They call it Theory Monday

by Michael Bérubé on September 28, 2009

I’ve decided to take the Great Cultural Studies Debate (Round CXLVIII) over to CT in the hopes of running it by a more international and interdisciplinary readership.  Hi, more international and interdisciplinary readers!  Here’s what’s been going on in my little world lately.

I recently published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.   People responded.  The brief recap is here, though you should also check out this post from Andrew Seal, this one from Philip Gentry, and this comment by Josh Gunn, who helpfully kicks things off by explaining that my essay is “bullshit.”

My general reaction to the response is: good.  I wanted to provoke discussion, and I got it.  And, begging your indulgence, I’d like to carry on that discussion here, by picking up where my blog’s last comment thread leaves off.

Warning: Clicking “click to continue” will lead you to a two-part, Internets-straining essay.
OK, you were warned.

Part One: Critical Populism and its Discontents

Well, honestly, I wasn’t hoping to provoke responses like “this article is bullshit,” but that comes with the territory too.  Mostly, I was hoping to hear things like “you’ve overlooked the influence of cultural studies on X,” or “here at the University of Z we have a cultural studies program that does Y,” so that the collective response would actually help to change the public image of cultural studies in the US (and yes, before anyone else steps up to remind me that I am overlooking Latin American, Asian, and Australian cultural studies, I deliberately focused on the situation of cultural studies in the US).  Because I really do believe that that public image is pretty bad, and that’s one of the things I argued in response to Ami Sommariva, one of the UC Davis cultural studies students who showed up on my blog to ask:

I got the impression from your comment in CHE that you thought American cultural studies work today is mostly a bunch of pablum: “associated with a cheery “Pop culture is fun!” approach.” Above, however, you say that you “wish cultural studies had some impact on [economics, political science, psychology, and international relations].”  Do you mean that you want those fields to take a cheery “Pop culture if fun!” approach? Or are you saying that cultural studies—which is a field that produces important scholarship—has an image problem within the university at large that prevents some disciplines from actively engaging with it?

I replied:

I’m very sorry not to have been clearer about this.  The answer is (b), cultural studies has a serious image problem, and it can get pretty depressing explaining to colleagues (and students!) in other disciplines that actually, Michael Warner and Chantal Mouffe are more important to the field than Jon and Kate [note to people who don’t follow the adventures of Jon and Kate: never mind, it’s not important].  That image problem is, in some precincts, even worse outside the university.  Read some of the nonacademic responses to Tom Frank’s One Market Under God—they’re even more depressing.  For example, and for another example.  And a third (that one really hurts, since it’s written by the usually wonderful Michelle Goldberg, who calls Alan Wolfe a cultural studies professor).

The only positive review of Frank’s book that gave me a jolt of schadenfreude was this one, whose title pretty much sums up its sensibility.

The next challenge came from Aaron @ zunguzungu, a graduate student at Berkeley:

It’s true that “it would be a very weird kind of cultural studies that simply didn’t care about, or dismissed out of hand, what nonacademic progressives and leftists think about cultural studies” but I don’t see anyone who’s arguing that we should….

[I] remain confused about what a phrase like this is supposed to mean:

[quoting my essay] “cultural studies now means everything and nothing; it has effectively been conflated with ‘cultural criticism’ in general, and associated with a cheery ‘Pop culture is fun!’ approach.”

Like the Davis signatories, I just don’t have any idea what you’re talking about there; “Pop culture is Fun” still seems like a straw man to me, not at all aided by all the passive voiced verbs through which you’re beating on it.

So reluctantly, I went back into those reviews of Frank’s book to dredge up the relevant excerpts, to try to show that when I say cultural studies has been conflated with cultural criticism and associated with pop-culture-is-fun, I’m not just using passive verbs to beat a straw man.  From the first link:

The 1990s cultural studies profs have rivaled Rush in their rejection of the kind of socio-political analysis of culture practiced by the Frankfurt School—critics like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who stressed mass culture’s power to control and alienate.

The cultstuds, on the other hand, lecture about the postmodern and transgressive power of the consumer to mold and manipulate received culture to suit one’s own tastes, which Frank reminds us is not the same as political freedom practiced in a democracy. On the contrary, the license to choose Coke over Pepsi is a freedom emptied of political content. Obsession with the shallow led to absurdities like the normally astute cultural critic bell hooks fawning in Spin Magazine over white corporate computer geek Jaron Lanier because of his fulsome dreadlocks. In a time when rebellion is just another consumer choice, corporate culture loves culture studies.

From the second:

In one chapter, he recounts the curious contemporary history of the “cultural studies” university intellectuals, many of whom have turned the academic defense of popular culture into an institutional apology for the “democratic” wisdom of consumption, and at least some of whom have defected to ad agencies and consultantships, where the rewards are definitely greener and the subjects—the target markets, that is—are truly interdisciplinary. While deftly deconstructing the self-proclaimed “cult studs,” Frank notes ironically (much of the funniest and most telling detail is in his backnotes) that One Market Under God will likely get its only thorough reading among the inhabitants of such university departments.

And the third:

In addition to cheerleaders like Peters, business has also been helped, Frank writes, by its putative opponents, the self-described radicals of university cultural studies departments, where scholars devote themselves to analyzing the “subversive” elements in pop culture. Frank’s indictment of the way cultural studies reinforces the status quo mirrors the argument Russell Jacoby made in last year’s penetrating “The End of Utopia.” The cultural studies professors both writers reprove tend to regard any criticism of consumer society as elitist, since it questions the taste and intelligence of ordinary consumers. Jacoby quotes cultural studies professor Alan Wolfe: “[W]hatever the literati once denounced, cultural studies will uphold: romance novels, ‘Star Trek’, heavy metal, Disneyland, punk rock, wrestling, Muzak, ‘Dallas’ … If shopping centers were for an earlier generation of Marxists symbols of the fetishism of commodities, then contemporary advocates of cultural studies … find them ‘overwhelming and constitutively paradoxical.’” These academics may regard themselves as latter-day Marxists, but this position ensures that they’ll forever be defending the market.

Wolfe, of course, was not championing cultural studies.

Now, I’ve had this debate with colleagues many times.  “Don’t bother with these uninformed journalistic accounts of cultural studies from Tom Frank’s reviewers,” they say, collectively and in unison.  “But, but, but,” I have replied, every time, “it actually matters that liberal and left and progressive journalists think this about us.  It’s one of the reasons cultural studies has had so little impact on American politics and nonacademic left intellectuals.”  Indeed, earlier this year I had something like this exchange with Larry Grossberg, who’s been promoting Stuart Hall’s work in the US for decades now; he looked over the last two chapters of The Left At War and was gracious but, ah, less than completely thrilled with them.  He directed me to his recent essay, “Does Cultural Studies Have Futures?  Should It?  (Or What’s the Matter with New York?)”—which, he said, offered a definitive rebuttal to Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?  That rebuttal arrives in the penultimate paragraph of the essay, and it consists of this:

In conclusion, let me explain the subtitle of my paper—“What’s the matter with New York?”  I am gesturing to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the matter with Kansas? which unfortunately often stood in for a critical progressive analysis both before and after the US election of 2004.  In my argument, the answer to Frank’s question—what’s the matter with people living in the so-called “red states”—is—nothing.  The fact that they disagree with progressives does not mean there is something wrong with them.  On the other hand, there may be something wrong with people in the so-called “blue” states if they think that there is something “wrong” with conservatives (in Kansas) simply because they vote or think differently.  Political struggles cannot be reduced to a simple choice between right and wrong, as much as we may, in our everyday political and moral common sense, believe it.  As political intellectuals, we have to find ways of moving forward, both in our work and in the public realm.

You’ll pardon me, I’m sure, if I don’t find this to be a particularly compelling brief for why liberal and left intellectuals should take cultural studies seriously.  Yes, there’s nothing “wrong” with conservatives, and nothing to be gained by pathologizing them.  But that’s not a rebuttal of Frank’s argument about how conservatives have redefined “elite” so that it refers not to the rich but to to latte-sipping college professors, nor is it an argument against Frank’s account of how the moderate heartland GOP of Nancy Kassebaum and Bob Dole was transformed by movement conservatives into the raging heartland GOP of Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts (and their even wingnuttier Senate colleagues to the immediate south, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe).  Grossberg’s response seems to say, instead, that in the struggle against wingnuttery, cultural studies has nothing much to offer except the promise of “moving forward.”

The heart of the UC Davis letter’s response to me is that my “caricature” of the field is unrecognizable—and potentially harmful.

On the one hand, we want to highlight the dangerous ways in which Bérubé’s critique obscures the more pressing issues facing scholars working in cultural studies.  On the other hand, we hardly recognize the field described at some length in Bérubé’s piece and that cannot pass without comment. Through claims unsupported by evidence beyond the anecdotal, Bérubé sketches out a caricature of a field as opposed to a set of dynamic, complex intellectual and institutional practices.

I think the first sentence is misguided.  By criticizing the prominence of the cultural-populist wing of cultural studies (e.g., its insistence on the figure of the “intellectual as fan” whose analysis should ideally align itself with that of the fans under study), I have allegedly obscured the more pressing issue, namely, the need for funding: “An indictment such as Bérubé’s ignores the larger institutional structures surrounding processes of knowledge production and directs attention away from the economic catastrophe currently threatening public education on a national scale.”  In other words, I should have been arguing for more support for cultural studies programs, full stop, instead of saying that cultural studies has gotten itself a bad rep in many quarters (sometimes deservedly) but should be taken seriously as a rich intellectual tradition that actually offers cogent explanations of (among other things) how hegemony works.  (I’ll get back to this funding question at the end of this post.)

Or, as Ami Sommariva puts it in her followup comment on my blog,

In short, I’m confused about what blaming cultural studies for their own image problem actually accomplishes, as your CHE piece certainly seems to do; most of your readers will come away with reinforced ammunition for exactly the belief that CS is just a bunch of hacks getting tenure for writing articles that should really appear in High Times that you were complaining about in that thread at Frameshift.

OK, I’ll try to be more careful about this.  My complaint about Frank’s account of cultural studies in One Market Under God (in a review essay reprinted in Rhetorical Occasions, titled “Idolatries of the Marketplace”) was (a) that it relies almost entirely on Bob McChesney’s “Is There Any Hope for Cultural Studies?” and (b) that Frank was simply unaware of the rich tradition, in cultural studies itself, of criticism of the field’s cultural populist wing.

So here’s the relevant passage from The Left At War (I tell you, the book covers absolutely everything in the world.  The second edition will cover all the other stuff):

It is, without question, a serious political and theoretical mistake to overestimate the importance of popular culture and the power of its consumers (even if they are also, in some ways, its producers), and to strain to find world-historical political consequences in the film Basic Instinct or televised “reality” shows.  But it is a still more egregious and lamentable mistake to ignore a vast terrain of popular culture and popular experience altogether, or to determine in advance (and in ignorance) that it can serve only reactionary ends, or to decide that certain cultural phenomena might be worth the attention of conscientious leftists—but only if they (the phenomena) have nothing to do with corporations.  At the time McChesney penned his attack, cultural studies had more than its share of enthusiastic celebrants of the “active audience” thesis, it is true; they had already been repeatedly criticized by other cultural studies theorists, as when Tony Bennett complained about his colleagues’ “sleuth-like searching for subversive practices just where you’d least expect to find them” (“Putting Policy into Cultural Studies,” 32) or when Simon Frith wrote of “defending popular culture from the populists” [footnote]. But it also contained plenty of people who understood that the struggle against the Reagan-Bush right could not be engaged exclusively on the terms of electoral politics, let alone defeated on the economic front by dragging out the charts and showing Americans that their real wages were falling while CEO wages were skyrocketing.

The Frith quote is footnoted like so: “Simon Frith, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent: Saving Popular Culture from the Populists.’  diacritics 21.4 (1991): 101-15.  Other classic critiques of populism in cultural studies include John Frow, Cultural Studies and Cultural Value; Larry Grossberg, It’s a Sin; Jim McGuigan, Cultural Populism; Meaghan Morris, ‘Banality in Cultural Studies’; and, alphabetically last but chronologically first out of the box, Judith Williamson, ‘The Problems of Being Popular,’ from way back in 1985.”  In fact, McGuigan’s book, proclaiming itself “a sympathetic critique of cultural populism,” nevertheless argues that “neo-Gramscian hegemony theory’s approach to subcultural analysis was deconstructed and reoriented toward what became an uncritical understanding of youth cultural consumption.  A similar trajectory is traced in the construction of ‘popular television’ as an object of study, exemplified by the turn toward ‘the active audience,’ which in spite of its evident advantages neglects the economic, technological and political determinations of televisual culture.  The uncritical endorsement of popular taste and pleasure, from an entirely hermeneutic perspective, is curiously consistent with economic liberalism’s concept of ‘consumer sovereignty’” (6).

I suppose it can be argued that McGuigan’s critique obscured more pressing matters, like the defunding of public education, which was happening then, too.  But I wouldn’t argue that.  I would argue instead that despite McGuigan’s great arguments, and Frow’s, and John Michael’s critique of the “intellectual as fan” imperative in his 2000 book Anxious Intellects, lots of people inside the academy and out have gotten the idea that cultural studies involves writing books like Henry Jenkins’ The Wow Climax and Fans, Bloggers, Gamers.  And why would they have gotten that idea?  Click that link and check out the Claremont Review of Books review: “Jenkins persuasively argues in favor of taking the fan’s perspective in analyzing television—and this is the cornerstone of the new turn in Cultural Studies.”  And if Henry Jenkins isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always the career of John Fiske, to whom McChesney was responding in that “Is There Any Hope” essay.  That’s why crypto’s joke over at Frameshift hits home:

I read a lot of cultural studies stuff after I left college (in 1990, coincidentally), and by the mid-’90s I’d gotten bored with it—increasingly, a lot of the work felt like it was telling the same story over and over again. Like the kind of fan studies you describe: “Knock, knock!” “Who’s there?” “Subversion!” “Subversion who?” “Um, just Subversion, isn’t that enough?”

As a wise man once said, it’s funny because it’s true.

I thought that all this was widely known by now, and I do not know what purpose is served, at this late date, by acting as if this wing of cultural studies doesn’t exist or that it didn’t dominate public discussion of the field throughout the 1990s.

One last note on this front.  Ms. Sommariva writes:

I agree that there is an image problem, and I agree that it is extremely serious. However, given that insightful, innovative, and politically substantive work is done by people claiming to do cultural studies now (you mention Michael Warner and Chantal Mouffe), I would say that the image problem does not stem from the quality of our scholarship, but from several other factors….  Looking at the responses to the CHE piece, I get the impression that it gave many folks the impression that you believed that the field had become intellectually bankrupt, and thus the poor image was not an inaccurate one (with a few exceptions).

Respectfully, I think this is a serious misreading of those CHE comments.  For the most part, those are not the comments of people who came to cultural studies with an open mind, read my essay, and concluded that the field was bankrupt; those are the comments of people who hate cultural studies and want it to die (though not before it suffers mightily), and the only reason they’re commenting on my essay is that they can’t believe I still take cultural studies seriously and want it to flourish when really it should die, dead.  After suffering.  Because, you know, Marxism failed and evolutionary psychology has a better analysis of Thatcherism and cultural studies is shallow and leftist and pretentious, etc.

Part Two: What is To Be Done?

OK, now that that’s all cleared up, here’s Colin Danby with a question on another front:

Could a reader not conclude, Michael, that your Chronicle piece is first of all a polemic against the Chomsky-Herman-McChesney view, with an attached plaint that Cultural Studies has not had the institutional strength to join you in defeating it?

I write as a comrade in the long struggle against McChesneyism.  But if I were a cultural studies grad student I might be a little pissed off by the way you introduce criteria for the field’s success that I might not choose first.

I will have to accept some pissed-offness on that front, I suppose.  But no, the essay isn’t first of all a polemic against C-H-McC.  Could a reader conclude that, though?  Sure, because the polemic is certainly in there.  (Though I would modify it by way of my largely sympathetic (imho) reading of Manufacturing Consent.)  Like my ritual lament about critical populism in cultural studies, it’s a return to an old, old debate from the 1990s.

McChesney’s “Is There Any Hope for Cultural Studies?” (surprise answer: no!) was itself a reply to Larry Grossberg’s half of an exchange with Nicholas Garnham in Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12.1 (March 1995), titled “Cultural Studies Vs. Political Economy: Is Anyone Else Bored with this Debate?” (surprise answer: no!)  Grossberg argued against (among other things) the “two lefts” approach that sets “merely cultural” politics at a discount:

No one in cultural studies denies the economic realities of racism or sexism, although they are likely to think that such inequalities cannot be directly mapped by or onto class relations. . . .  Thus, while I do agree with Garnham (along with a number of key figures in cultural studies like Meaghan Morris) that too much work in cultural studies fails to take economics seriously enough, I am also convinced that political economy—at least this version of it—fails to take culture seriously enough.  And ironically, I think it also fails to take capitalism seriously enough.

Taking Larry’s side on this one, I’m basically arguing like so: one, when cultural studies is seen as nothing more than the (celebratory) study of popular culture, it’s easy to dismiss—and two,  the political economy crowd has long had a vested interest in doing so, because cultural studies posed a direct challenge to them.  (Curiously enough, Todd Gitlin’s critiques of cultural studies over the past two decades have been nearly identical to McChesney’s.  Joel Pfister’s response to Gitlin in Critique for What? is pretty great.)

But critical populism isn’t the only thing working against the potential effectiveness of cultural studies.  You know what else can hurt the field, particularly in institutional settings?  Things like this, from the UC Davis letter:

We also do not recognize cultural studies as a field characterized by weak treatments of television shows and pop stars. Our field, as we know it, addresses such topics as the “war on terror,” nanotechnology, the visual culture of medicine, immigration and asylum, the corporatization of the university, tourism, the cultural history of food and wine, the science and technology of textiles, environmental racism, psychic formations, transnational media, militarization, memory and genocide, the production of knowledge outside the academy, histories of visual culture, and many many others. While these topics can be studied in other disciplines and fields, what differentiates our practice of cultural studies is a deep historicization of these instances in relation to questions of power.

I’m going to try to proceed very carefully here, because I’m probably stepping on somebody’s toes, and I don’t want to be misunderstood by people like Josh Gunn saying, “I disagree with a fundamental premise of Berube’s piece: that cultural studies is somehow unified by content.”  That was not a fundamental premise of my piece, and it’s not a fundamental premise of my critique of this list of topics.  (Though I do have to note that “psychic formations” and “the production of knowledge outside the academy” are so nebulous as to make the list sound a bit Borgesian.)  Rather, my critique of this list of topics is that it makes cultural studies sound like Whatever Our Students and Faculty Are Doing Right Now.  As one not-entirely-crazy commenter on the CHE thread says,

As a philosopher, I understand ‘no fixed content,’ but neither content nor methodology? Isn’t this reducible to ‘smart people talking about whatever interests them’?

Possibly, yes.  But I should add that this isn’t necessarily a problem by itself, since knowledge is diffuse and rhizomatic and can go every which way; it’s only a problem if you’re concerned about the institutional status (and funding!) of your field.  Because if I were an administrator (or prospective donor) and I was told that the program in cultural studies addresses such topics as these, I would conclude that I was being handed a list of what the program’s students and faculty are doing right now, and that in five or ten years it could be something altogether different (though presumably still committed to the deep historicization of its objects in relation to questions of power), depending on what students and faculty were doing then.

At this point I’m touching on a large (and, for some people, sore) subject—namely, cultural studies’ ambivalence about its own institutionalization.  You could argue that cultural studies has relatively few institutional homes in the US precisely because it has been so reluctant to define itself, and you could argue that this is a Good Thing.  Or you could argue, as did the editors of Lingua Franca in 2000, that this deliberate nebulousness can be a liability—as, for example, when people interpreted the Sokal Hoax as an attack on “cultural studies” (to which my initial reaction, thirteen years ago, was WTF?):

In many ways, the uncertainty over the identity of Social Text reflects the uncertainty surrounding the field of cultural studies itself.  In general, cultural studies has come to stand for the interdisciplinary study of how popular culture interacts with its audiences.  The discipline’s first institutional incarnation was the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, a postgraduate research institute established in 1964 at the University of Birmingham in England.  Today, anthologies of cultural studies come out regularly, and with the exception of one or two early Birmingham Centre pieces, they contain none of the same essays.  American cultural studies is often said to be characterized by a movement away from the Birmingham school’s emphasis on social class toward other aspects of identity, such as race and gender; it has also come to be associated with the ideas of French poststructuralists targeted by Sokal; and it is just as often said to be characterized by a myopic enthusiasm for celebrities.  In fact, none of these characterizations account for the bewildering diversity of work done under its name.  Such ambiguity lent the Sokal debate an added resonance, since arguments about whether or not his article was a successful send-up of cultural studies could not help but presume what the real thing looked like.

Please, no threadjacking about the dang Sokal Hoax, please please.  I cite this passage merely as a fairly accurate account of the bewildering diversity of work done under the name of cultural studies.  And my point is that if you have great difficulty saying, “but that’s not cultural studies,” you’re ripe for pretty much any attack at all.  For my purposes (and I mentioned this in the intro to The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies), this became painfully obvious ten years ago, when a New Republic reviewer attributed Marjorie Garber’s book Dog Love to “cultural studies” (and not in a good way).  To which I replied, at the time, “but that’s not cultu … oh, I give up.”

And here’s another potential liability: people insisting that the field has no specifiable origin.  The UC Davis letter opens by going after my one-paragraph summary of the Birmingham story:

By starting with the conventional account of the Birmingham school, a truly interesting and important aspect of what has become known as “cultural studies,” we lose the opportunity to account for the innovations of film studies in the 1920’s and 30’s, Black intellectual thought in the United States, the development of American studies in the inter-war and post-war period, and the emergence of ethnic studies and women’s studies. In fact, what gets called the “Birmingham School” is itself a reworking of British Marxist social theory in response to critiques from these fields.

