|| Erkki Karvonen and Juha Koivisto
The Finnish Journal for Mass Communication Research.
Ramada Hotel, Tampere, Finland, 20 May 2000
Published in Finnish in Tiedotustutkimus 24(2001)3, pp. 100-114.
Cultural studies and the ironies of academic life
Q: In your Amherst speech at the University of Massachusetts in 1989 you talked about the early days of Birmingham cultural studies. You said that in those days anthropology was not taught in Birmingham, and that the Englishmen you wanted to study in an ethnographic way had not learned to see themselves as aboriginals. Recently you said that in England, every other country is considered 'ethnic', but not British culture. Perhaps we could say that the cultural studies you introduced was and is a lesson of seeing our own culture in the same way as a cultural anthropologist sees 'primitive culture'. You have now participated for several days in the doctoral promotion ceremonies at the University of Tampere. As an honorary doctor you were dressed in a black 'penguin suit', a strange Scrooge McDuck hat and you had an 'academic' sword. Isn't this all like a tribal ritual where the 'big men' of the community are dancing around the campfire?
SH: Modern developed societies don't really understand the need for rituals. They really think about rituals as something that belong to the past. The older I get the more I realise how important some form of collectively acknowledging what is going on, is; I mean when you get to my age you've lost friends who've died, what do you do? You know they were not religious, there's no point having a Christian burial service, but you want to mark their lives, they were often very important people, they have achievements, and anyhow you've spent a lot of your life with them. And I go to lots of funerals now where people are making the funerals up, every time you go it's different and you see that they're actually constructing it; sometimes actually constructing them in churches not because it's a religious ceremony but where else do you go to have a ritual ceremony, I mean you can't bury a body in a supermarket.
I don't have any organised religious feelings. I'm not a militant atheist, I don't have any particular belief, but I can respect the religious and spiritual dimension of culture, and of other cultures, so I know that that exists and I think it's important. So I'm not a rationalist with respect to rituals as such, but I do think that rituals ought to, sort of, reflect a little bit the contemporary reality rather more than what usually happens, which is that people then reach back to previous rituals, or even more alarmingly, invent rituals, which don't really go back very far, because they're from day before yesterday. In England a lot of our public rituals derive from, or are constructed around the monarchy. They were only invented at the end of the 19th century. They don't go back to William the Conqueror or anything like that, but because they're dressed up in funny dresses and on horseback and carry their swords, people somehow imagine that these are 500 years old. They're not. Many of them were designed by Disraeli, music by Elgar, they belong to the imperial moment, they were to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. So I think we're slightly in difficulty about rituals because we don't have any ourselves, and many of the life crises, death, marriage or whatever its equivalent is, I mean people who don't get married, nevertheless quite like to have some commitment. Children are born and you feel you want to recognise this fact, it's a new important fact of your experience. So I don't think we're very good at designing that and I think this has a wider point in the culture, I think it means we are beginning to come to the end of that high scientistic, rationalistic attitude, that everything can be absolutely understood in a kind of positivistic way, but we don't yet have any adequate things to put in this place.
So if you ask me about the rituals we have just been through, my main feeling about that: I was extremely pleased to be invited and I thought in a funny way the ceremony yesterday was quite impressive. Just taking part in it, I thought it was not ridiculous, and that leads me to think that in a funny way Finland is still more in touch with its own traditional life than many other places. Today people were singing; I don't think you could get an English crowd to sing like that. I don't think people from an academic background in their forties would have a common repertoire of traditional songs any longer. So I just feel that perhaps it's somewhat more authentic in Finland, but nevertheless the other feeling I had is that the overwhelming impression culturally about Finland is that it's a much more egalitarian place than almost anywhere else I know, much more egalitarian. But that was if there ever was an elite aristocratic tradition with the high German hat, and the sword and people with state decorations; so I was struck by the piquancy of the irony.
Q: There is also something of an irony especially regarding the current neo-liberal policy in the academia with tendencies to ever increasing administrative discipline, formalisation and narrowing of perspectives -- in the fact that you never took your doctorate, and yet this is your seventeenth honorary doctorate, fourteen in Britain, two in the United States, and now this in continental Europe. Likewise you never read sociology at university, but you became a professor of sociology in the Open University
SH: Well I have to tell you I do enjoy that particular irony, I think that's tremendous fun. Because I never thought of myself, and I don't know whether even now I would call myself an academic. I'm an intellectual, I take ideas and the life of the mind very seriously indeed; I'm an intellectual, but I'm not a scholar, it's not that I don't appreciate scholarship, it's not what I do. I'm a public intellectual and I'm committed to ideas, and to serious work of the mind, but academia, it's not for me, I didn't want a career in academia. I went to cultural studies because I want to work in cultural studies. So I then set out to become an academic in that sense, so the acknowledgement which I had in academia is very peculiar from that point of view, and I enjoy the frequency of it with one exception: I think there's no question that some of the places that have offered me an honorary doctorate in Britain have done so because they have substantial numbers of black students, and they wanted to have somebody, who could speak to them and who they would feel someone they identified with. So especially in the early days in the new polytechnics where there were substantial numbers of overseas ethnic minority students, I think it had a purpose and in a sense the first ones who were accepted were kind of, for that reason. Some of them were also the first places in Britain which started cultural studies and communications studies. And I was often on the committee called the Committee for the National Academic Awards that used to award degrees to those polytechnics that were not yet universities, and polytechnics were the places that started communications studies, media studies and cultural studies in Britain. So I validated the degrees of many of these places. So it meant something in academic and intellectual terms for me to accept it.
