Thought-events as catalysts for cultural studies
What came first? Theory? or the stuff it theorises?
People often talk about applying Theory to an object, situation, text, problem or event. But there is another way of thinking about Theory, or working with theories, that proposes quite the opposite: Objects, situations, texts or problems affect us, they act upon us as spurs for thinking; we are caught up in events that make us think: thinking happens to us, thinking is a gift from the thought-event.
You might have heard of the Cartesian maxim “I think therefore I am”. It is strongly associated with (indeed said to be constitutive of) modern (Western) enlightenment thought. Here thinking is regarded as a property of the individual rational subject that involves the correct application of universal logics and theories to the world, often in attempts to master, control, order or objectify it.
Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, which I first encountered in the Musée Rodin, proposes a very different model of thinking: Here, thinking emerges an activity of the body – the very body that Descartes would cast as an impedimentto rational thought.
As I exited through the gift shop, I came across pile upon pile of souvenir t-shirts with images of Rodin’s Thinker on the front, and – to my chagrin – Descartes maxim – “I think therefore I am” – in garish big red letters on the back! I couldn’t help thinking/ laughing/ pondering/knitting my brow (no doubt with nostrils a-flare): the museum’s merchandisers had got things entirely wrong!
Contrary to Descartes, thinking is not a property of the stable, sovereign self: Bodies are situated, often involved in difficult or unsettling or troublesome or exciting situations, and then …KAPOW!! thinking happens! We become participants in thought-events that produce new ideas, new ways of experiencing our situation, new understandings of how the world works, new ways of relating to it (For more on this point, see Martin Savransky’s 2018 essay ‘How it feels to think’, to which this preamble is very much indebted)
Another way of putting this is that we think with our bodies, that bodies are always situated, that certain situations endow bodies with the need or capacity or impetus to think: thinking takes hold when events propel us/our bodies into states of uncertainty, confusion, perplexity, exhilaration and active work.
For their part, key thinkers within the field of Australian cultural studies have argued that cultural studies is ‘always at some level marked … by a discourse of social involvement’ (Frow & Morris 1993: xviii): As embodied, social creatures, we are all caught up in situations that precipitate thought-events.
Theories become available here, not as lofty, indisputable explanatory schemes with universal applicability, but as a form of cultural practice, repertoires of concepts and gestures and ideas that put us to work; that are immanently involved in, and emerge from within, the thought-event. What’s more, they can do things! They have the power to recast a situation; change how you experience it, and in so doing, perhaps even change the problem that instigated the need for thinking in the first place.
Ladelle McWhorter discusses how
In this class we begin to wrestle with the place of theory in cultural studies. In reading and discussing together the work of what the unit outline casts as ‘key thinkers for cultural studies’, we might understand ourselves, like those whose work we will be thinking with, to be involved in a thought-event, or a series of thought-events, that have the power to makes things happen, constituting us as practitioners of inventive thinking: i.e. thinkers in the midst of the dynamic field of cultural studies
We’ll flesh out some of these ideas in our first seminar this week. So don’t stress! When you set off an adventure, what better place to start than with some energising food for thought? (Probyn 2004)
Frow, John, and Meaghan Morris, eds. (1993) Australian cultural studies: a reader. University of Illinois Press.
Probyn, E. (2004) Eating for a Living: A Rhizo-Ethology of Bodies, in Cultural Bodies: Ethnography and Theory (eds H. Thomas and J. Ahmed), Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.
Savransky, Martin. “How It Feels to Think: Experiencing Intellectual Invention.” Qualitative Inquiry (2018):.