My free dive into cultural studies began in the borderlands of my PhD research that focussed on LGBT human rights, queer theory and Southeast Asia in the mid-to-late 1990s. Having re-located from Eora to Bundjalung Country and finding an academic home at Southern Cross University in Lismore in 1994, I was fortunate to be at the foundation of a School for Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies in 1999.
What emerged was a moment that brought together an incredible constellation of friends, scholars and thinkers: Wanning Sun, Gerard Goggin, Helen Wilson, Ros Mills, Fiona Martin, Justine Lloyd and later on Rob Garbutt, Kim Satchell, Dallas Baker, Rebecca Olive, Erika Kerruish and Soenke Biermann, among others. These wonderful folk were the kind of touchstones you needed in an academy where passion could flower with scholarship and critical enquiry.
Handed the task of establishing a cultural studies program, I set about understanding how cultural studies would work in a regional context. It was exciting, challenging and daunting! My free dive was not without its moments of confusion, anxiety and pathos, as well as moments of sharp clarity, seriousness and fun. At that time, the energies to activate a cultural studies presence in a rural and regional university were, fortunately unencumbered by the limits and expectations sometimes imposed on and by metropolitan and sandstone universities (like the University of Sydney, where I had studied Indian History, Indonesian and Sanskrit.) in which tradition might trump exploration and experiment.
Something about being in Lismore, at the junction of colonial, agricultural, alternative, Indigenous, media, environmental, counter-cultural, activist and protest-based regional experience and belonging/unbelonging, resonated strongly with the Birmingham roots of the cultural studies project, at least it seemed to us. Emboldened by Nick Couldry’s definition of cultural studies as “an expanding space for sustained, rigorous and self-reflexive empirical research into the massive power-laden complexity of contemporary culture,” we set about framing our approach to cultural studies pedagogy through identity, space and place.
At the heart of this was learning about the best of cultural studies traditions, concepts, methods, and attempting to forge a distinctive way to understand and express the deep structural features of social and cultural life (particularly through the lens of race, gender, sexuality, class, dis/ability), as they shape and mark our lived experience.
As I write this reflection post the catastrophic flooding of the Northern Rivers region earlier this year, I’m reminded of the precarious nature of our academic lives, of how our cultural studies scholarship too can be extinguished by the neo-liberal and managerial oriented university.
I wrote up the entire cultural studies unit, ‘Unruly Subjects: Citizenship’ (which later became a core unit in several humanities degrees) over three days in a motel room in Lismore, surrounded by the thoughts of Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Ziauddin Sardar, Ruth Lister and Elspeth Probyn. Sadly, I’ve heard the motel was destroyed by those recent floods. The unit, too, has finally been pulled from the SCU curriculum after 21 years. I suspect the activist thrust of the unit proved too much for management.
But what emerged at Southern Cross University was a cultural studies curriculum and critical pedagogy that offered imaginaries and paths to, and practices, of, hope – where hope is a verb (to use Bjork’s approach) associated with radical transformation. The passion was to develop a cultural studies education that enabled ‘affective voices’, agency and mutual respect drawn directly from the relevance of everyday life and issues of social justice.
Importantly, along the way I was indebted to the CSAA and the ACS as associations of cultural studies folk where the pedagogy of our curriculum and the investigations in our research could be tested and given critical and creative oversight.
I was lucky to attend, present and co-present at many of the annual conferences and events with my PhD students and colleagues over 20 years. With my colleagues, undergrad and postgrad students at SCU we even managed to host the 2010 CSAA conference ‘A Scholarly Affair’, held in the Byron Bay Community Centre. I vividly remember salient talks by postcolonial Indian theorist Vinay Lal, environmental humanities scholar Deborah Bird-Rose, Goorie author of Bundjalung and European heritage, Melissa Lucashenko, and sociologist Raewyn Connell. The conference extrapolated from Toni Morrison’s insight that ‘racism is a scholarly affair.’
The rich, generative and often wild energies of these gatherings can’t be overstated when they work at their best. The generosity of academics and scholars was generally amazing. Even when I felt an outsider (as a queer, non-drinking, Maori academic from a regional uni in sandals), the scope of the CSAA was just open enough to create and sustain interstitial and intersectional relations.
I am immensely grateful to have been a part of this activist and intellectual community. For example, it gave me the strength to move beyond having a ‘mouth full of blood’ to having the intellectual and creative verve to engage with my own lived experience about suicide through a decolonising frame. It strikes me as a moment of poignant reflection that during my PhD research I presented on a panel alongside Rob Cover in the catalysing queer conference ‘Activate/Reactivate’ at Sydney Uni, I believe held in 1997-1998. Through the years, he and I have met at many cultural studies crossroads. His work in critical suicide studies has radically contributed to cultural studies scholarship. So, it’s noteworthy that he’s now part of the CSAA conference team organising the 30th anniversary. He is just one example of how powerful these crossroads are!
Baden Offord is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Human Rights at Curtin University and is of Māori Pākehā heritage. His research in cultural studies has contributed to innovations in understanding human rights, cultural citizenship, critical pedagogy, and issues of social justice. Among his recent publications are: (co-edited with Fleay, Hartley, Woldeyes and Chan) Activating Cultural and Social Change: Pedagogies of Human Rights, (Routledge, 2022) and the essay ‘Becoming human: lived experience, suicide and the complexities of being’, (https://overland.org.au/2019/07/becoming-human-lived-experience-suicide-and-the-complexities-of-being/). In 2021 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) ‘For distinguished service to tertiary education in the field of human rights, social justice, and cultural diversity.’