What Can Cultural Studies Do?

What Can Cultural Studies Do?

Steven Connor

This is an interview conducted for the book Interrogating Cultural Studies: Interviews in Cultural Theory, Practice and Politics, ed. Paul Bowman (London: Pluto Press, 2003).

How do you position yourself and your work in relation to the cultural studies project?

For some time, I have found or at least taken myself to be at odds with what seem to have become the norms and assumptions of cultural studies, as opposed to cultural study. Since I have never been employed in a Department of Cultural Studies, nor had responsibility for sustaining collective belief on a large scale that cultural studies was what I was primarily engaged with, it has been easy for me to maintain a very loose and irresponsible relation with cultural studies. This can be a pleasant and invigorating sensation. Cultural studies seems to me to have produced its most exciting work when it was unsure of its proper sphere of operations, its operating system and its archive of guiding precepts – the period during the 1970s when it was laying in intellectual capital and trying out possibilities.

What are the politics of cultural studies? What is the political significance of your own work? What do you consider to be the ‘proper destination’ of your work?

Perhaps one should divide ‘politics’ into political motivation and political effect, for they are not the same thing. The political affiliations of those who do work associated with cultural studies and the political satisfactions to which the practice of cultural studies are held to lead are obviously, as a matter of observable sociological fact, overwhelmingly and definitionally left-liberal. Most of those involved with cultural studies believe that the academic work they do in this area makes a decisive contribution to political thinking, political culture and even political change, or should do. So much, for the moment, for motivation.

What about political effect, though? Like a lot of those involved with cultural studies, I used to have the grandiose delusion that my work was actually a way of doing politics. I now think it absurd to believe that thinking and speaking and writing about cultural forms and processes in the ways and in the contexts in which I am ever likely to be able to do it can serve my political beliefs and commitments, or for that matter anyone else’s, in any useful way. It’s not that cultural studies has no political dimensions; everything, as we so uselessly know, is indeed political. It is just that cultural studies is such an extremely slow and ineffective way to bail the boat. People in academic life who think they are making important political differences for the most part fail to recognise that they are just marching in step with much more powerful forces that are making the real differences. The work of politics is vastly necessary and for the most part tedious; the study of culture is endlessly fascinating and pretty much gratuitous. The legacy of the 1970s was to suggest that politics ought to be natural, organic, expressive, fulfilling, therapeutic, sensuous, stylish, fun: that it should not only be the politics of culture, but cultural politics.

I find I cannot speak interestingly of the political significance or destination of my own work. I have grown so used to quoting the following sentence from Michel Foucault that I have forgotten where it can actually be found, but still, here goes again: ‘We know what we do and we know, up to a point, why we do it: what we don’t know is what what we do does.’ I’ve always assumed that Foucault thought there was something wrong with this. We don’t know what cultural studies will end up having done, nor is there much point in trying to second-guess it. The significance of what we do is none of our concern, because it depends upon what is done by others with us. What for example was the significance of phrenology? In its own time, phrenology seemed highly significant, a new way of integrating mind, body and culture. Then it became a laughing-stock. But becoming a laughing stock is not to be dreaded or sneezed at, as it prolongs survival, like a process of mummification, in a way that being gently, politely superseded, does not. Now the laughter has died down, and with the conspicuous successes being achieved in neurological investigation, the localisation of cognitive function dreamed of in phrenology starts to seem like a sum done wrong rather than something that does not even belong to mathematics. There is only one final destination for phrenology, as there is for any movement of thought, namely oblivion. But until that final destination is reached, until it is forgotten with no possibility of revival, it is always still possible for anything to happen to phrenology, for it to come have any significance, political, cultural, scientific, religious. Thus neither I nor you are in any position to decide the political significance or destination of my or your work. It’s hard enough doing the work without being expected to legislate on what is to be done with what you have done. And yet, of course, academic and political life is more and more driven by this proleptic demand, which strikes me as a gruesome parody of Lyotard’s principle of the future anterior: where he said it was the postmodernist work that looked for the rules that it will have followed, in our era of abstracts, outlines, articulated aims, strategies and research proposals, it is institutions and not avant-garde artists which operate on the need to know the score in advance of the game. Look away now is my advice.

All this is more or less the opposite of what many or most practitioners of cultural studies seem to think, namely, that cultural studies can and should make the workings of culture transparent to itself.

What are the institutions of cultural studies?

