Author Archives: tombunyard

ATHQ Tom B

I hadn’t orginally intended to present anything at ATHQ, and ended up doing so as a result of a communication error. As such I was initially a little puzzled as to what I’d say – but after the first session I ended up slightly keener on the idea, and decided that I might want to say something about the relation between the two distinct kinds of practice often spoken about at the centre. These are, to my mind, as follows: on the one hand, the Marxist-radical-lefty-militant-etc. notion of practice, which comes with a whole bunch of attendant neuroses about its separation from its theoretical discussion; and on the other, the kind of practice that was being spoken about yesterday: the actual production of culture itself, and the vocational training associated with it.

In keeping with the tradition of auto-critique:

I think the motivation behind this was my own embarrassment at spending practically all of my time looking at arch, ‘radical’ lefty theory in complete isolation from its instantiation. However, in retrospect, it was also symptomatic of my increasing desire to just float off on a little cloud of theory and philosophy, and to have as little as possible to do with a cultural studies that I find increasingly – sorry folks, but its true – erm…kind of boring.

As a result, rather than a bout of hand-wringing over the divorce between ‘radical’ theory and its actualisation I ended up arguing instead for the separation between such theory and the more vocational, training-oriented, cultural kind of practice. An argument against abstract, isolated theory thus became an argument for its ‘purity’, and for its further separation from any institutional stuff that might taint its supposed (or intended) critical wisdom. …which of course immediately highlights the idealist (in both senses of the word) position adopted, and that in itself perhaps does a better job (albeit accidentally) of presenting the original complaint about academic abstraction than the text itself managed.

Basically, I argue that cultural studies should be critical theory, and that if critical theory is to set about analysing ideology it must first address itself, the tools it works with, and above all the institution in which it operates. Perhaps evidence for that could be found in the rejection of a distinction between theory and practice that may people were arguing for: surely presenting academic, theoretical work as political practice has an obvious ideological function?

Anyway:

The text was written as notes to myself, largely cobbled together the day before (busy writing stuff for the June panels). I’ve tried to flesh it out a little in what follows, but it will still read like a list of memos:

At the last session James spoke about the danger of ‘blind spots’, and suggested that they might arise as a result of the distinction between CCS and ‘real’ cultural studies; ‘real’ cultural studies, he suggested, was in ‘crisis’ because it was no longer trouble maker: what had been an ‘anti-discipline’ had solidified into a discipline, and had thus lost its ability to criticise the separation and fragmentation of others.

Luciana, in her own text, argued for moving beyond fixed disciplines – and I guess what I argue for here is that both the virtue of an anti-discipline, and indeed that of moving beyond fixed positions, might be facilitated by criticising cultural studies on its own terms.

That might be introduced by picking up some of Jeff’s comments from the previous session, which I felt got a little lost in the conversation that followed.

I thought that one could say that there were two distinct positions being articulated last time, and that the distinction between the two seemed – to me, at least – to define the limitations of what this event could hope to achieve. I think it perhaps might also indicate the limitations of cultural studies, and as such it might be possible to try and define a notion of cultural studies on the basis of those limitations.

But first: if I’m talking about a discipline, and about the merits of subjecting it to its own critique, then the first question is as to what cultural studies actually is.

Very schematically, perhaps it can be said that it is the development and dissemination of critical theory on the one hand, and on the other an engagement and interest in the production of culture. On the one hand, a critique of culture and ideology, and on the other, a training ground for its production. Finally (too many dichotomies!), on the one hand critical knowledge, developing which entails political prescriptions for changing present society, or aspects thereof; on the other something that is pursued because those involved want to be employable within that society.

The distinction between the two aspects was perhaps evidenced at the last session. Jeff’s comment about relating theory to practice was – if I understood properly – about militancy. Despite this, the conversation that resulted from it very quickly became a conversation about how to get student’s work noticed by industry.

