Here is the title plus a short outline of the topic Lawrence Grossberg will be addressing when he delivers a keynote lecture as part of the launch event for the Creating Publics project on 26 March at the Open University:
Practices of Knowledge in a Complex World: Experiments in collaboration and conversation
While there are many conversations about the university under attack, I want to begin with the uncertainties of knowledge itself—the result in part of attacks from both the left and the right, but more importantly, from the very practices that worked so well for the past century. Cultural studies, as I understand it, begins with a responsibility to its context, a responsibility expressed in its effort to produce the best knowledge possible. But that means transforming the material practices and social relations of intellectual labor, experimenting in new collaborations, imagining new conversations and rearticulating the university as an institution.
Debate about how academic labour needs to be, or is being, redistributed and about how research practices are being, or need to be, reconfigured is certainly very lively at the moment. Yesterday there was a post on the LSE’s Impact blog by the chemist Matthew Todd who – following a slightly earlier intervention by a Cambridge mathematician – publicly announced he is joining a growing list of academics who are boycotting Elsevier journals (there appears to be over 3000 in all, with over 200 being social scientists). The boycott apparently entails not refereeing, not submitting articles and not editing.
This action is part of a broader and fast-developing movement for more publicly accessible or open access research. This movement is provoking a proliferation of contemporary experimentation with the form of academic writing (see, for example, the ‘liquid book’). It is also generating considerable debate about the need for innovation in social science research methods (for a fascinating discussion of this which also draws on the experience of developing and testing-out two new technologically mediated approaches to research practice, see Noortje Maares’s 2011 piece ‘Re-distributing methods: digital research as participatory research‘). See also what looks like a wonderful year-long series of research seminars on the theme of openness and open media being run by Coventry University’s School of Art and Design and its Department of Media and Communication.
One of the articles Maares draws on in her 2011 discussion is a 2007 piece called ‘The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology’ in which Mike Savage and Roger Burrow’s brilliantly set up a particular kind of debate about what the role of ‘the sociologist’ should be in an era of proliferating social data. Savage and Burrow’s 2007 article calls on researchers to renew the sociological project of (re)describing and (re)classifying the social world.
The crisis narrative that Savage and Burrow’s tactically deploy in their piece does feel like it’s been overwhelmed by subsequent ‘crises’. Added to this, hardly a day now goes by without the non-academic media announcing a new ‘mash-up’, ‘re-mix’ or ‘open-source’ practice of some sort or other – a great many of which still seem to be ripe for research. In the intervening period there has also been more academic work that specifically addresses the question of how ‘publics’ emerge in settings of ‘new media’ practice (see, for example, the work of anthropologist Chris Kelty, especially his book ‘Two Bits’ where he develops the idea of ‘recursive publics’ of free software).
Despite these reservations, I find many of the main arguments of Savage’s and Burrow’s (2007) article both stimulating and motivating. I do nevertheless find the call to arms this piece makes around the project of (re)description and (re)classification peculiarly conservative (and even strangely realist). Given all that’s going on, isn’t the project of getting out there, observing, interacting and find ways of intervening in emerging practices of mediation just as important, if not more important? The agenda I find more promising is therefore one built around: experimenting with forms and modes of public collaboration; prototyping and testing-out research processes that redistribute creative and analytical labour; and, one that prioritises the process of patiently mapping, analysing, collectively discussing, probing and interjecting in the politics of the heterogenous forms of public mediation currently emerging across and in-between various contexts of contemporary practice.
This is why I’m so happy that Lawrence Grossberg is visiting on 26th March to delve further into some of these tricky issues and emerging forms of mediated politics. Through the various activities it will be undertaking in the months ahead, this is of course precisely what the Creating Publics project is also aiming to do.