No really, what is cultural studies?

Below is my Introduction paper to the Unfinished Business: Undoing Cultural Studies I co-organised last week.  It will appear hopefully in some kind of publication, be it book or with a journal, at some point on the post-dissertation horizon – any tips for editing or generating such a publication are really appreciated. But I reproduce it here with some cheats, where I’ve expanded a couple of sections after the event. As it now stands, it offers a definition of cultural studies that I’d agree with, and hopefully no-one else will. I’m going to post up my paper in a few days time and start using this space to work out ideas and perspectives on my dissertation “Undermining the Castle: Kafka and the control society reconsidered”. For now, try this.


Unfinished Business: Undoing Cultural Studies introduction, by Dan Taylor.

When does cultural studies begin? As a series of quotations, an arbitrary shot in the dark at definition? Maybe we should skip ahead to the ending, to see how ‘finished’ cultural studies might be. It is known better perhaps by its undefinability, its endlessness, its commitment to not knowing and always questioning. A study from below, of the beneath maybe. But this doesn’t quite seem adequate. Perhaps instead we could say that cultural studies is the study of culture, and give into the PR exercises, bureaucratic regimes and mechanisms of self-doubt that compel us to work harder, faster, and more superficially. We could ask what is culture maybe, and hope for some definition, or how we study, or who this ‘we’ even is, but still we’d be getting nowhere with this somewhat tenuous line of inquiry.

Unfinished Business: Undoing Cultural Studies is based on a negative. This is no finished business by MA Cultural Studies graduates who have now ‘done’ culture and can transcend on to marvellous well-paid jobs in the culture industry. No, not quite. It’s not a case of having the last word, as most cultural studies primers or academic texts strive for, those which give away the game in the introduction and end with a conclusion going “relevant now more than ever, commitment to social change, et cetera”. Instead, over these two days we hope to reflect, argue, step back and ask where our research is going, how we theorise and study, for who, and why. A fixed opinion, preferably under 140 characters, is always expected, if we are to succeed in our funding applications and self-auditing exercises. We feel we should have an answer automatically, and sometimes we confuse ourselves with certainties about things – or people – in which we should never feel certain, or assume orthodoxy. We hope that these two days will transpire into a series of reflective exchanges and encounters by people working and thinking about cultural studies.

To make it clear, this is a conference organised by MA Cultural Studies students from Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies. Our research directions and personal trajectories point to a thousand different directions, and this conference is hoped to be a stage for these wayward encounters. We’d like to thank for the Centre for Cultural Studies for its support, particularly Sophie Fuggle, who has helped us immensely, and we’d also like to thank John Hutnyk for his assistance. We’d also like to thank Goldsmiths for letting us use this space in the imaginatively-titled New Academic Building, site of a student revolt against the marketisation of higher education earlier this year.

As the speakers today demonstrate, cultural studies can be discerned by something at least, and that’s its method – its undoing of other disciplines, its critique of how power relations are transmitted and understood through cultural forms, its methods of deconstruction of theory, of the subject, of disciplinary walls. Cultural Studies also undoes itself in this catalytic method. We could suggest a somewhat rudimentary and objectionable definition then, that cultural studies is a method of radical uncertainty, of never fully knowing for sure, of never ever having the audacity or short-sightedness to declare this project over, this last word uttered, this idea finished. Radical uncertainty and unfinishability allows then an openness of how we learn and discover, which isn’t as independent and singular as we’d suppose, but collective, based on disagreement and presumption. Radical uncertainty involves on the one hand an ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ type set up like Ranciere’s, where we learn without ever claiming to be learned. It also involves – well, it involves fundamentally, it brings in other disciplines. Cultural studies is a method at work already in so many different ways, creative practices and academic departments beyond CCS. This singular, authorial voice is formed and undone.

