EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Jaafar Aksikas

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium (CSC) features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student M. Liz Andrews interviewed Jaafar Aksikas, Professor of Cultural Studies at Columbia College Chicago.  See below for the transcript. 

Thank you and welcome back to Mason. We’re honored to have you here both as an alumus of the Cultural Studies program and as the president of the Cultural Studies Association. We look forward to hearing about your work and your thoughts. The name of your talk is: A New Project of Cultural Studies. For the readers of the blog and those who are not able to attend your talk today, could you talk about what is new at this moment? In particular, what shifts in the objects, methodology, and history of cultural studies characterize this moment? Why now? What is new?

This talk is an early, a very early, version of my presidential address at the 2015 Cultural Studies Association annual meeting, which will be held in Riverside, California next summer. I thought this was one of the most fitting contexts to present these early thoughts because the last time I was here, roughly nine years ago, I presented my dissertation and received some good ideas and feedback. Today, my talk is intended as a provocation; it is meant to get people to think about cultural studies less as an academic formation and more as an intellectual-political project. I am interested in hearing what people have to say about the project I propose.

There is this relatively less known talk by Raymond Williams that he gave at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Britain in the 80s, two years before his death. He makes an important distinction between a formation and project. Of course he also thought that “The relation between a project and a formation is always decisive,” as these are for him different ways of materializing a common disposition of collective efforts and direction. For him, cultural studies emerges in multiple formations, in some cases it’s more disciplinary, in others it’s more interdisciplinary; in some it’s more defined and in others less specific. But what’s always important, says Williams, is to ask what the relationship between the formation and the project is and what happens to the project.

Because cultural studies emerges in postwar Britain, a lot of people think that it emerges full-fledged with the three books that we are all familiar with: The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, and, The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society. Williams was very critical of this textual and idealist history and was saying that cultural studies actually emerged much earlier. It emerges in that post-war moment where a lot of working class people were coming back from the war and demanding and struggling for the right to be educated. It emerges in that moment of the working class movements, particularly the early adult education movement. Williams, Thompson, and Hoggart were all adult educators, who were using things like newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets as their primary teaching texts, drawing on the actual life experience of their working class students. There were no set textbooks and no set curricula.

Williams was saying that cultural studies was not just an academic discipline. It was an intellectual project to democratize higher education. When Williams and Thompson and later Hall go to these powerful universities, namely Oxford and Cambridge, they all notice the same thing– a very limited and elitist understanding of culture; culture as ruling class culture. Williams saw culture as a whole way of life (and Thompson as a Marxist of course preferred to talk about culture as ‘a way of struggle’); it’s more than the storehouse of certain works and practices. It’s not just Shakespeare and the Mona Lisa and the Bible and so on. It’s also what people did in their communities. So it’s a political project in the sense that they were struggling to make the case for everyone around them at these institutions of higher education and culture that working class culture was worth studying. That’s one project of cultural studies, which is similar to the project I present today.

The other project of cultural studies, related to the earlier one, was defined by the struggle over meanings, ideas, ideologies, and curricula, over what gets included and gets excluded in the dominant understandings of culture. It is a political project to democratize and expand what we mean by culture itself.

So that’s what brings me to the present moment. One of the problems with the importation of cultural studies to the U.S. is that you lose the political context and the struggles associated with it. You lose the adult and working class education movements. You lose the New Left and the Labor Party and the labor movement. You lose many things and what remains is the theory and textual-critical interpretation of literary and popular cultural texts. A lot of people conflate cultural studies with post-modern theory and with academics trying to outsmart each other… a battle over who can speak Derridian or Foucauldian language better… what gets lost in the process is the political project and the political struggles.  I think that’s what Williams was reminding his audience of; and that’s what I want to bring back with my talk today, the need to re-politicize cultural studies. “Look it’s important to say what is specific about cultural studies as a field but it is more important not to forget that there is a political thing here, a political radical project.”

So you would urge people to think about a return to, or integration of, the political aspects of cultural studies.

