The Value of a Process: Building Culture in Conversation

Organizer: Evan L. Kropp
Curator: Evan L. Kropp
Conversationalists: Brian M. Creech, Mark C. Lashley
Download a PDF Version of this Conversation: Culture in Conversation August 2013

Evan Kropp (Curator):
In April 2013, Jay Hamilton, a Professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication organized a highly successful one-day symposium on Television Studies. The morning activities for the “Generation(s) of Television Studies” symposium featured work sessions where Graduate Students from a variety of schools (University of Virginia, Georgia State University, Old Dominion University, University College London, University of Georgia, University of Wisconsin, Southern Illinois University, York University, Northwestern University, Tulane University) met in small work sessions with visiting scholars Amanda Lotz, James Hay, David Thorburn, Alisa Perren, Tom Schatz and Jeffrey P. Jones. The afternoon activities, open to the general public, featured presentations from these scholars focusing on television, media and culture. The common thematic element of the presentations was the scholarship of Horace Newcomb as the symposium served double duty as a celebration for the “father of television studies” who was retiring from the University of Georgia and his position as Director of the Peabody Awards Program.

Seeking to build on the energy created by this symposium, organizing committee members Brian Creech, Mark Lashley, and myself held several brainstorming sessions where we searched for ideas for a follow-up project. At one point, we became focused on the concept that the process of crafting an idea was an idea in itself. Let me clarify. We discussed how, in academia, we are most often exposed to a completed, polished product and the behind the scenes work to achieve the end result is not often visible or valued. This reminded me of a debate, “Image of Women on Television: A Dialog” between Jean McNeil and John Seggar that I read in the summer 1975 issue of Journal of Broadcasting. McNeil and Seggar, in conversation through a series of responses, presented arguments for their contradictory interpretations of representations of women on prime-time television. They found was no answer or solution to their “conversation.”  Yet, there was a value in the process of debate, exploration and exchanging of views that took place.

It is that work of scholarly exchange we hope to emulate with this forum. Not necessarily that scholars will present contradictory views as McNeil and Seggar did, but that there is a value to unmasking meaning making processes and the work of formulating ideas – wrestling with concepts. Readers of these revealing discussions should benefit from these conversations as they are exposed to multiple perspectives, incomplete ideas and the exploration of complex issues.

We, the co-founders and co-editors of this forum, offer this preliminary conversation as an example of the product we envision. I have commenced with an introductory contextualization of the conversation to follow. I have asked Brian and Mark the following guiding questions hoping to expose their thoughts on our chosen format and its place in scholarly conversations. I ask:

  • What value do you see in this conversation format above other forms of scholarship?
  • What place does this type of digital scholarship have in Academia?

Brian Creech:
Evan, thanks for prompting this initial conversation in a way that contextualizes its impetus and lays bear what is at stake.

When we first decided to pull this project together, what lit a real fuse for me was the chance to promote and engage in a form of scholarly activity centered on the very act of inquiry itself. What is conversation other than an opportunity to put your ideas and notions in action, and in doing so, bring them into contact with an informed interlocutor? I know that in my own academic life, other people’s perspectives and ideas have offered a type of whet stone in sharpening my own work, but often found it hard to capture the same energy that fueled these discussions within the text of a final research project.

Thinking back to the “Generation(s)” symposium that this project grew out of, I am reminded of the engagement that developed from a very public series of talks intended to be in conversation with one person’s career, then seeing the various and divergent offshoots that came from seriously wrestling with the intellectual impact of one person’s body of work. I think as scholars and students, we have all experienced energized, intense discussions with colleagues, and that through these discussions, our own sense of identity as academics grew out of the very necessary act of articulating our ideas to other people. However, for too long, this very intense process of articulating our ideas and refining them in discussion, debate, and clarification has been too private. To my mind, the greatest contribution of our project is to formalize the conversation, with its discursive ravines, missteps, and switchbacks, into a form of scholarly inquiry where audiences get to the see the ways in which ideas are formulated, brought into contact with each other, shift, and are put to action.