Deleuze gives us a real sense of how cultural studies works as a method between mediators, in a conversation with Antoine Dulaure and Claire Parnet in L’Autre Journal 8 of October 1985. He describes, well before Badiou’s four domains of truth, how art, science and philosophy are necessarily linked by being creative acts that work together in a series. The notion of series, of building oneself a community a little like what we have today, or with the University for Strategic Optimism is really important for Deleuze and others, and we should congratulate ourselves on constructing these independently. But as Deleuze puts it, ‘The true object of science is to create functions, the true object of art is to create sensory aggregates, and the object of philosophy is to create concepts. From this viewpoint, given these general heads, however sketchy, of function, aggregate, and concept, we can pose the question of echoes and resonances between them.’ These mediators can be real or imaginary, animate or inanimate – but always inform how science draws on philosophy for its concepts, how philosophy draws on art for its aesthetic aggregates, how art draws on science for its functions and techniques. So, expanding on our definitions so far of cultural studies as a method and technique, one that critically accounts for power relations within culture, we might now add that cultural studies is a mediator and a reflection on mediation between these disciplines. Thus, through the concept of mediation, we can explain how cultural studies has generated some of the most impressive studies of the history and methods of scientific knowledge production, radical aesthetics, continental philosophy, social geography, and far more. We often talk about interdisciplinarity here. I think mediation captures that well.

But is there a danger in being too open, in allowing everything to be cultural studies, as self-appointed pundits and friends charge us? Meaghan Morris made the caustic warning against banality in cultural studies back in 1990. As she found, after skimming through New Socialist, Marxism Today or Cultural Studies ‘I get the feeling that somewhere in some English publisher’s vault there is a master disk from which thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variations’. There are similar bland buzz-areas we might think of today in exchange for Morris’ master-disk terms, but let’s keep those in mind for now. The debates come later. So in undoing cultural studies, we should be careful not to fall into banalities. The world is a far more complex and contradictory place than narrow conceptual reductions might suggest. Morris warns us not to mimic, to refuse total silence or the ‘posture of reified difference’.

So in being specific, and resisting banality, what does cultural studies tell us about our own assumptions as researchers, and about the subjects to which we attend to, the concepts, fashionable, archaic or otherwise, that we use to understand them?Perhaps we’re in good company here. Foucault, who in any discussion about critical theory we invariably bump into – or perhaps are pushed into by our friends, teachers and colleagues – gives us a clearer sense of a practice in an interview with Paul Rabinow in 1982, where he reminds us that there is nothing fundamental in society. Instead of attending to what a concept’s history is, such as reason or liberty, we should consider instead how it is practised and exercised. As Foucault puts it, ‘There are only reciprocal relations, and the perpetual gaps between intentions in relation to one another’. Culture becomes less a study than a practice, perhaps of critiquing power relations within culture, perhaps not. We don’t want to finish our business before we’ve even started.

Foucault’s attention to practice takes us back to a tradition of British cultural studies, which through the work of its Holy fathers: Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall has a specific history in the post-war adult workers education movement, and the anti-Soviet reaction of British Marxists who would constitute the New Left. The construction and politics of identity and cultural transmission have been key concerns. So, does this grant us leave to say, amidst groans and yawns, “cultural studies is now more relevant than ever”? Well within the university, the cultural studies remains a shrinking, underfunded and unspecified area – but it has been the central focus of self-organised universities in London, across the US, Copenhagen, Liverpool, Lincoln and Leeds, and many more places. Its intrinsic commitment to political and social change, its research interests in literary and cultural history, power, identity, subjectivity and capitalism, give it real political urgency and energy.

There is a way that we can avoid the banality Morris warns us of, whilst retaining the sense of power relations and fields of cultural exchange offered by Foucault. Defining and defending cultural studies is necessary for two reasons, neither I hope are in any way conservative. Firstly, I think there is a very clear sense of what cultural studies is, how it’s done, who it’s done by, who is read, and how, and of course why it’s done, its political imperatives and its philosophical wanderlust. Its traditions and continued trajectory define it as a method and technique within all the critical humanities. Critical is no slip of the tongue: cultural studies is a critique of power relations within cultures, art, social sciences and philosophy. It’s a mediator between disciplines.

