You are here: Home > "Emma Dawson: Left out of debate by convoluted speaking"

July 30, 2006

"Emma Dawson: Left out of debate by convoluted speaking"

Posted by dogpossum on July 30, 2006 1:24 PM in the category academia

Is this headline more than a comment on Emma Dawson feeling excluded, or the Left's irrelevence to public discourse?

In recent days there’s been an ongoing discussion about this article in the Australian by Emma Dawson. My responses to both the original article and the responding discussion on the CSAA list have been mixed. In that article, Dawson discusses her personal response to a notice for the Everyday Multiculturalism conference to be held at Macquarie Uni in Sydney in September.

First, my response to Dawson’s article was a little different to some of the comments on the CSAA list. While I did feel a little uncomfortable with the way Dawson’s critique of academic terminology, in the context of the Australian served as a critique of ‘the left’, I’m not sure this was how she intended her words be read. My first instinct was ‘oh, she’s not comfortable with acka talk.’ That she positioned herself as a Phd candidate encouraged me to sympathise with her, reading her feelings of exclusion as a result, perhaps of her inexperience with academia.

Listening to this ABC podcast on media ownership legislation in Canada today, my memory was jogged in regards to where I’d heard of Dawson before. I remembered this story on the ABC’s Media Report on the introduction of advertising on public broadcasters, featuring Dawson as a special guest discussing SBS in light of her Phd reseach and experience with the station. I remember thinking that Dawson was one of the ‘good guys’.

I decided to follow up some of my feelings about her article and CSAA discussion by reading up on Dawson a little further. I discovered that she’s written for the New Matilda, a lefty online magazine, and that she’s doing work on SBS, and had worked at SBS as a journalist.

With this in mind, I’m leaning towards the suspicion that Dawson’s article on lefty academic talk was perhaps read in context, by many on the CSAA list (and beyond), taken as one point in a series of critiques of lefty ideology and discourse, rather than as a distinct piece discussing the intimidating and off-putting nature of academic talk. This is not an unlikely response – the Australian opinion pages are rife with lefty/academic bashing these days.

This fascinates me as an example of the ways in which we take context – the newspaper in which an article is positioned, the recent articles on a similar topic, using similar terms and ‘buzz words’ (or making similar selections from a shared interpretive repertoire, to reference Potter and Wetherall), even the placement of an article on a page (or screen), in relation to other pieces – in our readings of meaning and ideological ‘intention’. In fact, this stuff fascinated me so much I wrote my MA on similar stuff.

Setting aside those issues of form and text and context which appeal to my critical discourse analysis side, perhaps it’s worth engaging with the issues Dawson actually raises in her piece – her opinion piece?

Perhaps Dawson was encouraging lefty academics to engage more thoroughly with everyday discourse by using everyday discourse?

As some posters to the CSAA list noted, that’s not such a bad idea. And yet, on the other hand, as others responded (and I myself feel), sometimes we need to use big words. Sometimes we need to get together and use big words. And academic conferences seem the most appropriate place for this sort of talk. After all, we wouldn’t expect a doctor to abandon the technical terms of their profession to discuss medical matters with their peers at a conference, would we?

Dawson, however, seems justified in expecting a conference on ‘everyday multiculturalisms’ to use everyday language. It’s unfortunate that the ‘everyday language’ of academia can be so impenetrable. Speaking as a (just about to submit) Phd candidate with quite a few years as a postgraduate researcher under my belt, I do actually think that it is a little naïve for a postgrad to expect an academic conference to use un-academic discourse. I mean, these are complex issues that we are dealing with, and at times we need complex language and conceptual tools to put them together or take them apart.

I wonder, though, if Dawson is a journalism student, rather than a cultural studies student, and has perhaps run into one of the most irritating stumbling blocks in world of ‘media studies’? I remember a one-day conference I attended in Brisbane in the early days of my MA (1998? 1999?) called Media Wars where I first ran into Keith Windshuttle, and was infuriated by his nasty attacks on my (then and now) hero Graybags Turner – it wasn’t the nicest introduction to the tensions between journalism and cultural studies. Though my impression that journalism (as the old kid on the block) seemed particularly threatened by media and cultural studies remains (or perhaps that was just Windshuttle’s problem with Turner… threatened by his gentle manner? His friendliness? Or perhaps his stone-washed jeans?*). It seems to me that there are many journalists and journalism academics who have a great deal of trouble with the methods and language of cultural studies. Not trouble in that they don’t understand it or aren’t capable of understanding it, but trouble in that it signifies a profound deviation from traditional quantifiable approaches to the media that sits so uneasily with many workers in the field.

