The End of Cultural Studies?

Posted Monday December 10, 2007 by John Gunders in |

The so-called “teaching” panel at last week’s CSAA conference was high-jacked by discussions about the disciplinary position of cultural studies in Australia and New Zealand. It was a pity, because the relation of teaching to research in the academy is important, but obviously people wanted to talk about the related issue of disciplinary relevance.

The discussion started with Angi Buettner demonstrating that as a discipline, cultural studies does not exist in New Zealand: rather, all institutions offer media studies at the undergraduate level. This was followed up by Chris Healy talking about the positioning of cultural studies at Uni Melbourne. I want to engage with this discussion, and hope that others will share their perspectives, because I’m feeling very pessimistic about the future of CS, and I hope I’m wrong. So please leave a comment.

I see the apparent decline in CS as due to three main forces. The first is the move towards vocationalism: as much as we may decry it, undergraduates want a job at the end of their degrees, and the more focused “media studies”—especially if coupled with some practical training—is a more desirable brand to the open ended, critical project of CS. This is especially so in the political climate that developed during the time of the Keating government, but accelerated under ten years of the Howard government, in which blue-sky or theoretical research was marginalised in favour of applied or focused research. I see no reason to expect this attitude will change under the Rudd government. An emblematic example is the University of Queensland, once one of the top institutions in the country for CS, but now following the restructure which created the “School of English, Media Studies and Art History”, is left without a named CS department. Undergraduate and RHD enrolments have plummeted in recent years.

The second force is a residual suspicion—if not outright hostility—from those disciplines from which CS originally developed: largely English and sociology. Literature teaching programmes suffered because of the move of students who wanted to study aspects of popular culture, and some of our colleagues in the more traditional fields haven’t ever forgiven us for winning the popularity contest. As CS teaching programmes come under increasing pressure from creative writing courses and other new-comers, we get no support from the fields we displaced.

The third force is, I believe, the most serious and the most difficult to recover from, and is, ironically, a problem that was of CS’s own making. Chris Healy touched on this in his presentation in the teaching panel. He talked about the gap between the “fantasy”—the dream that CS would be an interdisciplinary space in the margins between disciplines like English and sociology—and the reality that undergrad enrollment requirements and administrative necessity forced CS into a conventional disciplinary focus. As recently as five years ago I was teaching that CS saw itself as multi- or even anti-disciplinary. This claim for authenticity might have looked cool on paper, but the pragmatists said that without a disciplinary focus, CS would lose out formally in the institutions. And guess what? The pragmatists were right.

I don’t know whether CS can come back from here. In institutions across Australia and NZ CS has lost out to media studies; communication has moved to journalism or the business schools; and even the archetype, the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, was moved to a sociology department before being closed down altogether. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the CS experiment has run its race: a brave attempt, but too unformed, too speculative; maybe too critical, to easily fit into an institutional home.

Maybe CS will continue in the margins, spicing up the more pragmatic disciplines with a critical inflection and a troubling suspicion of totalising narratives.I hope so: I would like the discipline to survive its second generation. Please comment and tell me I’m wrong: I need the encouragement.

Your Comments

  1. Catherine Howell writes:

    Posted: 10 12 2007 - 14:28 | Permanent link to this comment

  2. Meaghan Morris writes:

    Posted: 13 12 2007 - 04:10 | Permanent link to this comment

  3. Tseen Khoo writes:

    Posted: 18 01 2008 - 05:57 | Permanent link to this comment

Commenting is closed for this article.