Could/Should Cultural Studies Be Born Again?
This article argues (one more time) for the need for a radical political economic (re)turn in cultural studies in order to account for and engage with the specificities of the current historical conjuncture, and with global, neo-liberal capitalism in general. Cultural studies, especially with its importation into the American academy, has historically been growing increasingly skeptical of the uses of critical political economic approaches to culture, including more robust, non-reductive approaches and models, where cultural phenomena and cultural forms and formations are understood within the context of their social totality. My intervention begins with an examination of the question of what cultural studies is and, then, moves to suggest that cultural studies—in its current “default” mode—has been unable to engage with the new and complex realities of contemporary life1. In his most recent work, Lawrence Grossberg argues for the necessity of a "radically contextualist" rethinking of the cultural studies project in order to better understand "what's going on?" at the current historical conjuncture. Granted, any new formation of cultural studies has to continuously reflect on itself—on its conditions of possibility, its methodological assumptions, theoretical tools, and practices—as well as on its social context. However, I argue that Grossberg's dismissal of Marxist political economy, and of Marxism more generally, works against the very new directions he tries to envisage for cultural studies. I conclude that any serious revision of cultural studies has to start with a real engagement with Marxist political economy.
Anyone who would like to reflect on the state(s) of cultural studies and start to talk about its future(s) owes it to his readers to say why he or she would want to engage in such overdone—and by now almost ritualistic—act in the field. After all, what else is there to say about the state(s) and future(s) of cultural studies? What else is there to contribute to this plentiful (given the amount of ink that has been devoted to it) and yet sterile (because it seems to take us nowhere) debate?
The whole discussion about the state of cultural studies, its past, present, and future takes place at a very critical moment in the history of this relatively new intellectual project as a whole—the moment of its increasing institutionalization, commodification and depoliticization, a moment in which I believe it is essential not only to reflect on actually existing cultural studies, its interventions, its central claims, concerns, assumptions, and desires, but also to interrogate and rethink these in the new context in which cultural studies finds itself, a context very different from the one within which cultural studies as a formation and a project first emerged in post-war Britain. And to say anything of use here, I have to limit myself mainly to the British and American cultural studies traditions, not because these have priority over other models and traditions, but simply because these are the ones I am most familiar with.
In the context of cultural studies and its histories, such moments of self-reflection and self-interrogation, of defining and redefining, of rethinking and revising, have always been taken as constitutive of cultural studies and have generally been celebrated as evidence of the dynamic, energetic, and open-ended nature of the field. Cultural studies, we are told by prominent practitioners from within the field, needs to continuously and perpetually reflect on itself, reinvent itself, in order to respond to new challenges, new questions, and new contexts. This is nothing—they rush to add—but the very sign of the field’s health, vitality, and vigor.
However, and despite the fact that this seems to be the ‘official’ position, one taken by most cultural studies practitioners, it is not the only one. Taking a much more subversive position—one that I think better represents a good amount of work now being produced in cultural studies, one could claim—in the words of Paul Smith, that “this state of flux is rather more a symptom of confusion and uncertainty than an essential strength in the enterprise” (331).
I do not think there is anything wrong with either position a priori, without reference to actually existing work in cultural studies and without reference to the larger formation within which cultural studies develops and within which its practitioners operate. There is no doubt that the claim, if not the need, for cultural studies to be a different kind of academic discipline, to be absolutely interdisciplinary, post-disciplinary, and anti-disciplinary all at once did make sense in the formative years of the field; after all, and from the very beginning, cultural studies sought to upset the rigid boundaries between what were then—at least from the perspective of the overwhelming majority of those in these disciplines—well-established disciplines, each with its stable objects, canons, theories, methods, methodologies, practices, departments, and institutions. Stuart Hall tells us that he and Richard Hoggart intentionally selected such a largely broad slogan for the field in order to upset the more established disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. He writes, the name “‘Cultural Studies’ came much more naturally. It was about as broad as we could make it; thereby we ensured that no department in either the humanities or social sciences who thought that they had already taken care of culture could fail to feel affronted by our presence. In this latter enterprise, at least, we succeeded” (10).