Q: I wonder how you survived after finishing your studies before going to Birmingham in 1964. You were the first editor of New Left Review, but supposedly you also had some temporary teaching jobs? How do you look upon those years?
SH: I was one of the four editors of the first new left journal which was called Universities and Left Review, and this was a journal which then joined up with the New Reasoner which was another one and they formed New Left Review. As I said, I was one of the editors. But when I left Oxford in 1957 I was the only one who had the time to do the full-time editorial work. Raphael Samuel was doing his graduate work at London School of Economics, Gabriel Pearson was starting to teach and Charles Taylor was in Paris. So I was the full-time editor of Universities and Left Review, and that had its centre in London, in Soho, in the New Left offices which were above a coffee bar, which belonged to us. We started a coffee bar in order to finance New Left Review, a crazy scheme, but anyhow, that's how the whole business worked in those days, and we had the floor up above the coffee bar.
Besides that I taught what then was secondary modern school, in those days the English school system. Pupils had to take an exam at 11, and if you passed the exam you went to grammar school; if you didn't pass the exam you were consigned to what was a called a secondary modern school, which didn't take A levels so you couldn't get university entry. And I taught in a school like that on the edge of Brixton, in the Oval, and I what was called a supply teacher, that is to say I would go into the school when the existing teachers were ill. And just supplement. But in fact, my school was so grim that there was always somebody absent, because nobody could teach in there for longer than four days in any week. It was the first school I was sent to as a supply teacher and I never left for perhaps three years; it was the first time I taught a mixed class of black kids from Brixton and white kids. And then I would leave school at 4.30 in the evening and take the tube to the journal and edit it until 11 o'clock at night, or 12 o'clock at night, take the night bus back to the Oval, and turn up at the school the next day. I was also doing part-time lecturing in two other places. I was a part-time lecturer in adult education, the Oxford Adult Education Office ran education classes, not in London, but in Kent, and I used to go out of London to take adult education classes. I taught an adult education class in Bexley Heath, which is Mr Heath's constituency, for about seven years; I taught literature, I taught them novel, I taught Russian literature and translation; I had a wonderful time, once a week. And the other thing that I did was I lectured for the Film Institute; that's when my connection with film deepened further. And then I became editor of New Left Review, and though that was full-time, I gave up the school work but I continued to do the part-time lecturing.
Between 1959 and 1961 I was the full-time editor. 1961 I left and I was appointed to Chelsea College, which is part of London University, which taught technology students; it wasn't then a fully-fledged university college but it taught polytechnic students, mainly chemists and pharmacists and people like that. The Chelsea Art School was at the top of the building and then the Chelsea Polytechnic lower down. I taught complementary studies there, that is to say it was my job to civilise the scientists. I was appointed and I think as the first lecturer with the designation 'Lecturer in Film and Allied Media'; they couldn't call it television because nobody would have given me a job. But 'Film and Allied Media' did well, and I think it was the first higher education appointment to teach film, as far as I know. It was not taught anywhere else. I taught film and television to these pharmacists, and chemists, and engineers, and then Richard Hoggart asked me to go to Birmingham in 1964.
Has the cultural studies been tamed?
Q: In it's early days the cultural studies approach used to be a radical and critical one; it was considered an alternative to affirmative 'administrative' research. But nowadays cultural studies is a dominant paradigm in the social sciences. Even business studies is now influenced by the cultural studies: goods are signs, organisations have their culture, even the Gramscian notion of hegemonic struggle is used in business discourse. What are your feelings now? Has the cultural studies been tamed?
SH: Well this is quite a complicated issue. You're quite right that at the beginning it was an outside discipline, if it was a discipline at all. Actually we wouldn't at Birmingham have called it a discipline because there was no such discipline to teach, and it was by definition interdisciplinary. So people who taught there were from sociology, history and literature. What drew it together was its object, what it was seeking to study: changes in contemporary culture. But it was not disciplinary in terms of the forms of knowledge. It was always drawing on philosophy, social science, humanities, it was interdisciplinary. So we would not have called ourselves disciplinary; it was a sort of odd ball out in that way. It was odd in another way in the sense that it was not part of the traditional student career. We got graduate students who had done very well in their first degrees and got grants to study. These were potential academics and actually almost all of them have become academics. So what they should have done was to go into their disciplinary areas and become professionalised within them; instead they chose to take this funny path and come to us. So it was odd in that way.
It was odd in a third way in the sense that it obviously had a kind of built-in critical political edge. I would say that sometimes afterwards this was misunderstood in the sense that it posed a political line. We had people who were Social Democrats, people who were Marxists, people were Trotskyists, we had anarchists. So it was more that we were interested in the relationship between culture and power. We were interested in the relationship between culture and power in a critical way, we were to the left of centre. That's a sense in which it was political; it wasn't political in that people had to present their political credentials. Especially in the 1970s the question of where we drew our critical political objectives or base was a quite complicated question. Because almost all of us not all of us but many of us, and I would include students in that were within some conversational relationship to Marxism. Almost none of us were classic Marxists, you know in the sense that we all had problems about the way in which culture and ideology figured in the Marxist problematic. So we wanted to talk about the questions that Marxism had put on the agenda, but we were not able to just find in Marxism a ready-made discipline to apply. And I think that is true of the relationship between Marxism and cultural studies ever since, in many ways. Cultural studies developed and certainly in the 70s, which is a high point after 1968, when student cultures radicalised and we were getting very radical students, the Centre for Cultural Studies became involved in the student movement in Birmingham in 1968, we were thought to be sort of the Red Base in Birmingham. Then we took on another aspect of the 60s, namely collective work, so we started to write together, we started to write with our graduate students absolutely unthinkable so in all those senses we were thought, and rightly thought to be a centre of critical knowledge.
