Rediscovering my roots in Cultural Analysis

Rediscovering my roots in Cultural Analysis

First, a bit of a backstory. I got my Master’s degree in Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam three years ago. This program, this “discipline”, was developed by Mieke Bal. Though I never had a conversation with her, by my professors she was worshipped as a saint. And that means that I started my education as a Cultural Analyst in 2015 by reading excerpts from her monograph “Traveling Concepts.” And never looked at it again.

So what..?

Fast forward to the year 2020. It is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) and I am looking for a way to frame up my conference paper so it will make for a productive chapter in an Edited Volume I’m working on for the Emerald Interdisciplinary Connexions series. The book aims to develop a sex-positive vocabulary and I’m trying to figure out how to make my paper – a conceptual analysis of “care” in BDSM discourses – fit in this volume.

And then… A light bulb appears over my head. And it switches on. I find my copy of “Travelling Concepts” and start reading. And surprisingly (to me at least) I find that even though I’ve been feeling like a radical, actually what I’ve been doing for the past 5 years is very “traditional” “cultural analysis”!

Most of my classmates at the time were working on post- and decolonial topics. So my work on BDSM never really fit in. And the objects that I’ve been working with since I graduated don’t look much like the traditional books, paintings and photographs that were the common choices when I studied. However…

Cultural Analysis?

Bal’s book offers solutions to a problem many people struggle with: How to be interdisciplinary? How can you do research if there is no authority, no canon, no set methodology you can fall back on? How can you be specific, how do you deal with “coverage”? And for her, the answer is: concepts. Now, for anyone familiar with my research, that may sound familiar. But she goes further.

Concepts look like words but function as shorthand theories. And their most important quality: they’re not fixed. They change meanings depending on context. To use concepts in cultural analysis is to bring them in dialogue with an object. This object is constructed, not to be an example of the theory (as they do in philosophy) but to problematize and challenge existing ideas. When we bring an object and concept in dialogue with each other, we learn a little bit more about both, as well as the culture they were constructed in. Pretty exciting, no?

The care project

And that brings us to my current chapter about the concept of care. This concept has been employed in nursing theory, feminism and queer studies. It’s one of those concepts where everyone thinks they know what it means, but it turns out that it can mean just about anything. Most people, when thinking about care, would associate it with feelings of tenderness, softness, comfort… Not with being tied up and whipped.

However, the concept of care is often used by people who practice BDSM. And that makes BDSM discourse a perfect object to bring into dialogue with the concept of care. This dialogue, the body of my chapter, will teach us more about care, BDSM, ourselves and our culture. And that all sounds great. Until you remember the main topic of the volume this chapter will be part of: sex positive vocabulary.

So, as you can imagine, the framing here gave me a bit of a headache. Until I discovered that the person I had never met and almost forgotten about… The academic who had probably influenced my work more than any other – Mieke Bal… Was the missing piece of the puzzle! So, I sat down and wrote the introduction to my chapter in about half an hour.

Sometimes all you need to get over a hump is to go back to your roots.

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