Titles, as we know from reading Derrida, are important.

Ours for this issue of Culture Machine is partly a reference to a collection from 1995, Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political, edited by Anselm Haverkamp and featuring essays by Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler and Avital Ronell.

Having received an invitation to sponsor a Culture Machine panel at the American Comparative Literature Association 2003 conference at Cal State University – San Marcos, San Diego, in April 4-6, 2003, and having decided, for various reasons – some of which we’ll attempt to make clear in a moment – to take as our theme the relation between cultural studies and deconstruction, we wanted something that would make a nod to the panel’s American location without necessarily going the whole hog of Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies is/in America.

We could of course have had it the other way round. You know, ‘Cultural Studies is/in Deconstruction’. But that might have obscured a little too much the connection we wanted to make with the Haverkamp collection, and from there the US (as well as Haverkamp’s subtitle: A New Sense of the Political). It might also have implied we were giving a certain priority to deconstruction: that we were simply endeavouring to bring deconstruction and deconstructive techniques and modes of analysis to bear on cultural studies in order to critique or challenge it; to place it in question; to deconstruct cultural studies, as it were.

It’s true that to date deconstruction, in the UK at least, has been primarily associated with people working in departments of philosophy and literature; people who, by and large, have had a somewhat disparaging, not to say patronising, attitude toward cultural studies. From this perspective, cultural studies is always already in deconstruction and deconstructs fairly easily. In fact too easily. Cultural studies is regarded as being capable of little that other modes of enquiry cannot achieve more rigorously and with a far greater degree of subtlety and sophistication – the implication being that if you want to say or do something that is really interesting, literature and/or philosophy is what you need.

Cultural studies in turn has often described deconstruction (and cultural studies in America, which Stuart Hall and others have associated with deconstruction) in rather pejorative terms. Sure, there are quite a few people ‘in’ cultural studies who can be identified as having made use of certain ‘deconstructive’ ideas and strategies, even if they haven’t overtly placed their work under the heading of ‘deconstruction’. But cultural studies has tended to take on board only those aspects of deconstruction it can incorporate into its already existing political project. Those elements which might provoke cultural studies into fundamentally reconceiving the terms of its own theory (and perhaps develop ‘a new sense of the political’?) all too often remain excluded. Cultural studies has thus criticised deconstruction for being too textual and theoretical, too concerned with meaning and language, and therefore more suited to the concerns of literature and philosophy than to cultural studies with its desire to get down and dirty with the real world of concrete political materiality.

As a result, deconstruction has been somewhat marginalised by the general drift away from ‘theory’ and ‘back to reality’ and the political and the economic that has taken place within cultural studies over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Indeed, there appears to have been a quite dramatic change in the role and status of ‘theory’ in recent years – especially post 9/11 and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter having just started at the time of our ‘Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies’ panel in San Marcos). University departments which were once hotbeds of ‘high theory’ are increasingly returning to a humanist ethos and more sociological modes of research and analysis. And they are often doing so in the name of a ‘post-theoretical’ political urgency that seems to leave little time for the overly elitist, Eurocentric, text-based concerns of much so-called ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’.

However, recent years have also seen a ‘newer’ generation of cultural studies practitioners, academics and post-graduate students emerge from within the shadow of the Birmingham School and its progeny. It is a generation whose whole education has been shaped by theory: who have never known a time before theory. While clearly locating themselves in the tradition of Hoggart, Williams, Hall and Hebdige, many members of this generation regard theory, and deconstruction in particular, as extremely important to their work – not least because they see deconstruction as providing a means of thinking through some of the problems in contemporary cultural studies – including the relations between theory and politics, culture and society, the cultural and the economic, Marxism and post-Marxism, essentialism and anti-essentialism, agency and structure, textuality and lived experience, the subject and the social (not to mention those between cultural studies and deconstruction, ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘British’ and ‘American’). At a time when deconstruction is being increasingly marginalised institutionally, ‘deconstructive’ approaches to the study of culture have for many thus never seemed so central or so vital.

