It’s December 2019. I’m about to present a paper at the CSAA conference at the University of Queensland. I’m in a spectacular lecture theatre where I saw the great Meaghan Morris present a paper just yesterday. But the story actually starts back in the 1990s.
My sojourns through the varied terrain of cultural studies began on the Gold Coast, when I took a double major in theatre and visual art at Griffith University. It was as incongruous as it sounds, a bunch of baby goths, stage kids and writers, all flung together finding harbour in a town that wasn’t known for the likes of us. All first-year students, back then, needed to enrol in a subject in their first semester called ‘The Arts in Perspective 1’ and I fully expected us to be quite firmly reminded that the arts were of very little importance; this was the beginning of the Howard era, after all. I was in the first cohort to pay extra for HECS under newly increased fees, and the mood of the country was moving. Pauline Hanson was screeching the airwaves and suddenly ‘refugee’ was a dirty word.
I was expecting to stay humble.
I remember the first lecture. It was a kind of welcome to uni address and then Dr Patricia Wise said something startling, ‘most of you will end up with a PhD.’ Through the next two semesters, she would guide us through a cornucopia of theory texts, which offered lenses to understand, or try to, the place of the artist, or just the place of us, within the world we were coming of age within. When Port Arthur’s bullets shattered our minds, we contextualised it through traditional gender roles and the harm these things can do. I, like many of my cohort, found voices to articulate things we had begun to notice but not yet really say, not on our own.
In a traditional structure of a one-hour lecture and two-hour tute, we learnt a kind of revolution. Instead of ill-formed feelings and anecdotes about our observations of the world, we learnt to communicate them as ideas, of some value – augmented by French theory even! For a bunch of Gold Coast misfits, arty budding intellectuals on the glitzy and seedy Glitter Strip, this was transformative.
I left Cultural Studies aside for two years – my passion was for art and drama, but when my honours year came hurtling towards me, theory returned, and with gusto. I devoured texts by Morris, Barthes, Probyn, Foucault, Spivak, Gatens, Hall, Broadhurst, and the ones we didn’t understand so easily, Deleuze and Guttari (which I always liked to round to D&G, like fashion provocateurs of the day Dolce e Gabanna), Agamben, and so many more. Again, who was there to champion this way of thinking that took our experiences and made them deep thoughts, and eventually works of art, but the same Dr Pat Wise, or Pat as she was colloquially known. I learnt how to tell high theory through storytelling, long before I’d heard of Autotheory.
Then a PhD beckoned with the roll of the new millennium. I’d just completed my honours degree and had become accustomed to this weave of theory and art. Pat became my supervisor.
Now, back to 2019, with the setting being UQ for the CSAA conference. I’m on a panel alongside my actual next-door neighbour – and we live in the mountains outside of the city so it’s quite remarkable, one of the circus performers-now-PhD- academics that I went to uni with, and two or so other
cultural theorists discussing their applications of theory to corporeal practice. One of my colleagues, who I now teach cultural studies alongside, sits to the side smiling.
The now-Associate Professor Pat Wise is watching a panel of presentations of at least three of her former students, all from that unexpected little Gold Coast enclave and I can’t quite imagine what seeing that fruition might feel like. She’s seen it all, from me, and from many, weaving through my Cultural Studies career like the roots of a rhizome.
I now teach Cultural Studies and have postgrad students of my own. I’m even the state rep for the CSAA, and I have some new research. It’s leaning on Lacan this time, and Femme theory. Afterwards she tells me ‘I was dead impressed.’ I impressed the impressive.
That’s the kind of thing that happens at a CSAA conference.
Dr Lola Meghann Montgomery is a senior lecturer in the Master of Creative Industries at SAE Institute. Her PhD was an exegesis and creative component, focusing on the lives experience of burlesque performance.