AtHQ: Blindspots – James Burton

James Burton kicked off the first A-t-HQ session. This is what he had to say:

Attack the Headquarters #1: Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, 14 May, 2008.

My open question for all of us today and throughout Attack the Headquarters is ‘What are our blindspots?’ In the spirit of autocritique, my hunch is that it is where we are most confident in our strengths that we ought to look for our weaknesses or failings. In this first talk I’ll attempt to identify some of these blindspots, yet undoubtedly there will be others, and there may be those who disagree with the specific blindspots I think I’ve identified. So if you think I get them wrong, consider this talk an invitation to look for others, to re-examine those areas of our activity and outlook at CCS that we most take for granted.

Thinking about today I read a few things about the state of contemporary cultural studies.1 Apparently, the discipline is in crisis. This is news (at least around here). I think this is a crisis that at CCS we are deliberately ignorant of. This is, or has been, in fact, one of our strengths. I want to suggest that – obliquely perhaps – it is also a weakness. In a way, our failing is that we are too good. This isn’t just an excuse for me to talk up our strengths today: I want to point towards this sense of being beyond traditional cultural studies, and the particular ways we seem to be beyond it, as, potentially, a genuine problem with – for – at CCS, even while acknowledging that it is the reason I’m (still) here.2

The crisis I’m talking about, of course, isn’t really a crisis – for us at least. But as I say, this in itself is partly our problem. The crisis I’m referring to is a crisis of or in what is sometimes referred to as ‘Real Cultural Studies’. For the sake of brevity, let’s define this as cultural studies bounded by, and largely restricted to, the study of popular cultural forms.

Now, the reason this is not our crisis, is that we are – and always have been at CCS – beyond Real Cultural Studies. We draw from it, appropriate it, count it in our heritage – but we have never had a sense that there is something essential about prioritising the study of popular cultural forms over any other. It is from this apparent constraint in Real Cultural Studies – which can sometimes even seem like a dogma – that the supposed crisis has arisen. Another way of putting this is that cultural studies was born as the antidiscipline that creates crises – for academia, for the humanities – by recognising contemporary cultural crises – political, social, cultural – in which academia and the humanities are, or had been, themselves implicated to lesser and greater degrees. So the supposed crisis can be said to have arisen, largely, from cultural studies’ institutionalisation – from its successful acquisition of recognition and respectability as a discipline in its own right; which is to say that the crisis comes from cultural studies no longer being the trouble-maker, the one with a privileged ability to highlight, expose and even create crises. All of this may be quite clear, an already tired narrative, to a lot of people here today. But it is the very fact of this obviousness that I want to get at.

A number of key aspects of this crisis are recurringly identified by those partially or fully within it – those concerned about it. One is the negative reaction of some traditional cultural studies against so-called ‘high theory’. For some, theoretical discourses such as psychoanalysis, deconstruction, ontological philosophy (and continental philosophy in general), had to be virtually outlawed (or at the least, domesticated) due to their historical association with ‘high culture’ and in the name of the non-élitist dissemination of academic work. So various voices have cried out for the re-introduction of theory and philosophy – or at least, an openness to their value for the study of culture.

A related, supposedly critical problem, is the establishment of a plurality of counter-canons. Some have commented on the risk that cultural studies’ critique of the politics of the traditional disciplinary canon – especially and typically the literary canon – might result in little more than a reversal of the Leavisite approach to culture, such that instead of Shakespeare, Hardy, T. S. Eliot, we have a canon of women’s literature, of (post)colonial literature, etc. This amounts, again, to an often-stated concern at the institutionalisation of cultural studies – its becoming what the ‘spirit of cultural studies’ was (is) supposed to challenge: the antidiscipline becoming discipline, and losing everything that made it so powerful in the first place.

There are other aspects of the supposed crisis in Real Cultural Studies that I’ll mention very briefly. One is the concern that cultural studies’ demand for interdisciplinarity – which only had such a strong effect because it resonated with desires and concerns already in play in other disciplines in the humanities – desires and concerns which were themselves essential to the rise of cultural studies – …the concern that this demand for interdisiplinarity has itself become a means for the administration of various institutions to combine and thus cancel out departments, disciplines, fields of specific study etc. Another concern that has been voiced is the failure of cultural studies to engage with the implications of new technology, beyond the fact that pop culture is on the radio, the TV, the Internet – that it has failed to engage properly with the ‘digital regime’, the global information society or culture.

