At HQ – Exploring the headquarters

We have been reflecting on the identity of culture studies, in the context of the university, capitalism and the state. In my presentation, I tried to provoke people into considering that the boundaries between all of these things is considerably more fluid than we might prefer, but that this is taking place in a more nuanced way than we often imagine. As we at Goldsmiths and CCS comes under the watchful eye of the capitalist-bureaucratic state, so capitalism and bureaucracy start to engage with culture studies. Moreover, this increasing overlap between culture studies and its object isn’t something that should necessarily be bemoaned or celebrated, but explored.

I mentioned a couple of references which relate to this:

  • In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello take up the Weberian challenge of understanding capitalism through the philosophies that it uses to legitimise itself. Going further than Weber, they seek to “to reconstruct a critical sociology on the basis of the sociology of critique”. Capitalism, they argue, internalises elements of anti-capitalism in order to sustain itself.
  • In Knowing Capitalism, Nigel Thrift argues that the bureaucratisation of higher education is going hand in hand with a newly academic culture in business. Universities take on the tropes of the business world, and vice versa, with seminars, lectures, gurus, and theories at work within capitalism. Like Boltanski and Chiapello, Thrift sees the latter as a means of internalising and thereby staving off critique: it offers “a continual critique of capitalism, a feedback loop which is intended to keep capitalism surfing along the edge of its own contradictions”

We see aspects of the above in the rise of (what I called) S&M consultancy. Gurus and consultants turn up at conferences and tell the assembled business leaders that they’re doomed, stupid, wrong. Chaos is about to sweep them aside. Innovation is about to destroy them. The purpose of this is to give them a theoretical-discursive battering, in the hope of avoiding a material-financial battering. See for example Matt Mason, whose role in the creative industries is to explain why piracy will change the world… while being paid by large music labels. This is all going on while we theorists have to tick boxes, deliver value, and so on.

As a rough typology, this problematic leaves us with four routes forward:

1. Resistance: rebuild the distinction between critique and its object; resist the commodification of higher education at all costs, and attack the adoption of theory and philosophy that occurs within capitalism. As with the Frankfurt School, this is a knowingly-doomed strategy – modernity makes forces of domination all but irresistible. But the yearning for emancipation leaves the critic squirming in amongst them. As Benjamin says, “only to the hopeless is hope given”.

2. Obliviousness: In Adorno’s time, it was positivists who were oblivious to the potential of knowledge to support domination. This was virtually Adorno’s definition of a positivist. But today there is a new risk: the radical who doesn’t realise how much capitalism approves of radicalism. An unthinking assumption that critique is autonomous, while bureaucratic-capitalism is sheer domination, may lead us into faux radicalism, coupled with excessive fear of (and respect for) the dominating potential of bureaucratic-capitalism.

3. Ironic celebration: One approach to the convergence of critique and its object is to abandon the autonomy of theory all together. Actor Network Theory could be accused of this. By simply ‘following the actors’ and seeking to view the world in their terms, ANT risks holding up an uncritical mirror of the world, abandoning concepts (such as ‘capitalism’) that might seem to perform no role in it. It is no surprise that ANT is popular in business schools. The fact that capitalism is now awash with ideas is celebrated, albeit ironically, by some postmodern sociologists.

4. Explore the headquarters: In my work I seek to ‘go native’ with economic experts working for the state. I can speak to them in their language, while also being able to return to CCS and speak in ‘our’ language. I think one needs to become comfortable with this inconsistency, to embody contradiction as Foucault (presumably knew he) did, rather than seek to express it as Adorno tried (and deliberately failed).

From exploring the headquarters, a couple of things become plain. Firstly, bureaucracies are not totalised forms of domination, but nor are they things we can realistically expect to escape altogether. They are indeed, as Weber put it, ‘iron cages’, but iron cages can leave quite a lot of space for freedom, or equally can be sources of security. Explore them, understand how they work, how they break, and what they require in order to periodically leave you alone. People who set targets and create rules know full well the futility of what they do; the people who have the greatest faith in the efficacy of audit cultures are the radicals who seek to overthrow them.

Secondly, the theory that is at large in capitalism, in business schools, and in consultancy seminars is real theory, it is related to what we do. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t also deficient in lots of ways. Explore it, criticise it, take it seriously enough to try and damage it. There are those in the ANT tradition who might seek to improve it or contribute to it. That might be going further than many in CCS might wish to. But if we don’t at least problematise and reflect on the relationship between ‘our’ critical theory and ‘their’ critical theory, we risk falling into the trap of faux radicalism identified in point 2. This is not a targetted remark, just a necessary condition for safeguarding the critical autonomy that we do possess.