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Guest post by Sarah Cefai

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Hongwei. I think that the question of how to locate your work when you are speaking publicly is a really important one. You never know exactly what your audience knows. This is particularly so in an interdisciplinary learning environment, where the people in your audience have very different levels and kinds of knowledge.

As a speaker you have to presume a level of understanding, yet you only have a certain amount of choice over making this presumption for it already substantially inheres in the concepts and language that comprise your work. Something else to consider is that some types of research and styles of knowing are more accessible than others because of their cultural and political location; it would be paradoxical and impractical to place a demand for ‘accessibility’ on intellectual criticism. That said, I genuinely share in some of your frustration. As a Brit I’m sure I experience it in quite different terms: while I might not necessarily understand the disciplinary history of other peoples’ projects, the use of the English language, for example, is never something that registers as an impediment to understanding.

If the first part of your argument questions the means by which we can construct discursive spaces that are genuinely integrative and accommodating of cultural and disciplinary difference, the second part concerns the place of history in cultural analysis. You make reference to the need for scholars to explicate the context of their research, and suggest that this contextualisation could take place through providing more information about the dates, scenes and sites that the speaker names. This is the kind of information that takes the form of historical knowledge.

However, I think there is a risk in positing history as an answer to the call for sensitivity towards location and cultural difference. My kind of ironic response is that historicisation and the privileging of history can in fact precisely close off knowledge along national and disciplinary lines. I read your comments as a demand for a better politics of knowledge; this politics can be geographical and sociological, without being historical. Obviously ‘history’ always matters – duh! What I am questioning is the possibility of knowing exactly what we are doing with that term ‘history’ when we are not trained in the discipline of history, or when our research is not historical study. Isn’t there a risk of using the concept of history in a singularising way? Rather than turning to History as a proper body of knowledge, we can turn to all the research in the social sciences that seeks to understand the positionality of the researcher and the power relations involved in research practice (including speaking in public).

I hear your call for speakers to question their presumptions of “common sense” as a call for us to question our presumptions of common knowledge. On this front, I think that class is intersecting strongly with nationality. But contrary to your sense, mine is that as postgraduates in an Arts and Humanities department, we either know or are expected to know canonical and middle class historical knowledges as a matter of course. This sense is really subjective, and reflects my own nationalised relationship to class (as someone from a working/immigrant to middle-class background; who felt very out of place attending a higher class university as an undergraduate, and who continues to feel out of place in contexts where the expectation that you will know and understand certain (literary and Euro-Christian) texts and traditions is the norm).

It is too simple to even talk about history as a discipline. I am miffed by the current campaign slogan “White Australia has a Black History”. Really? What work is History’s imperialistic slippage doing here? (And more pertinently and literally, what is ‘history’ doing here in Australia?) In this context, could you get any more European and colonial than the very concept of ‘history’? When I read this slogan on posters around campus, I see a painful schism between the impossibility of Indigenous Australian knowledges ever mattering in a hegemonic way to the Australian national context, and a desire for the recognition of Indigenous Australia that this colonial concept of history is being mobilised to express. (This does, for me, beg the question of whether or not this very desire for Indigenous difference is inescapably a neo-colonial one?) Of course, what I see is skewed by more than a ‘lack’ of domestic cultural knowledge. My vision is shaped in the intersection of foreign national histories (largely but not solely British) as they have been subjectively inscribed, with what has been inscribed and taken place here, on and in making Australian soil. These are national histories that have already intersecting histories, multiple and tongue tied. Perhaps ‘Black History’ has its own more recent Indigenous reappropriation of the very meaning of history? But in whose eyes? So my question here is (and perhaps you would share this question with me): thinking about class and nationality, what counts as historical, and for whom?

One last thing… In reference to the place of my paper in your critique: I want to insist that my work is located in Gender Studies and not Cultural Studies (okay, feminist cultural studies at a push, but I have a point to make). These are not, and should not be, collapsible fields. (Especially not just because they ‘co-exist’ on a departmental level in one particular institution, and when we know that institutional decisions are arbitrary and strategic.) They are also not, and should not be made to be, answerable to one another. I think we need to think about the politics of ‘including’ feminism and queer theory in Cultural Studies (my head is spinning as I write that). Does it matter how we frame identity knowledges through their cross-disciplinary histories and ‘homes’ (Sociology, Geography, History, English, as well as the disciplines those knowledges have come to substantiate, such as Gender Studies)? We also need to question what happens to critical race and postcolonial studies in this; would you also ‘include’ them in Cultural Studies? Why and why not?


I feel like I am walking into something pretty intense here, but I'll throw in some thoughts because I'm currently doing a genealogy of the relationship between Christianity/School/State, so this debate is always at the back of my mind:

perhaps a disctinction between a historicist sensibility and history as such may serve to clarify the matter. On the one hand, I understand Hongwei to be insisting on the former with good reason; words are deployed differently at different spatiotemporal moments and it is important to unearth their 'conditions of possibility' (lest we trade in some sexed-up idealism). On the other hand, Sarah is rightly critiquing the notion of "history" preceisely by questioning its conditions of possibility(!) Her question "what counts as historical, and for whom?" clearly shows that she is not opposed to the call to "always historicise!", which is evidently not the same as "doing history". I think this is why writers like Foucault/Agamben/Sloterdijk rarely identify their work as history.

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.