I’d like to try to come at this question, as well as to pursue the point I have just made about making culture transparent to itself, by saying something about the idea of institutions in general. The word ‘institution’ has come to suggest something fixed, though there is something provisional and voluntaristic in the idea of the institution as something solid or visible. An institution is first of all an established habit or custom (this is the sense in which it is commonly used by nineteenth century anthropologists): like the institution of Christmas or the habit of monogamy. It then passes across to our modern sense of an organisation, like the police, the army or the medical profession – making possible a phrase like ‘institutional racism’. It then becomes increasingly hard not to think of institutions as constituted by their material embodiments: their buildings, their publications, their uniforms.

At the bottom of thinking about the idea of social or cultural institutions is a sense of bodies which slow, capture and detain. Slow, capture and detain what? Freedom, that’s what: free association, creativity, invention, subversion, leaping, exuberant difference, chance, ‘the event’ (though I can honestly say that, as austerely defined by Lyotard, Badiou, and other enthusiasts of this fugitive numen, not a single ‘event’ has ever taken place in my life): in short, Life. The Romantic distinction between binding institutions and dissolving processes is fundamental in the very beginning of the study of culture. I mean, for example, in the work of Georg Simmel, who, writing at the inception of modern cultural studies, saw everywhere a dialectic between objective social forms and subjective social energies. Cultural studies preserves this distinction, even though it might now shy away from the word ‘subjective’. It sees institutions relating to social processes as finite forms relate to unharnessable forces. But, whatever the form of its vitalism, Nietzschean, Bakhtinian, Derridean, Foucaldian, Kristevan, Deleuzian, Lyotardian or Serresian, cultural studies is on the side of the life force, and remains driven by the vitalism that was everywhere to be seen at its moment of inception, in the sociology that formed itself in the long moment that connects Nietzsche, Bergson and Freud. It sees itself as being on the side of life forces, and so committed either to loosening or softening the power of institutions. But life, you will recall, isn’t everything.

Modern cultural studies came into being during the 1960s out of the uneasy convergence of a functionalist kind of sociology that was strong on measurement and description, but weak on critique or evaluation, and a form of literary study that had almost no language to describe its object of study, or ways of checking its observations, but was almost pathologically saturated with value and addicted to orgies of discrimination and judgement. This uneasy conjuncture finds expression in the contrasting definitions of ‘culture’ to be found in the work of Raymond Williams, when he was still in his left-Leavisite phase: culture as anthropological ‘whole way of life’ (rituals, structures and habits), and culture as expressive form (statues, poems and novels), or the distinction between what collections of people characteristically do and what said collections produce and leave behind them in the way of art and monuments. This codes a distinction between cultural forms as involuntarily expressive (visible to the analyst-anthropologist) and voluntarily expressive (acts of purposive distinctive self-expression). Cultural studies grew partly out of the intuition that it might be possible to bring to bear the forms of understanding designed for looking at and affirming the expressive value of works of art on apparently less self-conscious expressive activities like those being analysed by Roland Barthes in Mythologies: striptease, wrestling and so on.

Why has the word ‘culture’ driven out its competitors, especially that great, booming nineteenth-century word ‘society’? One reason may be that the word culture, with its well-documented origins in the idea of Bildung, or the cultivation and care of self, preserves the idea of the analogy between the individual and the mass self. In making cultures known and transparent to themselves, cultural studies has had as its aim the making good of the analogy between social and subjective process. The assumption in modern societies has always been that the way to understand and therefore be able to direct a society is to accord it a self-understanding – to grow it a mind and a voice. This is perhaps the kind of growth principally signified in the word culture. A culture has institutions as a way of making itself known to itself, a way of acting itself out. Cultural studies is actually one of these institutions, which is to say, one of these anthropomorphisms.

What cultures most seem to want – although this way of speaking is precisely the thing I would like to see become dubious – is to stay on the side of life rather than institutions. They want to bring themselves and their subjects to life. Cultures seek to build themselves in the images of the subjects which constitute them. Cultural studies has been driven by various models, but it seems to me that the psychoanalytic one remains dominant, even among non-psychoanalytic critics and in work where psychoanalytic language is not apparently in evidence. This may be because the psychoanalytic model of culture allows us to clump together social processes as the expression of collective wishes, anxieties and strategies of self-deception, just as creation myths see in natural formations like hills and reefs the stretched-out bodies of primeval giants. In cultural studies, as in psychoanalysis, the governing principle is Freud’s ‘wo es war soll ich werden': where there was it, let there be I.

This is the difference between a culture and a mere association, in Tönnies’s terms. A culture is association become conscious of itself. There is no doubt that collective self-representation is one of the things that societies characteristically and constitutively do. But these collective self-representations are the outcomes of what a culture is and does, not autonomous sources or principles of social functioning, part of what cultures do rather than what they are.