So perhaps Dawson was thinking that a conference titled ‘Everyday multiculturalism’, would be using the everyday language of an academic discipline with which she was familiar? And when she read the call for papers, felt uncertain of her ability to participate in the discourse (though I do think she has a great deal to offer the discussions, particularly in regards to multicultural television). She wrote:

The call for papers started like this: "Papers ... will engage with the quotidian dimensions of living with diversity. Quotidian diversity has variously been described as togetherness-in-difference (Ang 2000), and inhabiting difference (Hage 1998). We take the term to mean those perspectives on cultural diversity which recognise the embodied or inhabited nature of living with cultural difference."

The elite intellectual language discouraged me from proposing a paper, and the very idea was firmly quashed by the suggestion that: "Papers which take an embodied approach, such as through frameworks such as affect or Bourdieu's habitus are also particularly welcome."

I am a PhD student in the field and have published several (admittedly non-academic) articles on cultural diversity. However, this sort of gobbledygook leaves me cold.

And then she wrote:
Lest I be sternly rebuked by fellow students and researchers, let me make it clear that I fully support rigorous scholarship and will vigorously defend the right of academics to contribute to the intellectual development of the human race at the most theoretical level. The apparently abstract and often obscure work by researchers in social sciences and cultural studies is essential to the development of ideas.
Followed by:
But this is a conference entitled Everyday Multiculturalisms, and one of its stated aims is to reflect on last December's riots in Sydney's Cronulla shire. There's nothing particularly "everyday" about the language used to invite participation. Nor is there much focus on creating work that resonates beyond intellectual circles.
(all quotes from the article referenced above).

I think Dawson makes a point. The sort of hard-core academic language in the call for papers is hardly in the vernacular of the un-university world.

But I do suspect that Dawson wrote with very little knowledge of the planning behind the conference, and that she wrote quickly without exploring the conference in any great detail (understandable for a journalist writing to a deadline).

Take this comment from Ien Ang in her post to the CSAA list:

It is a pity that Emma Dawson had chosen to single out Amanda Wise's call-for-papers text to make her points. Ironically, Amanda is one of the few people amongst us who has consistently engaged beyond academia in her work, either through public discussion or through collaborations with government or community groups. I therefore completely understand that she is upset.
(Ien Ang, email to CSAA list RE: Another attack on CS, sent: 29 July 2006 2:58:38 PM)
To explain, Wise raised the issue on the list with this email:
Any CSAA-ers want to write a letter defending us?

Another anti-left, anti-theory attack in today’s Australian, attacking the ‘Everyday Multiculturalism’ conference we are holding here at Macquarie University which a number of you are presenting at.,20867,19933096-7583,00.html

(Wise, to the CSAA list, Another attack on CS in the Oz, sent: 28 July 2006 11:11:28 AM)

I can imagine Wise’s frustration and upsetness, reading Dawson’s critique in the paper. As someone who’s in the middle of organising a massive event for my peers, there’s nothing as frustrating as mis-informed, negative criticism of your efforts when you’re working as hard as you can, not only to plan an excellent event, but to make that event as accessible and inclusive as you can. I can imagine it’s particularly trying for Wise, who’s working to produce a conference that will bring people together to discuss and workshop ideas to reduce injustice and exclusion and so on. Her email to the list was, I think, not only an interesting poke to a fairly quiet group of readers, but more importantly, a “Goddamn! Surely I don’t suck that much?” call for emotional and professional support from her peers.

Indeed, she writes:

Thanks for all this input. I was furious this morning, but have calmed down substantially! Softly, softly, I promise.

I think Greg (and others) make important points. I'll synthesise these arguments and write to her and something for the oz. Indeed; I might just invite her to give her a paper!

Its always the problem writing about the 'everyday' as you've all pointed out.

Another point to be made is that ED is quite patronising towards non-academics. We have lots of non-academics coming to this conference. They come in droves because they enjoy the stimulation of hearing fresh ideas which are theoretically informed. They are quite capable of understanding the work we present. Indeed, we deliberately pitched the conference CFP at attracting 'grounded' work; esp based on ethnographic and/or interview based approaches - so it's a conference full of accessible work.

But as Greg says; theory or otherwise, we have a perfect right as academics to congregate and discuss academic ideas in an academic forum. It is quite a separate question as to whether and how we subsequently communicate those ideas to the wider public.

Many of the speakers at our conference (including myself) are engaged in public debate through the media; through consulting with local, state and federal govt; through working community groups. We are quite capable of working at different registers. Ien Ang and Greg Nobles work (who are keynotes at the conf) is a case in point.

