Awakening to Cultural Studies

by Corey Robin on February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it his senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The paper/thesis was about how the TV show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Recalling this conversation, I was reminded of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event.

I’m curious if other people had a similar moment in college or grad school or high school. I remember the first time this awareness hit me: I was a freshman in a class on Shakespeare. The preceptor (Princeton’s fancy word for TA), a grad student in the English department, went on a long tangent about Madonna, her artistry, what she was doing vis-a-vis our ideas about gender and sexuality. Coming from high school, I had thought of Madonna as a pop star, someone you liked or didn’t like. It never occurred to me to think of her as an artist or that there was something more to her artistry than catchy tunes and crosses. But listening to my preceptor, I realized that there was more to her, that she was actually doing something, in and to the culture, and that “pop star” was a category to be mined for meaning, not dismissed as detritus.

The other time this awareness hit me, I was a sophomore. Michael Berkowitz, a senior who would go onto become a friend in later life, wrote an article in The Progressive Review, which I was affiliated with, on the changing style and substance of black sitcoms, from Good Times and Sanford and Son to The Cosby Show. Again, the piece came to me as a revelation: the idea that pop culture had a history, and that in that history lay a whole story about how America was dealing with race and racism.

When I raised this issue on Facebook last night, Art McGee, a communications and media consultant in California, wrote:

So, how much of the fact that you’re white and were raised in an upper-middle or upper-class family the reason for your unawareness? As a working-class Black teenager, hyper-awareness was always my default reality, long before reaching any sort of higher education. Interrogating the larger meanings of popular culture always felt somewhat foregrounded in African-American culture, at least it was for me in the late 70s and 80s.

I suspect Art’s onto something. As a Jewish kid, I always marked certain cultural phenomena which most of American society simply took for granted, just assumed this was/is the way of the world: the supposed universality, and certainly the ubiquity, of Christmas, that sort of thing. For me, Christmas was a trope. But that was a once-a-year sort of thing. So I can imagine that the cultural antennae of a black teenager would be much more sharply attuned to the codes of a mass culture that was still, for all the advances of black musicians and actors, still predominantly white, to notice it as an object, as something to be decoded.

There are many intellectual awakenings that mark the transition from high school to college. Critical thinking, historical consciousness, political and ideological critique: all of these I brought with me to college, none was new. But one of the ideas I did not bring with me, one of the moves I really did learn in college, was to look at popular culture, this thing I had grown up with, this thing that was as familiar to me as my own family, as something strange, something to be studied and attended to, with the same rigor and intensity that one would devote to philosophy or history or literature.

Cultural studies has often gotten a bad rap. But at its best, it really was/is one of the things that education is supposed to be about: coming to an awareness of your world as a medium—that is, not to see your world as simple land, air, and sea, but to see it as the specific air you breath, the specific land on which you stand, the specific sea you in which you swim, to understand its ways and means, its limits and boundaries, to ask why it looks and feels and sounds this way and not another way, to imagine something beyond it.



Ebenezer Scrooge 02.28.15 at 9:00 pm

wtf? Jewish kids looking at popular culture with an uncritical eye? I thought that every Yid knew that blue-eyed Americana was invented by a bunch of heavily-accented dwarves from Brooklyn, with most of the musical support contracted out to African-Americans.

Or maybe it is a generational thing. I come from the tail end of the Goodbye Columbus era, and Corey is a bit younger than me.


Manta 02.28.15 at 9:01 pm

“realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event.”

Popular culture (as opposed to art and literature) is fundamentally shallow (more precisely, the parts that are NOT shallow can be deemed art: but they are, by nature, a tiny minority).
In other words: the post seems to me a well-written indictment of cultural studies: spending time to study rubbish.


Manta 02.28.15 at 9:06 pm

Addendum: I agree the necessity of being able to see our own culture as something artificial: but for that appreciation one does not need to go to college for years: a few months living abroad will suffice, and cost way less.


Wylie Bradford 02.28.15 at 9:08 pm

Manta, nice little ‘no true Scotsman’ you’ve got going there.


engels 02.28.15 at 9:21 pm

Re the paper on Star Trek and geopolitical anxieties: ianatrekkie but I always assumed the Klingons were Russkies and the Ferengi (Next Gen) were Arabs, though I’d be hard-pressed to provide textual evidence for that conclusion now.


Scott P. 02.28.15 at 9:25 pm

The Ferengi were Americans, they even say so in the series.

The Klingons were Germans and the Romulans were Japanese.


T 02.28.15 at 9:27 pm

Damn you Ebenezer, you nearly ruined a beautiful coming of age story about a boy from Chappaqua becoming a man at Princeton.


Mr Punch 02.28.15 at 9:32 pm

Early in my college years (ca. 1965) I read Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950), a scholarly working drawing in part on dime novels. I was surprised. Within about five years, however, popular culture had become a major intellectual concern – or so it seemed to me.


Manta 02.28.15 at 9:40 pm

Wylie, I think you misunderstood WHY the “no true Scotsman” is a fallacy.

Being a Scotsman is a question of birth; being art or literature is a question of value: it’s like saying “no truly good man would murder”.


stevenjohnson 02.28.15 at 10:02 pm

This is an informal survey?

I always thought popular culture was something to analyze from the moment I noticed that there was more than the manifest content to my comic books.

It was more of a revelation that “classic” literature or art might speak to actual people, instead of being markers of culture, valuables in their own right, like costume jewelry. In my case, though, it was Bach, where the polyphony was something so different yet could be so intense an experience.

The notion that society itself is amenable to analysis and critique however I suspect is not nearly as common. I first imbibed the notion from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, also in high school.


engels 02.28.15 at 10:04 pm

I also appreciated the way the female staff were placed in suitable roles- answering phones, nursing and counselling- apart from that blonde woman who tried to do the security guard job for a couple of weeks but couldn’t hack it, and had to be replaced by a black man.


engels 02.28.15 at 10:21 pm

(Always wanted to see a reboot of ST Next Gen directed by Ricky Gervais.)


Main Street Muse 02.28.15 at 10:23 pm

When in HS, during freshman English, a year when we tackled The Odyssey and other literary works, our teacher let us analyze Stairway to Heaven in our unit on poetry. I was just discussing this to my son (a HS freshman who loves Zeppelin.) After all these years, I still remember the class analyzing the lyrics – it allowed us to interpret – not just listen to the teacher’s interpretation of works that seemed remote and difficult to the 14 yr old mind.

The idea that popular culture is “fundamentally shallow” has a very long history – in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the novel is viewed as such as well…


Pat 02.28.15 at 10:24 pm

Serious question – I can see why we study the culture of earlier eras, because that’s what we have. But if you want to know what people think today, why not just ask them? Why take which of Lady Gaga’s offerings they choose to buy as more reliable evidence than what they could tell you to your face (or in an anonymous survey, if necessary)?

After all, people can only choose among the cultural artifacts created by artists. So what they choose is a mix of their preferences and the artist’s. That has to confuse the picture.


bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 10:24 pm

I usually have four books going at once: Marxian, Continental Philosophy/Sociology/Social Theory, Japanese society/history/economy…and film theory. (TV, anime, media, cybertheory, whatever). I consider the last to be the most valuable. Current book is on the ideology of Bollywood. Sample:

The Melodramatic Public: Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema, Ravi Vasudevan

Cinemas catering for Indian films were replete with such com-
plaints, indicating that the lowly social and cultural space occupied by
the cinema in the policies of the national elite was manifest in everyday
filmgoing experience. In Srinivas’s logic, the cinema did not fit the de-
sign of an institution of the public sphere, where a bourgeois logic of
taste, conduct, and opinion formation could take place. This arose not
only from the vulnerability of its public, but, in the second step of his
argument, because this public lacked the cultural attributes required
of a bourgeois public. He outlines a middle-class discourse about the
cinema which goes beyond the question of the failed civility of its ad-
ministrative habitat. This lies in the desire of middle-class opinion to
cultivate the more plebeian sectors of the audience both in their rights
to civil treatment, a right that audiences needed to invoke irrespective
of class distinction, but also because the plebeian sector had to be
cultivated in the virtues and skills of concentrated, silent viewing. Here
we have a bourgeois civilizing process in operation, a prescription
for how the cinema public should behave. Thus, within the not-yet-
legitimate institution lay a potential public sphere governed by the at-
tributes of reasoned behaviour, silence, and focused attention.

Politics, ideology, and propaganda happen in the theatre, the living room in front of the tv, dining room table, pub.


Dean C. Rowan 02.28.15 at 10:31 pm

I’m staring at the spine of Nash’s book on the shelf adjacent to where I type. It remains unread (by me), but it does signify (to me) the advent of pop culture studies. Thus, I believe Mr Punch at 8 has it just about right. My own personal awareness of the utility, perhaps the thrill, of pop culture studies, is much less easy to characterize. I recall a discussion with a friend sometime in the ’70s or early ’80s about the fraught meanings of “lowbrow” and “middle brow.” I of course recall exposure around the same time to Barthes’ Mythologies. But I have never accepted that we “read” pop or mass culture as we would a Keats sonnet. The trope strikes me as shallow, of little value either to literature or to more general cultural phenomena, or to the varieties of meaning we glean from these respective productions. I can’t stand it when friends report without irony how, for instance, a particular play in a football game is as elegant as classical ballet. Granted, one can choose to view football as dance. But one can choose to view anything as anything else. Certainly, “viewing as” is part of what we do when we read, too. It is the aspect of making connections, of identifying patterns or tracing themes. It represents the essentially allegorical nature of literature and reading. (Now I have exposed the source of my indoctrination. It should be obvious that I studied literature and literary theory during the ’70s.) If I’m right, and I by no means take for granted that I am, then I can agree that Mr. McGee’s hyper-awareness would have served him well as a superb close reader of literature, but not necessarily so.

My own background is middle-middle class. I’m white, male. I made it through high school entirely unaware of a hierarchy within post-secondary education. (A friend was accepted to Harvard. At the time, I had no idea that this signified a special achievement.) I suppose I first recognized a historical course of culture, specifically, entertainment culture, when during those same formative years I gave up on television and, shortly thereafter, film. Both seemed contrived, gratuitous, condescending. Neither satisfies me. Both often irritate me as media. Print does not. Reading itself is satisfying. Reading literature critically is difficult, but occasionally rewarding in itself. I guess I really do want to protect the experience of great art, however conceptualized, from the encroachments of colonizing theories.


Bruce Wilder 02.28.15 at 10:41 pm

I grew up when the Western was still a predominant mythic frame for movies and television, but, though, as a child I accused fellows of being “Indian givers” I didn’t understand what it meant until I was in college. How is that ignorance brought about do you suppose?


Lee A. Arnold 02.28.15 at 10:43 pm

Younger viewers may not know that Gene Roddenberry consciously targeted race and other social issues on the show, knowing that science fiction is a particularly good format for easy symbolic representation. One of the cleverest things was when William Shatner was forced into lip-to-lip contact with Nichelle Nichols due to some alien forcefield or something. The first white/black kiss right, there on television! It was national news.

No one ever seems to have pointed-out that Spock’s character was also a brilliant story-structure invention too, because his dialogue could relate gobs of story-expositional information, and he could even get a laugh for it. This function was directly transferred to the character of Data on the Next Generation: necessary exposition, delivered rapid-fire, and getting laughs.

