Cultural Studies’ economic legacies

by JCE November 4, 2019

This post is the second part of a series reflecting on two decades of cultural economy, since the original “workshop on cultural economy” was organised by Paul Du Gay and Michael Pryke at the Open University. An anniversary symposium was held at City University, on 10th January 2020.

“It does seem necessary to do some genealogical and archaeological work on the archive”
Stuart Hall (1992: 277), “Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies”

In the edited volume that resulted from the Workshop on Cultural Economy, Paul Du Gay and Michael Pryke’s agenda-setting introduction memorably positioned their project in relation to two dynamics. First, it was crucial to assess “the extent to which economic and organizational relations in the present are more thoroughly ‘culturalized’ than their historical predecessors” (a hypothesis, at that point, most visibly associated with the sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry); the response to this historical hypothesis would therefore, second, involve a methodological search for “a means of exploring the ways in which economic and organizational life is built up, or assembled from, a range of disparate, but inherently cultural, parts”. This was an implicit challenge to disciplinarity. Participants drawn from across geography, management, sociology, anthropology and cultural studies were all interested in mapping this sense of a shift, looking at specific processes through which relations between culture and (political) economy were realigning, after ‘the cultural turn’. This post explores ways in which Cultural Economy – a project which engaged the likes of Stuart Hall, Tony Bennett, Sean Nixon, Angela McRobbie and Keith Negus among others – can be cast as a specific attempt to renew Cultural Studies at the end of the millennium; and how it might now be evaluated in such terms.

In his contribution to Hall’s Festschrift, Du Gay explicitly positions Cultural Economy as faithfully carrying out the latter’s own injunction: that “the (positive) rejection of ‘economism’ … must not result in a flight from the ‘economic’ (or, by the same token, presage a return to a thoroughly acultural ‘political economy’)”; unfortunately, he claims, by the turn of the millennium “something akin to such a flight does appear to have taken place”. Their earlier, jointly edited volume, Questions of Cultural Identity, collected contributions to a 1993-1994 OU Sociology seminar series and explored the “increasing visibility and salience” of identity in “contemporary social formations”. It now appears as a forerunner to the Sage series Culture, Representation & Identities (under which Cultural Economy appeared), which was “dedicated to a particular understanding of ‘cultural studies’ as an inherently interdisciplinary project critically concerned with the analysis of meaning” while simultaneously “forging a radical re-think of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ and the articulation between the material and the symbolic in social analysis”.

At that point, there was only one other title available in the same series, Sarita Malik’s Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television published the same year. A monograph based on her PhD completed under Stuart Hall at the OU in 1998, this cleaves closely to Hall’s version of Cultural Studies as concerning the societal significance of “representation and identities” and particularly the lived plurality of what he had termed, during his tenure in Milton Keynes, New Ethnicities. Looking back at the original workshop photographs with this in mind, it is hard now to avoid their monochromatic masculinity, which seems to visibly foreshadow the project’s later divergence from that initial grounding.

Hall had moved to the OU to take up the post of Professor of Sociology in 1979. Seeing it as an “open, interdisciplinary, unconventional” institution, at the heart of an opening higher education system, he reflected in interview that this career move “served some of my political aspirations” to make theoretical and ideological complexities accessible to “to those who don’t have any academic background”. This was in contrast to the “hothouse stuff” of Birmingham’s graduate students:

They aspired to connect, as organic intellectuals, to a wider movement, but they themselves were at the pinnacle of a very selective education system. The Open University was not. It was challenging the selectivity of higher education as a system. So, the question was ‘Can cultural studies be done there?’

Many have sought the answer to that question in the U203 – Popular Culture course (1982-1987), with prevailing assessments being mixed: on one hand, its complex theoreticisms presenting a failed teaching opportunity; on the other, defining the field through its Gramscian influence and international reach. Equally, as Tony Bennett has stressed, it’s clear that this mass undergraduate course could not, and was never intended to, simply transplant across the more focused postgraduate CCCS model. Such assessments are indicative of that field’s seemingly interminable internal disputes at the time, concerning issues of institutionalisation, of critical distance and political affiliation, of the theorisation of power, agency and political economy, of pedagogical goals and methods, and more generally the need to move forward in what Cultural Studies was recognising as New Times. Hall’s own sense of the need to perform “genealogical and archaeological work on the archive” of cultural studies, as well as his Foucauldian inflection, are similarly symptomatic of the period.