Now the question is, how you maintain that within the framework of a university. How do you do that? If you are absolutely or simply political in some obvious and direct way, we would have been clobbered. Richard Hoggart who was then the director, was a person of the left but he was not a politicised person in that way. He wouldn't have gone to the death for us if we'd really got into trouble. In 1968 we had to walk a very funny line, he was, you know, an ally of ours in the upper echelons but there were a lot of things he never knew went on at the Centre because he just simply couldn't, I mean he was a professor, he would have been asked, he would have been held responsible for it. We also had a duty to our students in the sense that ultimately they had to go and get jobs, so they wanted a degree, they wanted a degree from the university. We didn't want a poor person's degree, we wanted a decent degree. So we were in this, inside and against the state, both in and against the state. We were part of the university, we thought university ought to protect a centre for critical knowledge and ought to give people degrees if they did decent work, but we had a critical stance. And I tell you all this because the question is, whether that belongs to the first moment of a development and you know how you sustain that over the generations. It is a real complicated problem about how you can transmit this impulse into the fourth and fifth generations. It's bad enough within Birmingham, or within the Centre. But then, people began to come to us from very different institutional contexts. And the most dramatic of those is the United States. People from the United States started to come: James Carey sent Larry Grossberg who was his graduate student to Birmingham because he knew about Hoggart, he knew about Williams and he said if you want to do the kinds of funny things you want to do, go to Birmingham. Larry became very involved in 1968 and the rest is history. But when he goes back to the United States he's taking these ideas and these practices back, and trying to insert them in a completely different culture that does graduate work in a different way, which has a different tradition in relation to politics and intellectual work.
So the bigger, the wider the circle of cultural studies gets, the more it encounters different institutional worlds and different institutional traditions and has to make this complicated negotiation between serious intellectual work and critical political work in a new context. So it's not mystery to me that there are many kinds of cultural studies which didn't make it. They really emerged from another impulse, some of them emerged from a sort of inadequacy with a sense that literature isn't doing anything very serious, but is much too formalistic or social sciences are much too positivistic. Those people were not necessarily political in the same way in which the '68 generation was politicised. So I regret the fact that the dissemination has meant a pluralisation of what cultural studies was in the sense that it has also meant in some places a weakening of its critical and political impulse. But I'm sure that, unless we had masterminded the expansion like the Fifth International; you couldn't guarantee that the way in which it took in Australia would be a replica, partly because one of the things that was a formative principle for many of those places was to be different. We're not going to be told how to do cultural studies by Birmingham! So even if we had tried we couldn't sort of tell other places what to do.
In a funny way, the American development was more rapid than in Britain. I mean there are more cultural studies departments, people getting serious jobs and professorships in the humanities. The humanities started these institutes, which were by definition interdisciplinary, and they wanted an umbrella under which they would work. Well what did they choose: cultural studies. Half of them, we didn't know who they were. They were mainly literary for one thing. They'd never made that awkward conjunction with the social sciences which we did in Birmingham. They came out of literature, influenced by the Yale school, influenced by Derrida, influenced by a very unpolitical version of Derrida.
I resist the notion that I will only call cultural studies the things that I think are what it ought to be, because that would make me the arbiter or the judge or the father or the designator... you know and it's a role I absolutely refuse to play. I'm not going to tell people what is or what isn't. But I think now, much more important is whether the work is good, seriously engaged and critical. I use that word rather than politicise in a very specific sense. I don't mind whether it's called less Marxist or more Marxist. I mind whether its internal paradigms are critical of the structures of the culture that it's studying, and have a concern about the articulation between cultural and aesthetic matters, which are always questions of symbolic form, and social matters which are always questions of organised power, and so on. And if you are worried about that connection, that is to say you're worried about the impurity of your field. Cultural studies remains what I would call a dirty intellectual game. It cannot be a pure game, it's a dirty game, it's going to ask questions that academics don't usually ask of their field. It's going to worry about problems which people can't give a simple answer to, but they know that somehow the form that that practice has taken culturally has a relationship to the political life of a society, you know the articulations are very difficult. That is the thing they want to understand. That's what I mean by the impulse. And that matters more to me than saying, what particular brand of post-structuralist, post-Marxist theory whatever it is, is involved in their work. I have a more eclectic, somewhat more relaxed view.
But I add one thing to that, and that is: the continuing pressure to define cultural studies comes from, first of all, this proliferation that has taken on in South-East Asia, China, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, all over the place. The second is, the point you mentioned, namely, the backlash on cultural studies from existing disciplines. From having to succumb to cultural studies largely, sociology in Britain now is in a revived militant mood, and it's a bizarre turn of events because what it says is, we always have been interested in culture, this is the claim that drives me insane, absolutely insane. I don't mind if they say you shouldn't do that work or the work isn't good. But the notion that we always did this better than you did it, that drives me
because it is just literally nonsense, it is absolutely untrue. And the same thing is now going on in mass communications studies. As communications studies have received the first impact of cultural studies especially around questions of language and one-way communication, they are coming roaring back claiming 'we do serious empirical work, and you just trawl through the texts and tell us a whole lot of rubbish'. So cultural studies certainly in Britain is a very embattled area now. Though it's much stronger than it was when there was only Birmingham, it's fighting off exactly those bases where it has had most influence: anthropology, media studies, sociology. All the places where for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, the journals published a lot of cultural studies: cultural studies, post-colonial theory and feminism seemed to be all there was in these journals, they weren't interested in anything else but now they think that they can only succeed by climbing on the back of cultural studies and doing it to death as they pass us by, and that's a very dangerous moment indeed.