In an institutional context characterized, in fact dominated, by fixed, rigid, and closed disciplinary structures and disciplines, the claims to absolute openness and fluidity may have made more sense—in fact were even necessary—in the formative years of cultural studies. But the question now is whether we can continue to make the same claims in a situation where cultural studies is a more established institutional presence in the academy2. Can we continue to make the same claims when—as Richard Johnson and company put it in a recent book—most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences “have taken a cultural turn and added culture to the their agenda” (19), and when cultural studies can no longer claim to be in “a pioneering position”, but is now in fact—one might add—in a well-established position?3 Further, can we continue to blindly celebrate this absolute openness in a situation where everyone and anyone who talks about race, class, and gender or deploys media, film, and popular culture in anyway in their teaching and work wants to claim and —or is perceived—to be doing cultural studies? I do not think so.
I would like to argue that this insistence on absolute, undisciplined openness—despite the academic freedom it has been claimed to bring—has been very costly, indeed. What probably supports my claim is that question that still haunts cultural studies, even after several decades of its first moment of academic institutionalization in the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964. Even now when cultural studies is a well-established, ‘global’ intellectual phenomenon and practice in the humanities and the social sciences, when cultural studies has its own graduate and undergraduate degree programs, research centers, professional associations, and international conferences and journals, no one seems to quite know what it is really about or what it stands for! The confusion over what constitutes cultural studies is not helped by the rather vague and misleading name of the field itself: cultural studies (It is very ironic that a slogan which, as I mentioned earlier and as Stuart Hall tells us, was chosen specifically to upset traditional disciplines, has now come back to haunt all those of us who are working in cultural studies). Of course, anyone who, like myself, identifies himself or herself as teaching or practicing cultural studies should by now be all too familiar with how confusing the slogan cultural studies is to the people from outside. Upon mentioning this vague slogan, how many times have we been asked, “And what cultures do you study?” When asked about what they expect to learn from Introduction to Cultural Studies, one of the core courses I teach at the Columbia College’s undergraduate program in cultural studies, the overwhelming majority of my students—confused by the name and uncertain about what it might stand for—understandably repeat that they would like to learn more about other cultures, without any further qualifications, distinctions, or elaborations!
But this uncertainty about what cultural studies is or should be is much more complicated and does not come only from outside the field or from undergraduate students. Inside the field itself, there is a much more heated debate as to what cultural studies is/should be. We are all too familiar with some of the questions in this debate: Does/should cultural studies have a well-defined object? Is it a discipline and could/should it be a discipline? Does/should it have an established methodology? What specific methods are or should be deployed in cultural studies? What is the place of theory? What is the place politics? And what kind of politics is cultural studies politics? And above all, what is (and where is) cultural studies?
One would think that, given the amount of ink and energy that have been devoted to these questions, cultural studies, by now an established intellectual and academic presence worldwide, should—without necessarily claiming to be once and for all beyond the stage of self-clarification and self-definition which one usually associates more with the birth and formation of a project, intellectual or otherwise—be able to claim a shared project, common methodologies and objects, common ways of working, or at least some theoretical and methodological coherence and consistency. In my assessment, such ritualistic obsession with the question of what cultural studies is/should be—which the present author is equally guilty of—has tended to consume the field, thus displacing and replacing much more serious work, work that unfortunately still waits to be done. A look, for example, at some of the major journals and anthologies in the field would reveal that there is perhaps too much work devoted to what cultural is or should be and too little to the actual structural and materialist analysis of contemporary cultural forms and practices, and even less to the politically radical study of these.
I would like to try to respond afresh to some of these questions by way of interrogating the dominant version of actually existing cultural studies, or what Lawrence Grossberg calls in the article I propose to interrogate here the ‘center’ of cultural studies: its central claims, questions, assumptions, and desires. But first of all, let me issue a little disclaimer: This is an almost impossible project to accomplish in the kind of space available to me here, and what I have to say will be necessarily—but I hope usefully—reductive, especially given the rather less developed and schematic nature of this paper4.
