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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 on 09/23 at 03:41 PM
  1. In point of fact, the carbon footprint of unicorns is immense owing to their prodigious methane output.

    Posted by Orange  on  09/23  at  05:06 PM
  2. Ah.  More things I did not know.

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  05:09 PM
  3. In some cultures, lamenting is essential.  Prior to the time that Europeans came across the Atlantic to find an “empty” continent, there were actually nations of human beings here that required ritual lament for its population.  The Lakota call it hanblecheya (one version of spelling), the sacred rite of vision questing.  It seems an appropriate metaphor here in the sense that the ritual asks for a vision of how to develop more harmonious relations with all the world that has changed in the previous year.  The participants are encouraged to share their visions with the tribe, thereby offering (after the sacrifice of the quest) some guidance and counsel for how to move forward into the next year. 

    It seems more than reasonable to me to ask these sorts of questions regarding how cultural studies, as a discipline, will be integrated into a more harmonious future in this nation.  The students at UCD find it worth the effort to continue, even to respond.  The critics of your piece, in their attempts to assure themselves that the status quo is good for them, and thus everyone else, are like the little children standing at the edge of the council holding their hands over their ears.  We Lakota also have a ritual myth about killing off the grandmother ways (those who refuse to move forward begging to freeze custom and tradition to just the way it always was).

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  08:19 PM
  4. Two observations:

    The UC Davis program does not have faculty members from psychology, political science, or economics, but it does have faculty from the School of Law, sociology, history, and linguistics. So, there do seem to be some important “in-roads” there. Any in any case, not having affiliated faculty from some department doesn’t mean that they haven’t had transformative interactions. I may be influenced by a movement while not wanting to join it whole hog.

    The range of research topics listed by the UC Davis folks is certainly broad. While that might seem to support the idea that the field is everything and nothing, it seems to me that what draws them together is not only “a deep historicization of these instances in relation to questions of power,” but also such a high-level of interdisciplinarity that such projects could not be explored in conventional disciplinary programs.

    One question:
    I got the impression from your comment in CHE that you thought American cultural studies work today is mostly a bunch of pablum: “associated with a cheery “Pop culture is fun!” approach.” Above, however, you say that you “wish cultural studies had some impact on [economics, political science, psychology, and international relations].” Do you mean that you want those fields to take a cheery “Pop culture if fun!” approach? Or are you saying that cultural studies - which is a field that produces important scholarship - has an image problem within the university at large that prevents some disciplines from actively engaging with it?

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  09:11 PM
  5. Your original lament really worked for me.  For the first time, I finally thought—you know, now I can see what cultural studies could do for me (other than the lots of methane from the giant unicorn footprint—the chimerical footprint on my field—political science). 

    The whole economic reductionism is frustrating—it just doesn’t fit with my experience of ordinary Americans—but I didn’t know of an alternative.  Although I’ve enjoyed reading this blog (pre- and post-hiatus, even theory Tuesdays) I never actually got the idea of how cultural studies might work until I read the CHE article.

    I guess I’m contemplating being stepped on by unicorns (I just found the Willis article on Frank and read it—good stuff).

    whoa—catchpa says “hell”—as in where good intentions get me?

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  09:43 PM
  6. I can’t resist, but when I say the pictures and story about Qadaffi (who knows sp?) wanting Obama to be declared maximum-president for life I was certain I would come to this blog and see a new picture.

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  09:45 PM
  7. Isn’t that Ellen Willis essay something?  If I’m gonna apologize for anything on this front, it’s for not giving her more of the attention she deserved while she was alive.  At least she and I corresponded about that essay briefly when it was published.

    OK, now to Ami, who raises some good points.

    The UC Davis program does not have faculty members from psychology, political science, or economics, but it does have faculty from the School of Law, sociology, history, and linguistics. So, there do seem to be some important “in-roads” there.

    Yeah, that’s not bad at all, at all.  The whole lineup is pretty impressive.  But I was talking about their misuse of my “unicorns” line, which applied specifically to some of the most closed-shop and narrowly quantitative disciplines in the university (you often can’t even find a political theorist in a political science department).  It’s weird that no one (to my knowledge) contemplated the possibility that maybe I was saying those departments are too narrowly quantitative (with the exception of IR).

    As for the interdisciplinarity of those topics:  I tend to think that disciplines aren’t the problem so much as departments are, and people often conflate the two.  So while it’s great to draw on 80+ faculty from 24 departments, the problem is that the Ph.D. students then have to be hired in ... departments, not programs.  American Studies ran into this problem decades ago, so it’s not unique to cultural studies.  But it is a problem.

    As for your question:

    Do you mean that you want those fields to take a cheery “Pop culture if fun!” approach? Or are you saying that cultural studies - which is a field that produces important scholarship - has an image problem within the university at large that prevents some disciplines from actively engaging with it?

