A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Not Cultural Politics (uh-oh)

So, look, scampering at the heels of maxim number three is number four: cultural phenomenology is not cultural politics. The paragraph you are about to read is the one I have nervously nudged and patched the most. I would like to loosen the compulsory link between the work of cultural analysis or cultural poetics and the aims and processes of politics. I do not mean to imply by this any indifference to politics in general, or waning of belief in the necessity of commitments and struggles of a political kind. Actually, just the opposite, as is presently about to appear. The thing is, I no longer want my political commitments to be measured by or subsumed in my academic work. Indeed, I believe that those associated with the left in humanities and cultural studies have been led badly astray by seeing the pursuit of their subject as a way of doing politics, even as the way of doing politics. My own political commitments are to socialism, and they remain strong and unswerving; so strong and unswerving, in fact, that they neither have need of proof from the evidence of culture and cultural criticism, nor are likely to experience any serious rebuff from such quarters. Whether I use whatever writing I do about culture to proclaim the necessity of this or that programme of political reform or moral self-transformation, or to tend a private garden of preoccupations will no longer make any difference to my politics. Politics has better, more tedious, more mundane and more overwhelmingly important things to concern itself with than cultural phenomenology; and cultural phenomenology can produce more valuable work if it resists mistaking itself for a kind of politics. Naturally the oughtness in `cultural phenomenology ought to refrain from seeing itself as a kind of politics' is a pragmatic, all-things-considered kind of oughtness, not itself a matter of trumping political principle. Cultural phenomenology ought to resist conceiving itself as anything in particular at all. It has no use for such a conceptual self-image.

One of the advantages for me of allowing for the difference between actual and cultural politics is that it permits me when I am thinking politically to apply the rawest, sternest, and previously unconfrontable tests to cultural theory-politics. What in measurable terms (you're not allowed to squeal about this crude language, because we are talking politics now) has critical theory, however `radical', contributed to the problems of poverty, ignorance, starvation, racism, Third World debt, enforced displacement of peoples, environmental poisoning and genocide? What are the prospects of such contributions? Of course, I see all kinds of connections between politics and cultural theory as my friends and I continue to practise it. But, for post-humanist liberal utilitarians (or PHLUsies), of the kind I have become, these connections are mostly matters of distributive justice; which is to say, questions about the allocation of resources, of time, money and energy, to education, research and the work of thinking, as opposed, say to health care. These questions are certainly difficult and delicate; but they are not theoretically very interesting. All this to explain, somewhat irrelevantly for the purposes of this essay, why the strategic disconnection of politics and cultural politics is the opposite for me, of a depoliticisation.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |