Cutting into the Social Fabric (Crossroads Day 4)

Where should cultural studies go?
Kuan-Hsing Chen posed this question as an open challenge. Physically, geographically, the Association of Cultural Studies will hold its next conference in Jamaica, but the real question, Chen argues, is not “where” but “how will we go there? In what manner?

The first two presenters during the final symposium of Crossroads 2006 spoke eloquently of future directions in the sense of theoretical and methodological trends. Sandra Idrova Carlier recounted the originary characteristics of cultural studies: resistance to the compartmentalization of knowledge, the creation of new frameworks rather than continued defense of strictly divided objects of study, the capacity to attract scholars from different fields on topics as varied as subjectivity, power (especially politics), culture (especially its symbolic dimensions), all of which generated a kind of intrinsic heterogeneity.
The move to transdisciplinarity was (still is?) a direct response against the institutionalized academic frameworks which originated in colonial powers then moved to North America. (To what extent, I wonder, is the emergence of this field a proactive, anticipatory and future-looking response and how much a gut-level instinctive reaction to the dialectics of the past? Examining the tensions between institutionally-conditioned social and cultural limits and dialogically-induced creative interventions is a particular site that I would propose as an answer to “how” ASC moves toward Jamaica.)
Carlier went into a lot more detail regarding intersections and conjunctions of various spheres (political economics, transnational business, etc) while keeping a sharp focus on concrete social actors. Of course she also emphasized the role of media, and captured my attention with a quote from Nestor Canclini about working “in the zones where narratives cross each other.” I cannot reconstruct her link between these narrative intersections with culture, faith and religion, but I agree with her statement:

“Faith creates culture. It is culture.”

Meanwhile, she also cautioned against the danger of the confessional in relation to a point about mythologizing…I’m bummed I zoned out at this point. No idea why. :-/
I had a hard time following the second speaker, Ivaylo Ditchev. I wish it wasn’t so, but my notes are minimal and I remember that I was struggling to keep my attention focused. I think this was the result of being physically tired and intellectually maxxed out with so much information. I know he spoke about the question of whether or not cultural studies is one field or many, if there are one or multiple globalizations, and the dual identities of scholars in the field, e.g., “I’m in cultural studies but I come from Communication, Sociology, etc.” He did caution us about the latest intellectual fads, for instance, the example of semiosis &emdash; which seemed to take over for a time but has now faded: in its heyday, “Everything is a sign!” The current flavor is, “Everything is culture!”
He mentioned the notion of a “post-compression world” and related it to the digitalization of memory. (The phrase was attributed to someone in particular.) [Aside: Might be something for me to investigate in terms of my use of this weblog. One of my mentors just told me he is “ideologically opposed to blogging as a substitute for personal communication.” Ouch! 🙂 Which reminds me of a comment I overheard (during Crossroads, possibly about my blog) to the extent of “Why blog into a vacuum?”]
I woke up as soon as Chen took the microphone. Actually, I’d noticed him rocking in his chair and wondered if he was getting antsy to begin. I was immediately struck by the dynamic of someone from the audience telling him to sit down and use the table mics because “they’re better”immediately after he just explained that he was nervous and needed to stand. What was that about?
Apparently Chen has a reputation for his assertive public presentation, but it was the content of his speech that hooked me moreso than its performance. In reflecting on the title of this closing plenary session, Chen shared a Chinese aphorism to the effect of
“You can do it, but you can’t talk about it.”

”Where Should Cultural Studies Go?”
“Should,” he explained, is “always out of a condition of possibility.” Such a question can be answered only from a specific position, a stance. In practice, you do on the spot what is possible, rather than making a grand statement. Cultural Studies is already plural. There is no single unity/unifying…ACS a good site to learn about each other, an imagined community of cultural studies, but is it a real community &emdash; do we share methodology? Do we understand discipline similarly? No, he argued, these things are very different in different locales.
After providing a detailed account of what is being done in the name of cultural studies in Asia, Chen integrated organizational politics (apparently from the previous day’s business meeting), challenging the audience members and the organization to respond to this question:
“Do we have the respect for the local?
“THIS, claims Chen, “IS KEY.”

Chen juxtaposed the short-term decision to hold the next conference at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica and the long-term question of hosting a conference in Asia with larger economic politics concerning “the face of neoliberalism which seeks to close down [certain] subjectivities in favor of ‘professionalism’ and ‘jargon’ that have no grounding, no historical context. His argument, already forcefully made with the litany of combined academic-business-cultural cultural studies endeavors occurring throughout Asia, is that the way forward must include deliberate attempts ”to cut into the social fabric” and make interventions that alter conditions and improve people’s lives. He challenged the organization in unambiguous terms to confront euro-american-centricity. We must learn to recognize this as a limit &emdash; a limit upon we who consider European modes of operation as the only organizational possibility. Of note to me was his emphasis on language: learning the host countries language and doing a better job at creating linguistic access.
As Chen grew more impassioned, the audience grew more tense. It was palpable in the atmosphere. I was exhilarated, but wondered how the group-as-a-whole would respond. I was surprised when the moderator, Lawrence Grossberg, opened up a Question and Answer session. Using a group relations lens, I wasn’t surprised when the first question bypassed Chen (dispelling all that accumulated energy), being directed exclusively at one presenter and on a fairly narrow topic. I did feel disappointed. :-/
More questions were elicited (a pattern from all the workshops which I found more productive than one-at-a-time traditional turn-taking). The second question was more embracing (of all three presenters) and acknowledged some of the tensions raised by Chen.
My notes are unclear (and my memory unhelpful) but it seems the question had something to do with a theory-action split. Chen responded that euro-american-centrism is “a blind spot which prevents certain possibilities of intervention.” Carlier agreed that theory is important but that we also need to be thinking about the doing. What we need is a combination &emdash; cultural studies is not only about teaching or talking about doing things.
I thought it was a fitting official end.

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