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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Party business

This cultural studies kerfuffle comes at an especially bad time for me, since (as I will now admit on this blog for the very first time) I was nominated this year to run for the post of Second Vice President of the Modern Language Association.  This is, in effect, a presidential election, since VP-2 in 2010 becomes VP-1 in 2011 and President of the MLA in 2012.

In July, a spokesperson for the White House indicated that there was a good chance Obama would not honor his secret promise to replace Joe Biden with me on the Democratic ticket in 2012 (yet another betrayal, and this time it’s personal), so I decided to accept the MLA nomination.  My opponents, it turns out, are Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton and David Damrosch of Harvard, each of whom hails from the profession’s A list of distinguished professors, whereas I’m just some guy from Penn State with a blog.  I am clearly a very, very long shot for the post, and for weeks my advisors have been telling me that my only chance at closing the gap is to spread the rumor that Appiah was born outside the US.

But that was before I published that essay on cultural studies.  Now, I hear, faculty and graduate students in the modern languages are gathering across the nation to demonstrate against my “death panels” for cultural studies programs.

This is a grievous misunderstanding, and I want to try to straighten it out right now.  I called for plenary panels on cultural studies, not death panels.  As I have long argued, the problem with cultural studies in this country is that people wait too long to see a cultural studies theorist, and only when their perplexity becomes acute do they show up at one of our understaffed and overworked Emergency Centers for Conjunctural Analysis.  There, they get the historicization and contextualization they need, but it’s mostly triage, and it’s very costly.  This state of affairs is intolerable—and, over the long term, unsustainable.

As MLA President, I would move quickly to form a number of committees to study the crisis.  Some of my colleagues have urged me to support a “public intellectual option” that would allow people to seek out introductions to Žižek and Butler at a fraction of the cost of private-university tuition; this is but one of many options on the table, and I pledge to honor the objections of MLA members who will not support such an option if it doesn’t have enough support from people who oppose the option, as well as members of my own party who will not vote for it on the grounds that it doesn’t have enough votes, even if their own yes votes would be more than sufficient for its passage.  There remains the possibility of forming cultural studies cooperatives, as was done to great effect in the Birmingham Centre itself.

I hope I have made myself clear.


And now, at long last (ten days later!), it’s Jamie’s birthday party!

Two pix first. The group:

And Jamie and Alek:

Unfortunately, we had to penalize them 15 pins for excessive celebration.  Showboaters.

Eight kids of various ages and abilities joined Jamie for the big event, which was great, because last year, when we threw him his first party since 2003 (we were afraid teenager birthday parties would be too infantilizing—eh, what did we know?), precisely two people came.  Apparently, a lot of invitations in the backpacks of members of his peer group never made it to the parents, which is kind of an occupational hazard with this peer group.  So this year, I showed up at school during Jamie’s lunch period and handed out invitations personally and talked to his teachers about how to get in touch with people who aren’t in his classes, etc.  Though some kids had conflicts with the date, we had a fine turnout and a fine time.  Which is both a joy and a relief.

So here’s a pan of the crowd–

– and the Moment of Cake:

No, I have no idea why Jamie did that with the Penn State shirt he’d received as a present. 18-year-olds are weird.  But he had fun, as did everyone else, and my advisors tell me that’s the important thing.  Thanks to everyone who sent Jamie congratulations and good wishes!

Posted by Michael on 09/30 at 03:37 PM
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Mad Men blogging with redirection

In comments to last week’s post, Amanda French writes:

I also think that almost anything Don does is ipso facto right; exactly what “his game” is must always remain mysterious, because he’s basically the Magic Advertising Man.

Amanda is taking issue with my claim that Don was “off his game” in that Waldorf meeting with Conrad Hilton.  Very well, my Internet friend:  what are we to make, in last night’s episode, of Don’s response to Peggy asking about the Hilton account?  What. A. Total. Asshole.  And even worse, unbeknownst to Don, the encounter not only brings Peggy to tears but leads her to consider Duck Phillips’ offer.  Poor Peggy.  Smacked down by Don, she winds up ... what is the phrase?  Having sexual relations with a duck.

Oh, right, I forgot—some of you came here looking for my response to the responses to my CHE essay on cultural studies.  It’s over here, at a blog that has (a) a more international and interdisciplinary readership and (b) a “more” button.

