Digital Archaeology of Grey Knowledge
Slides from a talk by ULL Librarian Colin Homiski on copyright, digital resources, bibliographic tools, and effective ways of doing contemporary cultural studies.
A selection of alternative models for HEIs: from Summer Schools to Community Organising.
Research with Reach
Research with Reach is a network and training programme for postgraduate and early career researchers in the arts and humanities. This project was originally devised by Penny Newell and Ella Parry-Davies, PhD candidates at King’s College London, to support emerging academics in thinking though the scope of their research beyond the outlets of academia.
10 Ways to Make Public Engagement Work for You (a Guardian Higher Education Network blog by Penny Newell and Ella Parry-Davies).
A handout and presentation by Holly Pester for an activity to brainstorm a collaborative archive project (doubles up as a great set of questions to ask yourself when developing any kind of cross-institutional project).
A slide show by Gary Hall and Clare Birchall touring various alternative academic publishing models supported by Open Humanities Press.
Politics, Publishing and the the Relationship between Analysis and Theory
The text of a talk by Jeremy Gilbert at Researching Contemporary Culture
Some notes on researching contemporary culture…
Why does so much work get rejected?
As the editor of a peer-reviewed journal (New Formations) and a regular reviewer for several of the other major journals in the field, I find that quite a large part of my time is taken up with rejecting submissions from PhD students and ‘early career researchers’ (‘ECRs’). Of course, that’s partly because those are the categories of academic who are most likely to be submitting unsolicited articles to journals, but I thought it would be worth making a few remarks about the kind of things that ECRs generally have to learn how to do in order to get their work from just being nominally ‘publishable’ (in that it’s passed a certain threshold of lucidity, scholarship and originality) to being something that is actually likely to be published. I’ll go on from there to talk more broadly about the question of the relationship between academic and political work in the general field of cultural studies, cultural theory and cultural analysis.
This sounds very simple, but the single most common problem with work submitted by ECRs is that it doesn’t make a convincing case as to why anyone should want to read it. This isn’t as difficult to overcome as it sounds. Most of the work is inherently interesting. But it’s a trick which it seems to take most academic writers a few years to learn after having finished their PhDs, simply explaining to the reader why anyone apart from the writers themselves ought to be interested in what they’re writing about. Doing this generally means explaining to the reader what the relevance of the work and its findings are outside of a very narrow field of enquiry. It’s one thing if you’re submitting to an entirely specialised journal. You don’t need to explain why the reader should care about your reading of Nights at the Circus or Boyhood if you’re submitting to a journal of Angela Carter studies, or American independent cinema, or whatever. But if you’re presenting your work as part of a wider intellectual conversation on not just some such very specialised fields, but on ‘contemporary culture’ more broadly, then it helps if you can say something about, in Stuart Hall’s immortal words’, ‘what this has to do with everything else’. That doesn’t mean you have to try to map out the entire contemporary conjuncture, to catalogue every possible one of ‘the elements making up a whole way of life’. But it does mean giving some, perhaps only gestural and momentary, attention to the question of what your particular analysis or theoretical claim tells us either about the wider culture and the moment we are living through, or about the theoretical concepts that you have been using and their variable capacities and limitation. It’s the failure to do this which is one of the most common reasons for us rejecting submissions.
The Problem of Political Relevance
A much more specialised, but closely related reason for such rejection in the specific case of New Formations, is the lack of explicit political relevance. This is something much more specific to our journal, and across the field there’s probably only Social Text and Cultural Studies that would put the same emphasis on the idea that the analytical or theoretical work they publish ought to have some kind of political relevance. Nonetheless this is an issue worth considering for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the issue of ‘political relevance’ is closely related to the issue of ‘wider relevance’ generally. For another thing, it can open up for us the bigger question of the general relationship between scholarly work and political action.
The questions of ‘politicality’ and general relevance are closely related simply because one of the easiest ways to persuade a general audience that what you’re talking about has some wider relevance and applicability is to draw a political point from it (this is true whether you’re doing cultural analysis or just complaining about the weather). Politics is the domain within which power relationships are negotiated, contested and reinforced amongst the widest possible range of actors and many different levels of abstraction and universality, and to some extent is always the domain within which universalisable claims are made and contested. This is why trying to draw a political point from an analysis, observation or theoretical argument is often simply the best way to make it seem relevant to a wider audience.