Now, if these supposed elements of the crisis in Real Cultural Studies seem obvious, passé, outdated, to most people here, it’s because, as I said, we are and always have been – or have considered ourselves to be – beyond them. CCS, from its foundation, has embraced philosophy and ‘difficult’ theory; we have never been restricted to the study of popular cultural forms; it has been an essential aspect of the Centre that we pay direct attention to the effects of digitisation, information culture and new media, from Scott Lash’s interest in these areas since the outset, to the MAs Interactive Media and more recently Culture Industries that have been central parts of the department. And we take it for granted that (post)colonial critique and the renewal of (post)Marxist thought are essential to the task of adequately addressing the most urgent aspects of contemporary culture. We have even managed to maintain a certain peripheral status with regard to the college and the university, as a Centre rather than a Department (though in some respects the autonomy that might come through further institutionalisation may not necessarily be a bad thing – e.g. the federal university granting Goldsmiths the capacity to award its own degrees; the recognition of “cultural studies” as a subject in which one can produce a PhD thesis). We are unlikely to feel that we are not engaged in the struggle against institutionalisation, in that our staff are constantly battling against the institution, for money, for more staff, for space to teach, study, explore contemporary culture. (These ‘battles’ against the institution – which some may quite pragmatically conceive as simply a necessary part of everyday working life – are not just against Goldsmiths or the University of London, but the whole academic system controlling the awarding of funding and other resources, whose separation from political and state socio-economic structures can at times be impossible to discern).

So what is the problem? What I’ve been saying is that Real Cultural Studies sees itself being flawed (floored?), cast into crisis, by its own success. The success of CCS is in having already placed itself beyond this crisis. But what I think we need to do is reflect on how we are in danger, in our own specific way, of being floor/awed by our own success. It is in looking into these areas where our strengths seem to lie that I want to look for our blindspots.

Let me take two of the central aspects of Real Cultural Studies that I’ve identified. Productive responses to the dangers of becoming ‘too pop culture’ and to the dangers of institutionalisation have involved emphasising terms like cultural analysis or cultural criticism as indicating what is crucial to cultural studies work (rather than, for example, defining ‘good’ cultural studies by the choice of which cultural forms or objects to engage with). Such approaches emphasise the importance of skills – of what is sometimes called ‘good reading’ – over thematics (and this is especially so pedagogically). This partly involves the acceptance of the impossibility of the ideal of coverage – of comprehensively knowing all of one’s subject, the different disciplines and fields of study on which we draw. This is bound up with the concerns over institutionalisation. So extending my open question about where our blindspots may lie into the realm of two putative such blindspots, I may want to ask (us, you, myself): are we as good at promoting, doing ‘good reading’ – and at resisting (our) institutionalisation as we appear, to ourselves, to be?

We should at least consider this. One reason we are outside the crisis of Real Cultural Studies is that we do not prescribe or restrict in advance what cultural forms are worthy of study: rather, we restrict only in the (perhaps unspoken) name of ‘good reading’ – of what will make a good PhD thesis, MA essay or course syllabus. We emphasise means of approach, and relevance to contemporary cultural and political issues, over thematics and objects of study. Or do we? Perhaps we need to pay attention to what objects or thematics we implicitly (unconsciously or semi-consciously prescribe).

Actually, I am not so concerned that we do this – it’s a good thing, of course, that we pass on to one another (and here I am talking about staff and students collectively) our own interests and passions. What I am more concerned about is the possibility of a given individual taking all the interests of others as crucial, and thus becoming overwhelmed. This may especially be an issue for our MA programmes (but also for beginning PhD students, and indeed all of us to varying extents). One small thing I think we could do in this regard is to address the issue of coverage (that is, of the fallacy of total coverage) more directly from the outset, especially of our taught programmes.

