Writing by backlight

Tara Brabazon challenges her students to break from their reliance on Google and read Poulantzas in the original

May 1, 2008




I always teach students to consider – both in their daily lives and in their scholarship – what questions are not being asked? What group, topic or issue is seemingly invisible to comment and criticism? This process is schooled from years of re-reading E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. While EPT, writing with anger rather than by candlelight, pushed generations of students to see the gaps and log the silences of those excluded from history, Google’s Page Rank makes asking these questions difficult. Wikipedia – frequently the first return from most searches including E.P. Thompson – removes “original” research from entries and demands a “neutral” point of view from editors. In other words, it is “an encyclopaedia” of consensus and dominant ideology rather than resistive scholarship and unpopular knowledge. Common sense and neutrality are rarely pathways to wisdom, let alone equality.

As a teacher and writer of curriculum, it is (too) easy to complain about “dumbing down” and “falling literacies”. It is also pointless. The key is not to whine but to intervene. In response to a series of scholarly wounds in the academic body politic – the proliferation of textbooks, underresourced libraries, disrespected librarians and the enforcement of mediocrity (sorry, “standards”) through subject benchmarks – I decided to initiate a curriculum intervention this year. I wanted my first-year students to read – in the original – conceptually and theoretically difficult work. They may not understand all of it. They may not understand any of it. But the experiment was to ensure that students, early in their degree, experience the thrill, confusion, doubt and challenge of working through intellectually demanding material.

While teaching the documentary films created during and after “the Michael Moore effect” on the genre, I deployed Nicos Poulantzas’s writing on power and social change. My East Croydon posse sighed: “We ‘did’ hegemony in the first semester.” I asked the posse – as a favour to me – to complete their reading even if the vocabulary left them baffled, and to attend the lecture. Instead of flicking through textbooks and lists of key concepts in media and cultural studies, I wanted them to work against Wikipedia’s mandates on originality and neutrality to probe innovative, politicised scholarship that shatters truths and agitates common sense.

The resulting session was one of the most remarkable two hours of my scholarly life. The students struggled and swore, were challenged and confused, but they recognised Poulantzas as a great mind who was helping them understand how power operates – both inside and outside popular culture. They are so accustomed to a screen environment of Facebook posts, PowerPoint slides and text messages. All I asked was that they commit to reading something that they may not understand. This session was a way to teach intellectual generosity and the tissue of connectivity that links the generations through scholarship.

Google’s first returned search for Poulantzas was Wikipedia. This short entry did not help them. They could not fall back on to semiotic exercises “finding” the sexism or racism in advertising. Neither was it a Leninist investiture, explaining to students that we are wage slaves waiting for the revolution or at least the next Billy Bragg album.

The difficulty confronting our current students treading through the ashes of September 11 – alongside the staff who teach them – is how do we understand social change? Is blogging a resistive act? Or, to put the problem another way, why do “we” know more about Britney Spears than about Tibet?

I blame Pierre Bourdieu for this radical dip into the history of ideas. It is significant that the theorist of choice for fashionable academics at the moment is Bourdieu. In every PhD I mark these days and every refereed article I review, he is there. Even if there seems no actual connection to the topic, it is still supposedly important to reference Distinction or The Field of Cultural Production.

Why is Bourdieu top of the academic pops? Compared with Althusser, Poulantzas or Foucault, Bourdieu offers simple yet elegant investigations of cultural capital. Basically Bourdieu is Althusser for hippies. He is not the most important theorist in the contemporary humanities, but is strangely appropriate for a Facebook age.

In a strop while reading another proto-article using GBR (Gratuitous Bourdieu References) I conducted an electronic experiment. Inspired by the citation excitements of future research assessments, I wanted to see how Google Scholar mapped “importance” in scholarship. As an arbitrary – but repeatable – trace of influence, I investigated the first two pages (20 titles) from Google Scholar for four theorists. Here are my results.

Bourdieu 28,696

Foucault 26,631

Althusser 5,016

Poulantzas 2,285

Unlike rock ’n’ roll, where an early death ensures endless fame, the death of scholars in the analogue age ensures redundancy, invisibility and ignorance for digital researchers. The earlier a scholar dies in the crossover from analogue to digital, the less important they appear to be in our current research. This denial of history in a trade for an eternal present means that students lose dense research of the analogue age. This is the fun of citations. By this ranking Bourdieu is more than five times more important than Althusser and 14 times more significant than Poulantzas. In the digital discourse, popularity and importance is confused.

There is no doubt that the intellectual vacuum created through the death and confinement of Poulantzas and Althusser increased Foucault’s presence and citations, seemingly by default. Louis Althusser reached his peak of influence in media and cultural studies in the 1970s. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish appeared in English in 1977. However, the trajectory of Althusser’s scholarly fame is tethered to his murder of his wife in 1980. He remained in an asylum until his death in 1990. His late scholarly works from that time include The Future Lasts a Long Time and Philosophy of the Encounter. These works are effective entries into Althusser’s world, but our students are much more interested in the details of his wife’s death.

Through the gothic excitement of the murder, students can work with and through knotty scholarship. Analogue ideas can and should frame digitised discourses. However, as the commercial aggregation of journals and refereed articles increases, the importance of analogue publishers, analogue books and well-stocked academic libraries becomes crucial.

The publisher Verso continues to keep Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism in print, with a Stuart Hall essay in introduction. It also released The Poulantzas Reader in April this year. Through this challenging analogue reading, there may be an opportunity for digital intervention in theories of the state and power. We may stop conflating digitisation with democracy and commit – not to the freedom of wiki editing – but stopping the bleeding of public institutions.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton

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