Aim and history of KuFo
Since its inception in December 2009, the Research Group for Culture Studies (KuFo) at Karlstad University has functioned as an interdisciplinary platform for researchers who are active within the culturally focused humanities. At present, the group includes researchers employed in English Literature and Linguistics, Comparative Literature, Intercultural Studies, Cultural Studies, Visual Art in Theory and Practice, and Working Life Science but it remains open for researchers in any field focusing on cultural issues.
The group is held together by its common concern for what we call the Cultural Archive of society, which is to say that we focus on issues concerning the historical and geographical dissemination and preservation of cultural discourses. Without compromising either diversity or disciplinary specialization, KuFo has developed into a productive platform for culture studies at KaU. Regular seminar activities include systematic reviewing of work-in-progress texts and applications for external funding, as well as guest lectures by invited researchers.
KuFo’s overall aim is to develop methods and strategies for culture studies that can help to meet the challenges that society faces. We live in a time of rapid technological development, migration, and global economy, a time of tensions but also possibilities. Nations are restructured, ideologies are rejected, identities are reconsidered and challenged, new technological innovations are continually introduced – everything in a complex interaction that is often difficult to grasp. The need for transferring knowledge from one area to another – for cultural translation – has never been greater.
Consequently, it is necessary to reconsider much of the received knowledge of the Humanities, while at the same time safeguarding the vital parts of their traditions. KuFo’s point of departure is that the humanities are foundational to society: it is not possible to imagine a society without language, laws, beliefs, and art forms. Thus, we focus in particular on studying how the Humanities work as mediator between cultural discourses in society and its citizens and institutions. We call the totality of cultural discourses the cultural archive. This archive is of course enormous, especially if regarded from a diachronic (historical) as well as a synchronic (social) perspective, which humanists regularly do.
KuFo, then, studies how cultural expressions and processes are organized and put into practice, how they are categorized and presented, not least through the interface of academic disciplines that are gathered under what is labeled the Humanities – in short, how society’s archival material is operationalized and made usable. The different disciplines within the Humanities, however, treat this material in different manners. In order to capture, employ and develop some of the multitude of methods and theories in culture studies, KuFo primarily focuses on three specific approaches to the study and operationalizing of different parts of society’s cultural archive: aesthetics, rhetoric, and practice (estetik, retorik, praktik).
The interest in aesthetic experiences could thus be said to be culture studies’ specific contribution to how the cultural archive is used. Aesthetic experiences are traditionally thematized within disciplines that are defined in relation to a certain type of art form such as literature, film, pictorial art, theater, and music. However, the experience as such cannot in any simple way be tied to a specific discipline or particular artifact: also a newspaper article or a landscape can have an aesthetic dimension. Essentially, then, aesthetics is a specifically human way of dealing with the world, a particular way in which humanity understands itself. But even if aesthetic evaluations are made already during antiquity, aesthetics as an independent discipline is a relatively recent development. Its birth is often traced to Baumgarten and Kant in the 1700s, which places the beginning of its development parallel to that of Enlightenment ideas. This relationship underlines the importance of historicizing aesthetics, as well as its specific operationalizing: the aesthetic evaluation. To pay attention to this is important since, to large extent, it is through aesthetic evaluations that people’s subjective experiences of art and culture are transformed into publicly available discourses that can be studied.
Rhetoric has an even longer history, and it is one of developing methods for textual and situational analyses; this approach has lately been used to problematize aesthetic reasoning without denying its importance. Central critical perspectives in the Humanities such as feminism, postcolonialism, and different kinds of theoretical investigations of media have all paid heed to rhetoric’s emphasis on the importance of situating the material under investigation. From a rhetorical perspective, the material of the cultural archive is not neutral, but carries different preconceptions; it is not only representative but also performative. Regarded in this manner, art and literature are not only attempts to represent a world but also means to influence and intervene in the world. Thus, a rhetorical approach to, for example, art and literature emphasizes the importance of the historical and social situations of phenomena in the cultural archive.
Partly as a consequence of this perspective on cultural discourses and artifacts not as objects but as parts of particular situations, KuFo also focuses on concrete, performative practices in which aesthetic and rhetorical processes matter. This focus includes questions of how the material of the cultural archive is mediated, materially and ideologically, and of how it is operationalized in educational contexts in school and higher education institutions as well as in wider society.
The work for KuFo as a culture studies group can, thus, be said to consist of two main tasks: to explore the cultural archive and to make sure that it remains usable.