Interview with John Frow
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Summary: These interviews were conducted as a part of the Contested Commons/ Trespassing Publics conference organized by Sarai: CSDS and the Alternative Law Forum in January 2005.
John Frowis professor of English language and literature at the University of Melbourne. He has taught at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Queensland, and has published widely in the areas of cultural studies and literary history. He is the author of Time and Commodity culture
John Frow, University of Melbourne
In Conversation with Ravi Sundaram
RS: I'd like to begin by asking you to go back a bit, into the background of Australian cultural studies and the distinction you would draw from both the British and the North American movements.
JF:Australian cultural studies is a bit of a myth. It's a confluence of a number of different people: Meaghan Morris, Tony Bennett, Ian Hunter, Graeme Turner, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley, myself, working in the 1980s in Australia on what came to be identified as a common project, but which was never all that common... Some of us came from a Marxist background, some came from feminism and other activist movements. Australian cultural studies, like British cultural studies, always identified itself as politically oriented. And in Australia, one of the things that happened was that this discipline became increasingly interested in policy, in working with government and in trying to shape the way in which policy was directed. But it was actually a very diverse movement. I think what its members had in common was a set of energies rather than a content or methodological commonality. It's different from North American cultural studies in that it's not oriented towards identity politics: it had the kind of background in Marxist class analysis which made it a little bit more sophisticated in the way it thought of identity formations.
RS: This impetus to cultural policy seems to mark out Australian cultural studies. How do you think it would work in relationship to the state?
JF:I think it belonged to a particular moment, when a generation of former Marxists decided they had to rethink their relationship to the state, and when particularly the Labour government was closer to the intelligentsia. That moment lasted for about ten years. It collapsed as soon as a more conservative government came in, and our ties to policy formation were more or less broken. There's still a lot of work going on, between the intelligentsia and the bureaucracy, particularly in the area of culture...a lot of work around the so-called 'creative industries', at present. But it's less strong than it used to be. One of the interesting things about it is that it's been a model for other parts of the world. I've lived in Scotland most recently, and Australian cultural policy was very influential there, for how Scottish cultural policy should be formulated. And I know there are places in the US as well, at a fairly local level, where Australian cultural policy is a kind of model.
PM: What are the specific outcomes of this cultural policy? I'm asking this because in India we have had a particular relationship of the intelligentsia to the state, especially in the 1970s. It produced a whole range of things - film, the new wave etc., the education policy, the universities...a kind of state-backed avant garde, if you can call it that...
JF:That's true of Australia as well: the avant gardehas always had government support in the post-war period. The kind of movement I'm talking about had more specifically to do with the formulation of policy. It's not exactly that we were formulating policy, but rather that we had an input into rethinking the terms in which policy was cast. People like Tim Rowse and Tony Bennett had a lot to do with government rethinking where it put its money; asking the question whether it should be funding the elite cultural forms - the opera, the ballet - or whether it should be putting it into community arts groups, into a range of more diverse and popular activities. We were asking the questions, we did not necessarily have the answers. We were also lobbying and developing the arguments for more support for the arts, and we were trying to demonstrate the need for subsidies for information infrastructures. It was an important thing to do, and had economic results. The Australian film industry was in part generated by intellectuals like Philip Adams and Sylvia Lawson and Meaghan Morris persuading governments to fund a film industry, which for a while was very successful.
RS: One of the curious things about the past 40 years in India, which Prabhu raised in his question to you during the conference, is the proximity of progressive intellectuals to state institutions, and the formation of an elite discourse around these intellectuals. And it seems to me that what has happened, particularly after the 1990s with the emergence of the so-called new phase of globalisation, is that, first, the project went into crisis. Then the right came in and delegitimised that project, which was in itself highly arbitrary. This seems to be a global phenomenon... I'm wondering if we can mark the whole post-war nationalist/welfarist model of promoting the arts, promoting the intelligentsia. If we're moving away from this and moving towards more independent institutions, what would these sustainable entities look like? Where would cultural studies come in? It's a very difficult question, because you never had cultural studies in India, you had intellectuals promoting culture in the name of the state.
