Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whither Cultural Studies?

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.


Michael Bérubé said...

Thanks for a truly gracious and evenhanded response. About the US-UK thing: OK, true enough, but I assumed that the Cultural Studies Association of America's plenary session on "the university after cultural studies" (for which I wrote my piece) was about the American university. Still, I could have said as much, and written a brief explanation for the CHE of why I wasn't dealing with the many other cultural studieses around the globe.

I meant to reply to your first post, which brought up (and was bracingly smart about) precisely the problem I've been thinking about lately: how to apply to the teabaggers Hall's insistence that we try to understand what's "true" about an ideology before going after what's false. You wrote:

sometimes it feels as if we on the left are spending most of our time complaining about how crazy and radical the right is. It is not that I don't agree that the right is crazy, and also wrong. They are both. Especially the wrong part.... I think we are spending too much time convincing ourselves that the opposition is crazy, and not enough time either promoting our own agenda, or, in a true Cultural Studies fashion, considering what might be "right" about the opposition, and working within and against it.

Amen to that, and Moloch knows I normally don't spend a fraction of a second on my blog actually trying to understand the people who want to keep government out of their Medicare and who insist that we found Obama's birth certificate among the WMD in Iraq, hidden behind some death panels. So I'm as guilty as anyone here, and more guilty than many. But then, I hope no one thinks the idea of cultural studies is to appeal to those people; rather, the project is to understand them, and the various articulations and conjunctures that have brought us to this pass.

As for the disconnection between cultural studies academics and progressives in the public sphere: Amen again. In comments 7-8 to my reply to the UC Davis letter, I cite a few examples of the gleeful reception of Tom Frank's critique of cultural studies in nonacademic liberal-leftish circles. I still believe that critique did us all kinds of damage in the public sphere.

6.54 said...

Part of the reason cultural studies plays little role in politics (despite the overlap) is simply time and intellectual infrastructure: politicians, particularly congresspeople, do not have the ability to do very much research in their jobs. This not only means that progressive ideas that would be great for the democratic party get discarded due to a lack of development, it means that more conservative congresspeople are only rarely well-informed enough about left-leaning policy to understand it. Certainly, cultural studies would play a big role in any strong shift in political understanding – but its absence from politics is part of a larger problem. I am assured [by Helen] that there are good people working to create the necessary think-tanks and databases, but I don't think they're off the ground yet.

On a separate note, my girlfriend is currently studying chicano literature in Mexico City in a comp lit department, which has lead to all sorts of questioning about the division between comp lit and cultural studies. Not to mention crazy US/Mexican cultural relations. I'll forward this post and see what she has to say.

Abbie said...

just wanted to say hi phil. such a small world.

also wanted to mention that the critiques/discussions of neoliberalism taking place with in the circles of cultural studies i frequent are actually more informed by foucualtian (biopower, etc) and deleuzian (society of control) frameworks than a straight forward marxist base/superstructure model. this may at least partially explain the Davis groups lack of engagement with that aspect of Berube's piece.

also what is this "Sex Toys Not War Games"group? sounds like fun, maybe.


PMG said...

Michael--thanks for the kind comments. And also for singlehandedly quadrupling the traffic to my blog.

Nick--you're very right, and I definitely don't blame congresspeople and their staff (much) for not keeping up with the latest in cultural studies. One of the good things to come out of the Bush era are projects like Helen's that, as I understand it, try to provide the support system for intellectuals on the left to make more direct interventions, a system the right has long had.

I'm more concerned about what we in academia can do on our end. I almost just typed out a thousand word personal answer to that question, but I think I will save it for a real post!

Abbie--hello! were you not part of the big QA group that went down to DC? It was like senior year or so; we stayed at Nora's house. But anyways, I think you are very right that fundamental to this disagreement is a surprisingly wide gap over definitions.

My home discipline, of course, still finds the existence of feminist criticism controversial, so you can see why it all seems a little hair-splitting to me!