Likewise, Josh Gunn insists that I’ve gotten things all wrong:

there is virtually no understanding in his piece about how both cultural studies and communication studies came about: they arose in the midst of adult education movements.  Here in the states, communication studies arose in response to the sudden post-civil war rise of the land grant institution; the new university student created by state systems couldn’t read the standard textbooks. Teachers had to start relating ideas to common, popular objects of the experience of military brats and farmers kids. The founder of my department, Edwin Dubois Shurter, made his name on writing hybrid speech textbooks using popular examples that the “industrial class” kids could understand (incidentally, UT’s department of comm studies celebrates it’s 100th anniversary this year; go horns!).

Similarly, cultural studies arose later in Europe as part of their own adult education movement, which led to the approach and philosophy of the Birmingham School: use everyday life to teach the non-traditional (translated: non-upper class) university student.

(Aside: I have to love Gunn’s parting shot: “perhaps, he makes such pronouncements from the standpoint of someone who teaches literature to the well-to-do.”  Indeed, at Penn State my wealthy littrachur students are fond of sneering at those great unwashed Texas Longhorns.)

Folks, I am getting very cranky in my late 40s, and I have now heard versions of this gambit for over twenty years, so excuse me if I get impatient with this sort of thing.  Person A says, “well, the origins of cultural studies lie in Birming …” and along come persons B, C, D, E, F, etc. to say “but that story of origins excludes C. L. R. James” or “wholly overlooked here is the importance of the discipline of cultural anthropology and the legacy of colonialism” or “it’s diagnostic that this Birmingham account has no place for black intellectual thought in the US and the history of the land-grant university.” Lisa Duggan’s rebuke of the Standard Origin Narrative offers a good capsule summary of these objections:

There are, in addition, other genealogies for “cultural studies” that would include but branch out from the Birmingham School. You are choosing. Others of us might cite genealogies with multiple roots leading from several or many other “origin” sites, you know? I’m sure you think yours is the Right one, the Best one, but that in and of itself is revealing.

I assume that the revealing “that” in the final sentence refers to Lisa’s sense of sureness about my intentions.  But the interesting thing here is that this “oh no it didn’t simply start in Birmingham” gambit is now so routine that Lisa merely has to remind me, in the most general terms, that others might cite genealogies with multiple roots leading from several or many other “origin” sites.  (I hope I can still call her Lisa. Once upon a time we were friends: we met in 1990 when she was a postdoc at the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at Illinois, and she had a quite wonderful and lasting effect on the place.  She also put me in touch with Stacey D’Erasmo and M. Mark at the Village Voice Literary Supplement when I was trying to find someone to publish my essay on political correctness in the spring of ‘91, and for that I will be forever grateful.  So it would be just too cold to say “Duggan.”)

It is possible, of course, to claim that cultural studies began when God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden.  After all, no one, not even Dennis Dworkin, the author of the very fine (and aptly-titled) Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies, denies that the Birmingham school arose in response to stuff that happened before it.  (Dworkin’s first chapter, which discusses the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group and radical historians such as Christopher Hill and Dona Torr, really should be read by anyone who wants to get into a serious discussion of Where Cultural Studies Came From.  Also, for Josh Gunn: Dworkin has a good discussion of the adult education movement!)  And no one—not even the editors of Lingua Franca—denies that the field has gone in a thousand different directions since the day E. P. Thompson took exception to Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution.  But when you combine the insistence that cultural studies has multiple genealogies from a variety of locations, trajectories, and practices with the insistence that cultural studies has no specific methodology or subject matter, well, then you’ve got yourself a field that consists of pretty much anything anybody wants to associate with it.  Which, again, is good in some ways, but not so good if you’re worried about its institutional locations and potential funding, and very, very bad if you want to defend the field from detractors who call Dog Love a work of cultural studies (or, to take an example from Frank’s One Market Under God, from detractors who want to call libertarian economist Tyler Cowen a cultural studies theorist).

So, then, dear (and international and interdisciplinary and exceptionally patient) readers, particularly those of you who are still wondering just what I think “cultural studies” might be, here are a couple of tentative suggestions.  They’re not the Right or the Best ones; they’re just mine, and I offer them as opportunities for further discussion.  Let me propose that cultural studies can be considered a salient field, though not fixed for all time, in the following ways:

(1) it developed (and continues to develop) a rich “culture and society” school of criticism, in which the many and various meanings of the first term (from the Arnoldian to the anthropological) are tracked with relation to the contours of the formal and legal apparatus of the latter term.  For instance: in 1993, Stuart Hall argued, “far from collapsing the complex questions of cultural identity and issues of social and political rights, what we need now is greater distance between them.  We need to be able to insist that rights of citizenship and the incommensurabilities of cultural difference are respected and that the one is not made a condition of the other.” This is not simply a condition-of-England question (as some people have complained about the “culture and society” tradition); it is critical to any attempt to think about hijab-wearing schoolgirls in France or Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists refusing medical care for their children in the US.  Yes, this school of thought arose out of radical historians’ work on the English working classes, but it didn’t stay there and doesn’t need to. The Empire Strikes Back:  Race and Racism in 70s Britain and Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack:  The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation are responses to (and therefore part of) this tradition, and their revisionary accounts of British identity arguably helped result in the Parekh Report.

(2) it developed (and continues to develop) a rich tradition of analyzing the functions of mass media and mass culture in industrialized democracies.  The tradition was kicked off by Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and the broadly provocative final chapter of Williams’ Culture and Society, and has gone in, oh, roughly a thousand directions since, mostly in critical dialogue with the tradition of the Frankfurt school and the political economy wing of communications studies.  As with (1), there’s a lot of room for maneuver here, and any number of ways to go in the future.  But usually, cultural studies sees the “political economy” approach to mass media as Grossberg does—as necessary but finally insufficient for an explanation of how people understand media.  As I put it in my post on Manufacturing Consent, sometimes people respond to mass media by saying “this is bullshit,” and writing scathing liberal/left critiques of the mass media; or sometimes people say “this is bullshit” and proceed to blow a lot of Hot Air about how Rachel Ray is sending seekrit terrorist keffiyeh messages with the help of Dunkin Donuts and the librul media.  People are funny that way: for a variety of reasons, they sometimes refuse to believe what they’re told.

(3) in the 1970s, it developed New Left-inflected analyses of youth subcultures, “resistance through rituals,” and subcultural formations hovering around things like punk and ska.  This is the branch of the field that eventually led to too-celebratory accounts of fandom in the 1990s, and indeed it could be (and has been) argued that it romanticized white working-class boys back in the day.  But it served as a necessary rebuke to moral panics about “mugging” in the 1970s, as well as to a persistent kind of leftish moralism that sees only decay and hears only noise when it turns to the passions and pastimes of These Kids Today.  And it gave rise to some great, terrain-transforming feminist work on romance novels, slasher movies, soap operas, porn, etc.

(4) out of its work on subcultures, its work on mass media, and its work on culture and society, it developed (and continues, etc.) a Gramscian or neo-Gramscian or post-Gramscian analysis* of the dismantling of the postwar welfare-state consensus, the rise of the new right, and the workings of hegemonic political projects in civil society.  The impetus for this school was the rise of Thatcherism in the UK, but, again, it didn’t have to stay there and doesn’t need to.  It served as a necessary rebuke to the “body snatchers” theory of the left’s decline, as when Hall wrote, “Of course, there might be an essential Thatcherite subject hiding or concealed in each of us, struggling to get out.  But it seems more probable that Thatcherism has been able to constitute new subject positions from which its discourses about the world make sense.”  And it also tries to serve—though, as I argued in the Chronicle essay, not with great success so far—as a corrective to the “blame it all on neoliberalism” and “blame it all on false consciousness” tendencies in leftist thought.  Additionally, this tradition’s insistence on the diffuseness of “wars of position” enlisted it on the side of the “merely cultural” left in Ye Olde “Two-Lefts” Debate.  Again, Hall, from “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity”:

The effect [of Gramsci’s work] is to multiply and proliferate the various fronts of politics, and to differentiate the different kinds of social antagonisms.  The different fronts of struggle are the various sites of political and social antagonism and constitute the objects of modern politics, when it is understood in the form of a “war of position.”  The traditional emphases, in which differentiated types of struggle, for example, around schooling, cultural or sexual politics, institutions of civil society like the family, traditional social organizations, ethnic and cultural institutions and the like, are all subordinated and reduced to an industrial struggle, condensed around the workplace, and a simple choice between trade union and insurrectionary or parliamentary forms of politics, is here systemically challenged and decisively overthrown.  The impact on the very conception of politics itself is little short of electrifying.

(5) As the UC Davis letter says, and many many others.  You’ve got transnational cultural studies dealing with diaspora and global flows, refugees and immigration; you’ve got cultural studies of science and technology; you’ve got cultural studies of disability and embodiment (hey, I do that stuff!), and so forth.  But I think it might be the effort to call these things by (something like) these more specific names, and to try to explain where they do and don’t intersect with the schools of thought sketched out above.

Finally, I think one of the best responses to my argument was one of the first, from way back when I delivered that paper to the Cultural Studies Association this past April:  that of my Penn State colleague Jeff Nealon, who said in the Q/A after that panel, and then developed the argument later that night over a couple of beers, that one could argue, contra me, that cultural studies has changed a great deal about the way humanists and social scientists think and work—insofar as nobody goes around anymore proposing to study this one text or that one event in isolation from everything else.  Everyone (well, just about everyone) knows that you’re not done with the analysis, you can’t punch out and go home, until you’ve located the text or event or object in some wider network of relations and explained what it’s doing there.  (Or to use the proper terms of art, until you’ve located the object or practice in relation to the various cultural formations and historical conjunctures to which it is or has been articulated.)  In that sense, Cultural Studies® may have had much less of an impact than people hoped or feared twenty years ago, but a lower-case and amorphous cultural studies has become lingua franca, so to speak, in dozens of fields.  I told Jeff at the time that I would still want to show up at a Cultural Studies Association conference panel on “the university after cultural studies” and refuse the invitation to triumphalism.  But I think his counterargument has considerable merit, so I’ll close with it, and turn things over to you.

___

  • For the simple truth is that in the epochal Cup finals between the Althusserians and the neo-Gramscians, the Althusserians were decisively routed (and, even worse, charged with functionalism)—although, as I acknowledge in the afterword to this fine volume, Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was offside, a few steps ahead of the play.  Many thanks to Ben Carrington for asking me to join the team and write something about cultural studies and sport.

{ 201 comments }

1

dsquared 09.28.09 at 1:06 pm

Why the insistence that “it’s not all about pop culture”, when this would actually be a perfectly sound thing for cultural studies to be about? I would have guessed that the profits from The Brady Bunch Movie alone would have paid for half the cultural studies professors in America for the last five years.

2

soru 09.28.09 at 1:48 pm

But it would be rather more difficult to fund those professors from the increase in Brady Bunch revenues attributable to their insights.

3

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 1:50 pm

Yeah, and then there’s the difficulty of persuading the producers of The Brady Bunch Movie to draw up contracts giving us a percentage of the box office.

4

dsquared 09.28.09 at 1:58 pm

Presumably this is all about grants then, but it does seem rather silly and annoying to me that the grant-awarding bodies are all stuffy about popular culture (and important and highly profitable industry). If they’re scared of being pomo-baited and thus reluctant to hand out grants for studies of subtexts in comic books or the like (because of course, nobody’s made a red cent out of that in the last twenty years), forcing otherwise potentially useful theorists of popular culture to start talking windy bollocks about terrorism and the like, that’s a bit of a shame.

5

John Meredith 09.28.09 at 2:09 pm

“forcing otherwise potentially useful theorists of popular culture “

These are words I never expected to see slotted together. Useful theorists of popular culture? No, I just can’t get my head around it.

6

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 2:23 pm

Well, that comes as a complete surprise.

7

alex 09.28.09 at 2:34 pm

It’s not about grants, it’s about turf. Turf may help you get grants, but even if you can’t get grants, well, you’ve still got turf, and as long as you’ve got a lawn, you can yell at the dam’ kids to get offa it…

Meanwhile, as a working historian, I’d just say that cultstuds is a bunch of people doing [a rather pretentiously over-theorised kind of] history who’ve not noticed that ‘the present’ is an illusory and undefinable point in time, and that everything available for discussion is already the past…

8

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 2:43 pm

More seriously, dsquared, the problem with the “it’s all about pop culture” approach isn’t about grants — or turf, either. The problem is that there already was a Popular Culture Association in the US, which had long associated itself quite emphatically with the cheery pop culture is GOOD! approach (also: hot dogs are tasty!). Cultural studies didn’t do a very good job differentiating itself from the PCA, not even with regard to pretentious overtheorizing. So, when in 2001 I had a conversation with Danny Postel about Frank’s One Market Under God, and Danny assured me that Tom’s take on cultural studies was spot on b/c he’d seen the madness first hand at a Popular Culture Association conference, I said, “but wait, that’s not cultu … oh, right, never mind.” By that point it had become pretty much impossible to say “you didn’t try the real cultural studies, you drank the Brand X version.” It’s not the turf qua turf so much as cultural studies’ inability to say what’s distinctive about the intellectual history and analytical tools of the discipline — which touches, in turn, on cultural studies’ ambivalence about being a discipline.

9

mathpants 09.28.09 at 2:46 pm

Michael,

your comment #6 was bullshit. I’ll go read it again.

10

Simon During 09.28.09 at 2:57 pm

Isn’t the real point: what work might the name ‘cultural studies’ do to produce more truth in the anglophone academy? And it’s a better name, perhaps as much because of, as despite of its sorry history, than most others. The real competitor I think remains ‘theory’. And the exciting possibilities for cultural studies for me at least involve developing the encounter between theory (which once belonged to the French intellectual tradition but no longer does, especially since it is decreasingly literary in its objects) and a British cultural studies whose roots actually lie in the literary critical project developed by Eliot, Richards, Leavis and Williams in their various inflections.

11

alex 09.28.09 at 3:01 pm

BTW, Michael, I really dig your writing. You’d make a great cultural historian.

12

AcademicLurker 09.28.09 at 3:31 pm

While I don’t read very much in the way of cultural studies, when I do read work that falls roughly into that category I find that there is certainly a common list of names (Foucault, Lacan, Butlet & etc.) and a common stock of concepts (interpolation, hegenomy, performativity…) that they tend to share. So when I hear cultural studies practitioners insisting that the discipline is uncategorizable, indescribable, ineffable & etc. it seems to me that they doth protest too much.

I guess the question is why the folks in cultural studies are so heavily invested in the idea that the discipline can’t possibly be defined.

13

AcademicLurker 09.28.09 at 3:32 pm

That’s Butler not Butlet.

14

Greg 09.28.09 at 3:57 pm

AcademicLurker
I guess the question is why the folks in cultural studies are so heavily invested in the idea that the discipline can’t possibly be defined.

Because once defined, it’s a short hop to the (all-too-easy, simplistic) critique that one’s definition of the endeavour has normative and enabling assumptions; is an attempt at institutionalization; has intellectual and material conditions of possibility; or excludes something, anything; and is therefore, on any of those grounds alone (!) just another indictable object of critique. If ‘cultural studies’ practitioners take pride in exposing the participation of its objects of study in systems of power, then the worst thing is to have one’s own practice be complicit in such things as well. See the commentary on Bérubé which accuses him of being devoured by ‘the corporate university’ (I guess MB should have just advocated for more funding instead). Thus the general ambivalence/difficulty in soliciting funding, institutional support, and so forth. Yes? No?

15

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 4:32 pm

And the exciting possibilities for cultural studies for me at least involve developing the encounter between theory (which once belonged to the French intellectual tradition but no longer does, especially since it is decreasingly literary in its objects) and a British cultural studies whose roots actually lie in the literary critical project developed by Eliot, Richards, Leavis and Williams in their various inflections.

Hmmm, thanks, Simon — this is considerably more succinct than my “(1)-(4) plus (5) many, many more” suggestions. And this seems like a good time to throw up two more links: to the Cultural Studies Reader (2d ed.), perhaps, or to Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction. It might bear noting, too, that Jeff Nealon’s sense of lower-case cultural studies lines up pretty well with John Frow’s remarks in this reply to you, where he writes, ” Cultural studies is a way of contextualizing texts, of any kind – of analysing the social relations of textuality; and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t include literary texts and literary regimes amongst its proper objects of knowledge. If it’s no more than the subjection of a new set of objects – say, soap operas, rock music, fashion – to the same old discourses of value and the same old pedagogic processes of cultural distinction, then it’s not worth the candle. “

16

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 4:35 pm

Also: Greg’s reply @ 14 to AcademicLurker’s question @ 12 sounds right to me. Though as I noted on my own blog, I do enjoy the suggestion that my emphasis on the origins of cultural studies in debates within British Marxism is a sign that I have been devoured by the corporate university.

17

blastaar 09.28.09 at 4:38 pm

I study popular culture myself, and I’d like to make absolutely sure that my work can’t be accused of “reinscribing the very cultural hierarchies it seeks to critique.” Do any of you experts out there have any tips?

Dang, I just did it again, didn’t I?

18

Cranky Observer 09.28.09 at 4:48 pm

Clearly there is a popular culture in every society, and the one in the US is large, intense, and involves a lot of money. And while there are certainly many “pure fun” aspects of that popular culture, as I grow older and more experienced (cynical) it becomes increasingly clear to me that it is often managed by the powerful to manipulate/direct the masses (so to speak).

So, given either the weaker or stronger form of my statement, does popular culture deserve academic study? If so, where should that study be located in the academy? If one accepts the strong form of my statement, how should the study be organized and undertaken given it is highly likely to come into conflict with the powers that fund and manage the university?

Cranky

19

Simon During 09.28.09 at 5:28 pm

yeah, I think you’re on the ball there Michael: I totally agree that cultural studies’ great value has been in its extending the reach of serious critique and interpretation into any cultural domain whatever, even if that has sometimes (too often??) meant it has let go of its roots in anti-capitalist thought….. In terms of my own work (if I can indulge in a bit of self-promotion) my latest book Exit Capitalism (Routledge) which is out in the UK but not here yet (anyday I guess) has my own latest thoughts on the history of cultural studies and tries to connect up that history to some recent post-revolutionary but anti-capitalist theory (Badiou mainly but also post-secularism more generally)…

20

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 5:54 pm

Cranky: I’d argue that your view of popular culture is already pretty well represented in media and communications studies. And while I don’t deny that some mass-cultural forces are manipulative (I did consider a career in advertising long ago, and you know, advertising actually does try to get people to buy things, some of which they don’t really need), as I get older and crankier I’m not sure just how Judd Apatow’s Funny People or the music of Billy Joel (to pick two very annoying things) or Mad Men (to pick something I like) can be reduced to the “bread and circuses” model. Nor am I convinced that people are “manipulated” into writing fanzines — or blogs.

But to riff a bit on crypto’s joke about subversion, it’s true that some cultural studies analyses, back in the day, concluded with the stunning finding that lo, the audience is active! When one really needs to say, yeah, active how? to what purpose? and why might that purpose matter to anybody outside the charmed circle?

Simon — thanks for the heads up on Exit Capitalism!

21

Akshay 09.28.09 at 6:31 pm

An honest question: I am basically uninformed about cultural studies, but would certainly like to read about its (true!) account of the succes of movement conservatism, and more importantly, how to fight it without playing the “economic equality” card. I think any insights would apply to the new European populist/xenophobic right as well. Any recommendations?

22

Michael Bérubé 09.28.09 at 7:14 pm

The best place to start, I’d say, is Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal. Mostly a collection of his 1980s essays for Marxism Today, but still relevant — today!

23

Akshay 09.28.09 at 7:31 pm

Thanks!

24

Chris 09.28.09 at 8:03 pm

If ‘cultural studies’ practitioners take pride in exposing the participation of its objects of study in systems of power, then the worst thing is to have one’s own practice be complicit in such things as well.

But I thought the whole point was to point out that all human endeavors are affected by the particular perspective of the humans participating in them — or am I confusing C.S. with another field of the humanities? Clearly a theory that “all human endeavors are tainted by the selfish motives of the people engaging in them, except for this one” can’t be taken seriously. C.S. has to be able to analyze and/or laugh at itself because it is itself a cultural practice. Shrinking from self-scrutiny would not improve the field’s image problems.

forcing otherwise potentially useful theorists of popular culture to start talking windy bollocks about terrorism

This seems excessively dismissive. Isn’t terrorism a cultural phenomenon? And isn’t the response to terrorism another cultural phenomenon? A field of cultural studies that has nothing to say about terrorism would be inadequate, wouldn’t it?

That’s not to say that you *can’t* talk windy bollocks about terrorism — certainly you can — but ISTM that C.S. ought to have something substantial to say about terrorism and the cultures that lead some people first to flight school, and then to actions that members of some other cultures would describe as bizarrely suicidal.

25

Colin Danby 09.28.09 at 8:22 pm

The subversion/resistance back-and-forth goes beyond cultural studies — I remember hearing Aihwa Ong (whose 1987 _Spirits of Resistance_ is one of the best books of this kind in cultural anthro) say in a talk a few years ago that she thought “resistance” had been overdone. And I suppose the logical corollary of an overbroad category of resistance is an overbroad neoliberalism/globalcapitalism/theMan as the thing resisted.

Thanks for writing this up, Michael. This made the question of definition much clearer to me.

There’s a very cultural-studies project in sorting out the multiple audiences whose ears prick up around this kind of debate.

