Sumita Chakravarty attends ‘Crossroads’ in Cultural Studies conference in Finland
For her report on the conference, please read:
“Reinventing the University”: A Conversation with Larry Grossberg
The Association of Cultural Studies or ACS met for its hallmark ‘Crossroads’ conference in Tampere, Finland from July 1-4, 2014. For its tenth anniversary, ‘Crossroads’ returned to the site of its first three conferences, and to those early organizers of such a gathering in the early 1990s, the fact of the global spread and reach of Cultural Studies was certainly a matter of surprise and jubilation. Four hundred participants were present at Tampere, a smaller gathering than in some other locations. For instance, for the previous conference in 2012 in Paris, almost two thousand abstracts had been submitted and over a thousand scholars attended.
If academic conferences are meant to proclaim “the state of the field,” I was struck by a few features that seemed to mark a clear shift. For the first time, the keynotes and plenaries were delivered by scholars whose names were not familiar to me. Rather than established (read senior) folk, the roster had gotten much younger, another indication of the healthy state of the field. ‘Crossroads’ has always been international, but this year the mix was truly astounding, as both the showcased presenters and the panels had scholars from Russia, China, Singapore, Mexico, and of course, Finland. While the presiding spirit of the late Stuart Hall was invoked early on through a screening of John Akomfrah’s excellent film on Hall’s career as intellectual and activist, the conference in general had turned a corner. The moment of “cultural Marxism” has passed and terms like ‘ideology’ and ‘superstructure’ were rarely heard.
Clearly the focus has shifted geographically and thematically, from the U.S. and western Europe to the Asian and eastern European countries. This is not surprising, given that Cultural Studies is all about making sense of contemporary events and emergent social and cultural movements. So, for instance, the topics of “national identity” and the “transnational” were a significant presence. More “traditional” Cultural Studies themes, such as gender and popular culture, were of course, still necessary and the focus of continuing scholarship, but no longer quite as prominent as the city or migration or globalization.
To make sense of this current moment in Cultural Studies, I sat down with Prof. Larry Grossberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Grossberg)
of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Larry is one of the founders of this conference, and a doyen of the field. As perhaps the most articulate and passionate adherent of the original project of CS and its anchoring presence in the American academic scene, Larry is not only in a position to take stock of the changes in the field, but is an inspirational figure for many generations of students throughout the world. (He also introduced me to the ‘Birmingham School of Cultural Studies’ when I was a graduate student at Illinois.) I asked Larry how the field had changed in the last thirty-odd years, his overall sense of the direction we were headed, and how he saw the future of CS. An engaging speaker, Larry spoke of these and other topics. Here are some of his thoughts.
On the internationalization of Cultural Studies: I think the center of cultural studies has shifted. Now much of the important and interesting work being done is in Asia and Latin America. Australia too has a lively presence in the field. And that is a good thing. Cultural Studies was never meant to be fixed and unchanging, but rather to be a set of critical tools for the exploration of new conjunctures. And the best work has often been done on the margins, outside the most prestigious and central places. That’s not to say that good and important work is still not being done in the North Atlantic, but perhaps there, it has become too easy, too normalized, people can take it for granted. I think we are in a something of a post-postcolonial moment, though I hesitate to use the term ‘postcolonial’ because it already has its own baggage. In the early days, people thought CS was defined as “the politics of culture” because no one else was talking about culture and power in serious ways, and therefore it needed to be looked at in terms of power relations in society and whose practices were privileged. But I think of cultural studies differently, I would say that the object of CS is a context, analyzing the complexity of a context, offering better understandings and new openings into a different future. It is a contextually specific practice of contextual –conjunctural—analysis. Stuart Hall once said to me that people sometimes misunderstood his work on race and difference, assuming he was offering a general theory about race, but that is not at all correct. As he put it when talking about ‘Policing the Crisis,’ the attempt was to understand the “racialization of a particular conjuncture”: the moment of Thatcherism in Britain.
In the U.S. Cultural Studies has become over-professionalized; it has become disciplinized. Cultural Studies is risky work, and I feel that many people are less willing to take risks: they are either afraid of not finding a job, or losing their job, or whatever. Instead, they think cultural studies is about theory, that they can substitute theoretical guarantees for the more difficult attempt to connect theoretically useful concepts, rigorous empirical research, and political questions. And to be honest, I increasingly think that there is too much of a rush to publish, and I wonder if the fact that there is so much work out there– there is no way one can read everything related to one’s area, let alone outside one’s own area of study–has not made the task of cultural studies more difficult (even if it also has positive consequences). I do think that as the theoretical sophistication of much of the critical work in the US academy has grown, its intellectual significance, its sense of history (of both the realities we study and the intellectual discourses we are part of) and perhaps, its political value, has diminished. My advisor James Carey used to remind me that academic work had its own temporality, and one needed to take the time to be sure that what you had to say was actually worth putting into the conversation. That kind of advice is unthinkable now, with unfortunate results. I do not mean to criticize individuals as much as call attention to the changing political economy of intellectual production in which we are located.
Cultural Studies’ “problem spaces”: If cultural studies is a contextualized study of contexts, I think it views contexts in a particular way—as conjunctures. This is a key term, even though its meaning is still uncertain and even contested. It was the subject of one of the last prolonged discussions I had with Stuart Hall. What I think people agree upon is that conjunctures are complex articulations of multiple forces, determinations, struggles, and contradictions. Conjunctures embody as an object of study the radical anti-reductionism of cultural studies. Thus the politics of a conjuncture are never simple or singular; they define what the Jamaican anthropologist calls a problem space. The task of cultural studies might be seen as constructing the conjuncture and in that task, gaining a better sense of the problem space one needs to address.
On interdisciplinarity: Most people agree that cultural studies has to be collaborative—conjunctural analysis is probably not something any single person can do—and interdisciplinary. These commitments were at the heart of the project of the CCCS. And they are among our greatest failures. Bringing people from different disciplines together– a bunch of experts in different fields who don’t know how to talk to one another–does not create interdisciplinary work. Reading a bit of theory or some rather arbitrary or predefined selection of work from a number of disciplines is not interdisciplinary work. Yet this is how, increasingly, interdisciplinarity is constituted in American universities, and even more, if one believes the talk, interdisciplinarity is located inside disciplines and departments. If we are ever to build the institutional and infrastructural conditions of possibility for interdisciplinary thinking and research, what we need is to re-imagine, re-invent and re-make the university. The current understanding of the university system was created in the late-nineteenth century, so it is already over one hundred and fifty years old. It is time to re-imagine the way we do things. I once chaired a committee that wrote a proposal for a modest beginning to such a re-invention at the invitation of some administrative leaders in Chapel Hill, who were concerned about the proliferation of interdisciplinary units. We wanted to establish a Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in which scholars would come together to address specific problems—that is the first revolution: a problem-centered approach. Scholars would work together to develop new discourses, new methodologies and potentially, new knowledges—and new possibilities for addressing such problems. Such commitments and conversation would bring their teaching with the faculty. Faculty could change, perhaps temporarily, their “home” in the university; at least some of the faculty would become, some of the time, intellectually mobile. Such projects would be funded—in the same way current teaching and research is funded—but outside the control of departments and disciplines. Each formation would have a sunset clause, so that people had the chance to re-affirm their commitment to the project or to move on, or even to move back to their discipline. We were told it was too ambitious: we were dreamers.
So yes, much remains to be done, and the prognosis, at least in the U.S. is not good, but at least the old questions continue to exist and many new questions are being raised.
“And in the end, I still believe in Cultural Studies.”
~Sumita Chakravarty, July 23, 2014