A more distinctly OU innovation was found in D318 – Culture, Media and Identities, a course which ran from 1997-2007, produced by a quite enormous team: Du Gay, Hall, Negus, Linda Janes and Hugh Mackay as authors; with contributions and consultations from Sean Nixon, Paul Gilroy, Ruth Finnegan, Daniel Miller, Lynne Segal and Nigel Thrift among many others; not to mention the secretarial, library, design and coordination work of support staff (who, back then, were credited as formal members of the team). This size was typical of the OU prior to the mid-2000s where, in one laconic editorial reflection, “faculty might be locked in a room together for years to come up with answers […] in a form that could be taught at a distance, to students who, for a modest fee, registered on courses with no formal entrance requirements”. Explicitly titled Doing Cultural Studies, Book 1 of D318 infamously took the Sony Walkman as its object and, although designed as a textbook, was necessarily grounded in significant primary research on the subject. Thus Du Gay comments in a later (slightly more actor-networked) edition how, unintentionally, it was widely received “as a research text”: seemingly offering the definitive Cultural Studies method – the “circuit of culture” – which could then be “taken up and used in a variety of disciplinarγ and interdisciplinarγ domains”. Significantly, Book 4, Cultures of Production/Production of Culture, hosted one of the first outings of the ‘cultural economy’ concept – there credited to the geographer, workshop participant (and Du Gay’s doctoral supervisor) John Allen.

In such ways, the OU offered a unique space for Cultural Studies, Human Geography and Political Economy to mix complementary genealogical strands into the Cultural Economy project. Connecting analyses of political rhetoric, post-Fordist production, reorganisations of the local and the global, advertising, lifestyle-led retailing, and so on, these debates sought to reimagine and rearticulate the Thatcherite project within a progressive frame. Allen, Massey and others had been crucial in building the capacities of the OU Geography department, institutionally as well as in textbooks and course readers (see the theoretical underlabouring regarding broad industrial change laid out in The Economy in Question, their edited volume for D314 – Restructuring Britain). Many of those arguments proceeded in dialogue with the work of the Lancaster Political Economy Group, including the likes of Urry and Lash, as well as Alan Warde and Mike Savage (the former a Workshop participant; both later co-conspirators in CRESC, the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change). Citational networks are often also interpersonal networks. In some sense, social science at the OU restaged another conversation: that curated by Hall and Martin Jacques, in the ‘New Times’ agenda of Marxism Today – one which it is easy to imagine continuing between Doreen Massey and Stuart Hall on their regular drive between Milton Keynes and Kilburn. And of course many more Cultural Economies exist, bequeathing further genealogies: Negus’ contribution to the Cultural Economy collection highlights two: Arjun Appadurai’s anthropology of globalisation, alongside John Fiske’s Bourdieusian considerations of a “cultural economy of fandom” in popular media – the latter firmly reasserting the influence of Cultural Studies in its optimistically resistant mode.

Later additions to the Culture, Representation and Identities series – Sean Nixon’s Advertising Cultures: Gender, Commerce and Creativity (2003), Liz McFall’s Advertising: A Cultural Economy (2004), Paul Du Gay’s Organizing Identity: Persons and Organizations ‘After Theory’ (2007) – slowly depart from Cultural Studies’ earlier lineages. The mission was, as the original volume had put it, “the expansion of ‘culture’ to a much wider, more inclusive range of institutions and practices, including those conventionally termed ‘economic’ and ‘political’”. In this context, Cultural Economy increasingly took a more descriptive, pragmatist approach to technologies of governance and market devices, against the anticapitalist prescriptions of much critical political economy and cultural politics, whether in their theoreticist or activist modes. While sharing a concern with the ‘making up’ of particular subjects and identities, it emphasised continuities and genealogies over epochal ruptures. Like Cultural Studies before it, Cultural Economy has since institutionalised and internationalised, albeit displaying far less introspective anxiety. Now listed by all reputable citation indices, the Journal’s editorial operations move through the Anglo-European diaspora (Manchester, California, Edinburgh, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney…), sustained by the global production networks of Taylor & Francis (an imprint of the business intelligence company, Informa PLC), extending from Oxford to the Philippines.