    I’m very sorry not to have been clearer about this.  The answer is (b), cultural studies has a serious image problem, and it can get pretty depressing explaining to colleagues (and students!) in other disciplines that actually, Michael Warner and Chantal Mouffe are more important to the field than Jon and Kate.  That image problem is, in some precincts, even worse outside the university.  Read some of the nonacademic responses to Tom Frank’s One Market Under God—they’re even more depressing.  For example, and for another example.  And a third (that one really hurts, since it’s written by the usually wonderful Michelle Goldberg, who calls Alan Wolfe a cultural studies professor).

    The only positive review of Frank’s book that gave me a jolt of schadenfreude was this one, whose title pretty much sums up its sensibility.

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  10:40 PM
  8. OK, had to stop and put the kid to bed.  But I also wanted to say thanks, Ms. Sommariva (that’s Ami at comment 4, for those of you who aren’t shuttling back and forth between here and the bullybloggers) for stopping by.  I realize that you’re one of the signatories of that letter, and I do appreciate you leaving a comment here.

    The image-problem thing is very serious, imho.  On one hand you’ve got the trolls who think “Alan Sokal proved that everything I hate, from deconstruction to cultural studies, is bunk.” Life is short, too short to deal with those people.  But take a look, if you would, at those three reviews, all of which agree that Frank skewered us pretentious jargon-spewing cultstud pseudopopulists.  They’re all from the left of the dial.  I’ve had this discussion with people like Larry Grossberg, who argue (rightly) that Tom Frank didn’t entirely know what he was talking about, and took much of his critique wholesale from Bob McChesney (like his swipe at Angela McRobbie, for instance).  “Yes, I know,” I said to Larry some time ago, “but when the Green Party, the American Prospect, Salon, and In These Times all agree that Frank is right about us, we actually do have a problem.” And it would be a very weird kind of cultural studies that simply didn’t care about, or dismissed out of hand, what nonacademic progressives and leftists think about cultural studies.

    Posted by  on  09/23  at  11:10 PM
  9. I can’t decide what bothers me more, this:

    our graduating PhD’s face not only hiring freezes

    or the extent to which it bothers me.

    Repeat after me, UC Davis faculty and staff:

    The plural of “Ph.D.” is “Ph.D.’s.” The plural of “PhD” is “PhDs.”

    Sorry; that wasn’t exactly substantive, but I couldn’t go to sleep tonight until I spat that out.

    Posted by Auguste  on  09/24  at  04:24 AM
  10. triozyg’s point re: Obama as president for life. Ditto! Chavezistan is dead, long live Qadaffyland!

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  10:28 AM
  11. Hey, hey, my, my.  Chavezistan can never die.  And Auguste, get some sleep!  It’s not like you to get annoyed by apostrophe’s.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  10:39 AM
  12. Your lamentations can dream? Big deal. Get your lamentations to mow the lawn for you, and you’ll really be onto something big!

    Posted by Thers  on  09/24  at  12:22 PM
  13. It’s true that “it would be a very weird kind of cultural studies that simply didn’t care about, or dismissed out of hand, what nonacademic progressives and leftists think about cultural studies” but I don’t see anyone who’s arguing that we should. As the unicorn signatories pointed out, the real threat isn’t people studying Madonna or the Sopranos, but university administrators who want to make our universities into technocratic finishing schools for the elites who will still be able to afford it (as I write to you on the day of UC’s walkout). That’s what killed the actual CCCS, right? I don’t see how it had anything to do with a proclivity to study pop culture, nor should those who do so be saddled with the guilt for its passing, either literal of metaphoric. 

    In short, I’m confused about what blaming cultural studies for their own image problem actually accomplishes, as your CHE piece certainly seems to do; most of your readers will come away with reinforced ammunition for exactly the belief that CS is just a bunch of hacks getting tenure for writing articles that should really appear in High Times that you were complaining about in that thread at Frameshift. This is especially strange to me because “they” don’t even need the ammunition; as you know, every year, whatever city has the privilege of hosting the MLA is also blessed with some reporter writing a boilerplate “look! English departments study stupid crazy weird things!” complete with a listing of a few papers and panels whose titles seem to suggest that this is true. But those reporters always find what they set out to look for, and urging literary scholars to title their papers in a more responsible way or something would just miss the point that the game is always stacked against them, that nothing they can do will allow them to win. It seems to me that vowing to stop writing about Madonna (or whatever you would have cult studies do) so as to pander to a basically hostile administrative climate and media is like negotiating with republicans on health care; you lose the minute you agree to play the game.