I would like to start with a brief interrogation of one of the more careful pieces by Lawrence Grossberg, “Does Cultural Studies Have Futures? Should It?” and then move to address some of the questions that continue to be at the center of debate among cultural studies practitioners, namely the disciplinary identity of the field; the question of theorizing culture; and finally, the question of the relation between politics and culture5. In my assessment, Grossberg’s article is important because it is symptomatic of the very ‘center’ of cultural studies that Grossberg invites us to move beyond. It is only one in a long list of work that still makes the same old claims and moves that I would like to bring attention to and critically interrogate today.
At the very beginning of the article, Grossberg insists that “cultural studies, as a particular project, a particular sort of intellectual practice, has something valuable to contribute” and “is a vital component of the struggle to change the world and to make the world more humane” (2). He, then, moves on to precisely not define this very project, or the valuable contributions it could/should make, (let alone those it has actually made). Or rather, in one of the emblematic moves that are symptomatic of cultural studies, he presents us with a very vague, and at best, broad definition of cultural studies. He writes:
Cultural studies is a project not only to construct a political history of the present, but also to do so in a particular way, a radically contextualist way, in order to avoid reproducing the very sorts of universalisms (and essentialisms) that all too often characterize the dominant practices of knowledge production, and that have contributed (perhaps unintentionally) to making the very relations of domination, inequality and suffering that cultural studies desires to change. Cultural studies seeks to embrace complexity and contingency, and to avoid the many faces and forms of reductionism (2).
First of all, this passage is too general to be taken seriously. You could replace ‘cultural studies’ with feminism, critical race studies, radical history or with any critical intellectual project for that matter, without actually distorting its overall meaning. In other words, if this definition is too broad and can easily be extended to other intellectual projects, fields, and disciplines, then it is useless as a definition or even as a framework for one. Also, I maybe wrong, but I am not aware of any academic discipline, at least in the humanities and social sciences, that does not at least claim “to embrace complexity and contingency, and to avoid the many faces and forms of reductionism” (2). After all, one cannot help but also sometimes wonder what complexity, contingency, and contexuality as categories really mean, given the almost ritualistic nature with which they are invoked not just within cultural studies, but within almost every discipline and intellectual practice in the humanities and social sciences nowadays. The regular claims to and invocations of complexity and contingency become especially suspect when one compares them to the actual work being done in their name. Further, it is very ironic that one of the central objects, if not the central object, of cultural studies, that is culture, is nowhere to be found in this passage. Ien Ang, in her “Keynote Address” at the very conference I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, raises similar concerns about this inability of cultural studies to say what is distinct and distinctive about it as a discipline and project. She says:
This, indeed, is a problem for cultural studies, and it takes us to cultural studies apparent incapacity to demarcate its own boundaries. As the field has expanded, it is indeed virtually impossible to define what ‘shared project’ cultural studies as an intellectual practice represents. The centre, it seems, cannot hold (2).
This raises a fundamental question about the disciplinary identity of cultural studies and brings us back to our initial question: What is cultural studies?
Cultural studies is probably best understood as both a very specific approach within the wider field of the study of culture (one with implicit, but distinctive epistemological assumptions and ways of working), and a political project (where the commitment to imagine and help bring about a socialist, humane society and culture has always been claimed to be a guiding methodological assumption in the field from its early New Left formation in post-war Britain). One way to begin to understand cultural studies is to try to identify what has been distinctive about its approach to its central object and category: culture. In other words, what makes a cultural studies analysis of a cultural form or practice different from, say a sociological or anthropological analysis? If cultural studies is a different kind of discipline, one that does not have well-established methods, or a stable object, let alone, a unique object of study, culture (given the fact that culture as object of study is now claimed by other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences), what is so distinctive about it?
I would also like to argue here that, when all is said and done, cultural studies is already a discipline—whether we like or not—but it is (and should be) a different kind of discipline, one which, unlike other well-established disciplines, is/should be defined not by just the kind of objects it studies or the kind of methods it deploys, but also above all by the kind of methodological and epistemological assumptions it brings to the table. This approach is itself defined, informed by the kind of political project cultural studies desires to be.