But doing so in a scholarly context seems to be an act that comes with its own share of hubris. After all, isn’t academic debate, with its contests and rules of engagement, already a form of conversation devoted to the act of inquiry? I don’t have a clean answer for this, so Mark, maybe you can help me figure it out. But I can say that as opposed to other forms of academic production, like book chapters, journal articles, and conference presentations, the conversation format derives its value from its open-ended incomplete-ness. I like to think that conversations are ideas coming to form through the very act of articulation, but that still bear the kernels of possibility on their surface.

When I articulate it like that, the project sounds fairly Deleuzean, perhaps more so than may be comfortable for some folks. But for me, there is an notion here, derived in part from What is Philosophy? that captures the nature of thought-in-action. If we are to take it as a precept that human existence and human creative activity is bound by certain materialities, determinisms, and logics, then one place where we can look to find possibility is at the site of the individual concept. The flows of capital, the laws of physics, and the systems of meaning-making may give form to our existence and grant a pattern to our thoughts, but we, as scholars, as thinkers, as individuals, and as what Negri would call singularities also exist as a node amid all these forces. What is human creativity, or intellectual achievement, without the ability to encounter these forces, turn them over in our experience, and put forth into the world new concepts and thoughts that in turn give rise to their own unforeseen fruits?

At the very least, that is part of the deeper philosophical imperative that brings me to this project, and opens up the conversation format as an exciting possibility to perform the practices through which ideas, concepts, and projects emerge. There is, perhaps, a central myth in scholarly activity: that ideas, as they are seen in papers and research projects, emerge fully formed from a unique mind. It is a powerful and useful myth, one that fuels notions of intellectual property and forms the basis for academic publishing, but it also misses the key part that collaboration and discussion play in the genesis of academic contributions.

So, that is one place to start. What I haven’t discussed, but what is central to the project, is the role that a digital platform plays. For me, the digital platform is inextricable from the project itself, but it might be worth delving into the reasons why a little later.

Mark Lashley:
Brian, in crafting a response to your remarks, I’m running into what is an important challenge and opportunity of the conversation format, which is to say that, in a few short paragraphs, you’ve made me view the substance of Evan’s questions in a different light. So I’ll attempt to absorb a few of your key points while taking another stab at the issue of what conversations like the ones we’ll feature in this space can be expected to effectively achieve.

I wanted to start with the only real issue I had with Evan’s otherwise very thoughtful explanation of what brought us to this idea, but, Brian, you’ve kind of beat me to it. The conversation, by it’s very nature, is designed as a means to convey work in progress (thought-in-action), yet I don’t think any academic piece, whether a short journal article or a weighty, discipline-defining text, is ever truly complete. Central to the academic project, in cultural studies or otherwise, is the act of conversation itself. Usually that conversation bears itself out across volumes, across years. Here we want to compress the act of transmission, to bring these disciplinary conversations into a concise and available form. So you’re right, Brian, on two fronts: this is a tricky terrain on which to elucidate how this format makes academic inquiry either “different” or “better” (I’m happy to stick with “useful”), and there definitely is some element of hubris in the whole affair. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over that, and I’ll tell you why.

I think that the format, with its relative immediacy, can uncover lines of flight on a given issue that years of thinking, writing, researching the same topic might never have even touched. The simple back and forth between two people willing to think deeply about a topic, and to reflect back upon one another, has real value for the participants and for our readership, who I hope will see these conversations as both practical and aspirational. When we were discussing the impact of “Generation(s)” and sowing the initial idea for this project, I thought back to the first time I read “Intellectuals and Power,” an historic back-and-forth between Deleuze and Foucault. I found the conversation (which can be read here) absolutely revolutionary, not just for the subject matter (the relations between power, desire, truth), but for the complexity of the discussion between two philosophical heavyweights, both secure in his own ideas as well as those of his counterpart, willing to reconsider subtleties upon hearing his own ideas re-contextualized by the other. It is unlikely that anyone (at least not anyone without an anti-Deleuzian or anti-Foucauldian bent) would view a conversation like this anything but a valuable work of scholarship. I’m not saying we need to achieve this level of thought to produce conversational works that are useful within our disciplines, but the format is certainly imbued with potential for useful lines of inquiry. I think what we hope to do is open up the great discussions that happen behind the scenes, in libraries, offices, coffeehouses, dissertation defenses (I trust, Brian, that this as fresh and useful a referent for you as it is for me), and bring them into a performative space that adds enough refinement and complexity to make them into actionable works of scholarship.

