söndag 16 juni 2013

On "On the move" - a cultural studies conference

I went to a three-day cultural studies conference in Norrköping this week, "On the move". The program book with all the presented papers and abstracts is online. My previous blog post treated the paper that I presented there (together with Daniel Svensson). This blog post is about the conference itself.

I do believe I wrote a paper about computer games that was presented some 6 years ago by my co-author at a cultural studies conference, "Crossroads in cultural studies", in Turkey. I also distinctly remember attending a "Crossroads in cultural studies" conference in Finland myself, back in the late 90's when I was a ph.d. student. I have also published an article, "Do you believer in magic? Computer games in everyday life", in the European Journal of Cultural Studies back (2008). I have thus dabbled a little in the area but still, I very much felt like a visitor (i.e. basically an outsider) at this conference. While the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute in Sweden (ACSIS) have organized four previous conferences, this is the first ACSIS conference I have attended.

The reason I attended the conference had a lot to do with convenience (a 90-minute train ride from Stockholm), curiosity about the conference and the discipline, and of course also the fact that my contribution to the conference had been accepted for presentation. Although not a contributing reason in and of itself, it was also nice that my ex-fellow ph.d. student Bodil Axelsson was the conference chair at it was nice to meet her again.

The conference venue and the organization (reception, conference dinner etc.) was really nice, but I do however have some opinions (e.g. critique) of the academic content and perhaps also about cultural studies as an area of research. Do note that I'm not sure I know enough to talk about "cultural studies" as apart from my experience of cultural studies at this particular conference.

One aspect of the conference that I found problematic was the poor quality of many presentations. I'm talking about presentation skills, I'm talking about Powerpoint slides (or the absence of them), but also about cryptic presentations where the audience had to work hard to "get" what it's about. Like, "why is this interesting?", "why is this interesting to you, why did you choose to conduct this research?", "why should this be interesting to me (if I don't happen to share a particular interest in the niche you are exploring?" and "what are the implications of your research on [something/anything else]?". Yes, there might be a distinction between X and Y, but why is this distinction interesting? If someone fails to clearly answer these questions, it can easily feel like a waste of time listening to that presentation.

There are some ideals that are held high in research such as conducting rigorous and relevant research as well as doing studies that have a high degree of validity and reliability. I find that many of the presentations at the conference has a problem with one, several or all of these criteria. I find presentations that fails to convey the relevance especially irritating

Something I did think was amusing though was that several presentations started with an anecdote that was based on a personal experience (for example of listening to music while climbing the stairs to the workplace, or waiting for the bus in the countryside in northern Sweden). As a listener, I was thrown into the "story" because there was no introduction or explanation about what I was about to hear. The presenter however didn't just retell what "objectively" happened, but rather interlace thoughts and feelings on top of the actions ("I felt energetic, taking two steps at a time", "I remember thinking that..."). This story then becomes food for thought and the entry point into some kind of analytical stance about "ways to interpret what was (really) happening". Only after I heard this for the third time did I realize that this was a genre and an ok way to start a presentation in this field.

My worry is that the (cultural studies) researcher's gaze can basically fall on any and every phenomenon - however small or narrow - and that the fact that no-one has looked at this particular problem before oftentimes can be a good enough reason to pick it! This will lead to problems explaining why this topic is relevant or indeed even interesting in the first place (except to the in-group of fellow cultural studies researchers who seem to have an infinite tolerance to hearing about different sorts of "cosmopolitanism"). Seemingly contradicting myself, I do think that many phenomena can be entry points into deep insights about (some part of) our culture, about ourselves, about why we (or some of us) do what we do as well as the time we live in - in the hands of the right researcher. The skill to connect the dots and weave a coherent, interesting and pertinent fabric from mundane everyday occurrences is however something that is reserved for the few.

I would personally say that sociologist Gary Alan Fine has this skill. While I have only read a single book of his (twice!), "Shared fantasy: Role playing games as social worlds", I hold him in the highest regard and believe that any of his in-depth looks at wildly varying different phenomena would be a good reads; "Morel tales: The culture of mushrooming",  "Kitchens: The culture of restaurant work", "With the boys: Little league baseball and preadolescent culture", "Gifted tongues: High school debate and adolescent culture", "Everyday genius: Self-taught art and the culture of authenticity", "Authors of the storm: Meteorologists and the culture of prediction". Another prime example is Swedish sociologist/social psychologist Johan Asplund.

