[csaa-forum] Conformist and lacking critical force

Danny Butt db at dannybutt.net
Mon Sep 5 10:08:34 CST 2005

It seems I always pass through Brisbane a day too soon, or too late  
(as in this case) for these MACS gatherings, and this sounds like a  
good one. I'll put in some pre-contributions on Australian Cultural  
Studies, methodology and disciplinarity, and creative industries.  
Sorry if it turns into a mini-essay.

I.  "Australian cultural studies" as mentioned in some of Simon  
During's rough canon, provoked my initial interest in the whole  
concept of academic practice, and I put that forward to ground my  
statement that the more I pursue my interest in the ethics of  
cultural studies, the further away I feel from identifying with it as  
"a discipline". [And I'd be surprised if anyone's feelings of  
identification were increased by the itinerary of the recent  
discussion :7.] Most of the reasons were flagged by Az, Glen, and  
Stephanie, but let me put forward a case to clarify, and rather than  
choosing easy targets I'll stick my neck out a bit and look at one of  
my favourite pieces of Australian Cultural Studies.

In the inaugural issue of Postmodern Culture in 1990, bell hooks  
remarked that Meaghan Morris' bibliography of important contributions  
by women to postmodern theory in "The Pirate's Fiancee" lacked  
references to work by black women. This oversight is not to be  
judged, of course (least of all by me), particularly when Morris has  
done far more than just about anyone to attempt to bring Australian  
cultural critique out of racist paradigms. But I think the oversight  
is symptomatic of a critical *environment* at that time that focussed  
analysis within "Australia" more than the transnational forces that  
produce the nation state (in our case, colonisation). Morris herself  
recognised the need to downplay the nation-state, noting that the  
concerns of cultural studies was concerned with "racial, ethnic,  
sexual, gender, class, generational, and national differences  
(roughly in that order), as these are produced and contested in  
history". And I think that it's interesting that her practice seems  
to have taken on a certain marginality within parts of the  
Australasian scene that valorise her earlier work, now that she has  
located herself in a very different set of cultural currents that are  
not able to so easily be located with the "national-settler". And I  
am purely speculating here, but in listening to Morris lecture on her  
experience as an educator in Hong Kong I sense that her trajectory is  
partially a recognition of the limitations of what it is possible to  
effectively talk about within the disciplinary bounds of an  
implicitly nationalist cultural studies.

But my point is that hooks' critique is rarely taken up among the  
discussions that find themselves at "home" in an "Australian cultural  
studies" - one that seeks to protect itself against any critique that  
may identify its foundational exclusions. A properly cultural studies  
response, methodologically, would be to take the rupture raised by  
hooks' comment as a springboard to prise open the racial construction  
of the scene - one where, for example, the rough histories of  
Australian Cultural Studies casually put forward as a list of names  
like During's rarely include someone like Vijay Mishra, despite his  
long history of work in Australia. Or, pedagogically, where Morris'  
essay would always be joined with the recognition of that painful  

While I would not identify myself with During's critique, I feel that  
the closing of ranks against his valid point is symptomatic of a  
significant problem in Australasian cultural studies: parochialism.  
And as I tried to undertake the work of placing myself into this  
Australian tradition that led me to this field, I perhaps got some  
sense of others who are always excluded by that parochialism. Teresia  
Teaiwa made the point on the weekend that people who find cultural  
identification in the nation always seem to have an index where some  
others are not quite proper in their nationalness, whether that is  
indigenous groups under the founding violence of colonisation, or  
migrants under the contemporary barriers against the movement of  
ideas or people into the nation. In the wake of a couple of decades  
of scholarship on postcolonial sovereignty, I can't find any hope in  
a cultural studies that is not both actively seeking alliances with  
resistances in other fields (whether they be theoretical or  
institutional) and invested in rigorous critique of its own founding  
mythologies, particularly cultural nationalism. And if Australian  
cultural studies was that, I don't think there would be a need for  
organisations like ACRAWSA.

II. On methodology, I am skeptical of any attempt to define cultural  
studies methodologies - even as I take Hall's introduction to  
"Culture, Media, Lanugage" to be something of a methodological  
manifesto for myself. My reading of that piece was that rigorously  
tracing the trajectories of the humanities and social sciences gave  
rise to methodological crises within them, and these were  
specifically important for simultaneously addressing issues of race,  
gender, class, etc. in what was called culture. The attempt to weave  
these into a kind of cultural studies ethic gave rise to a  
generalised field of social & cultural theory that has been  
influential. I would say that now, the importance of that  
intervention is visible as a player in the emergence of "culture" in  
disciplines from sociology, to law, to medicine, etc.etc. Except,  
most "cultural studies" programmes rarely give a systematic view of  
how culture is used within specific disciplinary traditions.