I have become tired of this anthropomorphism. I don’t think cultures can or need to be brought to life, nor am I anyway on life’s side (it always turns out to be so murderous). Think of culture on the analogy of a consciousness. Consciousness arises in the brain as a result of the interactions of millions of neurones. This does not justify the view that each of these individual neurones, or each one of its transactions with its neighbours, need itself be conscious, or possess a little portion of the consciousness of the whole. Consciousness is, as they say, an emergent phenomenon, that is more than the sum of its parts. Social life, by contrast, is composed of many actions, reactions, interactions, projects, conflicts, convergences, all of them embodying human will, or interest, or appetency. But it does not continue to consist of the forms of intentional behaviour that form its units all the way up to the top layer. In this sense, it is less than the sum of its parts. In the case of a human brain, mere mechanism seems to lift into consciousness; in the case of a society, or collective, acts of individual will produce effects that cannot necessarily be thought of as the expression of collective will. In the first case, consciousness does not go all the way down; in the second, it need not go all the way up. Does this mean that there is no such thing as society? No. But it does mean that a society or a culture is a pattern of behaviour, a set of ways of doing things, not states of living awareness.

Cultures and collectivities in general do not mean anything, not in the sense that they have no significance but in the sense that they do not in any very intelligible sense mean to do what they do and are. Of course governments, political parties, unions, churches, learned societies and boards of governors do mean to do things, indeed exist in order to do them and seem to mean them. But it is the doing that extrudes the collective will, not the other way round. Of course, societies and cultures do have mechanisms which are aimed at drawing them together into collective purpose; indeed, a large part of what we mean when we speak of a culture, is the effect of such drawings together, as well as the ascription of a common purpose to them. By willing ourselves into action that bears the impress of willed action, we invent ourselves tautologically as a ‘we’. Explanations of cultural or social phenomena in these terms, as the expressions of mood, the shiverings of collective anxiety, the eruptions of mass desire or discontent, the heroic cleaving to principle or following-through of programmes, are as mythological as explanations of weather in terms of the whims of the rain-god.

On my reading, the replacement of the idea of society by the idea of a culture is the expression of a desire (here we go again) to give coherence, interiority and self-conscious purpose to the phenomena of social life. Now, given its origin as the offspring of sociology and literary criticism, cultural studies ought to be in a good position to perform this act of bringing to life. But the origins of cultural study also bequeath to it a problem or tangle. Cultural studies inherited from various directions, including the Romantic rejection of industrial modernity by Arnold, Ruskin and Morris, and the Marxist social theory of the Frankfurt school, a tradition of social critique, prompted by a growing sense of the mysterious, unregulated and irrational powers of mass social formations. These forms of mass life seemed to resemble machines, life-life, but terrifyingly lifeless, or lacking in interiority. The point of critique was to put life, which was thought of as unbounded, spontaneous, self-forming, and generative, in place of the machines of social living. If society was to be changed the best way to do it was to describe it, to make its workings visible and knowable to itself. Once the workings of the machine were made clear, it would be obvious how to escape them.

The problem with cultural critique, which was already the sorest of possible sore thumbs when it was taken up by modern cultural studies, was that both culture and critique had been absorbed by the workings of the rationalising social machine. Mass culture and social analysis could be seen increasingly like centralised functions exercised by the state and its institutions. Cultural studies inherited the idea that making cultural forms and practices visible to themselves and others was a good way of bringing about desirable social change, but it also inherited the disabling suspicion (not disabling enough though) that mapping social life and its functions might resemble the orderings of social life too closely to contribute to the liberation of new, freer, less describable forms, or that the analysis and the production of culture not only had little to do with each other. But this suspicion was not disabling enough, and cultural studies actually ended up taking its characteristic form from the problem that might have stymied it at the outset. Hence the strange but wholly characteristic mixture in cultural studies of a neo-functionalism, carried to its dryest and most masochistically passionless extreme, with its talk of formations, levels, grids, territories, spaces, margins and lines of force, with the wildest and most untutored sorts of exoticism and libidinality. It is as though Walter Pater were to have set up house with August Comte. One needs to think only of the uses of Bakhtin, in which the grinding apparatus of social linguistics is solemnly deployed to yield bizarre and unlikely celebrations of carnival, pleasure, heteroglossia and ‘the body’. Cultural studies has sought to solve the problem of the maladjustment of analysis and affirmation by forcing its affirmations through the mill of its analyses, to make its affirmations seem as though they arose naturally and inevitably from its analyses. The most important move made in this process is the idea of the politics of cultural identity, the idea that describing what groups of people characteristically do will be sufficient to build in them a sense of who they are. This in its turn will assist the process of making a culture in general, a culture that because it knows itself inside-out, because it extends over all of its multifarious self, without exclusions or blindnesses, can fully be itself. Cultural studies trades on this ancient ideal of the knowable social totality, on the Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’ raised to the level of social and even global life.