26

Akshay 09.28.09 at 8:27 pm

Googling for the Stuart Hall book recommended by Michael Berube, I found this critical review from the 1989 London Review of Books, written by Gordon Brown. The current PM argued, contra Hall, that Thatcherism won because of the divided opposition. He made the case that Thatcherism was an economic disaster for many. Brown concluded that the dogma that “the market knows best” would haunt Britain in the future. Insightful stuff!

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v11/n03/brow06_.html

Purely political economy though, no cultural studies here.

27

Walt 09.28.09 at 8:44 pm

Jesus, Michael, you’re just trying to piss everyone off these days. You better be producing a two-part Internet-straining essay where you take back your intimation that hot dogs are not tasty, and tout de suite, as you intellectuals say.

28

Henry 09.28.09 at 9:00 pm

The article Akshay links to is interesting – what differences between UK and US style cultural studies can be put down to the fact that political leaders in the UK (including some prominent Conservatives) had and have some nodding familiarity with debates among their domestic leftist public intellectuals?

29

Jody Berland 09.28.09 at 9:39 pm

It strikes me as significant that the cultural studies discipline (milieu? habitus?) is being charged with caring too much about popular culture but not enough about the popular profile of cultural studies itself. I agree with this in principle as I do with much of what Michael says. But there seems to be an analytic short circuit there which arguably only cultural studies can disrupt (although whether it has done so adequately is a moot question). If you are looking for insight on this subject – or indeed, for any comprehension of the value of postgraduate education in the humanities or social sciences — from conservative and/or neoliberal pundits you are bound to be disappointed. But isn’t that exactly the point? Aren’t you kind of morbidly fascinated with the ways the cultural-military complex takes up some aspects of progressive cultural critique and spits out (or on) the rest? Is that what we’re here for? Whether you are teaching critical semiotics to undergraduates and watching the advertising industry flex its semantic muscles , or seeing progressive critiques of racism, manifest destiny and global hyper-militarism sneak into the first and most energetic half of Hollywood film scripts, cultural studies confronts its limits of at every turn. That is where it differs from PCA and all other forms of analysis that focus on bringing insight to texts. But being reflexive isn’t the same as being introverted. Objects slip away from you, and you have to intervene in the slipping process which is out there in the world and just as significant than the genealogies of theoretical mastery we tend to teach.
However, this principle of intervention is kind of incompatible with the specialization principles and profile fetishisms that organize academia. You have two different modes of circulation working against each other and both modes of circulation are being rapidly transformed. This isn’t totally a bad thing. But I wonder if cultural studies people have paid enough attention to where people are actually participating in / pushing against these transformative processes.

just a thought.

30

soru 09.28.09 at 11:18 pm

Judging by that article, Brown would certainly have been a pretty good blogger.

31

db 09.29.09 at 12:04 am

Good to see this line of argument being extended from the original essay. In my writerly peer group, there is almost no-one who wasn’t shaped by cultural studies, and almost no-one who identifies with the field in their current practice. Odd situation.

The key question I see Michael raising is about the institutionalization of a field defined neither by object nor methodology. Institutionalization of departments and programmes require resources, and cases to be made and defended. That’s easy enough if you’re a new interdisciplinary field like neuroscience where relationships with the industrial sector generate clear value in both directions: you take the money and let the biologists, psychologists etc. complain in their disciplinary sandpit. I think in cultural studies we only have intellectual capital to share, and frankly the methodological disdain shown for recent developments in English and Anthropology – to name but two important long-serving institutional precursors – strikes me as dangerous to the long-term health not only of CS, but of interdisciplinary work generally. Perhaps in the same way that Sokal set back science studies – the quality of the excellent work was ignored in a plausible narrative of “unreality”.

To second Simon’s observation – and to add to the succinct and accurate 1-4+more of Michael’s – don’t we see in Hall’s introduction to Culture, Media, Language an explicit discussion of the failings Birmingham collectively saw in the methodological orthodoxies in the humanities and the social sciences (sociology in particular)? And how a refiguration of these methods was required to engage the important issues of the day? How many contemporary cultural studies texts can engage the important methodological debates in these fields as confidently? Obviously, things are more difficult to get a handle on now for the reasons Jeff Nealon noted on CS’ success (though I’d say there were also other factors internal to other disciplines at least as important as any assaults on disciplinarity made by cultural studies). But ultimately as you say in (8), this seems like something anything calling itself a discipline needs to describe. And if it isn’t a discipline, why is it so touchy about its own reputation?

32

Michael Bérubé 09.29.09 at 12:47 am

what differences between UK and US style cultural studies can be put down to the fact that political leaders in the UK (including some prominent Conservatives) had and have some nodding familiarity with debates among their domestic leftist public intellectuals?

This, I think, is the £64,000 question. Here’s Angela McRobbie’s “Tony Blair and the Marxists” for another way of posing it. Thanks for Brown’s review, Akshay!

And Walt, my point (of course) is that hot dogs are tasty. Why, I just ate one tonight! But everyone knows (or else should know) that hot dogs are tasty, so it’s not really worth anyone’s time, even at a Popular Culture Association conference, to say so.

Jody: It strikes me as significant that the cultural studies discipline (milieu? habitus?) is being charged with caring too much about popular culture but not enough about the popular profile of cultural studies itself.

Another way of putting this paradox: theorists of “active audiences” paid too little attention to the active audiences who were mocking their work.

Aren’t you kind of morbidly fascinated with the ways the cultural-military complex takes up some aspects of progressive cultural critique and spits out (or on) the rest? Is that what we’re here for? Whether you are teaching critical semiotics to undergraduates and watching the advertising industry flex its semantic muscles , or seeing progressive critiques of racism, manifest destiny and global hyper-militarism sneak into the first and most energetic half of Hollywood film scripts, cultural studies confronts its limits of at every turn.

Speaking just for myself, yes, I am totally morbidly fascinated by this. Especially w/r/t the advertising industry, about which I still know a thing or two (enough to catch most of the industry references in Mad Men, for instance), and which has been reading (some of) our work and hiring (some of) our students for quite some time now. How to intervene in that slipping process — and I recall that the reason Laclau and Mouffe were ruled offside was that they argued that articulation was a very slippery process indeed — well, I wish I knew.

33

Greg 09.29.09 at 12:48 am

@Chris #24

Sure, ‘a theory that “all human endeavors are tainted [affected?] by the…people engaging in them, except for this one” can’t be taken seriously.’ You reiterated my point.

34

Delicious Pundit 09.29.09 at 12:50 am

They call it Theory Monday…
But praxis is just as bad?

35

lemuel pitkin 09.29.09 at 12:58 am

This is very interesting, and Michael is a superb stylist, but I’m having trouble figuring out what the takeaway message is. Seems like:

1. Cultural studies is poorly defined and includes more than a little work that really does have the problems outside critics think characterize the field as a whole.

2. This leads to attacks on cultural studies by various people (who otherwise wouldn’t)…

3. … which leads to the intellectually and/or politically useful work within cultural studies not being taken up by people inside or outside the academy (who otherwise would).

4. So if the many people within cultural studies doing work that is *not* “pop culture is fun!” or “spot the hidden resistance!” want their work to reach a wider audience, they need to be more aggressive about policing the boundaries of the field.

Is that more or less right?

36

Michael Bérubé 09.29.09 at 1:04 am

Oops, almost forgot. Brown’s review of Hard Road is kind of symptomatic of how some people on the British left misread Hall’s claims for Thatcherism and his understanding of hegemony. But I’m just so envious that the UK’s now-flailing PM reviewed Hall in the LRB that I almost don’t have the heart to haul out the usual response. (I mean, Obama is pretty impressive as a writer — or, perhaps, Bill Ayers is pretty impressive as a ghostwriter — but I just can’t imagine unearthing Obama’s old New York Review of Books reviews of books by Michael Walzer or Edward Said. Which goes back to Henry’s question @ 28.)

But I’ll find the heart anyway. OK. The usual response is this: Hall never claimed that Thatcherism won large electoral majorities (it didn’t) or succeeded in transforming British society (it had its hegemonic aspirations, but the NHS was, as Hall wrote, “Mrs Thatcher’s Maginot line”). He acknowledged the obvious, namely, that the divided opposition and the very weak post-Callaghan Labour party accounted for Conservatives’ electoral dominance. But as Hall wrote in one of his most pugnacious essays, “Authoritarian Populism: A Reply to Jessop et al.” (1985, responding to a New Left Review essay by Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley, and Tom Ling):

I have never advanced the proposition that Thacherism has achieved “hegemony.” The idea, to my mind, is preposterous. What I have said is that, in sharp contrast to the political strategy of both the Labourist and the fundamentalist left, Thatcherite politics are “hegemonic” in their conception and project: the aim is to struggle on several fronts at once, not on the economic-corporate one alone; and this is based on the knowledge that, in order really to dominate and restructure a social formation, political, moral and intellectual leadership must be coupled to economic dominance. . . . I have several times pointed out the yawning discrepancy between Thatcherism’s ideological advances and its economic failures. . . .

But I also warned that Thatcherism had won power on “a long leash” and would not be blown off course “by an immediate crisis of electoral support.” I added that it would be perfectly possible for Thatcherism to “fail” in delivering a solution to Britain’s economic crisis, and yet to “succeed” “in its long-term mission to shift the balance of class forces to the right.” Big capital, I suggested, has supported Thatcherism because it sees in it “the only political force capable of altering the relations of forces in a manner favourable to the imposition of capitalist solutions.” In that sense, I argued, “the long-term political mission of the radical right could ‘succeed’ even if this particular government had to give way to one of another electoral complexion.” To that extent, I concluded, “Thatcherism has irrevocably undermined the old solutions and positions.” That analysis was offered in 1980, but I believe it to have been fundamentally correct and to have been confirmed by subsequent developments.

That was a damn good call, I think. It stood up in 1985, and it stands up 24 years later, too. And (back to the point) I think Brown’s 1989 review skirts this argument. Which is a shame, really, because it was republished in (you guessed it) Hard Road.

37

Michael Bérubé 09.29.09 at 1:08 am

And Lemuel: I’d say

4. So if the many people within cultural studies doing work that is not “pop culture is fun!” or “spot the hidden resistance!” want to be broadly understood as doing cultural studies, they should try to have their work reach a wider audience. And, yeah, they should also be willing and able to say, “but that over there, that’s not what people ordinarily call ‘cultural studies.'”

38

Mark N. 09.29.09 at 1:31 am

As someone sort of on the periphery, I agree with your diagnosis, but think I actually want the opposite remedy. My main problem with the majority of cultural-studies takes on pop culture are actually that they fail to take pop culture seriously; fail to provide a credible history, an insightful analysis, or an adequate understanding of some moment or movement in culture.

When I read a culture-studies history of punk, I can be pretty sure I am not going to get a history of punk, not even a purely cultural history of punk that ignores the musicological aspects (which are of course not possible to fully separate). I’ll get a book about some other topic the theorist wanted to write about, usually identity and subversion and similar topics, with punk subordinated to the role of an example. If there were decent histories and analyses of pop culture coming out regularly that actually took pop culture seriously, and attempted to explicate it, not purely as an illustration of some other theoretical concept, example to be lobbed in an existing theoretical trench-war, or illustration of some political point, I would be all for more pop-culture studies.

It also explains why there are so many boringly repetitive histories of punk (it’s got the obvious “subversion” element) as compared to any other sort of music, except perhaps music associated with the hippies, and such huge gaps in other areas of pop culture. The culture-studies theorists don’t care about pop culture, really; and the history departments don’t either; so nobody writes it. An exception is maybe film, which is fortunate enough to have its own “studies”; and videogames are developing one, so may enjoy the same escape; and maybe musicology will increase its interest in writing credible histories of pop-cultural musical movements. But by your proposal, cultural studies sure won’t be the site where we get studies of culture. It’ll be where we get studies of politics, with focus on culture only when politically relevant.

39

vivian 09.29.09 at 2:00 am

A friend regularly reminds me of an AA expression “You can only sweep your side of the street, other people can do theirs or not.” In political science and philosophy, people defend their one or two subfields, and sometimes only their citation cartel within a subfield. Sometimes they don’t even respect fellow department members. But they do police the subfield boundaries pretty aggressively, and somehow avoid splitting the department most of the time. Maybe what Cultural Studies needs is a set of catchy names for subfields, as opposed to just the names of people who currently work on stuff. Don’t pick names like “Culture and Film” pick ones like “Macro Socioeconomy” or Polimetrics of Cultural Phenomena” Add or subtract items, recognize that most people think of themselves as working in one, two or three of them. (Aside: it’s a simple hamiltonian problem, you don’t even need orthogonal subfield-eigenvectors, just a reasonable-looking set. Get Dsquared to solve it for you, in return for a rant about how hot dogs are especially tasty with Budweiser.) Then police the defensible boundaries of your clever-named subfield for relevance, making it known that while you might go to conferences with the more vapid members of your field, that’s about getting bulk rates at hotels. Your primary identification would be with the subfield, and boy does your team rock, legitimacy-wise.

40

Chris Dornan 09.29.09 at 11:47 am

Michael, just to second Alex–terrific stuff.

I can understand the reaction of the Cultural Studies folks, but I really think they should and will be grateful. Your point about the lack of a framework resonates through the whole, including the critical responses. To the extent that this remains true I can’s see how the efforts of the field can remain other than (relatively) dissipated.

The Gordon Brown LRB review was a terrific find. Oh the horrible ironies! What GB didn’t appreciate, of course, was how much he and TB were Thatcher’s children. Here we have the future PFI architect pondering the Thatcher’s dominance of the political landscape without appreciating her real victory–worming her way into our souls. The person who spoke most clearly for me was John Gray. From the introduction to Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions:

Both communism and neo-liberalism were mesianic movements, using the language of reason and science, but actually driven by faith. Seemingly deadly rivals, the two faiths differed chiefly on a point of doctrinal detail — whether the final perfection of mankind was to be achived in universal socialism, or global democratic capitalism. Just as Marx’s revolutionary socialism had done, the global free market promised an end to history.

This just a summary and the book really has to be read (though John Banville’s review may be useful). As Gray goes on to say, ‘like most enlightenment ideologies, communism and neo-liberalism were obsessively secular‘ (my emphasis) .

Running through this debate about the traction of Cultural Studies is an implicit thesis that enlightened humanist need an intellectual bulwark from which they can slay the forces of neoliberal darkness overrunning the intellectual landscape. What I don’t get from this debate (and I could be wrong) is any serious move to question whether the humanist project shares a philosophical confusion with neo-liberalism based in assumptions that emerged with industrialisation and the Enlightenment.

Another way of saying the same thing is how about trying seriously to move beyond the sterile culture wars; rather that trying to destroy the big-endian other, take an interest in what might actually be the case.

(Adam Curtis’s documentary films I thought were also striking in showing a striking continuity in contingent values that emerged in high modernity and have become almost universal.)

I remain amazed at how rigid and closed so much thought is in the academy, and how resistant people are to revisiting shared assumptions. To give but a single simple example: why is so little cross-fertilization between moral philosophy and theology? (I am a non-theists, BTW.)

41

lgm 09.29.09 at 1:21 pm

Please, no threadjacking about the dang Sokal Hoax, please please.

And why not? In your extended quest to discover what’s wrong with the field called “Cultural Studies”, you ignore the answer given by Sokal (proven, not suggested): the stuff is crap. There’s nothing wrong with the field as an abstraction. It’s just that the people who do it suck.

42

JP Stormcrow 09.29.09 at 1:33 pm

I was told we’d get to listen to the Ramones in this class.

43

John Holbo 09.29.09 at 3:50 pm

I like this bit in Ira Livingston’s “What’s The Matter With Michael?” response:

http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what%E2%80%99s-the-matter-with-michael/

” …[Michael’s piece is] a familiar version of what my friend George Cunningham calls a “ritual lament.””

I hope that George has since taken Ira aside and apologized for any confusion caused by any personal usage of the concept that imparted an air of originality to it. It is hard to believe it is burdened by any contemporary ownership whatsoever, or stands in need of the sanitizing tweeze of inverted commas with which we sample dubious conceptual novelties. The Greeks had, like, five words for it, dude.

http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=UW8pteWTc9oC&pg=PA102&lpg=PA102&dq=%22ritual+lament%22&source=bl&ots=rOXWn02WZ2&sig=ZqYvfvCEme2-TWQt0og_Nbri9LU&hl=en&ei=YCjCSum8Jdj-kAWajuy3BQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false

And at least one of these words has actually half-survived into English, more or less: elegy, anyone?

More useful, then, if Livingston had specified whether he found Michael’s piece interesting as threnos, goos, kommos, ialemos, and so on and so forth. Ahem. As you were. Please continue fighting about the Sokal Hoax.

44

dsquared 09.29.09 at 4:09 pm

#41 And why not?

Because that was about science studies, not cultural studies.

45

John Holbo 09.29.09 at 4:28 pm

(Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in): “Social Text” is – and self-identifies as – a cultural studies journal. It’s self-description on the Duke UP site includes: “… a daring and controversial leader in the field of cultural studies”

So whatever reasons there may or may not be for exhuming the Sokal Hoax, it can’t be that “Social Text” isn’t relevant to cultural studies, per se.

46

geo 09.29.09 at 4:30 pm

Stuart Hall, quoted @38:
it would be perfectly possible for Thatcherism to “fail” in delivering a solution to Britain’s economic crisis, and yet to “succeed” “in its long-term mission to shift the balance of class forces to the right.” Big capital, I suggested, has supported Thatcherism because it sees in it “the only political force capable of altering the relations of forces in a manner favourable to the imposition of capitalist solutions.” In that sense, I argued, “the long-term political mission of the radical right could ‘succeed’ even if this particular government had to give way to one of another electoral complexion.”

On which Michael comments: “That was a damn good call, I think. It stood up in 1985, and it stands up 24 years later, too. ”

But change “Thatcherism” to “Reaganism” and “Britain” to the “United States” in the above, and isn’t that exactly Thomas Frank’s argument?

47

ralph 09.29.09 at 5:49 pm

I can’t resist: Re @32 and any others referring to the “hot dogs are tasty!” joke about cultural studies. When I was in grad school, I learned tons about thinking from the approaches that cultural studies people at the time were using. Great. But it got to the point with me that some things were active consumer-instituted subversion, and some things were but not worth discussing.

a propos of that, is this subversion? Or just creative reuse of the carp we bought at Safeway? or both? If both, to what effect? http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/roundup-magazines/look-crazy-spaghetti-hot-dogs-087900
link to spaghetti hotdogs

48

Substance McGravitas 09.29.09 at 5:56 pm

Or just creative reuse of the carp we bought at Safeway?

I remember amusing footage of Mikhail Gorbachev being astounded at Safeway’s selection of carp.

49

Michael Bérubé 09.29.09 at 7:07 pm

In your extended quest to discover what’s wrong with the field called “Cultural Studies”, you ignore the answer given by Sokal (proven, not suggested): the stuff is crap. There’s nothing wrong with the field as an abstraction.

Ah, no. I have written many, many things about Sokal and his hoax. Accusing me of ignoring it is like accusing me of being ignorant of the history of cultural studies. And one thing I’ve learned over the past 13 years is that any mention of Professor Sokal brings out the commenters who say “but Sokal proved that everything you say is bullshit.” Which, lgm, you have now proven. Or, as I put it in this latest effort, “Sokal found himself hailed by legions of fans and supporters who credited him with finally exposing the vacuity of (a) cultural studies, (b) literary theory, (c) postmodernism, (d) obscurantist jargon, (e) science studies, (f) people who write about disciplines they don’t know much about, and (g) all of the above.” Also something about a water pitcher.

But change “Thatcherism” to “Reaganism” and “Britain” to the “United States” in the above, and isn’t that exactly Thomas Frank’s argument?

Precisely not. One important thing Frank does and Hall does not — and this takes us back to 2004, George, when you accused me of missing the point of Frank’s book — is that Frank insists that the cultural right is right to take offense at America’s commercial culture, and wrong only to blame it on liberal elites rather than on corporations. The other important thing Frank does (and Hall does not) is to insist that “cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements — not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars — that are the movement’s greatest monuments.” Ellen Willis’s reply to this was (imho) simply devastating, and very much in line with Hall’s work — insofar as she pointed out that this formulation (in which the bosses distract the rubes with debates about abortion while cutting their own taxes) not only fails to take “cultural anger” (and abortion) seriously enough but also fails (as Grossberg would say) to take capitalism seriously enough. “Like many critics of capitalism,” Willis wrote, “Frank makes the mistake of imagining that mass culture is a pure reflection of the corporate class that produces it.” That’s a bad mistake, and in my argument, it’s precisely American left intellectuals’ ignorance of Hall’s work that leads them to keep inventing this triangular wheel over and over again.

50

geo 09.29.09 at 7:51 pm

But Michael:

1) The cultural right is right to “take offense at America’s commercial culture, and wrong only to blame it on liberal elites rather than on corporations.” Semi-pornographic advertising;; frantic, family- and community-stressing mobility; mindlessly mechanical diversity programs; the exaltation of novelty; the unreflective pursuit of “self-expression” — all these are typically blamed on secular rationalism and other liberal heresies, when in fact they are the products of corporate marketing and personnel strategies.

2) Willis was wrong: Frank does not “make the mistake of imagining that mass culture is a pure reflection of the corporate class that produces it.” For one thing, he does not condemn mass culture en bloc. I doubt anyone ever has, except Allan Bloom and Hilton Kramer, to whom Frank bears little resemblance. For another thing, his point is not that the masses are wholly passive recipients of a corporate-fabricated culture, but that the family-values, rugged-individualist ideology of the New Right –whatever it gets right, if anything — is a fraud, simply a campaign strategy, since its proponents have no intention of honestly identifying the causes of popular grievances, much less addressing them.

