In January 2019 we were planning a public event with Anna Minton and Richard Seymour, discussing the aftermath of the December 2019 general election and the then-ongoing Labour Party leadership election. We had to cancel the event because of a problem with the venue and instead recorded a conversation between Anna, Richard and Jeremy as a podcast a few weeks later. This was all before the Covid-19 crisis struck and before the leadership election was resolved. Also, I had a heavy cold while we were doing it (no, it wasn’t Covid). Still, there were many interesting insights from Anna and Richard that we thought worth preserving, so here it is.
What is the connection between culture and power? How do the ideas we have about what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ influence our decisions? How did Brexit happen? What is gender? Cultural theory makes use of techniques from philosophy, history, sociology, human geography, anthropology and political and critical theory to examine these questions in the context of contemporary popular cultures.
This first part of the course is an introduction to the subject. The course is free because we believe not only that education should be free but that knowledge is a crucial weapon in the war against all forms of inequality.
There is no set reading (although we’ll recommend some if you’re interested) and no essay assignments, exams or deadlines (although we’ll set some if you want to challenge yourself). All the classes are interactive and give you the chance to think about everyday life in the context of the history of ideas. We’ll provide the learning environment. The rest is up to you.
All sessions are on Wednesday evenings between 6.30 and 8.30pm beginning 16th October for nine weeks.
This first part of the course is written and delivered by Debra Benita Shaw and Helen Palmer and part two is a series of more advanced seminars organised by Jeremy Gilbert with guest speakers. Debra and Jeremy are directors of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London
We make meaning from everything we see around us every day, but what informs our decisions about what ‘things’ mean? This session will introduce you to the work of the French Philologist Ferdinand de Saussure who gave us the tools to understand the role of ideology in how we make sense of everyday life.
Session Two October 23rd
Workers of the World Unite: Marx for Beginners
Karl Marx is famous for predicting a workers’ revolution in Britain and, as some politicians will gleefully tell you, for being wrong. But many of Marx’s ideas are still startlingly relevant to how we think about the organisation of society and the role of the economy in determining our lives. In this session, we’ll develop our understanding of capitalism and think about the relationship between bodies, machines and work.
Session Three October 30th
Popular Interests: Antonio Gramsci and Hegemony
Antonio Gramsci was the leader of the Italian Communist party after WW1 and spent a lot of time in prison. Happily for us, it gave him plenty of time to think. In this session we’ll study his theory of ‘hegemony’ which helps to explain why we consent to be governed by people that really don’t have our best interests at heart.
Session Four November 6th
Monsieur Foucault and the Prison of the Self
Michel Foucault was a French theorist whose work has had wide ranging consequences for how we think about power and its effects on how we understand ourselves and others. We’ll be examining the design of an eighteenth century prison and how it gives us a model for understanding why we think some things (and people) are ‘abnormal’.
Session Five November 13th
Queer: Bodies, Words and Worlds
Queer: a noun, a verb and an adjective. What does it mean to queer something? We will look at the idea of queerness as continual transformation, from pop artists to performers to philosophers, and the ways in which this concept carries political power. We will look at some queer writers and theorists such as Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed, and the ways that their words give us fresh perspectives on gender, race, class, location and orientation.
Session Six November 20th
Does Matter Matter, or What’s New About New Materialism?
From ancient to contemporary times, humans have always pondered the stuff that makes up the world. This session will be a rapid tour through different understandings of ‘material’, from ancient atomism to Cartesian substance dualism to Marxist historical materialism to contemporary feminist new materialism and the materiality of language itself.
Session Seven November 27th Racial Mythologies: Edward Said and Orientalism
This week, we’ll return to Michel Foucault’s ideas and discuss their considerable implications for how we understand racism and its effects in contemporary culture. We’ll be examining the work of Edward Said who applied Foucault’s insights about history, language and self-identity to understanding how racial stereotypes come to be accepted as ‘truth’.
Session Eight December 4th Inventing Gender
This week we’ll be looking more closely at ideas that have had an influence on how we identify people based on their gender. We’ll take a brief tour through the world according to Sigmund Freud, look at how Charles Darwin gave scientific authority to the assumption that women are stupid and begin to explore feminist challenges to these ideas.
Session Nine December 11th What’s Sex Got to Do With It?
The current decade has exposed the widespread abuse of women’s bodies in public life alongside a resurgence of interest in feminism and demands for equality in the labour market. But is ‘equality’ enough? What does it even mean? In this final session we will examine the radical politics of gender dissent and why all forms of sexuality are political.
Just about any social need is now met with an opportunity to “connect” through digital means. But this convenience is not free-it is purchased with vast amounts of personal data transferred through shadowy backchannels to corporations using it to generate profit. Colonialism might seem like a thing of the past, but in their new book, The Costs of Connection, Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias show that the historic appropriation of land, bodies, and natural resources is mirrored today in this new era of pervasive datafication. Apps, platforms, and smart objects capture and translate our lives into data, and then extract information that is fed into capitalist enterprises and sold back to us. Nick and Ulises argue that this development foreshadows the creation of a new social order emerging globally: and that it must be challenged. In this session they’ll present their diagnosis and their prescriptions for this dangerous new condition of ‘data colonialism’.