(NB I make no judgment as to the virtues of one over the other – we’re all in this room because we do, or because we want to get jobs)

Perhaps the distinction between these two notions of practice – and indeed the speed with which the one slipped into the other – pretty much defined cultural studies: oppositional, critical ideas, articulated within an inherently vocational environment.

That might be illustrated again in relation to Jeff’s talk: Jeff said something about making ideas dangerous, and about the virtues of being shocking and provocative.

…but why? What’s the point? Why should we be shocking? Purely for the sake of it? …isn’t that a little vacuous?

I don’t see any point in making the ideas of cultural studies deliberately shocking if you don’t know why they should be shocking, who it is you’re trying to shock, or what it is that these ideas supposedly threaten. One can’t say that cultural studies should have an a priori political agenda (how to critique ideology whilst subscribing to dogma?) and one can’t adopt such a position anyway, even if it were desirable to do so, by virtue of the discipline’s location within the academic institution.

N.B. This is not to denigrate theoretical, ‘dangerous’ ideas for the sake of some romantic idea of ‘real practice’ [EDIT: rubbish, that's precisely what I was doing, as was surely apparent to all], or to suggest that they can’t ever be ‘dangerous’. Rather, the point is that the assumption that such ideas are somehow automatically dangerous, in the absence of any acknowledgment of their relation to the environment within which they are produced, entails that they are going to be neutered from the start.

In the absence of that kind of self-awareness it seems that the assertion “lets make ideas dangerous again!” can only mean “let’s try and make ideas interesting by presenting them as dangerous!”, …and I think what that really means is “let’s make the environment within which these ideas are produced commercially successful because we’re coming up with such exciting, trendy, ‘radical’ ideas!”

So, again, the problem is the relation between critical ideas and the vocational, commercial environment within which they are developed and articulated.

(as an illustration: when doing my MA a friend used to joke that I was going to “cool school”, a place where people learned to talk incomprehensible rubbish about incomprehensible French theorists. Ironically enough I now really am at ‘cool school’: “Goldsmiths, University of London was announced as one of the UK’s coolest brands last night at the exclusive PlayCool event…”)

Having said all this, it seems that suggesting ‘radical’ ideas to be inherently lucrative is probably not entirely fair [EDIT: mainly because I was conflating trendy French theory with political engagement...]. David Graeber, who’s recently joined the anthropology department, pointed out in his review of the Tate’s recent Art and Immaterial Labour conference (at which a selection of famous Italian autonomist theorists spoke) that “It’s a little shocking to discover that scholars of such recognized importance in the domain of ideas could really have received such little institutional recognition, but of course, there is very little connection between the two—especially, when politics is involved.” Graeber knows that first hand, having recently fired from Yale because of his own anarchist politics.

Perhaps this lack of financial success and institutional difficulty is due to the fact that some people think these ideas, and the people who disseminate, them really are dangerous. Stanley Abramowitz was delighted to tell us last week that he features in David Horowitz’s book The Professors – The Top 101 Dangerous Academics in America. Horowitz describes his book as follows:

The Professors [is] a collective profile of 101 faculty members who confused their academic mission with political advocacy. I argued that roughly ten percent of university liberal arts faculties were made up of professors who regarded political opinions as “integral” to their scholarship.”

Professors who profess! Surely not.

At the very least, I think cultural studies should be about the construction of political positions; after all, what’s the point of just observing cultural and ideological phenomena if you make no judgments about them? The nature of the subject under analysis entails that the judgments made might well have (and arguably should have) political implications.

So, cultural studies should obviously not preclude the constitution of ideas that are at least potentially ‘dangerous’, or at least oppositional. But the question still stands as to the extent to which they are affected by the environment within which they are produced.

With that in mind, I had a look at a course on the critique of higher education that I’d been told about (I thought it was really good: see here). A lot of that course involved getting the students to read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, which proved something of a happy accident, as I’d been going through that book again for my review text that morning. I’m sure everyone’s read the book, but as the comments made therein about education may be pertinent it might be worth rehearsing the argument:

Education is no longer presented as a drive towards ‘Truth’; knowledge becomes a collection of ‘narratives’ [EDIT: I got told off for using the word 'narrative' the other day'; apparently it implied I was a 'postmodern relativist'. Am I fuck]; these narratives are understood in terms of performativity (actualising, instituting power through utterance); this means that knowledge instantiates power in some sense, and as a result its production is managed. Some forms will be promoted, others will be denigrated, but all will be managed.

