AtHQ – Is Reality Fabulating?

(There are many things I’d like to add after Tuesday’s event to this original version of my provocation. Mainly thanks to Matthew’s presentation – and the way it made me to revisit my ideas on practice – and to some of the comments on theory and the institution. But sometimes it’s good to resist the temptation to modify history: so this is the version originally written for the ATHQ.)

I want to discuss two things. Firstly, how CCS, cultural studies and in the end academic work – instead of being tools or sources of inspiration – are hindrances or hinders for our thinking, our imagination, and our action. And secondly how we are actively betraying our intellectual and theoretical premises or values in our actions or non-actions. Although this might sound bleak, I’ll try to bring forward some propositions as well.

In many ways this is a result of self-reflection, and it is as much self-criticism than any other kind of criticism. I decided to take a self-reflexive approach (first of all because I cannot do anything else), and secondly because after coming here I have experienced a feeling of discontinuity or rupture which calls for reflecting on good practices, bad practices and yet unknown practices. The discontinuity grows out of having first spent seven years in Finnish universities and doing all those seven years political activism, and now having spent some eight months in a British institution and doing absolutely no political activism. The great paradox is that I came here because I felt that I needed a more politicized environment for my research. Much of this can sound like the teenage angst Jeff referred to last time, but I can assure you that engaging yourself in today’s activism or politics is mostly boring and the least adventurous thing one can imagine. So absolutely no glorification here.

So the first question: how is all that I am, or we are, doing a hindrance for out thinking? I remember last autumn, after spending a month or so here, we discussed in the phd seminar Lukacs and the problem of alienation. And the main outcome of the seminar for me was that instead of capitalism or the social order, it was the pdh seminars that were alienating me. I don’t necessarily feel so anymore, but it is mainly because I have learned to know the rules. It is better to quote someone than tell your own impression. It’s better to ask a theoretical question rather than a practical one. Better to talk theory than politics. Etc.
All this of course hints at the never ending debate on the role of the theory in the CCS, and because I don’t want to bore you, I’m not trying to give yet another perspective on the question of whether we should or should not concentrate on high theory, heavy theory, difficult theory or whether we are doing it too much or too little. But instead I want to concentrate on the ways we use theory, we make use of it, we practice it – and how we are not doing it in the best possible way.

I think the first shortcoming was already discussed last time well by James, namely the illusion of total coverage. I certainly agree that we easily hold the illusion that we could or should cover everything, and we should try to get rid of it. But in addition to that I think we should more actively try to get rid of the idea of coverage or knowing altogether – and allow more productive ways of reading through risks, imagination and sloppy reading. Instead of reading carefully texts of theorists and trying to understand what is meant, we should allow more strange, obscure and unpredictable readings. I think it would be itself fabulation, which interested James and Luciana last time. And it would mean, we wouldn’t need a separate center for the studies of fiction (done by others), but rather we would create fiction ourselves through our readings of the theories or other texts.
And now the second shortcoming I see in our ways of engaging with theory. It is the problem of reality. I think we do not let reality interrupt our theories often enough. We don’t let the events happening in the world disturb our understanding or reading of a theory or our work in general.
This brings with it several problems: one is the question of good reading and the other is the question of stimulation. The third one, namely politics, is embedded in the other two.
To take the point of good reading. Because we engage or interact only rarely with the world outside the academia, we are constantly a couple of steps behind of what we were supposed to be analysing, reading, or changing. Once again James touched this by asking whether we are good enough in reading. I think we are not, because we are not actually reading the contemporary reality, this is: we don’t observe the actual object of our research. The lectures or the seminars only rarely take as their starting point something that has happened recently, or something that is happening – be it a protest against China, elections in London, shootings in New Cross, or financial crisis in the US estate markets. If we mainly engage ourselves with written texts, we are all the time behind of the actual world, because of the time difference between an event and a text. This is above all self-criticism, because after coming here I have virtually stopped following the world. After coming here I have no idea what happened to the trade agreement i was campaigning against for two years. Or I have no clue what the new EU treaty consists of, although I worked on the EU constitution for several years. It is of course mainly my own fault, but it looks like there is not much time, space or enthusiasm for this kind of observing in the academia. John said last time that he feels as if CCS was a refugee for many practitioners or activists, who need a break from their practices or time to reflect, and this is what I think as well, but if this means cutting the links to the practice, it cannot be a good way to be in exile either.
And maybe even more important than the issue of good reading, is the question from where we get the stimulus for our thinking. To link this to what was discussed last week, namely fabulation, speculative thought and minoritarian thinking, I believe that what I call reality is all the time fabulating, speculating and creating unrealistic conditions – in a way that theory is not always possible to do or in a way that theory often does only afterwards. And letting these unbelievable things that happen each day to intrude, intervene and attack our theories, work and thinking would in my opinion stimulate our thinking as much as reading theory, or even fiction. Often these are uncomfortable, unpleasant intrusions – but I guess that is what one calls facing the reality.

So if we would start form here, letting the practice intrude the theory, I think we would not encounter the problem Luciana discussed last week, namely that the theory-practice formula means implementing ready made and simplified concepts or ideas to certain practical needs. Rather it would mean letting the practice open up theory.

