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March 20, 2012

Cultural (Policy) Studies, the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies and me

Recently we've been talking in the Centre, for various reasons, about what we're called and why. What follows is an attempt to articulate what the name ‘Centre of Cultural Policy Studies’ means to me and how the label might function as an indicator of what we do. Some of these reflections are about the ‘disciplinary’ and some are personal. The latter probably shapes the former. My own academic background, at under-graduate and Masters levels, was connected with Cultural Studies and I maintain an attachment to this label. Part of this attachment to Cultural Studies is an emotional one wrought from the realisation that people in universities could take the things I liked to do whilst growing up (television, pop-music, sport, films etc.) as seriously as the things I was supposed to do (reading, studying, working etc.). Encountering these things in the 1990s also meant that my version of Cultural Studies retained at least some of the critical and empirical emphases of its Birmingham School origins.

These emphases are important in light of the various cul-de-sacs that Cultural Studies has subsequently turned down, which might make it less immediately appealing as a label. Jason Toynbee nicely articulates these in a blog post in which he refers to Cultural Studies a ‘critical accomplice’ to neo-liberalism. Both share, he argues, a concern with the present (the everyday, the new), a libertarian rejection of the state (as either moral authority/arbiter or regulator), a celebratory focus on the individual (as potentially autonomous subject, as rational consumer) and both celebrate diversity. The discourses might be different – radically so – but the words, the labels, are the same, allowing Cultural Studies to be easily incorporated into the cool-hunting, style conscious, open-necked version of contemporary capitalism. This is the kind of capitalism which our students will find themselves working in, of course, and one valuable thread that might be retained from the Cultural Studies tapestry is the notion that the ‘consumer’ is neither just a problem to be solved by marketers or entrepreneurs nor the only thing that contemporary subjects – or people- are.

Involvement in a research project with policy implications and policy partners (the Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion Project) led me to the debates about Cultural Policy Studies as an extension of a useful Cultural Studies, as they were articulated by thinkers such as Tony Bennett and Angela McRobbie, amongst others. These debates retain an explanatory power and not just in a narrowly conceptualised ‘cultural policy’ concerned with the ‘arts’ but within the broader fields of the media, media policy and the media industries. The controversies that emerge around them, about the proper role of the intellectual as ‘technician’ or as ‘critic’ remain a good bell-weather for one’s position in the field. Two things stick out for me, which inform a general relationship to Cultural Policy Studies as a label in both teaching and research.

Firstly, the people who worked as policy advisors on the CCSE project were not speaking a different language to us. Arguably they were working where conclusions about the things we were concerned with could be acted upon. They may have had different sets of priorities but in no way could they be conceptualised as not critical – if that is to mean anything other than ‘contrary’. Engaging in conversation with them or their equivalents has the potential for direct engagement with actual political change, rather than the more diffuse forms of political change associated with the valorisation of creative or resistant consumers, the inculcation of critical sensibilities in students or through the winning of theoretical arguments. All these things are important but for ‘proper’ politics it is desirable to have conversations about the ideas we develop with decision makers. It is better to try to have such conversations and be ignored, than not to have them and marginalise ourselves. A Centre for Cultural Policy Studies seems a good stepping off point for these kinds of dialogue.

Secondly, the knockout blow in the debate about the role of the cultural intellectual was the rather simple assertion that universities and university teachers are and always have been part of state apparatuses. There is a critical complicity at work here too. Whether we like it or not academics in this field and in this Centre are, through our teaching and research, part of the process by which culture, in its broad and narrow definitions, becomes known and understood as art, as everyday life, as product and as strategy of government. A marginal part, perhaps but a significant one given the possibilities for critical reflection afforded by the academy and given that the students we teach today get to work in – and hopefully transform - the cultural and media organisations of tomorrow and the day after. In this light, Cultural Policy Studies seems to me to be as good a label as any for the combinations of the conceptual, practical and critical approaches to culture and the media that I try and take – and it is probably still better than the alternatives.


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