On Academia: Time to resuscitate Cultural Studies

A cold has turned off the tap in my mind connected to productive thought and turned on the snot tap in my nose, so I am giving myself a holiday from thesis work today and giving you a load of snot. Later, maybe, guilt will overtake psycho-physiological incapacity and I shall be compelled to labour over some simulacrum of work. Regardless, I have allowed myself the luxury of thinking properly about the recent Negri affair and its relation to Cultural Studies. Specifically I am thinking about the (non)response from leading academics, because it has annoyed the hell out of me.

Via Sandy, here is a good recap of what happened. Extract:

In the Sydney Sun-Herald in January, Miranda Devine denounced Sydney University for inviting the ‘suspected terrorist mastermind Antonio Negri’ rather than offering students ‘intellectual enlightenment’. Keith Windschuttle elaborated on that viewpoint in The Australian newspaper ‘education in the humanities was once supposed to be a civilising experience’ and repeated the accusation of ‘terrorist’ against Negri. He concluded his case against free speech by arguing that universities should not ‘accommodate people with so little concern for civilised values’. (It is an irony that, in 1971, Australian Security Intelligence (ASIO) spies similarly vilified the then-leftist Windschuttle, whom they reported as giving ‘the impression of being a violent revolutionary’.)
As it happened, before Windschuttle’s article had even appeared, Negri had withdrawn due to ill health. And the conference whose financial viability was premised on the calculation of celebrity and audience was to be deferred until Negri might be able to attend or some form of the conference might take place. Sydney University nevertheless succumbed to Windschuttle’s attack by withdrawing funding for any future version of the event.Negri responded in detail to the accusations made in Windschuttle’s article, describing it as ‘a scandalous and vulgar act of historical revisionism’. Other responses include a petition defending Negri’s standing as a philosopher and challenging Windschuttle’s purported adherence to ‘traditional intellectual virtues’ given the facts relating to Negri’s imprisonment.

Devine’s column was different to Windschuttle’s in one crucial regard. Devine focussed on the scandal of Negri’s alleged involvement with radical left-wing Italian terrorist groups of the 1970s. Windschuttle attacked not only Negri but others who constitute the left-wing humanities. His column was far more sinister in the sense he wasn’t merely attempting to damn a (non)visiting academic, he was attacking the institutional apparatus that would allow such a visit. Part of that institutional apparatus is Cultural Studies and because it is ‘Cultural Studies’ I was expecting a tirade of well constructed pieces that weren’t merely counter-arguments, but counter-attacks. In one of my favourite passage of A Reader’s Guide, Massumi writes:

Meaning is the contraction of difference and repetition in a self-expiring expression. Power is the resuscitation of meaning. (20)

The political body of which Windschuttle is part seems to have a hegemonic grip over the contraction (of ‘facts’ and ‘affect’ in newspaper columns) of differences (between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ humanities) and repetition (of right-wing righteousness across the political milieu). Angela Mitropoulos points out very clearly in the above hyperlinked article that Windschuttle and co define what is ‘normative’. By raising the question they define the neccessary grounds of any answer. The classic example of this can be found in the question that traffic cops always ask when you are pulled over for speeding, “Why were you speeding?” Any answer that addresses the question can get you into trouble, because the cop has constructed the terrain of what is at stake — reasons for your speeding — not whether or not you were actually speeding, or even if what you were doing is necessarily wrong.

The crux of the problem I have with the institutional academic environment at the moment is that it is becoming depoliticised through the mantra of professionalism. For example, the recent non-debate on the CSAA list over ‘tone’ made me sick (and not ‘sick’ meaning awesome, but sick in the sense of making me feel like doing law instead my PhD). Is this just another debate around ‘what is Cultural Studies?’ but instead of debate explicitly looking at definitions regarding content, methodologies, political positions, etc it enters through the backdoor in a more sinister manner? The ‘backdoor’ being a focus on issues regarding ‘rational’ debate and academic professionalism. If so, civility can suck my fucking balls. The marketplace of ideas that the academy seems to have become relates to this short tract from Gangland by Mark Davis:

In the publishing industry, this professionalism hasn’t been well executed. Instead, largely untrained though often highly experienced staff have been expected to behave as if they have professional knowledge, often without any serious market research. the result is that self-fulfilling orthodoxies develop about what the market will and won’t tolerate, and publishers tend to concentrate on what they ‘know’ will work. in such circumstances it’s difficult to explore new forms and carve out new readership and markets. (147-148)

From my recent experience with my thesis work it is apparent a similar situation exists in the academic marketplace of ideas, but I shall address that in my thesis. In politics also there seems to be a resonant situation where the export of Crosby and Textor to the UK indicates the success of the Australian conservatives to harness this trend of actually figuring out what is happening with a population.

Except for a few exceptions, what is absent from Cultural Studies in Australia is any sense how to appreciate the new antagonisms of the post-Cold War era, let alone know what they are. There, I’ve said it. From my limited (but not nonexistent) knowledge of the history of Cultural Studies, it seems apparent that the discipline emerged as a fidelity to a performative practice-based understanding of how to express and think about the location of new antagonisms in the post-World War 2 period. Some have discussed this in terms of recognising the ‘other’ in culture. No, this is only part of the process, because mere ‘recognition’ of such subjectivities does not go far enough. This is especially the case where reactionary conservatives define the discursive terrain of the debate, such as in the example of the Negri affair. What needs to be recognised are not so much the subjectivities that are produced within a situation (which can be reproduced across generations, so don’t get me wrong, the ‘contemporary’ needs historical boundaries as well), but the specific attributes of the antagonism that produce the situation.

To be provocative: If your work does not attempt to isolate, express, think through the necessary attributes of and affirm an antagonism within the contemporary, then you are not doing Cultural Studies.

Maybe all this is old hat, if it is, then I apologise for my own ignorance. But if it is old hat, taking the recent non-debate on the CSAA list as an example, then I have not come across much evidence of it recently.