Cultural Studies Occasional #1: David Wilkinson

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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.

Issue 9: Vermin CfC

Issue 9: Vermin – Call for contributions

Issue 9: Vermin CfC

 

Rats. Cockroaches. Locusts. Plagues and infestations. Vermin are the unwanted, the weeds of the animal kingdom, the exterminable. They spread infection and disease and pose a threat to human life. For its ninth issue, Nyx, a noctournal seeks contributions that address the concept of vermin.

How can we think about the construction of vermin, particularly in relation to the human and social world?

Vermin. Those noxious elements, those patrons of the gutter, those outsiders, those parasites, those eyesores of an otherwise secure and vindicated environment. As the uncontrollable, as social scoundrels, vermin operate in those dark places, underground, seeking upward mobility or simply to feed off discards of the ethically sanitized. For that vermin carry the potential to cause harm. Vermin invest and infect the purity of the biological body, the harmony of the body politic. The rats, the underclass, the unproductive.

And yet, vermin spring from the very way in which the un-vermin live and think. Vermin strive on waste of productivity and are constituted by processes of social verminization, that is, by the un-vermin. To be vermin, then, is a state, a relation, a way of being far from inoculated from other states, other relations, and other ways of being.

We welcome submissions in the form of academic essays, pieces of journalism, fiction and experimental writing, images or other pieces of visual art.

Nyx, a noctournal is a print and online publication of critical theory, radical politics and art. It is peer reviewed by a collective of young researchers, activists and theorists and is based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Brief proposals in abstract form, of no more than 500 words/3 images, should be sent along with a brief biography to noctournal@gmail.com by 31/10/13

In final form, written contributions will not exceed 2,500 words, and visual contributions should not exceed 6 images. All images submitted should be 300dpi resolution.

Ancient workshop - J Burton

Nyx Blog: Call for Contributions

Nyx a Noctournal invites contributions to its online platform.

Nyx, a Noctournal is a peer-reviewed print/online platform of cultural theory, politics and art. After the publication of our recent seventh issue this summer, we’re planning to also develop and share new work and theory on our open-access online platform, nyxnoctournal.org, with a weekly series of articles, polemics, and reviews.

Whilst print is beautiful, online and open-access platforms hold great potential for sharing work with a growing network of new cultural theorists, activists, and art practitioners. And whilst we can’t pay for work, we can ensure it is edited, supported and shared with an international web of thinkers and graduate researchers. Sound good? If you have ideas, work, images, research, recorded lectures or events you’d like to share, or have suggestions about content, email noctournal@gmail.com.

We hope to begin a new season of the intriguing, irksome, conspiring and unusual over the coming months.

Many thanks,

Nyx a noctournal.

Image by Liz Rosenfeld
Video

Issue 8: Skin Extract, Finn Jackson Ballard & Liz Rosenfeld

Transmasculinities, by Finn Jackson Ballard, published in full in Nyx, a noctournal, Issue 8: Skin.

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Photograph by Liz Rosenfeld

‘While photographing the calendar subjects, I was also preparing for my long-awaited chest surgery. In fact, I left Berlin the very morning after the calendar launch party, and was in hospital by that evening, pre-surgical lines drawn upon my shaven chest by the doctor who would perform the operation. I had been occupied with the project, of course, but had also documented something of the simultaneous excitement, anxiety and tinge of melancholy that the upcoming event inspired in me (‘8 weeks before chest sur- gery, August 2010’). Upon the sudden cessation of all that energy involved in the calendar preparation, I felt a curious calm which certainly helped me to deal with the nerves of surgery, going under anaesthetic for the first time, and making an irreversible decision – although I had no qualms about my decision to have the operation. My partner, Liz, accompanied me to hospital, and during the night before my surgery photographed me preparing for the next morning (‘Finn the night before surgery’ by Liz Rosenfeld). I am very glad that she took this series of pictures and that we have them now for posterity, and I think that they capture the mood of that moment perfectly. Liz photographed my reflection, which I think was not only a documentary method but also a way for us to abstract the situation through a further layer of distance. This was the first time that Liz had seen my chest bereft of layers of clothing or of surgical vests – ‘binders’ which flatten the chest – and I suppose that I was not ready then to face her or the camera. We also ended up inadvertently referencing one of our mutual favourite artists, Nan Goldin, who often photographed her subjects in mirrors, although I don’t think she usually appeared in the resultant images. I took more photos than ever before in my post-surgical delirium and delight (‘One week after chest surgery, October 2010’) and indeed I was delighted when one of those ended up in an article featuring contemporary photographers with the title ‘Children of Nan Goldin.’1 It seemed that I had come a long way: being open about my own transgenderism, achieving the surgery I had wanted for many years, and then being able to stand on the fringes of the world occupied by the (queer) artists whom I most admired.

Although the world’s awareness of transmen is increasing constantly, with the fame of Buck Angel, Chaz Bono, Balian Buschbaum and others, I suppose that many of us still have a drive simply to be represented and to increase visibility of all the multifarious ways that we configure (and often reconfigure) our gender identity. That’s also why my favourite self-portrait is the one of me doing up a tie and wearing pink lacy underwear at the same time (‘Getting Dressed’). I guess it’s a rather standard image of gender ambiguity, or simply of cross-dressing, but I think that the fact that I am trans does imbue it with something of an extra dimension. I also think that it is important, although not essential, that the photographer of individuals such as those who participated in the calendar project is also trans or at least sufficiently cognitive of queer identity to feel aligned with their subjects. Often, the identity of trans people be- comes the purview of others. I don’t mean only in terms of visual representation, which often relies on the discourse of fetish – as in earlier manifestations of trans pornography (a genre in which genderqueer, queer and trans directors and producers are now increasingly establishing themselves, representing their own community) – or that of a strange and even supposedly-threatening ambiguity (images over which the readers of gossip magazines are invited to pore, trying to discern the gender identity of their subjects). I mean also in terms of discourse. Trans people’s autonomy over their bodies is often compromised by their promotion as some sort of curiosity to whom it is deemed acceptable to pose intimate questions without asking for permission, and thereby to determine their identity even in contrast to their own wishes.

I think here of trans*people, myself included, who have been told that they are not ‘really’ or ‘sufficiently’ trans because they do not desire to have certain surgeries, identify themselves in accordance with certain preconceived gender norms, etc. I was also advised by my doctor, several years ago now, that I should simply take testosterone for as long as was necessary to ‘pass’ unquestioningly as male (preferably whilst becoming a temporary recluse) and then to re-emerge as a new self, not mentioning my past, once this process was over. This phenomenon is often referred to as ‘going stealth’ and in some cases it is simply a survival mechanism. But I didn’t want to avoid having to explain to the world my identity. I wanted to make myself visible within that world as a transman. To be not only in front of but also behind the lens will perhaps be our best chance of deconstructing these notions and showing ourselves to the world exactly as we are.’

To read the article in full, and to purchase the rest of Nyx Issue 8, http://nyxnoctournal.org/buy-issue-8-skin/.

Portrait of Finn Jackson Ballard, 2013, by Liz Rosenfeld, in which they discuss Ballard’s featured Transmasculinities photo calendar project.