Yes, to return to a commitment to radical politics and to the desire to want to be politically efficacious and relevant. The challenge of practicing cultural studies in the U.S. is that there are no significant radical social and political movements that you could attach cultural studies to. E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams were actually members of major leftist political parties. Even the two key figures that British cultural studies drew on were no mere theorists or academics. Gramsci was a leader of the Italian communist party and Althusser was a member of the French communist party. We talk about hegemony, conjunctural analysis, interpolation, subjectivity and so on and so forth, but we forget that Gramsci and Althusser developed these because of and within their immediate links to political work and struggle. This is political work through and through and not some kind of detached intellectual work produced in the ivory tower university. Marx used to talk about the necessary detour though theory. Theory is not the end. The end is to understand concrete social formations and help transform them. You want to be able to understand a social formation, intervene in it, and change it. So, theory is only good as long as it allows you to do that. There’s a lot of fancy political and cultural theory that doesn’t live up to the test. For me, good cultural studies work is work that understands the necessity of theoretical abstraction but is also, if not more importantly, committed to the need to produce “useful knowledge” that people in the street, outside of the academy and universities can then take and do something with to radically transform their own material conditions.

Of course I say all this with a lot of caution, because the last thing I want to do here is to somehow romanticize early British cultural studies or talk about it as some lost golden moment in the past of the field. Early cultural studies had its problems too. For example, it had a problematic relationship with Marxism, including a less than healthy skepticism of the uses of Marxist and critical political economic approaches to culture. And this included not just what one might call reductive Marxism, but also the more robust, non-reductive models, where cultural phenomena and cultural formations were understood within the context of their social totality. In fact, there is a sense in which one can see early cultural studies as a substitute of a more developed Marxism. But I don’t have the time to elaborate on this point here.

Of course this skepticism becomes even worse and turns into outright dismissal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially with the importation of cultural studies into the American academy. I think that this outright dismissal of Marxist political economy, and of Marxism more generally, works against the political project that cultural studies wants to be; it has been very costly for the field. That is why for me any serious revision of cultural studies and any new project of cultural studies has to start with a real engagement with Marxism and Marxist political economy. It is ironic that this dismissal, which is often made in the name of a commitment to non-reductivism and complexity, is itself reductive!

For me, any meaningful version of cultural studies has to do a few interrelated things: one, take Marxism more seriously, two, develop robust structural-conjunctural analyses of neo-liberal capitalism, and three, connect with (and also connect) and also help build actually existing social and political movements and formations outside the academy. These three tasks become especially urgent at a historical conjuncture characterized by a deep economic crisis that has brought to the surface once more and more than ever before (at least in our lifetime) not only the contradictions of global capitalism and the ugly realities and consequences of material inequality in people’s lives, but also new discourses, forms, and possibilities of collective resistance and struggle in the political and cultural realms. The job of a cultural studies that matters is to understand, study, explain, and help change this state of affairs.

Thank you. That’s a refreshing way to think about it. Considering the ways institutionalization has sometimes contributed to gutting projects of their political potential, what is the role of the Cultural Studies Association, and academic associations like it, in shaping the project of cultural studies?

That’s a very good question and a multi-layered one too. First let me say something about institutionalization. It seems to me that cultural studies and its practitioners have yet to take their institutionalization seriously.   Look my claim is very simple: After all has been said and done, cultural studies is already institutionalized and is increasingly being institutionalized. And this is something we should take very seriously. Whether we like it or not, cultural studies has already been institutionalized. In the context of cultural studies, institutionalization has always been presented as a, to quote  a phrase from Hall, a “moment of extraordinarily profound danger” and has generally been viewed as threat to what is otherwise a dynamic and energetic field. Hall was specifically talking about the explosion of cultural studies in the American academy.

