AtHQ – Defending the Headquarters

Does cultural studies have its own territory that is worthy of being defended?

Given that the autonomy of disciplines has been vehemently debated and de facto denied as usefully productive by many, how can cultural studies be the source of any resistance whatsoever without staking out a particularized terrain and theatre of potential operations? (channelling Boris Groys in Art/Power”, 2008)

 What would a practice-based PhD look like in CCS that would of necessity claim its territorial, conceptual, and political stakes here as opposed to Visual Cultures, Media & Communications, or Fine Arts? How might this be a useful and even crucial attachment as opposed to merely a convenient academic anchor?

Surely CCS must argue for some particular autonomy (to bring in a much disputed term).

The greater or at least ancillary challenge however would then be to tamper with/expand the existing definitions and formal requirements of the PhD at the level of the university which has very specific guidelines/understandings of what a thesis project should look like.

Who are we? What do we do? How do we do it?

I’m stating the obvious when I say that it’s important to acknowledge that our concerns (collectively and individually) are not necessarily one and the same (something Jennifer notes on her blog entry). The challenges for students and by extension their needs are not identical to those that face faculty as ongoing members of the Goldsmiths research and academic community.

The questions of “who we are” (institutionally as CCS housed within Goldsmiths, as cultural studies in the UK more generally, as researchers—faculty and students) and “what” and “how” do we do the things that we do, must then be continually re-worked and productively coupled with the more urgent question:

“How is a subject of any kind produced in the world”? To attack the headquarters must, in my opinion, place this question at its core.  

Seminars & Events

I think its important that faculty have agency in terms if bringing readings forward to the student seminars. This doesn’t have to be an overly consultatively process because its impossible to know in advance what it is that might perturb and/or provoke us – something that may be embedded in the readings themselves or be triggered in the resulting discussion.

I’m not overly concerned in having my own particular interests mirrored back to me but rather am much interested in the unexpected – ideas that enter into the orbit of my universe that I had never considered before or even knew existed.

Real interest can only ever reside in the fact that one does not know a priori what history these discussions will ultimately be a question of.

I can’t speak for my fellow students but feel that it is important to go to seminars and be actively involved in the events at the college because this is generally where life-long networks are established – to remain in the contact zone so to speak, so that we might create new categories of assembly that don’t as of yet exist.

These are emergent processes that can happen both organically as  students get together in self-organizing reading groups, arrange screenings, facilitate events etc., but can also be evolved through the structural and formal elements of CCS.

There are PhD programs where one can happily sequester themselves at the British Library for four years but it seems to me that CCS was set up in part to counter this model and provide alternate modes of critical engagement – what these are exactly is what this series of discussions is attempting to figure out.

CCS as a Collective Project

I’m committed to CCS as a collective project but also recognize that it contains within it many heterogeneous subfields of potential. I propose mobilizing small-scale intensive projects under the auspices of CC that can connect faculty, students and ideas to other research/creative clusters (in the UK and abroad). This is not to “go out in the world” as was critiqued last time we gathered because it presupposes that we [CCS] are not of the world but rather to acknowledge our potential to connect with other non-aligned organisations/entities.

For example, the Roundtable in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths has been involved in various conferences, exhibitions, and events under the collective banner of RA. We have even opened up our PhD seminars to the public upon certain occasions. 

Could CCS operate as a larger structural device (a kind of resource galaxy), that would consist of smaller subgroups and organisations (cultural constellations) each of which would participate in public events and research activities as specifically named entities? I know that the urgent issue of our of relevance with respect to the college is linked in part to perceptions of visibility and profile. Although these identifiable subgroups would be anchored within CCS and publicised as such, these smaller categorical assembles would allow different constituencies and ideas to move and in out them as needed.

 Some Basics 

  • we need to stop making distinctions between theory & practice and understand them as mutually affected terms and terrains of culture making
  • we need to refrain from picking and choosing between practices – privileging certain practices over others
  • when we approach a non-textual work entirely through the register of language potential tools for thinking are lost 
  • we need to develop alternate forms of critique and evaluation appropriate to different forms of practice (whether this is the crafting of a philosophic concept or the scoring of a musical composition)
  • we need to acknowledge and articulate the ways in which practice retrospectively performs itself as research
  • we need to reinvent components of the thesis requirements = adaptive structures that allow other temporal and spatial elements (non-textual) to move into the thesis project

AtHQ – Is Reality Fabulating?

