At the cultural studies crossroads: after Tampere – Dave Boothroyd

‘Crossroads’ is an extremely appropriate motif around which to organize reflection on the state of cultural studies today and to consider the contributions of all those ‘studies’ which gather themselves under its rubric and elect to belong to it. This is especially the case in view of cultural studies’ own concerns with its identity as a cross-disciplinary activity, both with respect to its intellectual genealogy and its institutional locations and practices. For these and no doubt many other reasons, ‘Crossroads in Cultural Studies’ is surely an instantly attractive and appropriate title for one of cultural studies’ more recently established (so far biannual), international mega-conferences. In Tampere this summer all kinds of traffic converged from many directions at this ‘Crossroads’, and, throughout, its flow was well-organized and steered into multi-parallel themed sessions and plenaries, convened by its participants well in advance of their arrival. With as many as five lanes of sessions running at once, planning a route through the conference schedule was not easy and, despite planning, taking an unplanned turn easier still. Audience ebbs and flows seemed to be happening all the time as people attempted to catch individual papers in different sessions, and pulling off the route for coffee could often lead to an unexpected diversion back into the second half of a session not on your schedule.

The cultural studies ‘umbrella’ shelters many styles, approaches, themes and political concerns, and it gathered together in Tampere a largely, though not exclusively, ‘professional academic’ community. The event constituted an unusual international snapshot of the cultural studies cosmos and, like the cosmos itself, it appears to exist contemporaneously in several different stages of its evolution depending on the relative position of the observer. The participants and their papers were typically institutionally attached to many ‘named’, if not traditional, disciplinary areas, from literature through sociology to geography. The traditional university ‘divisions’ and its ‘new studies’, such as gender studies, film studies, youth studies, nation studies, urban studies, as well as language and linguistics, etc., were all somewhere represented if not always foregrounded in the sessions’ themes. Such a meeting can only be premised on an acceptance of differences in approach and interest and presumably with a view to the further promotion of the kind of intellectual cross-fertilization which has strengthened cultural studies over the decades. One couldn’t help wondering, though, just which species of cultural study can productively get it together with which other species and, therefore, what the evolutionary possibilities of this thing called ‘cultural studies’ really are. Such mega-conferences, split into multiple streams, with plenary speakers flown in and out for star turns and with virtually no time ever left for serious plenary discussions, tend to avoid any kind of heavy critical confrontations in favour of a collegial respect for methodological differences and ways of identifying contemporary cultural ‘issues’, objects of inquiry and themes.

So, is there a shared culture of cultural studies at all? Cultural studies can rightly claim to have provided the most incisive reflection on the nature and consequences of thinking in terms of identity and difference, as well as powerful analyses of their multiform articulations and their material manifestation in culture at large. Because cultural studies has often enthusiastically promoted methodological eclecticism, it is not surprising that at its ‘crossroads’ one is unlikely to encounter road rage, smash ups or disputes about rights of way and lane-hopping – or, more to point of what I would like to broach here, the matter of the possible future ‘direction(s)’ of cultural studies.

This ‘Crossroads’ in Tampere meant, first and foremost to many, a ‘passing place’ and a place of acceptance of different intellectual trajectories, combined with an openness to the practices of cross-disciplinarity – and to what is referred to ‘disciplinary cruising’. But is not the crossroads of cultural studies also a place today where, according to cultural studies’ own past radical insights and theoretical examinations of power, the invisible hand of institutional authority – in the form of the university, state funding bodies and private sponsorship – necessarily continues to indirectly regulate the flow of ideas? The ‘research outcomes’ of some cultural studies projects presented at Tampere, for example, were so data-compilation oriented that the commodification of ‘social knowledge’ as ‘information’ not only went uncommented but appeared largely conceived in relation to potential information markets – something hardly new in certain sectors of social research, but isn’t this kind of drift within cultural studies something cultural studies needs to address directly? Isn’t there always also a need for such projects to consider the reverse impact, or ‘research consequences’, of their own institutional or private sponsorship and the nature of their connectedness to the interests of ‘capital’ – both economic and cultural – be this the capital of the state, civil society and business or some other university sponsor?

