Thursday, September 3, 2009

Past, Present and Future of Cultural Studies - Frances Bonner and John Hartley

In the second part, Frances Bonner (University of Queensland) promises not to do a "state of the cultural studies nation" talk, but to focus on the specifics of material culture studies. Frances recommends Daniel Miller's The Comfort of Things, and wants to register problems with the concept of consumer culture as an explanatory framework. Miller's book is targeted at the more genral reader, and comes out of a failed research grant (!). Frances argues that the relationship between anthropology and cultural studies is a rich one, and material culture studies of the sort undertaken by Miller of human-object relations as "technologies of attachment". It helped Frances understand lifestyle media in ways that consumer culture studies do not sufficiently explain as part of a "concern with things".

Talking about "things" as a meaningful term is a challenge, which Frances first heard from Lesley Stern in her work on "cinematic things" and forms of personal affect and memory. Frances has being doing recent work on Top Gear and its female audience in particular, with its three middle-aged male presenters (four if you include The Stig!). Female viewers have found the show to be a facilitator of family interaction, and gifts and merchandise being given in ways related to it. Why do we want to own the material artefacts of a program, in this case the world's most watched program! The Stig features mist commonly in the merchandise, and more of the merchandise bears the figure of The Stig than that of Top Gear more generally. There is no personality to get in the way of our fantasy figure of The Stig e.g. Stig stress toy/keychain fob.

Frances Bonner proposes study of the material objects that are spin-offs from TV programs as providing insights into the role of memory in our relationships to television, ranging from cookbooks to Stig toys. This is auto-ethnography as an affordable form of cultural reserach that does not require ethical clearance, part of the great tradition of cultural studies reserach that does not have research council funding. Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe have done a study of second-hand culture that considers what the gifting of old TV-related products may involve.

The requirement to monetise digital material is a recurirng theme of corporate literature, and Frances thinks that the relationship between the tangible and the digital may be too heavily dichotomised in thinking about both material culture and new/digital media. They can remain technologies of attachment, even if they do not sit in one's lounge room. Frances ended by showing her binoculars inside a beer can that was a gift from being in the studio audience for Roy & HG's The Monday Dump.

John Hartley from QUT and the CCI begins by describing cultural studies as a "treasured object", and feels that while it is in institutional good health in Australia, it is not in intellectual good health. Hartley notes that Thorstein Veblen worried that economics had gone towards "measured work" and avoids the "meretricious", and that this is something that he has been accused of by Jim McGuigan.

He notes that "the death of cultural studies" has been proclaimed by Tony Bennett in the Journal of Cultural Economy, among other places. Rayomnd Williams worried in the 1970s that English departments had become stale, and renewal needed to come from outside, possibly from communications studies or cultural science (Williams' term). This article appeared in the Journal of Communication in 1974 (Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 17-25) - woudl cost to get it from Wiley-Blackwell, so check it out yourself.

The Australian Government minister responsible for research, Kim Carr, now intends that science to be understood in its broadest sense, which includes culture and the humanities.
Hartley proposes that evolutionary science can be applied to culture, and proposes Thorstein Veblen as a champion of such an idea in 1898. He argues that too often new ideas are warded off from cultural studies by presenting those who present new ideas as being under the evil spell of neo-liberalism (a theme of my talk at Murdoch University in Perth on Sept. 2, which I will post shortly).

Cultural studies has, for Hartley, imported ideology into the centre of the field, where it once sought to critically analyse ideology. He thinks it is time for what Joseph Schumpeter termed "creative destruction" to be applied to cultural studies. He thinks that the need to resist "premature scientism" has passed, in light of significant evolutionary change in the biological sciences and mathematics in particular, where complexity theories open up new ways to use sicne to explain culture. The Santa Fe Institute has asked can we used physics to explain culture, for example. John Hartley thinks that cultural studies went wrong histoircally in its assumption that the world "ought to be" like the analysts wished.

