- Cultural Studies in its Mirror Phase
In the first pages of What's Become of Cultural Studies? Graeme Turner retells an apocryphal story: at a large cultural studies conference in Birmingham (it was the third Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in 2000) one of 'the founding fathers of cultural studies' - my guess is that this is supposed to be Stuart Hall - is looking through the large book of abstracts. Turning to a colleague he mournfully asks: 'is this what we've become?' Of course you don't have to attend a cultural studies conference to get a sense of alienation crawling into your bones when reading through conference packs; that's the nature of the sprawling beast that is the 'international association conference'. Cultural studies, though, was meant to be different: this is the ambition many still cling to; and the petard that many are hoist by. The tale that Turner recounts sounds like a midlife crisis, where youthful promises and hopes are returned as a series of compromises, mis-directions and paths all-too-easily-trodden. Looking hard into the mirror of middle-age the difference that was or is cultural studies begins to look all too much like something familiar, something that no longer makes much of a difference. The four books under review here can be taken as symptoms of cultural studies' middle-age 'mirror-phase'. Yet if the male midlife-crisis familiar from TV dramas classically results in psychic meltdowns, 'inappropriate' liaisons and a spendthrift approach to fast cars, then here, as might be expected, we find a more moderate response to frustrated dreams and unrealised ambition - irritation and indignation but also mature reflection.
What are the differences that were meant to make the difference for cultural studies? Cultural studies was famously meant to be 'a project', and it was going to be a project that was in the business of producing 'really useful' knowledge. To gloss this somewhat; it wasn't going to be another discipline, but an ill-discipline driven by the urgencies of its analytic tasks rather than [End Page 179] by a set of sclerotic conventions that produced cookie-cutter objects of knowledge.1 Similarly, the job at hand was never going to be scholarship-for-scholarship's-sake, but knowledge that could face the test of social reality and find some purchase there. At its most damning the mirror held up to cultural studies shows an unwitting complicity with academic managerialism, whereby 'really useful knowledge' is repackaged as 'impact factors' for an audit culture that wants to quantify the usefulness of knowledge in terms of 'well-being' indicators, and ultimately in the currency of hard cash. The anti-disciplinarity of cultural studies is returned in the guise of a permission slip for ruthless university administrators to reconfigure schools and departments according to the assumed demands (always deemed 'necessities') of real estate, of staff pruning, and of student enrolment (the endless chasing of new markets and new 'useful' subjects - which includes anything that a character from CSI might call a job).
Such a view of cultural studies, which is sketched in the early pages of Turner's book, could well lead to a melancholic defeatism. Yet Turner is quick to shrug off such a mood and to turn his hand to the task of equipping cultural studies for the future - even if much of what he has to say casts the actuality of cultural studies (as it is practised in Australia, the United Kingdom and North America) in a fairly gloomy light. Turner does not hold back when it comes to diagnosing the problems that he sees facing cultural studies. Recognising that much of the perceived 'coolness' of cultural studies (for students and others) has been lost to programmes in the creative industries...