Here I was thinking I had a pretty good mental map of the space between McGill and Concordia downtown. But last night, after watching the very mediocre Unleashed (yes, I will be acquiring the Massive Attack soundtrack), we are walking down St. Catherine with a friend looking for a place to have a drink. We walk east for awhile, and then come to Crescent. Walking north, the place is roaring on a Friday night. Teeming hoardes of young people in very tight clothing, sometimes club clothing, moving from club to club. We found an emptyish bar-cafe at the edge of the commotion where we could sit outside, watch the action and chat. It was quite a sight, and I think we were all a little surprised to find it there — during the day, it looks like just another cross street in the neighborhood.
I’ve been relatively silent here because this was — I sincerely hope it was — the last big week of meetings for year. At least that’s my excuse. The social life has also been starting to pick up for summer as people begin to feel the summerness of summer. For our part, we’ve been social almost every night since coming back, and I hope the trend continues when we return from Amsterdam. The range of awesome people is one of the perks of the place.
And Now, a Self-Indulgent Definitional Question
I don’t know how we got on the topic last night, but this seems like a story worth recounting in a blog, so here we go. Tuesday, during the set-up period for the radio show, the host asks what she should call me. For comparison’s sake, she will call Emily Thompson a cultural historian. This turns out to be a difficult question. My main training is best described as cultural studies and my PhD is in Communications, but neither field has an effective noun state to apply to its practitioners. i normally spend about zero minutes and zero seconds of my year thinking about how to define myself. It’s not a significant intellectual question. I have a faculty position and joint appointments and that’s that. My work is my work. But the question totally caught me off guard, and has caused me to reflect, if only for a moment.
In an otherwise lame and derisive essay (note that it could have been good and derisive but wasn’t), Todd Gitlin references people who do cultural studies as “cultural students,” which is actually brilliant. I quite like it. For a field that has displayed so much arrogance over the last couple decades, “cultural student” is a nicely modest monicker. However, to third parties, the term has no purchase. If we started using it, we’d just get a lot of confused looks.
Communications or Media Studies doesn’t fare any better. Communicationologist? Communicologist? Sounds like you’ve got a problem that I can fix. “Here, bend over and let me take a look. Ooo! Get me some gauze, nurse!” Mediaologist? Too close to meterologist. “Tonight’s weather is going to be sunny, with occasional tornadoes.”
This leaves other, older fields. I have been called an ethnomusicologist, a historian of technology, a cultural historian and an art historian. The last is laughable, but I guess people read “art history and communication studies” as my employement home and realize that only one of those fields has a noun state that can be applied to its practitioners. The others kind of fit (though not as well as cultural studies, media studies, or communications): I have training in all three areas, and I’ve published and been cited in all three areas. But to many historians employed in universities, anyway, “cultural historian” or even “historian of technology” means something slightly different, which is why I usually add “of a sort” to the end or “bizarre” to the beginning.
My deference in this respect comes from being on the other side of it, where guests speakers or others have claimed they do “cultural studies” or “media studies” and actually don’t do anything of the sort. It usually comes off as dismissive and condescending — for instance, as if to do “media studies” one merely needs to write a sentence about printing or television or whatever, and can skip the hard part where one does reading and research in the area. Now, I actually do know what history in history departments looks like and I read a whole lot of it, and I do bona fide archival research (though not for everything I write), so the analogy is not exact.
In any event, our friend, who will remain unnamed for reasons that will become immediately apparent, said that he calls himself a “cultural historian.” None of his degrees are in history and he does not work in a history department. I asked him whether he thought his work had any relationship to cultural history as done by historians, he said “probably not, but I don’t really care.”
Another Sweet Canadian Thing
Today’s Focus section in the Globe and Mail has a short piece about the relative health of journalism as a field. Two measures that appeared would never have clocked in the New York Times or any other mainstream US publication where blowhards go on about the state of journalism
1) whether it is possible to make a living as a freelancer. Freelancing is important because it fosters innovation.
2) how the alternative press is doing. The article mentioned The Walrus and Maissoneuve among others. Imagine the New York Times worrying about In These Times. Wouldn’t happen.