The second part of the paper focused on creative industries and its moment from origins in the UK in 1998. Noting that people are often encouraged in advance to know what their critique of creative industries should be, he proposes that this conjuncture needs to be explained as something other than political opportunism by Chris Smith as the DCMS Minister to get more money for the arts. In particular, it pointed to the need to think about the relationship between economics and culture as complex systems, particular around the hypothesis about culture being central to modern economies.

To understand this, there was a need to get away form both neo-classical economists (who weren't challenging enough) and political economy (which rejected the propositions form the start), but from evolutionary economics, that could converge with cultural studies through cultural science at the CCI. Reference is made here to the idea of social network markets as a bridging point between evolutionary economics and cultural studies as a way to rethink creativity as a product of complex systems rather than arising out of the unique genius of talented individuals. Hartley sees this as future-oriented and a form of creative destruction in an age of power-law distributions (It all makes sense with a diagram John showed at the symposium, honestly!). John recommends the work of Carsten Herrmann-Pillath from the Frankfurt School (of Finance and Management!) in Germany.

The cultural has been collapsed into the economy, around questions of identity, distribution and difference. Have we therefore all become neo-liberals? No. The magazine AdBusters is entirely devoted in its most recent issue to evolutionary economics and Joseph Schumpeter - also George Akerlof and Joseph Stiglitz - to point out that the "revolution in economics" is precisely based around a turn away from neo-liberalism and orthodox equilibrium economics.

Melissa Gregg (Uinversity of Sydney) was invited to respond to the papers today, which she saw as a big job. Does she need a "silver space suit" to be the "future of cultural studies"? Melissa begins by noting how much work being done in Internet Studies is cultural studies, but there is a reluctance to name it as such.

[Interesting side point: at this time I was told off by someone complaining about my typing during the session. This surprises me, but may something about different types of audiences. I have been at plenty of confernces where blogging during the event is very much the norm.]

Melissa also makes reference to the Association for Cultural Studies Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference being held at Lingnan University in Hong Kong in 2010. Some US schoalrs boycotted the 2008 conference in Jamaica because the country was seen as homophobic, and the 2010 event has been accused by some board members of implicitly endorsing the govenrment of China and ignoring human rights abuses and the conditions of labour in the country.

The third event Melissa references is the State of the Industry conference being held at UNSW in Novmeber 2009 through the Cultural Research Network as a signing-off event. She notes surveys that have found that 100% of academics at University of Western Sydney worked on weekends according to an NTEU survey, and that many academics are saying that having chldren is inimical to pursuing an academic career. Are these symtoms of those at the top of what Hartley referred to as the "winner-takes-all" economy?

Q & A
  • Mark Gibson wondered whether cultural studeis was in institutional good health, noting that it is in decline in undergraduate enrolments and is not holding a 2009 conference in Australia. Do cultural studies people go somewhere else at a certain point, such as what John Hartley outlined as cultual science and evolutionary economics?
  • John Hartley sees cultural studies more as a meeting point for different approaches and methodologies rather than as a discipline or methodology in its own right. He also pointed to Graeme Turner's influential positions with the Australian Federal government, such as being on PMSEIC.
  • Liz Ferrier wondered whether the focus on agency has been lost, as people focus more on networks. Hartley sees agency as operating through networks, and there can be bottom-up as well as top-down networks.
  • Greg Hainge wondered if the university today is basically a different beast to that of the 1970s, that points towards the inevitable dispersal of cultural studies into a bunch of other things, especially as fee income and a client-driven economy particularly impact on arts and humnaities faculties.
  • Chris Rojek thinks that one the one hand cultural studies, as with sociology in an earlier period, has been successful in popular education (we talk about alientaion, charisma etc.), while simultaneously being dispersed into fields as diverse as criminology/justice studies, business studies, game studies, Internet studies etc.
  • Stuart Cunningham noted that there is also a crisis in the core of the sciences in terms of student demand toward applied domains. He is not sure that there is a similar gripping narrative about whether fundamental humanities are under threat.
  • Graeme Turner wondered whether interdisciplinarity has exposed the humanities to extinction. Are they too easy to merge to the point of extinction around the principle of "interdisciplinarity"?

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