The Bloch Series #1: Peter Thompson on Bloch, Marxism and Religion


Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain – Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.


Nyx: Ernst Bloch stands firmly in the Marxist tradition and was named the philosopher of the October Revolution. I’d like to begin by asking you why the Bolshevik event was ascribed to Bloch in this particular manner; what does this tell us about Bloch’s philosophy?

PT: When you say that he stands firmly in the Marxist tradition then I have to ask what you mean by the “Marxist tradition”. What he did once say was that – and I think this was a sort of nod to Marx’s own position on whether he was a Marxist or not — he didn’t know what he was but he did know that he wasn’t a non-Marxist. His attitude to being a Marxist was of a piece with his attitude to Marxism itself in that he was very firmly of the opinion that it should be just one theoretical approach alongside lots of others. He did, of course, give it primacy alongside those other theoretical and philosophical approaches but when you read Ernst Bloch you can see he is very clearly also laced with Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Spinoza and Hegel – of course, above all Hegel. He goes back to Aristotle and Avicenna and also stretches forward to look at what we mean when we talk about a socialist/communist future and how it will emerge from present circumstances interacting with future possibilities. Too much of the “Marxist tradition” was, for him, a closed and hermetically sealed system and he was in favour of “open system” Marxism. I think there is much to be learned from him in this regard.

As far as being the philosopher of the October Revolution, as Oskar Negt called him, then this too is less than straightforward. For thinkers of that generation, the October Revolution came along as a shining beacon at the end of the First World War and many threw themselves into supporting it while it was still fresh. If one thinks of the Arab Spring today and the waves of perhaps unrealistic optimism that it unleashed in many of us, then you get some sense of the mood of the period in addition, of course, this event — in Badiou’s sense — was led by an explicitly Marxist revolutionary party. It is questionable that at the time, however, Bloch was even a Marxist. He was still heavily influenced by both eschatological religious thought and, paradoxically, a sort of Nietzschean vitalism. If you read the first edition of Spirit of Utopia from 1918, that comes across very strongly. I think it is important to remember that the First World War had a sort of apocalyptic feeling to it for many intellectuals and for Bloch, the end of that war seemed like the beginning of something very new.

What we ended up with of course is what Tony Kaes has called a “shellshocked society”, especially Germany, where the failure of the revolution in Russia to spark over into central and western Europe led to the disaster which was fascism. At the same time the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution also meant that it descended into bureaucratic Stalinism in which the defence of the Soviet Union became the only international duty of the Communist movement. This subordination of hope and openness towards the possibilities of revolution in the future to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy went against everything that Bloch stood for. However, he also maintained a belief, until well into the 1950s that the Soviet Union needed to be defended, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t. We also have to remember that as a Jewish, Marxist, Communist intellectual in Germany in the 1930s he was forced to take sides in a way that is difficult to comprehend today. The question for critical Marxists back then was “how do I support the Soviet Union without supporting Stalinism?”

There is also a historical dimension to this in that Bloch did not want to be like those supporters of the French Revolution of the 18th-century who ran away as soon as the blood started to flow and, more importantly, when the establishment of the Bonapartist state replaced the revolutionary fervour of the initial period, and who then threw their hands up in horror. It was Hegel who maintained his support for the revolution even after it had descended into Bonapartism and he welcomed Napoleon as “the World Spirit on horseback”. Bloch did not go as far as that but there was a certain degree of congruence there. “Freedom comes on the tracks of a T-34” would be the 20th Century equivalent. After his years of exile in the United States — not in the Soviet Union you notice – he returned to Germany and took up the post of Professor of Philosophy in the GDR in Leipzig. Again, like many other leftist intellectuals of the time, he thought that the new GDR would be the better of the two states and that socialism might be realised on German soil for the first time. Of course, he soon fell out of favour with the Party as the state became more and more subordinated to the interests of what was now an entirely bureaucratized regime in Moscow.

Bloch’s Open System was diametrically opposed to Stalinisation and he soon became the leading philosophical figurehead behind a democratic communist movement in East Germany. So, to come back to the original question, Bloch is not so much the philosopher of the October Revolution as he is the philosopher of what the October Revolution might have become. Again this fits in philosophically with his general approach which sees history not simply as a series of events but as something which carries within it all sorts of lost opportunities, traces of unrealised potential and sparks and dreams of future possibilities. This is why he talks of the “ontology of not yet being” as the central philosophical expression of our time. In other words, the process of the fermentation of world history will throw up all sorts of strange constructs that have to prove themselves in the world and we have to try to come to terms with them within what he calls the “darkness of the lived moment”. As we experience today, it is not always easy to get it right.