    So I just can’t resolve the cognitive dissonance that your piece gives me. I agree that cultural studies should do all the things you end by exhorting it to, and I would like Stuart Hall to lead us to victory on a white stallion. To the barricades! But it seems to me that blaming cultural studies’ failures on its own misguided priorities has the effect of letting the actual villains of the story get off scot-free. Like the unicorns signatories, I have trouble “recogniz[ing] cultural studies as a field characterized by weak treatments of television shows and pop stars,” while I’m very, very familiar with administrators who pour money into business schools while de-funding anything that hinting of leftist politics. Do you think I’m wrong to find it puzzling that only former get critiqued in your CHE piece, as well as being saddled the responsibility for defeating the latter?

    Posted by aaron  on  09/24  at  12:50 PM
  14. It’s sort of telling (to me) that I wrote “vowing to stop writing about Madonna (or whatever you would have cult studies do) so as to pander to a basically hostile administrative climate and media,” because you didn’t actually say that, and I know that you didn’t say that. But I just don’t know how to read your agreement with Stuart Hall’s “no more Madonna/sopranos” quote; I don’t get where that weariness comes from. So I wonder if the reason this essay has generated so much more heat than light is that the critical things you say about “cultural studies” don’t have a clear connection to what you were actually saying about Hall and the CCCS, a gap we leap to fill by attributing to you words you didn’t actually write?

    Posted by aaron  on  09/24  at  01:07 PM
  15. Could a reader not conclude, Michael, that your Chronicle piece is first of all a polemic against the Chomsky-Herman-McChesney view, with an attached plaint that Cultural Studies has not had the institutional strength to join you in defeating it?

    I write as a comrade in the long struggle against McChesneyism.  But if I were a cultural studies grad student I might be a little pissed off by the way you introduce criteria for the field’s success that I might not choose first.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  03:03 PM
  16. I also, to declare interest, write as a faculty person at the U of Washington, Bothell, which has a fabulous fledgling Cultural Studies M.A.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  03:11 PM
  17. 1.) By way of comparison, “cognitive science” seems to me to be a success and to the extent that it has a public face, that face is pretty cheery. Cognitive science has its own association and its own journal(s), etc. However, there aren’t that many cognitive science departments. For the most part, cognitive science happens in interdepartmental programs or within specific departments and graduate students go for jobs in those traditional departments.

    2.) It seems to me that the presence of cultural studies within English departments is almost designed to create image problems. After all, traditionally they were homes to humanist valorization of High Culture. Here’s how J. Hillis Miller characterized the ethos of English departments back in the 50s and 60s:

    We also knew the double good of what we were doing. English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. This good depended on the widespread presence in the population of what Simon During calls “literary subjectivity”. Literary subjectivity is a love of so-called literature and a habit of dwelling in the virtual metaworlds that reading literature allows the adept reader to enter. To put this another way, English literature used to be a chief means by which people were interpellated as United States citizens. The teaching of English literature in schools, colleges, and universities was one of the main ways this interpellation took place.

    So, you take that ethos and inject cultural studies into it, what do you get? You get the good ole’ cultural wars. And studies of Madonna and the Sopranos are going to be held up as descrating the temple, as getting in the way of the process of interpellating people to be good citizens. But if you put such studies in sociology or anthropology or musicology or history, you’re not going to get the same sense of mismatch. You may have other problems, but not the sense of sacrilege.

    I don’t know quite what to make of that, but I’ll echo a point Aaron’s already made:

    3.) People just love to dump on the oddities of English professors. About two years ago I posted a bleg inquiring about NYTimes snark about the MLA and one of my commenters came up with a Philadelphia Inquirer article from 1922. This is something that is all but institutionalized in American culture and cultural studies just got sucked right in.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/24  at  03:28 PM
  18. I’m thinking I should excerpt some of these comments and use ‘em for a whole new thread.  Is that OK with everyone?  Because these questions/ challenges are really good, and I want to revisit (in a more productive way) that idea of my “ideal reader” (who, when I was writing this back in April, said things like “that’s not entirely true, because...").  So I’ll wait til tomorrow morning to see if there are any more questions, and then I’ll try to answer them in a followup post.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  05:23 PM
  19. Fine by me, Michael. This is important stuff.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/24  at  05:44 PM
  20. I agree that there is an image problem, and I agree that it is extremely serious. However, given that insightful, innovative, and politically substantive work is done by people claiming to do cultural studies now (you mention Michael Warner and Chantal Mouffe), I would say that the image problem does not stem from the quality of our scholarship, but from several other factors, including those mentioned above by aaron and Bill Benzon. Looking at the responses to the CHE piece, I get the impression that it gave many folks the impression that you believed that the field had become intellectually bankrupt, and thus the poor image was not an inaccurate one (with a few exceptions). 

    I am certainly not satisfied with the status-quo of the field nor with the situation in which finds itself. But I’m not planning the funeral, and I’m not mourning the loss of an intellectual endeavor that has not died. Rather, I lament that cultural studies continues to struggle to achieve its full potential because its lack of universal recognition and sufficient resources.

