• July 26, 2014

What's the Matter With Cultural Studies?

The popular discipline has lost its bearings

What's the Matter With Cultural Studies? 1

Dave Plunkert

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Dave Plunkert

In the spring, I was asked to participate in a plenary panel at the Cultural Studies Association (U.S.), and the opportunity led me to rethink the history of the field. The session's title was "The University After Cultural Studies." As is my wont on such occasions, I decided to take issue with the idea that the field has had such an impact on American higher education that we can talk about the university after cultural studies.

For what kind of impact has cultural studies had on the American university as an institution over the past 20 or 25 years? The field began in Britain in the late 1950s with a Marxist critique of culture by Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, as the British New Left broke with the Communist Party's defense of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Williams's ambitious and provocative book, Culture and Society (1958), reviewed the debate over the relationship of culture and society in Britain since the days of Edmund Burke. In the 1960s, Williams and E.P. Thompson redrew the map of British labor history, and in the 1970s, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies issued a series of brilliant papers on mass media and popular culture that culminated in the prediction of the rise of Thatcherism—a year before Margaret Thatcher took office. Since its importation to the United States, however, cultural studies has basically turned into a branch of pop-culture criticism.

Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978), the Birmingham collection that predicted the British Labour Party's epochal demise, is now more than 30 years old. In that time, 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? Those seem to me to be useful questions to ask, and one useful way of answering them is to say, sadly, no. Cultural studies hasn't had much of an impact at all.

I'm saying this baldly and polemically for a reason. I know there are worthy programs in cultural studies at some North American universities, like Kansas State and George Mason, where there were once no programs at all. I know that there is more interdisciplinary work than there was 25 years ago; there is even an entire Cultural Studies Association, dating all the way back to 2003. 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 and 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-critical and more open to public engagement. Some people even suggested, in either hope or fear, that cultural studies would become the name for the humanities and social sciences in toto.

Lest that sound grandiose, I want to insist that there was, at the time, good reason to think that 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. In 1990, my first year as an assistant professor there, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held a conference on "Cultural Studies Now and in the Future." The program included historians, media theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and AIDS activists; and the theoretical terrain—over which cultural studies had held earlier skirmishes with deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, and, of course, in an epochal struggle, with 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.

I'm not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor. But if you compare the institutional achievements of cultural studies with its initial hopes, I don't see how you can't be disappointed.

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. The good news on that front is 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. 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 habitually forget this, English departments are just a tiny part of the university. Cultural studies may find some sympathetic receptions in some wings of some departments of modern languages, in communications, in education, in history, or anthropology. But it hasn't had much of an impact on sociology, at least not compared with cultural studies in Britain, where cultural studies engaged critically (and often caustically) with sociology from the outset.

I recently gave a talk arguing that the political blogosphere vindicated one of cultural studies' central beliefs—and rebuking the Robert W. McChesney-Noam Chomsky-Edward S. Herman model of mass media (all three of those influential theorists said at the outset of this decade that the Internet could not work as a progressive political force, because it was commercial). 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. The Internet may be dominated by commercial interests, but the liberal/left blogosphere appeared out of nowhere, largely as the result of the "netroots" work of ordinary men and women with nothing more than laptops, modems, and a desire to offer an alternative to cable news. 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." 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.

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.

So let me proceed to throw some cold water on the intellectual, as distinct from the institutional, history of cultural studies in America. First and foremost, it has been understood, which is to say misunderstood, as coextensive with the study of popular culture. That is very much the fault of cultural-studies scholars: It is what we get for saying (rather insistently, as I recall) that cultural studies has no specific methodology or subject matter.

The result is that 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. Anybody writing about The Bachelor or American Idol is generally understood to be "doing" cultural studies, especially by his or her colleagues elsewhere in the university. In a recent interview, Stuart Hall, a former director of the Birmingham Centre and still the most influential figure in cultural studies, gave a weary response to this development, one that speaks for itself: "I really cannot read another cultural-studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos."