Before segueing out, I’d like to thank you for your phrasing of the “central myth of scholarly activity” that we are not trying to shatter, exactly, but are of course in some sense trying to work against. I think that among all the other things we’re trying to do here, this one is of a higher order (even though we’re certainly not the first ones to call it out). Nothing is ever fully formed, everything is in process, nothing is set in stone. I think here is a good place to start addressing digital matters, because the idea of immediate, free, open scholarship is essential to this project, as it is to a number of other great projects in media and cultural studies that have preceded us. Maybe we should address not only Evan’s question about what place this type of digital scholarship has in academia, but, seeing that a project like this is part of a broader wave, what place does this project have within digital scholarship?

Brian Creech:
Mark, I am glad you are turning the focus of this conversation toward digital scholarship, particularly the emerging tradition of digital scholarship that we are trying to locate this project within. I probably can’t speak to the range of digital scholarship as well as you can, but I think I can articulate why it is important for this project to play out on a digital platform. While it is easy to mention places like Culture DigitallyFigure/Ground, or MediaCommons as exemplars tilling the field in a way that disrupts traditional academic publication and takes on contemporary issues across disciplines head on, it is also easy to overlook the quiet revolution in accessibility that places like Fibreculture, First Monday, and the Open Humanities Press are also building. All of these are important projects whose influence may be felt upon our work in this forum. However, a lot of talk surrounding digital academic publishing portrays it as an alternative mode of scholarly activity diametrically opposed to the traditional way of doing things, and I think this might be a misleading distinction that threatens to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead, it might be better to ask, “What possibilities for inquiry has digital publishing opened up?” Each of the projects mentioned above enjoys a robust platform, but I think they are successful precisely because they have been able to draw in sustained, deep engagement from a core group of scholars committed to the broader mission of the project. There is an energy built around the core that not only keeps these projects alive, but lets them thrive. The accessibility that the digital platform offers to new scholars is also key to keeping these projects churning, by bringing in new life. To use a very helpful Deleuzean term you introduced, Mark, informed interlocutors are a key part of any conversation, in that they offer potential lines of flight from which new experiences, perspectives, modes of analysis, and even languages that allow new questions and modes of inquiry to emerge.

Thinking of open, digital platforms as a revolution against the imperial impositions of traditional academic publishing misses the point in my eyes. Instead, it is more useful to think of a platform like this as offering structure to a particular kind of scholarly engagement, one that allows for the energy of a committed group to foment and grow without throwing up the intellectual and logistical barriers, so common in academia, that often intimidate neophytes.

But there is another aspect of the digital platform that often goes unregarded, in that it offers a structure to the interactions and allows our project to take shape. At the risk of playing “name that French philosopher,” I am reminded a bit of Bruno Latour’s Making Things Public project, which drove home to me the idea that our politics, our institutions, and the very practices that grant sense to our everyday lives, are very much reliant upon the spaces we choose to gather in as well as the rules that govern those spaces. He focuses on the word “assembly” in a way that has been revelatory in my own work, using it to simultaneously denote the gathering of a decision-making body, the place they gather in, the activity they engage in, as well as the very arrangement and collection of phenomena and things that allow us to perceive the world, articulate meaning upon it, and decide what to do about what we see.

All of this is to say that, to my mind, the idea of the conversation, as we’ve articulated it with its potentialities and lines of flight, is given a usable public structure through the strictures of this digital platform. The platform renders the product static in digital space and time, creating an artifact of thoughts expressed, or to expand upon Deleuze, calcifying the grooves left by a line as it begins to take flight, leaving a path and record for other possibilities to take hold.