    Or maybe I don’t lament the lack of those things since having them would mean that cultural studies had simply become part of that which it currently aims to critique. While poking, prodding, challenging sites of privilege and systems of inequality, we need to be relevant, and that’s always a tough balancing act. In this precarious situation, the consequences of being portrayed as insignificant and ineffectual are dire. In fact, such a portrayal could end up producing the very thing it aims to critique by justifying a continued lack of support.

    Why merely lament when we might also call for the increased recognition and resources we need to flourish as both an intellectual and political movement? And since members of the field are, of course, also crucial in ensuring the ongoing development of a dynamic and politically significant cultural studies, why not suggest some specific mechanisms for improvement?

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  06:48 PM
  21. I’ll look forward to the new thread. I don’t normally follow blogs, but I do always enjoy honest and earnest discussions.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  07:01 PM
  22. You bet!  Captcha: “forward.”

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  07:43 PM
  23. So we have them. The four horsemen.

    Obama, Chavez, Putin, and Qadaffi

    captcha “number” no explanation needed or offered.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  11:01 PM
  24. Yes, I think our bridge hand is complete.

    Posted by  on  09/24  at  11:11 PM
  25. Elliot, does that make Kim Jong Il the Great Whore of Babylon?

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  03:10 AM
  26. As we depart Chavezian airspace, a spirits-lifting pic.  Context: the UN functionary at the top of the pic sat stone-faced through two days of speeches.

    Posted by Nell  on  09/25  at  11:38 AM
  27. Wow Nell,

    I think that was right when Hugo told his big joke,
    “Pinochet, Batista, and Hitler walk into a bar....”

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  12:11 PM
  28. Qaddafian Airspace?  What happened to the good old indie days of American Airspace?  That material was much more edgy and DIY-ish.

    The writing’s on the, um, Internets: This blog has officially sold out and gone corporate.

    Posted by J. Fisher  on  09/25  at  12:21 PM
  29. Posted by  on  09/25  at  12:41 PM
  30. More seriously:  this followup might take me a few days to write.  I just came across this really smart and helpful response at some blog called “The Spigot” or something, and I’m thinking it over.  Very good to see someone bringing Joel Pfister into this, by the way—his fine book Critique for What? should be read by everyone participating in this distributed-intelligence exchange.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  12:44 PM
  31. I hear rumors that Michael (corporate lackey(tm)) has been floated to be hired as Yudof’s hatchet man. First order of business: shut down that pesky UCD cultural studies program.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  01:38 PM
  32. I suppose I should demand that the Davis program turn over its funds to the Math department at UCLA, Christian?

    But one thing is undeniable:  for the cultural studies students and faculty in the UC system, this is a lousy time to be reading critiques of the field in the Chronicle.  The timing really couldn’t be worse, though of course I couldn’t have known that when I was writing the CSA version in April or the revisions for the CHE in June.  So I just want to say I applaud the walkout and hope that it helps to turn the tide.  As I wrote to one of my (remaining) friends at Davis, the toxic stench from Sacramento must be very unpleasant indeed.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  02:59 PM
  33. I love that they named a State University out in California after Angela Davis. Way to go.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  07:06 PM
  34. Nah, Miles Davis.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/25  at  07:14 PM
  35. I’m unconvinced that the “timing” of the CHE was any worse than it ever was, actually; as Bill pointed out, the culture wars are now a given part of the landscape, as is the fact that funding for anything vaguely political will always be the first thing to get chopped in the state of permanent crisis in which the university is now in. It’s worse now than it was then, but I bet if we went back in a time machine to the moment the essay was a glimmer in your eye, it would still have been a bad time to be reading critiques of the entire field in the chronicle, and for the same reason. Regardless of how much validity those critiques might have, the fact that the discipline’s funding is intensely insecure is just a fact, and a function of its leftist proclivities (or pretensions; the right doesn’t discriminate).

    In the case of the UC fiasco, in fact, Yudof has used the rhetoric of crisis as a way to necessitate emergency powers which then allow him to go ahead and do what he (and the trustees who appointed him, and the governor that appointed them) have been saying they’re going to do for years, and it’s eerily close to the same kind of dodge as got us into Iraq. Talking about the “timing” of this, as if they haven’t been waiting for this opportunity for a long time plays into that way of mis-framing the issue.

    Posted by aaron  on  09/25  at  07:26 PM
  36. I’m involved with the organizing here on our campus (so the organizing meetings on the faculty side are a bunch of humanities people and me - if any UCLA science/engineering person reads this, please consider joining us), and no, I don’t want to see the humanities slaughtered - quite the opposite.

    If you have a strong stomach, you could read the Yudof interview in this weekend’s NYT magazine. At least after that those who whine that Yudof is the wrong target etc. will have to eat their words, methinks.