(There are many things I’d like to add after Tuesday’s event to this original version of my provocation. Mainly thanks to Matthew’s presentation – and the way it made me to revisit my ideas on practice – and to some of the comments on theory and the institution. But sometimes it’s good to resist the temptation to modify history: so this is the version originally written for the ATHQ.)

I want to discuss two things. Firstly, how CCS, cultural studies and in the end academic work – instead of being tools or sources of inspiration – are hindrances or hinders for our thinking, our imagination, and our action. And secondly how we are actively betraying our intellectual and theoretical premises or values in our actions or non-actions. Although this might sound bleak, I’ll try to bring forward some propositions as well.

In many ways this is a result of self-reflection, and it is as much self-criticism than any other kind of criticism. I decided to take a self-reflexive approach (first of all because I cannot do anything else), and secondly because after coming here I have experienced a feeling of discontinuity or rupture which calls for reflecting on good practices, bad practices and yet unknown practices. The discontinuity grows out of having first spent seven years in Finnish universities and doing all those seven years political activism, and now having spent some eight months in a British institution and doing absolutely no political activism. The great paradox is that I came here because I felt that I needed a more politicized environment for my research. Much of this can sound like the teenage angst Jeff referred to last time, but I can assure you that engaging yourself in today’s activism or politics is mostly boring and the least adventurous thing one can imagine. So absolutely no glorification here.

So the first question: how is all that I am, or we are, doing a hindrance for out thinking? I remember last autumn, after spending a month or so here, we discussed in the phd seminar Lukacs and the problem of alienation. And the main outcome of the seminar for me was that instead of capitalism or the social order, it was the pdh seminars that were alienating me. I don’t necessarily feel so anymore, but it is mainly because I have learned to know the rules. It is better to quote someone than tell your own impression. It’s better to ask a theoretical question rather than a practical one. Better to talk theory than politics. Etc.
All this of course hints at the never ending debate on the role of the theory in the CCS, and because I don’t want to bore you, I’m not trying to give yet another perspective on the question of whether we should or should not concentrate on high theory, heavy theory, difficult theory or whether we are doing it too much or too little. But instead I want to concentrate on the ways we use theory, we make use of it, we practice it – and how we are not doing it in the best possible way.

I think the first shortcoming was already discussed last time well by James, namely the illusion of total coverage. I certainly agree that we easily hold the illusion that we could or should cover everything, and we should try to get rid of it. But in addition to that I think we should more actively try to get rid of the idea of coverage or knowing altogether – and allow more productive ways of reading through risks, imagination and sloppy reading. Instead of reading carefully texts of theorists and trying to understand what is meant, we should allow more strange, obscure and unpredictable readings. I think it would be itself fabulation, which interested James and Luciana last time. And it would mean, we wouldn’t need a separate center for the studies of fiction (done by others), but rather we would create fiction ourselves through our readings of the theories or other texts.
And now the second shortcoming I see in our ways of engaging with theory. It is the problem of reality. I think we do not let reality interrupt our theories often enough. We don’t let the events happening in the world disturb our understanding or reading of a theory or our work in general.
This brings with it several problems: one is the question of good reading and the other is the question of stimulation. The third one, namely politics, is embedded in the other two.
To take the point of good reading. Because we engage or interact only rarely with the world outside the academia, we are constantly a couple of steps behind of what we were supposed to be analysing, reading, or changing. Once again James touched this by asking whether we are good enough in reading. I think we are not, because we are not actually reading the contemporary reality, this is: we don’t observe the actual object of our research. The lectures or the seminars only rarely take as their starting point something that has happened recently, or something that is happening – be it a protest against China, elections in London, shootings in New Cross, or financial crisis in the US estate markets. If we mainly engage ourselves with written texts, we are all the time behind of the actual world, because of the time difference between an event and a text. This is above all self-criticism, because after coming here I have virtually stopped following the world. After coming here I have no idea what happened to the trade agreement i was campaigning against for two years. Or I have no clue what the new EU treaty consists of, although I worked on the EU constitution for several years. It is of course mainly my own fault, but it looks like there is not much time, space or enthusiasm for this kind of observing in the academia. John said last time that he feels as if CCS was a refugee for many practitioners or activists, who need a break from their practices or time to reflect, and this is what I think as well, but if this means cutting the links to the practice, it cannot be a good way to be in exile either.
And maybe even more important than the issue of good reading, is the question from where we get the stimulus for our thinking. To link this to what was discussed last week, namely fabulation, speculative thought and minoritarian thinking, I believe that what I call reality is all the time fabulating, speculating and creating unrealistic conditions – in a way that theory is not always possible to do or in a way that theory often does only afterwards. And letting these unbelievable things that happen each day to intrude, intervene and attack our theories, work and thinking would in my opinion stimulate our thinking as much as reading theory, or even fiction. Often these are uncomfortable, unpleasant intrusions – but I guess that is what one calls facing the reality.