Mark Lashley:
Brian, you note Latour’s conception of the word “assembly” as something that colors your own work as well as your perception of what we’re trying to do with Culture in Conversation, but you also situate the project as a “platform,” which is a term that I find immensely important in my research. I won’t do the heavy lifting here of unpacking the theory(ies) that make the idea of a platform tick, but suffice it to say that a digital platform is defined by what manners of communication, commerce, production, et al. it enables. The Jenkinsian optimist in me sees platforms as self-disciplined spaces of immense possibility, reliant (in different ways) on the communities (the assemblies, you could say) that interact with the platform on the various levels in which the rules of the space enable such interaction. I think the wave of digital academia within the disciplines that our project is designed to cover does, by its very nature, create such possibilities because of, as you note, the sustained energy of core groups of scholars. To my mind, this energy manifests itself in two different ways. One type of digital scholarship shadows traditional academic publishing, promising greater access and interaction in terms of audience (here’s where First Monday, Fibreculture and others come in). The other type promises easier access in terms of production/publication with works targeted for either an open or relatively closed or defined audience, with feedback supported and greatly encouraged (Culture Digitally and In Media Res jump to mind). Both platform types require different manners of assembly, but both offer robust and useful lines of inquiry simply by removing, to varying degrees, some of the boundaries (subscription, University access) to scholarly thought.

Moreover, I could not be more in agreement with you (and we should not be afraid to put a fine point on this) that this kind of scholarly work, in either of the very general forms we’ve suggested, need not be seen as a revolution against established forms, and it needn’t be seen as “alternative.” Rather, to my thinking, it’s simply “additional.” It may be my (relative) youth coloring this assessment, but the traditional academic publishing path seems as robust as ever; peer reviewed journals in our fields continue to carry on vital conversations and continually introduce new and provocative objects of analysis. But much can also be taken from online projects, blogs written by leading scholars, digital “knowledge communities.” The immediacy of digital exchange allows scholars to share and receive feedback on chapter or article drafts, distribute their work to wider audiences, and, significantly, allow much of the feedback to be public record. That’s an important and vital form of scholarly exchange that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. I return to what you referred to as the “central myth” because I think most of the online projects we’ve been referencing are reckoning with this idea as well. It may seem hyper-inclusive to say something to the effect of “hey, there’s room for everybody,” but I think that’s not terribly far off. Like the traditional peer review model, digital academia is incredibly meritocratic. The most useful ideas on these platforms are the ones that draw more references, provoke more commentary, and become part of the discourse of the field. The academy has always had methods of policing itself, and this should hold whether the ideas presented are printed in journals or scrolled across a laptop screen.

I think I’ve made a little headway toward answering your (revised) question (“What possibilities for inquiry has digital publishing opened up?”), and should probably take a stab at tackling my own (“What place does this project have within digital scholarship?”). Colored by what I’ve said above, as well as by our conversation about, well, conversations, I think it might be useful to just look at, on a practical and ideal level, how Culture in Conversation should work. As I think we may have established but could make explicit here, this project should exist as something between the two types of scholarly platforms that I have cursorily sketched out. We are not aiming to be an online journal though we hope, as we’ve both mentioned, that the conversations we feature will open up new lines of inquiry and will offer structure to the process of building ideas within cultural studies. And while proposals are subject to review and editorial processes, we hope the site will engender a robust community with an informed and engaged commentariat. We want to encourage an open academic community and we want each conversation we present to continue beyond the portion that is structured and curated. At this point, we have not yet had a chance to see that continuing conversation play out, but I’m excited to see what this particular assembly has in store.

So, Brian, what else do you (and we) hope to accomplish with this new platform? Perhaps we can put a bow on this discussion by wrapping together the format to the platform and (re)articulating some of our goals.

Brian Creech:
Mark, before going on with some specifics about what I (and we) hope for Culture in Conversation, I want to commend you for distilling what should serve as a functional ethos for us going forward:

The most useful ideas on these platforms are the ones that draw more references, provoke more commentary, and become part of the discourse of the field. The academy has always had methods of policing itself, and this should hold whether the ideas presented are printed in journals or scrolled across a laptop screen.

I think those sentences capture the spirit of what we are trying to do, particularly as we try to balance an ideal of openness with the rigor of an editorial structure.

