anti-babel – sanjay sharma

Teaching Representation of Cultural Difference Through Film

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My chapter, ‘Teaching Representation of Cultural Difference Through Film’ appeared in the book Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School, London, New Press (2008) edited by Mica Pollack. The edited volume is intended for USA High School teachers.

Download article: Teaching Representation [pdf]

Written by sanjay sharma

26 Sep 10 at 10:52am

Posted in anti-racism, racism

Digitizing Race (Lisa Nakamura) – Review

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Book Review – Lisa Nakamura (2006) Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, London: Minnesota.

For those of you with a soft spot for the anthropomorphized cartoon dog surfing the Internet, Lisa Nakamura abolishes such nostalgia, and misunderstanding. Half way through Digitizing Race, she coolly declares  ‘…nobody believes anymore that on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog…’ (p.155). Interrogating the myth of online disembodiment, and the concomitant deceit of neoliberal colour-blindness is what essentially coheres this book. Contrary to the utopian readings of techno-culture, analyzing Internet space as a site of racial re-embodiment is at the heart of Nakamura’s project…

Read more at darkmatter Journal

Written by sanjay sharma

30 Mar 10 at 5:08pm

Posted in technology

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Multicultural Encounters

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Below is the text of the Preface of my book Multicultural Encounters. I have permission to publish the pre-copyedited version (so apologies for any typos, etc).

Note – to read the whole book, an industrious fan posted some links: new link (download PDF) link-1; link-2; link-3 (no idea how long these will remain valid)


mc-imageSanjay Sharma (2006) Multicultural Encounters, Palgrave Macmillan – reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

PREFACE (pages ix – xviii)

I don’t know why, the black people continue with the problems of hundreds of years ago, with huge chips on their shoulders. Having attended the lectures and read the readings, it is still not apparent to me, just what the underlying issues are, apart from being very emotional and why they are continued – but I am not black. (Student Essay)

How do we judge the efficacy of a multicultural pedagogy? The epigraph above was produced after a student had studied an undergraduate module concerned with ‘race’ and representation. It suggests that the anti-racist teaching goals of the module were far from realized. The response, from a white male student, appears to embody a ‘structure of feeling’ indifferent to appeasing a (‘minority’) lecturer. The student’s concluding comment “I am not black”, purports to indicate the inadequacy of his own identity for grasping the vestiges of racism. The specific reasons for his antipathy are undoubtedly over-determined by a multitude of racialized affects and practices, operating both inside/outside the teaching encounter. Nonetheless, as ‘cultural workers’ (Giroux, 1992), isn’t our aim to contend with this student’s entrenched racialized subjectivity? His troubling response exemplifies the pedagogic challenges and resistances of confronting ‘race’ and difference.

Notably, the im/possible goal of transforming a student’s subjectivity has figured cultural identity as the problematic for pedagogy. The politics of identity has been inseparable from the practice of pedagogy for multicultural and anti-racist education (Kincheloe and Steinberg, 1997). Yet, how have existing conceptualizations of identity impacted upon the praxis of critical multicultural pedagogies? How have they materialized an anti-racist ‘erotics’ of teaching? (hooks, 2003) Identity as originary, unified and predicated on a self-sustaining subject has undergone sustained philosophical and cultural critique. The de-centring of the sovereign subject has inured a critique of identity from which there appears to be no return. When Stuart Hall (1996) asked ‘who needs identity?’ his response continues to mark a terrain preoccupying those of us concerned with relations of culture, power and knowledge. Hall invokes the Derridian notion of ‘thinking at the limit’ – putting a concept ‘under erasure’. Thus, identity cannot be simply superseded with something better, because ‘…without which certain key questions cannot be thought at all’ (p.2). For Hall, the seemingly irreducible concept of identity arises in relation to the set of problems it has emerged from: ‘…its centrality to the question of agency and politics’ (p.2).