JF:I think what you say is right: there's been a global shift away from the close relationship between the intelligentsia and the state. The response to that among Australian cultural studies intellectuals has been, partly, a movement of withdrawal, back into more traditional academic pursuits. We've been, in a sense, debarred from our access to government. But there's also been a move into alternative areas. Some of us work not directly in the academy but in the interstices between the academy and other domains - in NGOs, in arts bureaucracies, or with Indigenous groups, or on fostering cultural relationships between Australia and Asia. One of the striking things within the past twenty years is that the intelligentsia has woken up to the fact that Australia is geographically situated within Asia, and that it is important to explore those ties. ...I don't know where we're going but its clear we're going but its clear we've moved away from where we were.
RS: When your 1997 book Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity came out - in my opinion, one of the more important documents of its time, and one that worked through a consistent series of arguments - it intimated a whole new conceptual and public debate, if you like, a series of debates. Today you gave an extremely bleak report card, both conceptual and historical, of where the public domain could take us. But you also left us with a utopian vision, in an almost Kantian sense, that the noumena intimates practices, and that's the only way out... I'm wondering if this bleakness is indicative of our time. How can we think of conflict today after the crisis of the contemporary liberal welfare state? If the classic 19th-century opposition was between the public realm and individual rights discourse - liberalism - which became the welfare state into the 20thcentury, how do we re-look at conflict today? Today you have new commercial networks that are not always consistent with historical property arrangements. These networks may be in conflict with the international regime - surely happening in front of our eyes - networks which give people access in bizarre and uncomfortable ways. Does it allow us a possibility of reflecting on that heritage? Then the situation may not look so bleak.
JF: I'm sorry if I did sound so bleak; and it's odd to be accused of being utopian at the same time...! What you say is absolutely true. One of the things I was trying to do in Time and Commodity Culture is to undermine the distinction between gift exchange and commodity exchange. I also want to undermine any sharp distinction between the public sector and the private sector, because, as you say, there are all sorts of institutions technically within the private sector, but which are nevertheless in conflict with other private sector institutions, conflict which may open up gateways for access to knowledge...There is conflict over control of knowledge within the private sector, as well as between the private sector and the public sector. In many ways, that opposition doesn't make much sense. One argument which economists make is that you can't make that distinction, insofar as private property is always served by public infrastructure.
JF: A piece of private land is made more valuable because there is a public road leading to it. So, while there is no clear and unproblematic distinction between the public and the private, there is a sharp distinction between the commons in information and those forms of information property that are exclusive and monopolistic; I tried to outline these in my presentation at this conference. These forms of property are dangerous, and becoming more so. In that sense I'm more pessimistic, simply because things have moved on in the decade since I wrote Time and Commodity Culture. The force of privatisation have become not just more extensive, but also more sure of themselves; they have captured virtually every government in the world. In that sense, it's much more difficult to formulate a politics of resistance. Also, in my presentation - and this is why I'm slightly surprised at being accused of utopianism - I did point to the range of diverse interest groups that have a stake in the public domain, have a stake in the non-privatisation of information. These groups include businessmen at every level, as well as teenagers downloading music, farmers, health insurance corporations, and so on...That set of diverse stakeholders is not unified, does not have a coherent platform.
RS: Do you think the future languages of the public domain refer to that 19th-century legacy and speak in its name? One of the senses I get, looking around, is that there are a lot of people entering this realm, who might want to enter the realm of property and the regime that you describe, but are denied space because the international arrangements today do not allow that. Perhaps in the sphere of 19th-century industrialisation there was a little bit of space for that, where the legal arrangements were not so fixed. Today, because of the tightness of the realm that you describe, the possibilities are extremely narrow. So you may have different contrasts emerging. For instance, in Delhi you have a lot of small industries being displaced in the name of controlling pollution. And you have a lot of industries - very small units - producing 'fake' goods, which are being attacked by companies. These products are not very different in quality from branded goods, and a lot of working people have access to them. I'm arguing for an expansion of the realm of conflict, if you like, and more people entering the realm. Then it becomes more interesting.