So if we would start form here, letting the practice intrude the theory, I think we would not encounter the problem Luciana discussed last week, namely that the theory-practice formula means implementing ready made and simplified concepts or ideas to certain practical needs. Rather it would mean letting the practice open up theory.

But this intrusion has to take place constantly, because otherwise we would end up only co-opting certain moments, events or ways of thinking. If we would allow a constant flow of intrusion and impulses outside of our theoretical frames, we would not end up institutionalising – and in that way killing – everything that seems to be new, innovative or interesting.
Letting the reality interrupt our thinking on a constant basis would of course mean taking risks – also for the teaching staff – because no one can be an expert on what happened just yesterday. But without taking this risk, we run the risk of being institutionalised, conventional, and out of date all the time. In practice this could mean doing different kind of readings or exercises in reading. Last time someone pointed at reading fiction in the seminars, which is a great idea. But since I don’t tend to value fiction over other kind of writings, why not read a draft of a trade agreement (they are maybe not always as much fun, but they are as full of fiction as novels), or a leaflet distributed by a police or a document by goldsmiths’ administration, or a building, or whatever, all those things that we are maybe individually reading but almost never together. This would of course mean that the role of the teacher would need to change. Instead of giving us his or her own reading of a text he or she might have been working on for years, the teacher would read together with us something that is as obscure, foreign or uncomfortable for him or her than it is for us. He or she would bring some analytical skills into the situation rather than an authoritative reading. This would most likely also allow the much-wanted interaction to take place more easily. And it would make it easier to say, that I don’t understand anything (the problem Claudia pointed at last time).
And now to come to the third shortcoming I see in our ways to approach theory is the role we give to individual theorists. This might be difficult to verify, but there seems to be a certain cult – not even of theories, ideas or schools of thought – but of individual theorists, academic super stars. And it might be that in the end this is the biggest hindrance for thinking. Because instead of engaging with the reality, an idea, or a problem, we engage ourselves with the thinking of someone else. At its best this can of course be a fruitful relation where something new occurs, but too often it is making a fetish out of someone else’s ideas. It is also a perfect strategy for making everyone feel that one is not competent to speak before he or she has an MA degree, a PhD, a lectureship or a professorship. I think we should allow ideas to arise just before we think we have understood what this or that theorist meant, not after that, because then the idea is already conditioned by the idea of the other or by the question the other asks. I’m actually dreaming of workshops, seminars or conferences without names. It started as an idea with Yuk of having a seminar where the speakers wouldn’t be announced, but now I’m thinking of academic workshops where one is not allowed to use or refer to any names or theorists. I won’t go further here, because like said the problem is difficult to verify, but maybe what I will say next elaborates on this as well.
So now moving on to my second point, I want to end my provocation with the idea of betrayal. Are we being true to ourselves or to our theoretical ideals? In many ways this links to the already said, but anyway I take it as a separate question. How loyal are we to our own theoretical thinking? If the theories we are reading here (and this is of course only my interpretation of the reading list, and here people might see this differently) if they are all about critique of capitalism, meaning critique of private property, poststructuralism, theories of commons, general intellect, or immaterial labour, networks, collective construction or collective action, the possibilities of politics or communities, postmodernism, interaction, innovations, creativity – if all these are our theoretical starting points: how come that we adore individual theorists (meaning intelligence or ideas as private property), that almost no one writes articles or books together, that most of our workshops or seminars don’t mix post docs and graduates as speakers, that only few people write or act outside the academia, that there is no physical space for encounters or co-operation (the problem discussed last time). Why are we not trying to make our ideas leak out of the CCS, why don’t we participate in public discussion? How come that we are trying to read theorists as carefully as possible instead of creating new meanings, encouraging wrong readings. How come, that we reinforce the myth of individuals, the hierarchies between those who are ready to speak and those who are not, that we are actively reproducing the lack of community in our own work. Could it be that at the same time as we see that our problems are collective (be they climate change, the university administration, neoliberal policies, bureocracy etc), we find it more and more difficult to engage ourselves in doing things together, writing articles together, even discussing together. And is this collective action or work difficult, because it would mean compromising our own individual premises, ideas or values.
I think in the end this all comes back to the question of practice or praxis. I have heard that theory is a form of practice, but to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. Especially if there is no one who cares about whether the theory diffuses or leaks outside itself or the academia. If we do not engage ourselves with the society, the community or even the university, we run the risk of both restricting our own thinking (the question I discussed in the beginning) and not seeing our deeds as part of collective adventures. The challenges are numerous and work on several level. Why are we not fighting college fees? Why are we not opposing the differentiation between oversees students and eu-students? Why are we not discussing the counter terrorism acts taking place at New Cross station? Why are we not fighting against the CCTVs that were just installed in the library? Or if all these are too difficult questions to tackle with, why are we not even demanding that we should be allowed to eat our own food at loafers? Of course some of this might be happening, not in the form of direct action, but in the parasitic way Luciana was discussing last time. Let’s hope it does, but the question still remains how effective this parasitic or camouflaged action can be, if it is something that remains in the realm of individuals, if it is not something that can be joined and done together.
I do understand that there is another approach, an approach where academics have their own distinctive role in the society and where there are others who take their ideas forward and yet others who turn them into practice and so on and so forth – all the way to the distinction between phd students and those who clean our toilets. But for me – coming from an academic environment where doing critical – not to mention – marxist research is anything but fashionable, where it is a stigma rather than an advantage at job markets, where you rather not do it if you really don’t need to, it has been a surprise to see how easy it is to make a difference between theory and action or practice – in a way where practice would intrude theory. Or how little there is actual interest in spreading our intellect or our ideas outside the academia.
But having said all this, it is not meant to be a moralizing attack on us, not to say that we are simply not sound with our values, that we should be better and more ascetic people, and go to the barricades, but rather to think what would make us stronger. Could it be: doing things together, attacking those who don’t agree with us, letting discussion without theorists take place, letting ourselves be confused with ideas, acting, using our general intellect rather than the private ideas of our pet theorists, and above all letting the impulses coming from reality be more essential part of our thinking.

