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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 on 04/20 at 09:08 AM
  1. I’m a member of that list and I liked your post about it. So did others, but beyond that I’m sworn to secrecy. I loved the Pullman books but got bogged down in #3, perhaps for the reasons you articulate. Plus I really didn’t like the ending and remember closing the book going, WTF? So please carry on.

    Posted by Clare  on  04/20  at  10:37 AM
  2. So first you write on Pullman without being certified as a children’s lit expert.  Then you use the phrase “sadly no” without clearance from Brad and Gavin and the gang over there. You are in so much trouble!

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  10:46 AM
  3. Thanks, Clare!  The person who spoke to me was sworn to secrecy too, and I didn’t bother to ask about details anyway.  The context was something like, “we complain that other literature professors don’t take our material seriously, but then, when some other literature professors take our material seriously, we get really pissed.” Now, if I’d written an academic essay on Pullman in which I failed to cite the scholarship, OK, I could understand people getting pissed at some interloper who just wandered into the conversation without doing the research.  But it was a blog post, for Moloch’s sake.

    Actually, I’m fascinated by this dynamic wherever it occurs.  Over the past 20 years, for instance, Russell Jacoby’s responses to Cornel West have led me to believe that the only thing Jacoby dislikes more than academics who don’t speak to broad public audiences are academics who do (in ways he doesn’t approve of).  At some point in the near future I’ll offer another example of this phenomenon on this humble blog.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  10:47 AM
  4. Actually, fardels, I have an honorary degree from Sadly, No!, so I’m clear on that front.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  11:13 AM
  5. I have to say I think it’s an odd charge to suggest that Cultural Studies is too economistic… Au contraire, I’d have thought.  For more on this, see Meaghan Morris’s classic essay, “The Banality of Cultural Studies.”

    Posted by Jon  on  04/20  at  03:38 PM
  6. After all, this blog can’t be BBQ-and-bebop-and-Narciso-Yepes all the time.

    How about twenty percent of the time?  Not that I’m actually complaining about the usual content, mind you.  But my spouse has actually asked after Yepes recordings following the relevant YouTubery (Chicka, etc.).  Hooray!

    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.

    What would be really hilarious is if you submitted an overwrought article on the subject to Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.  Because we all know there’s no thrill that can quite compare with abusing the good faith of a journal’s editorial board.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  03:43 PM
  7. In the same mind web, but on a different tangent:

    I am fortunately old enough to have experienced the dawn and dusk of several bubbles of neo-disciplines.  When i was first a young undergrad, Sociology was awakening and being slammed by Psychology and History for suggesting a mash up of both with math thrown around.  Then came Black Studies, leading to Ethnic Studies, begetting six different culturally-identified studies, washing across the shores of Anthropology, History, Geography, Psychology, et al.  For a while i was a graduate student in the History of Religions specializing in American Indian Religions (and working with an Anthropology Prof as well).  A year later i was invisibly transferred to a new classification: Ethnohistory.  Then i taught in Native American Studies departments and in American Indian Studies departments (and never the twain shall meet). 

    Has Cultural Studies been preempted by the new Geography which is holding sway over the elder Sociology??? I don’t know, but i am amazed at the carving out of interdisciplinary paths of research to accommodate specializations upon specializations.  Yes indeed Michael, more complications and complexifications are necessities.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  04:07 PM
  8. I have to say I think it’s an odd charge to suggest that Cultural Studies is too economistic

    Actually, Jon, I was arguing that the persistence of economism on the left is one of the signs that cultural studies hasn’t accomplished quite as much on that front as it sometimes thinks it has.

    Because we all know there’s no thrill that can quite compare with abusing the good faith of a journal’s editorial board.