Here's a proposition to try out: the average media and cultural  
studies work (I include my own) has much less understanding of the  
relevant contemporary disciplinary debates in English, philosophy,  
anthropology, sociology and economics than in 1980. To be clear, I  
should say that I don't think such an understanding is easily  
possible, given the sheer amount of academic work produced that is  
relevant to understanding "culture", whatever that is.  But the  
danger is that by locating method within the object of study (which  
can never be defined) Cultural Studies methodology lacks substance,  
and cuts itself off from the debates in relevant fields that could  
provide substance - particularly, for example, the work on the  
politics of translation. I say this because I feel a sense of loss in  
my own lack of a disciplinary education, as there are limitations to  
the level to which my work can operate in particular domains of  
practice. And, as we know through the vocational anxieties, there is  
no specific field in which CS can go out to change. Spivak's call at  
the end of "Outside in the Teaching Machine", for "Cultural studies"  
to be held for graduate rather than undergraduate level study seems  
to me to make a lot of sense. CS seems all too quick to guarantee its  
own radicality through "interdisciplinarity", without perhaps  
recognising the degree to which disciplinary knowledge that can be  
*effectively* interwoven with others requires time and work to  
acquire. I wish I'd learnt more literary theory when I as younger,  
and I feel fairly depressed at how much work is required to learn  
enough to really understand what the "text" means in a way that can  
be made technically productive within the comparative literature  
debates. I don't think that Cultural Studies can any longer say that  
those debates are "conservative" or "hostile to race/gender/class/ 
culture" issues. All disciplines are under this pressure, and it is  
in this debate internal to those disciplines, rather than the mere  
assertion of their necessity, that is where the work remains to be done.

III. The tension between "pragmatic" and "critical" approaches is  
tired. Good pragmatic practice is critical in its evaluation of the  
field of practice where it operates. I have a great deal of respect  
for the work of Graeme Turner & Hartley/Cunningham in building  
institutional shelters for important academic development &  
production. That is tough work, and necessary. But it is not the same  
as theoretical and methodological research in the discipline. I'm not  
saying that I don't think those guys have done any of that, but it's  
incorrect and dangerous to collapse the distinction. The  
effectiveness of both kinds of practice can both be seen empirically  
in either a) FTEs employed or b) take-up of conceptual work in the  

Part of the value of Creative Industries is that it does not aim to  
be a discipline, and so - like many other flows of capital - breaks  
apart a sense of insularity and expands the kinds of connections that  
can be made. If I am skeptical about the value of "Cultural Studies"  
as an institutional paradigm, I am optimistic about Creative  
Industries, because I think that CS work will be rejuvenated as it  
engages with media forms not as objects of study, but also in their  
production. To attempt to make a media production operate in a sphere  
of practice is the kind of "application" of cultural analysis that  
can potentially make the avowed politics of cultural studies real. I  
find it hard to see a more fruitful institutional development for  
fostering that kind of practice than Creative Industries.

There is not much about the CI paradigm that to me has much to do  
with methodological debates in cultural studies, or my own cultural  
studies ethic (despite my claims to the contrary a few years back).  
There is a particular importation of CI discourse in Australia that  
has come through figures of the Australian cultural studies scene,  
which I think accounts for the binding there. And there are  
limitations of CI discourse are readily apparent to both CS scholars  
and to economists. I think that the expression of resistance to that  
is choosing all too easy targets. But I believe that the  
methodological crises raised by the academic production of art and  
media works, and the whole creative practice/research debate are the  
most fruitful discourses for raising the evident limitations of  
contemporary cultural studies, and this can happen when they meet in  
a CI-like institutional environment. And through attending to those  
limitations, I can see some of the cultural studies I was initially  
attracted to emerging. And I see some of this ethic in the young  
scholars whose identification with cultural studies is a space of  
unsettlement rather than settlement.


Cultural Futures - December 1-5, 2005 - http:// 

On 26/08/2005, at 4:03 PM, Melissa Gregg wrote:

> In the lead up to our first meeting at QUT's Creative Industries  
> Precinct on Friday September 9, the Brisbane-based Monthly Media  
> and Cultural Studies (MACS) network (<http://cccs.uq.edu.au/ 
> index.html?page=22640&pid=21774>) would like to invite debate and  
> feedback on the current state of Australian cultural studies and  
> particularly how the Creative Industries paradigm fits within this  
> discussion. As younger researchers inheriting these debates we are  
> keen to discuss issues such as:
> - disciplinarity: what it means (practically, ethically,  
> conceptually) to do “media and cultural studies” within the CI  
> paradigm
> - opportunities for and the politics of academic labour for RHD  
> students and Early Career Researchers in the context of the shift  
> from individualistic “humanities” research to project/team-based  
> approaches
> - the changing research culture of Australian universities,  
> especially the perceived incommensurability between "pragmatic" and  
> "critical" approaches as evidenced in the following quotation:
> "Nowadays Australian cultural studies is increasingly normalised,  
> concentrating on cultural policy studies and, often uncritically,  
> on popular culture and the media. Indeed it is in Australia that  
> the celebration of popular culture as a liberating force… first  
> took off through Fiske and Hartley’s contributions. The young  
> populists of the seventies now hold senior posts and what was  
> pathbreaking is becoming a norm. The readiness of a succession of  
> Australian governments to encourage enterprise universities has  
> empowered the old tertiary technical training departments in such  
> areas as communications, allowing them to have an impact on more  
> abstract and theorised cultural studies in ways that appear to have  
> deprived the latter of critical force. Furthermore, the structure  
> of research funding, which asks even young academics to apply for  
> grants, has had a conformist effect. Perhaps Australian cultural  
> studies offers us a glimpse of what the discipline would be like  
> were it to become relatively hegemonic in the humanities."
> -Simon During, Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction (2005) p.26
> More details for the MACS forum will follow shortly, but in the  
> meantime we are keen to use the CSAA-forum as a means to hear  
> others' experiences and opinions on the topic so that a dialogue  
> might take place around the actual event.
> Melissa Gregg, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green
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