Narcissism of Small Differences: Some Comments on the T20 Debate and on Nationalism in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization
by Humayun Kabir for Alal O Dulal
The ICC T20 World Cup Theme Song and the Opening Ceremony have generated sizable controversy over the past weeks. The song and its video have been criticized in some quarters for being in bad taste (perhaps offending prevailing sense of modesty and decency) and lacking originality (copying beats and dance moves from popular Hindi numbers). Many others found the song and the video objectionable because they exemplified Bollywood’s cultural aggression and the trend of “Indianization” of Bangladeshi culture.
According to these critics, this trend of “Indianization” is, of course, symptomatic of overall political and economic domination of Bangladesh by India, which the pro-India Awami League government (the puppet of India in some extreme accounts) maintains and benefits from. Similar criticisms have been leveled against the opening ceremony, judgment against which has been uniformly negative. There are debates about whether Bangladeshi artists were given the short shift in favor of Indian and Global megastars like A.R. Rahman and Akon, and whether the last minute omission of Miles from the line-up was because of their supposed BNP-leaning politics. However, there seems to be a consensus that the show was very bad and not worth the tk. 25,000 to 75,000 of the ticket cost.
The defenders and makers of the theme song and the video responded with a cool shrug of the shoulder and argued something like: What Ever Man! People like it and they are dancing to it all over; just look at all the flash mob videos. So shut your highbrow complaining and accept the people’s verdict. Moreover, Bangladeshis are now dancing to Bangla songs made in Bangladesh. So all the talk about Bollywood-ization is pure nonsense. There haven’t been many defenders of the ceremony, but some have pointed out that to expect good music in a pompous event like an opening ceremony is really foolish to begin with. Others have simply dismissed the moaning of ceremony attendees by pointing to their status as spoiled brats. Really, who can afford tk. 75000 tickets in a country where half the population live under tk. 200 a day (you do the math)! I have seen many envious and resentful comments like: thik hoiche, uchit shikkha (Justice is served, they got what they deserved).
I have watched these debates with some interest and amusement. I have wondered how substantial these debates are, and whether they would have even occurred without the new media on the web. The web certainly has a way of amplifying small voices and making trivials significant, aka, going viral. The web also keeps permanent records of everything and produces an afterlife for all of our communiqués, comments, and spontaneous reactions. Without the web and the host of social-media platforms, these debates probably wouldn’t have sustained for long; they certainly wouldn’t have been so widespread, involving Bangladeshis all over the world. I wonder if these controversies actually have any existence outside the virtual world of the new media. Do they find their way to mainstream/old media of newspaper or TV? Do they penetrate the addas in the corner tea-stalls? Do village women debate these issues over paan? I really don’t know the answer to these questions. Perhaps journalists and anthropologists can shed some light. My impression is that these debates exist mostly in the echo chamber created by Facebook statuses and blog-posts, where my current musing is also situated.
In addition to being superficial debates stuck in a virtual echo-chamber, most of discussions also frame the issues in very trite old manners: Deshi vs. Bideshi, Bangladeshi vs. Indian, Awami League vs. BNP, etc. Such framings are expressive of two overarching questions. Do these events and cultural forms represent and promote Bangladeshi nationalism, identity, culture, or interest? And, which of the political parties are more interested and able to protect Bangladeshi interest (against Indian hegemony)? Most of the arguments and counter arguments answering these questions turn on a “narcissism of small differences” based on national and party identifications. In doing so, these “debates” fail – either intentionally or out of their conceptual limitations – to mount any serious criticism against the real culprit – the logic of cultural production in the era of neoliberal globalization.
Before your roll your eyes, I am not advancing the old Marxist argument that culture in the modern world is another name of the production of ideology (or hegemony a la Gramsci, if you really want to be sophisticated and precise) that legitimizes, naturalizes, and perpetuates capitalism. Though that argument is very persuasive, that’s not my point here. I have much simpler argument to advance: in the neoliberal era, production of cultural artifacts is increasingly dictated by the logic of the bottom line – will this make money, will this sell? There is no higher value that dictates cultural production! There is no independent aesthetic judgment! The goal is to sell the cultural product and also to sell whole bunch of other products in the process. Not only will you have to pay for Akon’s music, but Akon is also selling you Pepsi (I was blown away by the blatant product placement in his videos). There is an incestuous nexus that brings together advertisement and entertainment (art/culture in general). You are sold entertainment and entertainment sells you some other shi***. And all of these are taking on a globalized form: the corporations, the advertising firms, and the entertainment providers (the artists, the stars) are all serving one global logic – make money.
Making money is a serious business, requiring careful strategies based on extensive research and analysis – think here of market research, focus groups, etc. Did you know that music studios won’t take compositions with under certain beats per minute (bpm)? Yes, there is a “science” behind producing hit music! So the global experts have figured out how to sell and how to make money – they have figured out the global standard for packaged entertainment. That’s what you are going to get when you hire a multinational advertising firm to create the show. What else did you expect! What else can you expect but most industrially produced, sleek entertainment without any soul, substance, or value (except in the Box-office)!