    Quite true!  I will call my essay “Transgressing the Boundaries:  Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of the Many-Worlds Hypothesis in His Dark Materials.” That should do the trick.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  04:08 PM
  9. I think the other problem (which you allude to here) is that some fields have incorporated aspects of cultural studies piecemeal, and then turn and poo-poo the parts they don’t use w/o acknowledging (or even being aware sometimes) of the ways that CS has helped them.  As a PhD student in history, I definitely see this, and it’s generally generational - older faculty care not-at-all for this, while younger faculty are more open-minded (even if not all-embracing).  But the “pick a field already!” mentality definitely persists - I once heard a prof say, “it’s Ok if you’re in an “X-studies” program for your masters, but you’d better pick a field for your PhD, or you’ll never get employed.” And it wasn’t even bias towards CS on her part - she was just stating the sad truth (that you do admit here) that there was simply too much bias in the academic world for “studies” students, be it cultural studies, american studies, etc.

    Beyond that, I wish I could say more, but this is one of those “wow” posts that leaves you thinking, but unsure what to say.

    Posted by Mr. Trend  on  04/20  at  07:44 PM
  10. Sure, easy for you to say but dammit, the Rangers LOST tonight!  Worse, I didn’t watch because I was reading about Jane Harman’s troubles here there and everywhere.  And worse still?  They didn’t broadcast the Boston-Montreal game here.  Mon Deux!

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  10:18 PM
  11. Your two what, Dave?

    And the Rangers didn’t just lose—they were shut out.  Aussi, les Habitants sont finis.  But Chicago-Calgary is still on the teevee. . . .

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  10:38 PM
  12. Your two what, Dave?

    Mon Dieu, Michael! Can’t you see that Dave was making a bold critique of the social, cultural, and economic oppression inherent in monotheism? Maybe you’ve had too much BBQ and the subtleties are just going over your head.

    Anyway, from my outsider’s (and therefore inconsequential) perspective, I really enjoyed reading this talk that you gave. And if you encounter any further criticism for your essays on kid lit, you can tell them that every kit lit thing you publish either in print or on a blog has been personally peer reviewed by my Black Ass. And if that doesn’t shut them up, I don’t know what will. Plus I’m guessing calling it “kid lit” will really tick them off, so that’s a bonus, too.

    Posted by  on  04/21  at  12:19 AM
  13. Wow.  When Oaktown Girl has my back, she really has my back.  Merci boocoo!  And thanks also for clarifying “mon deux,” too—I was wondering if it was something about teabags.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/21  at  07:34 AM
  14. Hang on, are we talking about the yellow-green carbonated beverage?

    Posted by  on  04/21  at  08:39 AM
  15. Also, I’m going to pose a naïve semi-rhetorical question encapsulating what I find disturbing from the talk: Even if cultural studies really were just “watching TV,” couldn’t it still contribute usefully to sociology?  I mean, if sociology has gotten on an economics-style high horse with the attitude that “we use math,” thereby justifying the exclusion of alternative observations and expositions of popular culture… Well.  Zombie Comte and I might have to pay some academicians a call.

    Posted by  on  04/21  at  02:24 PM
  16. I have learned enough to know not to challenge Oaktown Girl, particularly over any trivialities.  Therefore i must confess, that back in those days (60s), i too participated in the jock-coded acquisition of easy grade credits by taking the proverbial kiddy-lit classes at UCLA.  That we referred to them as such, does lend some credence to their quest to reify the academic appropriateness of their researches.  Be that as it may, if sociology stakes its claim to appropriateness through math and statistics, and geography lauds their use of GIS and other sophisticated cartographic-demographic mapping technologies, while so much recent philosophy stakes its turf on symbolic logic and advanced deep code writing in AI environments--is it not appropriate for CS to suggest that there are a substantively different paths towards knowledge??? Whatever happened to the normative disciplines???

    adieu mes deux dieux.  (and yes that is also a scatological reference to the story out today about W having to pooper-scoop Barney’s turds).

    Posted by  on  04/21  at  04:44 PM
  17. Well, it’s been just over 4 decades since my last French class and yes, I should have looked it up. It’s always good when the B’s beat Les Habs; one more please.  Thank you O. Girl, I always forget the deep waters in which I sometimes immerse myself,without a pfd, especially on this sitesmile

    Posted by  on  04/21  at  10:18 PM
  18. I will call my essay “Transgressing the Boundaries:  Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of the Many-Worlds Hypothesis in His Dark Materials.”

