Cultural studies conference, 2012

As someone who is on the peripheries of cultural studies, the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference for this year was a means of understanding the terms under which cultural studies continues to operate as a discipline. A reasonably passionate debate on Thursday night at Sydney’s Courthouse pub found a number of people from the conference (all male, for the record) staking positions on the existence and future of cultural studies as a discipline. We all had our particular avenues that we based our arguments on, and I forget the particular details of the various positions so I’ll just note and elaborate on my own. Cultural studies, to me, has no singular coherent object of study, and it has no single methodological or philosophical position, which leads to a need for the discipline to engage in debates or writing called something along the lines of “What is Cultural Studies”, or “the future of cultural studies”, etc. This, to me, indicates that the discipline has no conceptual core (most other disciplines have fairly fixed ideas of their approaches or objects, i.e. physics/media studies/art history/philosophy), and requires persistent apprehension of the goals and methods currently in play within the discipline. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in the sense that it means that the discipline is constantly critical of itself, and has potential for fairly radical political critiques of other disciplines. The curse is that this means that the discipline must constantly make these ‘turns’ (i.e. the chemical turn, the material turn, the biological turn, etc) in order to retain a coherence that allows for a political core to remain in the discipline so that it does not dissipate into the purview of other departmental structures and thus lose its critical purchase. These trends are cliche, but necessary, if the discipline is going to have any site for staging its program of constant critique – which I think it should.

I found all the keynotes to be quite interesting, primarily because all the ones that I saw (which was everything except the final plenary) showed how the discipline could be relevant beyond simple pedagogical concerns – that is, they showed how cultural studies could be deployed in the process of making real interventions beyond the educational. I was particularly interested in Bev Skeggs’ work, mainly because I found her work on the notion of value to be quite fascinating (and I would love to have her slides).

Also I should note that I don’t understand the purpose of the hall of fame material. The fact that there was no policy instituted prior to the awarding of the statues means that the awards themselves have no meaning beyond a vaguely defined act of ‘recognition’ of people who are already well-recognized in their fields: Graeme Turner, and Meaghan Morris. Who can win an award now? Will it only be a post-factum act of meritocratic recognition to those who got to their current location on the basis of their own struggle? The idea of ‘fame’ as the categorical imperative for the award is, in my view, unwise, as it renders it into exactly the criteria that cultural studies seeks to unpack.

A few additional links from the conference:

Glen Fuller’s take on the final keynote.

Jason Wilson’s piece on social media in academia for ECR and post-grads.

Also, CSR has a new issue out, for the interested.

the problem of ‘the poor’

How do I talk about the poor? In all seriousness, they are a politically important group, in the sense that they have historically always existed in one form or another, and they are what most political programs attempt to separate society from. The reduction of ‘the poor’ is a problem that some choose to solve through welfare, and others through economic etoliation. The goal seems to be a perpetual attempt to escape the historical problems of ‘having’ and ‘not having’, which seem to be inescapable. I think the poor needs to be defined as something other than the working class, other than the indebted, other than the slave, other than the precariat (someone whose ability to shift into temporary or marginal labour affords them periodic income; which, despite its recent popularity, is not nearly as abjectly excluded as the poor) and something other than those who are politically excluded along other lines – such as queer sexualities or alienated ethnic groups. I never come into contact with the poor, except in those brief moments where they ask for spare change. I give, sometimes, but this is not a solution. At this stage, for me, the problem is how to discuss a group that is outside the political frame that I work in – that is, outside possessing enough property or money to access networked communications.

the problem with confession

I recently presented at a conference, Confessional Cultures, held at Monash University. Confession is an interesting idea, but I don’t particularly find it all that useful as a critical term for my studies. Following from Foucault, confession – or the ‘avowal’ as I like to think of it – is mainly a rhetorical device for situating a subject in relation to others. With that, I should note some observations on how I see the ‘confession’ to function outside of a strictly religious mode.

By confession something about themselves, a subject aligns themselves in a non-normative comparison to some group. This group can be of roughly any sort: religious, legal, social, and so on; and the response from the group roughly relies on the institutionalization of that group. For instance, a non-normative confession in a legal context will usually result in punitive legal measures; non-normative confession in social settings will lead to the community performing self-work as to what individuals should do in future, or the degree to which individuals need to be ostracized. Behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned as valid or invalid will result in the production of commonsense in various frameworks. In a legal context this will lead to the categorization of certain behaviour as legal or illegal, in a social context this is could be the determination as to whether something needs an apology or not. This leads to the observation that there are two categories of confession of non-normative behaviour: categorically defined behaviour, and non-categorical behaviour.

