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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The next level

It’s time to take this blog to the next Next Level! Again!

Back when I was a young sprig of 45, I wrote a post about Jamie’s adventures with swimming, with special emphasis on how, after his Terrible Experience in 1998 (the nature of which we still have not learned), he and I set about rebuilding his confidence in the water.  And I tried to describe his swimming style, developed in the course of his aquatic autodidacticism:

he’s developed an idiosyncratic swimming stroke that serves him well.  His arms rarely break the plane of the water; instead, he thrusts them under his chest while frog-kicking.  It’s like watching a human try to imitate a sea lion, as I’ve told him many times.  (His response is usually to rotate and flip in the water like a sea lion.  He’s good at it.) He can move surprisingly fast this way, however ungainly it looks.

Well, this year he finally got some instruction on How to Swim—from his coaches in the local Special Olympics program.  And that requires some explanation, too.

Of course, I’ve told of Jamie’s Special Olympics exploits before—his pair of aces at a volleyball tournament at Villanova, and of course his annual performances in the local State College games every April.  But the volleyball team doesn’t exist anymore.  On Sunday mornings Jamie plays basketball, but last year, he didn’t even want to show up for the statewide games in June (much to the surprise and dismay of his teammates and coaches).  So last fall, we had a talk.  Janet and I looked over the available Special Olympics sports, and we suggested to Jamie that he might consider joining the swimming and golf teams, since he seems to love those things and does well at them.  The problem was that swimming began in January and golf in late April, and I worried that we’d forget to make contact with the relevant coaches when the time came.  I also wasn’t sure if Jamie’s swimming skills were good enough for actual competition, but I decided not to worry about that right away.

Sure enough, in January, when I looked for the contact sheet in the Special Olympics newsletter, it had mysteriously disappeared.  Those of you familiar with the language of coupledom will know that “it mysteriously disappeared” really means “it used to be right here in the wicker basket but I think you threw it out not knowing what it was,” but never mind that.  (I lose quite enough stuff on my own, anyway.  And Janet keeps track of Jamie’s horse-riding appointments, because I can’t take him to those, being insanely allergic to horses.) The point is that Jamie and I missed the first practice at the Penn State natatorium (I thought it was Sundays at 5, but it was Sundays at 6), but that we’ve since managed to make all the other practices—even on April 19, when Jamie and I had to leave the State College High School hockey team’s end-of-year banquet ridiculously early in order to go to the final practice before the big Sectional meet last Sunday.

It turns out that Jamie is a pretty good swimmer by local standards—but the coaches weren’t having any of his idiosyncratic swimming style.  So finally, finally people who know what they’re doing gave Jamie some swimming instruction.  (I can swim, sure, but I swim ugly.) Indeed, they even taught him a proper backstroke, and back on the 19th I was amazed to see that they had him attempting a 25m butterfly as well. 

OK, one more thing before we get to the Next Level on this blog.  Last summer, while Janet was teaching in Ireland, I decided to do Everything In The World around the house.  Jamie and Nick were both with me, and even helped out sometimes.  We cleaned everything and went through everything and put away old pictures and videos and took tons of clothes and playthings to Goodwill and one of us even cleaned the garage and one of us even went through all the old family videotapes and 80s-bands audiotapes and took them to the Digital Conversion Place to have them all converted to DVDs and CDs.  And that’s how we learned that we used our first video camera from 1992 to 1995, our second from 1998 to 2003, and our analog camera until 2004.  After that, it’s all digital photos, some of which have turned up on this very blog.  But we have had no “moving” “pictures” of any kind since Nick graduated from high school, because we never bought a digital “moving” “pictures” device.  Jamie, who’s very invested in what he was like year by year, was mystified that there is no film of him during the years 1996-97 and 2004-, and had a very hard time believing that we simply didn’t take any.  Oh, and one more thing about those films.  When we played back all that stuff, Nick marveled at how much Jamie has grown since we moved to Pennsylvania: “he was a waif,” Nick said upon seeing the wispy 10-year-old, 4-foot-6, 65-pound Jamie on screen contrasted with the 16-1/2-year-old, 5-foot-6, 155-pound mesomorph by his side.  I agreed, but I pointed out that Jamie’s former waifitude is also apparent in the still-photo record.  What really amazed me was the audio part of the video—the squeaky little voices my kids used to have.  It was like hearing Nick and Jamie on helium.