Every discipline has its own foundations, its own concepts and objects of interest, its own preferred research methods etc. A physicist has gravity, the speed of light, friction, stars, particle accelerators etc. Computer scientist (currently) have the cloud, sensors and big data, computer/network architectures, programming languages, systems development methods, the semantic web etc. Even the quasi-scientific discipline of economics has supply and demand, (in)elasticity, externalities, comparative advantages etc. So what does cultural studies have? I have a hard time figuring that one out, but as far as I can tell it has cryptic (preferably French, but German are also ok) philosophers and social thinkers that are infinitely applicable and interpretable. Some popular references at the conference were for example Latour, Marx, Deleuze, Guttari, Bordieu, Habermas, Ricoeur and Foucault. Cultural studies seems to be particularly good at problematizing and reinterpreting just about anythings, but less good at providing (even preliminary) answers to questions (rather than novel interpretations that can be further discussed and juxtaposed with yet other interpretations in a combinatorial extravaganza). I personally find that less than satisfying. Let me exemplify.

Alan Kay has said: "Simple things should be simple. Difficult things should be possible." Cultural studies to me seems to say that "simple things should be expressed in difficult ways, and difficult things should be close to unintelligible to anyone outside of our field". I really like complex ideas, but the language in which those ideas are expressed should be as simple and as precise as possibly (but not simpler). I here again point to the (Swedish-language) books by Johan Asplund's and admit bafflement as to why the Swedish branch of cultural studies don't refer to them. His ideas are complex and multifaceted, his language simple but exceedingly precise - each single word can be justified in his texts.

I don't see the value of gratuitous complexification and crypticfication - strategies to narrow down the audience by developing and exerting a centre of the brain devoted to making things unnecessarily complicated. This too is a way of exerting power over other (an area of interest to cultural studies - so perhaps this comment can be a lead for an interesting study?). "You don't understand what I say? Well then you must be stooopid!". So as to avoid spreading groundless assertions, allow me to exemplify with difficult-to-understand titles from the program book from which you can draw your own conclusions. Do note that I don't say that these titles/papers necessarily constitutes "bad" research - only that they are cryptic and difficult to understand and that they thus hopefully raise questions about what research is about, what research should be about and perhaps what research shouldn't be about:

- "Mobility of visually impaired guests in hospitality servicespaces"
- "Piracy, musical work, and the monosexual concept of creativity: Time to do away with an obsolete metaphor and affirm the 'Mothership Connection'?"
- "The communicating-vessel system between properness and illegaity. New epistemological and empirical trajectories in conceptualizing cultural heritage"
- "Expanding heritage: Roma place-related history and the 'othering' of foundational heritage narratives"
- "Challenging the hegemonic gaze on the city by foot: Walk-alongs as a useful method in gentrification research"
- Moving bodies/Moving pasts: Cross-border memory, politics and aesthetics in Ea Sola's drought and rain performances"

I have saved my favorite for last, but first a challenge. Let's say that I challenge you to think of a paper that will combines coffee, materiality, Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy and Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory (ANT). You would be challenged, but what would you be able to come up with? Perhaps "Actor-Network Theory and the materiality of coffee in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy"? Well, one researcher has topped this by also including Swedes and class in the title of the paper in question; "Coffee and class for the Swedes - as seen in the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: Analysing coffee as materiality of Actor-Network-Theory". Again, I'm not saying the paper is uninteresting - I've read the abstract and there's something to be said for it. Apparently at least one reporter thought it was interesting enough to refer to in article of his. But if you can write a paper about this, what can't you write a paper about? Are there any limits at all to what is "researchable"? If not, doesn't that imply that (cultural studies) research has extremely far-reaching imperialistic claims of describing "reality" in ways that only few can understand and fewer yet can utilize? If so, is that healthy?

Cultural studies researchers are skilled at expressing themselves through complex and complicated language. It's harder to gauge if there always are complex, interesting ideas hiding behind the complex language in question. The fact that it is hard to gauge the complexity of the underlying ideas (as apart from the complexity of the language in which they were expressed) is something I find to be problematic in itself. I dislike that the actual empirical material and the efforts of concretely working with that material (i.e. the craftwork of the researcher) oftentimes plays second fiddle to interpreting and formulating something fanciful that nominally treats the material in question. If it all comes down to expressing yourself in complex, impressive-sounding ways, then it isn't any longer about imparting any particular knowledge or conclusions, but rather just a matter of impressing an audience with dazzling language and to pose, to pretend and to convince. I hope cultural studies is about more than than but this is still part of the impression I carried with me from the conference.

These are some of the issues I struggled with at the conference. Perhaps my reflections above "just" reflect a kind of "culture shock" when encountering this "other", strange field? Perhaps someone with deeper insights into cultural studies would like to comment and clarify any misconceptions of mine?

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