I would dare to presume that no-one here is content that they have adequate coverage – in terms of knowledge and understanding – of the fields in which they conduct their research, whatever combination of philosophy, sociology, literature, anthropology, media studies, theology (!), political theory this research situates itself in. This is broadly, I would suggest, because this research – nearly all of our research – is ultimately bounded only by the sphere of contemporary culture or culture itself – and perhaps by the inadequacy of our cultural present, its desperate need for transformation. Yet I would also venture to say that there are a number of people here who are fairly comfortable with the impossibility of the ideal of coverage (and I’m aware that I’m straying dangerously close here to the maxim that Goldsmiths adopted in its recent re-branding, ‘comfortable with complexity’; perhaps I’m trying to appropriate back a little piece of what that re-branding exercise appropriated and instrumentalised from its people…). So there are people here who are relatively comfortable with their skills of knowing and finding out, experimenting – and being ready to be re-directed, contradicted, re-thought by their objects of study; and comfortable that these skills compensate for the impossibility of ever attaining the ideal of total coverage. My concern is that we do not pass on to one another, and especially to newcomers, that we have accepted, to some extent, the impossibility of this ideal. Many of our MA and PhD students, I know from my own experience of being both and discussions since, develop great anxiety around what is perceived as this ideal. The confidence of others in their ability to know and learn is often (mis)taken for a confidence in the breadth and coverage of their knowledge of theory, art, culture, media, etc.

A crucial point to emphasise here is the impossibility of total coverage does not necessarily lead to ‘sloppy scholarship’. I think students today are caught between the imperative of traditional disciplinarity – which suggests that there is a canon of essential texts, a range of acceptable methodologies – and the assumed but never explicit fact that today, and especially in a department like CCS, the range of possible concepts, theories, methodologies, objects of study and new seemingly-important texts to read is almost hyperbolically expanding. The net result is that one instantly feels guilty – especially in one is in a hierarchically lower position according to the institution – for not knowing a text, artist, political event that someone else discusses authoritatively, whose significance they advertise. We need to instill a sense that total coverage is neither expected nor regarded as possible: as much coverage is great, and we encourage the thirst for more, and a readiness to draw on any available theoretical, artistic, cultural resources to address the inadequacies of our contemporary political and cultural situation. But this thirst should never become secondary to an imperative of absolute coverage (except perhaps in the final week of revising for the MA Cultural Theory exam).

Very briefly, in relation to this is the fact that CCS continues to attract ‘precarious people’. By ‘precarious’ I mean both (genuinely) crazy people (though I am not referring to anyone specifically, except maybe myself) – and those uncomfortably poised between disciplines, or between the study/criticism and the production of cultural forms. This is something we advertise, in a way, as a strength, but the danger is that one attracts people hoping to find answers to the bewildering complexities of contemporary culture and actually find that they have simply landed amongst a bunch of equally puzzled, crazy people, similiarly flailing about for answers. We need to be clear that this not-knowing, while being willing to explore openly (and together), is a strength. I think this is taken for granted by some, but never clear to some others, thus becoming a source of great anxiety. A little anxiety is good; it allows one to thrive on a sense of adventure and the possibility of new discoveries; too much is paralysing.

How best to do this practically is something we can all discuss. Obviously staff:student ratios, temporal constraints (such as staff working hours, and the fact that an MA usually takes place within a year, while the PhD is gradually also being compressed) are issues. John’s attempts to set up conditions for self-organising working groups among the PhDs – for mutual criticism and encouragement – are something that could be further developed as well as extended to MA students. I’m sure you will have other ideas.

So the fallacy of the ideal of total coverage is one of the possible blindspots I wanted to draw attention to today. The other is how we deal with the institution. Now this is really a question for the permanent staff of CCS, based more on intuition than my own direct experience – so I won’t dwell on it, but just put it on the table. Are we resisting institutionalisation in the right ways? Are we being strategic enough? One of the frequent complaints about institutionalisation is that it slows down change. But a corollary implication of this complaint is that we, the academics, are naturally faster than the institution. It may be a monolithic, unassailable beast, but that doesn’t mean we can’t outrun it. My question is, are we using this inherent ability to outthink and outrun the institution to best effect, or are we partly paralysed by its apparent immovability? Surely the academics here have all been successful to a significant extent in overcoming institutional obstacles in their own careers: both the existence of CCS in its current form, and their presence here, are testament to this. But are we good enough at it collectively? Are there more strategic ways, as a department, that we could make use of our inherent potential for speed and cunning, to stay ahead of the institution? I may be in danger of slipping into quasi-management-speak or unhelpful metaphor here, so I’ll stop – but would love to hear responses to these questions nevertheless.

