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Who Needs Cultural Research? – Ien Ang

The massive lack of public understanding of what contemporary humanities scholarship entails becomes painfully clear to me when I am asked by, say, the hairdresser, what I do. As part of my ongoing fieldwork, I generally decide to tell the truth. “I am a university teacher,” I say. “Oh,” would be the answer, “what do you teach?” I take a deep breath and say: “Cultural Studies.” What follows is usually a big silence. Conversation closed. And the hairdresser is not the only one who is embarrassed. She (or he) probably feels very ignorant because she doesn’t know what I’m talking about, while I feel bad about making her feel that way and feel hopelessly cut off from what she stands for: the general public.

Part of the silence is related to a general unawareness of the complex meanings of the term “culture” itself. For most people, “culture” is extraordinary, set apart from daily life. It is either synonymous to art, something elevated and lofty, or refers to “other people” such as migrants or Aborigines. In other words, culture is either aesthetics or anthropology, and has nothing to do with their own lives. In the academic world, what is now called “cultural studies” has revolutionised the study of culture in contemporary society, by doing away with the separation between aesthetics and anthropology. “Culture” in cultural studies relates to the production and negotiation of meaning and value, and this is an ongoing, plural, often conflictive process taking place in all dimensions of social activity, be it at the workplace, in education, the media, in international relations, even in the hairdresser’s salon. Culture is neither institutions nor texts nor behaviours, but the complex interactions between all of these. In other words, culture is not only very ordinary, to speak with Raymond Williams, it is also fundamentally practical and pervasive to social life, as it is inherent to how the world is made to mean, and therefore how the world is run. That is, arguments about how the world should be run always involve a politics of representation–the level of politics where meanings and values are struggled over–and therefore necessarily comprise a fundamental cultural dimension. “Culture” is integral to and constitutive of social life, not something outside of or a mere addition to it.

The global growth of “cultural studies” within academia in the past few decades is itself an indication of the increasing significance and contentious nature of the dimension of “culture” in contemporary life and society. In general, a sense of cultural crisis is evident everywhere around the globe despite the apparent economic success of global capitalism: the falling away of a consensus over what counts as “progress” or of universal value, the deepening of cultural divisions along lines of class, race, gender, region, religion, and so on, the real and perceived proliferation of all forms of violence, the wild growth of the Internet, the growing uncertainty about the shape of the new world disorder in the twenty-first century as the authority of the West is challenged by rising non-western nations, and so on. To use cultural studies jargon, “culture” has become an increasingly intense and multidimensional “site of struggle” in this complex, postmodern world.

In this light, “cultural studies” is very much the intellectual discipline (or transdiscipline) of the contemporary moment. To understand itself the world needs cultural studies more than ever. Or does it? As cultural studies has gained a small (and insecure) foothold within universities, especially the newer ones, it has also become very much a disciplinary world of its own, with its own discourses, institutions and networks, not to mention its own internal conceptual quarrels, often quite impenetrable to the wider world of public life. This is not something I want to criticise, as all professional practices, including academic disciplines, need to have a space for the clarification of their own paradigms and procedures. However, the promise of cultural studies was precisely that it would be an intellectual practice firmly located in and concerned with the major issues of the day, and as such would provide a bridge between the academic world and the social world “out there.” The origins of cultural studies in adult education rather than the academe is one indication of its fundamental social and political aspirations. In this sense, cultural studies can be seen as a form of “applied humanities,” in sentiment at least if not in all of its practice. I think we need to reclaim this background. That is, I do firmly believe that the world needs cultural studies more than ever. But if so, then we will have to find practical ways of convincing others that the intricate knowledges and understandings we are capable of producing have some relevance to them. “Relevance” here is the major issue. When and how can cultural studies knowledge be said to be relevant? Or perhaps, to put it in a more activist register, how can we make it more relevant?

These are not fancy questions designed to prop up cultural studies’ utopian radical credentials. On the contrary, what is at stake here are the very pragmatic conditions in which the production of knowledge is organised in contemporary society, and the place of our kind of work within it. We are all experiencing the effects of the increasing commercialisation, bureaucratisation and corporatisation of universities, where socially-sanctioned knowledge production (under the general rubric of “science”) has traditionally been concentrated. We are all worried about the dwindling resources for university research provided by government, which especially threatens the future viability of research in the humanities and social sciences. But these changes, which are related to broader changes in the economic and political environment, are structural and not likely to be reversed any time soon, so it is of no use simply to lament and resist them, lest we want to contribute to our own further marginalisation. As Bill Readings remarks in his book The University in Ruins, “it is not a matter of coming to terms with the market, establishing a ratio of marginal utility that will provide a sanctuary. Such a policy will only produce the persistent shrinking of that sanctuary.”(1) Instead, Readings recommends a certain opportunism, an institutional pragmatism that responds creatively to changing circumstances, and does not retreat from them. This would mean, at the very least, taking the notion of “utility” out of the sphere of marginality and seriously addressing it as we continue to think through our own politics of knowledge.