I figured now was as good a time as any for buying a digital “moving” “pictures” device, and so, in preparation for Jamie’s first-ever swim meet, I got one of those Sony things that’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes (oh, all right, a pack of big cigarettes) and spent last Saturday night reading the operating guide.

So here’s what happened this past Sunday, at the Special Olympics Sectionals for central Pennsylvania, held at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA.  In his first heat, Jamie won the 25m freestyle; his qualifying time was 38 point something seconds, and his time in the race was 34 point something.  The first time his coaches timed him, back in February or March, Jamie’s time was 45 seconds.  Now, I understand that these are not world-class performances, and I gather from my last discussion of Special Olympics (and from the CT comment thread) that there are some people out there who think the whole enterprise is necessarily condescending insofar as it involves spectators applauding athletes for not-world-class performances.  (And check out the late-to-the-party comment-thread contributions of one “Augustine” in that first link!  As one of this blog’s regulars once said about such people: hey, 1993 called—it wants its shtick back.) But I have two things to say about this.  One, swimming is really really good for Jamie’s cardiovascular system, and he wouldn’t be swimming as-hard-as-he-possibly-can for any meters if not for Special Olympics.  Two, Jamie understands very well that this is a competition, and that he’s competing not only against other people but against his own previous personal bests.  And three, people who think that the applause at Special Olympics is condescending should go yell at clouds.  Oops, that’s three things.

OK, so here’s the thrilling 50m race.  Keep in mind that until this year, Jamie had never swum 50 consecutive m.

As I call the race, I seem to oscillate between the role of announcer and the role of partisan Jamie fan.  Perhaps it is time for a blogger/camcorder ethics panel.

And how did Jamie do?  A personal best!

Now for the 25m backstroke.  Minutes before the race, I learned that the Special Olympics officials had decided to combine two heats, pitting Jamie against a pair of swimmers with qualifying times 13 and 15 seconds faster than his.  So I decided to offer some between-races commentary, holding the camcorder at arm’s length and hoping to keep myself in the picture frame:

Until this year, Jamie’s “backstroke” consisted of him floating on his back and waving his arms as if he were making a snow angel.  So his form here is a substantial improvement on that—and his push at the 15m mark surprises even me: 

I wasn’t sure if he had won the gold.  A few weeks ago, the coaches were working with the swimmers to make sure they didn’t turn around and abandon the backstroke before finishing the race; Jamie, being new to the real backstroke, kept worrying that he was going to hit the edge of the pool with his head, and had to be convinced that if he simply kept his arms churning properly, his hand would reach the edge of the pool well before his head did.  So that’s why I urged Jamie to keep swimming “straight straight straight” toward the end: I saw him looking for the edge of the pool over his shoulder and was hoping he wouldn’t disqualify himself.

Well, he didn’t!  And so he collected his third gold medal in as many races:

We thought that was the end of his day (hence my “so long” signoff, and Jamie’s “for Channel 14 dot com"), and we had good reason to think that, because the meet schedule had him down for three races: 25m free, 50m free, 25m back.  Only when Jamie had gone to the locker room and changed completely into his street clothes did one of the coaches appear to inform us that Jamie was also scheduled to be the first leg of the 100m relay.  OMG!  A fourth race!  Jamie was pretty tired by this point, and at first he hung his head and refused to change back into his swimsuit.  The coach urged him to come on back out, adding that the entire team would be disqualified if Jamie didn’t swim.  I dutifully noted that there is no I in team, and no J either, but there is an A and an M and an E.  I don’t think that argument carried the day.  All I know is that after only a minute or two of hesitation and attitude-adjusting, Jamie got back into his swimsuit and put on his game face and got himself psyched for yet another heat.

And guess what?  The dang relay team almost broke the two-minute mark, and wound up on that top step of the platform:

Four events, four gold medals.  One new digital camcorder. One moment in time.  And one very happy Special Olympian.