I beg to disagree. I believe that this insistence on institutionalization as necessarily dangerous is one-dimensional and has been very costly for the field and its practitioners. Cultural studies’ commitment to transformative and radical politics and to the need to produce­ ‘useful political knowledge­’ calls for a cultural studies that is simultaneously interdisciplinary and­ anti-disciplinary. But it also demands a cultural studies that is methodologically and theoretically robust,­ coherent,­ and consistent,­ while at the same time self-reflexive and attentive­ to what goes on in other­ allied disciplines and fields,­ inside the university,­ and in the larger social world outside. It is true that cultural studies still appears and functions as an interdisciplinary critical and intellectual disposition across the humanities,­ social sciences and the arts. But it is becoming increasingly more common to encounter it as a­ ‘disciplinary­’ institutional formation,­ either as a degree program of study­ (both at the graduate and undergraduate levels­),­ a department,­ a certificate,­ or minor.­  Cultural Studies now has its own research centers,­ professional­ associations,­ international conferences,­ journals,­ and publication series. So I think it’s high time cultural studies started the important task of identifying,­ tracking,­ mapping,­ registering,­ theorizing,­ and evaluating cultural studies as an institutional formation. I believe that this project promises to yield some significant benefits.

And the Cultural Studies Association should begin, and in fact, has already begun that kind of work. Which brings me to the role of the CSA. Ideally one would like to see the association serve as a surrogate radical political party in the absence of a significant one, especially in the American context. At another level, the CSA should be a strong advocate for cultural studies as a specific intellectual practice. We have already started to take the lead on matters of broad import to higher education at large, from the threat to academic freedom, to the practice of “ideological exclusion” that denies tenure and employment to deserving scholars and visas to certain equally deserving foreign scholars, from the increasing corporatization and bureaucratization of public and non-for-profit private colleges and universities, to the overzealous dependence on and exploitation of adjunct and other non-tenure-track faculty labor. Our recent public positions on the Steven Salaita case and on the barbarous bombing of Palestinian universities and colleges are cases in point.

The CSA can also play a central role in defending the place of the university, the value of higher education as a public good, and the principles of academic freedom. It is both vital and necessary that the CSA takes an active role in these ongoing collective struggles to help promote these projects and ideas; to resist the increasingly demeaning working conditions of colleagues in the profession; and to defend against the threat neoliberal capitalism increasingly presents (especially at times of crisis) to a whole range of institutions of higher learning, and especially those that refuse to define themselves by the logic of privatization, marketization, and deregulation.

It is actually with all these issues in mind that we have decided upon next year’s conference theme: Another University is Possible: Praxis, Activism, and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy. And we have lined some of the best scholars and practitioners in the field to lead that conversation.

You also asked about the role of other organizations. Let me just say at the outset that in general very few people see value in what we do at the CSA or at our allied scholarly organizations in the humanities and social sciences.  So there is a lot work to be done at this front too. Struggling during hard economic times, many of our students, both graduate and undergraduate, are understandably anxious to know whether or not a degree in cultural studies or closely allied fields will allow them to at least repay their often burdensome loans and secure living wages. In times like these we need to insist on the value of public sphere universities and colleges which, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “offer a [much needed] sense of critical agency and social imagination.”  We also need to insist not only that our world desperately needs people who can read closely, critically, contextually, and historically, but also that intellectual work matters and that progressive education cannot be reduced to mere “job training” and to the acquisition and mastery of a set of fixed skills and techniques.  One of the primary tasks facing us as educators, community activists and artists, and students should center on developing new academic and intellectual projects and practices that provide students, among other things, with the educational opportunities and experiences to learn about and engage in the experience of (shaping) radical democracy and critical citizenship.

Finally, could you speak about your research and how it relates to the larger project of cultural studies?

My scholarship contributes to cultural studies as well as to American studies, Middle Eastern Studies, post-colonial studies, and critical theory. Grounded in the Birmingham-inspired cultural studies training I received in the Ph.D. Cultural Studies Program here at Mason, my primary scholarly project is to produce useful knowledge about the relation between political economic processes, cultural forms, ideological phenomena, and social formations. This agenda is realized in all my work, with the notable exception of my first book, which I wrote well before I became interested in cultural studies.