Storywriters bow down on one knee and thank the gods when they have found such a deep trick.

Data also continued the Spock character-dilemma of dealing with something he almost is, but can never be: human. In fact Data wants to be human, which is even more touching. I think I read that the writers didn’t realize how powerful his character was going to be, until the fan mail started pouring in.

I read once that DeForest Kelly (“Bones”) was once asked whether he bothered that he had become a silly TV character. He replied, “Are you kidding? This enters the culture, for ever. Most actors would give their eyeteeth for a role like this!”


Plume 02.28.15 at 10:45 pm


Judging from your posts here, in your case I would attribute that to never actually listening to anyone else, because your own voice in your own head is much, much too loud, too certain of its own perfection, too unbending and you just know everything already.


LFC 02.28.15 at 10:48 pm

I read and commented on the shorter version of this post at Corey’s blog. Seems to me there’s cultural studies and cultural studies: people have always written seriously about jazz, for example, which is arguably somewhere in between low and high culture, and about movies, and literary critics have long been interested in dime novels (see comment no. 8 above).

But cultural studies as thought of today I don’t think became a ‘thing’ in the US academy until the 1980s, though I cd be wrong. I spent 4 yrs as an undergrad in the late 1970s (at a place I certainly would not be able to get into were I applying today, btw), and I don’t believe I heard the phrases ‘cultural studies’ or ‘general studies’ once, though I might be misremembering. Looking even casually at what has happened to faculty and curricula in the humanities in the intervening decades is revealing. Not saying it’s good or bad (on balance, prob good), but definitely different.

Here’s an example. Required freshman composition (writing) course, fall 1975. I chose the one that focused on literature (as opposed to, say, history or social science), even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be an English major. What did we read? One Shakespeare play, one Strindberg play, and I really don’t remember the rest but I do remember one thing: nothing by a writer of color. No comparable course today wd have that kind of reading list. Cultural studies has come, IOW, in tandem w a broadening of the canon.


LFC 02.28.15 at 10:51 pm

not “general studies” : should be “gender studies”


Plume 02.28.15 at 10:53 pm

I find it interesting that pretty much all revolutions in the arts — with few exceptions — are a return to “the people.” They’re a return to what might be called “pop culture” in one way or another. In poetry, it’s almost always to “plain speech.” In art, it’s almost always a return to a depiction of every day life, for the average Joe and Jane. In music, it’s an usually an attempt to remove complexity from composition and move from the abstract to the concrete and more immediately emotional. In philosophy, it’s an attempt to rid the work of layers of jargon to get right at the truth of the matter.

High brow and low brow. Usually, when high brow gets a kick in the pants, realizes its talking to itself and not to many others, it turns its attention back to the low. Ironically, then, a study of “pop culture” can then include Chaucer, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Courbet, Picasso, Vermeer, Brueghel, Wittgenstein, Mozart, Gorecki, etc. etc.


CaptFamous 02.28.15 at 10:57 pm

Pat – People tell you what they want you to know. Sometimes that’s the truth, but it’s the truth to them as they’ve observed and processed it through their own bias. If that strategy would work, all that any psychologist would ever have to do is ask their patients “So what is wrong with you?”


Main Street Muse 02.28.15 at 11:01 pm

LFC @ 20 “But cultural studies as thought of today I don’t think became a ‘thing’ in the US academy until the 1980s, though I cd be wrong.”

That’s an interesting era to see the origins of cultural studies – right around the time when the celluloid cowboy rode into DC waving a big anti-commie stick around as he considered ketchup to be a vegetable…

[James Joyce borrowed from high- and low-brow culture in Ulysses…]


bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 11:05 pm

Ok, for me the question since 1848 and Marx’s turn is “Why don’t they rise up?” I just assume agency and power in the masses. The answer may be found in Foucault’s disciplining ourselves through cultural production and reception, which means mostly visual culture anymore. So Raymond Williams, DeLeuze, Mulvey, abu Lughod, Sherry Turkle, etc etc and the Olympian Jameson. One nice thing is that I get to read a lot of work by women.

I don’t read fiction anymore, seem largely irrelevant. I watch a subtitled movie 3-4 nights a week, and try to see what is “taken for granted” what is assumed on the surface, like gendered roles or public behavior or heroic narratives. Or visual language.


Plume 02.28.15 at 11:19 pm

It might be in interesting tangent, also, to look at artistic intent. And the sophistication of the artist in the first place. Is the artist all pop, from the getgo, without any pretensions toward saying something “significant” about the culture? Or do they just want to make their music as loud as they can, get people to dance and bag some babes? Are they thinking about being some reincarnation of Rimbaud, with a some knowledge of modernist poetry and lit, like Jim Morrison? Or do they have all the irony, indirection and didactic heft of a punch in the nose, like the Ramones?

The amount of irony, indirection and didactic heft (among other facets) could have something to do with the energy expended in analyzing certain cases of pop culture. At least in the logic behind expending that energy. Or, perhaps not. As Sontag tried to point out in Against Interpretation, sometimes a soup can is just a soup can. Or, as Stein said, a rose is a rose is a rose — and not the marker of Yeatsian occult.


Lee A. Arnold 02.28.15 at 11:26 pm

I think most people do not understand the extent to which Hollywood writers attempt to inject social consciousness into their work. Of course they can’t allow it force the story or kill the entertainment, and they have had to reckon with broadcast standards and market expectations, but it’s definitely on the minds of every one of them I’ve spoken with, both in comedy and drama. And you can also find it voiced in video interviews with some of the best-known ones, Rod Serling, notably. I think it’s because to be a writer, even a successful white one, you have to be a bit of an outsider, and aware.

The extent to which Hollywood has helped to slowly push better attitudes and criticisms onto the world, in the midst of all their garbage and degrading dreck, is certainly alarms the rightwing. It’s part of the cause of resentment of “Hollywood liberals”. And it goes back to the flapper era. John Wayne objected to “High Noon.”

And why does storytelling in general do this? I think we get our morals from only a few places: parents, friends, religion, and protagonists in stories. Parental instruction is early; friends try to agree; religion is disbelieved. Heroes and heroines, from the earliest epics to the littlest tales, may always pose further uncomfortable questions to everyone.


Plume 02.28.15 at 11:34 pm


I think that’s the case too, but I also think the supposed “liberal bias” of Hollywood has been grotesquely inflated. All too many of its movies glorify war, capitalism, wealth and power . . . and in recent years, its Sci-Fi, Young Adult and Superhero forms seem to be pushing a right-wing, propertarian message of the total evil of government and a kind of Ayn Randian resistance. They seem to leave out the conformity forced by the private sector, of course, along with its panopticon/surveillance capabilities as well.

It’s a mixed message, of course. But I don’t see many cases of truly “liberal” didacticism, and it’s far more rare to find anything left of liberal. Snowpiercer is one recent example of the latter.


marcel 02.28.15 at 11:37 pm

Lee Arnold wrote: I think most people do not understand the extent to which Hollywood writers attempt to inject social consciousness into their work.

Isn’t that just what you would expect from those people?


Brett Cutler 03.01.15 at 12:02 am

As a working game designer (often judged lowest of low culture), I feel acutely the push between pop and art — an audience usually indifferent and often hostile thematic treatments, a critical dialogue only dimly aware, and a pool of peers of varying education and interest beyond making a working game.

And the difficulty in making successful pop culture shouldn’t be discounted. The market is ever-moving and fickle; even our best attempts to wrangle a team into something approaching a business model with a reliable ship date and budget are incomplete, as we don’t understand our craft well enough to plan and execute more than 50% of the time. But a great deal of the enjoyment of the craft is in its new and unknown nature. Transposing ideas into a new medium often proves out new facets.; at the least, it’s an engaging exercise in craft. And so you can count on a certain proportion of designers working to broadcast ideas, though they fight against the system which sees no benefit to it.

I see cultural benefits from games towards pop understanding in a systemic way. This is the SimCity, Civilization example – models conforming to a viewpoint, within which the player can gain a deep, intuitive understanding of consequence. Beside this lie value in aesthetics alone; to push another’s sensory perspective can yield deep understanding and empathy; haven’t we seen the benefit of culture in recent social movements – the cultural dissemination that gay relationships aren’t icky? We are oblique and strained in art to teach what a lecture can’t, to make the audience believe and not just know.

We continue to struggle with integrating academia and industry; working designers don’t keep up with the growing body of games research, and academics are raised through the university system. The internet, and easy distribution, helps, of course, but not enough to make an impact. The academia/industry split is not unique to games.


PatrickfromIowa 03.01.15 at 12:26 am

Shakespeare targeted his plays at what counted as a mass audience of the day, and the Mantas of the day didn’t think it was serious art. There’s a reason people scorned Ben Jonson when he published his collected plays.

I’ve found in my years as a grad student and faculty member it is precisely people who know least about literary history who fetishize large A Art the most.

Same as it ever was.


Lee A. Arnold 03.01.15 at 1:09 am

Didacticism is deadly to drama and entertainment. On the other hand, just by including black characters and gay characters, Hollywood was “didactic”. This had an enormous impact.

The history, for screen culture studies, segues from movies to television to digital and now, anything goes. This history itself is didactic, instructive; including for the question, “Whither culture studies?”

In movies, social consciousness hit a high pitch in the great Warner Bros. films of the 1930s (books have been written! watch those movies!), then emotional needs in WWII squelched it for lighter stuff; then it slowly ramped up again from the late 1950’s through to another very high artistic pitch in the early 70’s; then social concerns took a definite backseat in the blockbuster era, when Jaws and Star Wars box-office changed movie-studio economics.

Broadcast television had always been a mixed bag, but as soon as cable came in, the venues for serious drama increased. Now digital is allowing a flood of all genres: Google/YouTube has started-up production facilities in different cities for YouTubers to come in and produce higher visual quality. Netflix is already producing “content”, and Amazon looks set to step in. Because, when anybody can write software, i.e. take over your core business, then “content is king”. Or queen. So almost everybody in computers/telecommunications, with the exception of Google and Apple, are now forced to look at producing original screen entertainment — go read the trades — because they are going to be utterly destroyed in future business competition if they do not. But this new era itself probably has a short business-lifespan, as we shall see further below.

First though, there arises a new format opportunity: 3-D virtual reality entertainment is being created, and just about to go mass-market: you are inside the movie. Characters appear from around your back, and you can turn to see them, and so on. It is going to be very very big; early test viewers are ecstatic; the kids will clamor for it as usual.

This whole inundation has been a boon and a bane to socially conscious writing. But what else is new?

Well, what’s new is the perfection of the boon. You can write ANYTHING and get it up there; this opportunity never existed before. Small-budget productions; even do-it-yourself. All sorts of format lengths. Distribution channel is no problem: just upload it.

But the bane is, to get it watched, people have to know about it.

Just like writing novels or recording music.

And just like novels and music, the bane for new screen storytelling is a two-part bottleneck:

1. Getting your production advertised. The big leaguers just grab a channel: ABC is a 24-hr. product placement for Disney stuff; you can analyze Murdoch’s empire from this viewpoint. You the small creator are up against big guns.

