go away for a few weeks, managing not even the lightest of light blogging as I had actually promised, and what happens? The rather lovely (yes, I’m easily persuaded by flattery, but that’s not all it is, I swear!) Joe Kugelmass listed me as up there with the intimidating likes of Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism as being amongst the best new blogs. Many congrats, hearty nods of agreement and suchlike to Mikhail, Paco, Lou, Shahar and Alexei; nice work, guys. This all weirds me out considerably—and not just because it kicks my stats into territory they’ve not known in a while—but because I definitely feel like a satellite to the main blogospherical carry-on (good carry-on, really! I loves you guys!). That’s not bad, mind you, it’s just… well. I am taken aback. “You love me, you really love me.” Heh. Always wondered if I’d have a chance to quote that line. But enough about me.
There were two conferences I was at down South (not that South, but Adelaide, South Australia) and they were almost polar opposites in my experience. The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia has never felt like the home I’ve assumed it ought to feel like; I always figured that since I come from one of the few cultural studies departments in Australia, it would be a good fit for me. Not so, as I’ve discovered year after year. It used to be that I was incredulous that the academics from my department tend to avoid it; now I think they’re very wise. I’ve presented theory at these conferences previously, and received stunned-mullet gazes in response. I’ve watched the presentation of work that seems less like work and more like straight-up description; x is like y theorising, if there’s any at all; people thrown by someone asking about the politics of the subculture they’re studing (!) and so on. This year was both better and worse. I weary of being told that science will save us all: I don’t doubt that it is, indeed, an incredible resource, and much of interest can be done with it; but calling it the new avant-garde forgets the massive machine of legitimacy it already functions within, and the thorough-going effects of injustice and essentialism it has and still tends to reproduce. I know that there is interesting stuff in science, and this is a very good thing, and can be an excellent part of good critique. But there’s also science—especially in its ‘practical’ form, medicine—which reproduces hierarchies, privilege, disadvantage. Donna Haraway was a scientist, for goodness’ sake; and she left to become a cultural critic because she could see how science concealed its own constructions and reconstructions of hegemony, and knew that the way to make science critical was to be critical of it. Do let’s try not to simply run wholehearted towards being swallowed by the science machine. I seem to recall Foucault telling Marxism off for wanting to become a science. I felt like we had gone back in time. Speaking of Marxism, apparently all you anti-capitalists out there need to get over it: the mining companies need you! need you! need you! Forget indigenous sovereignty, environmental degradation or whatever other foolish concerns you have… it’s the mining companies that need to be brought into the fold, being the backbone of the country as they are. [grizzles]
Now I’m sounding all anti-science-y: I’m not, truly. But the suggestion seemed to be that our critical impulses were getting in the way of engaging with the next big thing; and this is an old, tired refrain which is thoroughly depoliticising. Which, in fact, seems to be the drive of CSAA a lot of the time. There was some interesting stuff, I’ll own, and the occasional theoretically-engaged paper slipped in there. The opening keynote was given by Julian Agyeman, and was entitled ‘Toward ‘Just’ Sustainabilities’. This paper was pragmatic in orientation, but no less politically engaged for that: it functioned as a critique of the environmental sustainabilities movements which have so recently become mainstream concerns, arguing that often the focus on the environment means that there is little or no engagement with the results of environmental degradation for human communities. The argument was, effectively, that ‘the environment’ is often taken as being captured by a dreadfully old-fashioned conception of nature: wild, unblemished and separate from us. Instead, Julian (can I call you Julian? ;-)) argued that environment cannot be fully thought without some consideration of how we interact with it, and as such we don’t just need sustainability, we need just sustainability. Social justice doesn’t just go out the window because sustainability came in; indeed, when looking at the changes in the environment, it’s kinda important to mark that it’s regularly those who have suffered the most injustice who are going to suffer (again) the worst under environmental change/degradation. Climate change refugees were one example that kept coming up. I liked this paper; it also demonstrated to me that sophisticated engagement with politics is really what I miss at CSAA, not just theory…
I have to confess I played faster and looser with attendance this year than I have in previous years. The next plenary I attended was also great, but I had skipped quite a number (the days were incredibly full, and incredibly ‘all-stars’ focused: there were two keynotes every day, and the days went until 6.30 or 7 which is just too long for me. I need beer before that.) Steve Hemming and Daryle Rigney together gave a presentation called ‘Unsettling Sustainability: Ngarrindjeri political literacies, strategies of engagement and transformation.’ The Ngarrindjeri nation has country south of Adelaide, around the Murray ‘mouth’ and Lake Alexandrina (I can’t recall the Aboriginal words for these spots). This area is severely degraded: the mouth of the river is no longer open because of the lack of water flowing down the river (irrigation is the major culprit here). The two speakers sketched the variety of techniques that they have been developing for negotiating with and countering the obsessions of governmental policies in this area. It was fascinating stuff, involving both deeply local action and transnational allegiances.