AtHQ – Containment … Gesture … (negative) … excess(?)

‘Attack the Headquarters’ has left me thinking about certain themes that I feel permeate much of the debates. When approaching the ‘AtHQ’ event I was energized, as I was hoping that this event would allow a space for the creation/deployment of a clearly articulated and mutually constituted base level of consensus amongst the staff and the varying tiers of the student body. Maybe this was an unfair expectation, as much a product of my own lack of experience of these events as much as it is also a product of a certain spirit of hopefulness I find I cannot yet shake from myself. This belief being an a priori belief in the power brought into being by the collective assembling of human beings around the singular moment. I only feel it necessary to outline this above concern in order to situate my understanding of the ‘AtHQ’ meetings so far as being in some senses in conflict with, but also indebted to my a priori privileging of the coming-together of human beings. It should also be noted that I am as of yet not in the position of posting or proclaiming an absolute judgment on any perceived, on my own part at least, eventual outcome of these events.

I feel that in some senses the concerns that have been raised for myself are broadly to be collected, for my own understanding as much as anyone else’s, within the three notions I have used as a naming for my post. The first concern is not in any way predicated on any kind of assumption of priority, but is merely placed first as a way for me to think through my response. The concern I have is to do with the concept of containment. I don’t deploy this term within a strictly disciplinarian way, I’m not, for example deploying the notion of containment that accompanies the handling of viral outbreak or nuclear meltdown, but rather as the way in which containment could be said to delineate or construct the outer most point of a concept or debate. This may be a fluidic or permeable outer most point, but I feel that there is still an method of the deployment of ideas or debates that seeks to define, and in some sense it is this mode of definition that I want to address.