In their recent book The New Production of Knowledge, an international team of researchers led by Michael Gibbons, Director of the Science Policy Unit at the University of Sussex, goes so far as suggesting that an entirely new mode of knowledge production is emerging at present.(2) This Mode 2, as they call it, is slowly gaining prominence over an older mode of knowledge production, or Mode 1, which most of us still hold as the ideal model for university research–what is known as basic research– where problems are set, examined, and solved in a context governed by the academic interests and codes of practice of a specific disciplinary community, curiosity-driven and based on individual creativity, often pursued without some practical goal in mind. In Mode 2, by contrast, knowledge production is guided by the imperative that it should be useful to someone, whether industry, government, or society more generally. In other words, the context of application drives the form and content of the knowledge sought after. This context of application involves a heterogeneous set of practitioners and experts, working together on a problem defined in a specific and localised context. Gibbons insists that this mode of knowledge production is more than just “applied research.” It does not simply apply already existing knowledge, but is shaped by a diverse set of intellectual and social demands that may give rise to the creation of genuinely new knowledge, characterised by transdisciplinarity, social accountability, and reflexivity.

According to Gibbons, Mode 2 knowledge will not supplant the traditional disciplinary structure of Mode 1 knowledge, but supplement it and interact with it. Indeed, it is important to emphasise that without continued work in Mode 1, Mode 2 would not be able to exist, as the latter depends substantially on key concepts, findings, and insights developed in the former. The rise of Mode 2 knowledge production, especially in the advanced postindustrial world, is deeply embedded in the present socio-economic order, increasingly dependent as it is on the generation and use of specialised forms of information and knowledge for wealth creation and societal governance. Indeed, the very expansion of higher education in the past few decades has greatly increased the number of graduates trained in research skills, many of whom now work as knowledge workers in an increasingly diverse range of institutional contexts in both private and public sectors. Thus, interestingly, to the extent that universities continue to produce quality graduates, they undermine their monopoly as knowledge producers. As a result, the sharp distinction between academic and non-academic players in knowledge production has weakened. Today, knowledge production has become much more widely distributed, taking place in many more types of social settings, and involving many different types of individuals and organisations in a vast array of different relationships. As Gibbons puts it, “the boundaries between the intellectual world and its environment have become blurred.”(3)

While the description of Mode 2 knowledge production is clearly biased towards the world of science and technology, Gibbons is adamant that Mode 2 also implicates the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, he talks up the increased demand for the sorts of knowledge the humanities have to offer, especially in their capacity to provide critical reflection on human projects and endeavours. It is the function of the humanities, Gibbons remarks, “to provide an understanding of the world of social experience. And they are valued for the insights and guidance we expect to be able to derive from them.”(4) A similar attempt to be inclusive of the humanities and social sciences can be found in the Australian Federal Government’s 1999 Green Paper on higher education research and research training, which clearly takes its cues from research policy analysis as carried out by Gibbons.(5) Thus it is stated at the outset that “research in the humanities and social sciences makes a major contribution to our sense of identity and cohesiveness as a nation,” promoting “an appreciation of our culture and history,” fostering “understanding of different traditions and customs, and of the importance of tolerance and respect,” as well as stimulating “debate on the goals, directions and values to which our democratic society aspires.”(6)