2. Each pair of eyeballs has only so many hours during the day. In econ jargon, entertainment-consumption is not infinite; it is finite. But entertainment-supply tends toward infinite. And you know what happens to the price of corn when all the farmers have a good year.

All culture forms now tend toward effectively infinite supply, yet with no content restrictions! There are now more novels written than you could ever read. There are 24 hours of amateur video being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Of course recorded music is in exactly the same shape, as bands themselves started realizing about 10 years ago.

So in some ways, cultural study of the contemporary scene will see a shift in parameter, indeed perhaps in paradigm. New popular culture is shifting its content-acceptibility, away from what the power structure will think is appropriate to mass marketing (including Netflix etc.), and heading toward what people will spend their limited time watching, no matter where they found it, and thus will recommend to each other though personal contact (i.e. what goes “viral”).


Wylie Bradford 03.01.15 at 1:14 am


Manta, you’ve just nicely demonstrated that you don’t understand what the ‘one true scotsman’ is actually about. It has nothing to do with scotsmen per se. It refers to the case where the assertion ‘all X’s are Y’s’, having been met with the objection ‘this X is not a Y’, is modified to ‘all *genuine* X’s are Y’s’ where ‘genuine’ is defined in a Procrustean fashion in relation to some characteristic(s) of the X used in the counterexample. Hence your claim that popular culture is rubbish, and any aspects that actually appear good are really ‘art’ and therefore not popular culture, leaving popular culture as rubbish *by definition*. The ‘no true scotsman’ is thus a particular instance of petitio principii, and quite fallacious. As in your case.


Liberal With Attitude 03.01.15 at 1:26 am

I was a middle schooler in the early 70’s at the tail end of the Vietnam War and cultural clashes of the 60’s.
I remember recognizing how movies and music filtered and processed the political battles- for example how the disillusionment with Washington led to the anti-hero of Clint Eastwood, who stood apart from both the corrupt establishment and hippie insurgents.

I recognized then that art WAS political, and more powerfully so when it feigned indifference.


Bill Benzon 03.01.15 at 1:41 am

Somewhere along the line I decided that, if you want to know how culture works, then you have to study culture, all of it, not just the authorized bits. And, if you wish, you can study why some bits get authorized and others not. This probably came on my sometime during graduate school. Sometime during middle school I found my way to jazz and, in due course, managed to figure out that there was something arbitrary about giving it the back seat to classical (which I also liked). That didn’t stop me, of course, from giving rock a back seat to jazz. But that ended with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I found nothing strange about taking movies seriously.

About cultural studies, I’m no so sure. It seems to me it’s too tied to promoting and demoting, to decoding politics, and not sufficiently interested in the sensuous surface of things, and a bit distant from any concern with how things work. Decoding strikes me as a bit old hat.

I’ve been reading some of J. Hillis Miller’s reflections on literary studies. He talks about how, back when he was doing is graduate work at Harvard (1948-1952) and when he was teaching at Johns Hopkins (1950s & 60s) American literature was not taken seriously in the better English departments (like Harvard and Hopkins). He says it took him thirty years to realize how very odd that was, the notion that to become a proper American citizen one had to know British literature, how very post-colonial. These days he figures departments have to accommodate themselves to students who grew up on movies and TV and now the internet.


engels 03.01.15 at 2:04 am

I used to hate Star Trek when I was a kid and too young to understand it, once I was old enough to understand it I can’t say I enjoyed it much. Looking back on it now, I fucking hate it.

Yes, popular culture can be art. Star Trek wasn’t. Worth studying from a sociological perspective perhaps or as ideology etc but anyone who thinks I ought waste precious hours of my adult life watching Gene Rodenberry’s emotionally vapid, unimaginative, childish dogshit when I could be watching Godard or Fassbinder can suck the Klingons off my starboard bow frankly.

(I’m a bit drunk this evening in case that isn’t apparent…)


Fuzzy Dunlop 03.01.15 at 2:12 am

While I was educated in a very good public school system, I think I first encountered cultural studies at an academic summer camp thing at UVA when I was 15, and one of the grad student teachers had a small-group screening of Star Wars and picked apart the opening scene where Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s diplomatic ship, explaining how different filmic elements made us see one side as the goodguys and the other side as the badguys. Badguys needed to do more than look grotesque, do bad things, and laugh in a certain way… He explained how Star Wars worked as a modern myth, and the idea that modern European & American culture really had myths was not something my regular school education had prepared me for.


js. 03.01.15 at 2:31 am

I’m curious if other people had a similar moment in college or grad school or high school. I remember the first time this awareness hit me:

This is funny, because as I was reading this, I was thinking: Oh yeah, that paper I was assigned as a freshman on Madonna… I really don’t remember what the point of the paper was—this was ’96-ish, so a while back. But it was definitely about Madonna, and I do remember thinking: Huh, people study this, this is vaguely awesome! (But not too long after, I took a dimmer view of cultural studies, not because of the topics so much as the methods.)


John Quiggin 03.01.15 at 2:45 am

The flipside of all this is the rejection of the 19th century theory of Art, as a transcendent activity, the product of inspired individual genius, but (for some inexplicable reasons) only working through a handful of officially approved media (basically painting, sculpture, instrumental music, opera and ballet and, very grudgingly, literature). No one these days will admit to ever having believed this theory, but it was still dominant until late last century.


Alan White 03.01.15 at 3:02 am

Would we be at the place of the SCOTUS examining same-sex marriage without Soap to Will and Grace and Modern Family? C’mon man!


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 3:03 am

“No one these days will admit to ever having believed this theory, but it was still dominant until late last century.”–John Quiggin, 38

I won’t admit to ever having believed it. But I won’t discard it entirely. I don’t seek official approval of media. Still, some I find insufferable, namely film and, much the same, television. Really, I’m incapable of pleasurably consuming works in these media. Moreover, the “inspired individual genius” trope works on occasion to some extent: Beethoven. Does the theory explain him? Of course not. But there is something about Beethoven’s work that marks it sui generis.

Why are we so snooty about acknowledging unfathomable talent?


Pat 03.01.15 at 3:04 am


I get your point – but my experience of counselors was that they did just mainly ask what was troubling me. They certainly never asked what my favorite TV shows were and analyzed the tropes therein.


js. 03.01.15 at 3:19 am

during those same formative years I gave up on television and, shortly thereafter, film. Both seemed contrived, gratuitous, condescending. Neither satisfies me. Both often irritate me as media. Print does not. Reading itself is satisfying.

So Breathless and Andrei Rublev and Tokyo Story are “contrived, gratuitous, condescending”, but Mitch Albom is satisfying? I mean, I *suppose* this is not what you’re saying, and I have a bit of the ‘give me good art, not some dumb philistine shit’ attitude myself, but the wholesale rejection of film is so beyond bizarre, I don’t know where to begin.


Alan White 03.01.15 at 3:42 am

One other thing. You know what surprisingly resonates with current students (mine anyway in small-town WI)–syndicated Gilligan’s Island, which for some reason they have largely seen, and which I use to introduce questions of political, economic and social freedom (they had them all; Skipper in charge, they bartered, they interacted), as well as Castaway for specific questions about about the importance of social freedom (Chuck Noland gives up completely to die when he loses Wilson, his only social relatum; he does not shed a tear when he later loses the love of his life Kelly, citing what the tide might bring in tomorrow (referencing the toilet that gave him his rescue sail, but also presaging the end of the film)). There are persistent themes in pop culture that seem to be no more than the butt of jokes–yet they also contain potential for insights if properly analyzed. Just sayin’.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 3:43 am

I agree, js (42). It is bizarre. My problem with film has to do with the mediating technology: the camera. It’s always there, always in the way, always attempting a gravitational pull that I resist. There is no acting in front of a camera. It’s always mugging. The artistic work that goes into film–the theatrical direction, the thespian art, the framing of views–suffers fatally when the material fact of film, the camera, insinuates itself into the scene, as it always does and must do.

This has nothing to do with philistinism. I find even “great” film unsatisfying at best, usually irritating.

By the way, I don’t know anything about Albom. It ‘s possible I’ve heard of him.


Lee A. Arnold 03.01.15 at 4:04 am

Dean C. Rowan #44: “There is no acting in front of a camera. It’s always mugging. ”

You may enjoy the films of Robert Bresson. He felt the same way, and devised a handful of unique techniques to overcome it. Good films to start with are Au Hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette. A different approach to overcome the same problem was tried by Yasujiro Ozu in his post war films. Bresson and Ozu turned cinema into a total art form and no one else has shown the same ability to think it all the way through.


js. 03.01.15 at 4:16 am

My problem with film has to do with the mediating technology: the camera.

I suppose I have a strangely similar though utterly opposite reaction. I basically love that the camera makes it impossible for me to focus on characters, acting, and to some extent plot. Which is probably why I love “arty” European shit, Hollywood b-movies, etc. (and generally have a hard time with Neo-realism and people like Ang Lee).

Re Lee A. Arnold: Ozu and Bresson are utterly transcendent, no doubt, but if I were recommending one director/film to Dean C. Rowan, it would certainly be Dziga Vertov/Man With A Movie Camera. If you’re obsessed with the role of the camera, (albeit negatively), that’s the film to watch.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 4:22 am

Lee #45: I’m always amenable to recommendations, so thank you. There *are* films I enjoy, but the category utterly testifies to my puzzled position. To my mind, “Blazing Saddles” is a cinematic masterpiece. Also, “Barry Lyndon.” The latter succeeds precisely because Kubrick understood at some level that photography cannot capture acting. Hence Ryan O’Neal. The problem, to me, with film is that there is no way to overcome the brute fact of film and camera. This problem does not obtain with literature or music.


js. 03.01.15 at 4:30 am

And just in case someone decides to point this out, obviously I realize that something like _Bicycle Thieves_ is going to be categorized as “arty European shit” by most people. I was vaguely thinking of engels’ Godard and Fassbinder reference, and say Bresson, and other non-neorealist type stuff.


The Dark Avenger 03.01.15 at 5:03 am

So, Engels, ever get drunk enough that you regret supporting that shiftless Marx fellow?


John Holbo 03.01.15 at 5:38 am

“being art or literature is a question of value: it’s like saying “no truly good man would murder”.”

Manta must at some point have produced some truly bad art and/or literature, and has spent the entire intervening period confabulating that this could not possibly be the case.

Seriously, Manta: are you new? You think all literature/art is good and all pop culture is shallow/bad? That’s the least plausible cultural/literary generalization I’ve heard all week. And I have internet access!


js. 03.01.15 at 5:41 am

You think all literature/art is good and all pop culture is shallow/bad?

It sounds like he or she is using “art/literature” as honorifics? That’s the only sense I can make of the comment.


Lee A. Arnold 03.01.15 at 5:48 am

Dean C. Rowan #47: “with film is that there is no way to overcome the brute fact of film and camera.”