Thanks for the input. Lets see if the oz publishes my rebuttal op ed. I Hope you're all ok if I quote some of your emails


(RE: [csaa-forum] Another attack on CS in the Oz Sent: 28 July 2006 2:27:08 PM)

That Wise did respond so defensively is not only an indication of her own feelings as the event organiser, but of cultural studies’ researchers’ familiarity with such comments from the main stream media – “God, why don’t they understand how important my work is?” And while that might sound like a fairly snarky comment on my part, it’s a feeling that I sometimes have to stifle: why is it that we have to continually justify our work in terms that feel so limited and simplistic, when we’re working on ideas and relations that are so complex, and really do require such big words and ideas?

That’s the sort of question that various academics in our field continue to ask ourselves. Laknath Jayasinghe pointed out in their email:

In fact, this is something that Graeme Turner alluded to in a paper he delivered in 1999, arguing that--apart from the academic stuff we do--we should be doing more work in the 'public sphere', the broad public sphere, that is. I take my cue from him. I believe that we should build academic bridges, not remain on separate islands. The mass media here in Oz, from both my professional and academic experience, are open to articles and letters that take new and exciting ideas to the public--from all political positions. Of course, language must be modified and the ideas recrafted and tailored to the audience; very few allusions to Bhabha, Butler or Bourdieu here!
(Re: [csaa-forum] Another attack on CS in the Oz, sent: 28 July 2006 1:07:37 PM)

Graybags himself wrote, only minutes later:

For what it’s worth, I share Mark’s reading of it. There are real differences between attacks such as this one and that provided by Windschuttle. I think this person genuinely wanted to be informed by the conference and found that its language was alienating – and therefore suggested that maybe this is something we should think about if we want our work to have a social function. Given the topic of the conference, and its objectives, that’s not an unreasonable position. It is damaging to have it published in the Australian, and it may well be the case that its inclusion is motivated by rather less sympathetic considerations than its author’s, but we need to think carefully about this kind of stuff, take it one piece at a time, avoid characterising it as motivated by a particular pathology or orientation, and be alert to the possibility that they may actually have a genuine point with which we can engage.

A response could well admit the distance created by such language, while nonetheless defending the need for people to work through these issues in their own way and at the highest level, and suggest that while the context of the topic might be the everyday, the capacity to deal with these problems so as to fully understand them is quite clearly not something that is part of the everyday life of most people. That is where academics come in.

It might also be useful to take the lead from this piece and consider if there could be some more publicly accessible outcome from the conference that even a columnist for the Australian would not find alienating, but would find informative.

And, finally, given the regularity with which this kind of issue is raised – particularly by those writing in the Australian—it is probably helpful to be reconciled to the fact this comes with the territory of working in a critical discipline and we are always going to be called to account by those outside it. I think we can wear that responsibility.

(RE: [csaa-forum] Another attack on CS in the Oz. Sent: 28 July 2006 1:08:57 PM)
I won’t quote the emails sent by ‘Mark’ and ‘Greg’ (and others), but you get the point.

So, I think, at the end of a couple of days posting, I’m left with the following conclusions:

  • It’s crap to have your hard (community-focused) work slagged off in a very public and influential forum by someone who doesn’t appeared to have researched it properly
  • Cultural studies talk is fairly exclusive, and makes the uninitiated or unfamiliar feel dumb and excluded
  • While the previous might be the case, complex ideas need complex language tools, and then forums for their practice
  • Perhaps cultural studies researchers and writers need to do a bit of work on producing accessible descriptions of their work and ideas for the general public?

I’m not really sure how I feel about that last point. On the one hand, I do feel, very strongly, that there’s no point doing all this research if we can’t share it with everyone – not just other cultural studies stooges. Nancy Fraser has said most of the things I’d like to say about public discourse and access and exclusiory practices. She’s also made a point about feminism and theory – that we need pragmatic feminist theory to make positive feminist change in the world. I personally feel, that if we are to see more of the work and ideas of cultural studies represented in the mainstream media beyond those of a few (somewhat scary and not terribly representative) voices, we need to get scribbling.

Yet I can’t help but think: Dawson herself sounds like she’s doing the sort of work we should dig. But when she wrote what was, in itself, a fairly ‘harmless’ comment on the terms of discursive participation, she earned a serve from the Gang. Really, how useful or possible is the ‘accurate’ representation of the diversity and depth of ideas and research in cultural studies in the mainstream media?

*This was in the days before stone wash made a comeback – in that interim period between fashions.

==EDIT: Here's the first bloggage on the topic that I could find (even after scanning the CS stooge network): Tseen comments on Ivory Towers and the Everyday. I have a great deal of respect for Tseen and her work, so I might change me mind on this some time soon...==

Posted by dogpossum on July 30, 2006 1:24 PM in the category academia