As it stands, this suggestion, which will here have to remain general rather than directed at any particular piece of work, no doubt invites the criticism that the style of meta-cultural study it hints at would be a too naively ‘theoretical’ preoccupation. And, after all, hasn’t cultural studies as an intellectual project always pursued the dissolution of the theory/praxis dichotomy? On the other hand, surely this is exactly the reflexivity which should characterize all forms of cultural studies which have learnt of the illusory nature of the transcendental perspective, the universality of knowledge, and the neutrality of ‘objectivity’, but more importantly, of the problem of their own epistemic totalization or ‘enclosure’. Down at the cultural studies crossroads, then, it is not so much a question of where cultural studies should be going given its past, it is more a case of attempting to influence its current flows into the future. How can its possibilities be broadly characterized?

Consider, as it were negatively, for a moment, how the semiology of the image has become the truth of advertising, how the discovery of the alienation of the worker has become the truth of his/her consumer choice and identity, how the discourses of national liberation have become the truths of post-colonial ethnic conflict, or how feminism has given rise to new post-feminist essentialisms purporting to speak the truth about women. All of these ‘truths’ are mediated, reproduced and elaborated through (among other cultural forms) the media and popular culture, but also through the institutionalization of cultural studies itself, in both its teaching and in its research. In short, the becoming culture of cultural studies, whether as a market product of the university itself or by means of its more general dissemination, is something that practitioners of cultural studies can never bracket out of their necessarily reflexive analyses. Without the coupling of the ‘cultural turn’ with what could be called a ‘deconstructive turn’ in contemporary cultural studies, we would only ever end up with an increasingly comprehensive range of species of socio-ethnographic accounting and statistical computation of the ‘state of culture’ and, consequently, be looking forward only to the institutional stabilization of cultural studies itself: cultural studies might remain, so to speak, ‘wholly modern’. Somehow, like all modern attempts to ‘theorize’, cultural studies appears to be in the process of being eaten up by material history – i.e. by institutional praxis – and fecalised. (This is not, however, an attempt to humble or underplay in any way the role of manure in the cosmic cycle of birth, death and cultural regeneration – as Bataille, for one, has made clear). Many university teachers know so well that, in the attempt to ‘sell’ cultural studies in the student recruitment market place (indirectly maintaining their jobs as teachers), they are forced against their instincts to talk a certain amount of shit: they are implored by university managers to tell students (particularly ‘prospective’ students) that where, for example, cultural studies borders on design, retail and advertising culture, criminology, the heritage and leisure industries or the media and communications, a degree in Cultural Studies is likely to increase prospects of employment in the retail industry, the criminal justice system, the National Trust or with the Murdoch or Gates media and communications empires. They are expected to ‘talk up’ how a degree in cultural studies is increasingly being seen as a qualification to enter the ‘culture business’ (including academia), and is a qualification which can put its graduates ‘one step ahead of the game’ – namely, the employment game, the employers game. Whilst it would clearly be naive to expect cultural studies practitioners to deny the existence of the game their very own livelihoods are also dependent upon, one question on my sleep-starved mind after Tampere was ‘Has Cultural Studies become too easily digestible?’ Will some of us, perhaps, even be teaching ‘citizenship studies’ before long, on behalf of our governments? Instead of talking about Bhabha’s ‘third space’, will we be talking about Blair’s ‘third way’?