Nyx: In volume one of The Principle of Hope Bloch discusses what he conceptualises as the cold and warm streams in Marxism. What does each stream indicate for Bloch, and how are they related?

PT: Of course this relates back to the previous question. For Bloch, cold stream Marxism was the way in which revolutionary and workers’ parties were forced to deal with “that which is possible” – Aristotle’s Kata to dynaton – whereas warm stream Marxism relates to “that which might become possible” — Aristotle’s Dynamei on. For example, in Heritage of our Times from 1934 he recognises that the Communist Party was partly responsible for the rise of fascism because it concentrated on cold stream questions and did not offer any sort of warm stream possibilities. You will find very little socio-economic analysis in his work because he took Marxist economic theory as a given. What he was more interested in was the way in which we understand both the utopian moments we constantly experience as well as our dreams for the future. The cold stream merely provided the solid ground in which our dreams could take root and flourish. Of course, this inability or unwillingness to deal with socio-economic questions is, for me, one of the greatest weaknesses in his work and I think a far greater appreciation of the dialectical interplay between the cold stream and the warm stream would have served him much better. It is also what we need today.

Nyx: Bloch draws attention to the fact that many Marxists after Marx took what the latter said of religion in a very narrow sense, distorting its significance. How does Bloch revive the depth of what Marx thought about religion?

PT: He often quotes Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge from 1843, where he says that we are not starting a new project, but realising the dreams which humanity has always had. Of course, given that human history had and still has always been influenced if not dominated by religious thought, then it is absolutely necessary to understand properly what religion actually stands for. The full quote from Marx is that religion is the heart of a heartless world and the sigh of the oppressed creature and that the flowers of religion and ideology have to be plucked from the chains of oppression so that the chains become clear. What Ernst Bloch does it is to look at nature of the flowers that we have used to hide our oppression and to see whether there are any blossoms there that can be used for both the breaking of chains as well as the establishment of a new and different world beyond exploitation and oppression.

Whereas most Marxists, and indeed most rationalists, tend to think you can just throw away the flowers, Bloch believes that they actually tell us something important about both our current psychology as well as our dreams for the future. He had no time for people who saw religious belief as a simple “delusion”. One always has to ask what form this delusion takes and why and, more importantly, whether it is actually useful in helping us to understand what we really want. For example, he says that the idea of the “withering away of the state” in Engels is actually a description of the cultural and psychological changes which have to happen in order for one to really be able to fully love ones neighbour. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” – which sums up Marx’s view (in the Gotha Programme) of what a future communist society would look like — is, in the end, a religious idea with a long history. What he also pointed out constantly was that the best thing about religion was that it created heretics. If we look in his book Atheism in Christianity, we find quite clearly that attitudes to Jesus separate into two different categories: those who see him as the son of God and are therefore on the side of authority and control through the church, and those who see him as the son of man and who are therefore on the side of man against authority and oppression. So, even though he was an atheist he was constantly asking how we might maintain the liberationist Christ impulse after the death of God.

We can see from this how his ideas about religion became very influential in the 1960s and 70s amongst liberation theologists. This is the reason, for example, that one finds his works translated more into Spanish than into English. Bloch saw religion, or rather the religious impulse, as belonging to the warm stream of the Marxist tradition. Rather than trying to destroy religion (rather than church authorities) in some sort of crazed hyper-rationalist frenzy, it was necessary to harness its power for the purposes of liberation. In Atheism in Christianity, he also points out that the descent of the workers movement into Stalinism was very much like the descent of the Christian message of liberation into the Catholic Church, in which the son of man was replaced by the son of God. The parallels are quite clear I think.

Nyx: Finally, you’re currently writing a monograph on the contemporary relevance of Marx; I wonder, though, what you think the contemporary relevance of Bloch is for Marxist theory.

PT: Openness.

Marxism, if it is to survive at all, must stop being a set of dogmas and must become an open system that is prepared to engage fully with all those interested in the abolition of oppression and ignorance. I am not saying that Marxism must give up the fight for ideological clarity in favour of some sort of post modernist theoretical egalitarianism — some truths are more equal than others, after all — but it must be prepared to admit that it might not have all the answers. I open my book on Marx with the statement that Marxism is the depleted uranium of political philosophy in that its hard-headed ideological clarity cuts through the cant and hypocrisy of bourgeois liberalism but at the same time it has no fire left to melt the frozen ground of the dialectic. The only way in which Marxism will be able to play a role in future political developments is for it to get out of the snowglobe of its own doctrinal discussions and engage with real people and their real concerns. In many ways we are back in 1934, where forces who speak dangerous rubbish, but speak it to the people — history, the first time as tragedy, the second time as Farage – are winning out over those who speak sense, but only about things. Anyone who has sat in endless Marxist conferences is well aware of the limitations of this.