I have to take a nice long nap after writing all that, but I’ll be back later this week with some pics from Jamie’s 18th birthday party.  With gratitude to Gojira but especially to Oaktown Girl (comment 36 32), I can report that the gathering was indeed happy and well-attended.  And that Jamie bowled an only-slightly-bumper-assisted 134 in his second game.

Posted by Michael on 09/28 at 07:53 AM
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Things I did not know

The ideal reader of my essay on cultural studies has been found:

But finally it is the emotional demand made by the lament that trumps whatever content it may carry, and I come to understand this more fully when I try to imagine myself as Berube’s ideal reader; that is, when I think what of kind of response Berube’s ritual lamentation dreams of eliciting:

Daddy, you poor thing!  You’ve done so much for us, and we’ve never loved you enough!  You tried to deliver us, but we fell back into worshipping the golden calf!  But now we see the error of our ways!  We love you daddy!  And we promise promise promise to do a better job.

But meanwhile, can you please, PLEASE stop whimpering?

Wow!  That “psycho-analysis” is some powerful stuff.  I had no idea what my ritual lamentation’s dreams were!  I could never have come to this deeper understanding all by myself.

But you know, Professor Livingston, calling me a whimpering patriarch is kinda small-time.  You want to be ambitious about this kind of thing, you’ve gotta say that one of my essays is complicit with the slave trade and also “a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the ‘discovery’ of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence.” You want a smackdown, that’s a smackdown.

Anyway.  Here’s a more serious critique, from the students and faculty of UC Davis’s Ph.D. program in cultural studies.

As students and faculty in one of the only PhD-granting cultural studies programs in the nation, we are prompted to respond to Michael Bérubé’s recent opinion piece, “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” Located in the University of California system where we face dramatic program cutbacks, faculty and staff furloughs, a 40% tuition increase, and a general hiring freeze, and we know firsthand how the trend toward privatization systematically devalues scholarship that critiques profit rather than produces it and threatens the future of programs like ours.  The timing of an attack (couched as a lament) on something Bérubé calls “Cultural Studies” couldn’t be worse—our graduating PhD’s face not only hiring freezes but skepticism. A PhD in cultural studies: what can you do with that?

Actually, if you’re in one of the nation’s only Ph.D.-granting departments in cultural studies, then you’re really kind of making my point that “in most universities, cultural studies has no home at all, which means (among other things) that graduate students doing work in cultural studies have to hope they’ll be hired in some congenial department that has a cultural-studies component.” As for those dire financial conditions: more in a moment.  First, a couple of simple misunderstandings.

Bérubé described the effect of cultural studies in higher education in the United States as equivalent to the “carbon footprint of a unicorn.” We disagree.

No, this isn’t right. Here’s what I actually wrote: “The situation is even bleaker if you ask about cultural studies’ impact on psychology, economics, political science, or international relations, because you might as well be asking about the carbon footprint of unicorns.” So it’s great to hear from the unicorns, but (a) I’m sorry they missed this point and (b) I wish them all the luck in the world with making some inroads into departments of psychology, economics, political science, and international relations.  Because I wish cultural studies had some impact on those fields. Indeed, it might serve as a nice rebuttal of my point if UC-Davis’s program had even a single faculty member (in a group of more than 80) from psychology, economics, political science, or international relations.  But it doesn’t.

Bérubé seems to pit cultural studies as an insurgent field against a monolithic and totally institutionalized women’s studies.

I know not “seems.” What I said was: “I know you can’t measure the impact of cultural studies simply in institutional terms. It’s not a matter of whether there will ever be as many cultural-studies programs as there are women’s-studies programs.” That was all.

OK, then I said, “by the way, those monolithic and totally institutionalized women’s studies programs should meet in a playoff against cultural studies, winner take all.” But I was kidding.

The claim that cultural studies has not affected positively the disciplinary fields seems especially strange to us. Any caricature of a discipline or interdiscipline as a discretely bounded entity is ahistorical and almost nonsensical.