51

Colin Danby 09.29.09 at 8:13 pm

1. All physics is crap, too! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogdanov_Affair

2. Geo, how much work are the terms “corporations” and “corporate” doing for you, and are you assuming there’s some sort of collective coherence to what organizations with that legal status do?

52

John Emerson 09.29.09 at 8:21 pm

Too many people underestimate carp, the world’s #1 fresh-water commercial fish.

Probably there’s a Chicago School joke in their somewhere too.

53

John Emerson 09.29.09 at 8:34 pm

The Bogdanoffs are important in the history of plastic surgery too.

54

geo 09.29.09 at 8:34 pm

Fair question, Colin, but in both 1) and 2), I was just echoing Michael’s and Willis’s usage of the word. I don’t think I (or they) expanded its reach significantly beyond common usage.

I suspect, though, that there’s a larger doubt hovering in the background of your query. Out with it!

55

Bill Benzon 09.29.09 at 8:41 pm

First, I should say that I’m not a Cultural Studies scholar, though I’m quite interested in culture, including popular culture. I’ve read some Cultural Studies work (e.g. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads) and I’ve know the “from out of Birmingham” story for some time, perhaps even since grad school at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-70s. So, I just barely know what Cultural Studies is. I know somewhat more about cognitive science, and I’d like to make a brief comparison between the two. Let’s start with this statement of Michael’s:

But when you combine the insistence that cultural studies has multiple genealogies from a variety of locations, trajectories, and practices with the insistence that cultural studies has no specific methodology or subject matter, well, then you’ve got yourself a field that consists of pretty much anything anybody wants to associate with it.

Cognitive science is rather like that, “multiple genealogies” and “no specific methodology or subject matter.” The human mind is not a very specific subject matter, and there is no specific methodology. The term itself was coined in 1973 by Christopher Longuet-Higgins while reporting on a conference held somewhere in the UK. It seemed an apt phrase for something that had been in the air for a decade or so, and so it stuck. But it’s pretty hard to say just what it is that unites the psychologists, philosophers, linguists, computer scientists, and others who identify with cognitive science. I tend to think of cognitive science as what happened when the computer as metaphor and model hit the study of the human mind.

That’s not quite right, but it’s the best I can do in a single sentence and, in some odd way, I’m not sure that I could do much better if I used, say, 5000 words. Those words would mention lots of more stuff, but the boundaries would still be fuzzy and the center, well, it might not be there anyhow.

If you look at the field’s institutionalization, cognitive sciencehas its own association and its own journal(s), etc. However, there aren’t that many cognitive science departments. For the most part, cognitive science happens in interdepartmental programs or within specific departments and graduate students go for jobs in those traditional departments.

The upshot is that there is no such thing as the cognitive science program. There are multiple programs, some more or less mutually compatible, but there’s a great deal of tension and conflict. It is a contentious world, but, so far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a particularly negative image elsewhere in the academic world nor elsewhere. Nor does it seem to be confused with a “shadow” discipline the way Cultural Studies is confused with the Cheery Study of Pop Culture (call it Cheer) or other Intellectual Evils.

The most obvious difference between cognitive science and Cultural Studies is that the latter is explicitly political while the former is not. Sure, one can find political ideology in cognitive science in the way one can find political ideology in anything, but cognitive science, as an intellectual practice, hasn’t taken on a political project. Cultural Studies has and, as I read Michael’s accounts – here, at the CHE, and at his own blog – I gather that much that is problematic is tied to the politics. Cognitive science just doesn’t register in that arena.

Nor has cognitive science attempted to study something that had previously been considered beneath the dignitive of academic scrutiny, i.e. popular culture. It seems to me that for some range of scholars it really makes no difference just how one studies popular culture, the mere study of it on any terms is sinful. I have no idea to what extend the McChesney’s of the world can be educated on this point, and so the careful differentiation between Cultural Studies and Cheer is effort well-spent, or whether the existence of Cheer just makes it easier to scape-goat any and all study of popular culture. In any event, cognitive science doesn’t have this kind of problem.

And then there is evolutionary psychology, which draws on various disciplines – psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology – and has no particular institutional home. And, like cognitive science, it has no explicit political project. However, because it makes claims about human nature, and because it studies social relations, it is inevitably tripping over political issues, especially in its popular expositions. Here we’ve got a real mess.

56

Colin Danby 09.29.09 at 9:08 pm

Just the concerns noted in #25, Geo: the corollary of over-reliance on subversion/resistance is massive reification of the corporate/global/neoliberal. I’m alarmed by Thomas Frank’s use of “corporate” as a category of actor, with the assumption that there’s a common interest and a common practice. You see the same pattern with the term “neoliberal.”

On this page, if I read properly, Michael uses the term “corporate” only in summaries of the writing of folks he differs with.

FWIW there’s a long tradition of conservative anti-business argument around culture industries — e.g. Allan Bloom and Daniel Bell, or right-wing populism.

57

magistra 09.29.09 at 9:09 pm

Reading Ellen Willis’ article, it seemed to me that she had just relocated the false consciousness to a different area. To her, Americans are mysteriously suspicious of ‘pleasure’, having been duped (presumably) by the religious-moral complex. The possibility that there might be legitimate reasons for seeing some forms of pleasure as bad doesn’t get a mention, even as she writes disapprovingly of right-wingers’ pleasure in aggression. I think that any attempt to argue for pleasure as a key political aim need to do a much better job at showing how the rights to pleasure we are seeking do not cause harm for others. (The gay marriage movement now seems to be doing that successfully).

58

ben 09.29.09 at 9:30 pm

Oughtn’t there be another, just-as-bad post today?

59

Bill Benzon 09.29.09 at 9:49 pm

Wait ’till Friday, when the eagle flies.

60

John Emerson 09.29.09 at 9:57 pm

Isn’t “corporate” a category of actor? Persons under the law, but not in any other respect, and who aren’t and (according to Milton Friedman) shouldn’t be be motivated by any but economic goals?

And now persons with free speech and full political rights, whose concentration of wealth makes it possible for them to manipulate the political system at the expense of defective flesh and blood persons.

61

Michael Bérubé 09.30.09 at 3:13 am

George @ 50: The cultural right is right to “take offense at America’s commercial culture, and wrong only to blame it on liberal elites rather than on corporations.”

This is exactly where we disagree, George, so I’m glad we’ve finally gotten to the very nub of the gist. Fortunately, I’m not one of Frank’s patsies, so I won’t say “but America’s commercial culture is good, just like those tasty hot dogs!” I really won’t waste a moment of your time or mine defending the adventures of Jon and Kate (or, before them, Nick and Jessica). Instead, I’m going to go back over the terrain you and I covered in 2004, and ask why it is that American popular culture is so much blacker and queerer than it was 41 years ago, when TV’s first interracial kiss got Star Trek banned in the South (despite the fact that (a) Kirk and Uhura were acting under compulsion and (b) the kiss happened in science fiction, which displaced it into the 23rd century). Is our culture vulgar? Yes, indeed it is, but it is much more than that, and when it comes to sexual freedoms, the left should (imho) object to the international traffic in women but should have no business endorsing the right’s lamentations about the baleful effects of abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce. My larger concern here, which I discuss in my Dissent review of What Are Intellectuals Good For? (I told you I was spending my summer writing about your book, and a very enjoyable task it was), is the way the Christopher Lasch Left combines a principled anti-capitalism with a mordant cultural conservatism, especially w/r/t things like abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce. So you wind up (as in your book) with an intriguing co-endorsement of Noam Chomsky and Victor Davis Hanson. (In that review, I also note your Lasch > Willis approach.) But on the narrow question of whether Frank’s analysis of the right = Hall’s, the answer is simply no. Here’s Hall:

Consumer capitalism works by working the markets; but it cannot entirely determine what alternative uses people are able to make of the diversity of choices and the real advances in mass production which it also always brings. If “people’s capitalism” did not liberate the people, it nevertheless “loosed” many individuals into a life somewhat less constrained, less puritanically regulated, less strictly imposed than it had been three or four decades before. Of course the market has not remained buoyant and expansive in this manner. But the contradictory capacity, for a time, of the system to pioneer expansion, to drive and develop new products and maximize new choices, while at the same time creaming off its profit margins, was seriously underestimated. Thus the left has never understood the capacity of the market to become identified in the minds of the mass of ordinary people, not as fair and decent and socially responsible (that it never was), but as an expansive popular system.

In The Forthcoming Book I’ve Already Mentioned Too Often, I explain why McChesney is wrong to go after those last four words. Suffice it to say that when Frank characterizes the Britney-Madonna kiss at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards as “lascivious” and as “as pure an expression of business rationality as is a McDonald’s hamburger as pure an expression of business rationality as is a McDonald’s hamburger,” he’s engaging in an exceptionally reductionist kind of cultural criticism. I call it the Great Leap Backward.

62

Colin Danby 09.30.09 at 3:14 am

It’s certainly a legal category, John. It’s interesting that you quickly make the move to Friedman’s argument about pure selfish motivation. If I remember, part of the context is Friedman’s frustration with actual corporations that don’t behave like that — so the first point is that this is a theoretical/ideological desideratum for Friedman rather than an inductively-generated description of the world.

My argument is not with your underlying ethical or political concerns, but with the reified “corporate” as an overarching villain. This may not be your view, but what I see in a lot of folks is an implicit assumption that corporate = profit-seeking = selfish = antisocial = capitalism-in-general/globalization/neoliberalism, making a seamless ethical continuum from each individual enterprise up to teh global capitalism. What I often hear in cultural studies circles, along these lines, is “neoliberalism” being used as an all-purpose villain: any time my budget gets cut, that’s neoliberalism comin’ after me — a malign world-spirit with countless manifestations.

63

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 3:50 am

For several reasons, I am not upset by corporate America’s alleged failure to maximize profits ruthlessly enough.

64

geo 09.30.09 at 5:12 am

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is not a book about popular culture or the cultural left. There is very little in it about either subject. It is a book about New Right ideology, the “Great Backlash,” as he calls it. In the introduction to the book, he writes: “My aim is to examine the backlash from top to bottom — its theorists, its elected officials, and its foot soldiers — and to understand the species of derangement that has brought so many ordinary people” — ie, middle- and working-class Republican voters — “to such a self-damaging political extreme.” The book consists largely of reporting and analyzing the deliverances of evangelical Christians and Republican strategists and of demonstrating how consistently the latter manage to enlist the former in supporting policies that have nothing to do with meeting their grievances and incidentally steal them blind.

About these grievances — godlessness, pornography, abortion-on-demand, disrespect for authority, miscegenation, loud music, etc., etc. — Frank has this to say: 1) Reaganism and Gingrichism have made them central to their campaign strategies; 2) once in power, Reaganism and Gingrichism have shown practically no interest in addressing them and a great deal of interest in things not featured prominently in their campaigns: deregulation, privatization, regressive taxation; 3) much of what the “foot soldiers” object to is the result not of wild, liberatory, antinomian anti-capitalist subversives but of corporate marketing strategies, very much for profit. Do 1, 2, and 3 add up to “Laschian cultural conservatism”? If so, then sign me up, I guess.

Here’s the paragraph containing the phrase you singled out:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world — for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness — blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading FCUK snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

How is he wrong?

65

John Meredith 09.30.09 at 12:32 pm

“Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. “

How is he wrong? Really? Is it in any way meaningful to make claims like this? It makes not more sense to me than ‘Scotland likes to visit its step-sister in Miami’. This is that way marketing executives think (or pretend to when they have something to sell). It’s stupid.

66

lgm 09.30.09 at 1:04 pm

Re #49: I followed the link & read your Sokal article. Sokal’s claim was that much of the respected cultural studies writing is hard to understand precisely because it doesn’t mean anything. Your rejoinder tries to deflect that with some remark about gardening.

Take Newton. It may well be that the culture he lived in predisposed him to think in terms of deterministic mathematical laws of motion. But those laws of motion would not stop being true in another culture, as Stanley Fish said in a New York Times Op/Ed piece. We can imagine a garden without conservation of energy — that would be the Starship Enterprise. But we can’t actually go there.

67

alex 09.30.09 at 1:10 pm

@65 – I think it’s called synecdoche. Been around a while.

68

John Meredith 09.30.09 at 1:13 pm

That’s true, Alex, stupidity has a long pedigree.

69

dsquared 09.30.09 at 1:47 pm

It may well be that the culture he lived in predisposed him to think in terms of deterministic mathematical laws of motion. But those laws of motion would not stop being true in another culture

why, oh why oh why, do people use Newtonian gravity and deterministic laws of motion as their examples of things which are true for all times and in all cultures?

70

bianca steele 09.30.09 at 2:17 pm

Speaking only for myself, I’m not too thrilled with the apparent redefinition of “neoliberalism” either; I’d like to reserve the word for liberals, with generally center- or even left-liberal beliefs, who tend to accept the mostly conservative institutions that actually exist, along with what they produce, culturally, as morally correct (a definition that includes Daniel Bell, among others). But I could be convinced.

71

bianca steele 09.30.09 at 2:21 pm

Moonlighting: Right or Left?

72

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 2:24 pm

This is that way marketing executives think (or pretend to when they have something to sell). It’s stupid.

Marketing executives are not nice people, but they’re pretty good at what they do.

73

Harry 09.30.09 at 2:35 pm

Michael
I guess I’m in the Laschian cultural conservative camp with geo (one of the reasons I found it impossible to join the book event is that I couldn’t find anything of substance to disagree with. I should add that, unlike geo, when I say “I’m not a cultural studies scholar” I mean something like “really, really, I’m not at all”). I was struck by this:

the left should (imho) object to the international traffic in women but should have no business endorsing the right’s lamentations about the baleful effects of abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce.

Really? Do we have to restrict ourselves to international traffic in women, and then treat gay marriage in the same category as divorce? Gay marriage is entirely welcome (a bit of a surprise, but no less welcome for that). The divorce revolution may be a result of something welcome, but it is not at all welcome itself, and the fragmentation of the family does not seem to be good for children, especially for children who are already among the more disadvantaged. The left should at least be willing to discuss each of these phenomena on its merits. The family values debate is much more complicated than you treat it as being here.

74

Harry 09.30.09 at 2:35 pm

Not that I haven’t got a book to hawk, too…

75

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 2:36 pm

Mirowski’s “The Road From Mont Pelerin” comes up with a definition of neoliberalism as a serious intellectual trend. It overlaps somewhat but not entirely with the popular use of the term. What he concludes is that neoliberalism is a successor of “classical liberalism” (not welfare liberalism) which gives the state a large role in imposing freemarket principles on society, as in Pinochet’s Chile. It’s not laissez faire in the old-fashioned way.

In his book Mirowski cites the confused Wiki on neoliberalism and goes on a tirade against Wiki. On the discussion page I have suggested to the Wiki editors that they revise after taking Mirowski into account, but no luck so far.

76

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 2:44 pm

I thought that the recent Polanski thread showed a sort of latent Laschianism among people who would reject overt Laschianism. I tried to raise the question, rather ineptly I think, by describing ways that the sexual revolution, etc., created an atmosphere where Polanski’s behavior didn’t seem that far over the line. And if raping 13 year olds isn’t transgressive, what is?

77

John Meredith 09.30.09 at 2:59 pm

“why, oh why oh why, do people use Newtonian gravity and deterministic laws of motion as their examples of things which are true for all times and in all cultures?”

Is this a joke that I don’t get, or is there something about Newtonian laws of motion that someone hasn’t told me? Are they suspended in Morecombe, or something?

78

John Meredith 09.30.09 at 3:00 pm

“Marketing executives are not nice people, but they’re pretty good at what they do.”

In my experience, the reverse is true. I find most of them very nice, but clueless.

79

dsquared 09.30.09 at 3:25 pm

Are they suspended in Morecombe, or something?

No, it’s just that they’re actually not true anywhere, as has been known since 1935 and the publication of general relativity. They are certainly a “useful description” of the behaviour of medium-sized objects travelling at normal speeds, but they start making large errors when you deal with things that are very small, very big, or travelling close to the speed of light.

80

John Meredith 09.30.09 at 3:52 pm

“No, it’s just that they’re actually not true anywhere”

Don’t be daft, they are true everywhere for objects over a certain size which aren’t approaching the speed of light, which is to say in any world that humans can live in. So they function perfectly well to make the point that there is an objective non-cultural reality.

81

belle le triste 09.30.09 at 4:05 pm

“any world that humans can live in”

“objective non-cultural reality”

Er, yes, John. Let’s not be daft.

82

Hidari 09.30.09 at 4:11 pm

‘Don’t be daft, they are true everywhere for objects over a certain size which aren’t approaching the speed of light, which is to say in any world that humans can live in’.

In other words they are ‘true’ ceteris paribus, which is the case for all the other ‘laws’ of physics. Nancy Cartwright has built her entire career on pointing this out over and over again, in a variety of different ways.

But the whole idea of ‘objective’ ‘laws’ of physics, is explicitly opposed to this idea: indeed, the whole concept of ‘objectivity’ in the ‘West’ is to deride and/or ignore context. (Note: belle le triste makes this basic point far more eloquently than I do).

I might also add that the ‘anti-relativist’ or (as I would prefer to put it) ‘anti-contextualist’ position is generally hopelessly confused in that they tend to use Positivist arguments to support Realist positions. But you can’t do that. The positivists were instrumentalists, as befitted their anti-metaphysical, pro-empiricist assumptions. Realism is a metaphysical position.

83

Hidari 09.30.09 at 4:13 pm

Incidentally it’s just the basic laws of evolution that are suspended in Morecombe. Thangew thangew I’ll be ‘ere all week.

84

soru 09.30.09 at 5:14 pm

Actually pretty much any system of laws has both relative (observer-dependant) and absolute (context-free) numbers involved. Even pre-Newtonian physics has bearing, easting, etc.

Einstein only changed which was which. In a different cultural context it might have been called the Doctrine of Luminous Invariance.

85

AcademicLurker 09.30.09 at 5:16 pm

Good lord, is it the Science Wars again?

86

alex 09.30.09 at 5:18 pm

Cool. So did we decide if cultural studies was dead, or not?

87

tom bach 09.30.09 at 5:32 pm

“Cool. So did we decide if cultural studies was dead, or not?”
Depends how you look at it; but, provisionally, both.

88

JC 09.30.09 at 5:36 pm

@ alex

Dead everywhere except Morecombe, where the laws of physics and mortality have both been suspended.

89

Brian 09.30.09 at 5:51 pm

“No, it’s just that they’re actually not true anywhere”

What you mean is that they’re not actually true everywhere.

That’s an important distinction.

And I would argue that the limitations of Newtonian physics isn’t quite the same as ceteris paribus, but that would only derail the thread further, and it’s a good thread, so I won’t do that.

And while I’m here, Colin @51, Sokal vs. Bogdanovs is a very poor comparison. There are much better reasons to suspect that theoretical physics is crap. (or at least crappy)

90

Brian 09.30.09 at 5:55 pm

Seriously, I want to read more about the Laschian cultural conservatism…

91

Colin Danby 09.30.09 at 6:17 pm

Just for the record I *don’t* think physics, theoretical or not, is crap. I was attempting a wee joke about piling big conclusions on little swindles.

But yes, academiclurker, in some places it’s always 1996! Like cowboys and indians, or cops and robbers — everyone takes a role, and the role tells you how to play.

Yes John E, Mirowski rulez. What I question is the reification that you get in David Harvey, among others.

92

Brian 09.30.09 at 6:38 pm

Alles klar Colin…

93

Dana 09.30.09 at 6:42 pm

“Popular media audiences are active” is now as commonplace as “hot dogs are tasty”? Maybe it is so now – with social media being the hot buzz word it has become – but in 1990, I don’t think so. What I remember from 199o is that the accepted line was more like – Television audiences are passive. So unlike books, that take active participation from the reader to create the fiction, television pumps palp into passive viewers – forces passivity onto television watchers and is making everyone stupid. Audiences of mass media actually were taking what corporate media suppliers wanted to give them and subverting it into what they wanted to get (yes this is what they were subverting it into – and why weren’t they being given what they wanted in the first place? people had thought that was what mass media was doing, but it wasn’t); this process was a worthwhile topic, one that needed demonstration and thought. I do see the point though that, now that it’s obvious, more has to be said for work to be significant.

94

Bill Benzon 09.30.09 at 7:14 pm

It’s a though there were a Sokol corollary to Godwin’s Law.

95

steven 09.30.09 at 7:18 pm

they are true everywhere for objects over a certain size which aren’t approaching the speed of light, which is to say in any world that humans can live in

Actually, it’s pretty important in this world that humans can live in that GPS systems correct for relativity.

96

geo 09.30.09 at 7:27 pm

Dana: now that it’s obvious

What is, exactly?

97

Colin Danby 09.30.09 at 7:35 pm

Wednesday’s worse already.

98

Walt 09.30.09 at 8:00 pm

Belle: “Neoliberalism” is one of those terms that have two different meanings. One meaning, in the American context, is people like Daniel Bell. Another meaning, more common outside the US, is people like Milton Friedman.

99

Vance Maverick 09.30.09 at 8:21 pm

geo, Dana is saying it’s obvious that “popular media audiences are active”. Obvious perhaps in the sense that it’s widely accepted.

100

geo 09.30.09 at 8:35 pm

Thanks, Vance.

Isn’t activity/passivity a matter of degree, though, like everything else? Of course you can’t fool, coarsen, or stupefy all the people all the time. But can’t you fool, coarsen, and stupefy a lot of the people a lot of the time?

