Cultural studies matters (does it?): engaging inter/disciplinarity
What matters for cultural studies? This is a deceptively simple question, but it reveals a complex range of problems facing cultural studies today. To be sure, the sense that cultural studies is “in trouble” is a recurring mantra in the field, so it is nothing new to say—as I would like to do here—that there are a range of challenges that cultural studies as a field really needs to confront. In this sense, what matters for cultural studies is the state of cultural studies itself.
In this regard, I am less interested in the theoretical or intellectual content(s) of cultural studies work—although this is of course not unimportant—than in the material and institutional context(s) within which cultural studies is practised. I share with many a certain impatience or boredom with some trends in cultural studies’ intellectual culture, and agree with Graeme Turner’s (2012, 2) observation, in his What’s Become of Cultural Studies?, that there is “an increasing complacency about cultural studies’ usefulness, applications, and effects.” This complacency is manifested, for example, in the heedless abandon with which some cultural studies practitioners keep pursuing the latest theoretical fashions without paying much attention to the changing conditions of possibility of producing such work, and ignoring the broader responsibilities we, as academics, have as taxpayer-funded knowledge professionals. Cultural studies today still harbours the residues of a romantic image of itself, smitten with the radical gesture and with unspecified forms of libertarian political “resistance” (Smith 2011). This goes hand in hand with a self-righteous approach to questions of relevance and significance, as if what we do is self-evidently important and worthwhile. And as many others have commented, it also relates to a wilfully “undisciplined” lack of interest in how cultural studies should be defined as a field, in favour of a self-understanding as a resolutely anti-disciplinary intellectual practice, absolved from the tedious task of explicating what makes it distinct from other knowledge formations.
Ien Ang is Distinguished Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. Her books include Watching Dallas, Desperately Seeking the Audience, and On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West. Her latest collaborative publication is The Art of Engagement: Culture, Collaboration, Innovation (2011), co-edited with Elaine Lally and Kay Anderson, and a special issue of Continuum: Journal for Media and Cultural Studies, on ‘Navigating Cultural Complexities’ (2011). Her current project, funded by the Australian Research Council in collaboration with the City of Sydney, investigates Sydney’s Chinatown in the 21st Century: From Ethnic Enclave to Global hub.