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James Clifford

Related: anthropology - USA


Over the past three decades, James Clifford has been one of the most original, influential, and controversial scholars working in anthropology. His work has challenged the conventions of anthropology by offering new ways to understand the forces and interactions that shape cultures. Trained as an historian, Clifford received his M.A. from Stanford University and B.A. from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Clifford received his PhD in history from Harvard University in 1977. --http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/abcde/clifford_james.html [Feb 2006]

Paul Wynne Article

(Readers please note that was an actual academic essay written as part of a second-year BA Degree in Contemporary Art. In it Paul Wynne compares Northern Soul records to the importing and collecting by museums of African tribal artefacts.)


'Northern Soul Music And Culture in Contemporary Britain Through The Eyes of Clifford and Benjamin'


Where Clifford deals with tribal artefacts and analyses their possible cultural or artistic role once they have been relocated in the west, and examines the structure of collecting 'focusing on taxonomic, and political processes' (Clifford 1993), I will be focusing, through Clifford's essay, on a different relocation in time and place - that of 1960's and 1970's Afro-American soul music in contemporary British culture, its structures of collecting, and how Northern soul 'culture' turns around the collectors, connoisseurs and DJ's. I will also be examining what validates authenticity within these circles by refering to Clifford's essay, and Walter Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'.

Northern Soul (the British culture or scene, not the music itself) began in the north of England in the very late 1960's and early 1970's, when northern nightclub frequenters began to question the cultural validity of the new funk based dance sounds emerging from (the United States of) America that were becoming fashionable in London. In America in the 1960's record labels such as Berry Gordy's Motown, Chess, Okeh and thousands of lesser-known smaller labels had created soul music from a fusion of 1950's doo-wop, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. They had produced a music which was, more often than not, upbeat, optimistic, (usually) in a 4/4 timing signature and almost always by black musicians and singers. It is worth noting at this stage that the 4/4 timing signature is often known as 'common time' as it is the most commonly used timing signature in the most common, less 'inventive' musics such as pop music and soul.

Clifford (1993) asks in his essay, 'What criteria validate an authentic cultural or artistic product? What are the differential values placed on old and new creations? What moral and political criteria justify 'good', responsible, systematic collecting practices?'

and goes on, saying, 'In the art world work is recognised as 'important' by connoisseurs and collectors according to criteria that are more than simply aesthetic.'

Many of the soul records made in the 1960's and 1970's 'flopped', i.e. were commercial failures. In any cultural or artistic market, talent or acceptance is important, though not necessarily proportionate to, commercial success, and not always the work that is the considered the most worthy by the 'connoisseurs' is the most commercially viable and consumed by its intended market, if it has one. The vast majority of soul records by black musicians (I henceforth include singers in this category) were financial 'flops', but often as 'good' musically as the more commercial sounding commercial successes. Ironically, 'commercial' is a word used today by more underground musical movements like hiphop as a derogatory term, meaning music intended for commercial success only, and sounding 'poppy', disregarding 'real' issues that political/innovative music deals with, and contributing nothing to the furthering of its art, but I digress. Only a small percentage of the scores of thousands of songs (I include instrumentals also in this category) by black soul artist(e)s in these two decades had any entry into the white-dominated charts or made any money for the artists or producers involved at their time of release. As mentioned above, the musical output of black America around 1970 had changed towards funk - music which was still by predominantly black artists but generally not 4/4 (on the one and the three - James Brown would famously say. Although Brown is known as the 'Godfather of Soul', his musical style defines the difference between soul and funk - his being funk - in British cultural terminolgy, his music being harder and more guitar based and unlike the swirling string and brass sections of the 1960's upbeat soul). Soul records continued to be made through the 1970's and 1980's, but the music was now less fashionable. A record shop owner in London named Dave Godin noticed that a lot of the youths coming down from the north of England to attend football matches, or simply visit London were more interested in the 1960's-style soul output, or the 1970's soul that still sounded 'soul' not 'funk', than the newer and more fashionable music. He coined the term Northern Soul as a convenient pigeonhole to define to his colleagues a type of music these young northerners would be looking for. This mirrors quite clearly Clifford's theory that 'Cultural or artistic authenticity has as much to do with an inventive present as with a past, its objectification, preservation, or revival.' (Clifford 1993). It also mirrors the two quotes at the beginning of this paragraph relating to acceptance, criteria and aesthetics. These records had found, after their initial demise, a new life, in a cultural setting alien to their birth, and outside of contemporary cultural modes of acceptance in their new cultural setting.