Finally, cultural studies has had negligible impact on the American academic left in a political sense. (I make this argument at greater length in my forthcoming book, The Left at War.) That is because much of the American academic left 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 in response is not that corporate mass media don't dupe people; on the contrary, they do it every day. The point, rather, is that work like Hall's on the ideological underpinnings of deregulation and privatization under Thatcher (which he called "authoritarian populism") shows that the situation is much more complicated than that propaganda model. The left's task would actually be easier if all it had to do was expose lies as lies. Instead, you have to do a great deal of groundwork in civil society to try to forge an egalitarian response.

To this day, Hall's other work on race, ethnicity, and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited (and rightly so), even as his work on Thatcherism—and the challenge it poses to the intellectual left—is thoroughly ignored. The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (Verso, 1988), the collection that contains many of the essays on Thatcherism that Hall first wrote for Marxism Today, is out of print and has been for some time; and most major cultural-studies anthologies, even a volume devoted to him, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (Routledge, 1996), do not include any of the essays from Hard Road.

In an especially rich essay, "The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists"—in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988), edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg—Hall wrote: "The first thing to ask about an 'organic' ideology that, however unexpectedly, succeeds in organizing substantial sections of the masses and mobilizing them for political action, is not what is false about it but what is true." What, in other words, actively makes sense to people whose beliefs you do not share? Hall proposed that leftist intellectuals should not answer that question by assuming that working-class conservatives have succumbed to false consciousness: "It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas 'they'—the masses—are the dupes of history, 'we'—the privileged—are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation."

Does anybody on the contemporary American left actually operate that way? In the Britain of the 1980s, there were those who were quite foolishly willing to accuse Hall of betraying the left by proposing that it could learn from how Thatcherism constituted a hegemonic project. Today plenty of people on the left continue to believe that working-class conservatives are bamboozled by the corporate media into misidentifying their real material interests. False consciousness, after all, is what's the matter with Kansas.

As the late, great journalist and feminist Ellen Willis wrote in 1999, it's kind of amazing—or kind of depressing—how predictably the left reaches for such an explanation of the world: "When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a wide assortment of liberals and leftists called for unity around a campaign for economic justice. Each time the right wins an egregious victory (as in the Congressional elections of 1994), dozens of lefty commentators rush into print with some version of this proposal as if it were a daring new idea. You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past 18 years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever? Are people stupid, or what?"

The left too often replies, "No, people are not stupid, they're just hornswoggled by Fox News on the right and distracted by college professors who obsess about race, gender, and sexuality on the left." Which is why Willis basically had to make the same critique all over again six years later, when, shortly before her untimely death, she wrote the essay "Escape From Freedom" as a response to the success of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004).

Indeed, 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. "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," Hall wrote in 1983. "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 think: How often do we find ourselves ascribing disparate political events and cultural phenomena solely to neoliberalism—that is, to the evisceration of the social-welfare state and the privatization of social goods? That is not to say that neoliberalism is immaterial; it 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. 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.

But I want to ask, in a general way, whether cultural-studies theorists are starting from the fact of neoliberalism and then proceeding to the analysis, or whether the analysis simply concludes where it begins, with "It's the neoliberalism, stupid."

There seems to me all the difference in the world between those two approaches: The material base doesn't always determine the most influential ideas and cultural artifacts of the superstructure. As Hall argued, monocausal explanations have the advantage of simplicity. They just don't work very well as accounts of the world.

In 1996, in a scathing, freewheeling, and woefully under-informed critique of the field, Robert McChesney, the media theorist, asked, "Is there any hope for cultural studies?" No, he said emphatically, 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 had to get back to good old political economy! For, as McChesney doggedly insisted, "it is only through class politics that human liberation can truly be reached." I'm sorry to say that his arguments have carried the day in all too many left 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 itself.