Peter Thompson is Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies and Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on the history of the German workers’ movement, German politics and philosophy and recently co-edited, with Slavoj Žižek, The Privatization of Hope. Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, (Duke University press, 2013).


Interview with the 7×8 Kuratoren Collective

Nyx, a Noctournal interviews the 7×8 Kuratoren collective.  7×8 is an international group of curators and artists formed in 2013 in the cities of Vienna and Budapest.  Responses are provided by Ya’el Santopinto, Roberta Palma, Ashlee Conery,  Kimi Kitada, Ho Leng, and Jordana Franklin.

7X8 Kuratoren is a multi-national collective of curators formed during an 8 week project exploring the contemporary art scene in Vienna and Budapest.  These 8 weeks are now long past, but as a collective you still  ‘wish to continue to examine the edges of contemporary curatorial practice’. What are these edges? More  specifically how do you view the changing set of relations between curators and audiences, curators and artists, curators and art spaces?

For 7X8, curation is itself an endlessly evolving set of relationships. It is a practice set, always and inextricably, by the shifting horizons against which it finds itself. For 7X8, these horizons are marked by deinstitutionalization, increasingly informal gallery structures, and the unstoppable and widespread dissemination of curating as a method across disciplinary boundaries. As a collective entity, 7X8 has worked to explore these shifting edges through event- and exhibition-based explorations of political activism, radical archival practices, public realm interventions and other interfaces with music, street art, collecting practices and participatory models. In the face of the dissolution of traditional roles, it is the unique responsibility of the curator to be constantly engaged in the reinvention of her practice. She may be called upon to become a translator, interpreter, critic, activist or archivist at any moment. This demand to be a nimble practitioner signals, for 7X8, the growing relevance of collective curatorial practices. A changing horizon demands a multiple set of approaches, a process that embraces and makes visible conflict and dissent, and a series of iterative, laboratory-style experiments on the ever-expanding boundaries of curatorial practice.

(Ya’el Santopinto)


Recently a visitor to the Perez Art Museum, Miami, smashed a $1 million Ai Weiwei vase in apparent protest at the gallery not showcasing  local artwork. Do you  think the protest raised important issues or was it more reactionary and sensationalist?  In your experience of the contemporary art scenes in Vienna and Budapest, what were the relations between the cities, venues and local  artists?

Whether it was a sensational act or an extreme action, coming from a deep discontent, it raises a couple of questions impossible to ignore for art observers. To run over some of them, this act of destruction and, at the same time, imitation, makes me think that maybe museums are often perceived like cathedrals, where artworks represent idols, something sacred and untouchable that have to be contemplated. Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases expresses the willingness to overtake this belief, even when we look at ancient art.  But, as Ai Weiwei’s own photo series ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ is said by the artist ‘to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm’, the protester unwillingly provokes a short circuit by protesting against protest art.

This makes me think of what happened last week at the Uffizi, Florence. A young Spanish boy got naked in a sort of adoration in front of Botticelli’s Spring, then he asked to the policeman if someone had recorded him. In a superficial and overstated way, this guy raises the question: how are we expected to react in front of art? The press underlines the sensationalistic and economic aspect of art in order to catch people’s attention. A couple of months ago, millions of people went crazy for Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring exhibited here in Italy, just because of its popularity. Does anyone know that you can see Caravaggio’s works for free inside churches in Rome? We have lost the safety-critic distance from art, and is not an easy task for museums to build a good relation with territory and represent, at the same time, the globalised art world. Vienna is a good example in this practice, because the city has an entire district dedicated to museums and art spaces. It means that, from the Mumok to the Quartier21, big exhibitions of international artists as well as temporary projects made by young curators could find their own space. The Museum Quarter is placed in the city centre, so its also a public space. Nonetheless, not every city has the chance to dedicate this amount of funding and spaces to art. In Budapest, for example, public institutions are suffering for lack of resources and, I had the feeling that, this encourages non- institutional spaces to take care of the local art scene, increasing art activities and creating a more direct relationship with local artists and citizens

(Roberta Palma)


                                                        Letting My Hair Grow.  Marlene Haring (credit).

Should an Ai Weiwei vase ever be valued at $1 million?