Akon is the perfect example of this globally packaged entertainment. His music and videos are studies in perfect marketing strategies. (I have come to this conclusion after half hour of “studying” his products. I actually never heard of the guy till about two weeks ago. As I was watching his videos, I kept wondering why was he in the concert! Who listens to his music in Bangladesh or South Asia or any of the Cricket playing nations?) The logic of neoliberal cultural production not only produces synthetic artifacts like Akon, but also turns more “organic” and talented artists into caricatures of themselves. Apparently that was the fate suffered by A.R. Rahman and many of the Bangladeshi singers on stage. The neoliberal logic of cultural production is the bizarro Midas touch: it turns into shi* whatever it touches. If anything good comes out of the corporatized culture industry, it’s really an exception. Defenders of “pop culture” will respond to such criticisms by accusing the critics of snobbery and elitism; they will justify this synthetic rubbish by citing popular demand and appreciation. Yet, it’s a faulty logic. Anyone who has ever taken a marketing class, worked for an ad company, heard the name of Edward Bernays, or have seen Adam Curtis’s films (it’s worth googling the last two references) would know that demands themselves are also often as manufactured as the products that are supposed to satisfy the demands.
In manufacturing demands, nationalism has often proven to be a powerful ingredient. Nationalism is the Holy Ghost of modern politics and social organization; nationalism gives life to and orders society as we know it. The imaginary nation enables the claims of sovereignty and self-determination, it justifies state-power, it determines political discourse, and it also induces consumption. National pride and patriotism is often mobilized to sell a particular product. Look, for example, at the ways multinational mobile phone companies like Grameen, Bangla-link, or Robi have hawked their products in the last decades. Or, we can look at the Aarong and Nittya-upohar phenomenon – use of nationalist themes and motifs to motivate consumers to buy certain brands in fashion and home-decoration. Perhaps, an argument can be made that the demand for Aarong and Grameen are weaved together with the same thread of nationalism.
Cricket itself is a particularly significant example of desires manufactured by mobilizing nationalism. Why do we watch (consume) the spectacles or T.V. or in the stadiums? Why do we buy jerseys or other insignias? Cricket is a multi-billion dollar industry that has been sold to audiences in the subcontinent (by far the largest audience for Cricket) primarily through mobilizing national identity and by appealing to national pride. Bangladesh’s fascination with the national cricket team’s fate is particularly curious given that domestic cricket tournaments or teams hardly get any attention. However, when the national team is playing, attention borders on hysteria. Cricket also produces the nation in Bangladesh: by identifying with the national team, we all become part of a single imagined community. There is a kind of circularity here; we support the national team because we are all Bangladeshis and we are all Bangladeshis because we support the national team. Can you support a non-Bangladeshi team in a tournament like the ICC T20 and still be a Bangladeshi?
Our consumptions of certain products (cultural or otherwise) are induced by nationalism. These consumptions also create the particular national identity, which is supposed to act as the motivation behind these consumptions. Neoliberal logic of cultural production does not simply exploit some pre-existing ideas of the nation in order to induce demands; in many ways it manufactures the very identity of the nation. This of course is very openly discussed by P.R. firms and ad agencies in terms branding a nation or a country. The concerns with creating a particular brand image for the nation find their most blatant and sometimes also the most beautiful expressions in the advertisement campaigns produced for the national tourism promotion offices, such as the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation. These campaigns, interestingly, also produced by multinational firms, deliberately seek to create and sell a brand of national identity and experience. I suspect that the idealized images used by the campaigns are targeted towards Bangladeshis more than they are aimed at luring young tourists to the country. Concerns with promoting a positive brand image of the nation, however, often produce much more sinister results than cute promotional videos. For example, the plight and struggles of the RMG workers are often ignored and suppressed in the name of protecting the national brand; violations of human rights of rights of women and minorities are often swept under the rug to keep a positive image of the country.
Let me go back to the debates and uproars surrounding the ICC theme songs and the opening ceremony/concert in order to conclude this long musing. I think that people who have been critical of the theme song and/or the concert have some genuine grievances. However, as I argued in the beginning, I don’t think that issue here is about deshi vs. bideshi or about Bollywoodization. People are unhappy that their national identity and culture are being determined by a synthetic pop-culture that is produced by ad agencies and production houses concerned with nothing but making money. We are being sold a culture that we are finding difficult to celebrate. The global logic of neoliberal capitalism and their multinational agents are dictating to us what it means to be “cool”, what means to be global, and also what it means to be Bangladeshi. We find it all very disturbing. Yet, we can’t really protest, or even acknowledge the root cause of the problem… because we are all somehow complicit in it. By “we” I mean those of us who are involved in the culture/meaning producing industry. So many of our artists, intellectuals, and academics are working for or indebted to the advertising/marketing machine of the neoliberal capitalism, that we have lost all criteria for judgment except the bottom line: selling shi*** and making money.
We need some new standards for judgment. We need to be able to say that being able to sell does not and should not define success. We need to rescue the “Bangladeshi Brand” from the logic of neoliberal capitalism. We need to say that we won’t let focus-group researchers dictate what it means to be Bangladeshi, and we won’t buy the junk that they are selling to conform to their construction of Bangladeshi identity. In order to do so, we need to radically reject the logics of neoliberal capitalism and consciously take over the process of imagining a community and birthing the Nation! Of course, we can and should ask whether the nation is the best model for imagining a community or whether we still need to hold on to some idea of the nation. However, that’s a discussion I will save for another occasion.
Humayun Kabir is a Doctoral Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and a member of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative Organizing Collective.