You asked what I hope to see this platform accomplish, and as we’ve modeled the mode of conversation here, one thing that we haven’t given due credit to is the role of the conversation curator. I really hope this project gains a head of steam where curators, whether they are graduate students, junior faculty, independent scholars, or esteemed, tenured researchers feel emboldened to structure adventurous conversations driven by the kinds of questions that open up a new foothold for dealing with seemingly settled matters. I hope to see curators thinking up new combinations of conversationalists, asking them questions that offer a platform for launching off into new territory. Personally, I’d like to see people avoid rehashing buzzworthy concepts like “disruption” or “convergence,” and instead bring a sense of productive critique to the project as they pick up received concepts and objects of inquiry, while also using the conversation format to tilt these topics into a new angle of consideration. (That’s not say I don’t think disruption and convergence lend themselves to a productive conversation. I just think we and our contributors should be wary of engaging in some of the modes of discourse that have rendered these concepts overly broad and a little stale.)

Most importantly, I would like to see contributors and audiences alike avoid the temptation of venerating their own work or position at the expense of the audience or their co-conversant, or gird themselves in un-interrogated assumptions. As I type this, I am reminded of this great conversation between Foucault and Chomsky, which aired on French television in the 1970’s (Chomsky.info has English-language transcripts).

While their exchange is energetic and wide ranging, this is also some of the least intellectually rigorous work either man has done. Maybe it is the aspect of performance implicit in the television format, but neither man seems to fully engage the other’s position, nor do they step down from the ramparts of their own deeply held assumptions. So, in my ideal world, I would love to see conversations that start with a question or line of inquiry that pulls the rug out from under our conversationalists, denies them the comfort of previously held positions, and pushes them to build anew from the rubble.

With that said, I think we can also fairly assert that given the guidelines in our ongoing call, our platform is pretty agnostic to the medium the conversation occurs across. We’ve opted for text in this exchange to give folks an idea of how these back-and-forths could go, but there is nothing that precludes video, text with interspersed graphics, a recorded Skype conversation, recorded audio, an audio slideshow, or whatever other modes of exchange our bandwidth can handle. I think this ties back to a key goal for us: to free the expressions from certain strictures with the hope that clarified and powerful ideas may emerge from the exchange.

The whole enterprise hinges upon willingness of our contributors to embark on an open-ended project without really knowing what to expect at the final stage. I think this reliance upon the good faith and investment of thought and engagement from our contributors is really what links the conversation format to the digital platform. A digital publishing project, without any budget to speak of, is the dynamics of a conversation writ large — it subsists only as far as sustained engagement will carry it. This is, perhaps, the tacit part of your sentences that I quoted earlier. The meritocratic and self-policing nature of academic work on the one hand means that good work draws attention and then blooms, but it also means that work that fails to connect with as much immediacy may shrivel and die on the vine. So, it is also my goal that Culture in Conversation will offer a different way for drawing much needed attention and energy to emerging work so that our contributors and readers alike may find the sustenance necessary to carry an idea from the conversation stage on towards a final manuscript, presentation, article, or even book.

To this end, Mark and Evan, I think that it is crucial in our role as founders and editors to above all else be good stewards of this space so that it becomes a locus for a certain kind of activity that allows a community of scholars to drop in and engage as they see fit, sustaining the project as they contribute.

But that is my admittedly egalitarian take. What makes this digital project such an energizing project for you? What type of engagement and projects do you hope this will engender?

Mark Lashley:
Brian, You’ve articulated my goals for Culture in Conversation perhaps better than I could have myself. So let me just rephrase and slightly expand. Your final point about the conversation format helping to carry an idea along works in a number of senses, not only taking the germ of an idea through some rigorous, semi-spontaneous inquiry into a more refined form (the presentation, the article, the book), but it can help to take old ideas and build something new out of them. I am in total agreement with you that a project like this only works if the participants are truly open to what is presented by one another. We are putting a lot of faith in the scholars whose words will eventually fill this space to rest their egos a bit and use the multiplicity of conversation styles that are possible here to really let scholarly business happen.