Bresson and Ozu overcame it by turning cinema into its own kind of shaped object, beyond the mere recording of a drama. You get the feeling that it’s cinema as it should be. The wonder is they used such very different approaches:

Bresson overcame it by deciding, with you, that movies are fake. Therefore, instead of pretending that what is going on is real, he decided to “model” the events without falsehood. This inverting concept led to a number of very different rules which he used as creative tools. (E.g., a trivial one was that he decided that any violence would be off-screen, because you never believe it is real anyway!) Importantly, he hired non-actors, they were told not to emote (the emotions come in the editing room), and they go through actions in a certain way, occasionally in a quite unreal manner. Yet the “modeled” story is of a profound often harrowing moral dilemma. The effect is unique, startling and spiritually transcendent. People who “get” Bresson tend to worship him, with good reason. Godard wrote that Au hasard, Balthasar is “The world, in an hour and a half.”

Ozu overcame it by locking off the camera close to the floor and writing seemingly simple screenplays about common family events in which there is no unusual incident; no one even raises a voice. The camera rule is broken sometimes when it is placed directly between two characters speaking, so that they appear to be talking directly into it (actually, about 3 degrees or so off center). There are ellipses between scenes, but the scenes are enacted in full without lapses, everyone has his or her full say, and the characters are as completely drawn as in any great novel. At the end, you realize that the whole world has moved underneath these people, and you have watched a story that happens to everyone on earth. It seems very simple yet it repays repeated viewing. All of his post-1949 films are in this style. “Tokyo Story” consistently makes the world’s best film lists, usually right near the top.

These two are among the greatest of 20th century artists.


Meredith 03.01.15 at 6:10 am

college 1968-1972. I remember going from dinner (available in a narrow time, mystery meat and all, not as today, what with salads galore and vegan v. vegetarian options available at all kinds of hours and obtained by complicated meal point contracts) to the main lounge (only television available in any dorm — black and white, of course) to watch Walter Cronkite — there was some stuff going on that we attended to intently, since some of us in the room were in line for dying — and lingering on some nights to watch Star Trek. (“He’s dead, Jim” was what my off-kilter Minnesota world took away, more than the Spock moments. I do so love the upper-midwest off-kilter world! This from a NY/NJ girl. Charlie Pierce also knows it. Woody Allen caught it in Annie.) Then I’d go back to studying my ancient Greek or my Shakespeare or my anthro or polisci (I went in for the theory, the great thinkers — ah!), or back to getting myself to the music building to practice, or maybe back to my boyfriend’s room to, you know. (Sometimes we’d meet in the music building, in a practice room. As Rimbaud said, if I were a violin, I’d play myself.) I didn’t need someone to tell me: hey, “popular culture” is worthy of study! We studied it, thanks to the skills and larger insights we’d acquired studying our Aeschylus and Shakespeare and — maybe this is important as a datum of academic/social history, our History courses, which were decidedly social (and intellectual) history.

What it comes down to for me, as a practical matter: what’s the most efficient way to pack the world in (imagining it) for students in a few years? Twelve courses on TV sitcoms or ten on Shakespeare (yeah yeah “popular” in his day — false analogy) et al with teachers who encourage the connections students can make on their own?


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 6:24 am

Lee A. Arnold #52: Permit me to remain crass. In Kubrick I see a kind of fusion of what you describe in Bresson and Ozu. He works best with non-actors (O’Neal, the cast of 2001), less well with strong thespian figures. Nicholson, dreadful in The Shining, may very well be a good actor, but he fails to achieve it on film, where he always comes off as pompous and merely Nicholson, Hollywood celebrity. Peter Sellers is perhaps a marvelous exception. Even on film–and I’ve witnessed him nowhere else–he is a countervailing force, charismatic, deft, funny. Kubrick also appreciated the ordinary and bland. He avoids recording drama by emptying the story of drama, “Barry Lyndon” being a perfect example. I’m also a fan of Diane Kurys’s “Peppermint Soda,” which is also largely devoid of drama and focused on the ordinary.

I imagine two kinds of nearly perfect films. In one, there would be no acting, no human portrayals of individual characters. Because the camera can’t be disguised or sublimated, it would always be an object of attention or designed distraction. Think cheesy light show displaying a range of degrees of focus. In the other, an amateur would record a performance of a high school production of a well-worn play, “Our Town” or “The Serpent” or a bad stab at Shakespeare. Even then the problem for me is the physical fact of having to endure a viewing of the projected or displayed work. I lose all patience. The medium, rather than serving a purpose as paper does in books, demands its own critical approach. It exhausts me.


js. 03.01.15 at 7:01 am

@Dean C. Rowan: So, have you seen A Man With A Movie Camera? Because it’s not only one of the greatest films ever made, it definitely entirely fits: “there would be no acting, no human portrayals of individual characters”. And in a way, it’s sort of all about the incursion of the camera into, well, life. (It’s about certain other things too.)


bob mcmanus 03.01.15 at 11:59 am

Since I have seen every Ozu movie at least twice, and some several times, and read four books (Burch, Bordwell, Schrader, Dresser) I feel I should contribute something. In bullet points. Arnold did very well above.

1) The Only Son, Story of Floating Weeds, and Inn at Tokyo are pre-war masterpieces.
2) Ozu famously spent 3-5 months writing his screenplays with Koda Noga, and said they wrote the dialogue first, and then filled in characters and setting. Ozu said he was not interested in story, narrative or drama. There is also a paucity of backstory for the Ozu characters, the minimum necessary. So I do not think it’s novelistic.
3) The only way that makes sense is if O & K determined a problem among or between a group of archetypes:father, daughter, husband, wife, etc and then wrote dialogue that would resolve the problem.
4) So I see Ozu’s work about the negotiation between and within performative and conflicting social roles: how to deal with being a good wife when you have a class difference with your husband, for instance. Most of his characters are decent people trying to find the most dutiful path within a particular set of concrete and changing circumstances. As Arnold said, rarely does passion or desire come into play, except as sacrificed.
5) There is a lot to say about Ozu’s visual style, but it should be remembered that although he wasn’t a money loser, he usually just broke even (Kinoshita was Shochiku’s cash cow), and in order to get the artistic freedom he wanted, a lot of his style is there for efficiency, in order to work fast and cheap. Like Hitchcock, he had his movie made when he walked onto the set, and wasn’t about to let his actors slow him down or make changes. In a sense, he was making bunraku plays.


Ronan(rf) 03.01.15 at 12:40 pm

I never took any cultural studies classes, not because I don’t think it has merit (of course it does) but (1) because I don’t think they were offering it where I went to college (2) I don’t want to ruin my vieweing tastes by analysing them to death.
I’m serious on the second part. I guess my tastes are middlebrow at best. I’m the sort of person who responded, unironically, to the news that Danny Dyer had joined the Eastenders cast by noting that it was a great fit. I dont really want to know what answers I might find if I looked at Eastenders* through a critical race or class frame. Let alone the rest of Danny Dyer’s career. I’d genuinely be worried (not overly, but a little,) that I could literally enjoy no pop culture ever again.

* I don’t actually watch Eastenders specifically, but am using it as a stand in, a representation.


Main Street Muse 03.01.15 at 1:14 pm

Dean Rowan @55 “I imagine two kinds of nearly perfect films. In one, there would be no acting, no human portrayals of individual characters. Because the camera can’t be disguised or sublimated, it would always be an object of attention or designed distraction. Think cheesy light show displaying a range of degrees of focus.”

We have a Warhol fan!

I don’t understand the problem with the mediating technology of the camera – it is a communication tool, like a printing press or a computer. (Monks, centuries ago, loathed the printing press for its mediating technology.) Film and TV can utilize lighting techniques found in Rembrandt; theatrical considerations of literature and plays; musical flourishes of Beethoven (whose inspiration may have come from syphilis, some say.)

Film (to me) is the most manipulative of the media – perhaps that’s at the heart of your problem with it? (Do print stories move you emotionally? I can’t see you as the type to cry through the chapter in Little Women where Beth dies…)


magari 03.01.15 at 1:48 pm

Nash Smith reading James Fenimore Cooper isn’t what I’d call “cultural studies,” though it’s a very, very useful book.


Metatone 03.01.15 at 3:18 pm

FWIW, if you think books are a natural medium and film is unnatural (camera gets in the way etc.) then you remind me of my Dad who came from a predominantly oral culture and felt that storytelling was natural and all that process of writing and then reading got in the way…


Metatone 03.01.15 at 3:21 pm

Back to the OP.

I think there’s some truth here.
As someone of mixed race, with parents and grandparents communicating badly across a divide of race and nationhood and geography, I was interrogating culture from an early age, simply because I was repeatedly presented with choices about “truths.”

Still, you can meet people with similar backgrounds to me who didn’t get that sensitivity. So I think there are issues about personality and education in the mix too.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 3:30 pm

The thread has deviated a bit from the OP’s query, but damn, it’s been a rich lesson for me! Thank you all for entertaining my aesthetic quirks, and for making suggestions to suit them. Responding directly to MSM (a pun, perhaps, #59?), I always thought the idea of Warhol’s “Sleep” and “Empire State” was inspired, but never having seen them my experience is entirely in the realm of conceptual art. (Works for me.) It is true that displaced scribes and their readers rebelled, Luddites avant la lettre (and another pun!), against the new technology, but the invasion of the press was felt as a substitute and replacement for their own work. I don’t view film as a cheap or corrupt version of painting. Perhaps Walter Benjamin did.

But “manipulative”…yes! That characteristic definitely disturbs me about film. My emotional responses to print are complex. I’m often thrilled by the objects themselves, the books, turning of pages, page layouts, design, etc. Stories move me, but not in the way you describe (something bad occurs, reader responds as if it had actually happened). More often than not I respond to the fact that the author managed to communicate such-and-such in a particular way or style, exploring diction, grammar, rhythm, and so forth. But I have yet to read Alcott. Add it to the pile.


mattski 03.01.15 at 3:34 pm

The medium, rather than serving a purpose as paper does in books, demands its own critical approach. It exhausts me.

I have a lot of difficulty relating to this. Why would any other narrative form not suffer from the same problem? Novels are typically told from a point of view after all. Sounds like you’d be a big Finnegan’s Wake fan and get nothing at all from Catcher in the Rye.



AcademicLurker 03.01.15 at 3:47 pm

I was in college in the early 90s and it’s amusing in retrospect to recall just how apoplectic critics were over the idea that English professors were writing about TV shows and popular music. Traditionalists seemed convinced that this trend spelled the end of all Truth and Beauty forever. I think it’s pretty uncontroversial now that, say, Carol Clover’s work on horror movies is at least as worthwhile as the 100,000th essay analyzing Hamlet, but boy was it considered heresy at the time.

That said, I’m less enthusiastic about undergraduate courses focused of pop culture, except maybe in very upper level classes. One of the more valuable things about classes is that they present you with material you might not have sought out on your own or (in the case of poetry, for instance) might need practice in order to be able to appreciate.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 4:01 pm

Re LFC’s point:

I think I heard the term “cultural studies” for the first time from Michael Berube on this blog. I don’t remember whether there were pop-culture courses. My freshman comp instructor told us she was a structuralist and her dissertation was finding imagery for sex in the form of, I think, fruit (neces. forbidden), in novels.