101

magistra 09.30.09 at 8:53 pm

I’m with Harry@73: it seems to me perfectly possible to be (like me): pro-gay marriage and unenthusiastic about high divorce rates for straights or gays. Or fine with inter-racial marriage, but unappy about porn. I think some liberals seem to be creating a bizarre mirror-image of religious right sexual ethics, working apparently on the principle that you’ve either got to disapprove and ban almost all forms of sexual activity, or you’ve got to allow and approve of almost all forms. There may not be room for political compromise in the US, but it would be good to have some more sensible moral discussion of sexual ethics.

In particular, I think the left have done a good job in pointing out the inconsistencies and problems with traditional sexual morality, but haven’t done so well at creating a humanistic sexual ethic that goes beyond ‘anything that consenting adults do is OK’. (Feminists have done best at this, as the recent threads about lecherous lecturers show, but I don’t think anyone’s put together all the threads to make a coherent whole).

That means that a lot of people who are sympathetic to some aspects of the sexual revolution nevertheless get treated as the enemy by some leftists if they dare suggest that adultery or the ‘zipless f***’ are not admirable forms of behaviour. [I’m not being prudish here, BTW, I don’t know what the moderating software will accept]. There also seems to be a view current that if you disapprove of some sort of behaviour you must be in favour of legislating against it, whereas in many cases it may not be sensible to legislate against certain forms of unattractive sexual behaviour, but it seems entirely right to stigmatise the perpetrators. I don’t think Terence Kealey should be sacked, but I damn well would like him to be shunned at conferences, etc.

As for the arguments about the relative political priority to be given to economic v personal freedom questions, I don’t think it’s a question of abandoning minority rights, but of recognizing that they take a long time to achieve and that though you need to lead public opinion, you can’t get too far ahead of it . Two of the best things the current UK Labour government has done are introduce a minimum wage and legalize civil partnerships for gays. They could have done the former politically back in 1979 when Labour were last in power; they couldn’t have got legislation through on civil partnerships in the 1970s. Spending political capital on things that the vast majority of the country are opposed to simply doesn’t make sense.

102

Michael Bérubé 09.30.09 at 9:08 pm

George @ 64, re Tom Frank:

How is he wrong?

He is wrong to think that the left’s road to electoral and political success lies in (1) signing on to some of the right’s jihads against “vulgarity” and then (2) convincing them to turn against capitalism on the basis of their outrage at the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast. For sheer world-historical wrongheadedness, this matches or betters anything ever said by the most jejune cultural-studies theorist investigating the counterhegemonic potential of bowling. But now we’re just going over old terrain.

lgm @ 66: Sokal’s claim was that much of the respected cultural studies writing is hard to understand precisely because it doesn’t mean anything. Your rejoinder tries to deflect that with some remark about gardening.

Hmm, picking up allusions to Marianne Moore reading comprehension not your strong suit on that one. Actually, Sokal’s primary claim was “For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful– not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique.” For the past 13 years I have been debating Sokal on the grounds that “objective reality (both natural and social)” illegitimately conflates what John Searle calls “brute fact” and “social fact.” The results (on my side) can be found in chapters 1-3 of Rhetorical Occasions.

But thanks for the threadjack! It’s fun every time it happens, which is every time.

Harry @ 73: The divorce revolution may be a result of something welcome, but it is not at all welcome itself, and the fragmentation of the family does not seem to be good for children, especially for children who are already among the more disadvantaged. The left should at least be willing to discuss each of these phenomena on its merits.

Fine, but I’m still not going to endorse the right’s laments. Because down that road, you find yourself complaining that women are getting a little too free these days.

103

Michael Bérubé 09.30.09 at 9:21 pm

Shouldn’t-be-necessary-but-probably-is disclaimer: which is not to say that I’m OK with every divorce or every kind of porn or Roman Polanski or Terence Kealey. I’m merely saying that Tom Frank’s outrage at MTV, and Bob McChesney’s idea that vulgarity is the result of media consolidation, are very silly things.

About the death panels for cultural studies: I try to address that question here.

104

geo 09.30.09 at 9:40 pm

He is wrong to think that the left’s road to electoral and political success lies in (1) signing on to some of the right’s jihads against “vulgarity” and then (2) convincing them to turn against capitalism on the basis of their outrage at the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast.

But of course he doesn’t think that. He thinks the left’s road to electoral and political success lies in changing the subject back to — or at least not letting the discussion altogether lose sight of — the common interest of the right’s “foot soldiers” and the rest of us non-affluent people, whatever our moral values and attitude to popular culture, in not being screwed over by the right’s leaders, who care only about deregulation, regressive taxation, deunionization, subsidies for the energy and defense industries, etc.

As for his agreeing with the right about popular culture — he doesn’t. In the post of yours that you link to, you quote him as saying, if [note, if] they object to Janet Jackson’s breast or whatever, they should at least blame the people responsible for it: ie, the businessmen who finance the legislators whom you elect as a — completely misdirected, whether justified or not — protest against what those businessmen do. But he doesn’t say that he objects to Janet Jackson’s breast, etc. On the contrary, I suspect you and he have close to identical tastes and values respecting popular culture, very different from old farts like Lasch and me.

105

Ami 09.30.09 at 10:05 pm

Oh my. Much discussion has taken place since I was last able to check in. As I’m catching up, I’d like to clarify and add some things:

The UC Davis letter did not say that Michael Berube “should have been arguing for more support for cultural studies programs, full stop, instead of saying that cultural studies has gotten itself a bad rep in many quarters (sometimes deservedly) but should be taken seriously as a rich intellectual tradition that actually offers cogent explanations of (among other things) how hegemony works.”

Rather, we were drawn to address the essay’s narrative of decline about our field. Our letter expressed concern about how the essay represented the state of cultural studies in the U.S. As an example of this characterization, here’s the concluding sentence of his essay’s first paragraph: “Since its importation to the United States, however, cultural studies has basically turned into a branch of pop-culture criticism.”

Later, the Chronicle essay elaborates on this by saying that cultural studies “has effectively been conflated with “cultural criticism” in general, and associated with a cheery “Pop culture is fun!” approach. Anybody writing about The Bachelor or American Idol is generally understood to be “doing” cultural studies, especially by his or her colleagues elsewhere in the university.”

In follow-up comments and posts, I see Michael (may I? And, please, please just call me Ami. Using last names in this forum makes me feel like we’re spitting venom or something) emphasizing that he is concerned primarily with how the negative public image of cultural studies seriously hinders the field from being politically and scholarly effectual. I can see how the CHE essay could communicate that. He doesn’t mean that cultural studies folks take a “Pop culture is fun! approach.” That’s just how those close-minded, uninformed people see it. His use of passive voice in the passage quoted above, however, leaves his argument open to an interpretation he has repeatedly said he did not mean. Who and who is not conflating CS with uncritical pop culture analyses? Are today’s practitioners of American CS doing this in their own work? Sounds like that’s what’s being said. One might reasonably take away the message that, while the Birmingham School brand of CS was great, most CS work in the United States just doesn’t measure up.

We (UC Davis signatories) contested this picture of CS as unrecognizable in relation to the intellectual communities in which we participate. We expressed concern that Berube’s comment in the CHE did not recognize CS involvement in collaborations across the humanities, sciences, and law. We also expressed concern that, in an era of university corporatization, scholarship that analyzes power and critiques capital is especially vulnerable to defunding. Nowhere did we say that thoughtful critique was unwelcome, nor did we argue that CS is thoroughly embraced across the disciplines or by the general public. We explained that our work is not “a cheery “Pop culture is fun!” approach.” That image, which I certainly agree is commonplace in many camps, is an incorrect representation of the intellectual communities in which we participate. We were dismayed that the essay in the CHE would contribute to that negative and inaccurate image of CS in the US today, so clearly, we are concerned about several factors that coalesce in CS’s situation.

I go over all this only because the post here suggests to me that we’re still not on the same page with regards to the issues upon which members of this conversation have disagreed, I think clearing that up will make our discussion more productive in terms of figuring out how to increase the political and scholarly influence of CS. I get it: Michael didn’t mean it the way we took it.

I see that Michael meant to lament this incorrect image of CS in the US (only), turning to the work of the Birmingham School in an effort to correct the image while marking the boundaries of CS as he sees it. Clearer boundaries about what is and what isn’t CS will help fix the scholarly image, funding, public reception, and political relevance issues.

Speaking entirely for myself, I am interested in the notion that CS should be narrowly defined and the various other fields associated with it should be understood as separate, but related, communities. I can see how this could be productive in some ways. I’m not sure where that would leave many of my colleagues, though. I came to the UCD CS program because I believed – and still do believe – that my dissertation would be much better if I could experiment across a wide variety of methods and explore the insights of a wide variety of fields before I settled on how to approach my research topic and how to frame my research question. Cultural studies (at UCD) appeared to be a capacious embrace of interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities that interrogated power relations, a small but lively institutional perch for the unconventional and political. I certainly didn’t want to commit to a single discipline or method before I had read more deeply into the many fields related to my research topic. What has always mattered most to me is the quality and significance of my dissertation, and it is the amorphousness of CS that enabled me to pursue my curiosities until I became confident about which (sub) fields my project will most productively bring together and which bodies of literature would illuminate my object of study in a way that would matter both in and outside the academy. If CS is to draw stronger boundaries around subject, method, or purpose, will there be another place in the university where students can get off the beaten track to develop new questions, methods, and forms of scholarship?

Perhaps wanting a home for the odd is counterproductive to the maintenance of oddness, but I like to think that things don’t have to be all or nothing. I like having a place from which to wander about and try new things while remaining engaged with more established scholarly and public conversations. Maybe it will be harder to get people to understand what I do simply from the name of my program, but hopefully my work will speak more loudly and clearly, and that it will do so in a way that it could not have done had it been fomented in a disciplinary department.

106

Ami 09.30.09 at 10:05 pm

For those of you going back and forth about Newtonian physics and the concept of objective reality, I suggest the following book: Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007.

107

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 11:25 pm

Frank and Lasch apart, the “culture wars” reminds me exactly of the way that serious issues were ignored by bipartisan consensus during most of the period 1870–1912 (and even later), while elections were decided on the basis of Civil War sectional resentments, prohibition, anti-Catholicism and nativism.

My own most important issues are war and militarism, economic equality and social spending, and the police state and executive power, in about that order. On all of these issues the last 40 years have been disastrous. (Some might question this re: economic equality, but that’s been backloaded, so that the results of recent actions won’t be seen for five years or more.)

Meanwhile other issues have done reasonably or very well: gay rights notably (since there was such a long way to go), and to a considerable extent, women’s rights and the environment. Not coincidentally, these are issues that “moderate” hawkish, anti-union, “fiscally conservative” Republicans can support.

I don’t begrudge the winners their victory, but sometimes I overhear them speaking complacently about the last 40 years, leading me to suspect that I’m on their side, but they aren’t on mine. And they will say “You happen to think that those issues are important, whereas we think that these issues are important.” But my issues are not unimportant to the GLBT&C community; it’s not as though they are immune to the state of the economy, or don’t need health care.

Lasch traced our cultural politics all the way back to WWI (Mencken was an out-and-out rightwinger) and also noted that the Democrats (as his teacher, Hofstadter, recommended) renounced economic populism in favor of interest-group politics in the fifties, making labor, for example, just one interest group among many (and recently, one to bash). During that period the Democrats also committed themselves to top down technocratic governance, which is the truth behind the Republican “elitism” smear. (Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real).

At this time the full impact of the recent crash hasn’t been felt yet, and the future is more uncertain than anyone is willing to admit. It’s been a pretty clear case of elite malfeasance and looting by the rich, but because of the Democrats choice of an anti-majoritarian interest group strategy, and because of the success of the Republicans’ fake populism, a populist majoritarian response to the mafeasance and looting is more or less impossible.

And if it happens, the militarized police have plenty of hardware and legal leeway to crush it, as we saw recently in Pittsburgh.

108

lemuel pitkin 09.30.09 at 11:45 pm

He is wrong to think that the left’s road to electoral and political success lies in (1) signing on to some of the right’s jihads against “vulgarity” and then (2) convincing them to turn against capitalism on the basis of their outrage at the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast.

This is, to coin a phrase, a world-historically wrong-headed reading of Frank. His argument — which is really hard to miss; he repeats it over and over and over — goes like this:

(1) The things that really matter to people’s well-being are old left issues like the distribution of income and political power.

(2) Working people are getting screwed. But they’ve been tricked into turning their anger from the economic elites who are to blame, to bogus cultural issues.

(3) Even on those issues, they aren’t getting anything. This is important — if abortion were actually banned, gays disappeared from public life, etc., those issues would lose their salience and people might turn their attention back to #1.

(4) Unfortunately, many leftists have been co-opted into playing the part of “liberal elites” by focusing on cultural issues rather than on economic issues. If the left were to focus more of its energy on higher wages, saving industrial jobs, supporting unions, etc., the synechdochal Kansans who currently hate us would be hapy to join forces with us instead.

You can certainly argue with this — for starters, Frank places a much lower value on the revolution in gender roles than you or I would. But Frank isn’t saying what you say he is. And in the 2000-word post on your site you link to, you don’t provide any evidence that he is. He is not saying the left should feign outrage over nipples over TV, but also that we shouldn’t defend them, but instead should *change the subject*.

109

John Emerson 09.30.09 at 11:56 pm

One criticism of Frank, following Gelman, is that the split is different than Frank says. Roughly, in almost every state the rich are more Republican than the poor, including poor whites. A lot of the crazy right are actually upper middle class or above, and a fair proporrtion of them are educated.

At the same time, poor whites in poor states are more Republican than they are elsewhere, almost certainly for the types of issues Frank talks about.

When Republicans go after a Democratic demographic, they’re not going for 51%. They’re just whittling down the Democratic advantage. IF black Americans or Jews voted 70% Democratic, that would be a Republican triumph. The culture-war successes of the Republicans are that kind of whittling-down victory.

110

harry b 10.01.09 at 12:10 am

No Michael, I don’t find myself saying that at all, nor I am sure does magistra, and nor would anyone who was thinking clearly. What do you actually say to right-wingers who discuss this with you in conversation? I wouldn’t exactly say that I join in their laments, but I agree with them that the divorce revolution itself has had some bad effects (as well as some good effects, which I can usually get them to agree to as well); and I agree with them that the fragmentation of the family is a particular problem for especially disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. None of this leads me to agree with them (which, frankly, they don’t usually say anyway) that women have too much freedom. Sometimes it leads them to agree with me that the strain highly concetrated disadvanage places on families and that widespread single parenthood places schools is something that we cannot just ignore, or blame those people who suffer it for. It also makes them much less confident in their complaints against gay marriage (because they often give reasons for regretting divorce that, in our circumstances, seem to support having gay marriage) Of course, in a conversation there is give and take, and if they could give good reasons for thinking that women have too much freedom I’d listen to them. I don’t get this “I won’t say X because it might lead me to say Y” when X is true and Y is false and I am of sound mind.

Oh, and the rest of what magistra says is really good too.

111

lemuel pitkin 10.01.09 at 12:31 am

the split is different than Frank says. Roughly, in almost every state the rich are more Republican than the poor, including poor whites. A lot of the crazy right are actually upper middle class or above, and a fair proporrtion of them are educated.

This is a reasonable criticism of what Frank actually says. Not sure I agree — the genuinely rich are a tiny group, electorally — but it’s directed at the right target.

Also, I agree with almost everything Harry B and Geo and Magistra say. The need for our side to develop a positive ethic and vision of the good life is a particularly important point.

112

harold 10.01.09 at 1:16 am

I don’t think Michel Berube has answered Geo at all. This is too bad, because I admire Berube.

113

nick 10.01.09 at 1:50 am

yeah, Michael, I think the implication that those on the left who are dubious about mass culture are all just prudes (I say implication, not direct argument)–I think this line is neither worthy of your work in general nor a fair representation of your adversaries.

Adorno said that the bourgeoisie wanted their art hedonistic and their life ascetic, but the other way around would be better. As for me, I enjoy Lady Gaga’s hypothetical penis as much as the next hipster/ironist, but when I step back, can I honestly say I’m happy with the deal?

114

nick 10.01.09 at 1:51 am

“The need for our side to develop a positive ethic and vision of the good life is a particularly important point.”
–what, dude, you’ve never heard of procedural liberalism?

115

lemuel pitkin 10.01.09 at 2:45 am

Nick- Well yeah. In essence that’s what Berube is for, and Geo and Harry and magistra and little ol’ me are having problems with.

116

lemuel pitkin 10.01.09 at 2:46 am

(of course you got that. sarcasm would have been obvious if I’d noticed 113 was you too. Right, exactly.)

117

Michael Bérubé 10.01.09 at 2:48 am

But he doesn’t say that he objects to Janet Jackson’s breast, etc. On the contrary, I suspect you and he have close to identical tastes and values respecting popular culture, very different from old farts like Lasch and me.

You’re seriously underreading him, George, just as you did five years ago when you complained that I was calling attention to “unimportant” aspects of his book. But he really did call the Madonna-Britney kiss “lascivious,” and he really did claim that we inhabit “a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers whom they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years.” As for Frank’s horrified reaction to MTV, watch how he wriggles out of the question in this interview by heaping scorn (yet again) on the stupid cultural studies people:

O’HEHIR: You have a whole critique of pop culture that is difficult to summarize, but let’s talk more about your sympathy with the right-wing activists. When they bemoan how coarse and cheap pop culture has become, you almost seem to agree, or at least to feel that they have a certain kind of point.

FRANK: Well, look. I should say this: I started out as a punk rocker, and we try to deal with cultural dissent, genuinely shocking things, at the Baffler. But as I have written about many, many times, so much of the shockery that surrounds us is not genuine. There’s no avant-garde about it. It’s not the real thing, it’s a watered-down capitalist projection. You’ve seen this argument before, “the commodification of dissent.”

The argument I’m making is not that they’re absolutely right to be disgusted by our culture — although when I’m away from the country and I come back and turn on MTV, I’m always like, “Holy shit!” [my emphasis]. I’m just trying to play up the flagrant contradiction. If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it! I’m focusing on the contradiction there, rather than accepting their argument about obscenity or whatever.

Right, so your real problem is with the kind of cultural-studies intellectual who believes that pop culture really is subversive.

Yes, exactly. The cultural studies people read these products of capitalism as face value. They see fake rebellion as the real thing. To put it in very vulgar terms, that’s the argument.

Madonna kissing Britney is somehow actually socially meaningful.

Right, exactly. And the heartland people often see it that way also. I’m saying it’s not that, it is as pure an expression of business rationality as is a McDonald’s hamburger.

Sorry, George, but I’m still not buying this. Nor am I buying the argument that Janet Jackson’s breast was brought to you by “the businessmen who finance the legislators whom you elect as a—completely misdirected, whether justified or not—protest against what those businessmen do.” Nor am I buying Frank’s argument that Sam Brownback should have fought against media consolidation if he was really concerned about vulgarity. Frank really does argue this, and it’s an argument beneath his intelligence.

To Nick: yeah, Michael, I think the implication that those on the left who are dubious about mass culture are all just prudes (I say implication, not direct argument)—I think this line is neither worthy of your work in general nor a fair representation of your adversaries.

No, I did not mean to argue this or imply it. But there really is a persistent leftish moralism that sees only decay and hears only noise when it turns to the passions and pastimes of These Kids Today, which is why I mentioned it in paragraph (3) of the post.

As for “changing the subject,” getting back to the primacy of class, remembering who’s really getting screwed: sigh. As Ellen Willis said in 1999, one wing of the left has been saying this since 1980. And they keep saying it and keep saying it, stubbornly oblivious to (or, worse, contemptuous of) all the people out there who actually care about “merely cultural” issues (i.e., distractions). Now, when I say this, am I saying “never mind the economy, we have to organize a protest of Tropic Thunder, comrades, for that is where the real struggle lies”? No, I am not. I am saying that some cultural issues (like the argument over whether to say Down syndrome or Down’s syndrome) are indeed inconsequential. Just as some zoning laws are. But Frank’s dismissal of the culture wars in toto leads to some really bad mistakes, like lemuel pitkin’s @ 111:

(3) Even on those issues, they aren’t getting anything.

Anything? You missed the Supreme Court’s evisceration of affirmative action from Wards Cove v. Atonio onward and the restrictions on abortion that followed from Casey v. Planned Parenthood?

(4) Unfortunately, many leftists have been co-opted into playing the part of “liberal elites” by focusing on cultural issues rather than on economic issues. If the left were to focus more of its energy on higher wages, saving industrial jobs, supporting unions, etc., the synechdochal Kansans who currently hate us would be hapy to join forces with us instead.

It would be nice to think so. Hey, let’s try a thought experiment: let’s imagine that a bunch of leftists showed up and argued for a single-payer health plan in the US, or, as a fallback, a “public option.” Surely that would win over the conservative Kansans who hate us now.

Also, I agree with almost everything Harry B and Geo and Magistra say.

There are indeed lots of guys on the left who think that cultural issues are “elitist” issues, distractions from real political concerns. All those things that Stuart Hall found “electrifying” about the Gramscian conception of politics, they find enervating. Which is why (and I hope Ami might agree with me on this) we still need cultural studies.

I do have some sympathy for Harry B’s remarks. And he must be talking to fairly pleasant conservatives who know better than to say aloud that women have too much freedom. Because Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Caldwell have been going around lately saying it very loud indeed, and adding that Islamists are right to take umbrage at the looseness of our women.

118

Harry 10.01.09 at 2:54 am

I don’t get to talk to people like that (nor do I want to). More the kind of people who vote in Kansas and Ohio, and listen to Rush, and watch Bill O whatisname, and are, indeed, decent and nice people. As most conservatives who don’t make a living from being conservatives are. I’m amazed the number of people I know (vaguely) on the left who never seem to actually talk, in person, with any conservatives.

