Cultural stasis? Not here

February 20, 1998

Parallax faces some tough competition in the cultural studies journal market, an ever more contested space. Sage alone has recently launched two new entrants, Journal of European Cultural Studies and Journal of International Cultural Studies. Yet paradoxically Parallax sees its raison d'etre in the current state of play suggesting that "the very institutional legitimation that has enabled the success of cultural studies has also producedI a stalemate that now demands critique". This is a journal that wants to shove a spanner in the works, to be the fly in the ointment in this all too cosy arrangement.

From the evidence of the first five issues, it has not done badly. The publication follows a familiar formula of themed issues. Issue 1, on "Cultural Studies and Philosophy", has a potentially broad appeal. There are some big names among the dramatis personae, including Gayatri Spivak, professor of English at Columbia University, and Jean Baudrillard, giant of postwar French post-structuralist philosophy. On close inspection though, some of these star turns are in fact reheated leftovers in one way or another. Spivak's contribution is two conference interventions from 1993, and Baudrillard's is the translation of a piece that appeared in a French journal the following year.

Nevertheless the overall contents often stray from the traditional heavy academic text and footnotes format. There is an interview (with philosopher Christopher Norris) and a conversation, the transcript of a discussion between a bunch of intellectual types about a book subtitled On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". In a questionnaire section, printed on orange paper, various respondents including Sadie Plant - latterly cyberstudies expert at Warwick University and recipient of the epithet "the most interesting woman in Britain" from The Guardian - are subjected to a catechism concerning cultural studies' incestuous rapport with philosophy.

The lexicon of cultural studies is often attacked as obtuse and jargon riddled. The subject is seen as a closed world inhabited by people speaking in tongues that only they themselves understand. Stephanie Ellis in her introduction to Issue 5, on "Work/Space", distinguishes between art and academia "with their clunky divisions between text and visual work". She writes: "In order to be intelligible, we decide to mimic the existing parades of separation between the spheres and disciplines, a practice that appears to run counter to the subject of our investigation, the co-fabrication of these categories." The translated Baudrillard piece, "Radical thought" goes further down the "pretentious, moi?" road that cultural studies is famed for. "Cipher to decipher. Work the illusion. Delude in order to produce events. Render enigmatic what is clear, unintelligible what is only too unintelligible, unreadable the event itself," reads one entire paragraph. It could be a series of advertising slogans for designer clothing or drinks in The Face, and therefore gets us back into that vicious circle that is everyday discourse, not the critique that Parallax aspires to.

As the journal continues, it appears to increase in confidence. Design-wise, the plain-covered issues 1 and 2 look akin to a straight academic journal. By issues 4 and 5, the final product is more aesthetically pleasing. A single stylish black-and-white image adorns the cover of each: the sort of picture that could quite happily fit inside the covers of one of the lifestyle magazines that symptomise the spread of cultural critique beyond academia. The staid primary-colour coding has been replaced by wilder fluorescent hues. The subject matter has also become bolder. Parallax 4, with Francoise Sagan peeping out on the cover, is consecrated to two French philosophers little known in the UK: Georges Bataille and the Russian emigre Alexandre Koj ve (printed on green and orange pages respectively).

Issue 5 calls for papers for forthcoming editions, which promise to be at least mildly diverting. No. 6, "The avant garde and after", is cleverly subheaded "from Tel-Quel to L'Infini". Issue 11 looks particularly interesting: its title, "Polemics against Cultural Studies", taken to its logical conclusion could even be arguing cultural studies out of a job. "Why has the polemical impetus of yesteryear disappeared? Has cultural studies closed the ranks in solidarity against attack, or do we not publish for fear of jeopardising our careers?" asks the blurb. Naturally it says Parallax should be the platform for a reconsideration of what it calls "polemics as a crucial and generative part of any critical engagement with the production of cultural knowledges". In an age of reason, perhaps objectivity has triumphed over subjectivity. "We urge you to take a risk," Parallax beseeches us.

For Parallax to last, it needs to establish a distinctive identity. This is not to say that it must choose between being a popular publication such as The Face or an academic heavyweight in a New Left Review vein. It is possible to marry the two strands, but the trap of falling between two stools must be avoided.

My major criticism is that the theme formula can sometimes severely restrict the relevance of individual issues to the wider public. Issue 4 contains nothing but its rather daring chosen theme, rendering it unimportant to people from other fields of study. A better way of doing this might be to devote half of each issue to "theme" and the rest to "other content", as Soundings, Lawrence and Wishart's newest "journal of culture and politics" does. Also, avoid French thinkers and prose bordering on the grandiloquent, which are heavily represented - but one could say that this is an occupational hazard of cultural studies.

There is good clear writing too. The essay "Black skin/white boards: learning to be the 'race' lady in higher education", by Gargi Bhattacharyya of Birmingham University, deserves a mention for displaying a sense of humour and describing a situation (the ghettoisation of ethnic minority teaching staff in subject terms) that might strike a chord with other THES readers.

Cultural studies, for all the grown-up tendencies it has displayed of late, has had to face some rather negative publicity, not least in the press, The THES included. Perhaps attacks on the subject as "Dallas studies" that the Sunday papers peddle miss the point. As Raymond Williams once stated, "culture is ordinary". Today it is probably the Teletubbies that the current cultural studies undergrads are analysing, evaluating their meaning, form and contribution to contemporary forms of popular culture as we speak. And quite right too. Long may cultural studies continue and long may Parallax prosper.

Rupa Huq is researching a PhD in cultural studies at the University of East London.

Parallax: A Journal of Metadiscursive Theory

Editor - Joanne Morra and Marquand Smith
ISBN - ISSN 1353 4645
Publisher - Taylor and Francis
Price - £120.00 and £35.00

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