Ai Weiwei’s colourful Han Dynasty vases are not worth a million dollars. With only a little digging one discovers that the police invented the number with the help of museum security staff. The number was a placeholder required for making a conviction and the curatorial staff were not actually consulted for this early evaluation. Leann Standish, deputy director at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, where the vase was smashed during an ongoing retrospective of Ai Weiwei’s work, confirmed that ‘they will most likely determine that the vase is worth much less’. Ai Weiwei himself commented to the press that the million-dollar price tag was ‘a very ridiculous number’. The New Yorker’s Ben Mauk, raised a valuable point in relation to the event: art critics/media used to be focus on the art, the introduction of new styles, schools and themes by contemporary artists. Now, he suggested, ‘it is the phenomenon of art as investment that seems to interest readers’ and therefore garners the attention of the media. The value of art is indisputably abstract, fabricated by a series of rumours and well-placed validations by those in the upper echelons of the art world. The art market has successfully run for hundreds of years without the checks and balances one might expect for deals ranging in the millions. Most have come to accept, and even revel in, the mystery of it all. However, Mauk suggests a truly distressing cultural indifference toward the value of art in society. That at present the public expresses little interest in what art commemorates about our lives and notices only what it earns in our lifetime.

(Ashlee Conery)


                                                         Very Expensive Push Broom. Mark Wagner

7×8 Kuratoren was formed, in part, in Vienna. In your  opinion, what is the most important legacy of the Vienna Actionists?

In 1970, after his cruel action Zerreissprobe, Gunter Brus was compelled to interrupt his auto-destruction project, because it became too much for his family and himself. Then, he found the practice of the Bild-Dichtung (an ensemble of poetry and image) as the natural continuation of his art. For Austrian art history, it wasn’t easy to recognise and officialise the importance of Viennese Actionism, but today, it represents an unquestionable – and sometimes cumbersome – historical condition for contemporary artists. Anyway, we should consider that contemporary art has inherited the radicalism of Actionism together with its limits. Today it is still not easy to show a video of Gunter Brus without any shocking reaction, while we are more comfortable with photos and stills images. I would say that one of the legacies of Actionism is the importance of gesture and the subversive value of action (theatrical and ritual) in art. Gesture – unlike language – has the ability of showing us our life, without the safe distance, lies or interpretation that are used to filter words and images. Viennese Actionists used this feature, together with body exploration, and pushed it to the extreme limit of audience expectation. Contemporary artists have now to reflect on what part of this drastic art could still survive in our society. We still have lots of taboos, but we are also surrounded by pornography, we are accustomed to be shocked by art, but we still need to find everyday stronger impulses to make us reflect on society and sexuality. Actionism represents an historical requirement for artists about where to move on to and discover new modalities of communication – overtaking and reflecting on what today is not a scandal any more.

(Roberta Palma)

                                                        Touch Cinema. Valie Export. 1968

The Hungarian artist and Bauhaus Professor, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, stated that ‘the experience of space is not the privilege of the gifted few, but a biological function’. In view of this, to what extent is curatorial practice the production and arrangement of the experience of space by a privileged and gifted few? And do you think that the everyday, biological experience of space is somehow excluded from the qualified space of art?

Curatorial practice can be defined by a number of key elements such as the audience, space, and artwork. The constructed space of an exhibition compels the viewer to engage immediately in the biological function of “looking” and other senses become secondary in that instant. The production and arrangement of contemporary art often becomes an experience for the “privileged and gifted few” when some exhibitions create a dialogue with art historical precedents, establish a complex conceptual framework, or the interpretive wall text is written in academic language and contemporary art jargon. In this sense, the biological experience of the space is shared among the viewers, but the levels of perception and comprehension may vary depending on the personal lens of the individual.

Recently, as museums have shifted focus more heavily on the audience and attracting a wider public, a number of strategies have attempted to address the limited demographic of the museum-going public, or the so-called privileged few. In mainstream museums over the past several years, the influx of large-scale participatory works – Carsten Höller: Experience at New Museum (2011-2012); Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012); Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored infinity rooms at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2012) and David Zwirner Gallery (2013) – prompts viewers to interact with an artwork on a full-body, more physical level. In light of this trend toward participation and interactivity, the biological experience of space becomes a collective experience and in a way, democratizes the space and provides a point of accessibility for the larger public. Moreover, by utilizing social media platforms, some museums  have incorporated voices of the audience into the didactic wall panels to establish a relatable, intelligible tone from their fellow visitors. These strategies are by no means a solution to expanding the museum-going audience, but they are an effective step in the direction of creating an open and inclusive space for experiencing contemporary art.

(Kimi Kitada)

Q5Kimi-Kusama(credit-Courtesy Steven Meidenbauer(
Yayoi Kusuma.  Courtesy of Steven Meidenbauer (

Given that the 1920s avant-garde –particularly the Russian Constructivists – attempted to incorporate art into everyday life, and thus attempted to repeal the bourgeois conception of art as an autonomous domain- a conception active since roughly the French Revolution -, and given that this attempt failed, since the everyday life of commodity consumption ultimately acculturated art to the imperatives of mass production and exchange, have we come full circle? That is, following Adorno, might we best assert an autonomous place for art, even if, as Adorno also says, this is a somewhat fetishistic gesture?

