I blogged last week about Michael Bérubé's essay, "What's the Matter with Cultural Studies?" Now, I direct your attention to a more considered response from assembled members of the Cultural Studies program at UC Davis, posted at Bully Bloggers. As a matter of trivia, one of the authors of the response is an old college classmate of mine (hi abbie!), and in fact part of the "Sex Toys Not War Games" group I mentioned in my earlier post. Small world!
At the risk of appearing feckless, I think I actually agree with both arguments. Or rather, I should start by saying that I disagree with something both do, which is set themselves up in opposition to each other, making constructive discussion difficult. We're all on the same side, guys! The academic left in this country is a big and diverse world, and it's great to hash things out, but I think the Davis folks react rather harshly, and don't give Bérubé the benefit of a generous reading--which I think he deserves. That said, Bérubé himself does write in a somewhat snide tone that does little to encourage dialogue either.
But as to their arguments, each has some very important points. The Davis people are right that Bérubé's conception of Cultural Studies is limited. Yes, the British tradition of Cultural Studies has limited impact in this country, but we shouldn't be surprised that different theories and methodologies might be useful over here. Cultural Studies hasn't maybe had such a huge impact in sociology and political science disciplines here, but it pops up in lots of places where Bérubé might not be looking--performance studies, for example, and in the legion of interstitial academic centers and programs that might be called Women's Studies or American Studies or Ethnic Studies, but all owe a tremendous debt to Raymond Williams and company, and do tremendously important work. And the Davis people are totally right to call Bérubé on only speaking to a U.S.-U.K. conception of the discipline.
On the other hand, I think the Davis people fall into the very trap Bérubé rightly criticizes: their ultimate argument is that neoliberalism, and its attendant privatization of the university and delegitimation of the humanities is the real enemy of Cultural Studies. It's not that this isn't true, and not just for the various incarnations of Cultural Studies. It certainly is. But Bérubé is spot on, for me, when he points out that ascribing everything to base and superstructure leaves you powerless to change anything if you can't change everything.
The Davis letter doesn't address one of Bérubé's points that I found to be the most important, so let me highlight it again: whatever impact Cultural Studies has had on the academy and on a range of political movements, it has most definitely not had an impact on the the left's only ally in this country's electoral system: the Democratic Party. Electoral and legislative politics are not the only kinds of politics that matter, but neither are they irrelevant. From ENDA to the gay marriage "debate", or immigration "reform", or the new colonialism in the middle east, the Democratic Party is intellectually at sea. Would that Cultural Studies could somehow step into that gap.
One final point: I just want to point out that musicologists never talk about these issues. Am I wrong? Why not?
Edited to Add: I wrote this without realizing there was another response to Bérubé on Bully Bloggers. I don't find it particularly useful, but there is a very interesting discussion in the comments. And also, see Michael's response to the Davis people on his own blog.
8 hours ago