When I wrote, “I’m not saying that it has had no impact,” I meant, more or less, that it has had some impact.  And when I wrote that “you can now find cultural-studies scholars working in anthropology, in critical geography, even in kinesiology. In ‘museum studies’ and cultural ethnography, in the work of Mike Davis and Edward W. Soja on cities, and in analyses of West African soccer clubs or the career of Tiger Woods, cultural studies has cast a wide net,” I don’t think I was relying on any ahistorical and almost nonsensical caricature of a discipline or interdiscipline as a discretely bounded entity.  But if I had it to do over again, I would say Grant Farred’s analyses of West African soccer clubs and CL Cole’s work on Tiger Woods.  Credit where credit is due, you know.

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

My essay claims that “cultural studies now means everything and nothing.” I’ll leave it to my readers, ideal and real, to determine whether this claim has any merit.

OK, now back to those dire financial conditions.

The cultural studies we practice does not exist only in the world of ideas but in a world that has material constraints. If we are unicorns, perhaps we are invisible to the more privileged practitioners of cultural studies in some of its institutionalized variations. But we work with students and scholars across a large number of fields and in locations around the world. We are not invisible, but we are endangered; not by a “scathing, freewheeling, and woefully underinformed critique of the field,” whether it comes from McChesney or Bérubé. Rather, we face the undermining of the public education mandate not only in California but around the country, one aspect of which includes the devaluing and underfunding of the humanities and allied social sciences. Our interdisciplinary field gives us the tools to study, teach, and write about the current crisis. An indictment such as Bérubé’s ignores the larger institutional structures surrounding processes of knowledge production and directs attention away from the economic catastrophe currently threatening public education on a national scale.

I am indeed privileged—absurdly so. Every day, I say to Moloch, “mighty and powerful Moloch, I can’t believe I have this job.” But despite that, cultural studies has no institutional home at Penn State.  And when I wrote that neoliberalism

has dominated the political and economic landscape for 30 years, and its effects on higher education are palpable, baleful, and undeniable—the corporatization of administration and research, the withdrawal of state financing for public universities, the enrichment of the student-loan industry

I actually thought I was calling attention to larger institutional structures and the undermining of the public education mandate.  Pennsylvania’s not in California’s full-GNF mode just yet, but we do have hiring and salary freezes, and the level of state support for my institution is down to nine percent.  See “withdrawal of state financing for public universities,” above.

Anyway, it’s good to hear that UC Davis has a vibrant cultural studies program that draws on 24 different departments, and I wish it—and all its students—well.

Posted by Michael on 09/23 at 03:41 PM
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Might as well

say it here, now that I’ve left a comment or two like this in various corners and edges of the Intertubes:

I used to be a Democrat, but after I heard about this sickening scandal, I got really outraged by WPA murals.

For example.

Posted by Michael on 09/22 at 03:31 PM
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Monday, September 21, 2009

Mad Men blogging with foot notes

In comments last night, one arseidman writes:

Michael, I, like the rest of the world, am definitely going to need some disability-studies related analysis of the extremely dark yet undeniably hilarious turning point in the latest Mad Men episode.

Hilarious?  You think that’s funny, you must be some kind of weirdo sicko freak.  Now, Roger’s response ("Somewhere in this business, this has happened before”), and Joan’s perfectly delivered “that’s life—one minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running over your foot with a lawn mower”—that’s funny.  Unfortunately, that line left Joan and Don giggling helplessly (and have we ever seen Don laugh like that?  ever?) just as the Brits arrive, and Don and Joan exchange a long Meaningful Look that says “OMG did they just hear us laughing”—as well as many other things.

Well, Mr. Arseidman, the disability-studies-related analysis goes like this.  Open your copy of Erving Goffman’s Stigma (1963, ahem), folks, and begin checking off the various stigmatized identities whose marginal or despised social positions have provided Mad Men’s writers with material:

__ people of color
__ Jews
__ divorced women
__ unwed mothers
__ prostitutes
__ children of prostitutes
__ unmarried women over 30
__ bohemians
__ homosexuals

Is anything missing here?  Why, yes, curiously—people with disabilities.  Peggy’s post-partum depression/hospitalization has to be covered up, of course, and Don’s willingness to cover for her (and visit her in the hospital!) is very much a point in his favor.  But until now, that’s as close as this series has come to dealing with mental illness.  (For his part, Don manages to find some empathy for just about every kind of stigmatized person, being such an outsider himself: he feels sorry for the first black man hired at a rival agency, he has a serious thing for Rachel Mencken, he keeps Sal’s secret secret.)