Posted by Michael on 04/30 at 08:30 AM
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Department and punish

A longer followup to yesterday’s post (you knew that was coming, right?).  In comments, FrogProf directed me to this discussion of Mark Taylor’s essay, which takes apart Taylor’s proposal for replacing departments with temporary topic-clusters with seven-year sunset clauses:

I’m at a loss to explain where all these interdisciplinary experts will get their disciplinary expertise. Yes, a significant part of grad school involves exploring new questions. But another significant part—the part he skips—involves getting grounding in the history of a given line of inquiry. Call it a canon or a discipline or a tradition, but it’s part of the toolkit scholars bring to bear on new questions. Abandoning the toolkit in favor of, well, ad hoc autodidacticism doesn’t really solve the problem. If anything, it makes existing grads even less employable than they already are. I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know? (And even if I think I do, can I convince an accrediting agency?) Am I taking the chance? In this market? Uh, that would be ‘no.’

I agree that Taylor’s proposal is unworkable, but I have a tangential-but-related point.  Challenging the departmental structure of universities (whatever you might think of that project) isn’t the same thing as doing away with disciplines.  People elide the two all the time, and it makes me fidget and squirm in my seat and exhale loudly—not least because lots of people in the humanities are responsible for the confusion. Especially those of us in cultural studies.  For a couple of decades now, we’ve prided ourselves on being not merely interdisciplinary but “post”-disciplinary and “anti”-disciplinary.  “Disciplinarity” basically became a dirty word, associated with stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy and, oh yes, punishment (for this I blame Foucault, of course), so that being post- or anti- it seemed like a Good Thing at the time.

But at some point in the late 1990s, while I was just minding my business directing a humanities program (and hey!  check it out! their theme for the 2008-09 year is “disciplinarity”!), it finally occurred to me—well, actually, it occurred to me during a lecture by anthropologist Richard Handler—that 96 or 97 times out of 100, when people complain about “disciplines” they’re actually complaining about departments.  Think of it this way: wherever you see the term “discipline,” substitute “intellectual tradition,” as Dean Dad does in the excerpt above.  Now, what’s coercive or stultifying about an intellectual tradition?  Not much, really.  You want to learn about sociology following Durkheim or Simmel?  Go right ahead.  You want to immerse yourself in the history of object relations theory or ego psychology?  Be my guest.  Disciplines are pretty fluid that way.  For example: let’s say that one of the great literary critics of our era, perhaps one of the founders of queer theory (PBUH), decides one day to engage with the work of Sylvan Tomkins.  Who’s gonna stop her?  You?  The discipline?  I don’t think so.  Or let’s say that a bunch of sociologists, psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, queer theorists, and disability-studies types decide over the course of a couple of decades that Erving Goffman’s work could be really important to them.  Does any discipline have an exclusive claim on Goffman?  Are there intellectual-property statutes involved?  No and no.

Now, I’m not saying that disciplines are infinitely flexible, or that they’re simply a matter of reading this or practicing that; they do indeed have institutional incarnations, and it’s possible for the International Association of Stodgy Stultifiers to bar people from the annual conference program on the grounds that they are no longer “doing” Stodgy Stultifying the way the Association thinks it should be done.  (Not to single anybody out, of course, but surely you remember the days when people would say, “Richard Rorty, PBUH, doesn’t really do philosophy.”) I am, however, saying that (a) disciplines and departments aren’t the same thing, and (b) the former are far more flexible and capacious than the latter.  As for (a): the Department of Anthropology does not consist of one discipline; nor do the Departments of Sociology or History.  The discipline of literary criticism, loose and baggy as it is, is practiced in more than one department: not only in English but in all the modern languages and Comp Lit too.  And English, for its part, houses literary critics and creative writers and rhetoric and composition and sometimes even film scholars (though this “film” fad will surely pass—it’s not really an art form, after all).  As for (b):  becoming interdisciplinary involves training in more than one intellectual tradition; becoming interdepartmental means dealing with a lot of stodgy, stultifying bureaucracy (like figuring out who’s supposed to conduct your pre-tenure reviews and whether a 50 percent appointment translates into 50 percent voting rights).

