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’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.