What next?

I did a thing today (and yesterday too, but yesterday’s thing can wait until next week to show up here) as part of the long-awaited, much-missed “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference that was supposed to happen in person in Lisbon in 2020 but . . . well, you know what got in the way then. But it finally happened over the past three days. In abbreviated form, and strictly on Zoom. But it happened. Thanks very much to Ana Cristina Mendes for inviting me to be part of the closing roundtable.

What next for cultural studies?

It seems to me that the question Ana has posed for us can be taken in two ways. The first is that it’s a question about trends and predictions. Given the state of cultural studies today, where do you see it heading? What’s the outlook for the future? I could probably do some version of this. But this also feels a bit too dull. A bit too safe. A bit too “business as usual.” And I would rather be at least a little bold. A little risky. Maybe even a little dangerous. If only because, as Stuart Hall exhorted us in 1990, “dangers are not places you run away from but places that you go toward.”

And so the second way to read Ana’s question is to be prescriptive, rather than predictive. Rather than mapping out the path of where cultural studies seems to be heading, I want to make stronger, more provocative, more polemical claims about what I want to see cultural studies do more of in the future.

Like Raymond Williams in “Culture Is Ordinary,” I have three wishes.

Wish #1 is that cultural studies needs to re-emphasize collaborative work. By this, I don’t simply mean that we should gather in twos and threes and write essays and books together (though this is not inherently a bad thing), but that we should build networks, teams, working groups, research clusters, think tanks, etc. (call them whatever you like, organize them however you see fit) that think and read and discuss and write and teach and learn and argue and grow together over extended periods of time. Ideally, these collaborations will always be at least a little messy. A little unstructured. A little unpredictable. A little chaotic. They should be driven by the notion that we want to be surprised by what we come to know and think, and that our best knowledge and thoughts are more likely to come from productive intellectual friction with other people.

Put a slightly different way, one of the things that cultural studies has always claimed it wants to do is to make productive interventions in the world that (hopefully) will help to make the world a more equitable, more egalitarian, more just place for everyone. By necessity, that’s the kind of project that can only succeed (even in small ways) if we are actively, routinely, directly engaging with people outside of our own heads. We want to change the world, but that is highly unlikely to happen if we continue to spend much of our time and energy working in isolation.

Wish #2 is that cultural studies needs to emphasize processes over products. To invoke Raymond Williams once more, in his essay “The Future of Cultural Studies,” he points out that most of the important figures in the early history of the project — intramural teachers of adult/workers education in England in the 1940s and 1950s — have been forgotten simply because they never published. They didn’t leave products behind in the forms of essays or books that continue to show up on syllabi and reading lists, but they did the arguably more difficult (and important) work that created the conditions of possibility for the trajectories that cultural studies subsequently took.

Arguably, much the same can be said for any number of cultural studies practitioners who did (and who continue to) produce lots of products. Stuart Hall. Meagan Morris. Larry Grossberg. (To name just three.) All of them have written books and essays that make for incredibly valuable reading lists in cultural studies. But, arguably, their most important contributions to the project have been their extensive, persistent, decades-long efforts to build, nurture, and maintain the kinds of robust networks and communities that have kept cultural studies alive and well. That kind of processual work is not something that can be captured on a CV, even though, in the long run, it matters more to the health and vitality of cultural studies as a project than all those CV items combined.

Wish #3 is a version of something I said yesterday: i.e., that cultural studies needs to think and work more across borders. And while these can (and should) be geopolitical borders, those aren’t the only borders that matter here. Disciplinary borders. Community borders. Demographic borders. Linguistic borders. Political borders. All these and more. To be clear, I’m not arguing for some kind of starry-eyed pluralism that assumes we can fix the world simply by opening up more lines of communication between different kinds of people. Writing about the Greater London Council of the 1980s, Stuart Hall described one version of what I’m calling for when he said, “We think of a nice, polite consensual discussion; everybody agreeing. What you heard there was what democracy is really like: an absolutely, bloody-unending row. . . . That row, that sound of people actually negotiating their differences out in the open, behind the collective program, is the sound I am waiting for.”

Now there are obvious pragmatic objections to my three wishes. Some of you are no doubt thinking that all this sounds perfectly fine in theory, but that here in the real world, none of this will fly. That the contemporary neoliberal university makes us prove our individual productivity in ways that make it risky for people to work collectively, or to focus on ephemeral processes instead of measurable RAE-friendly products. And while universities routinely claim to love interdisciplinarity and community work and global impacts, we all know that this is more talk than action, since most of our efforts to actually cross (much less dismantle) those kinds of borders are neither supported nor rewarded in any meaningful way.

These are fair objections. But that’s also precisely why I wanted to focus my comments today on wishes for a better tomorrow, rather than what seems like the most likely path forward. If cultural studies is going to have a viable future, then it needs not simply to refashion itself, but to refashion the spaces in which it operates. Maybe that means changing the university. Maybe that means abandoning the university for other kinds of spaces. More likely, it means we need to work on both those fronts at once.

Of course, none of this will be easy. But why would we expect — or want — anything different? Given all the other goals that are routinely in play for cultural studies — e.g., bringing an end to racism, patriarchy, capitalism, climate change, etc. — it seems . . . awkward . . . how often we flinch at the thought of tackling much smaller (yet still quite formidable) tasks. Can we change the university into what we want it to be overnight? Or even over the next decade? Probably not. Are those new spaces where cultural studies might be able to do its work better simply going to appear because we want them to? Definitely not. But it’s for damned sure that none of these things will ever happen if we don’t first imagine them, and if we don’t continue to insist — no matter how much the cards are stacked against us — that these are the things that we want and need.

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