I hear people in communications studies say they can't do a proper thing without a quantitative content analysis. I thought we had done for quantitative analyses 25 years ago, we pointed out its radical insufficiency, and actually the most interesting work in this field is done beyond it, the field knows it has to go beyond, as advertising knows long before sociology, it has to go beyond the quantitative survey, if you want to find out what people think about their meanings, there's no point giving them a questionnaire, get them in a focus group and tease out the meanings and you can sell them anything. You give them a quantitative questionnaire, but they don't know what it is they think or who they are. So cultural studies has been absorbed in all sorts of things, like advertising and it is now having a huge effect on organisation studies, in governmentality; I mean tremendous, enormous. I hear the Prime Minister say, the only change is culture change, and you have to get people to take ownership of the meanings. But one shouldn't be surprised at that because meanings cannot be fixed. So there is no way in which cultural studies could ever have been so radical and so alternative that somebody couldn't have appropriated it and hauled it back. It is always possible to haul back any discourse like that.
Different articulations in cultural studies
Q: You mentioned Larry Grossberg. What is your relation to Grossberg's version of cultural studies?
I think the best place to start is that he is a Deleuze/Guattari person,
and I'm not. And those elements of Deleuze/Guattari which are about the
affect which is beyond meaning, interest him very much. And partly that's
a question of the field. If you work in music, the linguistic analogue
doesn't work so well in music, as it does in other fields, so he's interested
in all those effects of affect, emotion etc., which don't ever find a
language in the Saussurean sense. So I think it's partly those philosophical
influences, it's partly the field in which he works, that gives it a different
weight, a different emphasis, and there's always been I think that difference.
I think an philosophically interesting question is the one thing that I'm not: I'm really not a Hegelian, even a Hegelian in disguise. A lot of people in cultural studies elsewhere especially in Europe find this difficult to understand. I was Hegelian for a time, for a time when I took up Marxism I thought it was clearly the Western Marxist tradition, after Hegel, that would do it. When people say to me you're an Althusserian, a lot of things in Althusser I don't have any time for. But he's sort of saved me from Hegelianism, he sort of convinced me that, that endless, ongoing concern with totalities was just wrong. And it's a fundamental philosophical break for me, the moment you aren't interested in totality, the moment you think of totality as uncompleted, remaining contradictory, overdetermined or underdetermined, but never total, never a totality like that. You know, difference has entered your mind, your head, it's like a knife, and once the difference cuts, you're never the same again, and I don't think you can really go back like seamless Hegelian. I know good, very important people who use Hegel in a positive, creative way, and I know that in many ways the many questions I'm interested in about identity and difference are in Hegel. And Hegel has a very advanced account of how not to fall into monistic notion of identity. But nevertheless, the Hegelian/Marx interface is not the route I took, it is why cultural studies did became Gramscian, not Frankfurtian. The moment at which me might have become Lukacsian or Frankfurtian, the moment when we took the other turn. And the only person there who was very seminal who belonged to the other tradition was Benjamin, and that's because he occupied this Hegelian position in such a fractured way that, he was never going to restore us to totality. So Benjamin was very important for us. I did flirt with Hegel I had a Lukacsian/Goldmannian moment, but it didn't survive, it didn't last.
It's not quite the question you asked me, but it is related to Larry. I don't know that Larry ever had an Althusserian moment, he didn't go through the Althusserian moment, I think he was gone by then. I think we share a great deal of the political take, the political impetus or impulse within cultural studies, we're very close. He's more of a conventional philosopher than I am. He was trained in philosophy, whereas I never have been; I don't think of myself as being philosophically competent at all. So he does know the philosophical tradition better than I do. And I think that in that sense Spinoza, the line Spinoza/Deleuze has been a more comfortable one for him to occupy than me. So essentially I still cannot think of cultural studies without the question of meaning. For me, I don't know what I would study if I weren't studying meaning. I mean I know that you know meaning is a very complicated thing and that it works on the emotions and they are unconscious, so it doesn't work just on the rational, cognitive side. So I don't have a limited conception of it, but I do think culture is about meaning, and I think he doesn't. I think he thinks culture is beyond meaning, it includes the area beyond meaning. And that I suppose is where we have a different emphasis.
Q: You and Larry Grossberg have also used the idea of articulation in your studies. Some say you presented the 'articulation theory' as an alternative to the encoding /decoding model you used earlier. How do you see the situation with regard to the articulation theory or the articulation model now?
SH: It's all about articulation theory because, it just seems to be how things have worked, I didn't know at the time I was introducing a theory, it's sort of retrospectively called by others articulation theory. I first encountered the term in Althusser. Althusser said it means two things: it means the elaboration of expression, to articulate is to fill out discursively, and it means connection. And I liked these two ideas. But especially I liked the second, because all the linkages were conditional. So there's no point saying that the nuclear family belongs this is the Lukacsian approach with the era of early capitalism. Those totalities just didn't seem to me to work. I thought I can perfectly well find a way of incorporating a different family structure with monopoly capital. And then what would we say about this articulation, how it's been done. Well, it would have been done in a specific way, that is to say there would be actual mechanisms connecting the economic system with the domestic system. There are always linkages, but the linkages are not given, linkages have to be forged and because they have been forged they can be broken. And the most important theoretical influence on the way in which that idea was developed is the piece that I wrote on the 1857 Introduction, Marx's 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse, the text which I'd read but I came across in a more conceptual way in Althusser, and describes the relationship between production and consumption in this way, as an articulation.