Categorically defined non-normative behaviour would be something that sits comfortably within a range of confessions that a society is pre-equipped to deal with, with regard to a general case. These are confessions for which the particular society sees some sort of non-standard behaviour, but, amusingly, the non-standard behaviour comes in an expected format. These are usually behaviours for which the given society has methods of recourse, or ‘solutions’ for resolving, and is maybe well prepared for. For instance, an alcoholic acknowledging their problem to a priest. These confessions are ones which society offers some sort of idea of a general response for the individuals hearing the confession, whether that be getting an alcoholic to start AA, or staging an intervention. These are general behaviours for which various institutions and social groups have prescribed practices prepared.

Non-categorical non-normative behaviour is behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned against, but nor is it precisely accepted as normal and ‘correct’ within a particular society. I see two methods for dealing with these problems arising from this process: firstly, the concatenation within existing frames; secondly, the production of new frames when existing ones are insufficient. These cases avoid generalities, or else, attempt to avoid them. For instance, a catholic confession – in the sense of a confession to a priest within a confessional – is essentially a bit of close-work on trying to fit a particular bit of behaviour to an appropriate category of spiritual compensation. While ‘standard’ confessions will have their own appropriate number of associated ‘hail Marys’ every non-standard confession would have to have the priest perform the requisite work to determine what an appropriate penalty would be. This will always be in relation to a generality, or an ethos, or behavioural categories. It is difficult to think of an example, because I have defined these cases to sit outside standardization, but hopefully the category makes sense. I think of them as categories that can be fought over, where some contingency in the event that is being confessed causes it to not be a standard confession of some sort.

In either case, I do not find myself being able to say much useful stuff about the confession in terms of the work I generally do. While I did see some interesting uses of the confessional format in textual analysis at the conference, I did not really conceive of any ways to use it in my own work. As I mentioned at the conference, when used to talk about individuals online, practically every utterance is a form of avowal of the subject, of the self. Then we’re in the somewhat useless condition of claiming that all utterances are a form of confession, and, with any overly general case, not a particularly useful means of addressing behaviour over networks.


The so-called ‘orthodox’ reading of a text is something of a minefield. I feel the word ‘orthodox’ has a degree of a prejudicial attack contained within it, but it’s a necessary concept to understand in academic discourse. To be orthodox in reading a particular thinker or philosophy is, in my mind, to be committed to a singular reading of a particular text, at the expense of all other readings. The idea of an orthodox reading of a singular text, whether that be philosophical, political, textual or otherwise, is nothing short of a limitation of the critical, emotional, or conceptual power of a work.

While I could present my own pseudo-theory of the orthodox reading (see last paragraph), I think that it is worth pointing out what I mean by way of example. Gualtiero Piccinini, in “Turing’s Rules for the Imitation Game” (Minds and machines, 2000, 10(4), pp.573) helpfully separates out several types of ‘readings’ of Alan Turing’s famous 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. These categories are the literal and the standard readings. The literal readings are ones that Piccinini sees as focusing on the first section of Turing’s article, specifically in terms of how it addresses gender. The standard readings are ones that focus on the later sections of Turing’s piece on machines imitating humans, which has since evolved into the famous Turing Test. I see no problem with these categories, and I see no problem with Piccinini criticizing the adherents of the literal reading for being obstinate in their dedication to issues of gender. My problem is specifically the way in which he then suggests that the literal reading should be discarded in favour of the standard reading.

This is the orthodoxy that I referred to earlier. By suggesting that there is only a single, standard reading, and that all others are a revisionist line misses the fact that Turing’s piece provides a number of potential readings that can be utilized at different times. Pinccini may be right – there may be a revisionist camp that I am unaware of – but that would still point to the problems of orthodoxy that I am mainly concerned with: a revisionist line would attempt to supplant the standard reading with another, singular and orthodox reading. The literal reading of Turing’s work provides a useful thought experiment in anonymity that is increasingly important in my work – in that, we can’t be certain of the gender, let alone other important aspects of an individual, at the other end of our computerized, networked, conversation. Even more important for social and critical theory, rather than a theories of AI, is the importance of such a conceptually simple example of the performativity of gender that Judith Butler has so helpfully granted us.

(Obligatory pseudo-theory of orthodox readings: Obviously not conceptually or philosophically complete, but any condition as to why one reasonable reading should be favoured as the intended and orthodox reading over all the rest would necessarily be extra-textual. The way in which we read particular texts depends on our own semiotic conditioning. Perhaps a good conceptual basis for understanding this could be found in the various interpretations of religious texts within a particular religion. Each denomination places emphasis on different portions, rendering some aspects as literal and others as metaphor. The basis for these readings are extra-textual, and even the most adherent fundamentalist would have to interpret some portions of their texts as subjective metaphor.)