Understanding Culture: Cultural Studies, Order, Ordering


Gavin Kendall & Gary Wickham

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    Among the many people – friends, family and colleagues – to whom we have become indebted while writing this book, we should especially like to thank the following: Eric Bredo, Alan Collins, Susan Condor, Jo Goodie, Jeremy Kendall, Kate Kendall, Trisha Kendall, Jeff Malpas, Mike Michael, Katherine Sheehan, and David Silverman. Thanks are also owed to the staff at Sage, whose encouragement and professionalism made our task so much easier and so much more enjoyable. An earlier version of some of the ideas in Chapter 4 appeared in the Australian Journal of Political Science (1997) 32(2): 223–35, under the title ‘Governing at a distance’. Chapter 7 represents work, some of which has been and is being conducted with Mike Michael; it has been impossible entirely to disentangle Mike's contribution, but he bears no responsibility for any errors in the chapter or problems with the argument.

  • Conclusion: Reshaping Cultural Studies

    We have been rather harsh on Cultural Studies throughout this book, but we should stress that our criticisms have been intended to revive and reorient a discipline that we still think can be exciting and innovative. It can also still be political, but it needs to understand politics as only one possible – rather than a necessary – connection that can be made to ordering.

    Paul du Gay et al. (1997) have usefully summarised five distinct processes (representation, identity, production, consumption and regulation) that they believe Cultural Studies must focus upon, and it is instructive to take these in turn and see how they fit into Cultural Studies as the study of ordering.

    First, representation. Of course, we discussed this issue at some length in Chapter 3 in the context of John Law's work. Representations have typically been of interest in Cultural Studies as a kind of adjunct to ideology theory – that is to say, representations are vital because they are examples of the systematic distortion of reality that is part of the field of culture. John Law's approach is much more sensible, we think, as he is more interested in representations as ‘stories’ which have effects at a material level (so representations are ‘real’). For us, with our emphasis upon a deliberately unprincipled description of appearances, there is no need to treat representations, or stories, as anything special, as we made clear in Chapter 3. All we need do is describe them in the same way we describe all other processes, all other aspects of ‘reality’.

    Second, identity. As should be clear from Chapter 7, identity is not a concept that helps our reformed Cultural Studies. We are unhappy with its imprecision, and we are unhappy with the way it is linked to a politics of resistance. Our focus has been upon the self (or sometimes the actant), but that self (or actant) must be understood as a component in processes of ordering and disordering. The self cannot be understood as a fixed point outside of networks, but is rather emergent and relational. When we describe processes of ordering, we often end up describing the appearances of self that accompany these processes. We have done this throughout this book, as, for example, in Chapter 4, when we described the appearance of a certain type of ethical personality out of processes of ordering culture through culture.

    Third, production. Now, production may refer specifically to an industrial context, but it can also refer more generally to processes of innovation and invention. We have tried to stress in this book that ordering hunts in packs – ordering is linked to a whole series of other ordering projects, and it is the orientation of these projects against and in concert with each other that guarantees novelty. Cultural Studies as the study of ordering will never be too far from a description of the appearances of production, understood more generally, because the dynamism of ordering projects (or networks, as we have occasionally called them) leads inexorably to further ordering projects, which in turn lead to further ordering projects. It does not matter whether the projects succeed or fail (and usually they fail) – they are destined to give birth to further projects. The study of ordering will always incorporate the study of production.

    Fourth, consumption. It may seem that consumption is something missing from our new direction for Cultural Studies – and to a certain extent it is, inasmuch as we think consumption (shopping, tourism, restaurant-going, etc.) is an especially important topic for ‘late modernity’, and we are not concerned to limit our horizons to this historical period. And, of course, in Chapter 6 we spent some time discussing ‘consumption activities’ as examples of ordering. However, the distinction made in traditional Cultural Studies between production and consumption is informative. Cultural Studies typically differentiates between production (of a physical item, or a media event, or whatever) and its consumption or reception (whether we buy that item, what we make of it, how we understand it and integrate it into our lives). For us, however, such a distinction only encourages the analyst to engage in hermeneutics (‘what does this object/event/broadcast really mean?’). Our advice is to set such questions aside – they are unanswerable and spiral infinitely, going nowhere (or, more dangerously, going off to ballast some grand theory or other). More modestly, we follow Harvey Sacks, and Joseph Ford, and Pyrrho of Elis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, in urging description as the proper limit of inquiry. To this extent, then, we flatten out production and consumption into a single issue and a single methodological request: describe what networks produce, and how those products themselves become integrated into those and other networks.

    Fifth, regulation. Of course, to a certain extent this book has been all about regulation. However, we tend to see regulation in a more productive way than has typically been the case in Cultural Studies. That is to say, we understand ordering to be inescapable, and we wish to describe what it makes happen. Some of it will be ‘good’, and some of it will be ‘bad’, but the judging is something we leave to you. In fact, we hope you are convinced enough by our arguments that you might even try suspending judgement, although we know just how tough that trick is. But whatever, we wish to move on from the tired old characterisation of regulation as sinister. Everything that we do is ‘regulated’, or ordered, but without ordering there would be no culture, no innovation, no new possibilities. Of course, you may not think it ‘innovative’, but, as we discussed earlier, we wrote this book using the ‘constraints’ imposed upon us by computers, software programmes, an existing Cultural Studies literature, and so forth. If you prefer to think through other, more clearly ‘creative’ examples, ‘regulation’ is ubiquitous. Stephen Jay Gould (1998), for example, presents a striking analysis of how elements of the Mona Lisa owe their existence to the ‘constraints’ of da Vinci's theories about the how the world and the human body work by analogous principles. Our point here is that the Mona Lisa is, of course, a great and ‘innovative’ work of art – but ‘regulation’, or better, ordering, is the sine qua non of its existence.

    Now it still seems to us that Cultural Studies is enormously important. Not least of its contributions has been its ability to focus on issues that have previously seemed beneath the dignity of the scholar. Cultural Studies has turned our attention to all kinds of new objects and processes, and to the extent that it has inherited and extended the noble tradition of writers like Marcel Mauss and Norbert Elias, directing our attention to the miscellany of everyday life, we salute it. We are far from wishing to join the sorts of attacks on Cultural Studies which impugn its subject matter and question whether it is a real discipline (as Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999, for example, have done recently). But it needs to be strengthened, and we close by reiterating two points we made in Chapter 1. First, we agree with Tony Bennett (1998) in calling for Cultural Studies to develop a pragmatics, to admit that it is a discipline. In a sense, Bennett is telling Cultural Studies to grow up and accept a more mature role for itself. It must give up being ‘speculative’, as McHoul and Miller (1998) rightly point out, and accept that a new rigour in terms of its objects of study and its methodology need not be rigor mortis. Second, it must give up its obsession with power and meaning. We have suggested some alternative obsessions for Culture Studies – with ordering and with description – that we think will serve it better in the years ahead. We do not think this constitutes a ‘selling out’ of Cultural Studies – indeed if its practitioners still wish to use the discipline as a way to analyse politics and power, they may find (and we sincerely hope) that they can do so from a stronger footing.


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