119

lemuel pitkin 10.01.09 at 3:06 am

Michael, the second half of your comment (from “changing the subject”) makes some very strong arguments. Which I largely agree with — my numbered list was intended as a summary of Tom Frank’s views, not my own.

But it’s precisely because they *are* so strong that it’s baffling that you make these other really unsupported claims. Tom (he and I were part of the same University of Chicago crowd, back in the day; I got very drunk at his house there more than once) is not saying that the right is right in their specific criticisms of mass culture. He is saying, first, these issues are a distraction (and again, your objections on this point are clear and cogent) and, second, that while the specific criticisms are off-base it is true that much of popular culture really is ugly, degrading and stupid and that it is possible to imagine, and politically appropriate to prefer, a different kind of popular culture that would contribute to our genuine wellbeing and development as human beings. (Think DIY punk rock as a kind of Laschian artisanship.) This is the argument George has made so persuasively and that the cultural-studies approach (in both its “hot dogs are tasty!” and grim Adornian modes) more or less rules out of court.

What’s frustrating to a lot of us, I think, is that you won’t engage with this strand of argument at all. You might not, as Nick puts it, think that “all those on the left who are dubious about mass culture are all just prudes” but the prudes are the only ones you are willing to talk about, or to.

120

Michael Bérubé 10.01.09 at 3:16 am

As most conservatives who don’t make a living from being conservatives are.

Smile. And yes, it’s possible to say “free love and no-fault divorce weren’t such great ideas” and not be a reactionary. Indeed, it’s possible to say such things and be a feminist! But here’s what I’m trying to get at. As usual, Stuart Hall put it better than I can: “It is highly contradictory terrain,” Hall wrote of Thatcherism’s social agenda. “There is no clear evidence that ordinary Conservative folk– let alone the Conservative Party chairman– are actually giving up the so-called permissive society. It seems, from the scanty evidence we have, that this is even less the case with the younger generation. How, then, can we explain the discrepancy between what Thatcherite children are actually doing with and to one another, and what Thatcherite parents are represented as wanting or not wanting their children to be taught in schools?” Another way of getting at this, of course, is to note (as many people have) that opposition to the so-called permissive society is greatest in states with the highest rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, etc. It’s not simply that people are hypocrites. OK, Larry Craig and Mark Sanford are. It’s also that this is highly contradictory terrain, and we can’t always find our way about.

121

Michael Bérubé 10.01.09 at 3:26 am

Lemuel: it is true that much of popular culture really is ugly, degrading and stupid and that it is possible to imagine, and politically appropriate to prefer, a different kind of popular culture that would contribute to our genuine wellbeing and development as human beings. (Think DIY punk rock as a kind of Laschian artisanship.) This is the argument George has made so persuasively and that the cultural-studies approach (in both its “hot dogs are tasty!” and grim Adornian modes) more or less rules out of court.

What’s frustrating to a lot of us, I think, is that you won’t engage with this strand of argument at all.

Ah, I see. And sorry for misreading you @ 108, too. OK, then, to engage: I completely and totally agree with the first sentence. I disagree with the suggestion that cultural studies rules such agreement out of court. Though I do admit that some cultural studies gives that impression — emphatically so. That’s why I put together The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies — to take up John Frow’s and Simon Frith’s insistence that cultural studies people should be rather clearer about why they prefer Belle and Sebastian to Billy Joel, or democratic socialism to authoritarian populism (if they do prefer these things). Frow and Frith on the problem of “evaluation” in cultural studies are quite edifying, btw, and they have everything to do with criticizing that notion of “the intellectual as fan.” And they were (together with Barbara Herrnstein Smith) the inspiration for Arbitrary But Fun Fridays.

But I do take serious exception to the dogmatic insistence that “merely cultural” forms of politics are a distraction from the real event. Some are, some aren’t. And sometimes (not always), what’s going on among the sideshows is more important than what’s happening on center stage.

OK, must sleep now.

122

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 3:32 am

I’m not really arguing that if the Democrats switched to class issues they’d magically be more successful. I’m mostly arguing that when they switched from class issues to cultural issues, the class issues, war and peace issues, and police state issues got lost.

I’m also not arguing that Democrats should move to the right on cultural issues to win the social-conservative vote. Not exactly. I’m mostly just saying that as things have worked out, the lesser issues (in my opinion) have crowded out the greater issues relating to things government actually does. If this means that I am disagreeing with you, Ellen Willis, and the average voter, OK.

As I understand, I am also not supposed to say that the media are the problem because of something you wrote about media studies and Chomsky that wasn’t actually on this thread. I still think that, though, and believe that the left, if there is one, needs to develop its own media channels because what can be accomplished within present channels is pretty limited.

123

Yeselson 10.01.09 at 5:35 am

If there was ever a case of being overconvinced by an writer’s argument, this is it! After reading Michael’s case against contemporary American cultural studies, I’m trying to figure out why its continued separate disciplinary existence would be at all useful in a Rortyean sense. This is a “discipline” with no shared method, no agreed upon origin, and no consensus on content. Why do I need the imprimatur of cultural studies to read Paul Gilroy, identified as a sociologist on the dust jackets of his books? Or Michael Berube, professor of English? Or Lisa Duggan, with whom I was enrolled in a history Phd program hundreds of years ago?

You’ve even give Cult Stud a bit too much credit–or your pal, Jeff Nealon, does–in terms of situating an event in a “larger network of relations,” and thereby casting a large influence on other disciplines. This has been sop in the now not at all “new social history” for 30 years or more. Natalie Zemon Davis wrote The Return of Martin Guerre in 1983. Her earlier collection of essays on carnivals and other rituals in early modern France, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, was published in 1975. Carlo Ginzburg published his pathbreaking, The Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller in Italian in 1976. In cultural anthropology, Clifford Geertz famously situated Balinese cockfighting within larger networks of relations, his “Notes” first published in 1972! Is there a more widely assigned work in any humanities graduate program than the Geertz essay? Geertz didn’t need Raymond Williams to give him directions to Bali–he went there in 1958, two years before the New Left Review was founded. These are particularly prominent and influential examples from the established disciplines of what Nealon appropriates for Cultural Studies, but of course there are dozens more that preceded cultural studies and became *its* founding texts, rather than the other way around.

I’m not saying that a lot of great work hasn’t been done under the rubric “cultural studies” by American scholars. I just don’t understand anymore the point of carving out a separate discipline in order to have it done. If there was ever reason to do that, those reasons now seem contrived. The story in the UK is much different. There the link between the origin of the discipline and its ongoing work remains politically and intellectually organic. Here, for various reasons, those necessary links, to the extent they existed at all, have been severed–which doesn’t strike me as the most significant problem in the world. To paraphrase what Ted Kennedy said in a rather more grandiose context, the work goes on–so who needs the programs?

In short: no coherent method, content or indigenous origin, and even its claim to influence is probably one more borne of anxiety than deserved laurels. Why exactly are we trying to revive this corpse?

124

geo 10.01.09 at 5:56 am

there really is a persistent leftish moralism that sees only decay and hears only noise when it turns to the passions and pastimes of These Kids Today

There are indeed lots of guys on the left who think that cultural issues are “elitist” issues, distractions from real political concerns.

I do take serious exception to the dogmatic insistence that “merely cultural” forms of politics are a distraction from the real event

You’re right, of course, to object to these views. But I don’t understand why you (and Willis) impute them to Frank. He does not say that the Kansans are right to condemn obscenity, profanity, uppity women and gays, etc. Nor does he say that they are foolish to notice that the cultural ground is shifting beneath their feet, instead of paying exclusive attention to the economic issues he thinks are important. Nor does he say that leftists should ignore the Kansans’ worries and harangue them exclusively about our shared economic concerns. Nor does he say that leftists should cease to practice or defend their own culture or values.

What he says is: 1) The Kansans, like leftists and liberals, are getting massively knackered by the Republicans’ economic program. 2) The Kansans, unlike liberals and leftists, vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, and in fact provide their margin of victory. Why? 3) Because the Republicans have induced the Kansans not to notice that the Republicans have knackered them and plan to continue. How? 4) By continually talking about something else: ie, by blaming liberals and leftists for most of what offends the Kansans morally and culturally, and promising – hypocritically — to redress their grievances. Why “hypocritically”? 5) Because the pornography, violence, consumerism, community destruction, etc. that so aggrieve the Kansans are largely the products not of cultural radicals but of large and powerful industries that the Republicans have no intention whatever of confronting.

What does Frank think non-Republicans should do? Point out 1-5, repeatedly. He does not think we should pretend to agree with the Kansans about the depravity of popular culture. He does not think we should ignore their anguish about the depravity they perceive. He does not think we should give up making or studying popular culture, or trying to live free and equal lives, until economic equality is in the bag. He just thinks we should try to convince the Kansans that, whatever our moral and aesthetic differences, we can and should make common cause against being knackered.

To what extent Frank agrees with you, me, Christopher Lasch, or the Kansans about American popular culture and academic cultural studies is an interesting question. But it’s not central, or even marginal, to What’s the Matter with Kansas?

You’re right, of course, to object to these views. But I don’t understand why you (and Willis) impute them to Frank.

125

geo 10.01.09 at 6:00 am

Sorry, please ignore the last two lines, which somehow got repeated.

126

dsquared 10.01.09 at 7:02 am

it is true that much of popular culture really is ugly, degrading and stupid and that it is possible to imagine, and politically appropriate to prefer, a different kind of popular culture that would contribute to our genuine wellbeing and development as human beings. (Think DIY punk rock as a kind of Laschian artisanship.)

I really don’t see how someone might assert this and seriously object to being termed a “prude” (unless they were simply objecting to the sniggering sexual connotations of the word, which would be fair enough, in which case substitute “Puritan”). So if Michael wasn’t making that point, I’ll pick it up and run with it. In so far as punk rock wasn’t just another form of commodified dissent itself, it was absolutely all about preaching to one’s audience about how they morally ought to like some kinds of cultural artifact rather than others (for example, hardcore punks always seemed to imply that they had an argument that there was something politically unsound about the use of compression and equalisation, although I never actually heard it, unless the single word “over-produced” was all there was).

Popular culture isn’t ugly, degrading or stupid, or at least no more so than DIY punk, folk or any of the other “authentic” things that puritans think we should all be doing instead, and some of the most interesting things in cultural studies are Zizek et al’s attempts to track down exactly why it is that people feel they want to say that Belle and Sebastian are better than Billy Joel (by the way, if liking B&S is a prerequisite for anything, I’m joining the other side). There seems to me to be more than a little bit of the “cultural cringe” here when it comes to defending the study of something that’s actually very important.

(In the alternative, I’d note that while sociologists, political scientists, psephologists and whoever could have noticed that there were substantial points of commonality between the appeal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Silvio Berlusconi, it was actually Zizek who did, in that excellent LRB article, and he did so from a specifically cultural-studies perspective).

127

alex 10.01.09 at 7:40 am

Depends, D2, on what you’re calling ‘popular culture’. If it’s getting hammered and going looking for a fight on a Friday night, reading Richard Littlejohn [UK cryptofascist newspaper shithead, for US fans], thinking Clarkson et al are funny when they have a go at ‘pikeys’, and wishing death on brown people; then all that’s “ugly, degrading and stupid”, and it’s all, as much as anything is, firmly part of ‘popular culture’.

Keeping up allotments, walking on the beach, Sunday morning footie, weekends in Blackpool, all that’s fine. All that, and a commitment to establish community-based cooperatives to regenerate neighbourhoods through environmentally-sustainable industries, then we’d be talking… ;-)

128

alex 10.01.09 at 7:42 am

p.s. how much brains does it take to spot the similarities between two populist pillocks?

And how much to do that and NOT still have a hard-on for Lenin?

129

Alex 10.01.09 at 7:55 am

Carlo Ginzburg published his pathbreaking, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller in Italian in 1976

I’ve just read this and it’s great.

On the topic of “What’s The Matter With Kansas”, the argument would be stronger if there was any sign that the hypothetical Kansans stopped watching TV (and consuming the rest of mass culture) in their outrage, or restricted themselves to the 700 Club and improving books. You have to take into account the prevalence of synthetic outrage – every political movement, in part, runs on the ability of people to switch on outrage when they think it desirable. This includes the Left. Everybody, at times, likes to pretend that their own yelling is the sound of a mighty crowd behind them.

Otherwise, the logical conclusion is that – guess what? – the optimal strategy for the US Democratic party is to make concessions to exactly the most dogmatic and aggressive strand of conservatism in the hope they’ll eat us last (or possibly, first). Where on earth have I heard that one before?

Is there any evidence that getting het up about Madonna and Britney would advance, say, a public option on the healthcare bill, card check, or cap-and-trade one single vote? What is the evidence that they will reciprocate? Surely it ought to be clear that the authoritarian Right actually does believe what they say they believe about there being no right, only power, and that therefore they will simply defy any obligation whenever it suits them. This may not have been as clear in 2004 as it is now, but as I recall it was pretty damn clear even then.

Making concessions without the expectation of reciprocity is not usually an optimal strategy, at least not when you’re dealing with Tom DeLay.

130

steven 10.01.09 at 8:25 am

it was actually Zizek who did, in that excellent LRB article, and he did so from a specifically cultural-studies perspective)

That was indeed an excellent article, but Zizek might not appreciate the notion that he is doing “cultural studies”:

Essentially, the problem with cultural studies is often the lack of specific disciplinary skills: a literary theorist without proper knowledge of philosophy can write disparaging remarks on Hegel’s phallogocentrism, on film, and so on. What we are dealing with here is a kind of false universal critical capacity to pass judgements on everything without proper knowledge.

131

dsquared 10.01.09 at 8:51 am

I have to admit I’ve never understood the distinction between cultural studies and cultural theory.

132

alex 10.01.09 at 9:15 am

And is the implication of that passage that the great Z feels he might possess a TRUE “universal critical capacity to pass judgements on everything [with] proper knowledge”? Wouldn’t surprise me if he did…

133

Phil 10.01.09 at 9:26 am

I read English at Cambridge and thought Raymond Williams was God. I was thinking of doing an MA in Cultural Studies, until I went to a CS conference and found that everyone was talking about Habermas (which I found deeply boring) and no one was talking about how the inherent contradictions of the conditions of collective production of meaning were articulated in the novels of Josephine Tey, or whatever (which I would have found interesting).

I’ve looked around a bit since then, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Cultural Studies in the Williams vein has basically come and gone. Cultural historians do some of what Williams did and “new historicists” in Eng Lit do a bit, but I don’t see much work produced as Cultural Studies which has Williams’s combination of historical materialism and close reading. Without that, Williams’s really exciting – and quite theoretically challenging – vision of reading culture from the standpoint of the production of common meanings within capitalist society seems to have got lost. (And me, I teach Criminology.)

D^2 – the classic quote on compression was Joe Strummer’s “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t want it!” I don’t think the link between ‘authenticity’ and ‘recording what it actually sounds like’ is particularly obscure, though.

134

steven 10.01.09 at 9:56 am

I don’t think the link between ‘authenticity’ and ‘recording what it actually sounds like’ is particularly obscure, though.

I’m not absolutely sure but I don’t think every punk group eschewed mixing desks, multiple mic setups, multitrack tape, EQ, high-pass filtering, reverb, overdubs etc etc in favour of just sticking one Authenticity™-brand microphone in a room where the band played everything live.

135

John Holbo 10.01.09 at 10:06 am

“Essentially, the problem with cultural studies is often the lack of specific disciplinary skills: a literary theorist without proper knowledge of philosophy can write disparaging remarks on Hegel’s phallogocentrism, on film, and so on. What we are dealing with here is a kind of false universal critical capacity to pass judgements on everything without proper knowledge.”

I would have thought this was a pretty good argument that Zizek is doing cultural studies. Namely, whatever its virtues may be – and presumably he could pick those up on the job – he’s got it’s problems down pat. That’s his whole schtick.

136

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 11:05 am

There’s a difference between saying that the left, if there is a left, or the Democratic Party, if there is a Democratic Party, should learn to talk to Kansans who listen to Pat Robertson, and saying that they, if they exist, should talk to Pat Robertson himself.

The hardcore Republican 30% is probably unreachable, and no one needs them, but the American battleground is the part of the population (50% or so) that doesn’t, at this point, find Limbaugh and Robertson utterly abhorrent. The so-called centrist, independent, and “low-information” voters.

It should now be possible to put together a progressive majoritarian (or populist) attack on finance and the Republicans and their corporate sponsors, but it isn’t. Why? The culture war is a big part of the answer. (A second part of the answer is the intense principled abhorrence many Democrats, especially in leadership, have for majoritarianism of any sort. And a third part of the answer is Democratic implication with the same corporations).

Liberals are also devoutly committed to anti-moralism. I wrote something awhile back saying that Christians should not be allowed to frame the culture-politics fight as moralism and goodness against moral neutrality, because many Christian conservatives are evil. Several of my commenters simply objected that moralism has no place in politics. Sometimes they were motivated by mad dog positivism or secularism, and sometimes by the belief of some desperate liberationists that the best way to establish personal lifestyle freedom is to forbid anyone ever to judge anyone else. (“Call off your old tired ethics”).

137

magistra 10.01.09 at 11:09 am

There seems to be a continued confusion here between social descriptions and political tactics at various levels. Firstly, do we have empirical evidence for whether Kansans (for example) are socially ‘conservative’ (for want of a better word)? Because if so, liberals need to decide what to do about that. Thomas Frank’s book apparently reckons that they are socially conservative and therefore liberals need to downplay cultural issues in favour of economic ones. Ellen Willis’ view seems to be either that Kansans aren’t social conservative or that they shouldn’t be.

If you think that Kansans (or any other group) are socially conservative, but that cultural issues should be kept on the political agenda then you have to decide how you deal with the social conservatives. You can either tell them that they are bigots or you can try and see if you can persuade them to change their views. (Funnily enough, telling them that they are bigots and then trying to persuade them to change their views is not a very successful tactic).

Several people on this thread seem to be concluding from the fact that some social conservatives have unchanging views that therefore engaging with any social conservatives is a waste of time (because they are all just Dinesh D’Souza clones). It may be quite reasonable to conclude that you cannot engage productively with a particular group of conservatives (say Republican Senators). That does not mean, however automatically ruling out the possibility that your neighbour who thinks feminists are all lesbian Nazis might not be persuaded to think otherwise if you reveal you are a surburban mother but nevertheless a feminist. Barack Obama talked about how during his Senate race he modified the language on his website about abortion in response to a letter from a supporter. Obama didn’t change his views, but because he decided not to call those who were anti-abortion evil woman-haters he got a vote from someone he might not have got it from otherwise. Practical politics is about building alliances and co-operating with people whose views you don’t entirely share. It’s both more satisfying and more principled to rail at the people who don’t agree with you 100%, but it’s not often effective as a tactic.

138

Harry 10.01.09 at 11:31 am

At last magistra says something I disagree with:

It’s both more satisfying and more principled to rail at the people who don’t agree with you 100%, but it’s not often effective as a tactic.

Railing at people who don’t agree with you 100% is UNprincipled, precisely because it is (normally) less effective than trying to find points of agreement or just not rubbing their faces in those disagreements that are not pertinent to short-to-medium term action. What a relief that we don’t agree 100%… :)

But I agree with everything else, which is very well said.

139

lgm 10.01.09 at 1:03 pm

Hidari (#82) and Soru (#84) illustrate the point in Sokal’s hoax. We have a reference to an authority figure (Nancy Cartwright) that sheds no light. We have a whole lot of writing that doesn’t mean much (positivism/realism?). We have an apparent conflation of Einstein’s relativity principle and “cultural relativism”.

Then Berube writes (#102): “reading comprehension not your strong suit on that one” That’s actually true. I’m a slow reader. That what makes it so frustrating to work through so many words only to discover that they have no purpose — that the writer has no point to make. I reread your stuff and stand by “gardening”. Your point seems to be that people doing literature studies are allowed to have relaxed standards of argument — standards that do not seem to include that what they’re saying is true, or even make sense.

140

Harry 10.01.09 at 1:53 pm

It’s also that this is highly contradictory terrain, and we can’t always find our way about.

I guess I don’t understand what contradictory means here. If it just means that people hold a diverse set of views and engage in a diverse set of practices that don’t cohere very well — sure, what the surprise about that? (Listen to a college junior arguing that women have a right to abortion against an evangelical Christian, and normally the one who falls into contradiction fastest is the college junior). if we can’t always find our way about, perhaps we should try a bit harder. Or pay the costs (I’m not a scholar of this stuff, but on my own very quick read of Frank it seemed to me that was his take-home message, and an entirely sensible one too).

141

Phil 10.01.09 at 2:20 pm

steven – you seem to be confusing “those X who did Y could justify it using Z (which may X believed)” with “all X did Y because all X believed Z”. I’m not making the latter statement (about punk or anything else).

142

Phil 10.01.09 at 2:23 pm

Um, “many X”.

143

steven 10.01.09 at 2:24 pm

geo @ 124:

He does not think we should pretend to agree with the Kansans about the depravity of popular culture.

Frank, What’s the Matter with America? (UK edn. of …Kansas?), p133:

Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in.

144

steven 10.01.09 at 2:38 pm

Phil — I was merely pointing out that the hypothesized “link between ‘authenticity’ and ‘recording what it actually sounds like'” is inevitably quite “obscure” given the manifold variations and aesthetic decisions inevitably involved in even the extremely minimal kind of recording set-up a few components of which I described.

145

Hidari 10.01.09 at 2:51 pm

‘Hidari (#82) and Soru (#84) illustrate the point in Sokal’s hoax. We have a reference to an authority figure (Nancy Cartwright) that sheds no light. We have a whole lot of writing that doesn’t mean much (positivism/realism?)’