The persistence of identity is also echoed by Lawrence Grossberg (1996). He cautiously notes how the influence of post-colonial and critical race theory has led to ‘narrowly’ equating cultural studies with theories of the politics of identity and difference, while paradoxically the discipline itself has expanded its theoretical and spatial borders beyond these issues. Still though, for cultural studies, ‘…discussions of multiculturalism too quickly assume a necessary relation between identity and culture’ (p. 88). In questioning identity as the cardinal site of all political struggles, Grossberg turns to a reflection on the politics of black documentary practice by David Bailey and Hall, which is worth reproducing:

It is perfectly possible that what is politically progressive and opens up new discursive opportunities in the 1970s and 1970s can become a form of closure – and have repressive value – by the time it is installed as the dominant genre…It will run out of steam; […] people will use it not because it opens up anything but because they are being spoken by it, and that point, you need another shift. (Bailey and Hall, cited in Grossberg, 1996, pp. 87-8)

Bailey and Hall point to more than only the contextual, shifting nature of the political and pedagogical struggles over racialized representations. They intimate how regimes of power-knowledge may appropriate and neutralize the grounds upon which struggles over identity and representation are played out. It follows that identity needs to be relocated away from reductive, binaristic oppression/resistance models of power. This move requires rethinking agency.

Multicultural Encounters seeks to activate a shift from identity to agency for innovating a pedagogy of cultural difference. It questions why identity continues to be at the heart of multicultural and anti-racist educational approaches. Significant developments in multicultural pedagogy have taken place since the 1970s in the USA, Canada, Australia and UK for example. These have been in response to a (belated) recognition of the diversity of the nation in order to refashion a cultural citizenship. The ideologies of multiculturalism, and its educational conceptualization, implementation and practices of pedagogy have widely varied in different national contexts. Much of these developments though have been governed by an encroaching neo-liberal educational agenda, and a ‘…normative politics of cultural difference in the form of practical concerns for teachers and administrators.’ (Grant and Sachs, 1999, p. 89-90)

In opposition to this de-politicization of pedagogy, the emergence of a ‘critical multiculturalism’ (Sleeter and McLaren, 1995) and its dialogue with other inter-disciplinary fields of cultural, media and post-colonial studies is to be welcomed. Notably, the trajectory of identity remains the common ground of these fields of study in relation to their multicultural pedagogies, yet none have adequately examined their own praxis of representing difference. This book remains preoccupied with questions of identity, though in order to explore a pedagogic agency for living with difference. It grapples with the problem of teaching difference in the age of multicultural globalization by asking: What constitutes a ‘multicultural’ curriculum and pedagogy? How is the difference of ‘others’ conceived, represented and encountered in the supposedly radical pedagogies of cultural and media studies? The challenge is to develop an educational practice that eludes reifying cultural identity, by engaging the racialized ‘other’ outside a pedagogic encounter of idealization or domination. It necessitates questioning the logic of identity and representation as the only grounds for a critical multicultural pedagogy.

Teaching Difference

The problem of teaching difference should however, not just be considered in terms of its solution(s). ‘We are led to believe that problems are given ready-made, and they disappear in the responses or the solution’ (Deleuze, 1994, p. 158). Gilles Deleuze insists problems do not seek to uncover a solution and nor do solutions define or exhaustively capture the problem. Problems open up new ways of thinking differently; they can be ‘inventive’ and constitutive. Cultural identity as the normative site of agency for multicultural pedagogy is only one solution (adequate or otherwise) of many. Problematizing teaching difference thus can move away from thinking that encountering the ‘other’ or the mere inclusion of ‘other cultures’ engenders a multicultural curriculum and practice.

To encounter the ‘other’ begs a consideration of how Western regimes of knowledge and representation have incited and perpetuated states of domination. In tackling the specific problem of teaching difference, I draw on the critique of the foundational subject as ultimate ground of knowledge and action, whose universality has suppressed otherness (Falzon, 1998). Along the way this critique is influenced by the philosophical thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, (and more obliquely, Emanuel Levinas). Admittedly, the book is parasitic upon selective elements of their work and the reader should not expect a treatise on these thinkers or exhaustive explications of their ideas. The engagement is more tactical in order to mutate the ideas of these thinkers for my own ends. We need to recall that concepts for Deleuze and Guattari (1994) are invented to address specific problems – it is how we ‘put to use’ (Schrift, 1995) such concepts that determine their efficacy.

