What matters for cultural studies?
What matters can not be the subject matter because cultural studies’ attentions and objects have grown and mutated and diversified in ways Tony Bennett and John Frow have mapped earlier in this panel. Any large cultural studies conference is now inevitably both an expression and a celebration of this diversification.
Some see what matters for cultural studies as lying in a critical orientation and a political commitment (a kind of speaking truth to power). But that only touches the surface of the quite broad “church” of criticism and politics the field has become. Critical in critical orientation means then something more like taking an issue seriously and conducting an open-ended inquiry into it using appropriate tools. In terms of politics this ranges from the “militancy” advocated by Katherine Gibson (Gibson-Graham 2006) to the kind of perspective Ian Hacking developed for science and the history and philosophy of science in his 1983 book Representing and Intervening: when he wrote that we needed to consider things like experiments not so as representations but as interventions.
Another common idea of the matter before cultural studies is its focus on the present and its promise to do a history of the present. But cultural history’s flowering over the past twenty years reminds us that a cultural studies without a sense of history is an impoverished and impossibly anachronistic undertaking.
What matters about cultural studies is, perhaps, that it pursues those things that do not quite fit other places and zones of academic activity. Cultural studies seems to be about particular ways of approaching, explaining and thinking about materials, objects and knowledges. There are four scenes that will help me stage what I am talking about here.
Tom O’Regan is Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia. Recent co-authored books include The Ratings Business (2011), Local Hollywood (2010), and The Film Studio (2005).