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.