I was also left wondering at ‘Crossroads’ what has happened to the politics of cultural studies. Not because politics was absent: politics was indeed there, almost everywhere; in anti-racist and anti-sexist critiques, in stimulating and provocative work in ‘race’ and ethnic studies, feminist studies, gay studies, post-colonial studies, etc. And, in a way I believe is widely accepted, if not so easily explained or understood, the impetus and effects of any cultural studies research which in any way challenges dogmatic commonsense or proposes an alternative take on ‘reality’ – and it is here that further explanation is desperately needed – is, as we cultural studies people insist, ‘political’. The non-agonistic coziness of the eclecticism discernible at Tampere, however, I am suggesting, may be a sign of a certain postmodern political naivety at the cultural studies crossroads, one which serves the smooth flow of traffic and avoids the ‘culture crash’ which the contemporary corporate university and its latest ‘product range’ is arguably, relentlessly driving us toward, foot hard down on the gas. Is cultural studies being increasingly assimilated to existing cultural institutions or is it reaching ever new heights of parasitic subversion? If you think it is the latter, dream on!

Of course, this suggestion of a pressing need for a reassessment of the nature of cultural studies’ institutional locations, and for a meta-cultural studies which repolemicizes theory, might be considered a kind of backwards slippage toward ‘disengaged’ theorizing, or even navel-gazing. However, I would argue that cultural studies must at least also ceaselessly question the kind of slippage much more clearly marked by the under- or untheorized execution of research undertaken, for example, on the basis of unexamined ethno-and anthropo-sociological methodologies and representations of cultural forms. Or, indeed, any other ‘methodologies’ which still consider themselves to be unproblematically free of the political and epistemic sanctions which, it would not be difficult to show (after Foucault), arise directly from their institutional locations and, nowadays, their ‘clients’ ‘ requirements.

One exchange at Tampere which did directly address the problematic modernity of cultural studies, and was all the more thrilling for doing so, took place in the plenary session on ‘Texts, Meaning and the Media’, between Lawrence Grossberg and Johan Fornäs (and is included in this edition of Culture Machine). The ‘heatedness’ of this exchange, as evidenced in Grossberg’s response to Fornäs, is fuelled not only by the fact that this is the response of one of cultural studies’ leading exponents to another’s individual reading of his work, but above all by the urgency of the issue to which they are both directing their attention. This discussion of text, context, representation, transgression and modernity bears directly on the issues of what ‘doing cultural studies’ is or should be, and on the issue of what its future possibilities are. It is not, I would argue, so much ‘after the death of the text’ – as Johan Fornäs’ title characterizes the crossroads whilst crossing the path of the ‘back to reality?’ question (posed notably by the McRobbie anthology) – but rather after Derrida’s thinking of intertextuality and the idea of the crossroads as chiasmus. A deconstructive approach to the ‘cultural’ in cultural studies can arguably contribute more than any other ‘theoretical practice’ to overcoming, to a greater degree in the future than is currently the case, the ethnographic/ textual divide in cultural studies discourse and practice. But what will deconstruction do for cultural studies? Grossberg’s reposing of the question of how the contemporary reconfiguration of power and reality can be ‘opposed’ reminds us of the constant danger of a recuperative diversion of cultural studies into its comfortable institutional settings. There is a real risk, he argues, of being overtaken, or out-paced, by the auto-deconstruction of neo-liberalism and of ‘getting caught defending the old capitalism’.

Whatever is to be made of this Tampere exchange, it is certainly a poignant and timely reminder that the analysis of the cultural and political decisionism inherent to all appeals to ‘the real’, should remain at the heart of the wider cultural studies project. For as long as it does, everything remains at stake and cultural studies will remain open, as perhaps only it can, to any subject matter and, as Grossberg has put it, to its own ‘remaking’. But without it, without, in effect, a ‘reality check’ at every turn – i.e. a constant check on what it takes as ‘real’, cultural studies is in danger of becoming an eclectic set of new specialisms and a postmodern addition to the new culture industries’ new product range.

Culture Machine has attempted to preserve the character of this exchange between Fornäs and Grossberg, which electrified the conference hall in Tampere, by inviting its authors to submit their speeches unchanged. Culture Machine welcomes responses which are aimed at furthering the debate, a selection of which may be published at a later date at this crossroads on the Internet highway.

Leave a Reply