But this intrusion has to take place constantly, because otherwise we would end up only co-opting certain moments, events or ways of thinking. If we would allow a constant flow of intrusion and impulses outside of our theoretical frames, we would not end up institutionalising – and in that way killing – everything that seems to be new, innovative or interesting.
Letting the reality interrupt our thinking on a constant basis would of course mean taking risks – also for the teaching staff – because no one can be an expert on what happened just yesterday. But without taking this risk, we run the risk of being institutionalised, conventional, and out of date all the time. In practice this could mean doing different kind of readings or exercises in reading. Last time someone pointed at reading fiction in the seminars, which is a great idea. But since I don’t tend to value fiction over other kind of writings, why not read a draft of a trade agreement (they are maybe not always as much fun, but they are as full of fiction as novels), or a leaflet distributed by a police or a document by goldsmiths’ administration, or a building, or whatever, all those things that we are maybe individually reading but almost never together. This would of course mean that the role of the teacher would need to change. Instead of giving us his or her own reading of a text he or she might have been working on for years, the teacher would read together with us something that is as obscure, foreign or uncomfortable for him or her than it is for us. He or she would bring some analytical skills into the situation rather than an authoritative reading. This would most likely also allow the much-wanted interaction to take place more easily. And it would make it easier to say, that I don’t understand anything (the problem Claudia pointed at last time).
And now to come to the third shortcoming I see in our ways to approach theory is the role we give to individual theorists. This might be difficult to verify, but there seems to be a certain cult – not even of theories, ideas or schools of thought – but of individual theorists, academic super stars. And it might be that in the end this is the biggest hindrance for thinking. Because instead of engaging with the reality, an idea, or a problem, we engage ourselves with the thinking of someone else. At its best this can of course be a fruitful relation where something new occurs, but too often it is making a fetish out of someone else’s ideas. It is also a perfect strategy for making everyone feel that one is not competent to speak before he or she has an MA degree, a PhD, a lectureship or a professorship. I think we should allow ideas to arise just before we think we have understood what this or that theorist meant, not after that, because then the idea is already conditioned by the idea of the other or by the question the other asks. I’m actually dreaming of workshops, seminars or conferences without names. It started as an idea with Yuk of having a seminar where the speakers wouldn’t be announced, but now I’m thinking of academic workshops where one is not allowed to use or refer to any names or theorists. I won’t go further here, because like said the problem is difficult to verify, but maybe what I will say next elaborates on this as well.
So now moving on to my second point, I want to end my provocation with the idea of betrayal. Are we being true to ourselves or to our theoretical ideals? In many ways this links to the already said, but anyway I take it as a separate question. How loyal are we to our own theoretical thinking? If the theories we are reading here (and this is of course only my interpretation of the reading list, and here people might see this differently) if they are all about critique of capitalism, meaning critique of private property, poststructuralism, theories of commons, general intellect, or immaterial labour, networks, collective construction or collective action, the possibilities of politics or communities, postmodernism, interaction, innovations, creativity – if all these are our theoretical starting points: how come that we adore individual theorists (meaning intelligence or ideas as private property), that almost no one writes articles or books together, that most of our workshops or seminars don’t mix post docs and graduates as speakers, that only few people write or act outside the academia, that there is no physical space for encounters or co-operation (the problem discussed last time). Why are we not trying to make our ideas leak out of the CCS, why don’t we participate in public discussion? How come that we are trying to read theorists as carefully as possible instead of creating new meanings, encouraging wrong readings. How come, that we reinforce the myth of individuals, the hierarchies between those who are ready to speak and those who are not, that we are actively reproducing the lack of community in our own work. Could it be that at the same time as we see that our problems are collective (be they climate change, the university administration, neoliberal policies, bureocracy etc), we find it more and more difficult to engage ourselves in doing things together, writing articles together, even discussing together. And is this collective action or work difficult, because it would mean compromising our own individual premises, ideas or values.
I think in the end this all comes back to the question of practice or praxis. I have heard that theory is a form of practice, but to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. Especially if there is no one who cares about whether the theory diffuses or leaks outside itself or the academia. If we do not engage ourselves with the society, the community or even the university, we run the risk of both restricting our own thinking (the question I discussed in the beginning) and not seeing our deeds as part of collective adventures. The challenges are numerous and work on several level. Why are we not fighting college fees? Why are we not opposing the differentiation between oversees students and eu-students? Why are we not discussing the counter terrorism acts taking place at New Cross station? Why are we not fighting against the CCTVs that were just installed in the library? Or if all these are too difficult questions to tackle with, why are we not even demanding that we should be allowed to eat our own food at loafers? Of course some of this might be happening, not in the form of direct action, but in the parasitic way Luciana was discussing last time. Let’s hope it does, but the question still remains how effective this parasitic or camouflaged action can be, if it is something that remains in the realm of individuals, if it is not something that can be joined and done together.
I do understand that there is another approach, an approach where academics have their own distinctive role in the society and where there are others who take their ideas forward and yet others who turn them into practice and so on and so forth – all the way to the distinction between phd students and those who clean our toilets. But for me – coming from an academic environment where doing critical – not to mention – marxist research is anything but fashionable, where it is a stigma rather than an advantage at job markets, where you rather not do it if you really don’t need to, it has been a surprise to see how easy it is to make a difference between theory and action or practice – in a way where practice would intrude theory. Or how little there is actual interest in spreading our intellect or our ideas outside the academia.
But having said all this, it is not meant to be a moralizing attack on us, not to say that we are simply not sound with our values, that we should be better and more ascetic people, and go to the barricades, but rather to think what would make us stronger. Could it be: doing things together, attacking those who don’t agree with us, letting discussion without theorists take place, letting ourselves be confused with ideas, acting, using our general intellect rather than the private ideas of our pet theorists, and above all letting the impulses coming from reality be more essential part of our thinking.