Deleuze and Guattari (1984; 1987), inspire what I would crudely label as ‘alter-representational’ conceptualizations of identity and difference. Their work far from possesses ready-made solutions to the problem of realizing a multicultural pedagogy, but it offers another means of working through questions of identity, representation and power for becoming otherwise – activating an alternative pedagogic agency. To construct their work as simply post-representational (as has become commonplace) fails to acknowledge the continuing force of identity and representation (Kawash, 1998). Increasingly fashionable Deleuzo-Guattarian concepts such as ‘rhizomes’, ‘multiplicities’, ‘becoming’, ‘lines of flight’ exhaustingly abound and proliferate in recent cultural critique. McKenzie Wark warns that the work of Deleuze especially ‘…lends itself to the trap of purely formal elaboration of the kind desired by the Anglo-American market particularly’ (Wark, 2004, fn. 7).

I also turn to the grounds of the ‘ethical’ as way of thinking through questions of encountering otherness for an alterity pedagogy. This turn should come as little surprise, as the ‘…decentring of the subject has brought about a recentring of the ethical’ (Garber et al., 2000, p. ix). A Levinasian inspired ethics (especially influenced by Derrida’s re-reading through considerations of justice) has found favour in the humanities (Biesta and Egéa-Kuehne, 2001; Zylinska, 2005). It is an ethics without foundations, devoid of moral prescription, rules or codes of conduct. Yet it offers a unique account of living with difference that resists charges of cultural relativism aimed at so-called anti-foundational ‘postmodern’ thought. Levinas (1981) begins from a position of a ‘responsibility’ towards the other, who cannot be reduced to ‘the same’. The primacy of the self is overturned in his account – there is always a response and obligation to the other before anything else (Nealon, 1998). The ‘other’ calls into question the same, rather than the other way around. A Levinasian perspective appears to offer a ‘non-conceptualization’ of the other as singular, ‘recognising’ its irreducible alterity outside of domination.

Mirroring a fervent celebration of Deleuze in cultural critique, a (re)turn to the ethical has generated a ‘Levinas effect’ (Johnson, 2000). And the (increasingly banal) exultation of difference, acknowledgement of otherness and incessant liberal invocations of respecting the other are not far behind. The ‘Levinas effect’ isn’t necessarily based on a mis-reading of Levinas, but has more to do with the turn to the ethical being appropriated as a turn to the ‘other’ as a lauded site of multicultural difference. The valorization of cultural difference (shifting identities, fragmented subjectivities and hybridities), in the age of global multicultural capitalism continues to haunt cultural studies. Judith Butler also worries that ‘the return to ethics has constituted an escape from politics’ (2000, p. 15). My somewhat equivocal encounter with Levinas, is driven by the concern that by denying politics there is no ethics for the ‘other’. Undoubtedly, it will be found wanting by those bent on pursuing the ethical as a sacred multicultural stomping ground of the ‘other’.

This book is not only concerned with making a theoretical intervention. The onerous task of realizing a practice of a pedagogy for alterity is also pursued. Hall’s (1983) claim that there is ‘no general pedagogy’ remains apposite, because a universal alterity pedagogy does not exist. Pedagogy needs to be conceptualized as a site-specific activity which responds to the conditions of its practice. Moreover, there is no general ‘other’ and its alterity refers to a specific social agent (Chapter 1). Consequentially, while a conceptual understanding of an ethical agency is presented, an alterity pedagogy is also outlined by offering a particular example of critical multicultural practice.

It is a pedagogy which is developed from already existing practices of cultural, media and film studies. While Deleuze urges us ‘to experiment’ (often exalted as an avant-garde activity by imperious Deleuzians), my efforts are far more modest, and firmly located within existing educational institutional settings. Moreover, I draw on texts of popular media culture which resonate with the everyday experiences of students. In the fields of cultural and media studies, the use of texts from popular culture for teaching about the relations of power and representation has become a significant activity (Buckingham and Sefton-Green, 1994; Giroux, 1994). Clearly, the use of ‘minority’ texts and cultural productions in teaching has endeavoured to examine complex issues of identity and difference. Writers such as Kobena Mercer (1994), Paul Willeman (1994) and Laura Marks (2000) have highlighted that the cultural politics of minority film creatively interrogate questions of otherness. Nevertheless, the use of manifestly popular minority film for a critical pedagogic practice has not been adequately scrutinized, especially in relation to a critical engagement with the ethics of difference. In this study, the work of British South-Asian British filmmakers has been utilized, and more specifically, films such as East Is East (1999) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) have been deployed for thinking through the practice of an alterity pedagogy.

