On the power of exhilaration
For my reflection on “what matters for Cultural Studies” I want to make a serious point about the importance of joy and elation to all our endeavours. Because I have found that people do not take me seriously when I talk like this, I will try to assure you of my earnest intent by beginning with a quotation from Michel Foucault. In an interview with Rux Martin that took place in 1982, Foucault said: “my role—and that is too emphatic a word—is to show people that they are much freer than they feel” (Martin 1988, 10). He was talking at the time about our critical capacity to challenge truth and evidence and about the role of an intellectual in changing people’s minds. However, what I like in this moment is the grammatically clumsy yet sonically precise invocation in the English of a state of being “much freer”. Say it aloud: there is an exhalation, a whoosh of air and energy in there, a felt release that might be missing from a prim “more free” (presumably, “plus libre”).
Foucault does not say we “are” free, only that we are more so than we feel. There are constraints and forces of containment at work all around, not least within our feelings. In this version of what criticism can do, the realisation that we can move and act beyond the real limitations that we feel has the power of the “mobile diagonal line” in the work of Deleuze and Guattari on becoming (1987, 293-298); the diagonal is a line that can carry us to a place we were not supposed to be. For the motley scholars attending a CSAA conference at the University of Sydney, such a place might be our neo-Gothic panel venue, MacLaurin Hall, with its vast, vaulted roof shaping a sound-space to swallow our voices and its gilt-edged portraits of be-robed white men gazing down at the riff-raff below. Some of those men, I hasten to say, might have been pleased to see us, marvelling at how things can change. However, for many decades during which relatively few women and working class people attempted higher education, while the White Australia policy was in force and many Indigenous people were forbidden more than basic schooling, MacLaurin Hall was the Fisher Library reading room (1909-1962). In the early 1970s I fearfully did my exams in there and it is still used for that purpose today. MacLaurin Hall is disciplinary space at its most august and scary, and I want to recognize the decades and generations of struggle by thousands of people that have carried some of us on this panel along a line of becoming-Professor—a diagonal imaginable but mostly, in practice, impossible when the figures in those portraits were living men.
Meaghan Morris is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Her books include Too Soon, Too Late: History in Popular Culture (1998); Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (co-ed. 2005); Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture (2006) and Creativity and Academic Activism: Instituting Cultural Studies (co-ed. 2012). A former Chair of the international Association for Cultural Studies, Prof. Morris is currently Chair of the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society.