The future of cultural studies

I attended what turned out to be a somewhat bizarre event at my home university yesterday, a symposium on the past, present and future of cultural studies. The speakers were: Graeme Turner, who introduced the book he is writing which is pretty much the title of the symposium; Frances Bonner who gave an eloquent paper on the attachments we form with the material things associated with television shows; Melissa Gregg who was equally eloquent on the devastatingly harsh conditions of labour facing contemporary scholars (especially early career ones); Chris Rojek who offered a history of the Centre for Critical and Contemporary Studies in Birmingham that more or less pointed to its overall lack of coherence (which, in so far as it is true, hardly makes it unique), obsession with state power, and failure to engage with such matters as corporate culture and branding; John Hartley who, in a typically breathless pitch, tried to sell the audience something called cultural science.

I’ll start with Hartley because he is alway interesting, and he offered a point of origin for what is now known as creative industries – this is essentially a way of framing cultural production and consumption more or less along the lines of any other industry. The beginning of the Creative Industries according to Hartley was in UK DCMS minister Chris Smith’s office in 1998 but, while that may well constitute its operational origins,for me, the intellectual experience of creative industries happened way before that. It was at the Fourth International Television Studies Conference in London in July 1991 where I witnesed Stuart Cunningham deliver a paper that was a devastating critique of cultural studies, a giant-killing effort where Stuart asked the brutal empirical question, ‘How does Stuart Hall know what he says?’ (I can’t recall the title of that paper, but I may have a copy of it, since one of the conference organisers donated a bunch of them to me). Ever since then I knew Australian scholarship as a fearsome thing, not to be messed with lightly. Cunningham’s paper, at least as it exists in my memory of its presentation (memorabily Stuart described his position, on a four paper panel of cultural studies research, as “blood sport”) seemed to be saying, Let’s put away the childish things – of revolution through resistance, of anthropological voyeurism at exotic subcultural creatures, and instead develop policy that will acknowledge and stimulate the market basis of cultural production. That’s where I first had an inkling of what was to become the creative industries project.

It was telling, I think, that Rojek’s presentation was, despite the strong quality of its scholarship, lacking in that devastating performative force. The headline was the same – grow up and look properly at the world as it is – but the targets seemed out of focus, and receding. Rojek pointed out that the Birmingham School had neglected to investigate corporate culture and branding, but Richard Branson, for example, pitches his brand at every opportunity. It is surely true that branding is important in our understanding of cultural production and consumption, but we should be careful to see it for what it is, rather than, as some businesses do, a mystical stamp of value. Things need to be made and manufactured, from materials that have to be dug, mined, exploded or otherwise coaxed from the Earth’s crust before they can have a brand attached to them. Taking what businesses say about themselves at face value is as dangerous as fantasising that certain kinds of tattoo offer resistance to dominant cultural structures. Rojek also pointed to the fact that globalisation was off the agenda in Birmingham: but their attention to the relationship between state power and individual agency seems to me to be crucial if we are to understand globalisation. It is the hollowing out of the state, its abdication of responsibility and authority even as it extends its reach (consider the use of private security firms in recent military adventures , or the UK government’s recent disavowal of a role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber) that has allowed the force of globalisation to achieve its prominence. Looking at corporate culture, globalisation and branding will not in itself provide a sufficient explanation of the significance of these changes: the relationship between state and individual, especially where, as today, individuals tend to actively seek state intervention in their lives (say, through health education, parenting classes, the management of emotion etc.) is crucial as well.

Hartley’s pitch was for something he called Cultural Science and, appropriately given the year, evolution was prominent in that discourse. He was careful to point out that work was needed on the predictive potential of the evolutionary economics that underpins this move, since as is fairly obvious, that approach, along with others, utterly failed to predict or remotely anticipate the recent global financial crisis. It was striking that Hartley did not mention more recent evolutionary approaches to cultural production and aesthetics, such as those developed by Franco Moretti and Denis Dutton: instead a framing discourse from beyond the humanities was invoked. I think this move is key since it seeks explanatory force from disciplines and fields that are usually unfamiliar to the audience.

As I mentioned Bonner and Gregg presented work based on experience, that we could recognise. Bonner’s paper in particular was painstaking, but also tentative, speculative and compelling: we could grasp its signficance because it spoke to cultural experiences grounded in material fact. Gregg’s contribution likewise spoke to our knowledge of the working day (not to mention night) of the scholar. Strangely, for all the hankering after “hard science” it was Hartley, and to some extent Rojek, whose presentation seemed remote from lived experience. This was not simply because they rejected textually-based approaches. I suspect that the reason that Hartley invokes science, evolution and economics is the same reason that Cunningham’s paper in the early 1990s had such urgency. They are searching for the authority that will allow them to grasp culture in its totality in a way that the humanities has failed to do. That authority cannot be found in the textual operations, or those of individual subjectivities because the subject as a transformative agency is not credible to them (therefore ‘resistance’ is not credible, or collective agency). At one point in his presentation Hartley mentioned the Santa Fe Institute, a site that develops various inflections of complexity theory; it is also the site where its only resident ‘humanities’ figure, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey: in that interview he claims he enjoys the discussions that take place there about theoretical physics since that area of science is, ultimately, about the basis of the real. There is, I suspect, a difficulty that some have with the very openness of the questions that culture poses to us: that difficulty is its mysteriousness. Science, particularly to those who know only its rhetoric rather than its practice, can appear as a salve. I suspect that it is an intolerable and ugly fact for some that we just don’t understand a great deal about why some cultural production is successful, why some things are art and why human beings respond in the ways that they do to certain expressive materials. Donald Sassoon, who by coincidence is visiting Australia this month, in his enormous history, The Culture of the Europeans From 1800 to the Present, notes at one point in its 1617 pages that ‘the history of culture often proceeds in mysterious ways’ (1084). That is a book that can hardly be accused of ignoring cultural markets or their material and industrial mechanisms. I’m not arguing that we should preserve the mystery at the heart of art just for the sake of it; but, instead, acknowledge that the search for stability, order, and control as well as for the authority to say what culture really is, has the potential to divert us from prominent and experienced aspects of its nature.

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