The use of these types of popular texts is a fraught undertaking, however. While there appears to be a contemporary political recognition of multiculture, this has also been accompanied by an increasing commodification and fetishization of ethnic difference in neo-liberal democracies (Root, 1995; Chow, 1998). The reification of otherness makes a pedagogy for alterity a risky activity. To use ‘ethnically marked’ texts in teaching runs the danger that it inadvertently leads to further objectifications of otherness. But it is specifically this problem of teaching difference that I seek to addresses: how we can ethically encounter the representation of already racialized minorities in a pedagogic situation? The ‘other’ has been subject to contemporary forms of racialization in the spheres of public and popular culture. The challenge for an alterity pedagogy is encountering the ‘other’ outside of reductive categories of hegemonic knowledge and experience. It would be a relationship to the ‘other’ which resists reifying its identity, and instead enters into a productive ethical ‘alliance’. In other words, it is a pursuit of the im/possibility of engaging with otherness which compels an alterity pedagogy.

Structure of Book

Multicultural Encounters addresses the question of alterity and pedagogy in two related parts. Firstly, from an interrogation of the politics of identity and difference, and secondly, by attempting to develop a site-specific pedagogic practice for alterity.

Part I identifies three different ‘multicultural educational standpoints’ and their articulation of particular pedagogic practices that engage with cultural difference. These standpoints have been labelled as ‘identity, ‘border difference’ and ‘the other’, respectively. In the Introductory Chapter, both liberal multicultural and anti-racist pedagogies are discussed in terms of the first standpoint of ‘identity’. It involves developing an understanding of the contested idea of multiculturalism, especially in relation to the (essentialist) discourses of identity, culture and nationhood. This educational standpoint is considered lacking for an ethical pedagogy because it can reproduce many of the difficulties and closures associated with practices of identity politics more generally.

Chapter 2 goes on to interrogate educational standpoints of ‘border difference’ and ‘the other’. The second standpoint of difference advances an anti-essentialist critique of identity politics, and offers an inter-subjective account of identity formation (as an effect of difference). Its ‘critical multiculturalism’ recognises the need to rethink identity and culture in terms of hegemony and power, and this standpoint’s pedagogy advances a contemporary understanding of ‘border identities’ as ‘cultural hybridity’. While a pedagogy of border difference appears to be attractive, it is liable to objectify supposedly transgressive hybridities. As in the case of the first educational standpoint, it actually remains grounded on and limited by a logic of identity. Conceptually, the standpoint of border difference is bound by a dialectic of self/other identity relations predicated upon a negation or ‘lack’. That is, its inter-subjective notion of identity is unable to account for more than one identity-difference at a time (Nealon 1998).

The third standpoint of the ‘the other’ offers an alternative non-dialectical account of identity formation. There is a recognition of the relational nature of identity formation, though the agency of a subject is not conceptualized as a failure in the plenitude of identity as a lack (the self requiring the other in order to be ‘complete’), but in terms of the possibility of difference (alterity) in the production of identity. It is this constant process of the making and remaking of identity which allows subjectivity to be articulated otherwise. This performative understanding of identity draws on Grossberg’s (1993; 1994) move to dis-articulate cultural identity from a subjective agency that is not secured by a negation of otherness. Agency rather than identity is the practice of this pedagogy. A student’s agency is conceived in terms of mobilizing their ‘affective investments’ to an alternative set of places that may not be framed by existing cultural hegemonies. This argument is developed further via Jeffrey Nealon’s work of Alterity Politics (1998). Nealon, drawing on Levinas, stresses the ethical relation to otherness in terms of a site-specific performative subjectivity which is always responding to alterity. It is through the productive movement of ‘becoming-other’ that students have the possibility to ethically encounter alterity outside of a relation of appropriation or domination. In particular, this notion of an ethical performative subjectivity allows the possibility of pedagogically engaging white students from an anti-racist position that does not condemn whiteness.