When I was in college, in the mid-80s, the creation of Black Studies and Women’s Studies departments was a frequent student-activist demand (and especially reasonable considering the number of students, especially women, who graduated with majors in genteel subjects like Art History combined with Asian Studies or Jewish Studies). So they didn’t exist yet. Halfway through when I was there, core courses were being required to add one book by a woman, and so on. So a little later than that, I think.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 4:06 pm

There was film, of course, and it studied those bits of past-decades’ froth that had been anointed with the label “auteur“, along with the contemporary art-house.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 4:14 pm

Meredith @ 54

FWIW. TV night my senior year was Moonlighting (which many of us had probably been watching since high school), which seemed to present the soon-to-be liberal-arts graduate with the prospect of writing snarky jokes leavened with the ability to sneak in one-off characters named “Ortega” and “Gasset,” or having the pull to get to produce an episode based on Shakespeare.


Jacob Haller 03.01.15 at 4:40 pm

An online friend observed recently that the show ‘The Goldbergs’ never explicitly identified the main characters as Jewish — searching the scripts for the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ came up completely empty. I think that Seinfeld may have done something similar — it had Jewish characters that were never explicitly identified as such. Examining this sort of representational question seems worthwhile …


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 5:02 pm

Oh, yeah, Paglia had used the words “cultural studies” before 1991 or so, but for her the term had a different sense.


Plume 03.01.15 at 5:17 pm


I liked the early Cheers for that reason. The character of Diane would throw in all kinds of literary and philosophical references — pretentiously or not. I enjoyed that and saw how the writers would shift their impression of her through the course of the show — negative, positive, etc. Sometimes she seemed to earn the title of house intellectual. Other times it seemed nothing but pretentious. And then she might get her just desserts when someone she viewed as a yahoo would call her own (film) work derivative of Godard’s.

Perhaps liberal arts majors wrote many of these episodes, and ping ponged back and forth between all university courses and discussions, and the realization that they were supposed to produce hit shows for “the masses.” Again, high and low brow, negotiating between the two.


Luke 03.01.15 at 5:24 pm

What are your thoughts on anime, or Iranian film? There is a certain style of filmmaking that is almost like the composition of a series of stills (perhaps this is why you like Kubrick?). That said, there is still an implied ‘eye’, even in anime where there is no camera — or in a painting, I suppose. I’m not sure have the artist’s perspective can be effaced.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 5:25 pm


My AP English teacher, senior year in high school, encouraged us all to watch “Cheers.”

By the time I’d graduated from college, of course, Diane had become pretty reliably the butt of the joke, along with Frasier and–even more–Lilith.

The idea that liberal arts majors make up most writers of TV shows seems like a good bet. :) I’m sure you could find some discussions of what people thought of these kinds of questions at the time, in magazines and things.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 03.01.15 at 5:32 pm

I think at least some of the assigned roles of women were due to the Network and not necessarily to Roddenberry. There is a story that one of the changes that he was forced to make from the original pilot was a choice between an non-human as a main character and a female first officer. The ultimate choice between Majel Barrett’s logic driven First Officer and Nimoy’s Spock may say something about Roddenberry. But, Uhuru on the bridge was a big deal at the time. So much so that, MLK asked Nichelle Nichols to stay when she considered leaving for other opportunities.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 5:33 pm

In retrospect, however, what he liked about Cheers was the banter, the quality of the dialogue, which he considered an enormous cut above anything else on TV, at least anything I suppose he thought we were watching.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 5:36 pm

Then again, that teacher was a sarcastic Irishman who began every class with a saying or joke using (often-sexist) snark, which he wrote on the board, and who tried earnestly to get us to see the universality of the diatribe about Hell in The Portrait of an Artist, and the benefits of having been taught by the Christian Brothers.


Main Street Muse 03.01.15 at 5:48 pm

To Dean Rowan @63 “More often than not I respond to the fact that the author managed to communicate such-and-such in a particular way or style, exploring diction, grammar, rhythm, and so forth.”

I do this with film too. I love looking at a particular edit – a particular line of dialogue – the framing of three people in a scene (Hud is a great example of the tug of loyalties between father, son and nephew shown in composition and framing.) The storming of the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is visceral and intense – because of the rhythm of the editing, the blue tint of the lighting, the use of sound one would hear in a situation like that. In Citizen Kane, Greg Tolland created a masterpiece of lighting and deep focus that enabled and enhanced the theatrical impulses of the film’s director. Battleship Potemkin used the new medium as propaganda used to support a new form of government. To me, film is a medium – like print, music, paint/canvas, etc. – used to explore themes, ideas and cultural identities.

In reading your replies, you seem less influenced on the emotional impact of art and more intrigued by its intellectual impact. Film can be an intellectual exercise (Warhol!) but it excels at emotional manipulation. I can see why you would push against it.


LFC 03.01.15 at 5:50 pm

bianca steele @66
Re LFC’s point: I think I heard the term “cultural studies” for the first time from Michael Berube on this blog. I don’t remember whether there were pop-culture courses. My freshman comp instructor told us she was a structuralist and her dissertation was finding imagery for sex in the form of, I think, fruit (neces. forbidden), in novels.

My freshman comp instructor (who was a good teacher, imo, largely b.c he wrote thoughtful comments on papers — I have little to no recollection of the class sessions themselves) was writing his diss. on Middlemarch (which I also read as a freshman, though not in that class). Which contrast (Eliot vs. sex imagery) I suppose may underscore anecdotally some changes over the course of a decade.


Plume 03.01.15 at 6:02 pm


That’s interesting. It’s probably just me, but I tune into the change in that quality over time. With all kinds of exceptions, it seems most shows tend to lose their edge after awhile. The quality of the dialogue diminishes. They start to repeat themselves, even to become parodies of their own earlier successes. Cheers was like that for me, and I honestly think it lost some of its mojo when Diane left the show.

And there was a kind of off and on feminist component to it, even within the arc of her character — at least from my point of view. In certain episodes, she seemed more than self-contained, and attractively in control of her own destiny, not given to playing anyone’s fool. In other episodes, especially late in the game, and in the finale, she seemed strangely lost to herself and more easily controlled by others — like Sam. This, of course, is quite human. But in the context of the show it could be startling. The easy, self-assuredness, the command of her own space, and then its almost abject loss.

Which reminds me a bit of the Sound of Music. Even as a kid, I was struck by the radical change in Maria before and after marriage and was saddened by it. Coming back from her “honeymoon,” she seemed tamed, the fire gone. Prior to that, she was, relatively speaking, a free and independent spirit. Did the movie consciously want to make that point? I have no idea. But that’s how it struck me as a kid. As in, I much preferred the Maria before she got hitched.


praisegod barebones 03.01.15 at 6:26 pm

Well, I guess this is very much the wrong answer to Corey’s question, but in my case the answer would be ‘via reading the battered blue Pelicam of Richard Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’ which was sitting on my parents bookshelf at about the age of 17. (And to the question ‘why did it take so long’ – well, because I was a nerdy kid who didn’t *like* popular culture.

I guess there was another step between realizing the point on an intellectual level and actually seeing the world in that way – that’s harder to answer.

I also think there’s an important difference between ‘these things can usefully be analyzed in these terms’ and ‘these kinds of analyses of these things shd be taught to undergraduates’. The second thing pulls in all sorts of things about what we think university education is for which don’t seem relevant to the first.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 6:59 pm

@Luke, #72: I don’t know anime or Iranian film. (Recall, I cited “Blazing Saddles.” That is pretty much my level of exposure to film. [Punning a lot this a.m.]) But you’re right about my appreciation for Kubrick. “Barry Lyndon” is satisfying because 1) almost nothing important happens, 2) the actors don’t even try, and 3) the photography is pretty. I was thinking, too, of “Frank Film,” which took an Academy Award in the ’70s, I think, for short films. I saw it at the time and it was a joy.

@MSM, #77: Good diagnosis.

@Plume, #79 (responding to bianca steele): Your first paragraph gets to my first comment. I gave up television not only because individual shows began to lose their edge. The entire medium went that way for me. This experience was an awakening to cultural studies, not as an academic discipline but as a perspective on the economics, the demographics, the industry generating the production of entertainment. But I largely failed to apply any awareness I achieved to print culture! There is a demographics and an economics of reading, too, obviously. I just happen to have an easier time sublimating their interruptions.


Plume 03.01.15 at 7:09 pm


That makes a lot of sense. In the past, I didn’t watch much TV at all. Unfortunately, I find myself watching more of it now than ever before, and I don’t like that I do this. Makes me feel more than guilty.

I used to spend most of my time reading. Now, it takes up far too little of my day, at least outside online reading. It’s something I have to work on in my old age and may be a product of ongoing health concerns. I also fear the Internet has shortened my attention span. Something worth fighting.


Bill Benzon 03.01.15 at 7:37 pm

It’s clear that at, say, the middle of the previous century, the justification for studying English literature (in the USA) was fundamentally ethical, which I mean in the sense of ethos, a way of life. One read these texts because they somehow embodied something important to the American way of life. It was thus important that the text be canonical, high culture, texts. In the 19th century the canonical texts would have been centuries old and written in Latin and Greek.

At that time film studies didn’t exist. Film criticism, yes, but that was either journalistic or a form of belles lettres. It certainly wasn’t academic scholarship.

By the mid-1960s, when I entered college, interpretive criticism was firmly entrenched in literature departments (it was a post-WWII development) and so people got to looking for “hidden meanings” in texts, using various means for discovering those hidden meanings. At the same time critics noticed that different critics found different meanings and that those differences were not easily resolved. That led to the suspicion that the meanings found in texts had as much to do with the predispositions of critics as with the texts themselves.

Crudely speaking, that led to deconstruction. And deconstruction in turn provided an opportunity for various identity-based criticisms to take hold, with feminism and African-American studies being the first through the door. They called for an opening of the canon, studying more texts by women and African Americans. Lo and behold! wonder of wonders! when you looked for hidden meanings in those texts, you found them.

Hot damn!

And it turned out that the very same “search for hidden meaning” procedures found meanings hidden in ordinary pop and mass cultural “texts”–where the notion of “text” is now fairly general and includes films, TV shows, music, and so forth, and not just written texts. That’s cultural studies, and it can be traced back to Raymond Williams and others in Britain (Bérubé knows the geneology better than I do). Now we’re interested in how these pop texts either resist capitalism, patriarchy, racism, etc. or knuckle under to it. So the intellectual thrust is still ethnical (as in ethos), but it’s no longer anything as simple is improving oneself by reading and thinking about these texts, which is where things at stood at mid-century with the high-cultural texts.

Obviously, that’s a rather simplified story, etc. But, it’s a reasonable simplification. As far as I can tell, that’s more or less where things stand today.

At the moment I’m working my way through The Rockford Files, a mainstream TV series from the late 1970s, and have become interested in an episode late in the run. This episode is about a brutal gang rape. It’s possible that my interest in this episode has been primed by current discussions of rape on college campuses, or even Belle Waring’s recent post, though I rather suspect I’d have latched onto the episode even without this particular context. I’m sure there’s a cultural logic to the details of this story, but I’m not sure what that logic is. But I’m making progress in figuring it out.