'The critical history of collecting is concerned with what from the material world specific groups and individuals choose to preserve, value, and exchange.' (Clifford 1993)

Before long club nights began to spring up in the North of England in the 1970's and 1980's, notably the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, The Golden Torch in Stoke, Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. All these club nights focused their musical attention on the 1960's and 1970's soul output of America, which was now known in Britain as Northern Soul. As mentioned above, most of these records had flopped financially at their original time of release, and therefore trips to America to track down long lost or forgotten soul records became de rigueur for the soul DJ's and collectors. Many thousands of records were found as ship's ballast, as vinyl is very heavy, or forgotten and in crates in dusty warehouses across America, or in second hand shops where the owners were happy to unload these outdated soul 'turkeys' on confused Englishmen, little knowing that a 10 cents record in America may fetch hundreds of pounds in the UK. DJ's and collectors soon amassed collections of many thousands of obscure discs, becoming the first 'experts' on a musical style that they had played no part in creating, but were recreating, albeit several thousand miles away. Their knowledge was legendary…

'If the passion is for Egyptian figurines, the collector will be expected to label them, to know their dynasty (it is not enough that they simply exude power or mystery), to tell 'interesting' things about them, to distinguish copies from originals'. (Clifford 1993)

…and club nights were created around collecting, as the DJ's were considered to have the best collections, and also one could further one's own collection at record stalls at such events.

Clifford claims that an artefact taken from its original setting loses its something of its original aura of taboo. 'Do not encounter these objects except as curiosities to giggle at, art to be admired, or evidence to be understood scientifically.' In his essay, Benjamin similarly claims that

'It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the "authentic" work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.' (Clifford 1993). Also, 'The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.'

These lost soul records, unlike the African artefact in Clifford's essay, or the non-original and aura-less object of Benjamin's mechanical reproduction, had regained some of their original intended use by being rediscovered. They were being played to large enthusiastic audiences throughout the U.K. The careers of many long forgotten soul artists of the 1960's like Tommy Hunt, Major Lance and Gene Chandler enjoyed a resurrection as part of the 1970's, '80s and '90's revival of interest in 1960's and 1970's soul music, and many visited, often playing the above mentioned clubs to large enthusiastic audiences long after their own audiences had dried up 'back home'. In furthering my claim of obverse parallels between relocated African artefacts and relocated and recontextualised American soul records and culture I quote George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University, taken from the internet site 'Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature - An Overview' (date of writng not known)
'Frank Willet reminds us that viewing African art out of its complete social context, which includes the social practices that surround it, can create a false view.
'Most people interested in African sculpture are unable to see it in use, and must form their own impressions from museum displays. A museum usually possesses only the wooden part of a mask, which it may display under a spotlight which projects a single interpretation of the sculpture. Kenneth Murray has pointed out that masks "are intended to be seen in movement in a dance; frequently one which is inferior when held in the hand looks more effective than a finer carving when seen with its costume. It is, moreover, essential to see masks in use before judging what they express, for it is easy to read into an isolated mask what was never meant to be there." Chinua Achebe in his novel The Arrow of God brings this out very well. One of his characters, Edogo, is a carver. "When he had finished carving the face and head he had been a little disappointed . . .. But the owners of the work had not complained; in fact they had praised it very highly. Edogo knew, however, that he must see the Mask in action to know whether it was good or bad." [African Art, Thames and Hudson]

The visiting Afro-American soul artistes were amazed to see their long-forgotten soul records revitalised in a new cultural setting.

"Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. (Benjamin 1933)

The soul music 'lexis', the lexis being, according to Danish semiotician Louis Hjelmslev, a 'socialised unit of reading, of reception: in sculpture, the statue; in music the 'piece'', (Metz 1984) has always been the seven-inch single and occasionally when playing 1970's or 1980's (occasionally even more recent) works, the twelve-inch single.

'… technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.' (Benjamin 1933).

Record production is more like printing (of sounds rather than images) than the mechanical reproduction of an original and unique work of art. Benjamin states that 'The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity', but in the case of an 'original' in the Northern Soul sense, the original is the contemporary issue of a record, or even the pre-release DJ copy which was sent out to radio stations. In rarer cases the studio acetates (one-sided test pressings, 'drafts' if you will) have made their way into the public arena and they, like Baudrillard's 'Precession of Simulacra', are considered to chronologically precede the 'original', if an original was made after the acetate, which was not always the case.

'Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be'. (Benjamin 1933).

Even today it would be considered almost blasphemous for a Northern Soul DJ at any venue to play a CD or a 'pressing' - i.e. a re-issue and therefore non-original reproduction, although the piece is usually the same recording. Benjamin argues that 'The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical-- and, of course, not only technical-reproducibility'. The 'original' disc's contemporariness in relation to the date of its recording states it authenticity as an 'original', not the sound of the work which, ironically, in some cases, can be remastered from original master tapes and reissued on new pressings and technically sound better. Some have, with the best intentions, attempted to recreate the Northern Soul sound of the 1960's and 1970's, and although the sound/feel of the music can be recreated very well, a massive, bitter and long-running debate exists within the scene as to whether such recreations hold any authenticity whatsoever.

Clifford asks - 'What criteria validate an authentic cultural or artistic product? What are the differential values placed on old and new creations?'. Recently (1999) a copy of Frank Wilson's 'Do I Love You?' an extremely rare and coveted disc which was pressed (made) in the mid-1960's but never released to the public was bought by a Scottish collector for £15 000, the most ever paid for a seven-inch single anywhere in the world, even though because of it's dancefloor popularity (within British Soul culture at least) it has been reissued on a newer labels or CDs several times since its original (non)introduction. No CD has ever been sold for more than its face value or played at any respected Northern Soul Event. Just last week I bought a CD entitled 'For Millionaires Only', an eighteen track compilation CD designed to cater for those, like me, who love this music but cannot and would not pay large amounts of money for an 'original'. The total 'value' of tracks on the CD probably nears £10 000, for which I paid the normal CD price of £12. Of course, in reality the original could be considered to be a studio 'performance', that is the live playing and recording of the music, and it's musical production and editing. This 'performance' however was in a studio, designed to be recorded and produced, and I feel therefore that the recording of the work must be included as part of the work and thus the recorded piece is an extension of the studio performance, not merely a copy, echoing the Benjamin quote above as 'it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record.'