I have posed some questions about our potential blindspots, in particular concerning the ideals of ‘good reading’ and resisting institutionalisation. Yet my point is not to hammer home a sense of these particular blindspots, but to invite people to identify or point towards more. In think there must be others, and would expect to find them in the areas we most readily and uncritically take to be our strengths. All I have been saying amounts to a suggestion that CCS has internalised and pre-empted the need for autocritique and engagement with new areas whose lateness within Real Cultural Studies has supposedly led to a crisis; but that in overstepping this crisis we have been at risk of losing our own capacity for genuine, difficult autocritique. For this reason I regard Attack the Headquarters as a necessary and ongoing collective activity, one that I hope will continue – in whatever form – well beyond this summer.

Now, although what I have said here does relate to the slogan ‘Attack the Headquarters’, it does not, perhaps, amount to the call for ‘blue sky thinking’ that was also a keynote in the call for this series of events. I would therefore like to end by throwing my own tiny piece of blue sky thinking into the pot that I hope we’ll continue to add to and draw from throughout today and our forthcoming meetings.

If somebody (or some ‘body’) were to offer me half a million pounds for a research project, what I think I would do right now is inaugurate a ‘Centre for Fiction Studies’ (or something like a Fiction Studies Network). This would be based on the recognition that fictions – in an unlimited variety of forms – from the hallucinatory vision to the literary, the filmic, the utopic, from the ideological and the religious to the philosophical, and especially (and in all the above cases) the political – that such fictions condition our cultural present; but the Centre for Fiction Studies would also fundamentally recognise that it is precisely in fictionalising that our capacity to transform this present lies.

Whether the fictions we oppose take the form of commodity fetishes, the conservative religious worldviews that support western neo-liberalism, the discourse of branding and PR, myths of the overcoming of colonialism, of orientalism and occidentalism, the insertion into popular culture of ideologies of meritocracy and individualisation – still the answer would not lie in doing away with fiction per se, in a resort to cultural relativism, political pragmatism, or indeed an embracing of immanence, information or technology for its own sake. Rather we need counter-fictions, new fictions all the time, to imagine other ways the present might be, and to render its transformation conceivable. We need to retain the playfulness and creativity that cultural studies has always had, but without renouncing the seriousness which is required to address the real crises of contemporary culture. This is my very limited attempt at – but also a statement of commitment to – the importance, for us, of ‘blue sky thinking’.


[1]  This ‘contemporary’ is important. The so-called crisis in cultural studies – which I am suggesting we consider ourselves at CCS to a large extent to be beyond – can be said to arise from the conflict between two contradictory ways of responding to the ‘contemporary’ of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. On the one hand there is a veneration of the methods inaugurated by the BCCCS resulting in a near-fetishising of the study of popular culture – which promotes a form of cultural studies that tries to “freeze” the contemporary cultural context of the 1970s so that in the 21st century we would consider ourselves in the same moment, requiring the same critiques, methods, attacks. On the other hand there is the view that staying true to the spirit of BCCCS would require determining our contemporary conditions, and a contemporary cultural studies that is changing all the time. On way hangs on to a fading photograph of what ‘contemporary’ referred to in the early 1970s; the other obsessively takes new pictures digital pictures all the time but loses track of their order or significance. What is needed, perhaps, is the former’s sense of history and the continuity of the past with the present, combined with a sustained appreciation that the contemporary – by definition – constantly changing.

[2] I have been at CCS as an MA student (2000-02), a PhD student (2003-07), an administrator (summer 2007) and as a Visiting Tutor (2005-present).


One thought on “AtHQ: Blindspots – James Burton

  1. where do i sign on for the fiction studies network?!
    linking chinks in the armor i like it.
    what else should a bunch of crazy passionate people too smart for their own good be productively scheming about?
    and yes to addressing the fallacy of total coverage straight up in the MA programmes to ward off the paralyzing kind of anxiety too many loopy engaged people in one ‘center’ inevitably stir in newcomers..
    also though, not quite sure how successful CCS really is in providing ‘skills’ to its students (ie skills vs thematics)..or maybe the problem isn’t in provision but in stoking in students the confidence and know-how to apply/employ these skills..’tough theory’ is great but its even greater when seen ‘at work’ – so maybe more object, case-studies, etc. could also provide in substance, an antidote to the overwhelm.


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