Lyotard claims that: “The moment knowledge ceases to be an end in itself…its transmission is no longer the exclusive responsibility of scholars and students.” p.50

So, this leads to ideas about the management and optimisation of knowledge production; efficiency, productivity, knowledge becoming ever more shaped in accordance with the needs of the social system as a whole. Society as an optimal cybernetic system, etc. etc.

…but as we know, you don’t need to subscribe to trendy postmodern accounts for this; Lukács was saying almost exactly the same thing, albeit by way of a different model, in the 1920′s (as Abramowitz reminded us, albeit by way of a crazy attempt to transmute the humanities into the subject-object of history); Marx equated an education factory to a sausage factory as long ago as 1860. Again, as we know, education is a commodity; as has been noted, we’re all in this room as a result of financial transactions.

So, on the one hand, we’ve got an ideal as to the production of knowledge for its own sake. On the other, we have the fact that this is pretty much (if not entirely) impossible within the present context.

With that in mind, how does does that relate to cultural studies as a discipline? Presumably we want to be able to criticise and evaluate culture and ideology; and yet at the same time, we’re involved in the production of both culture and ideology. Above all, cultural studies is itself a cultural product.

Can prescriptions be made on that basis? The things that make the centre a vibrant, interesting place are the spontaneous, unstructured things that happen on the periphery of the taught and (comparatively) formal stuff. The framework upon which the whole thing rests is obviously the inherently vocational, culture-industry, money side of things. Consequently, the issue is presumably to try and chart a path between the two, and that seems to be precisely what the centre has tried to do (and succeeded in doing) in the past.

But is it the case that in talking about charting a course between two dichotomous positions the relation between the two is missed? If cultural studies (or at least the version of cultural studies that I find interesting) is a critique of ideology – and if it necessarily arises from and produces ideology – then perhaps a key part of it what it does, perhaps as a precondition, should be a critique of itself and of the institution in which it works.

Perhaps a bad way of approaching that is via Adorno, who argues that if all of society is commodified and reified, and if all thought and culture are consequently reified as well, then chipping away at reified thought is itself revolutionary practice. He thus magically transforms philosophy into concrete practice, justifies separated intellectual labour, and returns us to the problem with which this text started.

A better way of dealing with this might be Karl Korsch: Korsch says that in order to criticise ideology one must first pick away at the link between philosophy and the historical and social practice from which it arises. Philosophy provides the tools to criticise ideology, but philosophy must itself be evaluated as ideology (cf trendy French theory, Negri, postmodernism, effacement of class analysis, etc., etc.)

The centre is very strong on theory, and on using theory to analyse culture; perhaps therefore one aspect of what it does, or a precondition for the operation of its critical side, should be an attempt to analyse that theory as culture and therefore as ideology. By extension: cultural studies should perhaps be a little more (but certainly not exclusively) self-consciousness as to its own status as culture, or as a culture, as a discipline, etc.

Some notes as to prescriptions that I didn’t bother with yesterday:

All this necessarily entails capitalizing – both senses of the word – on the spontaneous, interesting stuff that happens at the periphery of the centre.

A lot of that is reading groups

Reading groups possibly unsuitable for MA’s, as they have so much to do in one year

…but perhaps they could be given some kind of semi-official encouragement or endorsement? If reading contemporary texts, could we get the authors to be present at the final session? They do that at Sussex sometimes and it seems to work well.

We don’t have any undergraduates, so the PhD’s don’t get to do any teaching. But perhaps some kind of optional, extra-curricular (and probably fairly informal) lectures could be given by the PhD’s to those MA’s that want to hear them? Good to put on a CV (oh, how very vocational) How to make that work?

Starting a journal?

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