Retrospectively I came to understand how much encoding/decoding was really an exercise in my understanding of articulation theory. I suppose because I was working on it embedded in concrete examples rather than trying to build a theoretical model, which is really how I work on theory. I'm not a theorist in the sense of building theoretical models, but I think of concrete subject, which is different from empiricism. Work on a concrete example is always theorised, so because I came to it in that way, I would still think of myself as fundamentally an articulation theorist. I mean if I want to understand the relationship between this and that, the account I would give of it ultimately will be a theory about articulation, though I don't say I will use articulation theory to explain this. That's not how I work, I don't borrow the theory. I think I say this seems to work like that, and I can better understand this as an articulation, because it is a linkage which is not necessary. The connection has determinations, but it is not given in the structure. It's not inevitable that it should always be that way.
This has connections with other kinds of work which I'm interested in, like Laclau's work, namely the contingency with the political, because if articulations are not always given, then everything depends on how they are made and how they are broken, they can always be made or re-read. You can see the connections then with the politics of contingency on the one hand, and the politics of hegemony, on the other, because hegemony is not a class with a fixed consciousness etc., but it's an articulation of economic position with social life and with ideological beliefs, and these are linkages which you can show.
So I would say articulation theory is alive and well, but I mean, in saying that, I think perhaps I am myself conscious that it would have had a better life had I done some more theoretical work on it explicitly. If I had written short book about articulation theory, rather than just using it to explain encoding/decoding and then mugging and crime
I've gone on using it but I've not sort of reflected on the model itself very explicitly. And that would mean that a lot of people who I think are using it also don't necessarily know that that's what their using, they don't think of themselves as an articulation theorists the same way people say themselves as dialectical materialists.
I think the same thing is true both about ideology and about language in general. Since there are no fixed meanings, it is always in principle possible to disinter a term, a symbol, an object, a social phenomenon, from the context or conjuncture in which it is embodied, and rearticulate it with another; that will change its meaning, change its functions, change its purpose, change its activity, and so on. So it is a very broad sort of understanding; I mean it's why earlier when you asked me what happened to the sort of political critical edge of the Birmingham School, I was giving an articulation answer. I was saying that cultural studies arose in a context in a particular time, when it's plucked out and taken to Yale, it's in another context, and this what appears to be the same very same word, people say exactly the same thing as you said, but it doesn't mean the same thing any longer, because it's connected with another tradition in another institutional setting, you know the students are different in terms of their class background, the political situation. You know it's both the same and it's not the same because I have a positional notion of its meaning, and everything depends on positionality, everything depends on what is its relation to other things, it's a kind of concept of effect, the effect depends on what are its connections. That is its field of determination.
When I said you don't have totality, I don't mean that you don't have periods when a certain formation settles and holds, of course you do. And that's how I understand a conjunction. But I suppose totality has a broader notion of everything being strapped up in it, like in an expressive totality, like Althusser used to put it. And my notion of the conjuncture is of course a very Gramscian one. Consequently, something is always left out. I mean in the formation of hegemonic moment of power, what is left out is exactly the constitutive outside of that formation that is going to be the germ of the formation of its disarticulation into the articulation some other way. So I suppose there's a kind of dialectic there, but I wouldn't give it the fixative with which I think totality is sometimes used. I would say it's sort of movement from one conjunctural specificity to another. And there's absolutely no guarantee that it will be done, that the next conjuncture will successfully gather up. In Gramsci's terms, you can have a crisis that lasts 50 years, because you know nobody is able to hegemonise it, even from the right, nobody does. It kind of floats around, the elements float around without forming a kind of settlement. Conjuncture is a kind of contradictory settlement, from which something can then be done, or to get the power into this configuration and you have the arrangement of who's subordinate in it, who is dominant in it. You can then be something, you have a historical project. But always the bits that were left out of that are going to come and knock on the window and say, hey what about me? You forgot about me. And that is the beginning of the disintegration of that conjuncture, the attempt to then widen it and take in this other contradictory bit, which is not going to fit but to set up an interruption inside the formation.
Q: In this Gramscian/Althusserian approach you want to have a certain grasp of the whole, but not in a Hegelian way of a expressive totality; but you still want to see the connections and grasp them in an anti-reductionist way. Quite unlike many versions of 'postmodernism' that resist this effort and end up with hair-raising totalisations. In Finland this Althusserian and Gramscian approach has been very much missing and this can I suppose have very harmful consequences for people trying to come into terms with cultural studies?
SH: I very much agree with you. I think, I think it's not only here, I think it's true in Germany, too. Even where people are more amiably disposed towards it, but they don't quite understand the methodological and conceptual things that make it possible. They kind of re-read it within another philosophical tradition. And I wonder also about the US; I think the same thing happens there. I think it's read in a different way.
The danger of relativism?
Q: The cultural studies approach is often linked with cultural relativism and perhaps with moral relativism, too. In contemporary society we have this ethos of 'anything goes'. Everything you do is OK, we don't have any criteria for judging one activity as more desirable than some other activity. People have problems with criteria for educating their children. What is your answer if somebody says that moral relativism is a logical result of cultural studies?