I was quite taken with the panel ‘Message Me: Cultural Studies of Online Cultures and Communities’ where Jason Wilson, Melissa Gregg, Gerard Goggin and Jean Burgess each presented (fairly casually) and then were involved in conversation with each other and the audience. Mel Gregg demonstrated that the ‘innovative’ edges of online cultures doesn’t necessarily extend to its assumptions about gender, class and race. She was particularly interested in the temporalities the internet was engendering for the ways people live their lives, and the questions of how ethnography could work in this context. You can find more in this vein here. Jason Wilson discussed youdecide2007, which he was key in making happen, and the idea of citizen journalism. It was interesting, primarily because he demonstrated the way that assumptions about age (everyone’s a teenager on the internet) don’t actually play out a lot of the time. Jean Burgess took us to the web trend map, and discussed Youtube’s apparent inability to understand its own success (‘Come, Oprah, broadcast with us, lend us legitimacy!’). Gerard Goggin (I was wilting by this point, so if I’m absolutely off the mark, someone let me know, will ya?) suggested that online stuff still does need to be interrogated in terms of established concepts—cultures, bodies and power—even as we are aware that they pose a challenge to those theoretical structures. I wanted to hear a bit more about his work on disability, but that, my friends, is probably something *I* should run away and research. Later. Post-thesis. Sigh. An interesting panel, even if I felt a little like I’d been introduced to a range of stuff I’ll have to go off and read up on. Again. Later. 🙂 Afterwards I was thinking how hard it must be to present to an audience whose net literacy may be limited (and even if it’s not, there’s piles of stuff on the web map that I have never heard of… yes, I, participant in blogosphere!); that’s probably part of the cause of the introductory feel some of the papers had.
Cate Thill’s “Sustaining Indigenous Futures: Welfare Reform and Responsibility for the Other,” and Hannah Stark’s “‘But we always make love with worlds’: Deleuze (and Guattari) and love” gave me some of my theory fix. Cate discussed sustaining indigenous alterity, and the threat posed to it by protectionist, individualising legislation which puts in place the responsibility of welfare recipients (with, as she archly pointed out, absolutely no consideration of what characterises the ‘neglect’ of children that necessitates it being put in place, and its whiteness). Hannah’s paper bore with it the heady fervour that always attends Deleuze for me, but complete with girlish, rather than froggish, presentation, which gentled it a little. She argued that whilst desire has been the site taken up by theorists in the challenge to subjectivity by Deleuze, love may gesture towards a space in which guarantees and separates difference from difference, permitting the mutual expression of difference. Thus it may be considered to be an act of differentiation. I liked this paper… although I was a little thrown by Hannah’s apparent unwillingness to consider the critiques of becoming-woman in the context of love, not least because the labours of love (and thus a supposed love of labour) have, for a long time, fallen heavily on women.