Of course, to simply follow that logic to its natural conclusion would be to embrace politically motivated intellectual work for purely opportunistic and cynical reasons, which is not only nasty but invariably self-defeating (I’m not going to tell you that if you don’t have any politics then you’re a bad person – but if you try to pretend that you do when you don’t then it’s very unlikely that your work will convince anyone). I think that when we tell people that we want to publish work that has some kind of political relevance, they’re often confused and mistake it for a highly prescriptive injunction. It’s important to to try to be clear about this. We don’t necessarily expect or want work that’s making some kind of direct contribution to a determinable political cause. It’s more a question of the work evincing, however gesturally, and at whatever level of abstraction, some interest in that question of Hall’s (‘what does this have to do with everything else?’), and in his other key question – which he famously posited as the defining question for Cultural Studies as such – of the relationship between culture and power. Broadly speaking, we’re interested in analysis of contemporary culture which tries to tell us something about the changing nature of power relationships – on any scale whatsoever (from the microbiological to the cosmic), or theoretical arguments which have some relevance (however tangential, as long as its logically demonstrable) to the business of analysing power relationships on whatever scale.
The latter, I think, is what distinguishes cultural theory and political theory from straight philosophy. So for example, work informed by deconstruction which is simply reiterating Derrida’s basic ontological postulates (everything is différance…) or illustrating them with reference to some particular object, text or phenomenon, is ultimately not political in character, no matter what some of its exponents may claim (I hate to say it, but just because you claim that your work is ‘political in a different way’ ‘redefining the political’ or whatever doesn’t mean that it actually is…personally I think we would have a much healthier situation in the contemporary humanities if the many people who are not interested in or writing about politics in any way could simply feel free to admit this to themselves and everyone else). On the other hand, deconstruction has had huge implications for political thought and analysis, to the extent that a lot of work has been done considering the relevance of those philosophical claims for thinking about issues such as gender relations, ethnicity, political democracy, etc, and that’s more the kind of work we tend to be interested in; which isn’t to say it’s more important than the more ‘purely’ philosophical work, it’s just that at that level of generality, it doesn’t have much to offer those who are trying to research contemporary culture.
Politics, Philosophy, Theory
Now, there’s an interesting issue to think about here, in that a lot of this kind of work, which is thinking about the political and social implications of some tendencies in ‘continental’ philosophy (and this would include, incidentally, most of my own work) really has the status of political philosophy, but it still isn’t quite doing cultural analysis in the classic sense which Hall appeals for. In order to do that, it has to say something about a specific historical moment or phenomenon which wouldn’t be equally applicable to any other phenomenon in any other historical moment. It’s quite difficult to do this using a lot of the philosophical resources which have been influential in recent decades. Thinkers such as Derrida, Badiou, and Zizek rarely if ever make historical claims – they are normally making claims about features of human culture, or the nature of truth itself, that are taken to be either invariable or applicable within a very large temporal and spatial frame (the whole history of ‘the West’ in Derrida’s case, for example). We might contrast this with, for example, Hardt & Negri, who are combining a set of general metaphysical claims with a specific historical account of global modernity and its destinies, and reflect on how strange it is that their work really hasn’t been taken up very much at all by British humanities scholars interested in contemporary culture. It’s also notable that those bodies of theoretical work which have shown real staying power, which successive cohorts of scholars keep coming back to, whatever momentarily fashionable theorist they may begin their careers with an attachment to, are those who are enable one to say something specific about a historical situation. In fact, come to think of it, perhaps it’s this enabling, historicising capacity that distinguishes cultural theory from political philosophy. Whether that distinction holds or not, I think this is a really important issue to think about if you want to do work which is actually going to take the form of, as the title of this project has, it ‘researching contemporary culture’. Researching contemporary culture ought to mean being able to say something about contemporary culture which is unique and which isn’t entirely predictable before the study which produced it has even commenced.