So we wanted to put together a panel, and subsequently an issue of the Culture Machine journal, which would go some way toward performatively introducing and announcing this ‘new’ generation of cultural studies writers and practitioners, and explore some of the new directions and territories that are currently being mapped out across, and at the intersections of, cultural studies and deconstruction.

And we wanted a title that would signal this. That deconstruction is not just something that happens in philosophy and literature, something cultural studies is happy to keep at arm’s length for fear of raising too many difficult questions. That deconstruction is ‘done’ and can (still) be found in cultural studies.

But also that, although a certain pervertibility and experience of mobility, transition, translation, transformation and change is what makes cultural studies at once both possible and impossible, deconstruction is not just a state or condition that cultural studies is in, that cultural studies can’t escape or avoid.

And that deconstruction should not necessarily have priority. That deconstruction may indeed have as much to learn from cultural studies as vice versa.

We felt we needed the slash, the ‘is/in’, although it’s dated, we know, and smacks of the kind of typographical experiments that were more or less de rigeur in theory circles in the 1980s, and in that sense flies in the face of academic fashion, not unlike this issue itself. (Aren’t we all supposed to be Deleuzians now? Still, when have academics ever worried too much about being fashionable?)

We needed the slash to help signal that, although deconstruction is important to a lot of people in cultural studies, and in this sense is in cultural studies, the relation between them isn’t such that one unified and self-identical body of thought is able to contain another. That’s something deconstruction and cultural studies would both in their different ways have problems with: not just because neither cultural studies nor deconstruction are unified or self-identical bodies of thought; but because it risks deconstruction remaining different from and external to cultural studies, even in its very incorporation.

But we also wanted the slash, the ‘is/in’, to indicate that, even though deconstruction and deconstructive modes of thought can help us with the study of culture (and are certainly something cultural studies has drawn upon in its concern with inter-, anti- and trans-disciplinarity), deconstruction and cultural studies are not simply the same either.

(Nor can we reverse the two terms and say that cultural studies is merely deconstruction by another name. You know how the argument goes: that as long as it’s read with enough rigour and care, cultural studies can be discovered to be saying more or less the same sort of things about politics, ethics, justice, responsibility, performativity, capitalism, globalisation, disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity,the institution of the university, teletechnologies, spectrality, the ‘New International’, intervention, emancipation, hospitality, the foreigner, the parasite, cosmopolitanism, forgiveness, secrecy, friendship, experimenting, the future and so on as deconstruction.)

In short, we needed the slash to keep the nature of this relation open and undecided, in tension; to draw attention to the problematic and ambivalent nature of the relation between deconstruction and cultural studies.

Are there some things you can think about and say and do through cultural studies that you can’t through philosophy or literature – at least not as easily, interestingly or rigorously? Is cultural studies capable of providing something that other modes of enquiry (including deconstruction) are not? Is there something singular and unique about cultural studies – despite (or indeed perhaps precisely because of) its multiplicity and non-identity to itself? It is these questions that ‘Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies’ endeavours to address.

Although it bears the same name and is clearly related, this issue of Culture Machine is not an attempt on our part to give an account of, write up, translate or otherwise repeat and recreate what took place in April 2003 at the ACLA conference in San Marcos. It is too much a singular event in its own right for that. Nevertheless, the editors would like to thank all those who took the risk of joining us there:

Clare Birchall
Brian Carr
Jeremy Gilbert
Paul Grimstad
Mark Hansen
Peter Krapp
Hyon Joo Yoo Murphree
Vivienne Orchard
Caroline Rooney

Clare Birchall, Dave Boothroyd, Jeremy Gilbert, Gary Hall and Joanna Zylinska would also like to acknowledge the British Academy, who helped to make our attendance at the ACLA 2003 conference possible with the award of an Overseas Conference Grant.

Leave a Reply