I have been thinking about the way in which there are ‘concerns’ implicit to the making of an event like this, but I feel in some sense it is also these very concerns that generate the problems in and of themselves. The premise of ‘AtHQ’, at least as far as I am aware, or have been made aware, is that this is some formal point of departure, or an active moment of movement, in which there is a certain degree of expectation that some formal ‘gear-change’ will occur. It seems to me that the debates thus far have operated along the lines of defining the quality/qualities of the varying methods or modes of analysis or encounters offered and taken up by the active participants, of the bodies, present within the CCS as an institution in itself. It seems to me that the general tonal quality of the provocations made within the confines of the ‘AtHQ’ event is a continual repositioning of the goal-posts, so to speak. In a sense, it seems as if there is a continual struggle (in the less than epic sense) over not just what, but how to define the terrain within which ‘Cultural Studies’ is deemed or “allowed” to operate. It is this moment of (silent?) confrontation that I feel is also the causal moment from where the originary process of containment emerges. In the process of defining the qualitative concerns within/under which we as ‘critics'(?) operate I also believe we construct the very conditions for the self-annihilation of any attempts made to ‘change-gear’. It is as if the harder we accelerate the deeper our wheels bore into the mud

What I am advocating here is not a nihilistic inversion of this problematic. Just because we are in the mud, does not mean we are wrong to make the journey. I do not see ‘AtHQ’ as unnecessary in light of the issues of (self)containment through definition, in fact in some senses I think ‘AtHQ’ becomes more of a necessity. But the issue of self-containment I feel cannot be understood without relating it to the second term of my title which is gesture

By the term gesture I also wish to invoke the relationship that gesture has to the notions of etiquette, manners and gesticulation. In this context I view the concept of gesture as having a quantitative relationship to the related terms I have outlined. I see gesture as a delineation of a unit of etiquette and manners. Although I will not remove the qualitative relationship between the terms, I will begin by addressing gesture as a unit of behaviour, or more broadly a unit of action

For me, manners and etiquette are a way of constructing an economy of gestures, a system of exchanges and valuations that determine the relation of one unit of gesture to another. The issue of containment is also for myself a matter of the deployment of a unit of gesture. The moment of definition undertaken in the moment of containment is for myself a gestural moment. It is point at which a relationship between the individuated gesture is brought to market and is given a value based upon its relation to the value embodied in gestures, by way of the previous containment of preceding gestures in the economy of manners. For myself, the containment of definition only seems to present itself as an issue for nihilism, or self-redundancy, in that it can at any moment reinforce the asymmetry of the economy of manners. In this economy of manners, of etiquette, I do not see the notions of ‘critique‘, ‘innovation‘, or ‘institutionalization‘ as bringing to bear any form of non-value, or anti-value. These concepts cannot but participate in the difficulty of the moment of gesture and the process of self-containment through definition. It is for myself rather the relation between these notions as units of gesture and between these parts as parts of the economy of etiquette that recreates the problematic of the defining moment.

It is at this point that I feel that the last term in my title needs to be highlighted. As it may be recognised, the term is itself already included as a problematic, it is the notion of (negative) excess(?). The reason for my listing of this idea in this manner is also a product of the idea itself. By (negative) excess(?) I mean a lack, but which is conditioned by the presence of itself. In this sense (negative) excess(?) is akin to a certain understanding of the notion of ‘forgetting’, but whereas I view ‘forgetting’ as an empty space conditioned by the dropping of a ‘thing’, I view a (negative) excess(?) as in some ways the inverse. It is a nothing that is actively present (this statement should not be read as a statement on the interpretation of these terms made by others, but as my own treatise that is not intended as a contention against the use of these concepts elsewhere). From this ‘definition‘ of (negative) excess(?) I take it as an important concept in the relation of gesture to the problematic of self-containment through definition. The process of self-defining containment as a marshaling of the unit of gesture will, in my view at least, always leave a (negative) excess(?). There will, in the process of the exchange of units in this economy of manners, always be a nothingness that is only there by its presence, not it’s forgetting