But 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 20 years ago. I no longer expect cultural studies to transform the disciplines. But I do think cultural studies 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 cultural studies' understanding of hegemony is a form of understanding with great explanatory power—that is to say, a form of understanding that actually works.

Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. His next book, "The Left at War," will be published by New York University Press in November.

Comments

1. jmittell - September 14, 2009 at 02:09 pm

Great piece - my one comment is that calling McChesney a "media theorist" is charitably offbase. He's a solid historian, but his "theory" isn't much more than the deterministic Marxism that Hall dismantled in the 1980s.

2. jeelliott - September 14, 2009 at 02:46 pm

One of the reasons that cultural studies did not fan out across the humanities curriculum to be "the start of something big" is that the broader social development accentuating its disciplinary appeal--the delegitimation of literary study in the university--prompted a more pragmatic, less polemically engaged solution: the expansion of writing programs as university service units.
It is also the case that social organizations have a limited carrying capacity for what appears to be fifth-column subversion; the transformative politics that was the hope of early cultural studies practitioners never took shape not because cultural studyists lost their nerve or were victims of false consciousness (as Berube discusses above) but because complex, commercially oriented, deeply networked institutions have no conceivable use for such alternatives except in carefully controlled "wards of dissent." Faculty in more established fields would have little to gain professionally (but potentially much to lose) by encouraging disciplinary imports with a dodgy academic reputation.
Finally, while it is noteworthy that American cultural studies never took much of an interest in mainline sociology (including, tellingly, cultural sociology), it is not really the case that the British were more intrepid or better informed here. Gramsci, Hoggart, Williams, Lukacs, Foucault, Habermas now and then: these are (if anything) social theorists or social thinkers rather than sociologists, their work reacting explicitly or otherwise to an already existing sociological tradition that cultural studyists on either side of the Atlantic have too often dismissed as "complicit" and therefore not worth reading. This has been a mistake.

3. dankingbooks - September 14, 2009 at 09:38 pm

Berube ignores two earth-shattering events:

1) The collapse of the Soviet Union discredits Marxism, and to the extent Cultural Studies is derivative of Marxism, it is equally discredited.

2) The rise of evolutionary psychology, which provides alternative explanations of human behavior that are much more satisfying than "false consciousness" and "economic determinism."

I believe these two facts alone render cultural studies utterly irrelevant.

4. andremayer - September 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

Very good piece. I agree with dankingbooks, however, that the failure of Marxism to deliver the goods economically (a serious problem for a materialist philosphy!) was a problem. In addition, we have the problem in the US that the left, such as it is, really doesn't like civil society and its institutions (at least in the present), favoring individual rights. Finally, I'd add the sociology isn't exactly in robust health either, to the extent that departments are being abolished.

5. mjg6601 - September 15, 2009 at 10:34 am


The current popularity of books about religion/theism/atheism indicates an interest among academics and the (paying) public in foundational issues and matters of ultimate concern. Evolutionary psychology is part of this conversation. There is no reason that cultural studies cannot take part in the conversation, and theorists/sociologists such as Christopher Lasch long ago invited cultural studies to join the conversation. Instead, cultural theory limited itself to a Marxian frame of reference and continues to cling to the wreckage. Time to move on.

6. johnprotevi - September 15, 2009 at 10:57 am

The last three comments wonderfully demonstrate the Hall / Berube thesis that monocausal accounts don't really help us understand today's complex world in which we live in today. Marxism bad! Let's find a new Big Theory! I know: Ev Psych good! Sheesh.

7. johnprotevi - September 15, 2009 at 11:01 am

In response to Berube's claim that monocausal accounts don't help us understand today's complex world in which we live in today, danking books says "Marxism bad! Ev Psych good!"

And then this flat and monocausal "analysis" wins the approval of the next two commenters.

Is it really too much to ask that commenters engage with the thesis of an article rather than exemplify that which the article criticizes?