So the next time someone complains about the constraints imposed by disciplines, ask yourself (or them!) whether they’re not really complaining about the constraints of departments.  And the next time someone claims to be post-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary, ask yourself (but probably not them!) what it would sound like to be “post-intellectual traditions” or “anti-intellectual traditions.” And then pick up a copy of this illuminating collection of essays, which I blurbed enthusiastically some years ago (as Amazon duly notes) for what will now be obvious reasons.

x-posted for xtra feedback.

Posted by Michael on 04/28 at 02:27 PM
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Monday, April 27, 2009

For people who think I don’t know how to do short posts

This essay on American higher education is quite stupefyingly bad.  To find out why, read this response.  That is all.

Update:  And this is pretty good.  OK, now that is all.

Posted by Michael on 04/27 at 01:18 PM
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Friday, April 24, 2009

Neither Arbitrary Nor Fun Friday:  Truth and Consequences Edition!

Greetings Chávezian Airspacepeople!  Now that Presidente Chávez has rounded up the teabaggers and assorted dead-enders in state-of-the-art Radical FEMA Pedagogy Camps, it’s time to talk about taking the next step.  Yes, that’s right, we’re going to complete the Third-World Latin-Americanization of the nation by forming a Truth Commission to investigate the use of torture by the former U.S.!

Now, I know there have been some conflicting views held by some of you regarding the need for complete security in this matter.  So today we’re going to interrupt the random series known as “Arbitrary But Fun Friday,” and replace it with “Neither Arbitrary Nor Fun Friday.” It seems to me that there are pluses and minuses associated with this “Truth Commission,” and perhaps we can sort them out here.

Plus: The Truth Commission would restore the rule of law and put a decisive end to the era of systematic torture in the Cheney Archipelago of secret detention sites.

Minus: The Truth Commission would not be bipartisan, and thus would make David Broder cry.

Plus: The Truth Commission would bring U.S. war criminals to justice, and strengthen not only national but international legal standards for conduct during wartime.  It will thereby set an indispensable precedent for the treatment of future Yoos and Bybees and Kissingers.

Minus: The Truth Commission would reveal that even though Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded six times a day during March 2003, the U.S. never obtained any evidence for the crackpot Cheney-Mylroie theory that Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11.  This would make Michael Hayden mad, and it might make Dick Cheney shoot someone in the face.

Plus: The Truth Commission would have profound ripple effects for torture apologists, ranging from Alan “Ticking Time Bomb” Dershowitz to Joe “I Was For Torture A Few Days Before I Was Against It” Lieberman to Duncan “Guantánamo Serves Up Some Fine Lemon Chicken” Hunter, discrediting them irreparably and effectively barring them from public life and public discourse.

Minus: The Truth Commission would cause every the head of every single wingnut in the United States of Chávez to explode.  Some would go so far as to offer to be waterboarded for charity.

Hmmm, comrades, this is tougher than I thought it would be when I first sat down to write this post.  On reflection, I’m not really seeing any minuses at all.  Your thoughts?

Posted by Michael on 04/24 at 12:21 PM
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Venezuela Annexes U.S., Opens Training and Education Camps

Caracas-on-Potomac, DC—Moving to consolidate his recent takeover of the government of the United States, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announced today that the country would be renamed the “United States of Chávez” and that select groups of Chávezian citizens would be invited to participate in “training programs” designed to make them happier and more productive members of the new society.

“Although the transfer of power from your Barack Obama to myself was peaceful, I am aware that there remain pockets of resistance throughout the countryside,” Chávez said through a translator.  “I am therefore declaring a state of emergency, which I believe will be handled effectively by your Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Anyone who has questions about the new regime or about my emergency tax initiative should register with the agency by boarding the nearest FEMA bus in their neighborhood, powered by Citgo, and signing up for my exciting new training program.”

Chávez did not elaborate on the details of the program, but recently-installed Minister for Peace Ernesto “Che” Guevara suggested in a separate interview that every effort would be made to educate and inform the people.  “We have noticed lately that many of your ‘tea-bag’ protestors do not understand the tax code,” Guevara said while posing for a T-shirt portrait.  “For example, they believed that your Obama’s tax cut was in fact a tax increase.  Many of them were unable to explain the difference between income tax and excise tax.  We therefore want to make sure that they fully grasp the ramifications of the new 100 percent tax rate, and that they understand why we have dissolved your so-called ‘stock market.’ Our new slogan, ‘no capital gain, no capital pain,’ should be visible on banners in public locations by the end of the month, beginning with the First National Bank of Chávez.”