In some senses, this is almost a blind-spot, which seems to be a useful gesture of definition generated by this series of events. But I would try to avoid the notion of (negative) excess(?) being a space of ‘not’ seeing, but as an actually present part of what is being seen, in some senses the (negative) excess(?) is what is seen. The process of ‘critique‘ or ‘defintion’ I outlined earlier are in my view at least, struggles (again, the non-epic kind) over where the placement of this (negative) excess(?) should be. When there is a struggle over the deployment of units of gesture in the context of the construction of the necessary cartographic definition of the terrain of the what/how for and of Cultural Studies and the CCS, I cannot but feel the need to insist upon the (negative) excess(?), the thing that is not there but in some senses casts itself as an inevitability

For me, the (negative) excess(?) is a fundamentally ethical and political problematic. When the forces of critique are intended to be brought to bear upon some part of the map, in what sense will that attack only alter the view we have of the part of the map the attack takes place in by simply moving this (negative) excess(?), rather than say an attack that rewrites the very borders in which we find our attack confined and defined. If force is placed anywhere, how can there not be a weak point in the defense in any possible moment of counter-attack? The only solution I can view, and this is only my pint of view, is that this (negative) excess(?) is not merely a hindrance, but is also a key tool for strategically coordinating the attacks we make on the headquarters

As all acts of definition are contained or implicated in the economy of manners, I see our (negative) excess(?) as no less a hindrance for ourselves that the (negative) excess(?) that conditions the counter-attack that we may receive from the headquarters. Thusly, we must understand the gestural methodology employed by the headquarters in its moment of defining its maps, and move against it. The headquarters is part of a system of speculation in the economy of etiquette, defining and applying value to not only this economy on the collective scale, but also at the point of the unit. By containing the individuated unit of gesture within a certain terrain, the headquarters creates it’s own (negative) excess(?), it is here that I see as the point of the map where we should be.

We must always be fighting the method of definition employed by the headquarters by not avoiding their sight, but being the one thing that cannot but be avoided. As the headquarters assembles a map, we must make ours faster, whilst they assemble their forces, we must assemble ours faster, and whilst they prepare for a counter-attack we must already be mounting the next offensive.

And this can only occur, in my view, in the knowledge of the methods of definition of gesture used by the headquarters through it’s participation in the process of the valuation of these selfsame gestures. The methods of valuation we employ are only effective in light of their relationship to the methods of valuation used by the headquarters, not by the divergence of methods employed by our forces in any one of our attacks. It is not how we define the heterogeneity of attacks we make upon this supposed headquarters, but by the commonalities we share that allow for us all the occupy the point of the headquarters (negative) excess(?).

It is here that I feel I can return full circle to my opening remarks about the a priori expectations I came to this event with. It is not so much the defined qualities of our individuated gestures of critique that define the value of the critique. There is not innate value to any critique outside of it’s placement within an economy of etiquette, which are in a sense already predefined by the valuations made in the very moment of the deployment of any unit of gesture. It is rather the commonality, or ‘brought-togetherness’ of these units of gesture. It is the very process of the creation of the singular moment in which an assumed commonality is possible that will allow for us to best formulate the next line of attack, and allow for us to plot out where the headquarters has placed its (negative) excess(?). Although this process of formulation will not be within the worry of becoming stuck in the mud, once we are all here it becomes less a matter of frantic pedal pushing, and more a matter of us all putting on our wellington boots, exiting the vehicle and collective dragging ourselves out of the dirt.


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?


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?

Public reading of ‘radical material’ that led to ‘terror arrests.

Demonstration against the deportation of Hicham Yezza and for academic freedom

Nottingham academics to give public reading from Al-Qaeda training manual.

The document had been downloaded from an official US government website, for academic research into political extremism.

Photo Opportunity: Outside the Hallward Library, University Park Campus, 2:00pm, 28/05/08. The reading will be followed by a silent protest to the Trent Building, the administrative building. There will be hundreds of students present many of whom will be symbolically gagged. There will be sales and a collection in aid of Hichams’ legal fees.

The demonstration was originally called to voice outrage and concern over the threat to academic freedom, illustrated by the recent arrest of two innocent people on campus. The focus has now widened to include support and solidarity for one of the arrested, Hicham Yezza, who is now facing imminent deportation.

Hicham Yezza, know to his many friends as ‘Hich’, has lived, worked and studied in Nottingham for the past 13 years. He won a scholarship to study for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and was later employed by the University of Nottingham. He is highly skilled and has made incredible contributions to the University and local community.

