Who’s up for some intellectual whiplash this morning?
Right. Today’s 500 words is about sociology. Or maybe it’s cultural studies, I’m not really sure. Let’s call it a yard sale of consciousness.
I have a friend with a PhD in English literature. She and I both read a lot of what might be called Cultural Studies. I come at it from Anthropology/Sociology, she comes at it from English Lit. We meet at the French woodchipper. That is, many of the ‘cultural studies’ theorists come from the French existential tradition.
For me cultural studies is about the social imagination of space and place. I’m thinking of theorists LeFebvre and John Law in particular. Yes, they are quite different but they best sum up my previous approaches to thinking about how the humans imagine themselves as constituted. They dovetail nicely with ideas about late capitalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense – c.f Baudrilliard) and are backgrounded by the semiotics of the usual suspects, Lacanian/Saussurian deconstruction of linguistic modernism from dudes like Levi-Strauss. If you didn’t get anything in this paragraph ignore it. It’s an approach as legitimate as any other.
Essentially, this process follows the same process as classical mechanics versus quantum physics – imagine if everything you thought you knew was wrong, because your brain can only think about it in one way. You’d keep trying to understand the new observations through the old brain. But what if, by studying the old brain, we came to develop the imagination to interpret new ideas, or even old ideas, in new ways.
In physics it works – we move from reductionism to probability. In cultural studies, it’s fashionable bullshit. And it’s people like me who’re to blame.
I made a very nice life for myself, for quite some time, by being good at this stuff. It inherently made sense to me and, as I entered post grad, I found myself within an ever diminishing group of people who were conversant in these ideas. You’ll note I used the word ‘conversant’ rather than ‘cogniscient’. I’m not sure we all understood these theorists in the same way, but their ambiguity is precisely their strength – it serves as a springboard for extending the imagination; (The lazy tutor’s refrain) Well, what do you think it means? Out of this questions might emerge our own revelations that enable us to think about social and cultural life in new ways. It did for me.
That’s the good.
The bad, of course, is that you now have a small group of people who’re flailing about in an increasingly abstruse, self-referential miasma of ‘ideas’. There is a danger that this miasma becomes an idiom sui generis – the medium becomes the message, as it were. Everyone’s talking in the right way, but no-one’s listening to the content. And if they are, they’re not understanding it, because often the speakers aren’t articulating their ideas well enough. A hierarchy emerges, premised purely on clarity or explanatory force – what mathematicians might call beauty.
Like some forms of ‘speculative’ maths, there is no longer a clear connection with an intuitive sense of logic, you begin judging the explanations on how well they cohere with the form of previous explanations. Are they internally consistent?
And boom, we’re back at the Round Window with Levi-Strauss. We are interpreting things through the most comfortable, familiar intellectual rubric we have, and layering our own ambitions over the top. Rock stars emerge and wall-eyed academics flock to them like bespectacled tweenies on a slushie high. I was one of them.
We do this all the time, with everything from art to science. In some fields it’s laughably transparent – modern literature comes to mind. Writers produce ‘speculative’ or ‘experimental’ works that are little more than minuscule, strategic moves intended exclusively for their peers and no-one else. Incidentally, you can always tell when this is happening because groupies emerge – they’re the litmus test for fashionable obscurity (or what Bourdieu would call cultural capital). Oh my God, I love Experimental Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 1950s! It really speaks to me (like a washing machine tumbling down a cliff). Unlike the ‘theorists’ described above who are actively engaged in thinking, even if it’s futile, the groupies don’t think anything at all. What they do recognise, however, is naked hierarchy and its association with class. They’re happy to participate on these grounds alone.
This is ‘The Academy’.
I’m not suggesting there is no value in engaging with these ideas, I just think it’s good to realise where their value ends. If one is going to engage with society, and use theory as an aid, then it must be ‘humanistic’ – it must bloody help. Otherwise it’s little more than onanistic flex.
I came to this realisation after reading ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun‘ by Peter Godwin. It describes the liberation of Zimbabwe in the 1970s. I’m fascinated by how regimes rise and fall. How is it that ordinary people find themselves ardent supporters of nutty ideas? Lazy fascism? How do we come to shuffle people into gas chambers or gulags?
These people are all us.
As a consequence, I’ve been revisiting more ‘trad’ social theorists – Foucault and some of the newer incarnations of governmentality. As society and public discourse becomes ever more exotically farcical, it is to these ideas I find power and resistance. Yes, we recognise the obvious precursors to a catastrophic social shit-storm (galloping hyper-inflation, youth unemployment etc.,.) but it does not explain why some countries/nations fall into the pit of fascism, mass murder or groupthink while others don’t.
Foucault looks at regimes of power that train us how to think about ourselves. He identifies them and speculates on their implications. We don’t become fascists or adherents of despotic lunatics overnight. We must first train ourselves to think about our individuality in particular ways. Controlling the terms of this training is where the real power lies.
Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.
(For an old but good intro into some of these ideas see; Foucault, M (1982) ‘The Subject and Power’ Critical Inquiry Volume 8, Number 4 Summer, 1982.)