Many Caracas-on-Potomac observers were stunned by the speed at which the new Chávez government was moving, noting that his “bloodless coup” had occurred only a few days ago.  “It began with a simple handshake,” said Jake Tapper, formerly of ABC News, now a reporter with the nation’s only newspaper, El Diario La Prensa (USC).  “Before we knew what was happening, Obama was reading Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.  From there, we understand, it was only a short step to Noam Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues, thence to Hegemony or Survival and Failed States.  Apparently, it was when Obama realized that he was leading not only a leading terrorist state but actually a failed state that he agreed to turn the reins over to Chávez.”

In a related development, Department of Homeland Security officials discovered a videotape left by former television commentator Glenn Beck, who was recently detained and held for education.  Though the tape consisted mostly of screams of “I told you so”and “you thought I was crazy, didn’t you, didn’t you,” DHS director Daniel Ortega said that he believed Beck could be “useful” in the future “if his considerable talents could be turned to good purpose.” “The new DHS report on terrorism should be ready within six to eight weeks,” Ortega said in a rambling 50-minute address, “and we hope that when he is fully educated and released, Señor Beck will do his best to help us keep track of homeland terror groups and promote domestic tranquility.”

Red State Strike Force leader Erick Erickson, blogging from a location as yet undetected by the Chávez Bureau of Investigation, urged resistance to the new regime.  “Patriots!  Wolverines!  We finally have a cause worthy of our name,” Erickson wrote. “And just like the Spartans in 300, we will never give up, never surrender.  And to everyone who mocked us for sounding the alarm about Hussein al-Obama, for soiling our armor about that handshake—and also for soiling our armor about that Spanish book, and also about people who speak Spanish, like that Jose Padilla—we were right!!!  Let this tragic episode be a lesson to all you appeaseniks and nanny-state liberals: it begins with dish detergent.  It leads to the gulag.  But it stops with the invincible bloggers of the Strike Force.”

Posted by Michael on 04/22 at 08:29 AM
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Monday, April 20, 2009

The university after what, now?

OK, fine, if that’s the way you want it, I’ll post my remarks from the first plenary session of the Cultural Studies Association conference last week.  After all, this blog can’t be BBQ-and-bebop-and-Narciso-Yepes all the time.  It can’t even be BBQ and bebop and Narciso Yepes and Philip Pullman!  True fact:  while I was in Kansas City someone told me that there’s a children’s literature discussion list out there somewhere on which a handful of people are really pissed that I wrote a post about Pullman et al. even though I’m not a specialist in children’s literature.  Sigh.  Don’t those people have any clouds to yell at?  I mean, it’s not as if this blog is a refereed journal of some kind.  (Did you know that I have a phenomenal acceptance rate for my submissions to this blog?  It doesn’t reject anything!) And it’s not as if anything I say about His Dark Materials, in my uncredentialed status as Guy Who Reads To His Kid At Night, prevents anyone anywhere else in the world from writing about His Dark Materials.  As far as I know.  Anyway, so here’s a post about something I actually do “specialize” in.  The title of the session, again, was “the university after cultural studies.” Hence my opening sentence.  The rest of my remarks assume that everybody in the ballroom, at a cultural studies conference, can speak to the impact of cultural studies on their own research and/or teaching and/or program and/or department, so that somebody has to get up and say that whole entire huge sectors of the university are not “after” cultural studies at all: they didn’t have any cultural studies to begin with, so they’re not “after” cultural studies in a temporal sense, and they’re not interested in doing any now, so they’re not “after” cultural studies in that sense either.  So, without further ado:

One useful way to ask about the university after cultural studies is to ask what impact cultural studies has had on the American university as an institution over the past twenty or twenty-five years.  Has cultural studies transformed the disciplines of the human sciences?  Has cultural studies changed the means of transmission of knowledge?  Has cultural studies made the American university a more egalitarian or progressive institution?  And one useful way of answering these questions is to say, sadly, no.  It hasn’t had much of an impact at all.