Yet, if the (‘cultural’) assembly of economic life received sustained and detailed attention, outlined perhaps most clearly in the “economisation” programme of Çalışkan and Callon, much less attention was paid to the other half of the equation. Indeed, it sometimes appears as though the task of a Cultural Economy approach is simply to demonstrate that what is called the economic is no weightless abstraction: “cultural” here being a euphemism for ‘real’ things, actually existing in particular places used for specific purposes by genuine people. This much is surely now clear. But as recent editorialisation has noted: “there have been few explicit or extended, analytical deliberations on what ‘cultural’ means in research on economies, markets and organisations”. The term has only been “deflated” and now needs to be “reassembled” in order to make sense of those “actors invoking Culture in the realist mode that has been disabling to so much social theory”. What are the precise devices and modes of expertise through which culturalization processes appear as “an ongoing problem of definition in which reality is operationalised”? What are the implications of the fact that such operations have not, as has commonly been thought, divorced the anthropological dimension of culture from its (modernist) aesthetic inflections?

Just as social science had turned to culture, some within Cultural Studies turned to production, in the newly anointed “creative industries”. Cultural Economy was reticent, seeing this as a delimiting policy flirtation, simply one expression of culture’s intermediation. Perhaps, scholars in this tradition seemed to imply, culturalization is complete: are we all now cultural intermediaries, or indeed cultural workers? Meanwhile, the differentiation, classification and professionalisation of culture by government continues unabated, while “cultural workers”, and especially “creative service” occupations of design, branding and content co-creation, continue to shape the so-called “non-creative” economy. Many of these workers have, as Don Slater and Angela McRobbie have suggested, training in (or at least close sympathies with) Cultural Studies. Its distinct forms of knowledge, concepts and methods – the interpretive agency of audiences, the struggles and pleasures of subcultural resistance, the value of critical thought, ‘semiotics’, ‘ethnography’ – are carried with them. Alongside the spread of economic languages and techniques out into “the wild” (pace Callon), ANT-influenced market ethnographers play their own intensified role in understanding, producing and sustaining contemporary economic life. The contribution of such organic intellectuals to the foment of socialist hegemony (pace Stuart Hall) has yet to materialise. Is it necessary now to return to “questions of cultural identity”, of representation, resistance and persistent power differentials? Moreover, can we now turn these lenses back on Cultural Economy’s own identity questions? Crucially, for example, given its origins and international spread, how did the field get so white?

Likewise, the invention of Cultural Economy might be understood as an intentional displacement of political economy – leading to yet further anxieties. Normatively, as Butler asks, how might “theorists conclude that it is better to contribute to the making of the economic sphere in one way rather than another?” Empirically, where such contributions are delimited to “intra-systemic consideration of the contests between policy advisors or financial mathematicians or hedge-fund managers over how to describe, simulate and make explicit, or provoke into being, economic entities”, what place within Cultural Economy research might exist for those “mass performances of dissent against what has been perceived and formatted as ‘the economy’”? What kinds of intervention might be possible on this basis, beyond the ongoing re-description of the former’s apparently limited capacities for imagining human potential? Some critics have bemoaned the lack of integration with sympathetic projects, such as the Rhetoric of Economics approach; others have called for a more positive research programme to complement unorthodox versions of economics, as in their behavioural and evolutionary flavours. Favouring a “particularist politics of analysis” over a “generalist politics of structure” has produced great descriptive gains. It leaves us a little hapless in understanding the “cultural foundationalism” taking increasingly “brutal” form when entwined with consolidating economic nationalisms.

The questions that animate the 20th anniversary workshop are the obvious ones. Cultural Economy: whence and whither? If “culture” and “politics” have become glaring lacunae, perhaps some return to, reimagining of, or reintegration with an earlier version of culture, representation and identity suggests one way forward.