Thursday, September 3, 2009

Past, Present and Future of Cultural Studies - Graeme Turner and Chris Rojek

I'm writing from the Cultural Studies Symposium: Past, Present and Future conference at the University of Queensland, being hosted by the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies on Thursday, September 3, 2009.

Keynote presentation by Professor Graeme Turner. Graeme notes that the origins of the symposium come from a book he is developing with Chris Rojek, who heads to relevant publishing outlet at Sage, and he and Graeme are working on a book with this theme. Graeme has bemoaned the growing predictability and lack of critical edge of contemporary cultural studies, as seen in its conferences and ARC grant applications. Graeme notes a reluctance to put doubts about "cultural studies orthodoxies" into the public sphere, for fear of giving ammunition to its enemies, but feels that something needs to be said, as many of its senior founders are declaring their doubts about what now happens in the name of cultural studies.

Chris Rojek, Professor of Cultural Studies at Brunel University, UK (en route to New Zealand to taek up a chair). Notes that the culture of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies remains pessimistic and beleagured, even if all involved are tenured professors. He argues that this has infused the discipline, particularly about how they conceive of the "organic intellectual". Birmingham School was always small, highly politicised, and attuned to popular culture, but in order to "transmit knowledge" to the population as a road-map to political action.

Rojek feels that most cultural studies researchers do not clearly indicate such a political motivation to their work in this way, as opposed to genuflecting to being empowering and inclusive. Birmingham Centre's influence subsided after Stuart Hall, with Jorge Larrain and Richard Johnson failing to manage its finances and intellectual tensions effectively. Chris Rojek's book on Stuart Hall was subject to a 30 page review by Bill Schwarz - indicative of a defensiveness about outsiders, and some people wanting to "get him". The CCCS were, he argues, reluctantly to be "optimistic" or put forward concrete proposals for change. They were very reluctant to look at corporate culture - focus was on class, race and the state - ignored the rise of what Rojek calls "neat capitalism", or solutions porposed by global corporations that presetn themselves as more effective than the state - doing good while stamping the brand - "the brand is everything" (Richard Branson about Virgin).

What "the project" of CCCS was about was:
  • class consciousness
  • struggles over ideology
  • Western Marxism (esp. Gramsci and Althusser)
  • how to move the state towards meeting popular demands.
What CCCS did not deal with:
  • feminism
  • Michel Foucault
  • what corporations actually do
  • cultural citizenship (what can be done?)
  • what a future society might look like?
Achievements of Birmingham School:
  1. Rigorous insistence upon the importance of popular culture (fashion, youth culture , pop music, television etc.);
  2. Linking culture to politics in a sophisticated way (now largely absent from the field);
  3. Made idea of resistance legitimate;
  4. Developing an alternatvie publishing stream in face of publishers' indifference - appeared "cutting edge" and alternative;
  5. Creating jobs in cultural studies - a new establishment.
Defects of Birmingham School:
  1. Backed the wrong horse in embracing tradition of Western Marxism, which led it to overly focus upon the white working class and the state, and slow to understand identity politics or corporate capitalism. It made it less receptive to globalization, and exaggerated the importance of the nation-state;
  2. Insistence on relevance promoted a need to be an expert on what is happening now, which gets in the way of better grounding its own approach and developing a string disciplinary base - leads to a recurring tendency to "reinvent the wheel" intellectually;
  3. Tendency to produce cultural relativism - failed to develop an adequate position on cultural value - "everything is important";
  4. Never linked its intellectual work to a viable form of politics - resistance, protest and challenging privileged over organisation and leadership - proposes an "unlikely rainbow coalition to deliver the goods" that avoids the nitty-gritty of political work.
Q & A
  • Rojek notes that cultural studies people do not come across as intellectuals, but only as "moaning critics" - he proposes "learning from the new capitalists" in how to appear able to concretely address real issues - stop just bemoaning "bad capitalism";
  • Both Liz Ferrier and Jason Jacobs argue that geographers have a better feel for the issues Chris Rojek raises than cultural studies people do;
  • Stuart Cunningham asks about cultural value - is the point that "the emergent" is of more implicit interest to the resistive scholar than "the traditional"?
  • Publishing experience for Sage and Routledge is that textbooks are selling much better than ideas books (response to John Hartley);
  • Mark Gibson notes a "pre-Marxist" moment in British cultural studies in the 1960s, with early Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart;
  • I asked a question about undergraduate cultural studies. Chris thought that, at least in Britain, they may be a "lost cause" for cultural studies;
  • Chris Rojek notes that Jim McGuigan's forthcoming book Cool Capitalism will deal with how corproate branding has incoprorated elements of counter-cultural critique;
  • Tom O'Regan asked about a "stepping in the face" ethos in cultural studies, where the impulse may now be to "kill the father" that is now Stuart Hall (used to be Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams).


Brian said...

Appreciate this post Terry - who would of thought that FB would be better than reading journals as a way of keeping in touch with debates in your field ;-)

Terry Flew said...

As I said on FB, just as the portable cassette recorder's arrival in the 1970s means that we can get Michel Foucault's original lectures on neo-liberalism now - which show, BTW, just how badly the term is misused by most academic writers - so FB + Blogging can give an on-the-spot record of what were definitely an interesting collection of musings on CS.I'm sure I've misrepresented everyone, but since the session was not being recorded, no-one will know.

Geoff Robinson said...

Could you make the same argument about labour history and industrial relations as academic disciplines? Labour history hasn't really considered implications of changing corporate structures and consumption capitalism. So much about 'Fordism' but Ford corp was a disaster area by the 1930s because it failed to respond to consumer demand.