I would prefer to see the development of ways of studying culture that were much less programmatic, and much less concerned to generate value out of the description of how things are. It may be that a culture adds up to a certain kind of quasi-consciousness – a certain eidos or self-picturing, a certain complex and sometimes unstable gathering. But it does not therefore also come down to this. I would be interested to see the effects of a real cultural materialism, therefore, one that does not assume that culture is made up indifferently from top to bottom of broadly analogical acts of mind.

Nowadays, I actually feel it both more plausible and infinitely more soothing to think of a culture as a meteorological phenomenon. Almost immeasurably complex interactions of a small number of number of determinate variables – wind-speed and direction, pressure, temperature – produce determinate weather effects. There is no difficulty in establishing whether it is or is not, at any particular place and time, raining. But what is the ‘it’ that is raining, and that, so to speak, wills or weathers the weather? And where, or what is this it, before it becomes available to be presupposed as the action of an intending awareness? I hope we will want, or mean to learn to want, not to think of society as having self-consciousness and actively self-directing purpose on the analogy of an individual will. A cloud forms, a waterfall plunges and seethes; but not as a expression of the will, the desire or the unease of the cloud or the waterfall.

Our culture is a culture of ever more rapid exchanges, encounters and transactions, of money, information, desire, and so on, through ever-larger and therefore less self-aware and self-directing masses of people, hooked up in more pervasive but more various ways. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but the idea of the institution, as that which channels or fixes the form of human encounter, may give way to something much more localised and temporary. The hydraulic metaphors which have governed our way of thinking of complex structures like economies and societies, metaphors which allow us to think in terms of flows evenly and regularly channelled along pipes and regulated through valves, or the even more static metaphorology of centres, margins and levels, ought to give way to something more labile and indeterminate, without necessarily becoming in the process more like ourselves.

How does the institutionalisation of cultural studies affect, support, or undermine it? Does cultural studies have any significance outside the university at all? What is, has been, might be, or might have been, the ‘significance’ of cultural studies within the university? Where is cultural studies going?

I feel as though I should try to answer all these questions together, under the general heading, What can cultural studies do?

Cultural studies has both won and lost. It has won because it has changed, or been part of a change in the landscape, everywhere; in history, art history, anthropology, literature, legal studies, women’s and gender studies. It has lost because it is no longer directing that change, is no longer credibly even the name of that change. Everything now, as Fredric Jameson observed years ago, is culture; and everything we do with it is a kind of cultural studies. Everywhere we see the signs of pop versions of cultural studies, in the snapshot analyses of social dynamics and motivations offered by columnists and commentators. Everywhere we forego the opportunity to describe the complex mechanisms of mass mediated existence in favour of describing the features of the man in the moon.

Cultural studies has now settled down into a familiar and predictable set of routines. It has colonised a cosy precinct of the true. There will probably still be ‘cultural studies’ going on for some time yet. It was always dangerous for cultural studies to canvas itself as some variety of the unthinkable or outlandish or unformalisable, since the effort to maintain such a self-image is always likely to involve the maintenance of a level of religious zeal that easily reverts to the conservative urge to bind oneself to recognisable procedures and outcomes.

Cultural studies will inevitably continue along this line for a considerable while. It is likely to institutionalise itself more and more, up to a certain point where boredom, generational antagonism or competition diffuse its energy. There will be more journals, more readers and anthologies, and more courses. There will also be mutations, accidents and freaks: almost every time they will have no effect, and we will continue to think as though society and culture were personality merely scaled up. But just once, which may be the first time or the hundredth time it happens, there will be the flicker of a new understanding of how one might go about describing the phenomena of mediated collective life and, depending on surrounding circumstances, that once may be enough to unleash an epidemic.

Cultural studies believes it needs to sustain itself in the ecological niche it has scooped out, and needs to think how to sustain itself in order to do it. I can’t decide whether it would be better for the prospects of its survival for cultural studies to return to its barefoot, Franciscan moment, living off berries and radishes, or better for it to be solid and secure enough to create dissatisfaction and disaffection, but not big enough to neutralise them. I think I lean to the latter. The best way for cultural studies to be renewed or productively transformed would probably be for it to continue in its dutiful, wearisome way, identifying anxiety, affirming identity, celebrating plurality, seizing on contradictions, squeezing out subversions; showing that there is nothing that one cannot do these tired old tricks with. This is more likely to stir irritable invention and dissent among those interested in working with the phenomena of culture than programmes of outreach and renewal.