Your question reads of a familiar text from the content of Adorno’s letters to Benjamin from 1935 to 1938.  Such a distinction between an autonomous and contemporary conception of art could be perceived as a political gesture by artists, whose legacies harnessed art-making associated with their relationship to society.  Quoting from Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, “[…] the map is closed, but the autonomous zone is open. Metaphorically it unfolds within the fractal dimensions invisible to the cartography of Control.” Hakim’s idea clearly defines the Bauhaus school, which drew modernistic values from Russian constructivism, to the manufacturing of ordinary homeware products, to German architectural style – ‘the international style’ as we know. It’s functional, pragmatic and minimalistic quality is still being implemented in most of the world’s apartment blocks and public housing blueprints. The consumer culture will never cease; it is the heart of our civilization now. We cannot escape the fact that we need to consume everyday, whether it is for basic needs or one’s superficial lifestyle. I do not agree that art in everyday life has come to a standstill after post-constructivism, which in turn, the 21st century has produced a stewardship of contemporary artists whose works are not just representational but ideological and intervention based. Of course, the reproduction of art or medium used today is neither new, in terms of techniques and craftsmanship, nor the appreciation of art is only meant for the bourgeoisie. However, if we were to look at Takashi Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton, which won him ‘fame and notoriety as an artist who blurs the line between ‘high art’ and commercialism’, one may speculate that artistic practices are driven by popular culture. We could argue that the polysemy of art has evolved the commodity into its own realm of popular culture by artists –Andy Warhol, the Bauhaus School, Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki (just to name a few)– who had/ have the means of an atelier system. The expropriation of art contains no boundaries from a productionist’s consciousness to the epoch of a consumer society. As Adorno wrote in his letter, ‘The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness’. This extraordinary fecundity of the commodity-self in art stands as testimony for the desire of our social transition as the modernity-self – whose indulgence of being ‘cool’ is in subsuming art in the seduction of capitalism.

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” as Andy Warhol famously said. “Making money is art and working is art and having good business is the best art.”

(Ho Leng)

‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’. (

What’s more important during an exhibition launch: viewing  artwork, networking or neither?

In a special issue of the journal PUBLIC devoted to the study of “scenes,” author Alan Blum posits whether a city can have a thriving arts scene in the absence of local artistic production. Blum’s question compels us to consider the role of art in creating personal attachments.

As a gallery director, I believe that both networking and art viewing are integral to a successful launch (at least in part because connections alone do not cover the gallery’s overhead.) And while I would hesitate to create a hierarchy, I believe it’s worth noting that people are drawn to openings by the promise of one of these two activities and upon arrival, will often experience both.

However, we also must ask what types of connections are being formed at exhibition launches. Two Toronto-based artists recently endeavoured to stimulate conversations that go beyond the pleasantries passed at art openings by converting the front room of their home into a gallery space. Visitors are greeted by their warm hosts, a cup of tea, and a comfortable seating area, all of which provoke longer and deeper discussions than those that occur at formal launches. Consequently, it would appear that while both are important, more could be done to better facilitate the networking component.

(Jordana Franklin)


Chris Walsh Opening.

Cultural Studies Occasional #2: Steve Hanson


In the second of our Cultural Studies Occasional series, Nyx catches up with Steve Hanson. Steve is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and the University of Salford. We forego the usual interview format with Steve providing a sort of monologue about what he terms an ‘idiosyncratic geography of cultural studies’. It weaves together place and personal biography with the figures and texts of cultural studies: Hoggart, Hall, Williams and Said via Halifax, Hereford and New Cross.

My journey through British Cultural Studies is also a real set of journeys in Britain. The subject is meshed with some of the places I have inhabited – there’s a geography of British Cultural Studies which is crucial to how I think through the subject. But also, I can’t think of British Cultural Studies as an isolated island either. It is wrapped up with the history of British art schools, for instance, and this is crucial to the way I think about it and this island I live on. It ties in with other ‘schools’ and traditions, and continental movements and philosophies, and ‘diasporic’ cultures.

For instance, I worked in Halifax for a long time and E.P. Thompson once lived there. I discovered that Ralph Rumney, later of the Situationist International, who lived with Pegeen Guggenheim, ran away from his strict clergyman father in Halifax and lived with Thompson there for a while. He’d been grassed on for getting de Sade out of Halifax library. Later, he went to Paris and met Debord. That little biographical detail is such a massive historical juncture for me. There’s still such a lot which remains unexplored in relation to those figures. And personally, I think of the little places they were from, or inhabited, as a kind of map of my own brain and ‘experience’, to use a very Raymond Williams term. Provincial, often grim Halifax. I spent so much time there, but there’s this strong crossroads of the British left and art school traditions, moving into Paris and the avant garde and anti-art movements like the S.I., and they can be accessed by thinking about these brief moments in these supposedly ‘nowhere’ places.

