Claiming The Hook

Asaya Plumly / Cultural Studies – 501 Collaboration (Manifesto) / March 14, 2016

Claiming The Hook

Revisiting Praxis

These days, it seems like there’s always questions within the question. For example, from our prompt, “or is collaboration a distraction from the real work of Cultural Studies?” I’m not even caught up on understanding what is the “real work” of Cultural Studies. It is a question which looms large over the head of first year scholars and perhaps others. It’s a question which seems to set itself up to fail. There’s simply too much left assumed within the definition and between the particles. Who, within the ranks of cultural studies is preordained to answer the question? Who defines which words and how? From which social location, I would like to know. If so many Cultural Studies thinkers differ, inherently, on what constitutes “real work,” can the question ever be authentically answered? Assuming, first of all, we agree on a definition of Cultural Studies itself. Six months deep into a cultural studies program, I honestly don’t feel much closer to speaking firmly on any of these questions. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the process of cultural studies. And likewise, this lack of certainty influences the reason cultural studies seems to hang in balance (tension?) of praxis and capitalism so often.

Yet, I am curious about how to confront the role of collaboration within cultural studies without knowing such answers. Then again, I guess that’s why we’re here – fresh minds for rotting ideologies. Cultural Studies, like a good neighbor, demands constant renegotiation. The People of cultural studies benefit from not only self-affirmation but self-reflection as well. Within my brief time studying within Cultural Studies, I have appreciated the space to interrogate power dynamics and social inequalities and often embraced the ambiguous nature which I often associate with cultural studies.  The feeling of beginning a new intellectual journey on a new playing field has often left me challenged and disturbed. In order to make some sense of this relationship, and to get closer at forming an opinion about collaboration, I will return to the beginning to reach the end, as is often the case.

Last quarter, upon completing Formations, I left off contemplating my own position on praxis within Cultural Studies, and indeed within Cultural Studies itself. This is a position I hope to continue tripping back and forth over. However, for the time being, I feel the need to draw a hard line. Praxis, seeming to be such a natural part of the interrogation of systems of domination, doesn’t seem like much of an option as much as it is always already a necessary component of transformation –  institutionally, socially, culturally and otherwise. In my own previous words,

For those of us holding significant amounts of privilege, it’s a process of honestly asking ourselves (as Baldwin challenged us to do) how invested are we in ‘real change’ and how much ‘safety’ are we willing to do without in order to ensure the liberation of the most terrorized peoples among us. Part of this safety means stepping outside the dichotomy of what ‘real change’ looks like and blurring the lines between ‘resistance’ and ‘everyday life’.

Academia stretches us in many ways. As a place that allows, and sometimes encourages, the development of rigorous theory, we can take advantage of the opportunity to consider, what is my position on praxis? Are there “positions” on praxis to be taken or just social locations which inform the amount of praxis you engage in? What can we do with those locations? Are they potential sites of intervention? Admittedly, I’m not to keen on the nuances of the praxis debate within cultural studies. I surmise that the general difference revolves around how much praxis should scholars engage in. Maybe some people say that the role of the cultural studies scholar is purely to imagine the possible sites of intervention, to question what conditions got us to a place requiring intervention? Where does power reside? There it is, now you practitioners, activists go do something about it. Surely it’s more complex.

Cultural studies is like that though. And on purpose I guess. “Theoretical work as interruption,” (Hall, 282) as it were. In elaborating on the tension and the interrogational function of cultural studies, Stuart Hall says, cultural studies “holds theoretical and political questions in an ever irresolvable but permanent tension. It constantly allows the one to irritate, bother, and disturb the other, without insisting on some final theoretical closure” (Hall, 284).  Here, I think Hall informs the field about the nature of praxis and the critical role it can play in legitimizing cultural studies, which he refers to as a ‘project’ not a ‘field.’ Placing “theoretical and political questions in an irresolvable but permanent tension” commits the cultural studies scholar to consider the interlocking relationship between the two and places them in a place of accountability. In a potential misinterpretation of Hall’s AIDS metaphor, if the theory isn’t threatening, then it has left you off the hook. He may have been referring to the tension of being an academic and being emotionally moved by the distance between theory and reality, but either way it seems “the hook” is where one wants to be. Which seems like a spot to aspire for in considering both praxis and collaboration. It at once conjures up the metaphor of danger or trouble, where in typical use of the idiom we would want to be “off” of, as well as, that appealing section of the song which we can’t seem to shake from our head. Can we envision a place within cultural studies that is both dangerous and appealing enough to repeat?

Hall’s use of “the hook,” warrants a two fold question – (1) from which positions/locations does cultural studies pose as a threatening engagement?, and (2) which methods of cultural studies engage us most deeply, unapologetically, unencumbered, uncompromised in that tension?