    As for aaron, in the spirit of comradely [you aren’t the only leftists on campuses, you see] debate (aka ruthless name-calling and labeling), if you are in a situation where any critical reflection becomes a danger to your field, you’ve already lost, or rather, given up. Which will only serve to then justify, a posteriori, shutting you down.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  07:58 PM
  37. My simple mind wants to lump the various pieces together out of these sites, cites, comments, posts, etc., and see some sort of clear path towards solution.  There actually might be something buried in the humor of corporatization of administrations.  Billions of dollars are spent by very large corporations on developing and designing research programs to “find” the best marketing solutions for products and services.  Indeed vastly more is spent on trying to find out how to get the 6 years old to demand his parents buy X than on getting that same 6 years old to read and comprehend arithmetic.  At the base this is research into the manipulation and management of culture.  Why are there no funds going to the actual academics who really study this stuff?? Can’t we have a Burger King Throne Chair of a Department of Culture Studies???

    Huge thanks to “christian h.” for fighting the fight in the face of ever worsening conditions.  Sadly the whole mess could be significantly solved with a repeal of that 70s blunder called Proposition 13.  I retired and got out because i couldn’t take it anymore.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  08:38 PM
  38. Well, I actually thought I was conceding a point to the signatories of the Davis letter, who wrote, “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.” I was trying to say that I feel for my colleagues in the UC system, and especially for graduate students who face the worst academic job market since the Depression.  But Christian is probably right @36.  If the field—a field with a long history of contentious debate about its purposes—can’t take a critique like mine, things might be much worse than I thought.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  09:16 PM
  39. Sometimes the vacuum created by the lack of vibrant, coherent, cultural studies departments leads to these sorts of discussions.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  09:25 PM
  40. Oy, those sorts of discussions.

    And I just realized something.  Arts and Letters Daily did not pitch my essay as a jeremiad or a death-rattle; their link to it reads, “Cultural studies may stand in some minds for ‘half-assed research, self-congratulation, farcical pretension’ [quoting McChesney].  Michael Bérubé sees in it the promise of an understanding that actually works.” Just for the record.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  10:01 PM
  41. Sorry if I seem overly hostile; it’s not my intention. And I hope I wasn’t the one that Christian H saw as “ruthlessly name calling abd labelling”; my point about framing wasn’t that Michael was trying to claim emergency powers and lead us to war—unless he is, in which case, I denounce him!—but that the way to argue with those who are (someone like Yudof) is not to let them frame the issue that way. What;s going on in the university today is something that’s been going on for a very long time. So while it might seem like a small niggling point, I don’t think any of this is really a question of timing at all (which is exactly why the critique, if it is sound, should be made). But then, that’s the thing: I’m not convinced that it is. I’m not trying to denounce the essay as a whole—I liked the Stuart Hall bits and it spurred me to check out Policing the Crisis from the library—but I regret the many parts of it that do sound to me like a jeremiad, and to remain confused about what a phrase like this is supposed to mean:

    “cultural studies now means everything and nothing; it has effectively been conflated with ‘cultural criticism’ in general, and associated with a cheery ‘Pop culture is fun!’ approach.”

    Like the Davis signatories, I just don’t have any idea what you’re talking about there; “Pop culture is Fun” still seems like a straw man to me, not at all aided by all the passive voiced verbs through which you’re beating on it.

    Posted by aaron  on  09/25  at  11:51 PM
  42. aaron, no, the “name-calling and labeling” bit was just a somewhat inside-ry joke aimed at myself, about what we on the (to borrow a term of Ken MacLeod’s) industrial strength Trotskyism left often mean when we say “comradely debate”. Saying “in the spirit of comradely debate” is quite like saying “I don’t mean to be rude”.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  12:11 AM
  43. Like the Davis signatories, I just don’t have any idea what you’re talking about there

    Yes, I can see that this is a problem.  I will try to fix it.  I will spend much of the weekend trying to get people up to speed on what happened in the 1990s.  Anyway, for “conflated with cultural criticism in general,” see the list of topics provided by the UC Davis letter itself; for “associated with a ‘pop culture is fun’ approach,” see the careers of John Fiske and Henry Jenkins, the model of the “intellectual as fan,” and of course McChesney’s response to same.  It might be worthwhile looking at some of the critiques I’m summarizing, too—besides Pfister, there’s Jim McGuigan’s Cultural Populism, John Frow’s Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, and John Michael’s chapter on cultural studies in Anxious Intellects.

    Or, to stay on this thread, just look at some of the stuff I linked in comment 7.  From the first link:

    The 1990s cultural studies profs have rivaled Rush in their rejection of the kind of socio-political analysis of culture practiced by the Frankfurt School—critics like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who stressed mass culture’s power to control and alienate.

    The cultstuds, on the other hand, lecture about the postmodern and transgressive power of the consumer to mold and manipulate received culture to suit one’s own tastes, which Frank reminds us is not the same as political freedom practiced in a democracy. On the contrary, the license to choose Coke over Pepsi is a freedom emptied of political content. Obsession with the shallow led to absurdities like the normally astute cultural critic bell hooks fawning in Spin Magazine over white corporate computer geek Jaron Lanier because of his fulsome dreadlocks. In a time when rebellion is just another consumer choice, corporate culture loves culture studies.