My final point fits with the post-colonial debate and the relocation and recontextualisation of African and tribal artefacts in the west. I find it ironic, on a historical plane, that Afro-Americans, themselves (one has to believe) the descendants of slaves and mal-appropriated peoples influenced once the popular culture of America, and in turn, years after they had finished with a particular style of music, the musical style that had influenced 1960's America, 'catches on' in a country who's instigation and supporting of the early slave trades, and colonisation, including that of America, which itself used slaves, was immense. The once plundered tribes of Africa were now, generations later, creating new tribes by way of music and dancing, across the sea in the country which once crossed the sea to plunder it through Northern Soul, and of course other popular Black musical cultures such as Reggae.

The collecting of Northern Soul records is a very expensive hobby, as the above evidence demonstrates. The value of a disc is dependant both on its popularity and it's rarity. If a collector were to find a thousand copies of the Frank Wilson disc mentioned above, he would not receive £15 000 for each one, and consequently the man who had would lose about £14 995. The record's cultural and artistic value, and popularity however would remain untouched.

In Clifford's essay he uses A. J. Greimas's 'somewhat procustian' semiotic square diagram to illustrate how a cultural artefact or artwork may have a shifting status, assigning them 'contexts in which they properly belong and in which they circulate'. A tribal artefact may once be a museum piece, a cultural object and subsequently be considered a great work of art. Although there is not the space within this essay to fully examine how the semiotic square could have been reworked for Northern Soul records and how there acceptance or status can shift, it is easy to point out that a record may be discovered, played to enthusiastic dancefloor reaction, become after some time to be considered a classic (masterpiece), or after some consideration, be dismissed to the status of pop rubbish and therefore inauthentic. As with the diagram, a well-known record may shift according to changes in acceptance, although a full reworking of the diagram cannot be fashioned here. 'The system classifies objects and assigns them relative value. It establishes the 'contexts' in which they properly belong and between which they circulate.

It is easy to draw similarities between tribal artefacts and the 'tribal' element in a dance culture (all dance cultures are tribal). Clifford's essay is about what constitutes cultural collecting practices and how, once collected, artefacts can change from artrefacts to art, or vice-versa. Bejamin's essay, or at least the section on which I focused, namely the aura of the original, concentrates on a work losing something once the original has been recreated, and losing something more at every re-recreation. Northern Soul, whilst using the original discs, has recreated a culture. It has taken nothing away from the original era of music, or the discs themselves, as this once populaur music in America, is now considered 'old hat' by all but ardent fans there. Indeed the discs now have a financial value way in excess of their original, and in many cases a larger audience too. A collector is expected to know the differences between original contemporary issues of records and imitations and to know something of their history. Almost like the antiques market, Northern Soul culture exists today as 'reliving the past', yet shows few signs of transcending Greimas's diagram (as a culture) from the 'history and folklore' to the 'inauthentic'.


Nowell, D., 1999. Too Darn Soulful. London. Robson.
Clifford, J., 1993. On Collecting Art and Culture. In: During, S., The Cultural Studies Reader. London. Routledge.
Metz, C,. 1985. Photography and Fetish. October. No 34. Fall 1985. pp 81-90.
Benjamin, W., The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. Taken from the World Wide Web, address unobtainable. (s.l.) (s.n.).
Lechte, J,. 1994. Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers. London. Routledge
Roberts, J., S., 1972. Black Music Of Two Worlds. London. Penguin.
Southern, E., 1983. The Music Of Black Americans. USA. Norton.
Hebdige, D., 1987. Cut 'n' Mix. Surrey. Unwin
Landow G., P,. 'Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature - An Overview' Available at: landow.stg.brown.edu/post/misc/postov.html
Landow G., P., James Clifford. Available at: landow.stg.brown.edu/post/nz/nzclifford.html


The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (1988) - James Clifford

  1. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (1988) - James Clifford [Amazon.com]
    Clifford's concern is a "pervasive post-colonial crisis of ethnographic authority." Knowledge of non-Western peoples has been shaped by "a Western will to power," but peoples whose stories and cultures were once articulated by outsiders are now speaking for themselves. Are traditional cultures destined to be lost? Who has the authority to define a culture, to identify and authenticate the current transformations of traditional cultures? Why have exotic "tribal" objects been collected and valued as "art"? Clifford pursues such questions in a wide range of contexts. The result is always accessible, and often fascinating or provocative; but one looks forward to a concise, systematic exposition of the issues Clifford has raised. Richard Kuczkowski, Dominican Coll., Blauvelt, N.Y. --Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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