The upcoming Cultural Studies Now conference at the University of East London will be a major event examining the critical productivity of Cultural Studies as a discipline and political project. The conference raises a number of key issues:
‘Cultural Studies, as the paradigmatic interdisciplinary project, has always been defined by its relationships to proximate sets of ideas, practices and institutions. As Cultural Studies has grown and matured, its borders have multiplied. Cultural Studies has affected and been affected by contiguous disciplines, academic and non-academic institutions, political movements and projects, and creative practices of many kinds.
The question now is: has Cultural Studies been expanded, relocated and disseminated to the point where it no longer has a coherent identity? Is there a future for Cultural Studies as such? The conference will consider these issues by addressing a number of connected topics including:
- Cultural Studies & Politics
- Cultural Studies & Its Disciplinary Neighbours
- Cultural Studies in the Public Sphere
- Cultural Studies & Creative Practice
- Cultural Studies & National Contexts’
There is much one can say about these issues – recently I was asked by a Times Higher Education Supplement journalist how I would address some of these questions. These were my initial thoughts:
For myself the key strength of Cultural Studies has been its interdisciplinary approach, with culture as the central focus of study. It has never been a ‘closed field’ of study but one that has drawn upon and reworked different conceptual and theoretical approaches in the context of different social-political situations and historical conjunctures. There has never been one cultural studies. Its relationship to other disciplines has been, I would argue, symbiotic – as much as it has ‘borrowed’ from sociology, history, philosophy, politics etc it has in turn ‘infected’ these fields of study. While some outside the field of cultural studies have tended to see this interdisciplinary promiscuity as a problem, for many this has allowed for new questions and approaches to be developed in relation to objects of study that have historically been excluded or not worthy of academic or political study.
Cultural Studies has productively challenged academic institutional boundaries and exclusions and developed an array of innovative pedagogical methods as appropriate for the issues and questions being raised. Its integration across theory and practice has taken many forms – a central one has been the development of critical understandings that have at once operated inside and outside the university. For instance, in the context of the University of East London, with its multi-ethnic student body (‘whites’ are effectively the ethnic minority!), the examination of popular culture has enabled all students to examine, understand and challenge how their political and social identities have been formed through transformations in academic knowledge and media representations and discourses.
For example, one only has to look at all the interesting work in the relationship between anti-racism, popular culture, identity, globalization and politics to appreciate the different conceptual frameworks being articulated to study the complexity of urban multiculture now.
The future of cultural studies is about how it reconstitutes itself in different contexts, especially political, national and institutional across the world. For example, the present globalised context of neoliberal capitalism and the ‘war on terror’ poses a set of research and teaching challenges that cannot be addressed by any one historical discipline – the issues of culture, religion, economy, globalization, technology, media and politics require an integrated approach that cultural studies is well suited to address.
There seems to be two contemporary tendencies that present themselves as questioning the radical and distinctive edge of cultural studies – one is the institutionalization of the subject in the HE sector as just another discipline, and secondly, the dissemination of cultural studies approaches and practices into other disciplines, as well as in broader society. While these two tendencies are maybe seen as problematic, for me conversely, they are a clear sign of the critical, institutional and political success of Cultural Studies – it has had a significant impact on academia and society – its future as an innovative, radical and politicised approach depends upon what it does, more than how it does it, as contexts change. The institutionalization of cultural studies is at once a sign of the recognition and power of the field, as much as a domestication of its radical political edge. The challenge is to develop critical, political strategies and tactics that are appropriate for the present situation. Its influence on other disciplines and wider society will remain a contested political project, open to different and antagonistic interpretations – there is no one singular political or critical orthodoxy of cultural studies – arguably this is its radical and risky political, as well as institutional identity. It has to continually articulate itself to different political and institutional locations.
One of the questions to think about is how critical work on ‘race’ is implicated in the fate of Cultural Studies. In some critiques of cultural studies the whole field of race gets reduced to a politics of identity and difference. This in itself is far too reductive account of the race field or of cultural studies. We do need to consider how race study has developed in relation to the institutionalization of cultural studies. In what forms has anti-racism been integrated into cultural analysis without due consideration of anti-racist practice and politics?