Hich’s MP, Alan Simpson, has written to Liam Byrne Minister of State for Borders and Immigration to express his concerns at what he described as an “arbitrary deportation with no right to a proper hearing.” Nick Palmer, MP for Broxtowe said, “I hope that Mr Yezza will have his case fully and fairly considered without any rush to deport him before all the facts are clear.”

Petitions are currently being signed by hundreds of students and academics worldwide, asking the University of Nottingham to lobby for Hicham’s release and to guarantee academic freedom on campus for all staff and students regardless of their ethnic background or political views.


Contact the Campaign:

Phone: 07948590262 or 07505863957



Gore Vidal visit.

Oh oh, a post out of sequence (repel athq), but I am well impressed with octogenarian Gore Vidal’s current media blitz. South Bank Show, Hard Talk, the Guardian and the Hay Festival have all recently featured the sci-fi writing, historian, novelist, gayest pensioner, scourge of the dumb and daft (he says John McCain is “intellectually in George W Bush’s league” – tsk). I’ve read most of Vidal’s books by now, numbering over 50, and as a youngster considered a trek to Italy just to camp on his doorstep so as to meet him.

Correspondent with Tim McVeigh (who invited him to his execution – now there’s an A-list fixture) and relative of both Jackie O and climatic Al Gore, I love his epic historico-fictions the best. He had a bit part in the film ‘Bob Roberts’ as a senator and was Director Joseph in ‘Gattaca’, but he should also have been in the West Wing. His inspirational novel Julian is matched by Visitor to a Small Planet and the cross-gendering Myra Breckenridge, but even his recent older-statesman essays deserve considered respect.

Scriptwriter for ‘Ben Hur’ – making Heston camp was exquisite – and in later years a great essayist and memoirist, the present media blitz cashes in on what would in England be called ‘national treasure’ status. Only Vidal deserves it more than the Palins of this world. Read his commentary on Capote and the bird (Tennessee Williams) in Palimpsest for sheer eloquence.

AtHQ – Concerning ‘Attack the Headquaters.’

As I wasn’t invited to deliver my thoughts to the meeting (of course I wasn’t – who would have invited me? Who would even have thought to?), I have collected some of them here for review at leisure. Please do REVIEW them – dispute them, second them or second-guess them. That much has been said already by others, but it bears repeating.

I am not really extending a singular argument, but rather, trying to say what may yet be unsaid – drawing attention to various of those ‘blind-spots’ which were referred to at the first meeting. I’m also intervening, consciously, because I can.

There is probably more than one single, coherent CCS in effect already. There are multiple agendas here at CCS, and what already is is being called into further doubt by AtHQ. Dear sweet utopians (myself included)

might dream of consensus, here as elsewhere. However, speaking practically, such liberal sentimentality could effectively handicap the (work, etc.) ethics of CCS (such ethics surely being a – if not the – core issue at stake for AtHQ). It is one thing to uphold standards of mutual respect; it is another to imagine that the democratic platform itself is the royal road to success. In all this I wear my politics on my sleeve. What I am getting at is that I already recognise healthy levels of dissent in the department, and discord as to its nature, its mission(s) and their appropriate means of pursuit. I think that Attack the Headquaters has the potential to increase that dissonance, create factions and thereby encourage the evolution of innovative phenomena. Constitutive homogeneity should be allowed for and properly recognized where it occurs, but it should not be actively encouraged. This is a thoroughly ecological concern (a point which I may expand on request).

Let it also be remembered by all that Goldsmiths and the CCS are already real, mundane social, political structures manifest in the world-at-large. It is certainly prudent to draw attention to difficulties of voice, power, access etc. in their effect upon the practical functioning of the Centre (it is even better to suggest realistic solutions). However, let us not obsess! These problems are NOT specific to CCS. They are endemic to ‘our’ society – even to society as such, I suspect. We/you/they may very well want to think about the

apparent reluctance of some people to stand forward at certain times and cast their opinions in class, meetings or wherever. But for pity’s sake don’t imagine that there is something ‘wrong’ with CCS specifically because those problems occur. Politics and personality are and always have been part of the wallpaper, so to speak, and if they concern you, I urge you to throw your attention towards the whole wall rather than the tiny (potentially self-indulgent) little pattern that describes the CCS. Look, certainly, but don’t stare.