JF: Absolutely. It's a classic lesson of Marxism, isn't it, that capital eats capital. It never stops. There are very few companies in the world today that existed 20 years ago. They change constantly, they eat each other up, they disappear. Those struggles are intensifying because the world is becoming more complex; and these things happen for good and for bad.
PM: You make a wonderful argument about the gift and commodity, especially in relation to labour. In India and also largely in other parts of the world, you have what is called 'informalisation': i.e., modes of relationship that are not regulated, or so-called not regulated...
JF:We call it 'flexible'...
PM: Yes, the 'flexible'. This lack of regulation hinges on the idea that the state should not be present. State presence is a cost, and in order to reduce that cost, you should give more property to the poor - in effect, a proliferation of the property rights regime. I have always found this interesting: how is it that they want to give away trillion-dollar property to the poor, disperse it to stakeholders? The state has had a central role to play in the conceptualisation of these forms and the new regimes that are coming up. New in that they do not imply an absence of the state, but new forms of the ordering of people, new forms of regulation. Where do we go now?
PM: Do we ask for public regulation as distinct from state regulation? If we argue or demonstrate that the state is, in fact, continually producing informal regimes in its underbelly, supporting, using, creating these, then the reflex of most people would be to say, 'Look, we must hold on to the state, rely on it for the generating of regulatory mechanisms.' The other thing would be to look for - I don't know how accurate the term is - 'public regulation'. In India, 'state' and 'public' have not been sharply distinguished as categories. Is there a possibility now of thinking of the public as distinct from the state, and having regulatory functions? Do we call it 'community regulation'? I don't know. I would like to think of this in terms of a reordering, rather than in terms of the distinction between the state and market, where the argument is that reducing the presence of the state increases that of the market, and vice versa.
JF:It's possible to think in terms of informal regulatory structures. Legal regulatory structures have always been complemented by informal systems. The problem is that whenever you're dealing with labour relations, the question is who gets to enforce the informal regulation? Unless you've got, for example, very powerful unions, or some form of organisation that counters the power of the employer, I don't see any alternative to the state being required to regulate labour relations. You're talking about a relationship between the strong and the weak. The weak have to have some way of finding their rights, of not being too disempowered in the workplace, and only a formal legal regime can sustain those rights.
PM: Strange, it's only Australians who can see this - not even the English, though we had the same colonial regime - we in fact borrowed the labour regulatory regime from Australia, with the same argument: that we are actually protecting those who are relatively weak. But unlike Australia, which started out with a huge, powerful labour movement, India started out with a weak labour movement. And then it became segmented. Avast segment emerged underneath that. So you have a small, organised, but no longer effective labour movement, now dismantled on the ground. This issue of the state and the public crops up continuously in the realm of cultural property, intellectual property. How do you deal with this, how do you think of it in terms other than labour relations?
JF:If the 'public', in all its manifestations, is to be sustained and sustainable, it has to have structures that allow it to exist. Those structures are institutional, and they will be contested by powerful opponents. I think they have to have support - not necessarily from the state, other kinds too can be envisaged. If they have popular support, strong enough to get by without the state, that's terrific. The less we have to rely upon the state, the better. The Australian intellectuals that I'm close to are now much less cynical about the state - we see it as much less directly a tool of capitalism than we used to. We're still cynical, no doubt, but we regard the state as a contested site, a place where things can happen if you work hard enough and if you capture the ground.
PM: If the state is the main agency through which all the privatisation and informalisation is going on, how can the state be the opposite of these?
JF:States are not monolithic. Gramsci's concept of hegemony is a useful one, precisely because for Gramsci, state power always rests on the consent or agreement of the governed, on some minimal degree of agreement to the things the state is doing. But there are limits to how far the right can appropriate the state. In the US there don't seem to be many limits, but they are there, nonetheless.
RS: ...not even India...what happened in the past 10 years has been a series of shocks. You had an arbitrary structure of state patronage and the rightists came and used it to the hilt. That has raised a series of questions.
Thank you John.