8. tango666 - September 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm

TEST

9. cstars - September 15, 2009 at 02:53 pm

As much as I appreciate Michael's essay, I still do not know what Cultural Studies is other than the study of pop culture.

As a philosopher, I understand 'no fixed content,' but neither content nor methodology? Isn't this reducible to 'smart people talking about whatever interests them'?

10. tango666 - September 15, 2009 at 03:36 pm

Why is the case that every few years there is an article on theme "What's Wrong With Cultural Studies?". A cursory search returns these results:

1. Cultural Studies and its Discontents: Pacific Asia Cultural Studies Forum in Britain (1998)
2. So-called Cultural Studies: Dead Ends and Reinvented Wheels
(1998)
3. Culutral Studies: A Reluctant Discipline (1998)
4. Those Who Disdain Cultural Studies Don't Know What They're Talking About (1999)
5. High anxiety: cultural studies and its uses (2003)
6. Banality for Cultural Studies (2003)
7. Rereading the past from the future (2007)
8. Does Cultural Studies have futures? Should it (2007)

Yes, there are other humanities and social science disciplines go through periodic episodes of existential crisis, it is not just Cultural Studies. But why? Weren't there anything good on TV those years? Is it the economy? Yes, conjuctural reflexivity is fine and dandy, but do these sort of reflections really change anything in the discipline?

As Mr. Zimmerman once said: "Don't Follow Leaders, Watch the Parking Meters."

11. cobbrussell - September 15, 2009 at 03:54 pm

Berube raised a great question and then failed to answer it: does Cultural Studies have to follow the Birmingham school to be Cultural Studies?

There's also a glaring blind spot here: Berube is too narrowly focused on the U.S. debate about Cultural Studies. There's a sophisticated tradition of a version of Cultural Studies in Latin America that has much to teach Anglophones. All too often, though, U.S. scholars--ironically enough--act just like U.S. politicians, thinking that the rest of the world has nothing to offer.

Just as the university doesn't revolve around the English Department, the world doesn't revolve around the U.S.


12. vixenvena - September 15, 2009 at 06:07 pm

Though I appreciate this history essay on Cultural Studies, to be fair, as the author hid somewhere in the text, there aren't many types of employment besides grandiose academic professorship can be attained by undergrads with an emphasis on cultural studies. Who wants a degree where they might not get a job?

13. slaphappypappy - September 15, 2009 at 08:17 pm

The matter with Cultural Studies is a professor of English who finds nothing wrong with writing this sentence:

"The period of theoretical ferment that began in the late 1960s and gained traction in the 1970s seemed to have reached the boiling point."

14. gtkarn - September 16, 2009 at 01:38 am

The last two comments seem warranted; all this radical talk and the professoriate, especially in the humanities, continues to dissolve into pieceworkers. Meanwhile, as always, academic "stars" do fine.

15. laoshi - September 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

"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 habitually forget this, English departments are just a tiny part of the university."

Perhaps we need to rethink the English department paradigm. The study of English, as the dominant language of the USA, should incorporate as much cultural studies as possible. This actually happens in many English as a second language (ESL), but teacher education for English is in humanities departments and TESL is in education departments.

Perhaps we need an "applied" cultural studies, just as we have applied linguistics driving scholarly research in ESL contexts. ESL teacher education often includes exposure to critical discourse analysis and sociolinguistics, yet only some English department teachers dabble in these areas. If we merged English and ESL together, then cultural studies would be apropos in such a hybrid department.

Yes, there are some corporate intercultural communications approaches that are applied, but they still commodify culture. Having been exposed to some of these hucksters, I do notice some sincerity among the people taking these seminars. People who we'd label as conservative can become critical with the right coaching and training. But why are these intercultural seminars necessary? Have we failed to teach people culture whilst they were learning their English language?

Just throwing this idea up for pondering. Conflating English and ESL departments may be a pragmatic move that will produce college graduates with higher intercultural competence, despite their political leanings.