Your words should really be taken as a charge to those who will moderate those conversations to be assertive, creative, and probing in how they frame their discussion points. Evan’s work framing this conversation is a very helpful model for that; he established the parameters for what this conversation should achieve, articulated two answerable but widely interpretable questions for us to deal with, and will wrap up the conversation with some thoughts of his own. This is perhaps the most utilitarian way to conduct a conversation, but I would encourage future moderators to step in, interrupt, and re-steer an exchange if the kind of ideological entrenchment that you mention comes to pass.

I have great confidence that this format can work, can contribute new knowledge in its own right and for the future, and can be eminently readable and approachable in ways that many scholarly fora often aren’t. I like that we are fundamentally open in terms of form and design, and my excitement for the project is fueled in large part by curiosity as to how our participants will interpret these possibilities. My ideal types of conversations for this site (and this is by no means meant to limit what we hope to publish in any way) are those between established scholars and junior ones (new Ph.D.s and graduate students), met on a level playing field, where the junior scholar has an opportunity to pick the leading theorist’s brain while the established scholar remains open to new ideas as presented by her/his younger counterpart. Like you, Brian, I worry about rehearsing beaten or overly vague topics, but I’m happy to consider conversation subjects that range from those very specific to one field of cultural studies, those of methodology, those that are more about specific conceptual areas or objects of study, or those that deal with incredibly broad topics/definitions/theories that span the entire cultural studies project. While, as founders and editors, all three of us work in a media studies tradition, I look forward to reading conversations about what’s going on in other fields, be they literature, music, technology studies, or others.

With all of this in mind, the things we hope to see, the product we hope to present, I take your point that we need to be good stewards of the space very seriously. The best way to start doing that is to draw in some bright scholars and some strong ideas that can transcend the humble little platform we’re creating. I think that in the next few months we’ll start to see that happen. I’m excited to see where it goes from there.

Evan Kropp (Curator):
When I posed my initial two questions to you, Mark and Brian, I honestly could not have imagined such an intellectually informed and provocative discussion. I don’t say that to castigate you, but as a way of sharing the serendipitous feeling I am experiencing having read your conversation. I am excited by the fact that our conversations that began in a private and personal setting have been transformed into a public space for others to experience. Take note I used the word “experience” and not “read” as I feel you have provided us with an experience. I also believe you have both done a wonderful job explaining your visions for the conversation product, its place in the scholarly world and your excitement for the potential of this forum.

As Mark stated in his final post, each of us works out of a media studies tradition, but I think your conversation illuminates how despite that similarity, the paths we travel to meet at a common place are quite diverse. I think this is most evident in Brian’s theoretically informed view of this forum as an “assembly” and Mark’s description of it being a “platform,” inspired by his work in digital technology. Adding my own two-cents, drawing on my work in television studies and continuing with the Horace Newcomb tribute first started during the “Generation(s)” symposium, I am inclined to label this space a “cultural forum.”

Despite our differences in knowledge, experiences and approaches, the process of scholarly activity we undertake together unites us. We build on the views offered by each other. We work to make sense of our original conceptions combined with the information we receive from others, hoping to arrive at a destination somehow more enlightened than before beginning our journey.

To our readers, I hope you will find the same value in these conversations and possibly choose to participate as an organizer, curator or conversationalist. We look forward to hearing your ideas and helping you move from concept to completed product. As I write this, I realize that Mark, Brian and I may have let our enthusiasm get the best of us and we have presented you with a sample conversation of almost 5,500 words. This conversation should not be interpreted to represent any type of preferred target length.

I re-iterate the call for “adventure,” risk taking and utilization of various formats.  If Brian and Mark allow me to speak for them, I will say that we each look forward to working with future participants and we are optimistic of our ability to provide a useful contribution to the greater scholarly discourse.

Additional Material:
More Information on the “Generation(s) of Television Studies” symposium mentioned in this conversation can be found through the following links:

Grapes Image Credit
© Dapixstudio | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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One response to “The Value of a Process: Building Culture in Conversation

  1. Pingback: CFP: Remembering Stuart Hall – Trajectories and Permutations·

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