Michael Kimmelman, one of my favorite critics, has been
adrift lately. He was once an adventuresome art critic for the New York Times,
but the next thing I knew he was poking around a DVD market in Gaza. A few
years later and he has found a defining theme for his criticism once again. His
central subject is now global culture and its discontents. He writes,
The integration of markets and the Internet have certainly
brought billions of people into closer contact. Everybody has access to the
same American movies and music now, and not just American, also Indian,
Romanian, South African and Chinese. But far from succumbing to some devouring
juggernaut, culture — and Europe, with its different communities and nations
living cheek by jowl, is a Petri dish to prove the point — has only atomized
lately as a consequence of the very same globalizing forces that purportedly
threaten to homogenize everything.
Henceforth the subject of his Abroad column will be people who make
“their own culture from the bricolage of global choices.” In Gaza,
for instance, people are forging an alternative culture out of Turkish soap
operas and Jennifer Lopez CDs. Only in a land ruled by Hamas could Jennifer
Lopez seem subversive, and that’s precisely Kimmelman’s point. American popular
culture isn’t the Walmart of world cultures anymore, or at least not all the
Kimmelman owes a debt to Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs.
McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World. And Kimmelman’s
theme also owes a lot to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Walter Benjamin
argued that the technologies of reproduction allowed ordinary people–the
masses for Benjamin, global consumers for Kimmelman–to appropriate formerly
distant and unique forms for their own purposes. When reproductive
technologies allow groups of people to resist hegemonic forces, the result can
be considered political and, therefore, interesting. However, as Benjamin’s
critics have pointed out, reproductive technologies aren’t always emancipatory
tools. Bricolages can reproduce the bad side, as it were, of their sources.
Sometimes, what they’re reproducing is the commodity form itself.
“Hell rages in the soul of the commodity,”
Benjamin once wrote. The challenge for Kimmelman, it seems to me, is to
distinguish what is truly new and creative from mere distraction. Are Turkish
soap operas a source for a genuinely localized culture, or are they
distractions from the tedium of life under Hamas? Kimmelman cites a product
designer from IKEA who shops the world as an example of a new cultural
possibility. But is he any different from Benjamin’s distracted spectator
skimming the surface of things?