I’m putting this baldly and polemically for a reason.  I know there are worthy programs in cultural studies at some North American universities, like Kansas State, where there were once no programs at all; I know that there is more interdisciplinary work out there than there was 25 years ago; it seems that there is even an entire Cultural Studies Association of some kind.  But I want to accentuate the negative in order to point out that over the past 25 years there has been a great deal of cultural-studies triumphalism that now seems unwarranted or embarrassing.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we heard (and I believed) that cultural studies would fan out across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, inducing them to become at once more self-interrogating and more open to public engagement.  Some people even suggested, either in hope or in fear, that cultural studies would become the name for the humanities and social sciences in toto.  And lest this sound grandiose, I want to insist that there was, at the time, good reason to think this way.  The period of theoretical ferment that began in the late 1960s and gained traction in the 1970s seemed to have reached the boiling point:  when Illinois held its “Cultural Studies Now and in the Future” conference in 1990, the program included historians, media theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and AIDS activists; and the theoretical terrain, over which cultural studies had held its earlier skirmishes with deconstruction, with psychoanalysis, with feminism, and of course with the epochal struggle of Althusserians and neo-Gramscians, had lately been enriched by the arrival of Foucauldian historicism and queer theory.  It really did seem plausible that cultural studies could be the start of something big, something that would have a profound intellectual and institutional impact on the American university.

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. I’m sitting here next to three people [these would be Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, and Jeff Williams] whose indispensable accounts of the academic labor force in the US have been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural studies tradition.  And I remember well coming to Kansas State in 1995 and attending a terrific conference whose breakout sessions offered memorable work on everything from Pulp Fiction to pedagogy.  But if you compare the institutional achievements of cultural studies to its initial hopes, I don’t see how you can’t be disappointed by the last twenty years.  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 of some kind.  The good news on that front is that you can now find cultural studies scholars working in anthropology, in critical geography, even in kinesiology.  The bad news is that the place where cultural studies has arguably had the greatest impact is in English departments.  And though people in English departments tend to forget this, English departments are just a tiny part of the university.  Cultural studies may have congenial relations with some wings of some departments of modern languages, in communications, in education, in history or anthropology.  But sociology won’t even open our mail or return our calls, and in that respect the contrast between the situation in the US and the situation in the UK—where cultural studies engaged critically (and often caustically) with sociology from the outset, witness the careers of Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, and Paul Gilroy—could not be more stark.  I recently gave a paper in which I argued that the rise of the political blogosphere was a vindication of one of cultural studies’ central beliefs and a rebuke to the McChesney-Chomsky-Herman model of mass media (all three of those influential theorists, by the bye, said at the outset of this decade that the Internet could not work as a progressive political force because it was commercial). [And then, while I was in KC, I rehearsed that argument in a CT thread as well.] That is to say: cultural studies has taught us—or has tried to teach us—that you don’t know the meaning of a mass-cultural artifact until you find out what those masses of people actually do with it.  After my talk, someone asked me, “but isn’t that really more a question for sociology?” To which I replied, well, the questions of sociology shouldn’t be considered alien territory for cultural studies.

At the same time, 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, and for that matter it’s not clear that the proliferation of Women’s Studies programs has been unambiguously beneficial to the intellectual projects of feminism. [I was thinking of, among other things, this comment from a recent CT thread.] So let me proceed to throw some cold water on the intellectual history of cultural studies in the US.  First and foremost, it has been understood, that is to say misunderstood, as coextensive with the study of popular culture. This is very much our fault: this is what we get for saying that cultural studies has no specific methodology or subject matter, so that it gets elided with “cultural criticism” in general.  At this point in history, anybody writing on The Bachelor or American Idol is generally understood to be “doing” cultural studies—especially by his or her colleagues elsewhere in the university.