    From the second:

    In one chapter, he recounts the curious contemporary history of the “cultural studies” university intellectuals, many of whom have turned the academic defense of popular culture into an institutional apology for the “democratic” wisdom of consumption, and at least some of whom have defected to ad agencies and consultantships, where the rewards are definitely greener and the subjects--the target markets, that is--are truly interdisciplinary. While deftly deconstructing the self-proclaimed “cult studs,” Frank notes ironically (much of the funniest and most telling detail is in his backnotes) that One Market Under God will likely get its only thorough reading among the inhabitants of such university departments.

    And the third:

    In addition to cheerleaders like Peters, business has also been helped, Frank writes, by its putative opponents, the self-described radicals of university cultural studies departments, where scholars devote themselves to analyzing the “subversive” elements in pop culture. Frank’s indictment of the way cultural studies reinforces the status quo mirrors the argument Russell Jacoby made in last year’s penetrating “The End of Utopia.” The cultural studies professors both writers reprove tend to regard any criticism of consumer society as elitist, since it questions the taste and intelligence of ordinary consumers. Jacoby quotes cultural studies professor Alan Wolfe: “[W]hatever the literati once denounced, cultural studies will uphold: romance novels, ‘Star Trek’, heavy metal, Disneyland, punk rock, wrestling, Muzak, ‘Dallas’ ... If shopping centers were for an earlier generation of Marxists symbols of the fetishism of commodities, then contemporary advocates of cultural studies ... find them “overwhelming and constitutively paradoxical.” These academics may regard themselves as latter-day Marxists, but this position ensures that they’ll forever be defending the market.

    As I note upthread, all these critiques came from the left of the dial.  As if you didn’t have enough to be depressed about.  But I don’t see the point in pretending that this simply didn’t happen, or that I’m the very first person ever to complain about how cultural studies got conflated with pop-culture populism.  Stuart Hall’s weariness with essays on Madonna and The Sopranos didn’t come out of nowhere. 

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  06:02 AM
  44. Michael—While you’re contemplating your Cultural Studies Corrective Update you might want to take a look at the Hillis Miller piece. It is not, of course, about CS, but about literary studies. I find it useful as a quick synoptic overview of what happened between Then and Now.

    (Of course, I also find it congenial because I was a student at Hopkins back then and studied with Miller and with some of the others he mentions. I actually remember almost what it was like way back then. I say “almost” because, of course, the French landed while I was there. But some of the old guys were still there, I even studied with one or two of them, and the old ethos was still strong.)

    What I find particularly compelling is his observation that “English literature used to be a chief means by which people were interpellated as United States citizens.” That is to say, it has a civic function, and that civic function was invested in the high art canon, not pop culture. It seems to me that the question of the political function of CS is one of remaining in touch with that civic function, but in a different context. The legitimacy of the state & its claims to justice are now in doubt and so now the proper civic role is to oppose the state (& capitalism).

    The study of pop-culture texts is no more objective and neutral than was the study of high culture canon. But the pretense of neutrality is not available. Nor does one necessarily examine those pop culture texts in order to advance the agenda in those texts in the way that more traditional scholars teach the canon in order to advance the values in the canon. The critic’s relation to those pop culture texts is more, well, complicated. They aren’t one’s own texts and their politics isn’t the critic’s politics; rather, the resistence (if that’s what it is) in those texts is being recruited to play some role in the critic’s politics.

    Unless, of course, the critic has simply abandoned any effective oppositional politics, which seems to be the sort of critique McChesney is offering.

    (Then there are those of us who examine pop culture outside of CS. At least some of us do this because pop culture, after all, is culture; it is meaningful to people. So why not study it on that basis? Why does one need to make a civic claim in order to justify the study of pop culture?)

    @christian, #36: I read the Yudof interview. Yikes! Given the man the “let ‘em eat cake” award.

    Captcha = “dark”

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/26  at  11:37 AM
  45. The problem cultural studies poses for the US left doesn’t come from cultural studies. It is only to be expected that someone in that area would view all things through the lens of, well, culture. The problem is that the left is so weak that it is completely dominated by academic leftism, and most of that is situated in cultural studies/literary studies/ theory. This leads to an unhealthy imbalance, imo.

    If you look at Europe, then the political practice of the radical left there is dominated by industrial militancy, with academic leftism only in a supporting role, if you will.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  11:58 AM
  46. I’m sorry, I was looking for an argument. This must be abuse!  is how I would possibly uncharitably label the UC Davis response.