While it is true that cultural studies understands culture in a very broad, inclusive way, as a way of life and a ‘way of struggle’, including all the practices and phenomena of all kinds, this does not and should not necessarily and automatically translate into the view that any cultural text or object could and should be constituted as a proper object of study for cultural studies. After all, the claim—popularized by Grossberg among others—that “you can do cultural studies of almost anything” (246) expresses a desire, an ideal that not only fails to understand how academic and intellectual work works in practice (where there is a tendency to gravitate towards certain issues and objects), but is in fact belied by actually existing cultural studies work itself, which has tended to concern itself with a very limited number of cultural objects and issues, a fact which has contributed to the vagueness of the project, as in the conflation of cultural studies with popular culture studies, for example. In the same way, the claim that cultural studies should be able to draw on the methods and theories of other disciplines and fields in the humanities and social sciences, does not and should not necessarily and automatically translate into the extreme view—equally common in the field—that there is no need for any kind of theoretical cohesion and methodological consistency whatsoever, and even worse, that the latter would be necessarily constrictive, reductive, and non-contextualist. The fact that certain methods, such as semiotics and interpretative textual approaches in general, have come to be associated with most of actually existing work in cultural studies—a fact that has ultimately limited the scope of and further depoliticized the whole field—belies this claim, but it also justifies the need to move beyond this kind of rather undisciplined and constrictive fixation on textual interpretation and interpretive approaches.
Like Grossberg, I have always understood cultural studies as a specific project, one with very specific epistemological assumptions, namely its self-reflexivity and its commitment to historical specificity, to “the detour through theory” and above all to radical politics, and Grossberg should be given credit with at least attempting to define and specify these in many of his writings, including his forthcoming book, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. But in my estimation, that attempt fails, precisely because it is based on the faulty assumption that methodology—and one might add here theory—will and should always be determined by, dependent on the object and the context of study itself. In their “Introduction” to one of the oldest US cultural studies collections, Cultural Studies, which is essentially a reprinting of the papers delivered at a conference about the field held at the Univesity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1990, Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler write:
The methodology of cultural studies provides an equally uneasy marker, for cultural studies in fact has no distinct methodology, no statistical, ethnomethodological, or textual analysis to call its own. Its methodology, ambiguous from the beginning, could best be seen as a bricolage. Its choice of practice, that is, is pragmatic, strategic, and self-reflexive… The choice of research practices depends upon the questions that are asked, and the questions depend on their context (2).
This position, which Lawrence Grossberg and many other leading practitioners in the field have been popularizing and reproducing ever since, is neither able nor willing to recognize that the relationship between object and methodology is an organically dialectical one, that they are mutually constitutive, that they cannot be reduced to one another, and that neither one element can be so prevelieged as to be solely determining and determinant. Neither the object nor the context of study does or can displace methodology as somehow secondary, dependent on, and ultimately determined by either or both.
The same thing can be said about the field’s privileging of conjunctural analysis over structural analysis, in what is clearly a departure from Gramsci, whose theoretical distinction between conjuncture and structure, between conjunctural and structural elements or aspects of a social formation is reworked (and weakened) here beyond recognition. In Gramsci’s usage, structural aspects of society are organic and relatively permanent, while its conjunctural elements are relatively temporary, immediate, and almost accidental. He writes:
Meanwhile, in studying a structure, it is necessary to distinguish organic movements (relatively permanent) from movements which may be termed ‘conjunctural’ (and which appear as occasional, immediate, almost accidental). Conjunctural phenomena too depend on organic movements to be sure, but they do not have any far- reaching historical significance; they give rise to political criticism of a minor, day-to-day character, which has as its subject small ruling groups and personalities with direct governmental responsibilities. Organic phenomena on the other hand give rise to socio-historical criticism, whose subject is wider social groupings – beyond the people with immediate responsibilities and beyond the ruling personnel [My Italics] (201).
Gramsci goes on to say that:
A common error in historic-political analysis consists in an inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural. This leads to presenting causes as immediately operative which in fact only operate indirectly, or to asserting that the immediate causes are the only effective ones. In the first case there is an excess of ‘economism’, or doctrinaire pedantry; in the second, an excess of ‘ideologism’. In the first case there is an overestimation of mechanical causes, in the second an exaggeration of the voluntarist and individual element (201-202).
