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Creativity and Academic Activism: Instituting Cultural Studies

by Meaghan Morris and Mette Hjort, Editors
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012
297 pp. Trade, $89.95; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 9781932643206; ISBN: 9781932643022.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Initially conceived as the proceedings of a conference organized by Lignan University, which played a leading role in the introduction and subsequent institutionalization of cultural studies in East-Asia, this collection has grown into an important collection of essays that raise fundamental questions on “doing” cultural studies today, in a highly competitive and almost completely entrepreneurial oriented academic context. It offers a wide range of innovative, thought-provoking and revitalizing insights that are not only dramatically helpful for the new field of Inter-Asian cultural studies, but that help rethink what should be at stake in the (often reluctantly or unhappily) established field of cultural studies in the Anglo-Saxon universities.

For many reasons, this is a very timely publication, which should be read by all those interested in cultural studies as well as by one of the key notions mentioned in the title of the book (creative industries, activism, academic life, institutionalization). First of all, the texts gathered by Morris and Hjort are deeply rooted in the financial, managerial, ethical and professional crisis that has been shaking the humanities for nearly two decades now (Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins dates back from 1996 already!). In such a context, the traditional, yet often slightly hypocritical, reluctance of cultural studies scholars to institutionalize their activism, needs of course to be questioned in new ways, and the examples given by the contributors to this book should provide traditional cultural studies scholars with many new ideas, a lot of new energy and, why not, a certain degree of shame. For it would be absurd to imagine that the working conditions in East-Asian universities are by definition more open to cultural reflection and cultural activism than those in US, UK, or Australian ones.

What are the most important lessons one can draw, in this regard, from Creativity and Academic Activism. First of all, this book defends a new stance toward institutionalization. Instead of considering the step from activism to institutionalization as a way of giving up one’s ideals (of criticism, of social commitment, of political labor, etc.), the authors of this book demonstrate that institutionalization is not only valuable in itself, but the inevitable result of a job well done. Institutionalization is no longer seen as something that signifies the end of a process, and even a dead end, but a tool, a springboard, a warrant that further action can be undertaken. Second, the book does also criticize the idea that there would be an incompatibility between institutionalization and participation to social, cultural, political and economic life outside academia. To institutionalize does not mean to turn away from society, but on the contrary to open the walls of academia to the needs, the interrogations, the expectations of society, more particularly to those groups in society that are most waiting for support from critical engagement with mainstream culture. Third, Creativity and Academic Activism makes also very clear that there exists no single answer to the need for institutionalization. Struggling with the imperative to adopt the standards of US dominated academic life (for instance as far as publication issues are concerned), the authors of this book, not all of them Asian-born or raised but often working in East-Asian institutions, insist without any exception on the necessary local aspects of what it means to do cultural studies, although this localism is also a tool for rethinking in a glocal manner regional (inter-Asian) and global (mass media and creative industries related) aspects.

The courage and openness with which the innumerable smaller and larger difficulties of humanist research in East-Asian academia is tackled in this book, should be taken as an example by all those working in institutions where cultural studies are now part of the core curriculum since many decades, and make room for much needed self-criticism (which is not the same as masochism).

However, the importance of the collection by Morris and Hjort goes far beyond the many examples of critical and political engagement at the crossroads of academia and society. It touches also upon a certain number of theoretical discussions that may be extremely important for cultural studies in general, which can learn a lot from the case studies discussed throughout the book.  Particularly interesting in this regard are for instance the essays by Dai Jinhua (who teaches both in Bejing and at Ohio State University) and Koichi Iwabuchi (from Monash University). The former analyzes the spread of a certain type of mass popular amusement in Chinese mainstream culture to critically question the basic concepts of cultural studies itself: culture, popular culture, mass culture, audience, minority, mainstream, hegemony, etc. The latter tackles no less important issues: culture, soft culture, national culture, international (as well as inter-national) culture, cultural marketing, etc., using the (not always successful) Japanese attempts to take economic benefit from the circulation of certain mass media products such as manga, anime, and soaps.

It would be unfair however to single out just these two essays, when the whole book contains so many fascinating discussions of notions, debates, theories, struggles, demands, and tricky situations which cultural studies scholars all over the world will immediately recognize. Tensions between pedagogy and research on the one hand and ever-increasing bureaucratic control and managerial measurement on the other hand make a bell ring in Anglo-Saxon institutions as well. The shift from culture to cultural industries, and the growing impact of financial and legal dimensions of culture will definitely do the same. And so will do also the permanently renewed desire not to abandon political and social commitment to what one is doing after hours (if there is still an “after hours” in the 25/8 enterprise university). In a very honest, modest, and direct way, the examples given in this book all show that cultural studies can only exist in the doing, and that doing cultural studies remains possible even in situations and environments that, at first sight, seem to condemn it as something of the past.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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