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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Iain Chambers

IAS Fellow at St Cuthbert's Society, Durham University (October - December 2009)

Iain Chambers is presently Professor of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at the Oriental University in Naples where he has been Director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies, and presently coordinates the PhD programme in ‘Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone world'. He is known for his interdisciplinary and intercultural work on music, popular and metropolitan cultures. More recently he has transmuted this line of research into a series of postcolonial analyses of the formation of the modern Mediterranean.

Professor Chambers has a degree in History and American Studies from Keele University, and subsequently acquired an MA at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has lived in Naples since 1976, and has held visiting professorships at Hunter College (CUNY) in 1990, the University of Oslo in 1992, in Emphasis in Critical Theory, University of California, Irvine in 1995, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2008. He has also been a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994; been invited as Visiting Scholar at the Getty Institute, Los Angeles for the year 1996-7; and been a Humanities Research Institute Fellow at the University of California, Irvine in 1997.

He is author of Urban Rhythms: pop music and popular culture (1985), Popular Culture: The metropolitan experience (1986), Border dialogues: Journeys in postmodernity (1990), Migrancy, culture, identity (1994), Hendrix, hip hop e l'interruzione del pensiero (with Paul Gilroy) (1995), Culture after humanism (2001); and most recently, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (2008). He is also editor with Lidia Curti of The Post-colonial question: Common skies, divided horizons (1996,) and the volume Esercizi di Potere. Gramsci, Said e il postcoloniale (2006). Several of these titles have been translated into various languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Japanese and Turkish. In addition Professor Chambers has served on the editorial boards of Formations, Popular Music, Cultural Studies, Communal Plural, New Formations, Postcolonial Studies, and Third Text.

During his residency at the Institute of Advanced Study, Professor Chambers will be seeking to extend his research on the Mediterranean through the elaboration of an approach tentatively referred to as ‘maritime criticism'. This work should eventually see light as a publication in 2010.

Fellow's Home Page


Professor Iain Chambers Publications

Chambers, I (2010) ' Maritime Criticism and Theoretical Shipwrecks', PMLA, 125(3), pp. 678-685.

Chambers, I (2010) 'Theory, Thresholds and Beyond?', Postcolonial Studies, 13(3), pp. 255-264.

IAS Insights Paper


I wish to suggest, in a very tentative and exploratory fashion, that insisting on the centrality of the sea and ocean space to the enterprise of modernity promotes the adoption of a more fluid cartography. The presumed stability of the historical archive, together with its associated ‘facts,' and the cultural identifications proposed in territorial museums, academic syllabuses and political understandings, can all be set to float: susceptible to drift, unplanned contacts, even shipwreck. Deposited in the sea are histories and cultures held in an indeterminate suspension, connected, rather than simply divided, by water; they suggest other histories, other ways of narrating both a local and planetary modernity. Such histories promote a necessary passage from the self-assurance and closure of critical certitude to the vulnerabiliy of an altogether more contingent criticism, one whose uncertainties and hesistancies register sustainable procedures of thought and practice. Consensual understandings of ‘progress,' ‘development' and ‘growth' are here exposed to unauthorised questions, called upon to respond to a world that does not merely reflect such conceptual imperatives. 

I have approached this argument drawing upon three interleaved dimensions.  First, by considering the sea as a liquid archive and the associated floating foundations of modernity. This, in turn, leads to the interrogation and interruption of the facile evaluations of a linear mapping of time and space, disciplined by the land-locked desires of unilateral progress and a homogeneous modernity. Finally, in considering how to ‘map' or at least register an unstable sea of histories I have turned to the disposition of ‘art,' not so much as an aesthetical witness to the past and the present, but as an affective and ethical configuration of time that is neither merely homogeneous nor simply the property of ‘progress.' 

The sea is a space, like nature itself, that is socially constructed (which is not the same as saying that both can be reduced simply to the ‘social').  Hence it is continually susceptible to political figurations. We discover that the sea and the ocean is not, as generally assumed, a void or an emptiness to contrast with the ‘fullness' of life on land, but rather promotes another, interrogative and critical space.

Insights Paper