In Chapter 3, the limitations of existing multicultural/anti-racist pedagogies founded upon rationalist assumptions and realist notions of curriculum knowledge are highlighted. The second educational standpoint of border difference supersedes such realist practices of ‘ideological demystification’ and focuses instead on the complex processes of meaning-production (signification) in the classroom. While this standpoint’s pedagogy offers a compelling mode of critical textual analysis for students, it is unable to engender an ethical encounter with the alterity of the other. There is a need to move beyond only asking about the meaning and ideological interpretation in the critical reading of a text. Instead, we can ask the celebrated Deleuzo-Guattarian question of ‘what does a text do?’ It involves considering how a text works as an assemblage in terms of its affective capacities, and how it may be pedagogically utilized for mobilizing (deterritorializing) students to other sites of ethical investment, productive places to move towards. In particular, popular media texts are significant because students are already invested in these texts, and the challenge would be to move them to other ethical ways of ‘knowing’ and encountering otherness. Such an ‘open-ended’ pedagogy aims to advance a reading praxis which encourages students to make ‘rhizomatic’ connections and linkages operating outside of existing hegemonic frameworks of racialized knowledge.

This reading praxis is developed in Part II of the book from the educational standpoint of a politics of the other. Chapter 4 is concerned with the need to grasp and ‘read’ the contemporary crisis of race in order to realize a critical multicultural praxis. Contemporary multiculturalism is driven by a global capitalism able to penetrate extant borders by increasingly commodifying and subsuming ethnic/racial differences and hybridities, while advancing a (cultural) racism of ‘differential inclusion’. Conceiving these operations of a neo-liberal multiculturalism is presented through the framework developed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000) in Empire. I argue that the universality of whiteness as an integrating force and assimilative power over other racialized differences is in crisis. The deconstruction of whiteness in crisis is a necessary point of departure for rethinking a critical multiculturalism and pedagogy.

Chapter 4 goes on to explore the problem of reading the crisis of race (whiteness) itself. I examine three sets of films, Menace II Society (1993), La Haine (1995) and The Matrix trilogy as a way of opening up an understanding towards how these popular texts are symptomatic of this crisis, rather than merely reflecting the contradictions of neo-liberal multiculturalism. This approach lays the groundwork for subsequent chapters by maintaining that reading a racialized text only in terms of its ideological meanings and signifying practices reduces the pedagogic encounter to one of competing or contestable interpretations. The ‘materialist’ contention (Montag 2003) of why such interpretations arise and what this obfuscates in our understanding of the hegemony of neo-liberal multiculturalism, are otherwise foreclosed.

The realization of an alterity pedagogy is pursued in Chapter 5 by exploring the cultural productions of Black (South Asian) film-makers. These cultural productions have been characterized as directly engaging the contested politics of difference and otherness (Hall, 1988; Mercer, 1994; Marks, 2000). While it is not claimed that these texts autonomously perform a radical pedagogy of alterity, they nevertheless can be tactically deployed as offering performative sites for encountering alterity. Moreover, much of the analysis of Black film has focussed on critical ‘avant-garde’ work rather than the more popular narrative based films, such as Bend It Like Beckham or East Is East. These types of films offer the possibility for opening up questions of cultural difference through demotic aesthetics and languages that readily resonate with students. However, the difficulty is that such films offer a recognizable set of representations of ‘Asian culture’ and ‘identity’: it is what ethnically marks these as ‘Asian’ in the first place. Their popular status means these texts are politically ambiguous due to their ambivalent utilization of extant racialized stereotypes. Nevertheless, they can also be conceived pedagogically as ‘minor’ texts (cf. Deleuze and Guattari, 1986). Arguably, they have the potential to deterritorialize the ‘norm’ because they are not simply determined by hegemonic culture, but offer a different exercise of affective power which deviates from the norm. It enables the consideration of the expressive cultural politics of these ‘minor-popular’ films in terms of their potential to disrupt normative racialized representations of otherness or the exclusionary practices of national formation.

In Chapter 6, the claims made about the ‘minor-popular’ status of the films Bend It Like Beckham and East Is East are elaborated through a close ‘reading’ of their expressive and affective cultural politics, (rather than only in terms of an ideologically driven interpretative reading). The (anti-)methodology for reading these films is based on creating the conditions of possibility for an ethical encounter between these texts and students in a classroom situation. This approach does not prescribe a specific ‘method’ of reading, but attempts to understand these films in relation to how they could be put to use for realizing an alterity pedagogy. While these texts inhabit the contradictory racialized terrain of the popular, it is maintained that in a site-specific pedagogic encounter they can institute the possibility of mobilizing students to non-appropriative sites of an ethical agency. Though this movement of deterritorialization can never be guaranteed to engender ethical relations with the ‘other’ – it makes a pedagogy for alterity a risky enterprise. A specific example from my own teaching practice is presented in the deployment of East Is East as an instance of what an alterity pedagogy may look like in practice. It is a modest attempt at exploring how such an ‘imperfect’ pedagogic praxis may work in a concrete teaching situation.