This aspect of US cultural studies has often been lamented, and rightly so.  The usual refrain is that once upon a time cultural studies was part of a political project, and now it’s just a matter of watching TV.  But I think that in the US, even the political project of cultural studies has been widely misunderstood.  I argue this point in some detail in my forthcoming book, The Left At War, so I’ll keep this very brief for now.  But much of the American academic left, from education to communications, continues to subscribe to the “manufacturing consent” model in which people are led to misidentify their real interests by the machinations of the corporate mass media.  The point to be made here is not that corporate mass media don’t dupe people; on the contrary, they do it every day.  The point is that Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism sought to complicate this picture by recourse to a theory of hegemony that was one part Laclau, one part Poulantzas, one part Gramsci, and one part homegrown Hall.  To this day, Hall’s work is routinely and reverently cited, even as his work on Thatcherism—and the challenge it posed to the intellectual left—is quite thoroughly ignored.  (The Hard Road to Renewal, by the way, is out of print and has been for some time, and most major cultural studies anthologies, including the one organized around Hall’s work, do not include any of the essays from Hard Road.) The first thing to ask about any ideology, Hall insisted, is not what is false about it, but what is true—what about it actively makes sense to people whose beliefs you do not share.  Does anybody on the left actually operate this way?  Even in the 1980s, there were those who were quite foolishly willing to accuse Hall of betraying the left by proposing that the left could learn from how Thatcherism constituted a hegemonic project. [Addendum: indeed, there was someone at the conference who was willing to repeat that charge today!  I gotta love the fact that someone came to a cultural studies conference to say that.] And if there was one thing that Hall inveighed against above all others in his debates with his fellow leftists, it was economism, the favorite monocausal explanation of the left intellectual.  As he put it in 1983:

I think of marxism not as a framework for scientific analysis only but also as a way of helping you sleep well at night; it offers the guarantee that, although things don’t look simple at the moment, they really are simple in the end.  You can’t see how the economy determines, but just have faith, it does determine in the last instance!  The first clause wakes you up and the second puts you to sleep.

I read that passage today and I think, how often do we find ourselves ascribing disparate political events and cultural phenomena solely to neoliberalism?  Again, not to say that neoliberalism is immaterial; it has dominated the political and economic landscape for thirty years, and its effects on higher education are palpable, baleful, and undeniable—from the corporatization of administration and research to the withdrawal of state funding for public universities. (In fact, recent analyses of academic neoliberalism by Henry Giroux, Susan Searles Giroux, and Sophia McLennen—in the special issue of Works and Days devoted to academic freedom—have apparently induced Stanley Fish to admit, in so many words, yes indeed, I are an neoliberal, and oh, by the way, people who disagree with me support an academic boycott of Israel.  Kudos to Henry, Susan, and Sophia!) Indeed, Hall was writing on Thatcherism—and recognizing it correctly for the radical break it represented—just as neoliberal ideology was beginning to discover its powers, and we are meeting just as it has gone off the rails altogether, hopefully to rest in that ash heap of history.  But I raise the question at this conference for obvious reasons—it’s literally on the agenda, in the form of conference seminars on neoliberalism.  And I want to ask, in a general way, whether we’re starting from neoliberalism and then proceeding to the analysis, or whether the analysis simply concludes, it’s the neoliberalism, stupid. There seems to me all the difference in the world between those two approaches; the latter seems to me to enshrine neoliberalism as the monocausal explanation we had long derided but secretly desired.

Thirteen years ago, in a scathing, freewheeling, and woefully underinformed critique of the field, Bob McChesney asked, is there any hope for cultural studies?  He said no, because cultural studies had gotten distracted by postmodernism and identity politics and had lost sight of the simple truth that the free market is a sham and that people are misled by the mass media.  Enough cultural studies already—we have to get back to good old political economy.  I’m sorry to say that McChesney’s arguments have carried the day in all too many precincts of the university, and I’m even sorrier to say that McChesney’s claim that cultural studies “signifies half-assed research, self-congratulation, farcical pretension” has been gleefully seconded by much of the mass media and underwritten by some work in cultural studies.  But despite what I’ve said here today, I still have hope that the history of cultural studies might matter to the university—and to the world beyond it.  My hopes aren’t quite as ambitious as they were twenty years ago; I no longer expect cultural studies to transform the disciplines.  But I do think it can do a better job of complicating the political economy model in media theory, a better job of complicating our accounts of neoliberalism, and a better job of convincing people inside and outside the university that its understanding of hegemony is a form of understanding with great explanatory power, that is to say, a form of understanding that actually works.

also x-posted to that CT place.

Posted by Michael on 04/20 at 09:08 AM
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