To go further, and to risk sounding like even more of a heartless fascist, some of the problems that have been voiced around these discussions, as problems with CCS, are more accurately personal problems which impact CCS because their sufferers are allied to the Centre. This isn’t to denigrate those personal problems, or to suggest that their consideration is out of place here (I’ve had these problems too); I merely think that

the distinction is important, as it may help us understand the situation more clearly. For instance, I hear that many individuals are experiencing a crisis of purpose with regards their academic lives, their thinking and their presence in CCS. This is hardly surprising for MA candidates at the least, given the (probably quite necessary) structure of the course! But this is NOT the same problem as the similar lack of direction of the CCS as a whole.

Some academics are only really comfortable when proffering their own normative values; others instead only feel comfortable discussing what apparently is rather than what they may feel should be. Still others find no ethical problem here! Perhaps a similar set of judgements faces CCS-at-large through the process of AtHQ. In any case, we may relate our personal problems with CCS to the collective problems of CCS as a whole, and we may even seek to tackle them together – but if we do so, let this be a conscious decision, rather than an implicit assumption (particularly where the one might otherwise be assuaged without recourse to the other).

There is certainly a lack of purpose in the CCS. This may be a strength and a weakness; it is the weakness

that concerns me here. I would like to propose an agenda, a programme, in fact a subjective moral stance for the CCS in addition to the foregoing (practical) ethical concerns. I wish to set alarming precedent for our discussions now by proposing a benchmark against which all further discussion may be judged. I am well aware that this move might make some people uncomfortable, and for a plethora of reasons. Let them voice their discomfort.

There are sufficient REAL problems in the REAL world for much of what gets discussed as ‘problematic’ in CCS to be distasteful in the extreme. On the one hand we have climate change, peak oil, food crises and myriad other practical problems gradually making life more difficult for everybody, whilst each one of these REAL problem threatens a phase-shift any day that might suddenly topple us all into dangerous, unexpected territory. On the other hand we have arrived in modernism’s absolute future – not the relative, ongoing future of our own individual lives, but the absolute science-fiction future of the End of History. This is a

fiction, we know, but there is nevertheless an alarming lack of ability to reimagine anything today. I think this is a profound problem for the CCS. We are a microcosm of the global empire that knows that ‘the chips are up,’ that there are too many threats and too much change coming from too many sides at once, but still we are unable to act because we are unable to imagine – or to commit. We know all this, we talk about this at CCS, but we don’t treat these problems with the unique, unparalled respect which they deserve. Any other concerns are secondary. This is my contention. The scholarly reflection on Kierkegaard can wait for a time when the (potential, but very real) collapse of global society, culture, civilization has either been averted or, by conscious preparation, survived. If Kierkegaard is relevant, let him be relevant to these contemporary practical concerns.

I humbly propose that those who can abide by these principles stay with the CCS, and those who cannot, pursue their traditional studies elsewhere. There is the potential here for CCS to do something worthy, unique, and truly historic. CCS is in crisis because the world is in crisis. Every day the media reports the

crises, but the politicians remain out-of-phase. Every day the situation gets worse, and the danger of catastrophic failure grows. Shouldn’t this complex of cultural problems become the explicit focus of CCS? If not, WHY not? And if not us, then who?

People will always have pet projects, and each academic will pursue a different part of the same puzzle. But the benchmark against which a value judgement should be made, for any undertaking in/with/by the CCS, should be as follows: does it contribute to the understanding of, amelioration of, or experimental intervention in, the world-in-crisis as described above? This judgement is often tacitly made already, but it is something new to suggest that it be adopted as the very foundation of a resolved or self-resolving CCS-in-crisis. The ‘critical interventions in creative industries’ alluded to in the centre brochure is already half-way to suggesting a genuine culture of engagement – but I am convinced that formalising the link between CCS and the ‘cultural industries’ is a mistake. That site of intervention is too narrow and although it

offers itself to subversion, it naturally stands on enemy territory. And there IS an enemy.

I have some practical suggestions (partly in response to James and Luciana), and these will follow on later. For now, I’m interested in what people make of my (possibly quite audacious) suggestion of a definitive ‘benchmark’ against which we and the CCS may be judged, in respect to our world-in-crisis. Would people rather stay with unadulterated academia for its own sake? Am I overstating the world’s problems? Where does the people’s glorious revolution fit into all this?

Please respond.
Thank you.
– Darren Flint.