Excuse me? I wasn’t referring to a an ‘authority figure’ (i.e. in the way you were implying: in other words, I wasn’t arguing ‘NC says it therefore it’s true). And ‘positivism’ and ‘realism’ not the arcane, ‘occult’ words you seem to think they are. They are very clearly defined. Google them. You will quickly find that you simply cannot be a positivist and a (metaphysical or what Wikipedia terms a ‘scientific’) Realist at the same time. That’s just a fact, and anyone who claims otherwise is misusing those terms, or doesn’t understand what they mean.

146

alex 10.01.09 at 2:57 pm

steven, are you suggesting that Frank himself is “pretending” in that passage?

147

DivGuy 10.01.09 at 3:09 pm

It should now be possible to put together a progressive majoritarian (or populist) attack on finance and the Republicans and their corporate sponsors, but it isn’t. Why? The culture war is a big part of the answer.

Yes, but the culture war isn’t some factor external to and easily separable from progressive majoritarianism.

I think Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart tells this history quite well, and she helpfully wrote an essay for Powell’s, Culture War on Aisle 5?, summarizing the argument.

Basically, the notion that the Left or the Democratic Party can simply assert the distinction between the cultural conflict and economic conflict flies in the face of a history in which the two have been understood, and lived, as arising from the same place. The economic left, Moreton argues, must reckon with not merely that many lower and middle-class folks have turned to cultural conservatism in the face of economic insecurity, but that in fact a personal and communal ethic of market-life has been an inextricable component of cultural conservatism for decades.

I think this is a useful supplement to the claims of Hall that Michael has been citing above – modern conservative movements, and the changes in popular culture which have accompanied the growth of modern conservatism, are complex and contradictory, not simple and contradictory. They are contradictory not in a way that spells their immediate doom, but contradictory the way all human events and movements tend to be.

148

Chris 10.01.09 at 3:19 pm

@124: I think the really interesting critique of Frank is that when you actually say “Never mind Janet Jackson’s breast, isn’t it more important to get decent pay, better education, health care, and all these other substantive issues”, the Republican base essentially answers “No, that’s not more important (you materialist tool of Satan).” They actually do care less about their own concrete interests than about cultural shibboleths, *even when the choice is explicitly placed before them*. (This, in turn, is why it’s hard for cultural outsiders to describe them without resorting to the vocabulary of mental health, or slipping up and using words like “bitter”.) Frank correctly notes that the choice between cultural and economic axes often isn’t explicitly proposed, but mistakes that for the problem; in reality, Democrats have already abandoned Frank’s preferred tactics because they don’t work.

I think Frank may be coming from a theory of politics that implicitly assumes something like the discredited-but-not-abandoned economic doctrine of the rational actor. Rational voters would indeed abandon illusionary cultural battles for real economic ones; actual existing voters don’t. The matter with Kansas is that it is populated by humans, not by idealized rational interest-seekers.

It’s possible that Democrats could make some headway with the hypocrisy and fraud angles, but human nature rears its stupid head again; telling people that they are being fooled, *even when you provide proof*, is fairly likely to result in angry defense of the con artist and denunciation of the exposeur. Especially if the latter is an outsider (the former never is; that would be bad for business).

P.S. Re divorce: it seems to me wildly unlikely that preventing people who want to leave a failed relationship from actually leaving it will save that relationship. Furthermore, the brazen gall required to second-guess someone else’s decision to leave a marriage — telling them that if they just try harder they could repair it, after they themselves have abandoned efforts to do so — is quite beyond me. Maybe you just expect to delay the divorce until *after* the domestic violence or adultery starts and “justifies” it? Does that do anyone any good? The fact that many marriages end in breakups may be lamentable, but the divorce laws are not the place to try to fix it. Chaining the crew to the ship will not prevent it from sinking.

149

DivGuy 10.01.09 at 3:19 pm

Or, better, because I don’t think Frank is saying that the alliance of cultural and economic conservatism is “immediately” doomed – it is contradictory not in a way that points unambiguously toward which strategies will lead to is dissolution.

150

DivGuy 10.01.09 at 3:27 pm

Frank correctly notes that the choice between cultural and economic axes often isn’t explicitly proposed, but mistakes that for the problem; in reality, Democrats have already abandoned Frank’s preferred tactics because they don’t work.

This is basically my belief, as well. I think that understanding economic conservatism not merely as an ideology of the elite, but as a much broader discourse that has deeply informed and will continue to inform actual people’s actual lives, is necessary here. Broadly speaking, a way of life incorporating, but not significantly distinguishing economic and cultural conservatism has become widespread in America. When you start from the presumption that cultural and economic conservatism are different things, simply and obviously separable, you will inevitably misdiagnose contemporary Kansans and offer problematic advice for winning them over.

(There is a separable question as to whether Frank stands, or is right to stand, athwart corporatized popular culture yelling “stop.”)

151

steven 10.01.09 at 3:31 pm

alex — not at all; it is clear that Frank agrees with the Kansans that the culture is depraved; he just wishes they would realize who is really depraving it (ie not liberals but, on his account, “business”).

152

geo 10.01.09 at 3:35 pm

steven@143: yes, but … Here’s the whole paragraph (p. 133, US edition):

Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in. They are right to feel that they have no power over it, and to notice that it makes them feel inadequate and stupid. The “Middle Americans,” after all, are the people the ads and the sitcoms and the movies warn us against. They are the prudish preacher who forbids dancing, the dullard husband who foolishly consumes Brand X, the racist dad who beats his kids, the square cowboy who is gunned down by the alternative cowboy, the stifling family life we are supposed to want to escape, the hardhat who just doesn’t get it. Conservatives are good at pinpointing these small but legitimate cultural grievances. What they are wrong about are the forces that create the problem.

It seems clear that Frank is talking about commercial popular culture here, the stuff that is, as he says in a passage I quoted above, is “beamed in from both coasts,” whose purpose is to sell a lifestyle and self-image that requires the exciting new products that those same networks advertise. That job of selling, of course, also requires that they subtly (or not so subtly) disparage the unexciting traditional lifestyles and self-images of the “Middle Americans.” I doubt very much that Frank is speaking here of any of the genuinely rigorous, demanding, and yes, subversive, cultural products that inspire Michael, d-squared, Ellen Willis, and probably Frank himself. In any case, the Middle Americans never see those, except as caricatured by Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, Sam Brownback, Rush Limbaugh, and other non-Laschian cultural conservatives.

Note also, for what it’s worth, that he specifies that these are “small but legitimate” grievances. I don’t know what that’s worth, actually, but there it is.

153

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 3:50 pm

147: I don’t get your point, I guess. I was stating the problem and a goal, not asserting a solution. I also specifically wrote off the crazified 30%, pointed out that a lot of cultural conservatives are in fact prosperous, and pointed out in terms of electoral politics we’re really talking about getting back 5% or 10% of certain demographics (the white poor, especially Catholics or Christian.

The fact that people have been talking about this problem for a good long time without solving it isn’t exactly proof that they’re wrong. It is indeed a fact that a lot of people have been successfully resruited by cultural conservatives, so that we’re not starting from scratch with them, but would actually have to work pretty hard even to get them to neutrality or centrism.

I also don’t accept the apparent belief that we cannot say that some people are deluded. The things teapartiers are saying about health insurance and a lot of other things are erroneous and hysterical.

a personal and communal ethic of market-life has been an inextricable component of cultural conservatism for decades.

I don’t know what this means.

Finally, the fact is that for the last forty years cultural liberals have been winning and economic liberals have been losing. Is the message that economic liberals should just shut up about this? Because it’s a fact that a lot of cultural liberals have pretty much bought into neoliberalism.

154

steven 10.01.09 at 3:58 pm

geo@152:

It seems clear that Frank is talking about commercial popular culture here, the stuff that is, as he says in a passage I quoted above, is “beamed in from both coasts,” whose purpose is to sell a lifestyle and self-image that requires the exciting new products that those same networks advertise. I doubt very much that Frank is speaking here of any of the genuinely rigorous, demanding, and yes, subversive, cultural products that inspire Michael, d-squared, Ellen Willis, and probably Frank himself

Possibly! But if so he isn’t being very careful in making that distinction, as he keeps referring in rather absolutist terms to “the culture that surrounds us” (p132), “American culture” (p133), “our culture” (p134); and even (p135) seems to say that he is talking about everything made by “journalists and sociologists and historians and musicians and photographers”. It would be useful if he had inserted a proviso to the effect “Of course not all of our culture is crap; [insert names of a few iconic authentically-subversive cultural products here] are really good”, but as far as I can tell what is actually in (this part of) his text looks like blanket approval of the hatred of all popular culture that he ascribes to the Kansans. (Of course, if your reading of Frank is right, there remains another argument to be had over his endorsement of the idea that all “commercial” popular culture must be trash and cannot be genuinely rigorous etc.)

155

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 4:00 pm

They actually do care less about their own concrete interests than about cultural shibboleths, even when the choice is explicitly placed before them.

This is true only of the most committed. Media-propagated disinformation and distraction is a key part of the conservative effort. Most people depend on TV for their news, all of the outlets except MSNBC are factually inaccurate. Even the Times and the Post have increasingly become conduits of misinformation. A lot of people believe things about the Democratic proposals, poor as they are, that are flatly false, and likewise about Canadian, French, British, and Swedish health care. (Again, if media studies people say that it’s a copout or other error to blame the media, I don’t care. )

To stick with cultural liberalism just as it is even if economic liberalism tails along far behind, which seems to be Berube’s strategy, amounts to giving up on economic liberalism.

156

DivGuy 10.01.09 at 4:00 pm

john – first, I was more sort of using your distinction between the culture war and economic majoritarianism as a jumping-off point than claiming you’d said anything particularly wrong. Sorry that wasn’t clear.

Finally, the fact is that for the last forty years cultural liberals have been winning and economic liberals have been losing. Is the message that economic liberals should just shut up about this? Because it’s a fact that a lot of cultural liberals have pretty much bought into neoliberalism.

My point is that economic liberals need an argument that doesn’t presume everyone knows the economic and cultural conservatism are two different things. As lived, they aren’t. The reason, I think, that simple appeals to economic well-being are not as effective as Frank believes (they’re pretty effective, they were 90% of the Obama campaign) is that these appeals don’t merely run up against cultural conservatism, but up against an ethos that is formed by a combination of economic and cultural conservatism.

You may call the folks, whose histories Moreton tells, “deluded” or whatever, but they’re not going to be convinced – or, not going to be convinced to a degree that will break the Republican party and the forces of economic conservatism – by claims which presume no meaningful connection between economic and cultural conservatism.

157

DivGuy 10.01.09 at 4:09 pm

To stick with cultural liberalism just as it is even if economic liberalism tails along far behind, which seems to be Berube’s strategy, amounts to giving up on economic liberalism.

I had understood the argument and strategy differently. I thought it was

(a) denouncing “the culture” in broad terms or deciding not to talk about cultural-liberal issues any more will have real, and negative effects on the lives of people – you know, folks who aren’t white, straight males – for whom cultural issues are issues of real and immediate import, and
(b) even if we determine that advances for various minority groups can be put on the back burner because economic majoritarianism lifts all boats, this new strategy of just talking about economic issues won’t work nearly as well as it is claimed.

I’m not saying that the Democratic Party or the Left has already happened upon its ideal strategies, and I agree with you that economic leftism has lost real and significant victories, and this is a really really big problem. But I have not been convinced either that the culture produced during ascendant cultural liberalism is particularly at fault in the decline of the economic left, or that a political strategy which ignores or downplays cultural issues is the strategy the left and the Democrats should take up.

158

Yeselson 10.01.09 at 4:42 pm

Back to origins, method, and content: Where is the Culture/Metaculture of U.S. Cultural Studies, i.e. Frances Mulhern brilliant survey/analysis of the split between cultural criticism or the Kulturkritic, the minoritarian high-contempt view of mass culture originating with Julian Benda and Hoggart/Williams cultural studies school that explicitly opposed it. This places the entire tradition in a not just British, but European context.

There is no such clarifying text in the American tradition–even one that others can vigorously dispute as Mulhern himself has been disputed in the pages of NLR and elsewhere. This alone tells you what a muddle the “field” is in this country.

159

Yeselson 10.01.09 at 4:46 pm

That’s Francis Mulhern.

160

geo 10.01.09 at 5:39 pm

Chris@148: Yes, good points. I think, though, that liberals and leftists don’t need to claim that the Middle Americans’ cultural grievances aren’t important, any more than they have to pretend to share them. Can’t they just say: “Look, we have some differences here, which we should talk long and patiently about. But meanwhile, we have a common interest in not getting robbed by Republicans, most of whom don’t, in any case, give a fiddlestick about your cultural grievances and are merely exploiting them.”

There’s a further problem, I suppose: American democracy, being so ridiculously inadequate, doesn’t provide for the supposedly sovereign people to register their preferences in any differentiated way. We can’t vote on issues; we have to vote for candidates. If you agree with the candidates on offer about some things but not others, you’re out of luck. Why shouldn’t people be able to vote for both cultural conservatism and economic radicalism, if they want to?

Answer: because no one in either the Democratic or Republican Party gives a flying f*ck what the people want. Maybe this can become the basis of a conversation with the Kansans?

161

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 6:13 pm

Answer: because no one in either the Democratic or Republican Party gives a flying f*ck what the people want.

We’re ruled by two increasingly centralized parties which get the vast majority of the money they need from big business, and give most of the money they get to enormous media groups which also get most of their money from big business. “The audience is not the consumer; the audience is the product”. Advertiser and propagandists pay the media for access to the minds of people who depend on free and cheap media.

Sorry if it sounds Chomskyian, but isn’t it true?

On what they think are the big issues, the two parties are mostly agreed. For example, both President GHW Bush and President Bill Clinton said that “free trade” was their main accomplishment. Many Democrats also were more than willing to go along with deregulation and the tax cuts.

Whatever the subjective feelings of Kansans and the gay community, those are the big, important kinds of thing that government does. Those are the kinds of things that people who know what’s going on really care about.

In order to get a free hand to do the things they agree upon, the two parties stage fights on things that they don’t care about much. Hopefully they’ll figure out a way to get the country about evenly divided on these throwaway issues, because that way the two more or less equal parties can work out “compromises” on the big issues, and neither one will have to take sole responsibility.

At my link my review of Walter Karp,’s “Indispensable Enemies”, which I originally found out about in Geo’s book, if I’m not mistaken. Karp’s main point is that the parties and the individuals working for the parties have their own interests and have no intrinsic interest in the country’s needs, the voters’ desires, or even their candidates’ needs, but calculate everything in terms of their need to keep control of the party. They’re not opposed to doing the right thing in principle, they’re just not really interested in doing so.

162

Uncle Kvetch 10.01.09 at 7:41 pm

John, thanks for linking to your review–really fascinating stuff, and you’re right that it’s still very timely.

I’m increasingly of the mind that the book we really need right now is What’s the Matter with Democrats?

163

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 7:45 pm

I’m doing a series on OL about the American party system, the Democrats, and the miscellaneous third parties, dissident factions, and independents that basically did all of the work in American politics between 1870 and 1940. Everything’s at my link.

164

Michael Bérubé 10.01.09 at 7:59 pm

Thanks, everyone! Great stuff all round, and I do apologize to lgm for the “reading comprehension” remark. There’s an irony here, see — both Stuart Hall (“Toad in the Garden”) and I were alluding to a poem by Marianne Moore, specifically to the line about how poetry gives you imaginary gardens with real toads in them. That’s actually not a line about gardening. Just for the record. And yes, literary critics and theorists should be held to a looser standard of empirical verifiability than their colleagues in the sciences, because our field deals with things that people made up. Sometimes even with things that don’t make sense, like imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

I’m sorry that I have time (between my classes and observing someone else’s classes) to deal with only a handful of points. John Emerson:

To stick with cultural liberalism just as it is even if economic liberalism tails along far behind, which seems to be Berube’s strategy, amounts to giving up on economic liberalism.

Oy, more zero-sumdom. Thanks to DivGuy @ 157 for stepping up and offering that handy (a) and (b) rebuttal — you’ve got my point exactly right.

Chris @ 148, thanks for replying to Harry about divorce. Children of broken marriages suffer, yes — as do children of terrible marriages. Who suffers worse? Yes. And what does “contradictory terrain” mean? It means that some aspects of the so-called permissive society are not to be lamented, and some are. Which is which? Yes.

Steven @ 143, 151, and especially 154 — thank you, thank you, and thank you for making the case that Frank describes our “crap culture” just as I claimed he does. I was beginning to think that Ellen Willis was the only other person on the planet who’d caught this, and now she’s left me all alone to argue with people who basically agree with Tom about the crappiness of our crap culture and where all the crap comes from, namely, corporations.

And for the last (but of course not the last) time: of course media dupe people, of course people believe things that are empirically false. I’ve said as much in the CHE essay, on many many CT threads, and every night in my prayers to Moloch before I go to bed. But I would hope that from the “Encoding/Decoding” essay onward, cultural studies has known that it’s not quite so simple as that.

165

Chris 10.01.09 at 8:37 pm

On what they think are the big issues, the two parties are mostly agreed.

Only for very strange values of “mostly”. Or have you not been paying attention to the last several months of one party accusing the other of conspiracy to mass murder?

There is a de facto third party of centrists which is de jure part of the Democratic Party, so if you don’t look closely enough, you can believe that there’s no real difference between Democrats and Republicans or that Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate.

But when the Democratic wing of the Democratic party starts putting things like universal health care on the agenda, then those illusions go out the window. *Those* Democrats are quite different indeed from Republicans, but it’s hard to get the centrist wing of their own party to go along, let alone the actual Republicans. Making a deal with the centrists shouldn’t be confused with sharing their agenda, and the outcome of a Democrat-Centrist coalition (which is de jure not a coalition but just the whole Democratic Party) is observably quite different from the outcome of a Centrist-Republican “bipartisan” coalition (even though neither one is the pure liberal agenda, unsullied by compromise).

I agree with you about the mass media, mostly. But in order to sell the audience they first have to draw one, so at some level, they are still constrained to giving people what they want so that they’ll stick around long enough for the media to sell access to their brains to advertisers. The thing is, some people want something to be righteously indignant at, and someone to validate their anger.

Also: dictating who can and cannot get married is a pretty big and important thing that government does in fact do. The gay community’s desire for government to take a somewhat different approach to how it does this thing is not just a “subjective feeling” that it is important. Heterosexual conservatives have no concrete interest in the gay marriage fight, but gays really do.

166

dsquared 10.01.09 at 8:43 pm

I think John has a quite important point here; Frank does seem to take it for granted that the Democratic Party definitely wants to deliver free healthcare, strong unions, generous welfare benefits, redistribution through the tax system etc etc, and the only reason that people in Kansas might not appreciate this bounty is that they’ve been duped with God/Guns/Gays rhetoric. The alternative hypothesis that they don’t actually believe that the bird in the bush is there, at least deserves a run-out. Anticipating Chris from #165’s rejoinder to this, note that I don’t need to make the stronger assertion here that there is no difference at all between Republicans and Democrats, only that the policy differences between them don’t make an economically material difference to people in Kansas.

this comment sponsored by the Campaign For Real Social-Democratic Parties.

167

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 8:53 pm

There is a de facto third party of centrists which is de jure part of the Democratic Party, so if you don’t look closely enough, you can believe that there’s no real difference between Democrats and Republicans or that Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate.

And the centrists run the show. Obama insisted on bipartisanship and never intended even to have a public option, which is already a big step down from single payer, and the Democratic leadership never even thought about passing a bill with 51 votes, the way the Republicans passed bills. If we do get a public option, it will because a lot of unelected Democrats who are not part of the party organization will have succeeded in defeating Rahm Emmanuel and Barack Obama.

And the Republicans are whining and screaming, but they’ll be happy enough with the Baucus bill if that’s what we get, and the insurance companies will be ecstatic. The whining and screaming was theater intended to bully the Democrats into passing a weak bill, and Obama played to the Republican strategy.

I suppose that you can say that the difference between the two parties (under present leadership) is that the Republicans wanted a weak bill or not bill, whereas the Democrats wanted a weak bill. (And by “the Democrats” I mean the party as an entity. There are lots of individual Congressmen and a few individual Senators who are in the right place, but they normally lose the way the electorate normally loses.)

So I don’t see the strangeness.

168

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 9:04 pm

Just to stir the pot a little and sow some confusion, there is among the Christian Right a large subgroup following prosperity theology, which holds that the rich are blessed by God and deserve it. They’re either prosperous or expect Jesus to make them prosperous, and they are indeed a case where the economic right has merged with the social right.

But they’re not poor people; they’re just well-off (and wannabe well-off) Christian Republicans — the trailer trash hillbilly stereotype is wildly wrong in these cases. They also are candidates for my Evil Christian category, because beyond their selfishness, many of them are rehab / backslide Christians: “I’m no angel, I know I’m a sinner, but Jesus forgives me and at least there are some things I’ve never done and never will do.”

See, buttfucking is not merely a sin, but abominations.

169

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 9:10 pm

Just to underline my point, while Clinton was President there was no significant difference between the two parties in free trade, regardless of what the majority of the Democrats in Congress may have thought. And Clinton thought that this was his most important accomplishment.

170

Harry 10.01.09 at 9:18 pm

The problem with Chris’s reply to me about divorce is that it is entirely a priori; completely devoid of any awareness of the social science on this (as far as I can tell). There are indeed complicated and difficult questions concerning exactly what the causes are, but i) domestic violence occurs in very few failing marriages; ii) the idea that people make these choices (and their marriages) in a social vacuum is neither true to the phenomenon nor very left wing and iii) the implication that somehow we currently have the optimal circumstances for creating and maintaining successful marital relationships seems rather unlikely. No-one in the marriage movement denies that many marriages that end in divorce are bad for children, and no-one calls for anything like the prohibition of divorce.