For Gramsci, conjunctural analysis is political analysis for action, and is based on the analysis of the immediate social situation and the web of different social forces and relations at a given moment in order to help oppositional social groups determine opportunities for action and act in ways to advance their short-term—and with them their long-term—goals. Structural analysis, on the other hand, seeks to identify the deeper forces and contradictions that determine the structure of society in the long term. While a focus on structural phenomena alone risks being too ‘mechanistic,’ an analysis of conjunctural elements alone risks being too ‘ideologistic,’ thus losing sight of the deeper issues and the longer-term struggles. But it is important to stress here that Gramsci—despite this distinction (and dialectic)—also states that “conjunctural phenomena too depend on organic movements to be sure” (201).
In their appropriation of Gramsci, Stuart Hall and Grossberg—to take two major figures in cultural studies—grant priority to the conjuncture and conjunctural analysis becomes the privileged mode in cultural studies, without due consideration of what Gramsci calls the “dialectical nexus between the two categories of movement [the conjunctural and structural]” which cultural and social analysis must try to establish and understand, no matter how difficult that task might be (202).
To be sure, this reworking of Gramsci’s understanding stems from a certain reading of the work of Louis Althusser, especially his later work, as a confirmation of the need to move away from all and any theories of social structures and focus instead on the analysis of specific conjunctural articualtions of the elements of social life. This displacement and replacement of the notion structure by the notion of conjuncture as articulation misses their dialectical tension and is bound to make the common error in historic-political analysis” that Gramsci warns us against, that is, the “inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural” and the inability to capture the dialectical nexus between the elements.
Perhaps the most interesting section of Grossberg’s piece, “Could/Should Cultural Studies Have Future(s)?” is the last section, which he devotes to a discussion of modernity. In his attempt to theorize the current conjuncture, Grossberg introduces the notion of modernity, claiming that the former should be understood as a struggle over modernity and stating that he is concerned to develop an alternative modernity, a radical project of modernity. As he puts it, “Part of the challenge we face in trying to come to terms with this struggle over modernity (in its various scalar manifestations) is to find ways to interrogate how the political, economic and cultural are articulated both as different and as a unity in their conjunctural specificity” (19).
Grossberg then rushes to add that:
I do not think this can be accomplished by following the path of political economy, even when it tries to take the cultural turn seriously, which is rare enough. In the end, it sees culture as a medium into which the economy is translated and through which it moves, but which has no real effects of its own. Hence, political economy always assumes a universal privilege (and a decontextualized singularity) of the economy over politics and culture (19).
The dismissal of a complex body of thought such as Marxist political economy, and Marxism in general, on the grounds of their economism and reductivism is nothing new in cultural studies, but it does not seem to live up to the claims of a project that, quoting Grossberg, “seeks to embrace complexity” (2). One would have expected a little more engagement with this work, and not the usual charges of reductivism, essentialism, and economic determinism, without any basic qualifications, elaborations, or even complications. Everyone who is familiar with actually existing Marxist scholarship would recognize the rather unsubstantial nature of such claims7.
What’s even more ironic is that the charge of economism is made from within an intellectual enterprise that has very little to say about the question of determinations and overdeterminations in the processes of cultural production. In this context, Smith writes that:
The charges [of reductivism and economism] seem in any case peculiarly problematical when made from within a discourse that has clearly been unable to even begin to think the question of determinations within the processes of culture—and this even despite promptings from one of the “founding fathers,” Raymond Williams, whose work came to insist on the need to establish “the real order of determination between different kinds of activity. That there always is such an order of determination cannot be doubted… This is the necessary, theoretical base for the recognition of genuinely different social orders” (337).
In fact, one can go even further to argue that this very lack of a theory of determinations in cultural studies is precisely what has given birth to mostly poor cultural analysis, where cultural phenomena are studied in isolation from one another, without due analysis of their contextual relations in the mode of production, and where cultural phenomena are approached as mere texts, without due consideration of their conditions of production. And this is what I think cultural studies should aspire to: a serious engagement in the kinds of cultural studies work that would make the connections between the production of meanings and subjectivities and the production of commodities, as well as examine the processes of determination amongst and between different levels of production. This means the rejection of the notion of autonomy (relative or not), and the recognition that cultural phenomenon, far from being autonomous texts, are caught in what Smith calls “a logic of totality (a totality considered, of course, in all of its contradictions)” (338), a logic of the interconnectedness of the different social levels. According to this logic, the significance of a cultural event or phenomenon—be it ideological, political, economic, or cultural—cannot be properly assessed outside a dialectical understanding of its place in society as a whole. If cultural studies wants to continue to make any claims on the political, it must learn to examine cultural forms and events in the context of their social totality (which, here, refers to the concrete unity of all interacting spheres of social life under capitalism), that is, by pursuing their hidden interactions and interconnections in real life. This way we are in a better position to understand how social, economic, and political forces act on cultural production, distribution, and reception; and how cultural forces, in turn, act on the social, economic, and political.