Permission notice: This extract is taken from the author’s original manuscript and has not been reviewed or edited. The definitive version of this extract may be found in the work Multicultural Encounters by Sanjay Sharma which can be purchased from

Written by sanjay sharma

19 Dec 09 at 6:34pm

WordPress as Academic Journal Software?

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Written by sanjay sharma

6 Dec 09 at 2:58pm

Question Time – what he really said…

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Certainly amusing.

Although, lets not forget how mainstream politics has perpetuated the racialized logic of “Immigration Control = Good Race Relations”.

It’s too easy baiting Griff*n as a holocaust denier, while obfuscating state racisms. And racism isn’t an exceptionalist Nazi ideology, but formative to western modernity.

Written by sanjay sharma

24 Oct 09 at 2:47pm

Posted in politics

How To Tell People They Sound Racist

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In case you missed this, the presenter (Jay Smooth) offers some useful practical knowledge…

Written by sanjay sharma

16 Mar 09 at 1:25pm

Posted in anti-racism, racism

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darkmatter upgrade

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Written by sanjay sharma

14 Mar 09 at 8:38pm

Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the politics of the new Asian dance music

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dis-orienting rhythmsDis-Orienting Rhythms: the politics of the new Asian dance music (1996, Zed books), edited by Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk and Ash Sharma.

This book writes back the presence of South Asian youth into a rapidly expanding and exuberant music scene; and celebrates this as a dynamic expression of the experience of diaspora with an urgent political consciousness. One of the first attempts to situate such production within the study of race and identity, it uncovers the crucial role that South Asian dance musics – from Hip-hop, Qawwali and Bhangra through Soul, Indie and Jungle – have played in a new urban cultural politics …” (Back cover)

To celebrate the landmark edited collection being published over a decade ago, the whole text and individual chapters are available to download as searchable pdf files: darkmatter journal

Written by sanjay sharma

11 Mar 09 at 8:52pm

Posted in culture, politics

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Noise of the Past

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Noise of the Past Presents

A poetic journey of war, memory & dialogue

A Premier Launch Event:

Screening of Unravelling – A film by Kuldip Powar, with original score by Nitin Sawhney

Performance of Post-Colonial War Requiem –  composed & conducted by Francis Silkstone

A Special Opening by Martin Bell – OBE, UNICEF Ambassador


Noise of the Past presents two new related commissions produced from a creative call-and-response method to cast a different light on war, colonial soldiers and the art of dialogue.

Unravelling (2008, 17 mins) is the result of a unique film-making process, creatively working with poetry, archive materials, visual art and music. Nitin Sawhney composed a new score in response to an original inter-generational poetic dialogue in Urdu between Sawarn Singh, a WWII Indian soldier who fought for the British in Burma, the Middle East and Africa, before moving to the UK, and his grandson, Kuldip Powar. Working with this haunting score Powar directed an evocative and searching film.

Francis Silkstone has also taken the inter-generational poetic dialogue as the source of inspiration for Post Colonial War Requiem, a new score to be performed in interaction with the phenomenal space of Coventry Cathedral. Benjamin Britten’s original War Requiem inaugurated the newly-built Cathedral in 1962, offering Remembrance without militarism. Though consciously inclusive, it did not reference the contributions of the (now former) colonies.

Saturday 8th November 2008, 7.00pm – 9.30pm

Coventry Cathedral, Priory St, CV1 5AB

(Nearest car park: Cox St, CV1 5LW)

Premier Launch followed by Q&A with film director Kuldip Powar and composer Francis Silkstone

A FREE Event & Reception

Unravelling will also be screened from the 11th – 23rd November 2008, The Herbert, Jordan Well, Coventry, CV1 5QP.

Pre-launch conference: War, Sound & Post-coloniality

Saturday 8th November 2008, 1.30 – 5pm

St Mary’s Guildhall, Bayley Lane, Coventry, CV1 5RR.

Speakers include: Alessandro Portelli (Rome), Les Back (Goldsmiths), Prabjot Parmar (Royal Holloway), Kuldip Powar (film director), Francis Silkstone (composer, Goldsmiths). Discussants: Gen Doy (De Montford); Said Adrus (UEL), Shirin Rai (Warwick University).

