Early (Mostly Abandoned) Version of the Introduction

Published by Ted Striphas on Wed, 05/23/2012 - 15:10

The question ‘what is cultural studies?’ is a vexing one.  It’s vexing because the field – and thus its definitions – shift in relationship to changing geo-historical circumstances.  Cultural studies is apt to look and behave differently in this here and now compared to that one.  And while this resistance to definitional closure has been a boon theoretically, analytically, and politically, it has proven to be frustrating as well.  Ask anyone who’s ever taught or taken a class on cultural studies, or tried to explain the field to one’s relatives.  Because cultural studies is always becoming, it’s always on the verge of becoming an enigma.  So much of what the field is depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.  The assumptions one makes about the meaning of the word ‘what’ have a similar effect.  The field shifts depending on whether one chooses to emphasize key figures, main ideas, core texts, or crude matter.  So, for example, one can focus on the intellectual leadership of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham during the 1960s and 70s.  The university’s redbrick facades tell another story, however, about Birmingham’s distance from Oxford, Cambridge, and other time-honored institutions of higher learning built out of stone.  That the Birmingham Centre was housed in a Quonset hut on the periphery of the Birmingham campus adds another twist to the story.[1]


When Stuart Hall says that ‘cultural studies is not one thing; it has never been one thing,’ it seems useful, therefore, to adopt as capacious a sense of the ‘what’ of cultural studies as possible.[2]  Indeed the field is not only many positions but also many things, not least of which are the material forms in and through which it finds embodiment.  Cultural studies is people, places, words, and ideas, but it is also, and in no small part, stuff.  Thus it’s no surprise to find friends and critics all noting the monumental size of the Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler Cultural Studies anthology.  ‘The doorstop,’ as it’s sometimes known, is often taken as a sign that cultural studies arrived in the early 1990s – its content (almost) notwithstanding.[3]  The same rarely can be said about the field’s less conspicuous publications, however, even though they too offer perspective on what cultural studies was or is, or where it should be going.


The primary focus of this essay is on the writing and publication practices that developed in and around the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from the time of its founding in 1964 until the cessation of the journal Working Papers in Cultural Studies, arguably its chief publication, in the late 1970s.  Through our engagement with these practices, we want to develop an approach to the question ‘what is cultural studies?’ that is historical, speculative, and above all, materialist.  It is historical insofar as it revisits the ‘moment’ of Birmingham, albeit from the perspective of its serial publications – particularly those that are lesser-known.  It is speculative to the extent that we hope to build upon these historical traces and make some arguments for the ways in which textual production in cultural studies might be reformulated to allow for more productive engagements with the contemporary conjuncture.  Our approach is materialist, finally, because we want to de-emphasize the conceptual and biographical aspects of the work that took place at the Centre – the content, as it were – and to underscore instead the form and function of that work.


What this amounts to, essentially, is ‘a trip “below decks” into the “boiler room” which was to become Cultural Studies,’ as Hall has recently described it.[4]  Beyond all the rows, beyond all the major works and their intellectual history lies a more mundane but no less important story to be told about Birmingham, and about cultural studies more generally.[5]  This is a story about the instruments with which, and the infrastructure through which, cultural studies developed at the Centre and seeped out into the world.  At its heart is the category ‘gray literature,’ which is a term from library and information science referring to pamphlets, conference proceedings, reports, white papers, newsletters, and other types of fugitive documents that lack high production values, the endorsement of blind peer review, or both.  Gray literature may be academic, but typically its scholarly authority is in doubt.  Also central to our story is process, or rather a range of writing, duplication, and publication practices that come to be condensed under the heading of ‘working.’  Our argument is that the success of the Birmingham Centre is attributable not only to the intellectual content of the work produced there in the 1960s and 70s but also, and in no small part, to the copious amounts of gray literature through which it circulated.


Given how the present moment is one marked by debates and struggles at the intersection of knowledge production, intellectual property and labour,[6] we believe that reconstructing this earlier moment might help to remind those of us currently working in cultural studies that the modes of research, writing and publication that are dominant today (namely those forms that favour the single author and the discrete, properly credentialed text) were not always the only, or even the primary, forms of work that mattered.  As we will argue in the conclusion, recovering the history of diverse forms of textual production identified with an earlier incarnation of cultural studies gives some precedence for allowing – perhaps even embracing – a much greater diversity of those forms today.  While we develop this history in relationship to particular forms of writing, mainly the working paper, we do not see this as being about different kinds of outcomes per se (e.g., the working paper versus the monograph).  Rather, we would like to position this essay as an invitation to consider the ways in which different modes of writing might relate to different forms of scholarly knowledge production as well a different understanding of how individual scholars relate to the institutional contexts within which they work.

[1] Cite Hall, Larry; also cite Frow and Morris.

[2] Cite Hall, emergence of cultural studies, 11.

[3] Cite CS volume; Seigworth Banality for, but note how we’ve heard this used orally far more; Jameson review.

[4] CITE Hall, Preface to WPCS 2 volume anthology, p. xi.

[5] Cite Hall, EMERG CS p 11; Brunsdon Theif in Night p. 278, 280.

[6] CITES.