Hamish Morgan gave a gorgeously evocative presentation, complete with an audio track that didn’t only give us only the interaction of the interview, but with the car, the ground, the openeing door, considering the event of community in the middle of Western Australia, threaded through with Nancy’s gently-worded theory. And Eva Lewkowicz and Georgina Isbister gave us analyses of the gender dynamics that inform two forms of pop culture: the Mexican telenovella, and the chick lit novel. Eva’s paper considered the configuration of femininity in and through the telenovella, demonstrating the strictures placed on it; this was given a creepy cast in the closing minutes with her reference to the extraordinary rates of murder of women in Mexico of late and questions of how viewers function as citizens. Georgina engaged critically with the postfeminist fairytale. I missed the horrors of Michelle Grobel’s “‘The Taming of the Screw’: Feminist research and practice and the interruption of postmodern theory to an exploratin of contemporary sex advice literature” which to all reports has decided that third wave feminism and queer theory is just far too detached from ordinary (read, straight, white) women’s sexuality and is thus to blame for women getting a rough deal sexually, and in sex education (understood, it seems, as those terrible sealed sections in women’s mags). I’m almost sorry I missed it, actually: a serious point of contention!
Elaine Kelly’s consideration of “Sovereignty and climate change: white discourses of environmental responsibility” offered a critical appropriation of Agamben’s homo sacer, theorised through the case study of the apparent irrelevance of indigenous rights and sovereignty to the opening of a mine in the Northern Territory (or was it Queensland?). Awesome theory bound to political, practical stuff. Breath of fresh air, really… Shannon Burns gave one of those enormously slippery, enormously evocative, heavily engaged literary papers which critiqued the tendency of sustainability talk (of all kinds, but particularly academic-self-protectionism) to occur through producing homogeneity: it is the perpetuation of what already exists that is of concern, rather than an openness towards otherness. This paper felt like an excellent critique of the whole conference (rather amusing, since Shannon was in hospital for most of it! Thanks for making it out to present, Shannon!) I was very sorry to have missed Charlotte Craw’s paper, “The Ecology of Emblem Eating: Environmentalism, Nationalism, and Kangaroo Consumption,” but she generously gave me a copy. Keep an eye out for her published papers, people: very nice work.
My own paper? It was deeply ordinary, but I think I’ve succeeded in presenting a paper almost entirely stripped of references to theory (though of course driven by it). Interestingly, I had the same dissatisfaction afterwards that I usually attribute to having presented a paper few people have understood, but I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, so I think I’ll just not apologise for being theoretical from hereon out. It considered transhumanism and bioconservatism, and basically argued that, whilst the problems of bioconservatism are reasonably obvious (essentialism etc), the apparent progressiveness of the transhumanist position conceals the inequities that inform this envisaging of the future. Perhaps I’ll put it up here sometime soon…
And the overall vibe? CSAA feels very…. careerist, to me. I can’t tell if this is partly because of the … well, deeply ordinary postgrad development day that happened the day before and involved numerous CSAA presenters. But there’s a sense of needing to present gloss and shine and professionalism, and very little consideration of the political or the ethical, whatever we might take those to mean. (Hello! The fact you’re even at this conference is an indicator of your privilege; please demonstrate some vague awareness of it!) It wearies me. The priority seems to be on impressing certain people, and that I don’t like. It did feel very much like the All Stars of CSAA were being given their chance to shine, glitter and generally display themselves as stars; in order to make room for the two keynotes per day and the ‘plenary panel’, there were only two 1.5 hour sessions per day for general presentations. That meant that there were eight parallel sessions at any one time: EIGHT! If you’re wondering why I saw so little, that’s why. I had to give up going to other potentially interesting papers numerous times. EIGHT parallel sessions! CSAA! Not exactly the way to make your non-keynotes feel like they’re making a valuable contribution to the cultural studies community; I mean, I knew half the eight or nine people who came and saw my paper. Add to this the general sense of people being concerned to meet the right people, to network, network, network, and it becomes something of an unfriendly setting. Fortunately, there were those around who were sufficiently critically engaged, amusing and friendly that I wasn’t entirely disheartened. Thanks to those people: you know who you are! I’m very very glad to have met you! And later… the wonder that was ACRAWSA this year, complete with details of my latest academic crush… 😉
* This is vaguely tongue-in-cheek. Vaguely. There were, in fact, zombies and vampires present. I wanted Dex to make an appearance, but twas not to be….