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Note from the author: This article was written as a provocative short piece to answer the call from Melissa to ‘boost’ the departmental ‘Thinking Culture’ blog. I regretted writing it as soon as I had finished it and sent it out to Sarah and Viv. But as Sarah and Viv have kindly agreed to write articles in response to it, and as we have reached understanding that this is an academic discussion instead of a personal attack, I post this article here to invite more comments and discussions from the departmental staff and student community (and those interested in the issue). Sarah’s and Viv’s responses are coming soon, and I expect that they are going to be very tough.


It has always been a pleasure to attend departmental seminars and postgrad work-in-progress seminars. But recently I have been more and more concerned with the issue of using history in cultural studies. In the Digital/Media seminar held on April 16, the two guest speakers talked about the intersectionality of digital media and Australian politics. While the two talks were extremely interesting (for example, I learned how to spell the word ‘possum’ from the seminar), I was often lost because of their use of historical references, including the names of the supposedly famous Australian politicians and the year when something important happened. I wished that I had known these names, dates and events half as much as my Australian colleagues did, and that I could enjoy the talks even more with a better appreciation of the humour, puns and ironies in these talks. But apparently I need to take an Australian history class or stay in Australia longer in order to understand these references. As I felt ashamed by my ignorance, I also realised that I was not the only one in the audience who did not understand these historical references. In fact, the seminar audience had come from different countries and cultures — it is great that we are building a multicultural community in this department — and some might feel as puzzled and frustrated as I did. It might seem that Australian history (and ‘Western history’) is ‘common sense’ in this country, but it isn’t. One of the things that I have learned from writing my thesis and giving presentations is that I cannot assume my readers and audience to know as much Chinese history as I do. I, therefore, need to explain every name and every year of historical significance to the audience. I believe that the audience would appreciate a brief explanation of the key historical figures and dates from the presenters even in a couple of words, such as ‘Pauline Hanson, a conservative Australian politician’.

On a different matter, which also concerns the use of history in cultural studies. The work-in-progress seminar on April 23 was brilliant. I was truly impressed with the excellent work done by my colleagues, but I was not sure that I was convinced by their use (or lack of use) of history. Viv gave a wonderful presentation on ‘trans temporality’. I tried to picture the lives of trans people that I know back in China in order to understand ‘trans temporality’. This did not work (that well). I figured out from some examples in the talk that this might refer specifically to trans people in Australia. But is it a general phenomenon all across Australia (and maybe the West considering Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place) or across the world? Is it a recent phenomenon or has it always been the case historically? Or if people have different temporalities at different times, why do we bother to single out the ‘trans temporality’? I am an outsider of transgender studies but am really interested in knowing more about the topic. It would, therefore, be helpful to give some historical and social contexts (and maybe some political/theoretical debates) for the issue in question so that the audience could gain more from the talk. I like Sarah’s genealogy of feeling in feminist knowledge (in fact, I am a big fan of Sarah and her project). It seems to me that the project would be more interesting if she could specify what historical period of feminist knowledge she is discussing, how the different authors she quotes use the same term ‘feeling’ to mean perhaps different things, and how they framed their discussions about feeling in relation to different political and academic debates. This might be a huge project, and perhaps even a different project from what Sarah is doing. But I somehow wish that there could be more historicisation in her presentation.

These examples, albeit with different focuses, lead to the question of whether, and how, to use history in cultural studies. I use the examples from the departmental seminar series simply as a matter of convenience. By giving these examples, I am not talking about a single and unique experience; nor do I have any intention of criticising or offending anyone. I understand that no scholarship is perfect and how difficult it is to be an academic. I also understand that there are different types of scholarship in cultural studies: while some strive to address specific social and cultural issues, some endeavour to target more general philosophical concerns, the kind of disciplinary and methodological diversities that draw me to cultural studies. I am also aware that in cultural studies (which I use in a broad sense to include feminism and queer theory), academics tend to talk about an issue with some ‘universal’ applicability and to a broader audience (e.g. Foucault on power, Deleuze on desire and Butler on gender). Is it true that abstract theorisation does not need historicisation and contextualisation? Can we argue that as cultural studies mostly deal with ‘contemporary’ issues, we do not need to go back to history or situate these issues in historical contexts? I am reminded of Frederic Jameson’s call for ‘always historicise!’ and Meaghan Morris’ warning that cultural studies needs history (Too Soon, Too Late). Maybe I am too old fashioned; or, am I overly sensitive to postcolonial politics in academic knowledge production?

Comments

Hi Hongwei - I'm Jason, one of the presenters at the seminar you mentioned. You're absolutely right - I for one didn't take into account that there would be people in the audience who wouldn't know Australian politics intimately. I will try in future not to make assumptions about the levels of familiarity with the Australian political scene in the audience. Perhaps part of my problem as a "political tragic" is that I think everyone takes as much of an interest as I do! Anyway, thanks for your response, and I hope to see you around at some stage soon.

Hi, Jason,

Thanks for your message, which certainly came as a suprise to me.( Now I have more reasons to blame myself.) I appreciate your frankness, and I am sorry for making references to the seminar. The talks at the seminar are very interesting. And as a guest speaker, you should not taking responsibility for not knowing the ethnic/cultural composition of the audience, and for the lack of knowledge of Australian politics on the part of some audience members. However, I think that it is still helpful to remember that Australia is a multicultural country (or it tries to be a 'multiculturtal' country) and racial politics is as important as those big names and great events in Australian history. Looking forwarding to meeting you sometime and learning more about Australian politics, apart from about 'possum'.

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A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one. - Benjamin Franklin

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