On Cultural Analysis in the Study of Local Contexts
28 February 2023
Ernst van Alphen Cultural Analyst & Boris Noordenbos University of Amsterdam
Two theorists and practitioners of Cultural Analysis – both situated outside the field of Modern Greek studies – talked to us about the practice of Cultural Analysis in their own work and its relevance and implications for the study of local (and national) contexts. This discussion took place during a panel at our 2nd ‘Greek Studies Now’ conference in Amsterdam in 2022. The reflections below epitomise some of the main insights of both discussants.
How do you understand Cultural Analysis as a practice and how has it played a role in your own work?
Ernst van Alphen: The most important principles of Cultural Analysis have played a fundamental role in all of my work. Without this critical practice I would not have been able to write the books and articles I have written so far. But what are these principles? Cultural analysis is often reduced to the close-reading of texts, images, and cultural practices. But what kind of notion of close-reading? Given that close-reading is a very old critical practice, how does close-reading in cultural analysis differ from the close-reading of the New Critics in the 1930s-1950s and from explication de text in France? Those earlier textual practices believed that meaning was immanent to the text and that by close-reading one could discover this immanent meaning. Cultural analysis, however, does not believe that meaning is text-immanent but that it depends on framing. This framing of the text or the image is by definition done by the researcher, and in the present of the researcher. So, framing is her/his responsibility, a responsibility that is critical, political, and ethical. And the text or image will only “speak back” when, or after, it is framed.
A second very important principle of cultural analysis is its notion of temporality. This is an implication of what I said above about the framing of texts and images. The notion of temporality can be best understood as contemporaneity. Even when we study older texts, images or cultural practices, when one frames them in a specific way, one introduces them into the present in which one does the framing. I can best explain this by taking some distance from what Keith Moxey has written: Time is perceived in contemporaneity, according to Keith Moxey (2013), as “a form of ‘non-time,’ one in which history no longer operates, [an idea that] threatens to impoverish not only our sense of the alterity of the past but also our appreciation of the differences between cultures” (47). I agree with the first part of what he says about contemporaneity, but not with the second part, i.e., that contemporaneity results in non-time, in which history no longer operates. As Mieke Bal has argued, the togetherness of different temporalities in contemporaneity can only happen in the present, for instance in an exhibition, or in academic research when one frames a historical practice or phenomenon in a specific way. These framings have their effect in the time we live in, which makes them contemporaneous. Heterochronic time – that is, the idea that “time does not move at the same speed in different places” (2013, 1) – differs from the contemporaneous in that the former does not take the experience of time as a starting point; contemporaneity concerns the incongruous encounters of different temporalities. In each historical moment different temporalities come together because, for instance, old points of view clash with modern points of view. So, Moxey’s conclusion that contemporaneity results in non-time is just wrong. Contemporaneity implies togetherness of different historical moments, and this togetherness enables us to see differences between different historical moments and periods.
Boris Noordenbos: Having a background in Russian studies, my introduction to Cultural Analysis in Amsterdam was as liberating as it was bewildering. Let me start with the former. Still finishing my dissertation – on issues of post-Soviet cultural identity in contemporary Russian literature – I moved to Amsterdam to teach. In Cultural Analysis I found a practice that was refreshingly attentive to the relation between culture and power. It was also fervently committed to theory-driven analysis. Here my interests in the cultural memory of Soviet terror, in conspiracy culture, and Russian postcolonial melancholia did not raise eyebrows, as they had often done at literature-focused Slavistics conferences. At such events, my references to postcolonial theory had been met with dismissive remarks about (Soviet) Russia’s aloofness from all things colonial. And after a paper on ultra-nationalist novels of the early Putin-era, the discussion in the room would center on the dubious literary quality of the books at hand. Did they really deserve serious attention, from serious Slavists? Would they ever be part of the canon?
This is not to portray Slavic studies as inherently ‘traditional’. Over its long history the field has produced cutting-edge theoretical work that has often resonated beyond the confines of the region. Also, the compulsory focus on the canon – such a persistent feature of geographically-defined ‘language and culture’ programs – is clearly abating. Moreover, Slavists and other locally-focused ‘philologists’ have more in common with cultural analysts than both groups tend to admit. Most importantly, they share the acknowledgement that form matters, and that it requires close-up attention. The formal dimensions of ‘cultural texts’ are pivotal to how they imagine and structure the world, as well as one’s (individual or collective) positions in it.
Cultural analysis is explicitly committed to understanding that process. It pairs detailed, medium-specific close-readings with attention to the wider social and political implications of cultural imagination. Meanwhile, it mobilizes and develops concepts – ‘miniature theories’ as Mieke Bal has called them – which facilitate scholarly dialogue between disciplines and beyond the specifics of the cultural material at stake. In that sense, concepts provide a theoretical vocabulary, albeit not a stable one. They are continually reshaped by their use, by their transdisciplinary migrations, and by the cultural texts, objects and phenomena they are put in touch which.
What could be the value and relevance of using Cultural Analysis for the study of ‘local’ contexts (e.g. the Greek one or any other) today? What are the potential gains or obstacles in extrapolating this practice to the study of local or national cultures, literatures, histories?
Ernst van Alphen: The implication of my answer to your first question is that local contexts will be framed differently. So, not only the objects of research are slightly different, because they are local, but it is in the interest of the researcher and the local object that the latter is framed in a way that makes it relevant for the “local culture”.
The only way to counter the effects of post-truth and big data analysis etc., is by close-reading specific texts, images, and practices. So, cultural analysis is more relevant than ever.
Boris Noordenbos: This is perhaps where my (never fully resolved) bewilderment with Cultural Analysis comes in. Where and how do we anchor our analytical practice if virtually any cultural object potentially merits attention, and if the concepts we put to work are always in flux? These questions do not need to be answered conclusively. It is precisely the radical openness of cultural analysis that equips it so well for studying culture in the context of its accelerating transnational and transmedial movements. Meanwhile, locally-specific expertise is of course by no means obsolete, as the current ‘shortage’ of experts on Russia, and even more so on Ukraine, painfully illustrates.
To wed these two ‘traditions’ in productive ways it is not enough merely to ‘apply’ the conceptual work done in Cultural Analysis to the study of ‘local’ culture. This is a two-way street. For example, my research on Russian narratives of deceit and manipulation benefits immensely from the largely Western-focused conceptual work on conspiracy theory. Yet the affective and rhetorical mechanisms of Russian conspiracy culture, as well as its cynically harnessed political potential, challenge existing conceptualizations. Studying this Russian material may adjust our conceptual lenses on conspiracy theory more broadly. In this and many other instances ‘local’, context-specific research – be it Russian, Greek, or any other – has a crucial role in calibrating and co-shaping the bewildering practice of cultural analysis.
Moxey, Keith. Visual Time: The Image in History. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013.
Ernst van Alphen is a cultural analyst, living in Amsterdam and Paris. His book publications include the following: Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in Times of New Media (London 2014); Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought (Chicago 2005); Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature and Theory (Stanford 1997); Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (London 1992); Shame! and Masculinity (Amsterdam 2021); Failed Images. Photography and its Counter-Practices (Amsterdam 2020); Productive Archiving. Artistic Strategies, Future Memories, and Fluid Identities (Amsterdam 2023); Logics of Sculpture: Encountering Objects Through the Senses (Amsterdam 2023).
Boris Noordenbos is Associate Professor of Literary & Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His publications focus on culture’s engagements with the past, with a special interest in the former Soviet Union. He is currently the principal investigator in the ERC-funded research project Conspiratorial Memory: Cultures of Suspicion in Post-Socialist Europe.