Jeff Nuttall was around there too, in Halifax, involved with Dean Clough, and in Bradford and Todmorden. For me, the shifts in British art school education can’t be viewed as separate from the shifts in British Cultural Studies or the arrival of ‘theory’ from the continent. Jeff taught me briefly. E.P. Thompson was travelling all around those places as a WEA [Workers Education Association] lecturer – another part of the story and geography, the WEA – and he tried to unearth old communists in the area. But Ralph Rumney in E.P. Thompson’s house, a brief time in one place, speaks to all those larger narratives. Someone should make a film about those brief days, in that house. Can you imagine? We could even start to cast it, to pick actors. Apparently, when Rumney was on the run from Peggy Guggenheim, Jacques Lacan had him ‘sectioned’ to allow him to escape, and gave him a greenhouse to paint in. Just think about all that.

I went to art school – actually I went several times, I seemed to need it – that was the only way to get time to develop for us after school. It was factory work or supermarket work, or sign on and sign up for a course. Or those seemed to be the only options then and there. By a total coincidence, I eventually ended up teaching in the art school in Hereford for five years – as a Cultural Studies lecturer – where Jeff Nuttall was a student, he actually ended up marrying his painting teacher from Hereford. So much of that landscape speaks to my understanding of British Cultural Studies, but also how for me I’ve fused my understanding of it with some perhaps more art school influenced and continental things.

I moved to Abergavenny and commuted to Hereford, because Jeff’s old jazz band still played Sunday gigs there. And I wanted the ‘otherness’ of Wales if I’m honest. I realised shortly after relocating, that down the road were Raymond Williams’s birth and burial places, Pandy and Clodock church. A friend of mine, John Percival, had Williams’s own copy of Long Revolution, it had his sticker in the front. He brought it out to the pub once. The local bookshop were given some of his volumes to sell, after Williams died in 1988, and John had picked them up for pence. It was just ordinary, there and then.

Williams begins ‘Culture is Ordinary’ with Hereford Cathedral and the Mappa Mundi which were only a short walk from the site I taught at in Hereford. [1] So I used to give students ‘Culture is Ordinary’, after the entry on ‘Culture’ from Keywords, and walk them over to the cathedral to read the opening sections of it. It was one way to try to make what they were getting immediately relevant. It was still possible to get a bus towards Wales from there, but not really down the same route. The Hereford new road had eclipsed the Hereford old road, there’s an old bridge and new bridge too now, and the road speaks volumes about Williams’s concerns and his rather clunky terms like ‘mobile privatisation’. I did walk the old road many times though, thinking about the journey in ‘Culture is Ordinary’. The new and old road stand as a metaphor for the old left Cultural Studies practitioners, and the next generation, coming through via Stuart Hall, and those increasingly concerned with cultural speed-up and media. Of course, there’s a shift away from the dogmatic Lukacsian focus on ‘class consciousness’ here too, and towards a more flexible, yet no less left wing take on culture, in the new left’s turn to Gramsci.

As you can see, the way I think is often via these almost occult inner maps, via the places and details and biographies and historical accidents I know about. What I am saying here is that I have my own Mappa Mundi of British Cultural Studies, and the territories it is linked to. Williams drops that arcane object, the Mappa Mundi, into the start of ‘Culture is Ordinary’ very purposefully. He’s making a new, big map of Culture. These maps have to be, like the Mappa Mundi, redrawn constantly, and they will always be perhaps twenty percent objective and eighty percent subjective.

I got the train from Abergavenny to Hereford most days for five years, to teach Cultural Studies in the art school, and the signal box flashes past – it must be the box from Border Country, there’s only one – but what one notices is that it’s full of electronic lights and wiring now. This obscure box and the new road to Hereford became key to the way I thought about borders and the way they’d shifted, and therefore it altered my relationship to Williams’s work.

But I risk looking like a provincial bumpkin here. The link between Williams’s Border Country and Edward Said’s work, thinking through borderlands and culture and conflict, is stitched into this landscape too. I’m not sure who it was – it might have been Jonathan Rutherford – who said that Said’s being a New Yorker and Palestinian, everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, inside some important discourses and yet in so many ways just anybody, mapped on to Williams’s subject position, and my own.