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/26  at  01:01 PM
  47. well, can’t say people are not reading...even outside of Chavesistan. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung (one of the biggest german newspapers) there is an article today (sadly not online), “America discusses the Unversity after the ‘Cultural Studies’” which was prompted by your article.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  02:05 PM
  48. Well ... that’s pretty uncharitable, PP.  In the course of writing sections I-XVII of my reply this morning, I did take exception to the passage about how “we want to highlight the dangerous ways in which Bérubé’s critique obscures the more pressing issues facing scholars working in cultural studies,” because it basically says that I should have directed my attention instead to getting more funding for cultural studies programs; but I read that, and the final paragraph, as the work of people laboring under the reign of Yudof and the Terminator.  In general, I didn’t think the reply was abusive.  On the contrary, it’s generated precisely the kind of discussion I hoped we would have.

    Adrian:  goodness gracious.  You’d think that the whole country was convulsed in the debate between the Althusserians and the neo-Gramscians.  When in reality, millions of us are hard at work trying to find Obama’s birth certificate hidden behind the secret death panels.

    In other news:  I celebrated turning 48 with two goals and an assist this morning.  B-league game, 6:30 am slot.  But the stats aren’t important—the important thing is that I was actually cleared to play last week by a real live neurosurgeon.  “You’re in no more danger of being wheeled off in a gurney than you were before you developed the pinched nerve,” he said (somewhat) reassuringly.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  02:37 PM
  49. Certainly I think much of the follow up has been enlightening and am happy that the tenor has moved towards discussion rather than abuse, but some of the initial salvos seemed to assume less than good faith and seemed to be designed more towards rhetorical leverage than engagement.  I realize that being a Prof. of Dangeral studies you sometimes talk around some of your points as well as appear to those who might already view you unfavorably as sarcastic and superior.  I don’t agree with those criticisms, but realize that it must be incredibly difficult to present any argument within these areas that is succinct and direct, as the massive amount of context that informs any particular viewpoint weighs down the discourse heavily.

    From a dilettante’s point of view it seems like there’s a little bit of knife-sharpening going on, as if points are scored for slagging off our hero.

    Giant Nuclear Fireball is the great equalizer in this debate, I think.

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/26  at  04:20 PM
  50. el señor presidente chávez vocea oficialmente su disgusto con el cambio de nombre, y con la pérdida de su espacio aéreo.

    este blog ya no será invitado a formar parte de la revolución bolivariana.

    Posted by d  on  09/26  at  04:25 PM
  51. Speaking of GNFs, an oldie but goodie:

    Ready Willing

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/26  at  04:42 PM
  52. Ah, well. I must confess, once I’d uploaded that photo of our Fearless Leader standing in front of an aerosol painting of a GNF I was unsatisfied with image. The GNF in the background seemed rather washed out. I figured that me and Photoshop could do better. So I offer this rendering of that image, which I regard as all together superior to the previous rendering, though not “perfect” by any means (for example, the buttons on Fearless Leader’s coat have disappeared):

    ready willing 2.jpg

    As far as I can tell, the two images “mean” much the same. But the aesthetics is (are?) different.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/26  at  05:27 PM
  53. I don’t know, Bill, I think one picture says “CULTURAL STUDIES FAIL!%^!* *An argument never before made with such time and care” while the other says “Here is a thought provoking treatise on the state of cultural studies.” The images could not be more dissimilar!

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/26  at  08:07 PM
  54. Michael,

    Would you please lead the way in the elimination of the awful and ubiquitous pleonasm, “actually,” as in your “I actually thought,”
    “I actually wrote,” and “Actually, if you’re in one.”

    I would actually appreciate it very much, really.



    Posted by  on  09/26  at  08:13 PM
  55. Perhaps there is some deeper structural meaning to the White House of the Nittany Lions???

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  08:15 PM
  56. Wait, am I giving you crap on your birthday? Um, happy birthday!

    Now, the giving you crap (with the hope that it’s useful crap): Bill’s “Why does one need to make a civic claim in order to justify the study of pop culture?” nicely articulates something I was responding to without having found the right words for. It’s one thing to bemoan the fact that we latter day Yanks don’t read Stuart Hall (and I personally bemoan the fact that the crazy lady at UC Press bookstore offered to sell me a copy of Policing the Crisis for $90 yesterday, after it became clear that not a single copy was for sale anywhere in Berkeley). It’s quite another thing to imply that studying pop culture is somehow to blame for this state of affairs. Are you arguing that the second has squeezed out the first in some sense? Or merely bemoaning the fact that we only do the second?

    As for those block quotes, can’t one bemoan a tendency within the discipline without (as they do) generalizing it as the thing that is characteristic of the discipline as a whole? And while I recognize that Stuart Hall’s weariness doesn’t come out of nowhere, why must the sins of what I would be more likely to name “consumerist postmodernism,” (though not fully fancying that name either) be laid at the doorstep of “cultural studies”? Why couldn’t the critique be of a tendency within cultural studies which is equally a tendency within English departments and so forth?

