The multiplication of cultural studies’ utility
Does cultural studies matter? If so, how does it matter? And for whom does it matter? And how have the forms of its mattering changed? I was reminded, in thinking about these questions, particularly the last one, of Stuart Hall’s famous contention that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham was, for him, initially at least, place of retreat from “the dirty outside world” in which cultural studies first cut its political teeth, but a place where, for all its limitations, important work could still be done as a form of “politics by other means” (Hall 1990, 12). For the scene that this invokes of a separation between the university and the “dirty outside world” is now much harder to imagine. And, certainly, a conception of cultural studies as an intellectual and political practice that has its main and authenticating conditions of existence outside a cloistered academy is difficult to sustain. The institutionalization of cultural studies within the higher education sector—something Hall has always been ambivalent about—has continued apace as it has become a significant curriculum category and, in some countries, a code for the administration and funding of research at both the institutional and national levels. These are, for most of us, whatever our worldly political engagements, the conditions of cultural studies’ existence that are responsible for gathering us together at this conference, funding our participation and, thereby, the cultural studies associations—here, in other national contexts, and internationally—which make possible our discussions and dialogues.
These are considerations which need to be factored into any account of the ways in which cultural studies now matters. Not, though, in the form of a regretful contrast with a form of mattering in which it once reckoned with a real world of politics outside the academy; but rather in the form of an acknowledgement of the ways in which its uses have multiplied precisely because of the varied forms of practical engagement that have arisen from, and been made possible by, this institutional location.
Tony Bennett is Research Professor in Social and Cultural Theory in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. He is a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and of the Academy of the Social Sciences in the UK. He has written extensively on the relations between anthropology and museums, most notably in The Birth of the Museum (1995) and Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (2004). His most recent books include Culture, Class, Distinction (2009, co-author), Material Powers (2010, co-editor), Assembling Culture (2011, co-editor), and Making Culture, Changing Society (2013).