When I got to Goldsmiths to do an MA in 2003, I discovered there was a Richard Hoggart building and that Hoggart had inscribed books in the library, such as the hardback copy of McLuhan’s Counterblast – I guessed that it was sent back to Goldsmiths during his UNESCO days – and all of this seemed right somehow, and somebody maybe better take that book out of the library now.

That book and place seemed to be further important points on this map of mine. And of course McLaren and Westwood were there and King Mob and Linton Kwesi Johnson, et cetera. The place is also framed in so many ways by British Art school genealogies, as well as genealogies from territories geographically off the island. If you talked to Les Back, I bet he’d take you straight to Croydon from here.

None of my monologue really says much that’s substantive about the work of any of those thinkers. But the key thing I want to communicate here is that it is through ordinary people and places that I think about the thinkers. I don’t think through these places via supposedly ‘lofty’ theorists, and of course there’s something of the so- called ‘inversion’ of Hegel done by Marx in this, even though Hegel isn’t quite hung all the way round to dry.

All my work has since moved away from the ‘Cultural Studies’ teaching I used to get paid for, and still sometimes do – in art schools specifically – and into looking at small towns and what used to be called Community Studies.

I miss teaching Cultural Studies in art schools all the time actually. But what I wanted to communicate here was the perhaps idiosyncratic way I think through these traditions, rather than saying anything about the way the subject is moving, which I’m sure others can do better in any case. I know that British Cultural Studies is being refigured, friends of mine like David Wilkinson are rolling their sleeves up to do exactly that.

But all of this is why, for me, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ has not really been eclipsed as a starting point for British Cultural Studies. I gave a seminar on it last week. I could also talk about the significance of 1958, the year it came out, alongside other developments, and how I map that out, but that’s maybe for later. I think that ‘Culture is Ordinary’ is still the best starting point for learning about or working in British Cultural Studies. And of course it needs to be gendered, coloured through, rendered complex – and it has been, actually.

‘Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact’, and through all the changes to come, through all the nuancing and re-figuring of the subject, which has to happen, we must hold to that, even if everything else has to go. What I’ve said here has tried to exemplify the ordinariness of thinking required to do that.

[1] The Mappa Mundi is a 13th Century map inscribed on calf-skin in Hereford Cathedral. It depicts the known and the imagined world.

Cultural Studies Occasional #1: David Wilkinson


This is the first of our occasional interview series exploring cultural studies research and practice outside Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies.  Nyx met up with David Wilkinson, a Research Assistant at the University of Reading.  In this interview David calls for a return to cultural materialism, particularly that of Raymond Williams, and discusses his own research into sexuality and punk.  

The interview was conducted by Mark Rainey and took place in a ‘pop-up’ bar in front of Gypsy Hill station, London.

Mark Rainey: This is a short question – how do you define cultural studies?

David Wilkinson: Cultural studies is, or it should be, a political intervention by left intellectuals on questions of culture.  That is its history and this is a history that I don’t think is looked at with enough detail nowadays.  If the political commitment isn’t there, then it is not cultural studies, really.  I also think that it’s original aims of democratising culture and making it relevant are still crucial to a definition of cultural studies.

MR:  It’s the political aims that define it for you.  But what are those political aims?

DW: The analysis of culture as ‘lived’ within society.  The analysis of how it is economically produced.  And the connection between culture and consumer capitalism.   That’s a massive aspect of cultural studies.  There is also all the advances in looking at the questions of race, gender, sexuality and class and of course colonialism and post-colonialism.

MR: You’re currently working in a history department.  Can you give a brief outline of your research?

DW: We find refuge where we can, don’t we?  I always liked history, but I never thought I would be a ‘history academic’.  I’m not really.  I’m doing cultural studies.

I’m working as a research assistant for a historian who is writing a history of punk.  But my angle on it is sexuality and punk.  I did my PhD on the post-punk era and the New Left and libertarian-left strand in post-war British culture.   It was on how this strand fell into the post-punk moment –  what the politics of it all were, at the moment that Thatcherism, new conservatism and the new right were on the rise and what the hell kind of thing came out of all that, if you like.  There were a lot of issues coming out of that, including class and gender.  But I never got around to sexuality, so that is where I’ve got to now.

MR: You’ve said you’re doing cultural studies and that cultural studies is defined by its political aims.  What are the political aims of doing research on sexuality and punk?

DW: It’s almost a subcultural question, that.  Where is counter-culture now and where is gay subculture?  Where do they find themselves and what are the issues confronting them?  What are the political and cultural issues?  You can find answers to those questions by looking back at punk.  It’s quite a critical moment for gay subculture and politics in Britain and broader counter-culture, if you like.  The cross-over is interesting and so are the sensibilities that are floating around in both.

