I wrote the following in response to a question from John in Lagos, who asked what is meant by “cultural politics”? What follows is a version of my reply to him:
The first thing to note is that “cultural politics” does not signify two separate categories: it is not culture separated from politics. The term cultural politics refers to the way that culture—including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts—shapes society and political opinion, and gives rise to social, economic and legal realities. To give an example that is relevant to DirtPol: in February this year, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia described homosexuals as “vermin” who should be tackled like malarial mosquitoes. Over in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s new toughened legislation against homosexuality arises from similar underlying beliefs relating to contamination and disgust (i.e., the category of moral filth). In these two examples, we can see how culture (public opinion, arts and media) imbues politics (government and the law) with perspectives about homosexuality that are predicated on the category of vermin, infestation, contamination. Sexual violence against women often follows a similar discursive pathway.
Our project seeks to make visible and understand a multiplicity of similar processes, not always negative nor as extreme as the above case. The case of the media/communications fieldworkers, for example, you can trace a pathway from perception/opinion via the media to the political and social outcome. Thus:
Homosexual (a label) =
vermin (a metaphor) =
filthy (a moral/evaluative category used in the media and by politicians) =
elimination (proposed action at social and legal level)
In another extreme historical example, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was initiated by a media campaign, especially on RTLM (Radio Télévison des Milles Collines), to “exterminate/crush the cockroaches”. Here you see how the media made use of the “cockroach” metaphor in a similar way to “vermin”: but this time it was used in relation to ethnicity, and the metaphor became murderous. This is “cultural politics” in its most violent manifestation. Butit is important to look out for the ways that labels such as “cockroach” can be used satirically or ironically by the very people they are designed to describe (“queer” is an example from the UK where homosexual people regularly describe themselves as “queer”).
The above examples are negative and unsubtle, but I hope they show the process of how opinion on the streets enters media/communications/political networks. In other words, the use of particular vocabularies about dirt gives rise to political and legal interventions in people’s social lives. As the website www.culturalpolitics.net states, “cultural politics … [is] an arena where social, economic, and political values and meanings are created and contested”. Creation and contestation are words that sum up the focus of the DirtPol project., In taking a category like ‘dirt’—with its vast spectrum of different connotations, words and interpretations—we can create a starting-point to understand people’s changing definitions of home and the city, and ideas about beauty and ugliness, marriage and sexuality, multiculturalism and migration, the past and present.
In the Information for Project Researchers document we circulated when you started your job, “cultural politics” was defined like this: “the ways in which urban identities, encounters and relationships may be marked and transformed by categories denoting dirt. Crucially, the project asks about how the retrieval of local people’s voices and perspectives challenges or changes existing paradigms and methodologies for examining the everyday lives of urban African subjects and the environmental challenges they face,” through popular art forms, the media and ethnographic research.
The key point is that urban encounters and identities—relationships with others, as well as the implementation of environmental and public health policies, and anti-racism initiatives—may be understood differently if they are filtered through concepts relating to dirt rather than to hygiene and cleanliness. The DirtPol project thus asks: what are the implications of locally situated understandings of dirt for current debates about urbanisation, the environment, sexuality and ethnicity?
The questions this raises for further investigation in research (especially through questionnaires, focus groups and one-to-one discussions, about which there will be training in Sussex in May, so do start to design draft questions to bring over and work on in May) include:
i. What words and phrases (including proverbs, jokes, etc) exist in African languages and English to describe the dirt or dirtiness of others? Who uses these words and about whom are they used?
ii. What words, categories, proverbs, etc., are used to interpret a) health and environmental issues; b) the topic of sex, sexuality and (im)morality more generally; c) the topic of neighbours and strangers in one’s vicinity and in other neighbourhoods? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used, and how many of them relate to dirt?
iii. What words, categories and/or proverbs are used to express positive evaluations of dirt (esp. in the sense of earth/mud), including the artistic transformation of ‘rubbish’ into beautiful or useful objects? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used? What are the social and cultural factors that influence these representations and perceptions?
Looking forward to your comments! Steph