in one and the same effusion.

It seems utterly impossible that such an aesthetic could in any way be turned towards a “subversive” efficacy. And yet, one can see that, the further one goes from the Balkans, the more the nexus affirms itself, the more the Balkan music in general, and also specifically its turbo variant, work in an emancipating mode.

To begin with, Balkan music in the nexus context forms a part of the “non-official” cultural scene and hence can be understood as a sort of “rebel” culture, besides the reggae and similar kinds of “politically incorrect” music. But this is only an indication, and not yet an explanation. Since the same music seems to function in exactly the opposite way in, say, Belgrade, one should be careful not mechanically to ascribe its capacity to assume an emancipating character to its “intrinsic” properties. On the other hand, though, it seems impossible to reflect upon the turbo in total abstraction from its immanent features. It even seems that the turbo depends upon its immanence in some strong sense of the expression. For, with turbo, it is not the syncretism that is specific – this is quite a general feature in contemporary musical production. What is specific to turbo is that here, syncretism has produced a new genre.

A commonsensical explanation would assume that this is the result of a strong folk-core around which crystallize the imported elements. This, indeed, is the way its critics classify turbo music: as a perverted sub-genre of the degenerate “newly composed folk music”. This may actually be how its split audiences, its “highbrow” critics and its “lowbrow” amateurs, in Belgrade hear it: unaware that they are listening to a genre in its own right. However, this complicity between the critics and the admirers may direct us towards an eventual structural trap operating in the situation where turbo functions as the “opium for the people”.

Most importantly, the “folk-core” in the turbo is a myth. Elements that function as “folkloristic” are themselves both syncretic and imported. One can easily notice a progressive tendency towards “self-exotisation” with “Orientalist” elements mostly taken from the Turkish music industry, which, in turn, is exploiting Central Asian, Middle-Eastern and North-African sources. But this process in the turbo occurs simultaneously with the opposite process of the increasing import from the global mainstream music industry. The pivotal axis around which the turbo is structuring itself seems to be the opposition “global vs. local”, where “global” is the dominating mainstream entertainment industry, and “local” is conceived in a wide meaning covering the East and the South of Mediterranean. Given the powerful presence of North African, that is, South Mediterranean, music in France and, actually, elsewhere in Europe, it does not make much sense to speak exclusively in geographical terms. We should adduce social criteria. One could then say that the turbo belongs to a musical genre of the oppressed and exploited classes of the three continents surrounding the Mediterranean basin. Hence its utter ambivalence.

We can now abandon our initial supposition that it must be the reception that makes the Balkan music rebellious. Reception can make it either way – and its structure (as par excellence epitomised by the turbo) is such as to lend itself to contradictory appropriations.

The decisive element seems to be the “reception context”. Individuals typically listen to different types of music, and different such “choice-packages” define different types of audiences. The “package” is a category of “taste” of culture, while the audience is a social category: together, they contribute to the making of a socio-cultural map. If a certain type of music tends to be embedded in a certain type of “choice-package”, then it will sooner or later establish a privileged link to a certain type of audience, the one defined by the “package”, by the scope of its preferred types of music. The more bi-univocal this link will be, the stronger will be the social connotation of the musical type in question, and the more it will effectively contribute, as a cultural practice, to the production and reproduction of its audience as a social group.

This seems to be the “trap” that makes for the specific interpretation of the Balkan music in “Belgrade”, that is outside the strictly nexus context: its audience has a narrow and rigid scope of “cultural choice”, mostly satisfying themselves with the “newly composed folk”. Correlatively, this audience is strongly defined as a social group by other, social, parameters, independent from their cultural profile as such: low income, labour-intensive employment in branches in crisis, settled in smaller towns and cities or in satellite conglomerations of large urban agglomerates. Being segregated from the “high” culture in many ways (low education, economic, symbolic and even physical obstacles to participation), this audience is confined to their narrow and rigid cultural “choices” – which, in turn, increases its social isolation as a “group”. We notice the familiar pattern of a self-enhancing socio-cultural vicious circle.XXXVIII

In this specific reception context, oppressively reproduced by social tensions, listeners are necessarily deaf for most of the play of syncretism, and spontaneously naturalise what they hear. They anchor their perception by what sounds familiar – that is, by the elements belonging to their scanty choice-package. The local subaltern aesthetics, or what is perceived as such, start operating as a “native” dimension, since they  serve as a "mediator" to digest the global sound of electronic aesthetics, and to learn how to enjoy it. The result is a joyful voluntary servitude.

In a nexus situation, groups with the same social characteristics are subjected to different types of social and cultural pressures. Even if their choice-package remains literally the same (i.e., has the same contents and is equally narrow), it is de-territorialised and, as a consequence, de-naturalised. Even if the folk-audience clings to their “original”, “identitary” choice-package, this package is forcefully contextualised. Even if the audience actively rejects the new context (which actually is not frequent) negative contextualisation still remains (and operates as) contextualisation.

Although the majority population usually perceives “immigrant” groups as “isolated”, their isolation needs strong qualification. To the very extent that they are an object of segregation and discrimination, they are forced to form supplementary social links and most often to reach beyond the group of their immediate fellows by kin, region of emigration, or “ethnicity”. With time, and certainly with the second generation, these networks, which, originally, may have just been a forced supplementation to a withdrawn sociality, become a surplus of social capital. By the same process, different “choice-packages” are drawn into contact, and formation of idiosyncratic cultural isolates is not at all possible.

Conversely, even to hypothesize the existence of an audience with an exclusively “MTV choice-package”, the nexus situation would affect them so as to open a possibility for them to appreciate the emancipating potential of “folk” music. (Whether this possibility is actualised is a matter of a further – political? – choice.) For such an audience, the mainstream pop and electronic sound would be familiar and normalised, and could serve as a guide to the unfamiliar folk-sound. It is via the global aesthetic that such a nexus audience learns to appreciate a distant local pattern. The result is that the distant local sound forces its way through the barrier of the oppressive global tumult of domination. The effect is one of solidarity with a distant resisting humanity.

In both limit-cases, the nexus works as an operator of ideological inversion, and of aesthetic transformation. If the ideological inversion is symmetrical and somewhat flat, this is not the case of the aesthetic dimension proper. In the case of the “MTV audience”, the nexus inversion challenges the normalised sound, and eventually makes it "strange", performing a genuine Verfremdungseffekt: in this way, it introduces an internal distance within the ideology of domination. In the case of the “folk-audience”, the “native” aesthetics can no more function in a naïve, falsely authenticist way in a nexus situation: it can only function as what undermines the normality of domination, that is, as something not-close, not-familiar, as something “strange”. Between the two kinds of estrangement, the specific emancipating effect of the de-territorialised turbo occurs: a genuine artistic effect, if anything of the sort, is still possible nowadays.

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