Secondly, why should we define and defend it? Well by refusing to explain what it is, which is the current stance of the directors of the Centre for Cultural Studies, an intimidating void is generated where new researchers doubt their own abilities to understand this unfathomable field. Of course the entirety of cultural studies should not be understood, the field is too large – but so long as it is presented as a technique, or a stance is offered, new researchers have an opportunity to grapple with the tradition. Currently the way cultural studies is taught does not facilitate this, meaning that many in cultural studies fall into a period of great doubt and angst which, well into their doctoral training, they often are unable to emerge from. What and why? An undergraduate programme engaging with the wider history of ideas and the history of disciplines (sociology, anthropology, philosophy etc) would be successful here, but above all, a definition has to be offered, walls generated. No discipline or field of knowledge is free of its own disciplinarity or constructs. Deleuze was still at the end of the day an academic.

But cultural studies should be defended as a technique because of its value to a history of ideas, because of its value in – to borrow someone else’s definition – applying philosophical concepts to the social sciences. This critique of knowledge and this political commitment are key right now. We talked earlier about the self-organised universities. As neoliberal ideas, the avant-garde of capitalism, entirely privatise and marketise all public services, education and healthcare, cultural studies has an ethical and political responsibility to defend the humanities, to critique the idea of neoliberalism, and fundamentally to empower and regain a sense of place, public and resistance. Neoliberalism privatises and negates individuals into entrepreneurs and consumers. Cultural studies might chart such an existential transmogrification. Cultural studies as a mediator, and a reflection on mediation, is formed I think like a very large web of networks, or a large network of cells, developed around specific foci, be they thinkers or research areas. These networks can emerge now, record and challenge the privatisation of the education, of democracy and the individual. It’s a hard fight but one cultural studies is already directed towards, a little like France’s doomed Maginot line back in 1939. Instead of navel-gazing, a task of cultural studies might be to convert this radical uncertainty into a whole-scale crisis of consent in the public. Cultural studies must be popular or it will not be at all.

Enough of this preamble. Perhaps the speakers here retain some of these somewhat arbitrary and thoroughly problematic definitions I’ve just presented as fact, at least four by my count, but I hope they will challenge them too. What we write, research and assume about who we are has to always be open to debate and exchanges.

Undoing, unmaking, unfolding. Uncertainty is increasingly the flavour of our modernity, in the precarity of our working and personal lives, so well-diagnosed by Ivor Southwood, Mark Fisher, and now creeping into academic discussions. But as with the Uncertainty event at Royal Holloway, or the stagflation of the British anti-cuts movement after March 2011, simply not being sure what one wants, or where one is going, is a dangerous thing. So some directions then. Where to begin? It’s Monday the 4th July, yes!, and we approach or perhaps reproach the academic headquarters in the first panel. With funding cuts to arts and humanities, the time comes for new strategies and new arguments against Russell group and Oxbridge orthodoxy. Matt Mahon questions transdisciplinarity, Grave Riddle interrogates utopia, and Paul Sutton asks whether cultural studies now reinforces the hegemony of neoliberalism in its celebration of popular culture over radical aesthetics.

We break in perhaps? Either way we take a break, then after coffee Nils Erhard, Debbie Herring and Camille Stanger will organise an hour-long workshop from 12.00 on Undoing the conference room, via remote-control. This workshop might undo some of the familiar conference notions of name tags, powerpoint flapping, opportunities to “network”, questions that turn into leading academics’ pissing contents. After lunch we return to think about how culture is theorised, as Lara Choksey pursues a rabbit with a text tied round a leg into an alliterary void, and Shoshone Johnson and Dhanveer Brar go deep within blackness, sound and escapism. Is this entirely unfinishable? Well the second day has more to suggest, but to end, after all this, we ask where on earth is culture? Perhaps in our search to impose an over-arching and conclusive definition of Cultural Studies we end up killing the test subject, like the Soviet Union’s space dog Laika, sent out into orbit on Sputnik 2 in 1957, never to return. Sibi Arasu presents a short collectively-produced film in search of culture and its apparent Centre around New Cross, featuring interviews and all manner of experimental footage. A barbecue follows thereafter at the Centre for Cultural Studies back-garden on 36 Laurie Grove, all welcome.


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