SH: There is a kind of shift from what I would call morality to the ethical. The era of morality is when these judgements are given already in the culture, in an authoritative discourse. And I feel that it depends now much more on not just individuals but on more localised situations, given the complexity of what confronts them, , for people to adopt a position, and the more one adopts positions, the more those positions need to make some consistent sense one with another, without being tied too tightly. But I think it's more situational ethics than the invoking of the 'progressive'; which is a favourite term for the left. But I can't say I could do without the term progressive, because I know what reactionary means so I have to know what progressive means, but you know the content of progressiveness changes from one period to another. Our progressiveness is very different from the progress, the notions of the progress of the Left of the middle of the nineteenth century, or even of the early twentieth century.
So I do think that we live in a more relativistic moral universe, just as I think we live as a result of globalisation in a more relative cultural one. However, this is a question I really can't answer, because I don't know the answer to it. For instance, people say to me, is there no cultural practice that you would say no to, and there are. I'm absolutely opposed to female circumcision, for instance, and you might ask me why. Lots of people practice it, lots of people have practised it for many years, isn't opposing it the imposition of Western enlightenment? I don't think it's that. I think you can argue for it's abolition, I have a way of arguing that has to do with the position of women and the long history of patriarchy and so on, so you could find arguments against it, to say this is the one practice that no matter how much I think you ought to be sensitive to the other, when the other does this, you ought to say, I'm sorry, you're wrong. You should stop it, you musn't do it any more. And I don't know quite how to formulate that as a broader moral absolute.
I think in the cultural questions the final judgement cannot be made either from within that culture alone, nor from some absolute universal rule which sits outside every culture, and above every culture, and judges it. It's the movement towards the other, from within a particular culture. It universalises and generalises its discourse, because it takes the radical otherness of difference of the other into account. So if we are to find a way of living together which includes my particularity and your difference, it has to be something larger than just extension of my thinking. So at that point I'm in favour of the dialogue founded on the radical insufficiency of any culture, and it is what I call the movement towards the other, the movement to include the other in the dialogue.
The reason why one has to take the other into account is because the other constantly helps to constitute us. We are constituted by our relation with the other. We are constituted by the fact that though as babies we do think we are omnipotent, the entry into the adult symbolic world is to enter a limited sense of oneself, in the sense that something else is already inside me, the significant mother, the significant other, the sibling, something that represents that which is not me, is deeply embedded already inside me before I learn to say 'I am so and so'.
I have to make the movement towards the other, I have to find a discourse, a dialogue, in which you and me can meet in order to constitute a universe in which we don't have to have the war of all against all in order to persist. And that is what I call the movement of universalisation, the movement to expand. And that introduces the notion of relativism because it can't any longer affirm 'my culture knows best' and is the only truth, because the logic of that is apartheid. It might be a nice culture but it quite often isn't and when it says I know the truth, I'm in full possession of the truth now, the ultimate point of that logic is violence, exclusion, and extermination.
Because globalisation precisely yokes together within one global and technological system all these differences, it presents the issue of relativism in a very dramatic way. And I don't think that you can solve it by saying: Oh you go to your world and I go to my world because these spaces aren't separated any longer. You could say that if the Muslims never left the Middle East, and the Americans stayed where they are, there would be no problem. But the fact is the Americans are in the Middle East and millions of Middle Eastern people are in the United States. Globalisation has broken down the current geographical spaces which allow the illusion or fantasy of wholly homogeneous cultures and moral-ethical worlds to survive.
So if you don't want separateness and you're not going to impose one culture and rewrite that culture as the language of universal reason which is what happened in the West then there is only one other position, namely the position of negotiation and dialogue, of the recognition of difference. And that, I think, is a highly relativist world in comparison with the Enlightenment view that Western culture was the apogee and could impose its rationality on everybody else; so this new view is very different from that, it's much more relativist than that. But this position isn't relativist in the sense of saying you can circumcise people over there and I can circumcise people over there, because it does recognise that at some point those who circumcise women and those who don't circumcise women are going to have to live in the same space so they have to come to terms with what is the rationale for allowing such a practice to exist.
I don't think we should fool ourselves, but this is very different from the situation in which one knew what one stood for, whether that was Christian morality or Christian ethic, or even a humanist ethic, it's not the same, where you can read off that particular judgement from some template up there. So in that sense we've made a substantial move towards relativism without, I'd say, collapsing into relativism in a strong sense.
Struggle over identifications
Q: You very a have nice and illustrative example in your article 'The Question of Cultural Identity' (1992). The example deals with the case of black conservative Clarence Thomas nominated as Supreme Court judge in the United States. President Bush hoped with this move to maintain the conservative majority in the Supreme Court. Bush expected that white people will support Thomas because of his conservative opinions, and black people will support him because he is black. But then Anita Hill who used to work under Thomas came forward and said Thomas had been guilty of sexual harassment. That very much complicated the identity issue. Black women had to decide whether their identity was 'black' or 'woman' and whether to support or oppose him. White feminist women, who often take a liberal stance on racial questions, were against Thomas because of the sexism, etc. So potentially we may have many different identities and the question is: which one of these is activated. This all reminds me of Kenneth Burke's rhetorical theory: he said in his The Rhetoric of Motives (1950) that every rhetorical act is fundamentally an act of creating identification. The skilled communicator can activate the identification he or she wants: we Europeans, we Finnish, we male persons, we white, we taxpayers, we parents, and so on. Have you been influenced by these ideas of Burke?