Presented in Association with #ACFM – the Home of the Weird Left
Since the 1990s, Erik Davis has been charting the multiple interfaces between consciousness-expansion, technological trickery, drug cultures and social change: in books such as Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Visionary State and Nomad Codes, and on his pathbreaking podcast Expanding Mind.
Erik’s new book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies is a study of the spiritual provocations to be found in the work of Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and Robert Anton Wilson. High Weirdness charts the emergence of a new psychedelic spirituality that arose from the American counterculture of the 1970s. These three authors changed the way millions of readers thought, dreamed, and experienced reality—but how did their writings reflect, as well as shape, the seismic cultural shifts taking place in America?
In High Weirdness, Erik Davis—America’s leading scholar of high strangeness—examines the published and unpublished writings of these vital, iconoclastic thinkers, as well as their own life-changing mystical experiences. Davis explores the complex lattice of the strange that flowed through America’s West Coast at a time of radical technological, political, and social upheaval to present a new theory of the weird as a viable mode for a renewed engagement with reality.
In this wide-ranging discussion, Erik will introduce some key themes and discoveries from his crucial excavation of our countercultural history, discussing with Debbie and Jem the legacy of the radical 70s, the perils of the psychedelic mysteries, and the politics of the weird.
What on Earth is happening to British politics, culture and society? What is at the root of the present crisis of political representation and objective knowledge? Should we care about the crisis of liberal democracy? Is the internet a powerful new tool of democratic engagement, or is it just driving everyone crazy? What are the causes of Brexit and what are the causes of Boris Johnson?
These and other topics are discussed by Will Davies, author of The Limits of Neoliberalism and Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World and Jeremy Gilbert, author of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism.
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s perfectly proportioned human based on the recommendations of a Roman architect who thought that strong and stable (and beautiful) buildings would guarantee a strong and stable state, still provides the template for architectural design. What this suggests is not only that the built environment is designed to privilege able bodied white males but that architecture is, in itself, inherently political. This seminar will address the politics of space from the position of critical posthumanism in which Vitruvian Man stands for the exemplary human that nobody can approximate. If we entertain the idea that we have never been human, then new possibilities emerge for thinking the politics of the social as it is constructed in urban space.
It is now a matter of historical record that when Nixon and his aides officially launched their ‘war on drugs’ in the late 1960s, their express intention was to criminalise black radicalism and the counterculture. But the link between racism and the drug war goes back much further than that: the prohibition of recreational drug use has been founded on explicit racism since the early 20th century. In a longer historical context, the story gets even weirder. The ‘opium wars’ of the mid 19th century were fought by Britain to force Chinato accept imports of opium from British-controlled India. At the same time, generations of white bohemians have embraced drugs as a technology of self-transformation at least since the days of Coleridge and Byron.
What are the implications of this history for understanding the politics of prohibition and drug use today? How does the fightback agains the ‘war on drugs’ intersect with the politics of Black Lives matter? What would a radical, rational and democratic approach to the use and regulation of drugs in the 21st century look like? We discuss these and other issues with Kojo Koram, editor of The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line; Mike Jay, author of High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture & Mescaline: a Global History of the First Psychedelic; Jeremy Gilbert, author of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism and Debra Benita Shaw, author of Posthuman Urbanism: Mapping Bodies in Contemporary City Space.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the world of work has been the central politicalbattleground. What work is, who has to do it, who gets to do it and who gets rewarded for it are the most fundamental issues not just for trade-unionists and economists: but for feminists, artists, parents, teachers and, everyone else.The reduction of the working week, the reduction of the dependence of workers on their wages, has been a central objective of progressive reform and revolutionary struggle throughout that period. Today, in an age of dual-income families and blurring boundaries between workplace and home, the question of what work gets done in the home, by whom and when – and of how to reduce the load for everyone – has never been more urgent.
We discuss the nature of work and social reproduction, and the possibilities of a future free from work, with Helen Hester, author of Xenofeminism, and Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism and Inventing the Future.
The institutions ofthe modern media are supposed to serve the public interest: entertaining, educating and informing to the betterment of all. We all know that isn’t how it works. So what can we do about it? How can we challenge the concentration of information in the hands of the 1%? What does democracy mean in an era of fake news and billion-user platforms controlled by single individuals? We’ll discuss these questions and many other with Natalie Fenton, author of Digital, Political, Radical and Tom Mills, author of The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service.
Once an insurgent movement against patriarchy, feminism now finds itself occupying a far more complex position in the world. Powerful institutions,major corporations and almost all political parties – even the nationalist, xenophobic right – routinely pay lip-service to the goal of sexual equality. What are we to make of all this, and what remains to be done in the pursuit of women’s liberation? We’ll discuss these questions and more with Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, and Sara Farris, author of In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism.