complexity, pragmatism, cultural studies

The title of this post is a bit too ponderous for its content, which is going to be nothing more than some quick-and-dirty thinking out loud. It was prompted by a few things: Anne’s brief post mentioning mess and method, my participation next month in a CRN Masterclass with John Urry on ‘complexities and mobilities, and the YouTube project I’m designing for my postdoc that tries to link complex systems theory up with the history of ‘literacy’ (as a complex system itself). Most of all, I’ve been trying to work through the idea of a critical pragmatism as ‘engaged’ cultural studies practice, in thinking about my paper for Cultural Studies Now in July (part of a panel called ‘Labours of love: The work of creative intellectual practice’, with Mel Gregg, Kiley Gaffney and Nadia Mizner). And also reading Richard E. Lee’s The Life and Times of Cultural Studies with great interest.

I think part of what I want to argue is that pragmatic engagement actually opens up complexity, both because of the researcher-as-change-agent dynamic and because of getting a view from inside the machine. The way I’m thinking about it is kind of an inversion of the way cultural studies traditionally thinks about the role of critical theory (enlightening/transformative) as opposed to dirty ‘instrumentalist’ engagement with social or commercial enterprises (which must necessarily involve simplification or disavowal of the issues a critical researcher is supposed to be dealing with). I just don’t reckon that’s actually true, especially when I add another layer by thinking about the institutional formations (i.e. the different kinds of universities) which support each of those dominant modes of research practice. Don’t ask me too many questions just yet about what I mean by any of that – as I said, I’m thinking out loud.

So anyway, this is my abstract for Cultural Studies Now. It was written before I’d finished my PhD thesis so it uses that project as the departure point if not the destination:

Terms of Engagement: Doing Cultural Studies in the Enterprise University
Simon During (2005) recently argued that the structure of research funding in Australia and the rise of the ‘enterprise university’ have deprived ‘more abstract and theorised cultural studies’ of their ‘critical force’; conversely, Ien Ang has argued for the transition from ‘cultural studies’ to ‘cultural work’, carried out through strategic and pragmatic industry alliances (in Gibson & Rodan, 2005). This paper contributes to these debates by reflecting on a recently completed doctoral study entitled Vernacular Creativity and New Media. The project was grounded in the history and politics of cultural studies’ engagement with ‘ordinary’ culture and ‘everyday’ creativity, and in addition to theory-building and historical work included participation as a facilitator in community-based creative practice, as part of other university research projects funded by government and industry sources. The paper examines the multiple opportunities for and constraints on ‘critical engagement’ that emerged throughout the course of this research.

I suggest that a critically engaged cultural studies that is practically articulated with ‘real world’ contexts affords productive alternatives to the extreme positions – both of them positions of ‘critique’ – that Jim McGuigan (2005) calls ‘uncritical populism’ and ‘radical subversion’ respectively. Instead, an engagement grounded in critical pragmatism actually works to reveal and open up, rather than close down or disavow complexity.

Anyway, I’ll keep thinking. In the meantime I’m off to MIT on Thursday for a bunch of presentations and stuff, which I’ll blog about as I go.

2 thoughts to “complexity, pragmatism, cultural studies”

  1. I’d very much like to look at this paper. I hope it will be available after the conference?

    Best regards,

    ps – thanks for your felicitations

  2. Ulises – yeah, I’ll definitely be writing up a full paper and making it available just before or after the conference. I’m really pleased you’re interested – it’ll be intriguing to see how it eventually turns out! Congrats again on your successful defense.

    PS felicitations is such a good word!

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