FREE – Register in advance, email:

Further details:

Noise of the Past Project Directors:

Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London –

Dr Sanjay Sharma (Brunel University –

Written by sanjay sharma

26 Oct 08 at 12:09pm

Posted in culture, politics

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Book Review: The Art of Listening

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Back, Les The Art of Listening, Berg 2007 210 pp.

British Journal of Sociology 59(3) © London School of Economics and Political Science 2008

On the front cover of The Art of Listening there is a striking picture of a woman called Donna. A musical score from Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ is tattooed on the inside of her raised arms. The tattoo is in memory of where Donna held her god-daughter, who died of brain cancer. This inscription of love is one of many poignant moments captured in this uniquely crafted book. There are few academic authors who can write a text committed to Sociology, yet are able to profoundly transcend its disciplinary confines. Social theory, empirical inquiry and the joys and sorrows of daily life are literally rediscovered.

Early on in his book, Les Back declares: ‘I started out as an anthropologist, but I was more interested in what was going on at the local bus stop than some distant shore’ (p. 9). The reader quickly learns that such a stance however, does not generate a parochial perspective. To the contrary, Back compels us towards ‘a global sociological imagination’ (p. 23), grounded in the contested encounters of everyday multiculture. He insists that ‘[g]eopolitical insecurity, political violence and deepening social and economic divisions provide the context and the need for the development of a global sociology’ (p. 151).

The book consists of a series of inter-connected essays, critically weaving together contemporary concerns that demand attention: migration and mobility; urban boundaries and exclusions; bodily inscriptions and expressive love; street portraiture and dialogical research; multiculture after September 11th. Each chapter exemplifies an approach for invigorating the craft of an ethical sociology. The book attempts to re-address an accelerated global culture in which revelation and voyeurism increasingly invade and overcome ‘the ordinary yet remarkable things found in everyday life’ (p. 1). At the heart of this text is a deeply reflexive, ethico-political project committed to listening: paying ‘attention to the fragments, the voices and stories that are otherwise passed over or ignored’ (p. 1). The act of listening is not confined to hearing more carefully. What remains unsaid is as important as what has been said. The project involves crafting sociological attention, ‘a mode of thought that works within and through a “democracy of the senses”‘(p. 25).

Back advocates ‘a literary Sociology that aims to document and understand social life without assassinating it’ (p. 164). Symbolic and epistemic violence are commonplace in academe, and the author is troubled by the parasitic machinery of contemporary academia in its unrelenting quest for knowledge. It would be too easy for Back to glibly declare some kind of postmoderm refusal to document the world in order to avoid the risk of objectification. But he is not interested in empty gestures, and confronts the aporia of directly engaging social life thus: ‘When we listen to people, do they give us their stories or do we steal them? At the heart of all social investigation is a dialectical tension between theft and gift, appropriation and exchange’. (p. 96)

Back persistently questions the public relevance of sociology, especially when he movingly recalls visiting his dying father in hospital, a working-class man who never read any of his son’s books. But the author resists simply romanticizing or sublimating the voiceless and the marginalized. For example, he openly explores his family’s residual working-class racism. And when discussing the rise of religious radicalism in the context of the ‘War on Terror’, he questions why there has been ‘a lack of willingness to ask searching questions about the authoritarianism of the powerless’ (p. 140).

There are risks involved in writing a text which attempts to forge a new trajectory for Sociology (a discipline forever anxious about its boundaries and relevance). The offer of a new programme risks either celebrating relativist anarchistic play (where there are no boundaries or rules for Sociology); or conversely, offering a normative account predicated on a moralizing agenda (an imperious Sociology). Back is aware of such pretensions. His work remains faithful to social inquiry – ‘interpretation without legislation’ (p. 1) – while acknowledging the limits of such a project: ‘Ethnographic representation should aspire to better kinds of failure…’ (p. 94). Similarly, he objects to the institutionalization of academic research when maintaining that a ‘regulatory approach to ethics adds little to our understanding…of sociology in action’ (p. 114).

The Art of Listening is a rare book in its commitment to vitalize an ethical, global sociology for the twenty-first century. Students are encouraging their parents to read it. Everyone needs to read this book – especially jaded academics.

Written by sanjay sharma

14 Sep 08 at 11:57pm

Posted in culture, politics

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