How “good” is The Rockford Files? I’ve read, perhaps in the Wikipedia entry, that some organization has voted it one of the top 50 TV series of all time. That’s not nothing, but it’s not Shakespeare or Jane Austen either. I’m watching the series, my third time through (first time was when it originally aired), because I enjoy it. I’ve blogged about that particular episode because I’m unapologetically interested in it. I also like anime and graffiti and jazz and a whole bunch of other things.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 7:38 pm

@Plume, #82. I hear you, amen. When I married later in life, I acquired a television set in the bargain. I learned that if there’s a TV in the room, there’s a strong risk that I’ll gawk with no sense of the passage of time. (Does this mean I enjoy watching television? It does not.) My wife and I prudently agreed to banish the tube. Then we had kids–even later in life–and no, there is no correlation with the elimination of the TV. I love my kids dearly, to the stars, with all my heart. They are not “ongoing health concerns,” but like you I read (books, stories, poems) very little these days.


LFC 03.01.15 at 7:41 pm

praisegod barebones @80
in my case the answer would be ‘via reading the battered blue Pelican of Richard Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’ which was sitting on my parents bookshelf at about the age of 17

There was a battered copy of it on my (non-English/non-British) parents’ bkshelf too (acquired when they were in London for a few yrs) but I didn’t look at it until much later. I dipped into it enough to get an idea of the bk and that was about it, I’m afraid. Hoggart in his later years worked for UNESCO, if I recall correctly, and wrote a book about that.


Bill Benzon 03.01.15 at 7:42 pm

@Dean: My father lost interest in reading after he’d retired. He had no idea why that happened, nor do I.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 7:53 pm

@Bill Benzon, #83: One of the best sentences I’ve read in a long time, “Crudely speaking, that led to deconstruction.” For a moment, you were a stand-up comic setting up a joke, riffing on the New Critics, and then WHAM!, knock ’em out with the punch line! Like a joke, there is a dense kernel of truth to it, especially after that ironically self-effacing qualification. I think feminists were putting pressure on the canon before the advent of “theory,” as well as parallel to it. Conversely, a lot of “deconstructive” criticism utterly embraced a canon–some critics hardly acknowledged any writing outside of the Romantics. But my take-away from the fair amount of highfalutin’ theoretical criticism I’ve read is that, yes, meanings easily proliferate and spin out of control, but few critics have the literary wherewithal to manage it.


Plume 03.01.15 at 7:57 pm


And to make matters worse, there’s . . . . Netflix!! One of the things that keeps me from watching live TV is commercials. I truly hate them. So, Netflix comes along, and I get caught up in “binge-watching” shows I probably never would have bothered with before. No commercials, and you can link them in your mind, episode to episode, follow the character arcs without the loss of a week’s time, etc. etc.

In most cases, I think I’ve wasted a lot of valuable time doing this, but in some cases, it was perhaps “worth it.” I discovered, for instance, Battlestar Galactica, and enjoyed most of the series — except for the finale. Because I had watched an episode or two of the original, and thought it was hopelessly cheesy, I never wanted to give the remake a chance. It was actually pretty good, and presented its own bit of actually existing feminism, mostly in the form of the Starbuck and Boomer.

All of this is quite the departure for a former book-snob, steeped (especially) in modernist literature, the avant-garde, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Woolf, Vallejo, Akhmatova, Michaux, etc. etc. Art and music snobbery as well.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 8:23 pm

@Plume, #88: I had no idea there was a remake of BG. I do recall the early series, but not being a huge Star Trek fan–a nod to the source of the OP’s inspiration–I didn’t devote time to it. Funny, I almost mentioned Woolf a few comments ago as a perfect example of literature that stirs my emotions.

@Bill Benzon, #86: My mother, now nearing 88, lost her appetite for reading following a mild stroke about a year after my father died. The stroke was the proximate cause, I’m sure, but the emotional hit of the loss of her husband coupled with the health lapse also contributes to her lack of interest. It’s a pity.


Bill Benzon 03.01.15 at 8:35 pm

Dean, Yes on all points. While deconstruction pitched itself as a revolution, it seems clear in retrospect that it’s more or less an inevitable consequence of the New Criticism (and other methods of “reading”). And, yes, feminism certainly had roots independent of deconstruction, and so did African American studies. But I do think that deconstruction broke the intellectual back of a fairly conservative academic critical establishment and provided philosophical entre for later developments.

I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s when the French landed in 1966 at the structuralism conference. That’d when Derrida made his debut on the American intellectual scene, with a paper that undermined Lévi-Strauss. In retrospect that conference is seen as a turning point; but at the time folks didn’t know what happened. It could take a decade for deconstruction to become a movement and then, a decade later, in the mid-1980s J. Hillis Miller would lament the eclipse of deconstruction in the academy.

At the time of that 1966 structuralism conference the Civil Rights Movement was in full cry (the KKK had burned a cross on the Hopkins campus in the Spring of 1966) and the women’s movement was just around the corner.

You might want to take a look at this 2009 interview w/ J. Hillis Miller, which ranges far and wide. Somewhere in there he expresses some reservations about cultural studies – thinks they’re a bit loose with the texts. What’s particularly interesting (to me) is his account of the emergence of interpretive criticism in the 1950s.


Liberal With Attitude 03.01.15 at 8:35 pm

@John Quiggan #39
I think that understanding, of art as a transcendent activity by an approved list of authors and media, is still alive and well.

In fact, from my perspective, the contemporary avant-garde suffers the most from it.
In the 19th century, the style dictator of the salon at least shared the same cultural milieu as the laborers who hung the paintings. they attended the same church, had the same worldview of truth and reality.

In the contemporary Venice Biennale however, the avant garde artists have almost no cultural connection to the working class, but instead their work is consumed almost entirely by the 1%. The cultural and aesthetic preferences of Jeff Koons are entirely different and alienated from the cultural and aesthetic preferences of the people who construct the exhibit.

Folk art, “outsider art”, is recognized by the art world, pretty much the way it recognizes art created by idiot savant who paints with a brush clenched between his teeth- a recognition of patronizing condescension.

YMMV, of course and there are notable exceptions. But there is a yawning chasm between the cultural worldview of high art and the common people.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 8:49 pm

@Bill Benzon, #90: Thank you for the JHM interview. I’d missed it. I am well aware of the legacy of the Hopkins conference, although I was too young to know or care about it at the time.

To my mind, the deconstruction “movement” never quite acquired a momentum. I know, you can point to articles in the NYT et al. spotlighting the critics’ scandalous escapades (pre-de Man affair, I mean), but there was always something a bit embarrassing about the notion that these scholars were sufficiently ideologically or methodically aligned to comprise a movement. There were Derridean emulators and poseurs, some fairly original thinkers and writers, a number of skeptics (among them on occasion Derrida himself), and perhaps one full-throated advocate: Hillis Miller himself.


Phil 03.01.15 at 8:56 pm

I think there are two sides to this. The idea that certain select individuals working in popular culture might also be Great Artists was in the wind a long time back. Dylan was a favourite; my sister (who did an English degree in the early 70s) told me about someone in her year who did a “pick your own poet” exercise on Dylan & came to regret it, as it ruined the music for him. By the time I did my English degree in the early 80s, there was a professor who would tell anyone who’d listen that Dylan should be ranked with Keats and Eliot; of course, we all thought this was hopelessly uncool, the critical equivalent of “Dad dancing”.

The idea that the stuff around you could be taken seriously and analysing as cultural productions in their own right was quite new, though. (Bear in mind that videos were only just becoming available at this stage – when I got my first job in 1983, the induction involved watching some training videos on a V2000 machine – so studying film, and TV in particular, was technically challenging.) It certainly wouldn’t have been a strange idea to me, as a child of post-punk: a lot of the music I listened to was undertaking its own bits of Ideologiekritik. The idea of actually studying culture – pop music, soaps and all – at university level would have struck 1980s me as a brave new world – it wasn’t that I didn’t think you could do it, more that I didn’t think you’d be allowed to do it.


bianca steele 03.01.15 at 9:20 pm


She may have said she was doing Middlemarch, for all I remember. Whatever it was, she made it sound very boring and dogmatic, a matter of counting up symbols out of a pre-prepared table and applying a theory to them.

Fruit as sex was fairly persuasive, it is true, in a painting by Bosch. I don’t think it has as much currency these days in English departments, as opposed to comparative literature, though I could be wrong.


Peter Larson 03.01.15 at 9:31 pm

The moment I realized that popular culture was something to be studied and appreciated was when I taught it a course on East Asian Cinema to a group of high school kids. What I had thought was simply going to be a high school composition course using a geeky exploration into movies that kids would like turned into a very interesting exploration into popular culture from a global perspective and what it means to the people who consume it and how it reflects greater issues of cultural heritage and history.


Bill Benzon 03.01.15 at 9:45 pm

@Dean: Of course, there is deconstruction and “deconstruction.” The term, like many (e.g. “recursive”, “algorithm”) has become somewhat reconstructed and devalued over time. For myself, I decided against deconstruction. I figured that structuralism led naturally to cognitive science, a decision that was professionally disastrous in the 1970s. Intellectually, that’s a more complex matter.

Your observation that Miller was the “one full-throated advocate” of deconstruction is interesting to me. I’d studied with him at Hopkins, but once I’d left I didn’t pay much attention to him, or to most literary criticism. I pitched my intellectual tent with cognitive science, a full decade or so before any other literary critic did so, and that cost me a career. But it seems to me that the moves made in the 1970s and 1980s have pretty much been played out and we face a new world without any clear idea of how to proceed.


Dean C. Rowan 03.01.15 at 10:23 pm

@Bill Benzon: The Hillis Miller interview is wonderful, and a fitting text for readers of this post and comments. Take his comments on p.33 about his political awakening and his fear of surveillance, which must have seemed paranoid in 2008.

I enjoy a lot of Hillis Miller’s works, not so much others. I often felt he seemed too willing to wave a flag for deconstruction in his interviews and essays, if only to attract attention. In this interview, however, I hear a lot of genuine and considered respect for it. After reading it, I also need to revise what I said up-thread about critics who were almost exclusively devoted to Romanticism. That’s too simplistic. As he points out, he was primarily a scholar of Victorian literature. His teachers included Romanticists. His contemporary, Hartman, wrote a lot about Wordsworth, Bloom started with Blake, but they have ranged far and wide.

In comedy, playing the market, and developing a career, timing is essential, I suppose. These days, it seems you can’t admire a poem without inviting a neuro-cognitive explanation. Similarly, digital methods in literary study are making headway. These are fascinating fields, and while I’m not equipped to follow cognitive science, I can dig in a bit with digital humanities. But I think neither approach will help us advance our appreciation of literature, by which I mean our ability to read literature fluently and creatively, as individuals, rather than as experts.


novakant 03.01.15 at 11:00 pm

Barthes and Eco


novakant 03.01.15 at 11:05 pm

sorry, reading those two was to me the turning point CR was asking about


engels 03.01.15 at 11:11 pm

Jake, I’ll grant that hiring a black woman as receptionist might have been progressive in the 60s, it was the Next Gen recruitment decisions that I thought were a bit iffy (and from memory these were billed in Guardian Guide circles as some triumph of progressive politics).


Lee A. Arnold 03.01.15 at 11:27 pm

I became aware of mass culture as a thing to analyze before the appearance of “culture studies”. I became obsessed with the unconsciousness of mass culture in the psychedelic 60’s, when the perception, that culture was fake (the term was “plastic”), coincided with the horror and lies of the Vietnam War. How did things get this far?