    I thought you might have already used up that trope with “Transgressing the Boundaries:  Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Internet-mediated Academic/non-Academic Interactions” consisting of the previous incantation of this blog along with the Blogosphere Picture Radio series at EotAW, collected and published behind some academic firewall with an accompanying note: “An English Professor Experiments With The[sic] Hoi Polloi”.

    So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would non-academics read an “academic” blog liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the readers’ vanity?

    and

    In its concluding phase, my experiment becomes especially egregious. Having abolished academic rigor as a constraint, with the help of several colleagues I go on to suggest that listening to “three middle-aged, tenured, straight white guys in a room talking about privilege” while looking at a sequence of amateurish pictures (some throbbing, some not) is an endeavor worthy of the layperson’s time. And they bit! Well ... some of them, anyway.

    Am I feeling intellectually insecure? No, why ever would you ask?

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  02:49 AM
  19. And I am beginning to suspect that you’ve turned your eye towards bigger game and are now using a flux capacitor to influence reality itself! I mean, come on, Hugo Chavez gives the President a “book” while there is a lot of discussion about torture*?

    *Excuse me, the New York Times lets me know that the correct term is either “harsh tactics” or “brutal techniques”.

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  03:07 AM
  20. And I am beginning to suspect that you’ve turned your eye towards bigger game and are now using a flux capacitor to influence reality itself!

    Er, Citizen Stormcrow, Professor Bérubé is in cultural studies.  He doesn’t believe in reality.

    either “harsh tactics” or “brutal techniques”.

    Hmm.  “Harsh tactics” is weaselly, but “brutal techniques” manages to still sound unpleasant and vaguely judgmental.  Would that make it a “phemism” for torture?

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  08:23 AM
  21. And McClatchy has “abusive techniques”. I lose track of what is really new here versus the MSM just coming to grips with already known information. The McClatchy piece lays out one of the truly disgusting aspects of this, the use to try and extract false “intelligence” about an Iraq-al Qaida link. Call it “Torture Classic”. I think the debate is well and truly on for at least the next several days. Cheney wants to selectively declassify some memos to show how “effective” it was. Go ahead and bring that on, big guy.

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  08:54 AM
  22. Hang on, are we talking about the yellow-green carbonated beverage?

    I believe that is called Mons Dieu.

    Even if cultural studies really were just “watching TV,” couldn’t it still contribute usefully to sociology?

    Yes.  The problem lies with the CS work that consists of “people watch TV and actively make meaning from it,” full stop, thus decisively defeating the straw-man “TV makes people into zombies” position.

    Well, it’s been just over 4 decades since my last French class and yes, I should have looked it up.

    Not at all!  I screw up French 101 all the time, and Jamie has a better memory for the gender of nouns than I do.  Latest example:  he keeps track of the fact that in sports, on joue au foot, for example, whereas in music, on joue du piano.  I completely forgot you had to use “du” for musical instruments, which is what happens when you don’t speak the language for years at a time and are confined to making little jokes on blogs.

    JP @ 18:  do we have to go over my <i>Edge<i> hoax again?  Isn’t that way past its sell-by date?  And isn’t the whole “context of blog discovery / context of blog justification” distinction hopelessly baggy anyway?

    JP @ 19:  what’s this about Chavez, now?

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  10:43 AM
  23. what’s this about Cha[sic]vez, now?

    Oh never mind, just a missed opportunity to blog about him was all. Too bad. Now Chávez is *so* earlier-in-the-week.

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  11:24 AM
  24. Hmmm, good point.  Maybe I’ll blog about pirates instead.

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  11:55 AM
  25. In my university a lot of cutural studies gets done in American Studies. You could almost call the department “American Cultural Studies” and get you’d hardly notice the difference.  The rest of cultural studies gets done in Spanish and Portuguese and Latin American Studies.

    Posted by  on  04/22  at  11:59 AM
  26. Hi, I love reading your blogs ,you have such an amazing blog, Awesome micheal

    Posted by KoolNinja  on  01/06  at  04:37 AM

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