On knowing and mattering
Since we’re getting towards the end of this long line of the senior generation of Australian cultural studies, I’m going to keep this intervention brief in order to leave time for questions. Like Tony Bennett, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised over the last few days by what has seemed to me a perceptible shift of emphasis from the topics that have predominated in previous conferences. The shift is no doubt due in part to the way the organisers have framed this conference around the theme of Economies, Empiricism, and Things; for me it has meant that I’ve been present at a host of really interesting trans-disciplinary papers: papers that have engaged with biology and the neurosciences, with the ontology of markets and with organisation theory, with water resources and the commodification of water, with health services, with digital economies, with tourism, with the archive, with the limits of the human, with religion, with social media, with class, with social justice, with biometrics, with the production and distribution of food, with ethical economies, and so on. These papers and these sessions have engaged with objects that are not traditional cultural objects—although there have of course been a number of papers on such topics as reality television or novels or fashion. But not a single paper on Madonna! Most encouragingly, I think, there have been a number of sessions and papers devoted to questions of methodology: papers on the status of objects of enquiry, or on the empirical methodologies of actor-network theory; on affect theory and the critique of affect theory; on the new materialism and the critique of the new materialism.
These two different kinds of papers—those that move outwards to objects associated with other disciplines, and papers that move inwards to think about the methodological concerns of cultural studies—exemplify two vectors that define the scope of the discipline and what most matters to it; I’ll call them an extensive and an intensive vector. The driving force of cultural studies, the reason it remains an exciting place of intellectual production, is, I think, primarily that centrifugal drive towards an engagement with a range of objects of enquiry and a range of other disciplines. Cultural studies has always prided itself on transgressing disciplinary boundaries, on stepping into places where it’s not welcome. It is and always has been a powerful force for questioning the settled assumptions of the more traditional disciplines on which it has been productively parasitic, in Michel Serres’ sense of that word. Yet that productive parasitism is also the source of an inherent and continuing problem for cultural studies, the weakness of its intensive vector, its lack of disciplinary specificity: that is, on the one hand the uncertainty of its object of analysis, and on the other its lack of a methodology which would be specific to its own work.
John Frow is Professor of English and an ARC Professorial Fellow at the University of Sydney. He is the author of a number of books including Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (1995), Time and Commodity Culture (1997), Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Genres (with Tony Bennett and Mike Emmison, 1999), and Genre (2006). A collection of essays, The Practice of Value, is forthcoming in 2013 from UWA Press.