Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Out of Birmingham: Towards a More Peripatetic Cultural Studies (A Writing Experiment) 1

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Out of Birmingham: Towards a More Peripatetic Cultural Studies (A Writing Experiment) 1

Article excerpt


The world unfolds itself to us inadvertently. Its random disclosures suggest that happenstance could well be a realist methodology for our lively and unfinishable worlds. In these empirical worlds, insipient forms emerge out of unnoticed and unremarkable materials; they emerge out ofsomething that a minute ago seemed completely in the grip of convention. What yesterday had so much potential today seems to be mere cant. What yesterday looked so unpromising is today revealing untapped possibilities. Serendipity rather than strategic planning constitutes a workable methodology.

In responding to the on-going and unfinishable characteristics of the world, would it seem odd that intellectual life, as it is supported and hedged-in by the academy, insisted on values that wholeheartedly point to a world that had been stilled, often stifled? What does it mean to promote institutional values that insist on championing rigidity rather than flexibility, thoroughness rather than nimbleness, rigour rather than vigour? And what would that intellectual world look like if nimbleness and flexibility were its ascendant values?

If nimbleness and flexibility were the ascendant values perhaps the role of'theory' would change from offering maps of a finished world to acting as a form of para-literature? Instead of offering us interpretative paradigms that could be filled-in with suitable materials, theory's role would be to act on us in the same way that literary forms often act on us. Theory, as paraliterature, would offer forms for sensitising us to the world in particular ways; ways that activated our sensoria as much as our reason, alerting us to alterations in atmosphere and mood, to changes in sensation and habits. The sensitising properties of theory was something the scientist Louis Pasteur recognised when he claimed that 'in the field of observation, chance only favours the prepared mind': theory (along with artworks, films, literature, music and other encounters) prepares the mind, but it can also prepare perceptions, sharpen senses, and quicken responses to atmospheres and moods. (Which is not to say that there couldn't also be theory, artworks, films and so on that do the opposite: deaden senses, dull perception, and lower responsiveness.)

In what follows I want to pursue one simple procedure: the foregrounding of the detour or the digression.4 Perhaps one of the most 'sensitising' elements that academia produces is the finished argument (as book, as essay, as paper). This is our productivity, our product. As a sensitising 'event' it has specific repercussions; it encourages ur to search out an angle for 'our' intervention; we seek out 'our specific contribution to knowledge; we look for 'our original analysis and opinion. In a busy market we learn to identify our 'unique sellingproposition, even if it is wrapped-up in a language of cultural politics and ethical engagement. Does it make us less sensitive to other qualities: to the atmospheres emanating from the objects we try and attend to; does it make us less amenable to the fussy business of trying to find an adjective that might momentarily reveal another aspect of a situation; does it make us less patient about the endless false starts and prevarications that writing seems to require ?

What would a cultural studies look like that made space for failure, for work that meandered, for work that over-reached itself? Could there be a form of cultural studies that was able to 'show its workings', as they used to say in maths lessons. Perhaps cultural studies would benefit from rougher work, from work that was more like a sketch-book than a finished painting, for work that was frayed, patched, and even threadbare in places.8

Amble: Birmingham


Without more ado then I asked the way to Derby and got out of Birmingham almost as soon as I had reached it, so I can tell you nothing of this famous city of factories and organized industry. …

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