SH: I do know Burke, I do know his work. I read him in the context of literary studies. I must have read him at the same time as I read I.E. Richards. I was very impressed by Burke's work, I mean I think it's the politics there that I'm not quite sure about. If I was told that Burke ended up a sort of anarcho-conservative I wouldn't be entirely shocked. But that doesn't have anything to do with the ideas. I learned a lot from The Rhetoric of Motives. And in a way, I don't cite it because it was so early in my formation I don't think I even know how important it was. It was before I started to think about ideology at all, it really was the beginnings of my interest in those ideological implications of literary language that first came across in Burke's work. I came across his work in the context of the new criticism, so it was a very important source to identify, and I'm glad of the opportunity to acknowledge my debt.
I am actually more interested in identification than I am in identity. I see the product of identification to be identities, and the outcome of identifying in any stable way is to take up a position, not necessarily forever, but take up a position stable enough to be able to say I own it. In that sense our lives consist of taking up of a series of positionalities. Each of them limits the next. The positionality I take up now will restrict the range of positionalities I can take up then, because of the impulse within us to tell, to narrativise our lives in a sort of meaningful way. So you can't make huge leaps; I mean some people do, but they're less frequent than that. All I'm trying to suggest is that although positionalities are not the same as a fixed notion of identity which unfolds throughout your life and remains the same, it's not without its moments of fixity. That's why I don't like post-modern nomadism, because identity is not something you can wake up tomorrow and choose up. I can't choose to be white, there's no point in trying. That's already kind of given. I can choose to be black in many different ways, but already I've narrowed this second choice by the recognition of the first.
So talking about a biographical narrative of one's life, I think of a series unfolding positionalities, each of them constituting an identification which is of some substance, some significance. That's within the biography of a single life, but then we have to think about the positionalities one has in the different social worlds one occupies: positionalities that are related to work, positionalities that are related to fatherhood, positionalities that are related to professional life, positionalities that are related to leisure and entertainment and pleasure, positionalities that are related to sexuality. Now, there is a kind of celebratory form of modern identity theory, which says, isn't it wonderful that all these different identities are around, and a little bit of that in queer theory, too. I can be anything, masculine, feminine, masculine and feminine, anything I choose, etc., it doesn't really matter. I'm not in favour of that celebratoriness, and one reason is because I don't think the choices are quite as wide as that, for the reasons I've just given. But I think also another reason is because each positionality has a certain cost. You invest in it, and by investing in it you're not available for other identifications. So having them may not be wonderful, it may be very schizophrenic, it may be very fragmentary. For example the life of exiled peoples is not one huge free-play game of identity. These are hard choices and they're substantial, with economic, political, cultural, symbolic conditions around for taking up positions, as a practice, in any way. So, I'm not in favour of a free-floating notion of identity.
One of the implications I'm trying to answer in that Anita Hill argument is the notion that these different identities overlap and strengthen one another. However, what I mainly wanted to say is that they probably mainly contradict one another. So that when you take this setting, and if you look at it from the point of view of the women, you support one, you look at it from the point of view of the blacks, you support another. And it's very difficult to choose between them, they contradict one another, interrupt one another, negatively, and the implication of that is the fragmentation of politics, because around each of these positionalities is a struggle, but it's not a struggle which nicely overlaps with anyone else, right from the point of view of black woman, the politics is different from, read from the point of view of a black judge, as a man. So these positionalities are a mix, a political strategy which depends on identification, much more difficult to sustain. And now you are going to say, well why wasn't this the case in the past? The reason for that is because the positionalities were given by collective movements, that's what collective politics did. It offered you a positionality you could identify with. And so long as you did that, everything else followed. You knew what kind of father you wanted to be, what sort of work you would do. But we don't live in such an integrated world anymore, these worlds have sort of pluralised, people expect to be different in different settings, the authoritative executive expects to be the tender father, expects to be the loving husband, and the attractive lover, all of these things. There'll be this poor guy, who doesn't have many symbolic resources to sustain one position, let alone four, in the same life, in the same space. So that's why I think the emphasis on the cross-cutting contradictory nature of multiple identities is an important point to stress as the mutually overlapping, reinforcing way in which they sometimes work.
Blairism and Intellectuals
Q: You are known as a sharp critic of Margaret Thatcher's neo-liberal politics, identity politics forming a crucial part of it. But now you have Tony Blair and his 'new Labour' in power. How do you see Blair's politics? What would be the strategic points where you would want to deconstruct Blair's project?
SH: There's a particular articulation in Blair's version of convincing between the public and the private, between capital and the social interest, all of those things, between the poor and the entrepreneurial, almost anyone. He strikes the balance, always in the wrong way, always systematically inflected towards capital, business, entrepreneurship, the free market, etc. Whereas I would want to accentuate the other, but this is different from saying 'I think we should nationalise everything', I don't think we should nationalise everything. I'm not interested in reproducing the command economy, I think it doesn't work. So, the arguments are more fine-tuned, if you know what I mean. I think it's a kind of political judgement of mine that capital would survive with a much more rigorous system of regulation than Blair is anywhere willing to put in place. And he thinks the current balance is given in nature, and I think it's given politically. I think he knows the legacy of Thatcherism eating away at the collective sense, undermining it. He's created the impression that the world would indeed stop if we tried to redistribute wealth in the long run. But I don't believe it's true. I think, actually, in the week after the Blair government with a 167 seats majority, he could have nationalised anything he wanted, he could have done what he wanted. And I suspect that even conservative voters thought he was going to do that, I think they can't believe their luck, that he got a thumping majority for five years, and then the first thing he said is we're going to hold budget spending targets of the last Conservative government. I mean it's the most scandalous statement and I feel I can't get over it. Why would you win a victory and reproduce the conditions that have wrecked everything of the people whom you've served for eighteen years. I just don't understand it. I think it's only comprehensible because there is this deep persuasion, it's not a question that he's fooling you, he really believes globalisation cannot be tamed, cannot be changed, cannot be controlled, cannot be governed; all you can do is make your population better able to compete in a free, in near-liberal globalised world, and that means they've got to stand on their own feet more, they've got to pay for their own insurance, they've got to pay for their own health, they can't expect the state to do it, can't afford the welfare. Almost everything follows from this simplistic view of the consequences of globalisation.