    I might just be quibbling about rhetoric. But I guess I’m invested in the question because my experience has been the precise reverse: among the people I know who take “cultural studies” seriously, these kinds of criticisms of the “pop culture is fun” approach are pretty much taken for granted, something that was long ago internalized as a reaction to what happened in the days of high theory. And those who simply study pop culture just do so without any of the hyperbole; they are simply interested in these kinds of very powerful and rich textual documents. So again, I’m sort of left bemused as to why the state of cultural studies looks so grim right now. Maybe I just live in a Berkeley bubble (though, as I noted, well insulated from Stuart Hall as well). 

    Also, bring on the nuclear fireball. We’re all laboring under the reign of Yudof and the Terminator, and only massive conflagration can save us (the apocalypse always happens in California first, but it doesn’t stay there...)

    Posted by aaron  on  09/26  at  09:19 PM
  57. “You’re in no more danger of being wheeled off in a gurney than you were before you developed the pinched nerve,” he said (somewhat) reassuringly.

    A reassurance which was spoiled by the malevolent cackle he punctuated it with.

    And HAPPY 48TH BIRTHDAY, Professor (just under the wire).  How depressing is it that I feel decrepit, while you are cleared for more hockey mayhem, not to mention subjecting unworthy cultural studies programs to death panels with your bare hands?*

    I’ve stayed out of this one, because my reaction to Livingston’s salvo was similar to Pinko Punko’s, a reaction reinforced by certain comments to that post.  On the other hand, aaron has demonstrated genuine argument, which isn’t just contradiction.** So it’s probably for the best that I’ve repeatedly bitten my metaphorical typing tongue.


    **It can be.***

    ***No it can’t.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  10:20 PM
  58. It’s not entirely true that cultural studies hasn’t had an impact on psychology. There’s some cross-citing in social psychology, and a bit at the fringes of cognitive psychology, e.g., in cognitive linguistics (which is pseudoscience, I know, but it’s at least sciency pseudoscience), in the study of cognition and culture, the cognitive stuff in ethnomusicology, etc. Also, there’s the Stanford Humanities Lab, which is something like an intersection.

    To say that cultural studies have had a big influence on psychology would be an extreme exaggeration, but there’s more than a unicorn’s carbon footprint. Think of it as a dodo bird’s carbon footprint. At least there’s some evidence in the psychology literature that, at least at one time, cultural studies actually existed.

    Posted by Chris  on  09/27  at  02:17 AM
  59. You are now in Qaddafian Airspace.

    No wonder those poor folks actually fighting for their jobs at UC Davis are so upset with you, regardless of what you actually wrote. Not only do you own a mansion and a yacht, but now you’re actually camped out on Donald Trump’s lawn.

    Cultural Studies has opened the door to a lavish lifestyle of consorting with pop culture celebrities for you, and now you actually want to slam the door on them. Apparently some just-beyond-middle-aged men got the everything, and are leaving the nothing for the PhD’s with the dainty footprints.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  06:23 AM
  60. Looks like I can get into the airspace again, so happy birthday yesterday!

    Looking forward to the next post.  Brad DeL is already running amok, but what to do.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  01:21 PM
  61. Hey you kids!  Stop commenting already.  You’re making it harder to write this reply, which is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.

    Ed @ 54:

    Would you please lead the way in the elimination of the awful and ubiquitous pleonasm, “actually,” as in your “I actually thought,”
    “I actually wrote,” and “Actually, if you’re in one.”

    I will not.  It’s actually my very own rhetorical tic, thank you, and if I don’t maintain it, those crazy guys over at the Language Log are going to publish some nonsense about how I always use the phrase “at the end of the day,” which I actually almost never use.

    Now, enough already.  I’ve decided to post my very thoughtful, etc. reply at Crooked Timber, because we’ll have a more interdisciplinary readership there.  I’ll reproduce a bunch of the comments from this thread, of course.  The thing should be up by tomorrow.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  02:51 PM
  62. How cool that you are back as a blogger.

    I recently landed my first “real” academic job in a department that is vaguely cultural studies but not quite using that name. All I have to say is that I am really thrilled to be working on the track. These days, that is the real privilege.

    The older I get, the less I care that much anymore what things are called. However, I agree that it would be nice to see Economists and International Relations people occasionally citing Foucault. smile

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  06:15 PM
  63. Arbitrary note:
    Looking forward to tomorrow at Crooked Timber, but how can you work when Happy Valley is so not happy???  Somehow the little things were not taken care of yesterday, leading the big things into non-Qaddafian Airspaces.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  07:36 PM
  64. Oh, mighty Moloch, that was a dismal, dismal game.  And to tease us by opening it with an electrifying 75-yard TD on our first touch!  It was indeed a very soggy and sorry valley here today.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  11:29 PM
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