MR: So looking at punk can help inform political and cultural practices today?

DW: Yes, I think so.  If you’re interested in gay culture today and counter-culture – whether that be music or whatever types of cultural dissident may be tied to youth culture, then by looking back at that moment you can learn a lot.  That includes everything from the politics of the music to the media discourses surrounding it and the way it was produced.  That’s what cultural studies should be really – a holistic approach.  And crucially, why it matters today.

MR: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by a ‘holistic approach’?

DW: One of the best legacies of cultural studies was to question, via various philosophical, political and theoretical means, the idealist notion of culture as separate from politics, social life and economics.  If we want to understand culture, as a human activity, we cannot separate it from all of those things.  What I also like about cultural studies’ past is that it preserves the utopian side of that idealist notion of culture, but without its downside.  Culture becomes potentially liberating, in some way.  Cultural studies had the best of both worlds in that sense.  It may have lost some of that now – but it’s still worth building on.

MR: Are there particular avenues of cultural studies that are important for your research?

DW: Cultural materialism is especially important and is due a resurgence.  Especially the later work of Raymond Williams.  The word ‘cultural materialism’ is deployed a lot although it is often removed from its original context.  I think Williams still has a lot to teach us.  The cultural materialist side gets left behind and cultural studies would gain something by re-assessing that moment rather than relegating it to history.  There are a lot of cultural studies courses, for sure, where you get modules that give a history of the discipline.  But so much of that involves talking about these people in order to safely relegate them to the past.  I think it’s a time for a real reappraisal of that history.

I think cultural studies took a bit of a turn for the worse from the 1980s onwards.  Part of that is the humanist elements of it falling away.  A lot structuralist, post-structuralist and post-modern theory is anti-humanist in origin and I think you lose a lot when that happens.  I also think there is a direct correlation between the rise of anti-humanism and the rise of neo-liberalism, although that is obviously a massive question and there is no room for it here.

MR: You’ve done an MA and PhD in literature and work in a history department, but practice cultural studies.  The term ‘interdisciplinary’ seems apt.  What do you make of it?

DW: It’s a funny one.  It muddies the waters a little bit.  It’s a convenient way of not discussing the history of cultural studies.  You can say, ‘We’re doing a bit of this, this and this’ but it’s a kind of re-inventing the wheel.  Cultural studies was born of that and that’s why it makes sense to talk about it now in terms of interdisciplinarity.  But I think there are different politics implied in cultural studies as a discipline and the way that word is bandied about now.  And I don’t think they are coming at it from the same angle really.

MR:  To return to an earlier point, the question of the political aims of cultural studies raises further questions about cultural studies and the institution.  Cultural studies is an institution and there are various versions of that institution in various universities.

DW: Again, that’s Williams, isn’t it?  The institutional question is vital.  University management’s tolerance of cultural studies is only going to last as long as cultural studies courses reshape themselves to say: ‘If you do this you can go into the media, advertising, PR, marketing.  You can set yourself up as a cultural entrepreneur because you know the cultural market.  You can do cultural semiotics and read culture trends.  You can whip a quick book out to help someone else.  You can completely betray the politics of cultural studies’.  I’ve seen courses starting to re-market themselves.  And I’m not castigating them because I understand the pressures that are upon them.  There is a neoliberal pressure to instrumentalise.  Too often, when faced with such pressures, academics will say ‘I’m an intellectual and don’t need to justify myself.  Civilised societies have intellectuals’.  Well, yes and no.  We need to think about what you are doing outside the academy.  We really do.  That’s something I’ve realised while doing my research and from my mentors:  ‘What broader relevance does this have?’.  It’s a valuable political-social critique of how we have lived, how we do live and how we might live.

They can and they will turf us out if we are not careful.  There are already far less cultural studies departments then there used to be.  They closed down the CCCS and that was clearly politically motivated.  It makes you think it might be time to do an AC Grayling, (although in a far less horrible, elitist way!) and think of alternative institutions.  That’s a very Williams’ theme.  There isn’t just the dominant.  There is the alternative and oppositional.  And institutions are a part of that.  You can build your own.   They might not be as powerful at first, but if you build momentum, they might be.

Another thing about cultural studies and the wider world and political movements relates to Alan Sinfield.  He’s a literary critic who carries on that tradition of cultural materialism and works in queer theory (and talks a lot of sense to queer studies).  He makes the point that cultural studies was once a part of the broad left in Britain that has taken a severe beating over the past 30-35 years.  Consequently cultural studies is quite stranded and isolated now.  It needs to make links with new political movements that are arising in opposition to austerity.  I’ve seen that happening and long may it continue.  We need more of it.