I think the tension created by intellectual work and critical reflection with the institution probably functions towards demanding creative responses to one extent, and on the other, presents the danger of relying on ‘tensions’ to legitimize our desired social positions. Meaning ‘the tension’ that is so often invoked can be seen a rigorous place of theoretical turmoil, or just as easily can be used as an excuse to be non-committal and content.

In speaking to the positions from which we engage in the “real work” of cultural studies, or the work that keeps us on “the hook,” Meghan Morris (who is not a pluralist) frames “the hook” as the academy, and that it’s sometimes “the academy or the forms of academic institutionalization [that] can drive tension out of people’s work” (Hall, 291). Broadening our understanding of “the hook,” it often seems tied in many ways to a form of economic reliance. If this is true, as is certainly alluded to often enough (the capitalism of scholarly journals, the concept of tenure, the debt of student loans), and in an effort to avoid generalizations to particular circumstances, what are the best ways to stay on “the hook” within the confines of financial agreements? Or how much time can we commit to considering that “real work” might only happen when it’s not “work” at all but the freely chosen use of our “free” time. In other words, the “work” that we make sacrifices elsewhere in order to do. If we want to combat the ephemeral, insubstantial nature of the work, how do we reconcile that with the capitalist conditions under which we live?

The idea of the “real work” of cultural studies is important for me to consider if I am interested in understanding the role of methods and other facets of the cultural studies project. Likewise, thinking about the myriad of constraints and compromises that we sit in and are approaching us at all times, inform the amount of conviction I can give to positioning myself explicitly anywhere, nonetheless, “in relation to the various approaches to collaboration,” as deemed collaborative by cultural studies. To be clear then, I believe the “real work” of cultural studies happens off the clock and on the hook.

Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of Collaboration?

Several of the pieces that we covered this quarter provided perspectives on collaboration in a useful, applicable way. Though many of them were design centered or placed comfortably outside the context of an anti-capitalist agenda they did provide sites of intervention to complicate and expand on. The distinction that I would most comfortably place myself within is being concerned most enthusiastically about collaborations with direct anti-capitalist intentions. Or, in less antagonistic terms, mutual aid, transformative, liberatory methods of collaboration. Either way, collaborations that are honest and unwavering in their decision to engage in collective creative projects, who explicitly seek to undermine capitalist frameworks and also to illuminate alternatives to profit-based economies, are my preference. It’s also my preference to understand the difference between a preference and privilege.

When I consider a few of the readings, I aim to view them through a lens that seeks to connect their success and drawbacks as they relate to furthering a collaboration method that prioritizes an anti-capitalist focus, an emphasis on solidarity, attempts to historicize and a commitment to confronting structural oppression. The methods that are used to achieve, or attempt to achieve, these goals are less important to me than the driving ideology behind them. Three readings stick out to me in terms of adding to an engaged, creative, responsible method of collaboration that can alleviate the distance between theory and practice.

Participatory Action Research presents a concrete example of knowledge production through collaboration in action. The particular example we visited for PAR was between the work of a community-based social action group and a group of women involved in college classes in a New York prison. This story, demonstrates a method towards dealing with the responsibilities of intellectual work in connecting with communities outside of academia and engaging in social justice work. I appreciate the value that this collaborative project placed on both a democratic approach as well as being honest about responsibility and privilege. These seem like essential characteristics to a project aimed at dealing with, if not alleviating, social inequalities.

A key note from the PAR reading is framing of collaboration as “participation with, not only for, community” or “praxis as solidarity” (Fine, et. al., 176). This is a helpful guide for determining the usefulness of collaboration in a cultural studies project. It both highlights the inherent political nature of the project and emphasizes a relationship in continual process. Though under certain circumstances, perhaps a prolonged relationship between participants in a collaboration may not be possible or desirable, I think the principle of solidarity, a deliberately political act of mutual aid and sustained engagement, is necessary as a guiding principle.

The work that the PAR group did within the women’s prison might not have been outright anti-capitalist but it did provide an example of strategic collaborating within an institution designed to dehumanize. By focusing on and strategizing about “emotions at the table,” “issues of power,” “lost bodies,” “audience”, etc. this method was able to create change within an institution and build genuine bonds between groups from distinctly different communities.

Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Ideo.org Focuses On The People In Need, serves as a reminder, a reality check and a source of inspiration to resist conformist, reductionist, Eurocentric approaches to collaboration. The anthropology/design approach that Wyatt and Martin employ reminds me that there are people out in the ‘do-gooder’ world who have possibly good intentions but are somehow removed from self-reflection and the role of capitalism in creating the problems they seek to address. It’s a reality check, or a barometer of sorts, that is helpful to consider the traditional methods and job opportunities that take up the majority of space and air time when looking to engage in collaborative, poverty-alleviation projects.

