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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Things I did not know

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

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

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

But meanwhile, can you please, PLEASE stop whimpering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, now back to those dire financial conditions.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael on 09/23 at 03:41 PM
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