All well and good, but the paper does not subsequently spell out at all how these kinds of uses of research are to be nurtured in a policy framework preoccupied with the commercialisation of research and enhancing the nation’s competitive economic advantage. Similarly Gibbons, who in his book devotes a full chapter to the humanities, clearly has difficulties operationalising the contexts of application for humanities knowledge in the market-driven knowledge society of today. The usefulness of humanities knowledge is diffuse and inferential, and therefore difficult to measure and circumscribe. Interestingly, Gibbons points out that humanities scholarship has always had more Mode 2 characteristics than the natural sciences, as exemplified by the genre of the essay, arguably “one of the oldest forms of Mode 2 production.” Essays, according to Gibbons, “roam freely in the territories seemingly held by the specialisms, link together what otherwise would remain fragmented analyses.”(7) In this respect, the form of the essay (rather than the scientific research paper) is highly conducive to the construction and dissemination of meaning throughout society.(8) However, how can the “context of application” of the essay, published in the public domain and with an anonymous readership, be concretised? In other words, while the form of at least some humanities research may display Mode 2 characteristics, the difficulty to quantify and commodify its uses inhibits its insertion into the emergent social and economic arrangements of Mode 2 knowledge production with their emphasis on calculable usefulness in clearly demarcated strategic contexts. The situation is not helped by the fact that the professionalisation of humanities scholarship has tended to move it more towards Mode 1 production practices, with its emphasis on disciplinary specialisation and relative disconnection from the larger social world, rather than towards Mode 2, with its more problem-focused, multidisciplinary and collaborative orientation. This is the case also for cultural studies, as a brand of “applied humanities.”

For those of us who are university researchers in Australia, the growing importance of Mode 2 knowledge production is instantly recognisable in the massively increased funds in the past few years provided by the Australian Research Council for its SPIRT grants scheme.(9) This scheme awards projects in which academics collaborate with “partners in industry,” as the jargon has it. Indeed, “partnerships” is the buzzword of the moment: the 1999 Good Universities Guide University of the Year Award, for example, will be based on the notion of “productive knowledge through partnerships.” Clearly, the Mode 2 system of knowledge production is being vigorously encouraged and promoted by research policy makers in this country and elsewhere. But what are partnerships? How are they formed? And most importantly for the purposes of this paper, how can cultural studies research tap into this new scheme of things?

The upbeat discourse of partnerships is often presented as a way for the university to become more involved and integrated with the wider community and society at large. The University of Western Sydney, for example, describes itself as an “innovative joint-venture university” fully in tune with the emergent knowledge-based society of the twenty-first century, fostering a culture of partnerships primarily with constituencies in its local context, the vast region of Greater Western Sydney–touted as the fastest growing region in Australia. This is fine as an objective, especially for a new university such as UWS which still needs to carve out a distinctive identity for itself within the highly competitive higher education field.

However, the clear subtext of the pursuit of partnerships is a ruthlessly economic rationale: it is a way of getting more external funding for research in a time of diminishing public funds. As a result, only those potential partners tend to be deemed worth pursuing–and yes, polygamy is fully allowed, even looked upon favourably here–who have funds to bring into the partnership, a kind of dowry as it were, as in the widely-used matched funding approach to research resource allocation. Mostly these partners are private or public sector corporate entities from the world of business, industry, or government and not, say, grassroots community groups or members of the general public, who are citizens or consumers and not “stakeholders.” Indeed, in a regime where the amount of earned external income is one of the key indicators of a university’s supposed performance, the preoccupation with money-drawing partnerships is enormous. Thus, any time a new partner has been signed up, the UWS Research Office proudly announces through the university-wide listserver the amount of funding that has been raked in. The unintended consequence is that the significance of research activities which are not based on the securing of external funding is symbolically diminished, remaining more or less invisible to the university community as a whole. This, as should be clear, is especially disadvantageous for humanities research.

Is it impossible for humanities researchers to enter into partnerships with others? Of course not. Indeed, research in the cultural studies mould would seem to have a lot to offer to external partners from many corners of society, especially, as remarked at the beginning of this paper, in light of the growing prominence of the cultural dimension of society. However, precisely because partners are expected to pay up, there is a danger for the whole notion of research partnerships–and Mode 2 knowledge production in general–to be framed in an instrumentalist, often commercial or merely practical horizon of expectations. This affects the definition of “usefulness” of research, which may be shrunk to rather narrow, short-termist dimensions. Topics that are flavours of the month may easily attract resources, others will not. For example, in Sydney local councils, government departments, the police, community organisations, even small business associations have recently been very keen to fund research on Arab youth and crime. This is not surprising given the moral panic raging in town over so-called “Lebanese gangs.” In all likelihood the research is imagined to be able to provide some direct solution to this “problem” of youth crime; this is what the “partners in research” would be willing to spend money on.