So Janet wagered, a few weeks ago, that Betty’s baby would have a DES-induced disability.  It was a good wager, I thought, but nope, it didn’t happen.  (1963 is just a bit too late for thalidomide, if any of you were thinking that.) I was of two minds about this: on the one hand, it would be TV-groundbreaking and very interesting.  On the other, it would be très melodramatic, and to its credit, this series has largely steered clear of melodrama.

Instead, we got a whole nother kind of melodrama: Guy MacKendrick, a dashing young executive, losing a foot in a bizarre, blood-spraying office-party lawn-mowing accident.  Nothing runs like a Deere, indeed.  And his senior colleagues immediately pronounce his career to be over: though he’s been a prodigy up to this point, and was about to take over the Sterling Cooper office, suddenly he’s finished as an accounts man. Don, as ever, responds wisely*: “that’s not necessarily true,” he says, puzzled, whereupon the Brits have to explain to him that the guy can’t walk, he can’t play golf any more, his professional life is over. I believe Goffman covers this on pages 28-29, where he discusses the advertising executive who lost his foot in a bizarre gardening accident.**

It’s not about the disability, people.  It’s about the stigma.  The executives from Admiral don’t want it known that their product is purchased by Negroes; the executives from PPL don’t want to be represented by a man without a foot.  It’s similar, only different.

Now, I have a question of my own.  Why was Don so off his game in that meeting with Conrad Hilton?  (And hey, everybody was right—the old guy at the bar was Conrad Hilton!  There’s a life lesson there: those who so disgusted by old-school racism as to absent themselves from the blackface spectacle get to meet Connie Hilton.) First he almost refuses to give Hilton some much-needed advice on those terrible print ads,*** then he merely asks for the Hilton account and has to be told to aim higher, at which point he suggests he doesn’t want to be one of those snakes that go for months without eating and then suffocate themselves on a huge meal.  Ew!  This is just after he’s suggested to Hilton (rightly) that no one wants to think of mice in a hotel.  Who wants to think about snakes and ad execs?  And is Don really that hungry?  Sure, he’s disappointed that he’s not getting the London-NY gig that Bert Cooper fantasized for him, but he’s a pretty well-fed snake as such creatures go.  So I’m left to think that Don was uncharacteristically nervous and discombobulated at that meeting—and perhaps more than a little abashed that he spoke about his humble, back-country origins to a person so high on the Bourdieuian Cultural-Capital Scale as Conrad Hilton.  Thoughts?


* In the Goffman sense of “wise,” of course: “wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other....  Gentile employees in delicatessens are often wise, as are straight bartenders in homosexual bars, and the maids of Mayfair prostitutes” (28-29).  And maybe advertising executives in bohemian performance-art cafes.

** I made this part up.  For what’s really on pages 28-29, see the preceding note, right up there above this one.

*** I’m sorry, but saying “I think you wouldn’t be in the presidential suite right now if you worked for free” to Conrad Hilton borders on the downright rude.  Why not something like, “I’ll need to look them over a moment—why don’t we set up a meeting early next week, and in the meantime I’ll see if I can’t improve on these?” That way you can find out if Connie is willing to consider giving you the account without abjectly saying “I’d love a chance at your business” a few moments later.  As for the mice:  it’s not merely that the mice in those ads raise the hygenic question Don mentions in his grudgingly-offered one-sentence critique.  It’s also that it makes no damn sense to pitch the Waldorf Astoria to people by inviting them to imagine themselves as a country mouse in overalls.

Oh, almost forgot: in calling Mr. Arseidman a “weirdo sicko freak,” I did not intend to stigmatize him in any way, except to suggest that he is not fit for decent society.

Posted by Michael on 09/21 at 11:12 AM
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Friday, September 18, 2009

ABF Friday:  Prediction time!

Тханкс то Кенян-Индонесиан оперативе Барацк Хуссеин ал-Обама, ве вилл алл бе блоггинг ин Руссиан оне еар фром нов.

Posted by Michael on 09/18 at 09:50 AM
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