If you ask me what I would have done when Blair came in I would not have massively nationalised everything, but I would have made a demonstration of the value of the public, I would have said, we have the following three things which the market cannot deliver: it cannot deliver a decent transport system, it cannot deliver a good education system, it cannot deliver a better system than the national health service. And on these three things the public interest outweighs anything that capital and private can do. I'd have made everything to make these demonstrations, these three things work. Every time somebody said efficiency is only in the market, I'd say no no no, look at rail privatisation and the wreckage that has made of the public transport system. That is an area where public interest must prevail over the private. And that would have been to work hegemonically, to articulate the thing to the left. What has happened now is that a lot of these things are being given by Blair under pressure; he's raising pensions, but he's doing it by stealth. What is the point of redistributing wealth by stealth? Because the last thing you do is to create a public that is in favour of redistribution. What you're saying is, we shouldn't really redistribute but I'll give you a little bit. It's exactly the opposite, whereas you need to say, yes, of course in these areas redistribution is good for us. You make a more humane society that way. The implication of that in Blair is that the Third Way, which is that there is no contradiction, no opposition of power that cannot be negotiated. It's rubbish, you know. For Blair there's no point at which the boss and the worker cannot find a harmony, there is no contradiction using smoking to fund Formula 1 and saying we shouldn't smoke so much. It is manifest rubbish, and people know it, and they don't know it in a philosophical sense. It's not like they know the Chantal Mouffe message, which is, you can't have democracy without antagonism, but they just know that everything can't fit with everything, seamlessly, with no opposition; there's still power, there's still structure, there's still interest, and these things have to be faced, you have to come down on one side or the other.
Q: Anthony Giddens, the head of London School of Economics, used to be a central person in Blair's think-tank. Giddens has written books like Beyond the Left and Right (1994) and The Third Way (1998). What is your relation to Giddens' position?
SH: I know Anthony Giddens well, we're friends, we're sort of sparring partners a bit. He's just written this book called The Third Way and its Critics (2000) and I'm the principle enemy, I'm the principle critic quoted. Sometimes I'm quoted by name, mainly my article 'The Great Moving Nowhere Show' in Marxism today (1998), but even when I'm not quoted, I'm one of the people he has in mind. So there's a sort of argument going on.
I'd say three things. One is that Giddens, who's very smart, very clever at picking up trends, very articulate, is fundamentally not a very political person. So this argument that I made before about democracy, you can't have democracy without antagonism, he just doesn't understand what that means. He just doesn't feel political antagonism like that. He just doesn't see why you can't get them together in the same room, and the bosses and workers will say, okay, we share a common purpose in making Microsoft great. He just can't see it. So I think he's not a very political person.
Secondly, he very substantially sold Blair the simple-minded version of globalisation, I'm sorry, there's no question about it. That is not the position he takes now, although he doesn't confess that he's changed his line. Beyond Left and Right was a terrible book that has no antagonism in it, no power, no antagonism, no opposition, no interest, just sort of nodes of being. But since then, he's gradually taken on more and more of the other argument, especially in the global sense, he's now convinced that there is global poverty, he now thinks that global inequality is a really important thing, he follows the George Soros argument that if you don't have some controls over the free flow of capital you're going to destabilise even very successful middle-range economies. You know Soros says, you're completely crazy to allow me to do this. So long as you allow me to do it I will go on making money out of it, but you're out of your head to allow me to do it one more time. So, Giddens has gradually moved more towards the positionality articulated by David Held, namely global governance, regulation, strengthening international law, strengthening of the United Nations, strengthening the regulation of world markets, and so on. He's moved slightly towards that position, so I think he's in a less exposed position, consequently I have to tell you, thirdly, he's not quite the guru any longer.
Arch-guru number one is now Charlie Leadbeater, whose book Living on Thin Air (2000) is about the new economy. The Blair government picks up and abandons gurus like crazy. They had Will Hutton and shareholding, the public duties of capitalists, capital is a social function etc. Now they wouldn't entertain a single word of Hutton. Hutton is a critic on the left, what is called by Downing Street 'below the radar'. It's not what counts. What counts is what the Daily Mail thinks, what counts is whether Murdoch is going to be on your side or not. So shareholding rose and fell, Hutton was out. And then Giddens has a long effect and he's particularly good because he can summarise the globalisation thesis in a page and a half, he's extremely articulate. He writes books without a single note, and he lectures off the back of a postage stamp and you could print what he wrote tomorrow if you recorded it and transcribed it. He's very very articulate. So you can imagine, busy, cabinet officers asking, hey what is this globalisation and Tony says it's that that that and that, four bullet points. So he's wonderful, he's a dream for busy people, but some of his qualifications and tougher arguments, they don't take on. And now I think he's a little bit passé. But he's played a very important role and he's done a great deal I suppose for the kudos of sociology as you can imagine.
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