This returns me to the issue of “relevance” of cultural studies. It would be the distinctive intellectual contribution of cultural studies research here to highlight the fact that the very demonisation of Lebanese boys as potential criminals may be part of the whole problem, exacerbating rather than alleviating divisions and tensions within the community. The research would then have to critique the intimate assumptive connection made between “ethnicity,” “youth,” and “crime” in dominant public discourses, and its complex, contradictory effects on why the boys act the way they do. Cultural research of this kind would be aimed at highlighting the underlying cultural meanings and assumptions which contribute to the construction of the “problem” of “Lebanese youth gangs.” It would point to the politics of representation involved in attempts to manage and police these young people, and in doing so, it would induce a conceptual shift in thinking about the issues concerned. In other words, the research would generate a mode of self-reflexivity by explicating the biases implicit in the very way in which the “problem” is named and described. But would the partners be happy with this kind of research? Would they put money in it? Would they find it useful and relevant?

Those partners who are exclusively looking for straightforward problem-solving outcomes are unlikely to be interested in research that makes issues more complex rather than more simple. Yet this is exactly what cultural research, as a mode of applied humanities, can do well, and I would argue, should do. Unfortunately, the instrumentalist framework in which partnerships are currently forged does not easily make space for research whose usefulness lies in opening up new questions rather than providing answers to existing ones. If cultural research is to find an appropriate place in the emerging Mode 2 world of knowledge production, then, the definition of the useful or the relevant will have to be stretched beyond the level of immediacy. We will have to demonstrate that keeping questions open is actually useful, that thinking more complexly and reflexively about issues is actually practical, if not here and now then in the longer term, in light of social sustainability for example.

We live in an increasingly complex world. In a world obsessed with economic growth, the free market, and technological speed and efficiency, what many groups within society need most today are not just material resources, but crucially, intellectual resources that enable them to grasp and interpret the world around them and their own place within it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a great thirst for new ideas, and that there is a great poverty of vision and of fresh ways of thinking about things at the grassroots level. For example, in local governments and other organisations concepts such as “community,” “identity,” and “multiculturalism,” or even “access and equity,” to name but a few, have become stale, stuck in closed circuits of meaning devoid of the capacity to inspire creative ways of dealing with the issues at hand. The populism that now pervades Australian public culture in the wake of Pauline Hanson is both a symptom and an effect of the malaise, which is a cultural deadlock in need of specific, cultural interventions–interventions which illuminate the constitutive role of meaning, representation, and value in the diagnosis and management of social environments.(10)

This, I would argue, is why the world needs cultural studies more than ever. As contemporary society has become increasingly opaque to most citizens, what is in shortest supply is the kind of knowledge and skill that enables citizens to “read” their own environments, to understand their own multiple contributions to the shaping of those environments, and to interrogate their own mindsets. What is also desparately needed is the capacity for people to self-reflexively invent common grounds within which situated social futures can be imagined and worked towards together with an increasingly wide range of differently positioned others. In short, the distinctive intellectual currency and social utility of cultural studies research lies in its capacity for inducing conjunctural questioning, rather than in providing positivist answers to set questions. To be sure, this is the kind of knowledge production expertise that is required for the writing of a good essay. The skill and knowledge that cultural researchers channel into more or less obscure essay writing may be transferable to collaborative contexts which would benefit from the illumination and interrogation of the very process of meaning production. The very notion that culture is always contested, that meaning is always negotiated and constructed in concrete contexts, can be mobilised and applied in myriad strategic contexts in partnership with other specialist knowledge producers and users. There’s nothing more practical than that.

Notes

1. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996) 175.

2. Michael Gibbons et al., The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1994).

3. Gibbons 81.

4. Gibbons 105.

5. The Hon. Dr. David Kemp MP, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, New Knowledge, New Opportunities. A Discussion Paper on Higher Education Research and Research Training (Canberra: DETYA, June 1999).

6. Kemp 2, web version: http://www.detya.gov.au/highered/otherpub/greenpaper/fullpaper.pdf.

7. Gibbons 106.

8. The example provided by Gibbons et al. is that of the Annales historians.

9. SPIRT = Strategic Partnerships with Industry–Research and Training Scheme.

10. Pauline Hanson is a white right-wing populist politician who gained a seat in parliament in 1996 on an anti-aboriginal and anti-multicultural agenda, speaking on behalf of the “ordinary Australian.” She established the proto-nationalist “one nation party,” a political movement comparable to but less militant than that of David Duke or France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. By 2000 her popularity has waned considerably, but her influence still resonates in the more conservative tone pervading dominant public discourse in Australia.