This last point is crucial, because I think absolutely the most common problem with work that gets submitted to the journals that I read for is this: it treats its objects ultimately as mere illustrations for a set of philosophical propositions which it has derived from some source, and which were obviously never likely to be challenged or modified in any way through their ‘application’ to those objects. I mean, to be perfectly honest, half the work I read for us and for Theory, Culture and Society seems to have been written with the aim of demonstrating to the reader that the writer has sufficiently grasped the ideas of whichever philosopher they are reading to be able to choose a cultural text, object or phenomenon which can be used to illustrate those ideas. Ultimately, then, it never really gets past the stage of philosophical exposition. And this just isn’t what cultural analysis, cultural studies, or even cultural theory are supposed to be about. If the ‘theory’ knows in advance what the text, object or phenomenon is going to tell it, then it was never really theory in the most positive sense: it was just philosophical dogma.
It’s worth thinking about the specificity of the concept of ‘theory’ here. Obviously the idea of a relationship between ‘theoretical’ and ‘empirical’ knowledge is derived analogously from the experimental physical sciences in a way which has quite limited legitimacy. But in this instance I think that such an analogy is quite useful. In the sciences, but also, as far as possible, in the humanities and social sciences, the point of theory is to abstract from a particular case a set of principles, and ultimately an abstract model, which can be assumed to have some applicability in a range of other cases, in which the resultant model will be tested and subject to further revision. It’s this latter point which is crucial. A particular theoretical approach should illuminate something about the object of analysis which a different theoretical approach wouldn’t, and should be clear about what that something is. A good analysis might well just end up confirming the assumptions of the theoretical model with which it starts, but it should at least begin from a position which assumes the possibility that the model and its assumptions could turn out to require revision or rejection.
This brings us back again to the question of what the place of political commitment, or just a general political orientation, might be in this intellectual schema. More generally I think this leads us to the question of what the relationship is between scholarly work in the humanities and those wider political projects, struggles or movements with which it might want to have some kind of productive relationship. This is a question that I and others have tried to address over the years, although it’s notoriously tricky to give a clear and appropriately schematic answer to it. I think there are two general points that I would make about this however, neither of which should be taken as abstract prescriptions, being derived entirely from empirical observation as to how the relationship between scholarly work in the Cultural Studies tradition has related to wider political struggles.
The first is to observe that the most interesting analytical and theoretical work has almost always been trying to address social questions which were posed in the first place by new movements and struggles. I think this is an useful point to keep in mind when you’re thinking about what to research and how to research it – if there isn’t already some kind of discernible political struggle taking place over it, then it probably isn’t the kind of ‘live’ issue in the wider culture that is going to make the basis for really engaging analytical or theoretical work. I say ‘probably’ because clearly this can’t be made into some kind of absolute rule. Similarly, the single best way to ensure that your own work is likely to have some kind of lively political relevance is simply to get involved in some kind of actual, non-academic political activity. Again, this isn’t some kind of absolute rule, but I think it can’t just be coincidence that from Gramsci to de Beauvoir to Foucault to the Birmingham Centre writers to the work of many contemporary scholars (for example that of Clare Birchall and Gary Hall, which has been featured in this series of talks), one particular fact is true. The fact is this: those parts of their work which seem to be characterised by both real analytical purchase and conceptual élan are those which are most obviously related to the real political struggles and projects in which they have been involved, or in which they have taken a particularly sympathetic interest.
Even in the case of Gary and Clare, who are very quick to reject anything they might perceive as lefty moralising from someone like myself, I think it’s possible to say that the most exciting parts of their academic work are clearly inspired and informed by the institutional and para-institutional experiments that they’ve engaged in (the liquid books series, Open Humanities Press, etc.). These might not be ‘Political’ projects in the conventional sense, but my point would be that as types of activity, there is still a world of difference between actually setting up an innovative open-access digital imprint, and just sitting in Humanities 2 at the British Library writing about the possibility of doing so. That’s not to say that latter couldn’t produce exciting and dynamic work, but if you look at the history of important innovations in the history of cultural analysis and theory, then you have to conclude that it very rarely does. The politics of successful critical work in the humanities is very rarely endogenous to that work – it nearly always comes, to some extent from outside of itself, even it’s only from the everyday struggles which most adults have to go through as workers, citizens, parents, etc. And this bring us back, once again, to the crucial importance of Stuart Hall’s great question: what does this (whatever this may be) have to do with everything else?