16. bigredw - September 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm

The largest problem with Cultural Studies is that it is wholly the province of the Left: it was born out of Marxism and is nurtured today by far-left faculty. Anything so ideologically limited will not find greater appeal across the academy because people folks in other disciplines don't make the same assumptions that English and Sociology depts. do.

Cultural Studies works fine with "English" professors sit around and do Marxist criticism of womens' nineteenth-century garmets, but it hits a brick wall when Economists, Political Scientists, etc. start questioning the underlying assumptions of the Cultural Studies discipline. CS can only work on its own terms, with the preacher talking to the choir.

17. seanmat - September 17, 2009 at 03:58 pm

Actually, my wife has to live in an american studies department which is badly infested with cutural studies, which, as far as I can see, is almost exclusively ideologically driven 'half-assed research, self-congratulation, farcical pretension'. Many years ago, the laughing stock of universities was sociology, but these days the mantle has been passed on.

There is, though, I have often thought, an interesting sociology project in the way the word 'neoliberal' has replaced 'fascist' in such circles.

18. seanmat - September 17, 2009 at 03:58 pm

Actually, my wife has to live in an american studies department which is badly infested with cutural studies, which, as far as I can see, is almost exclusively ideologically driven 'half-assed research, self-congratulation, farcical pretension'. Many years ago, the laughing stock of universities was sociology, but these days the mantle has been passed on.

There is, though, I have often thought, an interesting sociology project in the way the word 'neoliberal' has replaced 'fascist' in such circles.

19. seanmat - September 17, 2009 at 03:58 pm

Actually, my wife has to live in an american studies department which is badly infested with cutural studies, which, as far as I can see, is almost exclusively ideologically driven 'half-assed research, self-congratulation, farcical pretension'. Many years ago, the laughing stock of universities was sociology, but these days the mantle has been passed on.

There is, though, I have often thought, an interesting sociology project in the way the word 'neoliberal' has replaced 'fascist' in such circles.

20. michaelchamberlain - September 18, 2009 at 01:35 am

Any cultural studies project that assumes that its practitioners are enlightened outsiders, possessing no special claims to authority, disengaged from from others' aspiration to power, assigning false-consciousness to all but themselves, has devolved into an abstract form of office-seeking. I was quite taken with the field for some time, until its liberating forms of self-criticism disappeared. Now it has cult-like features: the division of the world into believers and the blind, hostility to criticism of its presuppositions, and submission to charismatic figures. And of course much of it makes no sense, nor needs to. Best to start over: it was once a very good place for the curious.

21. 11216278 - September 18, 2009 at 06:35 am

"Cultural Studies" is at best Anthropology Light and Shallow -- very light and very shallow. It is largely advocacy rather than investigatory. These literati think Raymond Williams is sort of the discoverer of 'culture". They've never read Alfred Kroeber, Leslie White, Marvin Harris, Eric Wolf, Roy Rappaport, ....
It can't die soon enough.

22. harfield - September 18, 2009 at 06:50 pm

I won't give highly opinionated objections, but instead ask a pointed question: Can anyone name one thing cultural studies has ever achieved? (Aside from intellectual conceit?).

Just one.

23. harfield - September 18, 2009 at 07:17 pm

To Laoshi re "People who we'd label as conservative can become critical with the right coaching and training."

What arrogance! While there are some unreflective "conservative" ideologues, conservatism is highly critical. Like Goethe says, "our inheritance is not given to us, it is earned." If you don't see reflective conservatives in the English Faculty, it's not because they aren't up to the task, but because they see its obsessions as irrelevant.

24. harfield - September 19, 2009 at 02:30 am

danking books re "I believe these two facts alone render cultural studies utterly irrelevant."

Those things don't discredit cultural studies at all.Marx's cache lies in his historiography, not distributionist politics. And evolutionary psychology would itself be considered historically and culturally "situated."