Furthermore, the brazen gall required to second-guess someone else’s decision to leave a marriage—telling them that if they just try harder they could repair it, after they themselves have abandoned efforts to do so—is quite beyond me.

This is not a reply to anything anyone on this thread has said, has implied, or would say. Suggesting that it is is an instance of not engaging.

As for the DP — I’d endorse everything daniel just said. There is (normally) a struggle, though, within the DP, between the socially liberal and the economic social democratic strands that are represented in this thread. Because it is basically a business party, of course the economically social democratic strand is normally not in the ascendancy. I’d like a real social democratic party, but also a broader left that takes on board the concerns that geo, magistra, etc have raised.

171

geo 10.01.09 at 9:24 pm

Michael and Steven: I would bet good money that if a crap-o-meter were attached to all three of you, and you were all exposed to a wide variety of pop-cultural products, from the mass-market to the cutting edge, your crap ratings would be nearly identical.
By and large, you two would find the kind of stuff Frank is referring to in that paragraph @152 just as objectionable as he does (and for the same reasons), and he would find the stuff you like just as cool as you do. That is to say, assuming you agree on the domain of “American culture” or “our culture” or “the culture that surrounds us,” I’ll bet the three of you would agree very closely on what percentage of it is crap. Which is why I maintain that your quarrel (and Willis’s) with Frank is based on a misunderstanding.

it’s not quite so simple as that
99.99 percent of the time someone says this, no one ever said it was.

172

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 9:24 pm

The subjective feeling is about whether social issues are more important than economic issues (and war and peace), even for gay and lesbian Americas. Though as DD pointed out, maybe no one even believes the Democrats any more on the economic issues, and perhaps for upper middle class gays and lesbians these issues really aren’t important.

On zero-sumdom, that seems to be what we’ve had for 40 years. There have been tradeoffs, and one side has usually lost, and suggestions of the opposite tradeoff are verboten. There are plenty of Democrats, both rank and file and elected, who have flatly abandoned economic liberalism.

173

Uncle Kvetch 10.01.09 at 9:54 pm

Though as DD pointed out, maybe no one even believes the Democrats any more on the economic issues, and perhaps for upper middle class gays and lesbians these issues really aren’t important.

And the most painful irony of all, of course, is that those “upper middle class gays and lesbians” who have supposedly contributed to steering the Democratic Party in the wrong direction are getting sweet FA for their trouble. As with Clinton.

And that’s where Frank’s thesis falls apart for me.

174

Keir 10.01.09 at 9:55 pm

but the predominant sides, if I were looking at the Democratic Party, would be centrist and slightly lefty, not economic vs cultural.

which isn’t to say that there mightn’t be non-obvious factors which mean that conflict ends up expressing itself as a move away from economics and towards culture or whatever, but it does mean that i very much doubt that many people explicitly trade-off culture against economics.

175

John Emerson 10.01.09 at 10:09 pm

Seriously, the gay community has done better than any Democratic constituency (except big business) during the last 30 years or so, though as I said, it’s because they started from almost zero (Stonewall was 40 years ago).

176

steven 10.01.09 at 10:23 pm

geo — I’m entirely prepared to believe that Frank is a great guy and we both love Queens of the Stone Age and Ben Marcus and Mad Men and all, but as far as I can tell, what he actually wrote is that his Kansans were “right to hate” “American culture”.

assuming you agree on the domain of “American culture” or “our culture” or “the culture that surrounds us”

Well, that is the nub. Those phrases sound to me very like “all our [popular] culture”, not a “percentage” of it. For all I know, he might have meant the more limited view you are generously ascribing to him, but if so he made a poor fist of expressing it.

177

geo 10.01.09 at 10:35 pm

Steven.

When someone says “I don’t like X,” X being a pretty large and woolly catch-all sort of term, and then goes on immediately to specify what he doesn’t like about X, then I think it’s only reasonable to understand him as saying “I don’t like this and this about X.”

In any case, Frank has written several previous books and edited a long-running magazine, The Baffler, which pay very considerable attention to popular culture, trying conscientiously to discriminate the good from the crap, unlike, say, Hilton Kramer or Gertrude Himmelfarb, who regard it as all crap.

178

steven 10.01.09 at 10:45 pm

When someone says “I don’t like X,” X being a pretty large and woolly catch-all sort of term, and then goes on immediately to specify what he doesn’t like about X, then I think it’s only reasonable to understand him as saying “I don’t like this and this about X.”

I think it’s reasonable to understand him as saying “I don’t like X, and for these reasons”. If he wants to make it clear that there are nonetheless some things he likes about X, then he’d better say that too, or risk being read as saying only what he actually says.

In any case, Frank has written several previous books and edited a long-running magazine, The Baffler, which pay very considerable attention to popular culture, trying conscientiously to discriminate the good from the crap

Ah, thank you. I conclude then, that in …Kansas? he did indeed express himself very poorly, and his defenders can hardly complain if readers of only that book take what it actually says at face value.

179

Uncle Kvetch 10.01.09 at 11:06 pm

Seriously, the gay community has done better than any Democratic constituency (except big business) during the last 30 years or so, though as I said, it’s because they started from almost zero (Stonewall was 40 years ago).

I can’t argue with that, John, but I was thinking specifically about the Democrats in Washington when I wrote that. Of course the gains have been enormous in many places at the state and local level–and yes, to the extent that the two parties were involved, it’s almost always been the Democrats fighting the good fight. But in terms of Clinton and Obama, it’s another story entirely. So I take your point, with that qualification.

180

geo 10.01.09 at 11:34 pm

Steven,

If someone says, “I don’t trust Obama; he seems to be making no effort to deliver on his campaign promises,” then he’s told you what it is about Obama that he doesn’t trust. He doesn’t mean that everything about Obama is untrustworthy: that Obama cheats at cards or basketball, or cheats on his wife, or embezzles money. He just means that O’s commitment to a progressive agenda is untrustworthy.

Just so, when Frank says that ordinary working people are right to hate American popular culture because it wrongly portrays them as generally stupid and vicious, then he’s told you what it is about American popular culture that they’re right to hate. He doesn’t mean that they would be right to hate everything about American popular culture, just that there are certain large, even predominant themes in American popular culture that are obnoxious.

I don’t think this is too much discrimination to ask of a reader.

181

steven 10.01.09 at 11:59 pm

geo — your trust analogy doesn’t seem at all plausible to me. The thought usually goes: “Well, he was dishonest about X so he is not trustworthy [in general].”

He doesn’t mean that they would be right to hate everything about American popular culture

And yet he wrote: “They are right to hate the culture we live in.” Then he gave some reasons why he thought they were right to hate it. And nowhere did he mention any parts they wouldn’t be right to hate.

On your rules of interpretation, indeed, it would be impossible for him ever to actually say that they would be right to hate everything, because he wouldn’t be able to itemize every possible reason to hate the whole culture, so you would always be able to plead that the things he didn’t mention might well meet with his approval after all.

Still, as I said, I am happy to accept your reading of what he probably intended, taking into account external evidence of his attitude to popular culture elsewhere, but it still isn’t what he actually wrote in this passage of …Kansas?.

182

b9n10nt 10.02.09 at 1:42 am

& why does it matter?

Franks’s authority as an expert isn’t important. What’s important is getting analysis of the politics or right wing populism correct. We can still do that along Frank’s lines if we accept that a lot of US culture isn’t crap and his analysis does not require us to ban abortions, gay marriage, and divorce.

183

nick 10.02.09 at 4:55 am

geo writes, upthread, that the critics of Frank

“would find the kind of stuff Frank is referring to in that paragraph @152 just as objectionable as he does (and for the same reasons), and he would find the stuff you like just as cool as you do. That is to say, assuming you agree on the domain of “American culture” or “our culture” or “the culture that surrounds us,” I’ll bet the three of you would agree very closely on what percentage of it is crap.”

–this, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding. one can believe that most of the products of mass culture are crap without believing in a totalizing argument about mass culture. most sonnet sequences suck, as do most epic poems. is Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House” not better than 99.9% of all sonnets ever written? I’m prepared to believe that most German tragedies really were sickly and stupid. the question, it seems to me, is rather about the manipulation and creation of desires, about what commodity culture, as a relationship (alienated?) we experience to our own creative powers, might being doing/have done to us…….

184

nick 10.02.09 at 4:55 am

that last “being” s/b “be”…

185

geo 10.02.09 at 3:59 pm

a totalizing argument about mass culture

What is the totalizing argument about mass culture that Frank is supposed to be making? Isn’t he just saying that (as you also imply with your remark about “commodity culture”) much of mass culture is phony, manipulative, coarse, and patronizing toward Middle Americans, and that Middle Americans are therefore right to hate it, but should recognize that it is, for the most part, the product of commercial rather than liberationist impulses, and ABOVE ALL, that the Republicans are merely exploiting their cultural grievances in order to pick their and our pockets?

186

lgm 10.02.09 at 4:12 pm

Re #164: thanks. I appreciate your reply. I admit that “toad in the garden” is not about gardening. I used the word mainly to illustrate (1) that I had read, and (2) that it was off point. I continue to believe Sokal’s (disclaimer — he’s a friend) point that the field of Cultural Studies suffers from a lack of intellectual rigor. I wish that his hoax had provoked more soul searching and less (alas, long winded) excuses. A study of what ails the field should consider this possibility more seriously.

I also realize that cultural studies people think about a lot of things besides science. I only look at what they say about science because (1) it’s something I care about, and (2) it’s a way to spot check.

187

Tom Bach 10.02.09 at 4:24 pm

I don’t think it is fair to argue that mass cult is as insulting of the values of the value voters as Frank and other intend. It is often vulgar and horrid but it is vulgar and horrid in multiple directions. I find almost all mass cult vulgar and horrid but don’t hate it in any meaningful sense. I don’t watch or listen to it, or when I do I regret the waste of time and vow to avoid what ever it was in the future. I also think that lots of the complaints I have about mass cult are of the “all you kids get off my lawn” variety and, consequently, bemoan culture’s collapse a bit ironically. To argue that the hatred some of the value voters crowd feel toward mass cult is justified is to argue that narrow minded bigotry is justified. There are plenty of pro middle brow middle class middle whatever the heck stuff out their. The value voters crowd, however, want it all their way. The existence of alternative cultures, i.e., cultures other than theirs, offends them.

188

John Emerson 10.02.09 at 4:49 pm

I find almost all mass cult vulgar and horrid but don’t hate it in any meaningful sense. I don’t watch or listen to it, or when I do I regret the waste of time and vow to avoid what ever it was in the future.

It isn’t just about you, Tom.

Usually people who hate mass culture hate it because of the effects it has on others, above all their own children and their children’s friends and acquaintances. Mass culture presents what is effectively a semi-official way of life; for children younger than a certain age TV has authority. To that point, the most important one, the “consenting adults” argument doesn’t work, the “marketplace of ideas” argument doesn’t work, and the “turn it off” argument doesn’t work very well.

The stuff I can’t stand overlaps but is not identical with what the Christian Right can’t stand. But the idea that this important area of public space should be entirely dominated by advertisers infuriates me, and to me it isn’t a free speech issue.

189

Chris 10.02.09 at 7:56 pm

I agree with Tom Bach @187 regarding the heterogeneity of mass culture, and everyone’s tendency to pick the most objectionable-to-them piece and rail against it.

But I don’t agree much with John Emerson @188. The idea that mass culture presents “a semi-official way of life” is laughable. Mass culture presents hundreds or perhaps thousands of ways of life; which of them is semi-official exactly? I hope it isn’t the Sopranos.

Assuming for the sake of argument that “for children younger than a certain age TV has authority”, maybe households with children that young shouldn’t have TVs in rooms accessible to the children, or should only have them hooked up to a DVD player with parentally-approved content, or using parental controls and a restricted list of parentally allowed channels/shows.

If you want someone other than you (or your spouse/co-parent/etc.) to be the gatekeeper between the world of adult ideas (which includes TV and the Internet) and your child, you are going to be disappointed. Who else would you trust with that role anyway? Your standards for what you want your child exposed to are different from other parents’ standards and society can’t enforce all of them at once.

It sounds to me like you want the effects of policing your children’s access to media, without actually doing the policing; someone else should do that for you, never mind the effect on adults who want to communicate to other adults something you judge unsuitable for your children.

That *is* a free speech issue whether you like it or not — trying to reduce either TV or the internet to the lowest common denominator of child-safe-ness would amount to destroying them as media of idea exchange among adults, and at least in the U.S., the government is banned from engaging in any such project (and nobody else has the authority over the whole medium — even owning 90%, creepy as it would be, would be insufficient as the producers of content banned by the majority would take refuge in the other 10%).

You have the right and authority to take (and keep) your children away from that conversation (at least until they grow up). But you don’t have the right or the authority to stop the conversation.

P.S. If you don’t want television dominated by advertisers, do you donate to the Center for Public Broadcasting or something similar? Do you support political candidates who want to fund it or increase its funding?

190

Michael Bérubé 10.02.09 at 8:26 pm

I wish that his hoax had provoked more soul searching and less (alas, long winded) excuses. A study of what ails the field should consider this possibility more seriously.

Well, I’m objecting to that (and the dismissive “gardening” remark) precisely because I’m one of the people who took the Sokal Hoax seriously, who engaged with Sokal’s critique of science studies, who criticized Social Text’s (and Stanley Fish’s) response, etc. I suppose I shouldn’t get annoyed by people who tell me I need to do X and who have no idea I’ve done X aplenty, but I do.

As for George and Frank’s claims about mass culture: I remain mystified by George’s repeated denials of what is on the page in front of him, and his inventive reading whereby Frank turns out merely to be saying that ordinary working people are right to hate American popular culture because it wrongly portrays them as generally stupid and vicious. For one thing, has anyone here actually seen any of this American popular culture lately? I mean, are you kidding me? Sure, sometimes ordinary working people are portrayed this way — usually in hipster culture. But it is far more common for American popular culture to champion The Ordinary People and Their Wise Folky Ways against the suits, the snobs, the city slickers and the sellouts. It’s kind of, you know, a staple of American popular culture. Frank, for his part, is quite clear that it’s “vulgarity” that gets up his nose, and he agrees with McChesney that vulgarity comes from corporations; when he speaks of our culture’s “moral free fall,” he is most certainly not saying that its moral free fall consists of increasingly unflattering portrayals of working people.

Which leads me to the other thing: when someone like Frank complains about “vulgarity,” what kind of cultural vulgarity are we talking about? Personally, I can’t stand prime time television’s endless parade of reality shows and crime dramas; some people object to the relentless reification and commercialization of every aspect of our affective lives; others inveigh against misogyny and/or sexual explicitness in rock and hip-hop; still others recoil in horror from what they believe is the liberal media’s promotion of the “gay agenda.” The point is that there is no United Vulgarity Front in our culture, such that one can say “if you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it!” and claim that one is “focusing on the contradiction” rather than accepting conservatives’ arguments about obscenity.

Look, I like Frank’s accounts of the radicalization of the GOP, his responses to conservatives’ redefinition of “elite,” and his slicing-and-dicing of David Brooks. I also think he’s a witty and effective writer, much better at the craft than most academics. But his remarks on popular culture in Kansas are incoherent at best, and they’re unfortunately more central to the argument than most people have realized to date.

191

Substance McGravitas 10.02.09 at 9:13 pm

Which leads me to the other thing: when someone like Frank complains about “vulgarity,” what kind of cultural vulgarity are we talking about?

Where might there exist mass culture virtuous enough to meet with approval?

192

geo 10.02.09 at 9:14 pm

“Inventive” reading? I quoted him at length in 152 saying exactly what you find it implausible that he’s saying.

As for the centrality of popular culture – about which, I say again and only wish there were some way of verifying, I suspect you and Frank would coincide in your particular judgments around 99 percent of the time – to Frank’s argument: I’ve summarized what I take to be his argument at length in 64 and again in 124. That’s how I see popular culture figuring in his argument. But I’ll go back and reread Willis, and also our fateful exchange of five years ago. Quite possibly I missed something.

193

nick 10.02.09 at 9:26 pm

geo @ 185–hmmm, I was unclear. if it’s a “culture industry”, if Frank takes that Frankfurt School term seriously, the problem is not just that most of its products suck; the problem is with the way cultural production is organized at a particular state of capitalism. I presume Frank is taking the term seriously, given his earlier work–but maybe he isn’t?

just saw your 192, which this also answers. Berube and Frank may agree on 95% of all particular value judgments while still having a very different stance re. the validity of the “culture industry” as analytic description.

194

John Emerson 10.03.09 at 2:30 am

But I don’t agree much with John Emerson @188. The idea that mass culture presents “a semi-official way of life” is laughable. Mass culture presents hundreds or perhaps thousands of ways of life; which of them is semi-official exactly? I hope it isn’t the Sopranos…..

For kids, certainly below the age of about 10, but above that age too, TV is reality. It is the most powerful educational medium we have, and it is devoted to advertising and titillation.

If you want someone other than you (or your spouse/co-parent/etc.) to be the gatekeeper between the world of adult ideas (which includes TV and the Internet) and your child, you are going to be disappointed. Who else would you trust with that role anyway? Your standards for what you want your child exposed to are different from other parents’ standards and society can’t enforce all of them at once.

TV is pervasive in this society. In order to keep kids away from TV, beyond not having a TV yourself, or keeping the controls away from your kids (very hard to do!), you’d have to keep them out of public places and away from other kids’ families. Now, this is what social conservatives do. And they’re blamed for it. And they actually wish they didn’t have to do it.

But you don’t have the right or the authority to stop the conversation.

Oh, that’s right. I’m trying to stop the conversation of democracy, the dialogue of civilization, — philosophy itself, freedom itself — as we see it on TV. I feel awful now.

195

John Emerson 10.03.09 at 2:34 am

P.S. If you don’t want television dominated by advertisers, do you donate to the Center for Public Broadcasting or something similar? Do you support political candidates who want to fund it or increase its funding?

Man, you’re swinging wildly. The answers are no and yes, but this is actually a serious question, not a referendum on the CPB. Quite throwing kitchen sinks at me.

196

geo 10.03.09 at 3:18 am

the problem is not just that most of its products suck

Right. The problem (I mean, Frank’s problem) is: what does the fact that so many Middle Americans think that most popular culture sucks have to do with their support for deregulation, de-unionization, privatization, regressive taxation, “free” trade, and the rest of the Republican agenda?

Frank’s answer is that Republicans 1) do not talk much, and then only in the most threadbare slogans, about their economic program; 2) talk a lot instead about how secular, cosmopolitan liberals and leftists are responsible for everything about popular culture that offends the Middle Americans; 3) promise, rather vaguely, to fix these things if the MA’s help elect the Repubs; 4) when elected, do practically nothing to change those things that offend the MAs, partly because the people who are really doing many or most of those things are not liberals and leftists but powerful industries, and partly because if the Repubs did remove the MA’s grievances, the MAs might begin to pay more attention to how the Republican economic program is affecting them and their communities.

I’m not sure how the Frankfurt School comes into all this.

197

soru 10.03.09 at 5:34 pm

198

harold 10.04.09 at 8:03 pm

There have been thousands of studies documenting the harmful effects of television and other forms of mass culture on children and society. It’s not even controversial. Not usually considered also is the extent to which we already have a lot of involuntary censorship — some things, for example, which used to be common, such as dogfighting, are now considered beyond the pale.) But the idea either that it is all just jolly harmless fun, or yet that it provides any kind of realistic or comprehensive picture of reality are both untenable.

But, as with the thousands of studies of smoking, alcohol, and junk food, people like Michael Berube just can’t or won’t to take the information in, because it is just too difficult reconcile it with the conflicting ideal that censorship is bad (in every case without exception) and with people’s own individual perceptions of the undoubted benefits of television and also of its highly pleasurable and rewarding qualities, which are indisputable. Unfortunately, however, a lot of highly pleasurable and convenient things are not without cost. Also, who wants to go around with placards being a prophet of gloom and doom. For those who want to be successful in life it just won’t do.

199

Michael Bérubé 10.04.09 at 11:32 pm

But the idea either that it is all just jolly harmless fun, or yet that it provides any kind of realistic or comprehensive picture of reality are both untenable.

But, as with the thousands of studies of smoking, alcohol, and junk food, people like Michael Berube just can’t or won’t to take the information in, because it is just too difficult reconcile it with the conflicting ideal that censorship is bad (in every case without exception) and with people’s own individual perceptions of the undoubted benefits of television and also of its highly pleasurable and rewarding qualities, which are indisputable.

I’m sorry, I’m missing the passage in which I said “everything on TV is good and TV is good for you.” Was it a Hidden Message in comment 190?

200

harold 10.05.09 at 1:02 am

Well, I apologize for personalizing it. It is all of us, and I include myself, since I have no idea what to do about it. Nobody wants to deal with the bad news and no one wants to bring back Mrs. Grundy. But I feel in my heart that Wordsworth was right that “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this” and so on.

I feel sure the solution, whatever it might be, won’t be an all or nothing one, however.

201

ralph 10.06.09 at 4:47 am

I like this thread. I think that Frank’s wording was “wild” because he was trying to make a point, and I think his wording was wild — and not that he “hates all mass culture”, really — precisely because he was trying to write a book about something else in an environment that is charged emotionally. How do you take people seriously when you — and even they, when they become engaged in a particular subject more deeply — realize that it doesn’t serve their “actual, social and economic needs? That’s a tough one. And you can either call crap on their views and values, assuming that if they could focus more and learn more they’d wise up; or you can go back against the argument itself, and assert that there’s not really that much wrong with it. There is, I think, little question that both things are going on here, no matter where you fall on Frank’s “actual, existing, and well-articulated and properly constrained opinions.”

Comments on this entry are closed.