Let me close with the following passage from Henri Lefebvre, who towards the beginning of his Introduction to Modernity, writes:
If we are to understand our era [in other words, modernity] – and to call it complex would be an understatement–it is absolutely vital that we construct a set of conceptual tools. In our view this conceptual apparatus is still far from satisfactory, despite the efforts of various theoreticians (who call themselves ‘philosophers’, ‘sociologists’, ‘anthropologists’, etc.), and despite the fact that the theoretical base already exists in Marx and Marxism [My italics] (3).
In the spirit of this passage, I would like to argue here that any meaningful version of cultural studies, and any project of radical modernity or democracy, has to do two interrelated things: First, take Marxism and Marxist political economy more seriously, and second, develop a more structural, systematic analysis and sustained conjunctural critique of neo-liberal capitalism both at once. And of course one must always add to these the following task, one that I have not addressed here directly, but seems to me to follow from the above two tasks: the need to connect with (and also connect) actually existing social and political movements and formations outside the academy. These moves become especially urgent at a historical conjuncture characterized by a deep economic crisis that has brought to the surface once more and more than ever before (at least in our lifetime) not only the contradictions of global capitalism and the ugly realities and consequences of material inequality in people’s lives, but also (re)new(ed) discourses, forms, and possibilities of collective resistance and struggle in the political and cultural realms. The job of a cultural studies that matters—a cultural studies that despite its institutionalization (institutiuonalization can have its advantages, too, and does not necessarily mean depoliticization!) can still claim to be a radical political and intellectual practice—is to understand, study, explain, and help change this state of affairs.
1 I am fully aware that some cultural studies scholars share most of my concerns here, and a few of them are in fact producing important work along the lines I am prescribing/describing here, but this work remains at the margins of the field. One can only hope that—given the recent shifts in the economic, political realms and the concurrent renewed interest in Marx and Marxism—this ‘emergent’ work will become more central within the field. I see my work as part of this marginalized, ‘emergent’ formation in cultural studies.
2 There are now cultural studies degree programs, high-profile national and international conferences and even professional associations and networks worldwide.
3 I think that my academic trajectory bears witness to the global presence of cultural studies: A Moroccan subject, who came to the United States at the turn of the century specifically to study and be trained in this ‘hot’ thing called cultural studies. Having completed my graduate studies in the first stand-alone cultural studies program at George Mason University, I currently teach in Columbia College’s cultural studies program.
4 As it stands now, this paper is well over the Editor’s recommended 3000-word limit.
5 This is a keynote presentation that Grossberg gave first at the Fifth Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference in 2004 and which was later published in 2006 in one of the major journals that bears the name of the field: Cultural Studies. The complete title of the piece is “Does Cultural Studies Have Futures? Should It? (Or What’s the Matter with New York?)”.
6 There are of course other methodological moves that I think (should) distinguish more careful and robust cultural studies work, including radical historicity; (self)reflexivity; and rigorous interdisciplinarity; and commitment to theory and theoretical work. However, two qualifications are in order here: One, that Cultural Studies is not (should not be) committed to any of these for their own sake; that it is rather interested in how theory and theoretical work, to take one example, can be deployed to better understand and transform specific historical conjunctures, contexts, and formations; and, two, and perhaps more importantly, that theory and theoretical concepts are always incomplete on their own and must always remain open to completion by practice, by realities that are external to them.
7 I have in mind here the work of contemporary Marxists, such as Fredric Jameson, Paul Smith, Randy Martin, Doug Kellner, Toby Miller, and Andrew Ross, among others.
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―. (1997). “Cultural Studies: What’s in a Name?” In Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies. Durham: DUP.
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