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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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