I remember hearing some antiwar protesters, who were a bit older than me, holding forth on the concept of (Marxist) alienation as if it were original sin, such that only a radical change could break you free of the deleterious thought-processes that kept you submerged in this confusion, and thus had led to this horror.

A lot of 1960’s counterculture rhetoric reflected this epistemological position, of course. It’s a small jump from there to the distancing needed to “read” mass culture, and maybe the ’60’s were a prompt to its emergence.

Indeed, by the time I made it to college in a few years, a precursor was offered when “experimental film studies” was given as an elective. I jumped; it was another way to break free, to see something new. Wow. Stan Lawder screened Bruce Connor and Kenneth Anger films, a lot of ’60’s experimental films, and brought in Brakhage and others to talk to us about film and what it reflects. Brakhage showed us “Window Water Baby Moving” and “Dog Star Man”. I began to really take stuff apart. I had no idea how lucky I was.


Dave Heasman 03.02.15 at 12:12 am

“By the time I did my English degree in the early 80s, there was a professor who would tell anyone who’d listen that Dylan should be ranked with Keats and Eliot”

I assume this was Christopher Ricks? Who I heard analyse “Boots of Spanish Leather” without any reference to English folk-song structure.


Mitchell Freedman 03.02.15 at 12:22 am

I guess Corey grew up at a time when American Jews were already assimilated…:) Most Jews I knew back in the day would have understood what Corey is talking about before and without going to college.

To date myself, I went to elementary school during the 1960s and, starting with Mad Magazine and the Twilight Zone, and listening to Allen Sherman, Tom Lehrer and the Smothers Brothers, knew there layers, often ironic and subversive, hidden within and outside popular culture. It allowed me to begin to explore more hidden people and learn about things like the Air Pirates comics and other “underground” comics, for example.

As for Corey’s friend, Art McGee, I don’t recall seeing too many poor minorities at the art/revival movie houses in the 1970s or meeting too many who even knew much about the Harlem Renaissance or Negro Leagues. That is a major failing in our education system, I know, but let’s not invert things and say white middle class people can’t figure out stuff because they are white and middle class.


William Berry 03.02.15 at 12:23 am

A little late in the thread, I know, but can’t help observing that that guy Manta’s wood is just as straight, or straighter, than Straightwood’s wood.*

And, yeah, the best proof that these would-be high-brows are phoney?:

Well, name one truly great artist, in any medium/ genre whatsoever who wasn’t a defender of demotic art or, at worst, silent on the subject. Or who, as earlier Shakespeare mention reminds us, wasn’t a practitioner of demotic art [themselves].

*Belle Waring, at least, will get this reference.


ZM 03.02.15 at 12:31 am

When I was around twelve my Mum for some unfathomable reason* noted that I had a (fairly slight) interest in films (we only had two television channels then and I only occasionally went to the cinema nearby) and decided to encourage this by buying me a book of Australian feminist film theory and history called Don’t Shoot Darling. This was quite dry and serious I thought (and I was too young) and I didn’t like cultural studies when I was an undergraduate either to be honest. if a text doesn’t fit in literature then why can’t it just go in history instead, why should there be a new discipline just for studying not very good texts?

* Likely a similar unfathomable reason inspired her when I was at that age and had to do a biography of a famous woman for the next day to give me A Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir , so I stayed up all night reading it and turning it into a 17 page summary for my teacher – never realising it was only the first part of a trilogy :/


Plume 03.02.15 at 12:46 am

I watched Agent Carter the other night. It’s a part of the Marvel Universe and is set in the 1940s just after the war. I can’t say with certainty that a detail from the show is an anachronism, as I was born in the next decade and do not know for sure. But the show depicted a black police officer on patrol, and I thought immediately that this couldn’t have been the case. New York in the late 1940s? They still had racial segregation on their police forces, right?

Studying racism via the prism of pop culture was a major part of the “cultural studies” landscape in most universities, at least from the 1990s on. I went to university in three separate decades (70s, 80s and 90s), and noticed a big shift in the latter.


Dean C. Rowan 03.02.15 at 12:59 am

@Plume: Evidently not an anachronism. On p.69 of Black Police in America, “In 1943 African-American police officers in New York City began efforts to organize the Guardian Association.”


Miriam 03.02.15 at 1:00 am

Thanks for the JHM interview, Bill. I was at UC Irvine in the late 80s when their brief for deconstruction was in full swing, complete with Derrida teaching there part-time (a rather tiny, handsome man who you’d see trotting about campus, puffing on his pipe). In retrospect, it’s interesting how few people in the English/Comp Lit department other than JHM were actually full-blown deconstructionists. (I suspect the tiny French & Italian department had more of them.) A number of the younger professors were strongly influenced by various strands of poststructuralism, but if anything, there was more Lacan about. The older faculty tended to do a mix of close reading/literary history/editing; one of them bragged to his undergrads that he would leave copies of the latest anti-poststructuralist manifesto in his trendier colleagues’ mailboxes.

The professor to whom I was closest, the late Al Wlecke, had been a student of JHM’s at Johns Hopkins, and he very much thought that deconstruction as practiced in English departments (as opposed to by philosophers) descended straight from New Criticism–specifically, New Criticism’s apolitical tendencies, which he felt directly responded to precisely the political surveillance JHM pointed out at Hopkins.


Bill Benzon 03.02.15 at 1:55 am

There are a number of things I like about the JHM interview, Dean and Miriam. The most basic thing is simply that he talks about a time when hermeneutics wasn’t the center of academic literary study. I think it’s useful to keep that in mind. It’s not somehow natural to the study of literature. Not only was it deliberately created, but that deliberation happened relatively recently.

I was pleased to see his remarks about Kenneth Burke. I’ve not read a great deal of his work, but I’ve read enough to have a great deal of respect for him. When I was at Hopkins I did a Masters thesis on “Kubla Khan” and read everything in the Hopkins library I could find on the poem. Burke’s essay was the best of the lot.

His most interesting remark about Derrida is that he valued him more for his ability to find (and explicate) patterns in texts than for his philosophical conceptualization. I’ve not read enough Derrida to have any serious thoughts about his work, but I think that observation is a telling one coming from a literary critic.

For all the ink that’s been spilled over just how one is supposed to explicate texts, I think that finding patterns worth explicating is perhaps the most important skill of a critic. Finding interesting patterns is tough. To be sure, one’s theoretical preferences play a role in the kinds of patterns you’re looking for. But simply being open to the text requires a certain looseness, a free-floating awareness, that’s damaged if you try too hard to find this or that kind of thing.


Dean C. Rowan 03.02.15 at 4:49 am

Bill, if I read you correctly, you’re saying that the turn away from hermeneutics was recent and deliberate. I think I agree. Bloom’s is a magisterial example. During the early period of works he wrote about authorial anxiety he was clearly concerned not with what a poem (or entire oeuvre) means, but how. As for patterns, I was intending much the same when I wrote above, “Certainly, ‘viewing as’ is part of what we do when we read, too. It is the aspect of making connections, of identifying patterns or tracing themes. It represents the essentially allegorical nature of literature and reading.”

I share your admiration for the portion of the interview describing Derrida’s literary critical achievements. He is now largely regarded as a “charlatan” philosopher, but his critics are shy about assessing his ability to read and, I would argue, write. Much of his writing is irritatingly coy and oblique. But some of it is insightful, well turned, lovely and maybe beautiful. In any event, there is no question to my mind that he adored reading. Likewise, de Man, who was the better writer of the two. When he set aside deconstruction in favor of a more intensive application of New Critical precepts, the attention to the text, and to the expression of ideas about the text, de Man performed some glorious feats. I love his take-down of Geuss, even though right proper philosophers know better.


Meredith 03.02.15 at 5:42 am

Things have gotten curiously confined here. As if we are rehearsing the old skills v. content debates. Or what v. how (anyone lived in a pretty how town) — why has long been off the table. Not that these are trivial debates. The thing is, everyone is right. The problem is, how to design a four-year curriculum (is that what we should be doing? maybe not, but I’ll go now as if it was) and larger “co-curricular” experience that, well, liberates people, as discrete individuals (whatever those might be) and collectives, that engages students in this mess in a promising way. (It’s all bound to be messy.) Meanwhile, we watch our children. It’s nice to have grandchildren (would be!).

I have no problem with “cultural studies” or with introducing new media and such into what we teach — not at all. I do it myself all the time. For me, the problem is economy: how to engage and challenge in just 32 or so courses, so that our students will go off on their own in some interesting, contributing, and for them fulfilling ways. (I meant that last as the emphatic term in an ascending tricolon. I want a return to self-enrichment, expansion, betterment as a goal! Yes, good citizens, responsible leaders — but how about “I got curious about x and enjoyed learning about it and had a good day” as a noble goal of education? We are not allowed to talk about that these days.)

And there’s another problem, maybe the problem: history. Whatever the hell that is. But it is nothing if not at least awareness of contingency, and of change and continuity. Of difference and sameness. Of all sorts of things that I find students sorely lacking in (hell, I can’t count the ways I am lacking in it, as I continually learn). Not their fault for having been born only 18 to 22 years ago! Our duty to fill them in, or better, to challenge them to fill in for themselves over the long-haul. “Cultural studies” too often isn’t about history, the past, but only the present. Not that it need be so presentist, but it tends to be.

I’ve been reading Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham, among other engrossing accounts of 19th century US. Maybe we need more “lecture courses” like those offered once at Cooper Union or the Maryland Institute or various Athenaeums.

The guys who clean my house (I confess! yes! I hire people to clean my house, these days at least). They have their own business, they have hs degrees and that’s it, and I have such interesting conversations with them (my husband warns me I distract them from their work) about their families, books, politics (well, this is New England). Anyway, when one of them ended a very complex sentence the other day in “thereof,” I felt hope for the world.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 03.02.15 at 1:18 pm

Good? Bad?

That has not a lot to do with the fact that is something extremely interesting to analyze, considering it is what MOST PEOPLE consume – and thus, what makes the worldview of more numbers.

If you want to feel elitist about it, feel free (I think it is stupid, but to each their own), but guess what, the views of the population that is voting for the issues you consider important is not reading those profound works of art or intense academical texts. If those have an impact in the culture, society and politics, is normally because they influenced the people that proceeded to make the mass pop culture products.


LFC 03.02.15 at 2:26 pm

Bill Benzon @35
Does JHM in his statements/recollections about the place of American lit. mention Matthiessen?


Lirael 03.02.15 at 3:04 pm


and in recent years, its Sci-Fi, Young Adult and Superhero forms seem to be pushing a right-wing, propertarian message of the total evil of government and a kind of Ayn Randian resistance.

What. You think these are Randian?

Apparently whether the Hunger Games is pro-capitalist, anti-capitalist, or neither, is a raging debate on the Internet. But if you look at the superhero movies – the first Iron Man calls Tony Stark to account for a life spent warmongering for riches, and the third appears to be on some level a critique of the drone program. Winter Soldier wasn’t an indictment of the government as a whole, it was an indictment of the national security state as proto-fascism, and the story of a progressive hero fighting it – hardly a right-wing message. The X-Men movies, meanwhile, have Days of Future Past, which comes down hard on private enterprise (Trask Industries) for its role in the persecution of mutants (and the X-Men movies have long been about explaining a minority’s experience sympathetically to the majority, and there are definitely critiques to be made of how they’ve done that, but it’s a progressive aim).