Speaking of preferences, critiques of traditional methods are often more self-satisfying than actually effective in building on our cultural studies methods. Despite their lack of structural analysis and glossing over of sameness and difference with broad “These were people who were just like me” statements, this article did raise some questions for me – How can we get access to the funding they have? How do we balance working with people whose ideas seem fundamentally different than our own? Is collaboration with such groups worthwhile? What can we learn from their mistakes/approach? I am encouraged to think outside of the easy critique and apply these lessons of this example to collaborative projects I am currently engaged with.

For example, my recently acquired position as the grad student representative to the Diversity Council, provides an opportunity to participate in a system whose goals are at odds with my own but present a complex interaction in exposing unequal power dynamics and attempting to hold those benefiting, most straightforwardly, accountable. The Diversity Council is an example of an attempt to change the structure of an institution from within the institution at the behest of the institution. In order to engage in this collaboration with people who I have no affinity with, in a way that is both in line with my own priorities of radical social justice and maintaining some semblance of mental well being, I need to find a balance between being realistic about the function (and capacity of) this collaboration as well as being unrealistic about challenging the narrative that is often at work within the Council. Understanding my own experiences in collaborative ventures and, particularly, reflecting on my personality role in those collaborations, has been a fruitful part of this quarter.

The collaborative approach that the Swedish folks used in, Co-design methods for designing with and for families, resonated with me. Incorporating and valuing non-traditional methods of project-based designs was encouraging. I appreciated the use of photos and drawings and interview and prioritizing the voices and concerns of the family members. What I really liked though was this line, “Overall, technology was primarily seen as a means for facilitating seeing each other in person. Meals with the whole family were really desirable.” A breath of hope in a suffocatingly screen filled world. How can we direct our efforts at collaboration so that they more closely resemble a family dinner? What are the revolutionary characteristics that are embodied in collaboratively preparing and consuming meals together? How do we bring dinner tables, drawings and “teleporting devices” into our collaborative projects? The focus on a ‘continuous process,’ and ‘playful interaction,’ when applicable, are collaborative characteristics that I would like to call cultural studies-esque. Though that desire to qualify things as ‘cultural studies,’ may simply be those damn ‘preferences’ creeping in again.

In order to better capture the promise and avoid the pitfalls of collaboration, the project of cultural studies must commit itself to fundamental guidelines or shared values. I don’t personally have a huge investment in furthering that discussion with a bunch of scholars. I’d rather focus on my own collaborative priorities and be directed by my own political tendencies and personal, communal influences. For me, there are clear distinctions between what I see pushing towards social upheaval and what I see as maintaining a violent mundaness.

If the field we are talking about is MACS, then the question becomes more reasonable to me. If MACS wants to keep collaboration from becoming a distraction, I think we should be clear about our intentions, be strategic about our options and be honest about the nature of the program. Is MACS a place where collaboration can add to the “diversity” or “transformation” that the university loves to talk about? Can collaboration use those words in a way that adds depth and real life answers to the conditions “diversity” sustains? Can collaboration within MACS push our vision of “transformation” beyond a capitalocentric imaginary?

Cultural studies informs the way and the which I decide to participate in these projects. It highlights the fluidity of identities, relationships and possibilities. With fluidity in mind, I aim to participate in collaboration which adds fuel to the fire and places me on “the hook.” It’s from that vantage point that I can begin to see the “real work” most vividly.

Comparatively, it’s much easier to understand my relation to collaboration from an anarchist perspective. While the self-proclaimed anarchists differ greatly about who is and what is, authentically anarchy, several tenets remain clear in defining a shared declaration – mutual aid, solidarity, direct action are the standard characteristics but can be more nuanced by conversations about hierarchy, self-determination, affinity and desire. When I enter a space, a collaborative one or otherwise, these are topics which are on my mind and ethics that I work to embody. I’m not sure what the cultural studies scholar brings to the collaborative effort beyond a healthy critical lens to consider power through. I think if cultural studies is interested in capturing the promise and avoiding the pitfalls of collaboration, it needs to claim a stake in the game and defend it.

Works Cited

Westerlund, B., Lindqvist, S., Mackay, W., Sundbald, Y., (2003). Co-design methods for designing with and for families. Retrieved from http://www.ub.edu/5ead/PDF/4/westerlund.pdf

Fine, M., Torre M.E. et. al. (2003). Participatory Action Research: From Within and Beyond Prison Bars. Camic, P.M., Rhodes, J.E., & Yardley, L. (Eds.),. Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design (173-197). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hall, S. (1992). Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., & Triechler, P.A. (Eds.), Cultural Studies (277-294). New York: Routledge.

Pastorek, W., (November 12, 2013). Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Ideo.org Focuses On The People In Need. Retrieved from http://www.fastcoexist.com/3020789/change-generation/bringing-design-thinking-to-social-problems-ideoorg-focuses-on-the-people-

 

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