My first book (titled The Sirah of Antar: An Islamic Interpretation of Arab and Islamic History) was a comparative literary study on the Arab folk epic of Antar, an actual historical figure and poet. Antar was a pre-Islamic poet and warrior, who lived in Arabia right before the emergence of Islam. The story goes that he was a poor slave, who gained his freedom by virtue of his great poetry and heroic exploits. His poetry and exploits kept getting dramatized and exaggerated with every oral retelling of them as these were not originally committed to paper. By the time they were written, centuries later, you had a humongous multi-volume folk epic. It consisted of oral narratives that people in the souqs [markets] were sharing with each other. You know, in the Middle East and North Africa, you don’t go to the market just to buy things, you go there to enjoy music, watch shows and sports, and listen to poems and stories; of course it’s all changing now, but the souq was also a place for entertainment and working class cultural production. That’s how you get something like The One Thousand and One Nights, another oral narrative that is much more known in the West (under the wrong title, The Arabian Nights). The epic of Antar was actually more popular than the The One Thousand and One Nights in the Middle East and North Africa. So I was interested in examining this popular folk epic as an oral literary historical narrative. I wanted to know how this oral text was constituted by and also—in turn—helped constitute the socio-political and religious context within which it emerged. I guess you could consider this my attempt to join the then lively debates in historiography and literary theory about the value of oral history and oral literature for the study of history. My main argument was that oral literature is not only a helpful adjunct to written history, but can also change the whole focus and purpose of history and open up new avenues for the cultural historian.

That was my first book. I didn’t even know cultural studies then. I did my Master’s degree in Comparative Cultural Studies in Morocco, and what passed there as cultural studies was basically a mixture of the Frankfurt school, post-colonial theory, and comparative literature. For me, Cultural Studies was Adorno and Horkheimer, Benjamin and Marcuse. And also Edward Said and Homi Bhabha. I learned about Hall in a class called “African Literature” which was basically an introduction to postcolonial African literature and postcolonial studies. I didn’t know anything about Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, or E.P. Thompson. I didn’t know Hall as a cultural studies scholar but instead mainly as a postcolonial theorist. This was my education in the North African context, which was largely modelled on the French colonial system of higher education. When I came here, I started being exposed to cultural studies and got really intrigued by the history and the political commitments of the field. There was a lot of catching up to do!

My second book is Arab Modernities. This was fundamentally a critique of some of the dominant political ideologies of modernity and globalization in the post-colonial Arab world. I focus on Morocco and the Moroccan context. I wanted to study and ‘name’ the ideologies of Arab nationalism, Arab liberalism, and contemporary Islamism and in the process delineate the social, cultural, economic, and political conditions under which they first emerged. My aim was to shed light on Arab-Islamic societies at present and to do that in a way that moved away from the reductive analyses that were circulating in the post-9/11 context I found myself in here in the US. I was trying to argue (against the conventional wisdom) that ideology critique and analysis is necessarily complex and that it requires that we relate ideologies (in this case Arab-Islamic ideologies) themselves to ongoing social struggles, as these are embedded in their political-cultural-economic contexts.

I’ll mention two more projects and then stop. Most recently, I have co-edited (with my current colleague Sean Andrews, who is also a graduate of the program here) a special issue for the international journal Cultural Studies. The issue is Cultural Studies of/and the Law. Here we introduce here the notions of the ‘juridical turn’ and the ‘legal dominant’ to highlight the substantial role the law plays in the production of our social and cultural worlds.

I am also and have been for a while working on textbook, which I am tentatively calling Practicing Cultural Studies. I am thinking of this as a necessary intervention in the emergent debates on the epistemology and methodology of research in cultural studies. In the last several years, I have taught several sections of the cultural studies Methods seminar and have become increasingly dissatisfied and even frustrated (and so are many of my students) with the existing textbooks on cultural studies methodologies. Unlike most of these texts, which tend to produce and reproduce a very broad and misleading understanding of cultural studies, I introduce cultural studies as a very specific field, all along the lines I mentioned above.

So as you can see, given my work’s dual emphasis on contemporary American cultural studies and Middle Eastern Studies, it links a number of areas vital to contemporary scholarship and intellectual practice and it is quite varied and if anything too varied (which of course has both its advantages and disadvantages). But what I think brings everything together is the thread of cultural studies methodology and epistemology that I have committed myself to.

Thank you so much for your time and thoughts.

Thank you.