The world of commentary has been set ablaze by the first ‘arts speech’ by the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, given at the British Museum last week. The combined verdict of the twittersphere, blogosophere and newspaper columns has been one of disappointment (when not open dismissal) at the narrow take on the ‘economic impact’ as only legitimate rationale for funding in times of austerity. It is with pleasure that I introduce the first contribution from The #culturalvalue Initiative to this post-speech debate, and I am especially pleased to open with a contribution that adds an international perspective to the discussion. Inevitably, when questions of arts funding and resistance to cuts are concerned, it is easy for the attention to focus on the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of the debate. Casey Brienza’s post reminds us that the issues in question have relevance beyond this very time and place. Casey is currently developing the argument she makes in her post in a full-length article which promises to be key cultural value reading. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy this taster!
Last week Culture Secretary Maria Miller gave a keynote speech at the British Museum outlining her views on the value of culture and the arts for the United Kingdom. Along with being a driver of domestic economic success, she saw culture has having global political implications:
“I would argue that culture should be seen as the standard bearer for our efforts to engage in cultural diplomacy, to develop soft power, and to compete, as a nation, in both trade and investment,” said Miller. “British culture is perhaps the most powerful and most compelling product we have available to us. […] The world wants to buy into Britain, and this interest allows us, as a nation, to develop relationships which we can then take advantage of commercially.” She concluded her speech by calling upon her audience “to look for international opportunities which will benefit Britain.”
To wit, culture and the arts are, in her view, diplomatic forces which will bolster the UK’s position in the international arena.
As a sociologist who studies the transnational cultural production and flows of popular culture across national boundaries, I had one very simple reaction to the Culture Secretary’s assertion: Why doesn’t this bad idea die already?
I first encountered a virtually identical argument over a decade ago in the pages of Foreign Policy on Japan’s “Gross National Cool” as an undergraduate. Drawing upon political scientist Joseph S. Nye’s conception of soft power, journalist Douglas McGray argues that Japan’s popular culture might be actively deployed both to revive the nation’s export economy in the post-manufacturing age and to improve its position on the global diplomatic stage. In his view, Japan is “one of a handful of perfect globalization nations,” having succeeded “not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force.” For a country which has renounced the coercive “hard power” of military domination, such an alternative means to influence should be particularly desirable: Through popular culture, Japan “can regain the role it briefly assumed at the turn of the 19th century, when it simultaneously sought to engage the West and to become a military and cultural power on its own terms.”
Yet despite sporadic cultural policy initiatives on the part of the Japanese government to promote “Cool Japan” my own research over the past several years on the part of the publishing industry in the United States which publishes Japanese comic books, called manga, in English-language editions suggests anything but the sort of link between culture and soft power that McGray posited. In actuality, through in-depth empirical study of the US manga publishing field, I find that the transnational organization and social relationships involved in the production of manga make manga more American everywhere. Indeed, the flow of this cultural form from East to West does not challenge durable relations of inequality and power imbalance because it succeeds only by traveling through those very same hierarchical structures. Ultimately, I argue, transnational cultural production simultaneously re-inscribes and rearticulates the very same imbalances of national power that might otherwise seem to have been transformed by it.
In sum, I have no clue why the notion that culture and the arts can be a national vehicle for soft power refuses to die when there is so little evidence for it. Maybe it’s one of those nice bedtime stories that politicians and bureaucrats like to tell themselves to get through the cold winter nights. But the absolute last thing that cultural policy needs is zombies. Time to break out the flamethrower.
Casey Brienza is a sociologist specializing in the study of Japanese manga, the culture industries, and transnational cultural production. She has been published in journals such as The Journal of Popular Culture, Publishing Research Quarterly, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, Logos, and The International Journal of the Book. Her doctoral thesis, written under the supervision of John Thompson at the University of Cambridge and titled “Domesticating Manga: Japanese Comics, American Publishing, and the Transnational Production of Culture,” is currently being revised into a book manuscript. Casey joined City University London as Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media in March 2013. She may be contacted through her website.