When did critique of or resistance against any portion of the government become Objectivism? These are by no means movies that perfectly align with my politics, or that always do a good job executing the points they think they’re making, but I find this claim bizarre.


bill benzon 03.02.15 at 3:33 pm

No. He simply notes that American Lit was irrelevant to a certain default conception of the study of English Lit that was in play at various places in the 50s and 60s (though obviously not universally). He also says, if not in that particular interview, then elsewhere, that his senior colleague at Hopkins, Earl Wasserman, explicitly said there was no such thing as American literature. There was, however, an Americanist on the English faculty at Hopkins at the time (Charles Anderson).


Adam Stephanides 03.02.15 at 3:39 pm

“To date myself, I went to elementary school during the 1960s and, starting with Mad Magazine and the Twilight Zone, and listening to Allen Sherman, Tom Lehrer and the Smothers Brothers, knew there layers, often ironic and subversive, hidden within and outside popular culture. It allowed me to begin to explore more hidden people and learn about things like the Air Pirates comics and other “underground” comics, for example.”

That was precisely my background (except for the Twilight Zone, which I didn’t watch much). I also read loads of science fiction, much of which was explicitly satirical.

From another angle, the late ’60s was probably the height of the “rock lyrics are poetry” trope: I recall studying rock lyrics in English in junior high. And there were several histories of rock published around that time which took for granted that rock was an art form.

For any or all of these reasons, I don’t recall ever thinking that popular culture was unworthy of study, or that there was anything incongruous about studying popular culture.


Adam Stephanides 03.02.15 at 3:51 pm

@Liberal with Attitude #91

There was a huge cultural divide between the working class and the bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Lab0rers would definitely not have attended the same church as the director of the salon; in some (perhaps most) places, most of them wouldn’t have gone to church at all.

Certainly many avant-garde artists today have mandarin attitudes, but I suspect that the guy who built a statue of a giant puppy made of flowers isn’t the best example.


Dean C. Rowan 03.02.15 at 4:42 pm

A shout-out to Richard Meltzer, whose early The Aesthetics of Rock arguably took aim at “rock lyrics are poetry,” but also at academic pretensions (his epigraph is the lyrics to “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen, his footnotes are ironic asides), all the while taking a good faith stab at “keeping the (pre-megabuck) rock-roll ‘faith.'” His Gulcher surpasses Aesthetics for sheer pleasure provision by subverting or perverting Barthes’ Mythologies conceit. (Not sure Meltzer consciously took Barthes for a model.)

I agree entirely with Meredith’s prescription for formal education: curiosity, time on your hands (for which you’ve paid a tuition), resources, and a modicum of a sense of achievement. Replace “learning” with “writing” in her hypothetical and you have Meltzer.


Bill Benzon 03.02.15 at 9:14 pm

@LFC: I’ve been thinking about Matthiessen. I assume you asked about him since he was an Americanist and he was at Harvard the while Miller was there (his last two years overlapped with Miller’s first two). Given that, why did Miller say what he did?

I don’t know. The Wikipedia entry for Mathiessen says that he chaired the “undergraduate program in history and literature” and I’ve not been able to scare up anything more precise about his appointment(s?) at Harvard. It is thus quite possible that he had nothing to do with graduate eduction in English Literature. As a comparison, the interviewer had asked Miller about I. A. Richards, who is associated with the New Criticism and who was at Harvard whem Miller was there. Miller responded that he was in the education school and thus that he didn’t exist as far as the English Department was concerned.

I’m guessing that the deal with Mathiessen would have been similar. The fact that he was associated with American studies seems to support Miller’s contention that English Literature was (conservatively) defined so as to exclude American literature. In effect, on the one hand there was English literature (meaning British literature) and then we hand American studies and, somewhat later, African-American studies, Women’s studies, and the rest, including cultural studies.

And we’re left with Miller’s observation that it was peculiar that the study of British, but not American, literature was deemed necessary for Americans. Along with that comes Miller’s observation that it took him thirty to years to note that peculiarity. It’s as though he couldn’t notice it until something called postcolonial studies gave him a way of thinking about that.


LFC 03.04.15 at 8:48 pm

@Bill Benzon
Well, you could be right. I don’t know enough about the history of English and Am. Studies etc at Harvard in that period or about Matthiessen’s appointments to say. (I don’t think the info would be that difficult to find for someone w time/inclination to find it.) What is probably true is that the place of American lit. in the English curriculum expanded over time. It may be worth noting that for a number of years the Harvard English dept’s official name was the ‘Department of English and American Literature and Language’ (emphasis added). In fairly recent years there was a name change and now it’s just the Dept. of English again.


LFC 03.04.15 at 8:52 pm

p.s. There’s also a separate graduate program in ‘History of Am. Civilization’.


Bill Benzon 03.04.15 at 10:10 pm

Well, LFC, the department offers its own potted history, which doesn’t seem consistent with Miller’s recollection for the time he was there:

I’m quite willing to believe that Miller’s recollection has been simplified to fit some convenient scheme, but then I’d assume the same is true of that potted history.


LFC 03.04.15 at 11:10 pm

@B. Benzon
Thanks for the link, anyway.


hix 03.04.15 at 11:24 pm

My brain definitly does not want to do that, with no kind of literature or movie. The dumb thing that always hits me on the head and puts me in a distant analytical mode are those positive depictions of torture. Other than that, im mostly in pure consumer mode which makes life much more enjoyable.


Harold 03.04.15 at 11:42 pm

“American studies” was invented in the 1950s as part of “area studies” sponsored by the Pentagon to counter leftist tendencies in liberal arts departments.


Harold 03.05.15 at 4:23 am

@102 Christopher Ricks did it because he said it was a great way to get girls.


LFC 03.05.15 at 4:24 pm

Harold @125
“American studies” was invented in the 1950s as part of “area studies” sponsored by the Pentagon to counter leftist tendencies in liberal arts departments.

Whoa. Not so fast. (Or are you joking? I hope so.)


bill benzon 03.05.15 at 8:11 pm

Norman Holmes Pearson is Yalie the who connects the CIA to American Studies:


LFC 03.05.15 at 10:57 pm

Interesting. I’d either never heard of him or, if I had, didn’t recall the name.


Harold 03.05.15 at 11:11 pm

@127 I think it is even mentioned by Gerald Graff in his book Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987). This is a good source for some of the discussion above, incidentally.


Harold 03.05.15 at 11:16 pm

The weaponization of culture starts at Yale. Prof. Norman Holmes Pearson …..

after an illustrious record during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services alongside CIA founding light William Donovan and CIA director Allen Dulles, Pearson returned to academe to take charge of Yale’s fledgling American Studies program.

How does covert propaganda or intelligence work link up with American Studies? Answer: Monomania and the Cold War. Consider a letter from Yale’s dean at this time to its president:

From such a study we will gain strength, both individually and as a nation … strength, which we need so badly in our time to face the changing, and in part, hostile world … This is an argument … for the establishment of a strong program of American Studies at Yale, which in many respects is our most native university … In the international scene it is clear that our government has not been too effective in blazoning to Europe and Asia, as a weapon in the “cold war” the merits of our way of thinking and living … Until we put more vigor and conviction into our own cause … it is not likely that we shall be able to convince the wavering peoples of the world that we have something infinitely better than Communism …

Yale’s American studies “would be ‘positive,’” as one academic has written, “not a matter of preaching against communism, but one of advocacy for the American alternative.” Where the CIA would get into the game — call it cultural propaganda or psychological warfare — it would avail itself of both “positive” and “negative” means, celebrating American cultural achievements on one hand while attacking Soviet ideas and policies on the other. So would the literary magazines created in this period, including the Paris Review.


Harold 03.05.15 at 11:28 pm

More stuff here:
“The Ideological Origins of American Studies at Yale”


Harold 03.05.15 at 11:44 pm

Sorry! My error. Entire @131 should be a blockquote from Salon – with blockquote within a blockquote for the portion of the letter.


Harold 03.05.15 at 11:48 pm

Someone I knew who was an administrator at a large university once said to me in conversation, “We knew we shouldn’t be taking money from the defense dept/CIA, but we justified it because we thought the government should be supporting university education in any case.”


bianca steele 03.06.15 at 12:15 am

The anthology “MFA vs. NYC” has at least two essays, I think, about CIA funding of creative writing departments, which are also available online.


Harold 03.06.15 at 2:33 am

See also wikipedia’s entry on Area Studies, which includes American Studies.


LFC 03.06.15 at 1:28 pm

I knew that ‘area studies’ post-WW2 were tied to the Cold War and received govt funding, but that’s not quite the same as Harold’s claim @125 that they were “sponsored by the Pentagon” to counter “leftist tendencies in liberal arts departments.” First, it was not only the Pentagon but various branches of govt plus private foundations; second, the ‘sponsors’ were I think less concerned w countering leftist tendencies in academia, though that doubtless figured in somewhere, than they were with encouraging the development of expertise that could be used practically in anti-Communist efforts esp. in the Third World (as it was then called). Thus e.g. the Center for International Studies at MIT received govt (incl, I think, CIA) funding, even though some or many of those associated w it, e.g. Walt Rostow, were modernization theorists rather than primarily area studies specialists.

There were also outfits perhaps less well remembered today, such as the Army’s Special Operations Research Office. See Joy Rohde, Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research During the Cold War (2013), which has been reviewed on the S-USIH blog (as well as in ‘Perspectives on Politics’ Sept. 2014).


LFC 03.06.15 at 1:31 pm

P.s. It’s also not entirely clear to me that the govt/CW connection to American Studies is everywhere as clear as in the Yale case, though that is obvs. an important case (and one I don’t really think I was aware of).


Harold 03.06.15 at 3:47 pm

@137-38 If you read Frances Stoner Saunders you will see that the CIA used foundations such as the Ford Foundation as fronts. This is not controversial. Also, the letter quoted said that they wanted to present America in a “positive” light. That meant no talk of America’s problems, such as the Dust Bowl or Segregation, Unions, or equality for minorities or women. That was commie talk and went out with the 1930s and 40s.. (Some of the other links are more explicit.) You can look up for yourself who sponsored Area Studies. Also see Gerald Graff’s book which I mentioned before, look that up too. And I’m sure there are others.


LFC 03.06.15 at 5:34 pm

On the main points I think we’re largely in agreement here (whatever differences there are being mostly ones of detail).


Harold 03.06.15 at 10:04 pm

Leslie Fiedler, who sometimes wrote about popular culture (or sub literature as Fenimore Cooper was once regarded as), famously identified the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg spy trials as the the moment when the “old and generous ideals” that had past generations had become “ridiculous.”

Those who wished to talk about world government, racial equality and religious tolerance, and a world government based on the eighteenth century (indeed Aristotelian) ideals of justice and reason, had to project these notions into the future — Star Trek — or the past — Robin Hood. Spock represented reason, and in fact, the real Leonard Nimoy was a McGovern supporter, i.e., a New Dealer.


Harold 03.06.15 at 10:05 pm

had inspired past generations

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