It wasn’t long after I graduated when I attended my first CSAA conference in the early 1990s, so I was still quite junior. I’d been reading cultural theory for some years but, completing a thesis in intellectual history, it had never occurred to me that cultural studies was a thing, let alone a thing for me. I hadn’t been part of that generation that had forged cultural studies in Australia.
I’d been to several conferences in other areas and had found them to be clubs that I hadn’t been invited to join. The CSAA conferences in the 1990s, on the other hand, were welcoming. Sure, there was a discourse I hadn’t mastered, and there were debates and histories that were still mysteries, but this mattered less.
I discovered early on that cultural studies operated as a relatively open intellectual space, and this was especially important for postgraduates and early career researchers. Indeed, I would argue that, after that initial phase of the constitution of cultural studies here, it became a space where HDRs and ECRs could play significant roles. This was institutionalised in the CSAA executive and in Continuum.
It’s not that there weren’t celebrities in cultural studies – these were people who had created this space. But I remember that, at an early conference in Fremantle, I found myself sitting with luminaries such as Meaghan Morris and Ien Ang, feeling a bit weird and, yet, at home. And that defined cultural studies for me.
Cultural studies has long agonised over whether it is a discipline. It certainly has not had the kind of institutional solidity that other disciplines have. This has produced problems, and often threatened the viability of cultural studies, but at the time this fluidity offered opportunities for younger academics and students. The absence of an extensive institutional basis meant that most people who gathered at the CSAA conference came from somewhere else. Cultural studies was not what most people had studied or taught.
For me, the CSAA conference was an exploratory space, where people often played with ideas and material they did not deploy in workaday university life. This is what drew me in. There was always a different vibe at cultural studies conferences – perhaps carnivalesque is too strong – but conversations amongst postgrads and ECRs often centred around the ‘stars’: how they looked, performed, whether they disappointed. Indeed, I gave a conference paper on conferences one year which argued that gossip, gurus and groupies were crucial to the ‘communitas’ of the field.
To foreground the degree of open-ness I found is not to suggest that cultural studies conferences were utopian spaces. They had hierarchies, feuds and arseholes. I remember early on I approached someone who had just given a keynote and said it was great: he put me in my place, saying, ‘as if I need your approval’. I shrank away. But the relative flatness of relations gave me my most pleasurable moments, when a feisty female student tore shreds off a pompous senior male (sadly not the one above). I cheered inside.
But that’s an account of a time past. I can’t say that the fluidity of cultural studies has been so advantageous over the last 15 years or so, but then I can no longer claim to experience the excitement of discovering such a space for the first time. The absence of the institutional solidity that disciplines like sociology have leaves a big question mark over the future of cultural studies. But one thing is certain: postgrads and ECRs must be at its heart for it to flourish.
Bio: Greg Noble is Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. He was a member of the CSAA executive (1999-2006), ran its newsletter for several years and helped organise 2 conferences (1999, 2016), and an editor of Continuum (2007-2015).