All entries for Tuesday 21 May 2013

May 21, 2013

Power and the text: Axioms of thought in the contemporary university

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A few weeks ago now we had a film event in which we watched and then discussed Meek's Cutoff(Kelly Reichardt, 2010). It was a really interesting session with a great, interdisciplinary set of participants contributing!

One of the main aims was to see how it would work to discuss a film text with an interdisciplinary group of people - to see whether we would agree on methodologies and so on, or whether there would be big differences or even disagreements.

I chose Meek's Cutoffbecause from a Film Studies perspective, it's a really interestingly put-together film that, I would argue, incorporates feminine modes of vision into its very construction of shots and sequences. It's about a small group of families on the Oregon Trail in 1845 who get increasingly lost and desperate in their desert crossing. It's been called a 'feminist western' because it's told largely from the point of view of the wives/mothers in the group, rather than the men. It therefore raises interesting questions about how cinematic traditions of representation may be subtly coded as masculine.

What I found was that there was actually a great deal of overlap in terms of the language, theories and concepts used by various Humanities and Social Science disciplines to discuss texts. The Film Studies participants had perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the physical construction of the film and the artistic and industrial decisions that went into making it, but then that's their job! We all shared a common language in which to talk about cinema as encoding power relations in terms of both narrative and visual elements.

I have accordingly added 'Power and the text' as a sub-theme within the Power theme of the Gendered Knowledges project website - a strand of thought that is broadly shared across many disciplines.

One thing we should pay more attention to, I think, about interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies is that most of the Humanities and Social Sciences since the 1970s have broadly shared a common set of theoretical assumptions, particularly as regards power and the text. Interdisciplinarity in these areas seems to be inclined towards the theory behind these assumptions - especially Foucault and Butler these days, but it used to be more Freud. (When exactly did this shift occur and why?) And Marx has been a constant through many decades, having survived this shift intact.

So although we may disagree on particular issues, it seems easy to find common ground when we talk about high-level issues. This is nice and makes for some great interdisciplinary events, but it could also be a negative thing in some ways. At the highest level, there's not that much variety in terms of ideological assumptions and theories about the goals of academic study. I've recently been reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed(which merits a whole post in its own right, to follow!), and it's a bit astounding how he takes as axiomatic that the only possible end of any truly rational enquiry is to become a Marxist and fight oppression. A similar assumption, I would argue, underpins the structures of academia: given the way peer review, hiring/promotion, PhD recruitment and conferral, even undergraduate exam and essay marking all work, genuine alternatives and dissenting voices that may challenge these assumptions are virtually nonexistent within the academy.

Meanwhile as we continue to pursue these admirably radical intellectual goals, we allow our universities to be taken over, virtually uncontested, by a neoliberalist managerial class with aims that are actually quite hostile to this enormous body of radical intellectual work. And as Sabine Hark points out, they very often make inroads using precisely the language of interdisciplinarity, which seems able to stretch to mean both very radical things and deeply conservative, neoliberal things simultaneously.

Hey guys, maybe we should be thinking more about how to actually live these principles in our working lives? Just sayin'.

Anyway, the Gendered Knowledges project is actually a great example of the uncomfortable ways that neoliberal and radical issues often cohabit within university space. It is, of course, a project funded by the neoliberal management of Warwick, with concrete aims like setting up an interdisciplinary (there's that word!) MA module and running a series of events that will enrich the intellectual life of Warwick and so on. Yet on an intellectual level, here we are considering radical pedagogies that actually challenge the deepest structures of the neoliberal university, wondering how we can possibly teach students to genuinely think for themselves while still subjecting them to traditional assessment and thus satisfying the bureaucratic needs of the university. Like so many academics, we are radical in our thought, buying into this shared body of radical theory that is axiomatic within the Humanities and Social Sciences, yet we stop short of any genuine challenge to the system.

Am I the only one who thinks that this situation has become rather stagnant and hollow?

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