25. iangarton - September 21, 2009 at 06:16 am

"Those things don't discredit cultural studies at all. Marx's cache (cachet, did the writer?) lies in his historiography, not distributionist politics".

Has he sunk to this? Is historiography how Marx himself would wish to be remembered? Proponents of Marxism seem to follow a similar trajectory to those of a certain kind of literal theism. As science and rationality explain economic (or natural) phenomena better than the belief system itself, true believers migrate to smaller and smaller pockets of yet-to-be-explained, doesn't-need-to-be-explained or simply unexplainable subject areas. The persistence of this particular false god is both fascinating and irritating in equal measure. Public money is used to prop up departments that are neither vocational or academic merely to give agreeable homes to a few relics from a bygone age.

26. dianapeiwu - September 21, 2009 at 08:23 am

1. Well, I would say that cultural studies has absolutely changed the tenor and type of work that young scholars are doing across the humanities and social sciences. We will be seeing the changes, but not until these junior faculty become more prominent and established in their institutions and fields.

2. The invective against the left (especialy so-called left academics) who still subscribe to a false consciousness model for the masses and their perceived lack of resistance is fiarly right on. The more subtle question asked by folks who take a cultural studies approach - not exclusive to cultural studies, of course - is more what are the underlying beliefs and practices, what is a cultural frame that encapsulates this reality, how did it come to be this way, why do people participate. This is still useful and relevant to pinpointing moments and isntances in which progressive projects might flip a dynamic of oppression. Studies of white people, for instance, reveal the absolute prevalence and importance of silence on racism as a key tenet of maintaining white privilege and white supremacy.

SO: (1) Generational change will be slow. We will see the differences soon, but it may be another half-generation.

(2) Some of what is useful about this analysis is that it is true that among the progressive left there is a deeply held, elite notion of false consciousness among the masses. In the US reality, this is profoundly counterproductive as it simply reinforces aspects of racism and class bias (or elitism), in particular. It reinforces an existing sexist structure as well, although that depends on particular departments and regional geographies as to hw it is manifested and experienced.

27. harfield - September 23, 2009 at 01:59 am

i think iangarton is right when he talks about marxism as a literal theism, though I think he would agree that marxist proponents aren't necessarily proponents of soviet-style government. Much more went into its collapse than its notion of historical trajectory. But when you say "science and rationality explain economic (or natural) phenomena better than the belief system itself", you encounter some problems, as I don't think a marxist would think of itself as a belief system any more than science would - one can't drink the postmodernist punch of "belief systems", and use it in order to discredit it. Science and rationality (in the form of evolutionary psychology?) is, for the marxist (in the sense of models developed within a marxist lineage), not a useful tool for interpretting historical change.

ultimately, most people don't have the time, resources, or inclination to be subtle thinkers and fact-weighers, and are more interested in conclusions than methods used to bring them about. To the extent that cultural studies entails progressivism, I'm against it, as progressivism is always its own undoing, no matter how good it looks on paper.

When dianapeiwu says the important questions are "what are the underlying beliefs and practices, what is a cultural frame that encapsulates this reality" I think is always led to the same dreary conclusion, instrumentalizing law as an agent of change.

What is the defense of cultural studies? THe same as any other department -- it works, and you can't write it off without seeing it in action. So get your mitts off us! If only they were so generous to the rest of us. I've yet to meet the cultural studies person who could seriously rebut the principles of limited government, being more interested in sniffing out oppression than championing freedom (except, of course, when it comes to their own department)

28. harfield - September 23, 2009 at 06:09 am

http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/

29. seanmat - September 25, 2009 at 07:01 am

The matter with cutural studies, as your article documents, is that it has, at its core, an ideological agenda. It is always going to have problems fitting into a university environment (the new criterion crowd - if you like, the dual of the cultural studies crowd - never even really tried to establish themselves). Apart from that, cultural studies is installed in English departments - traditionally, you went to the English department to find out about what to read and the history of such opinions, and you still go there to learn how to write. You do not go there for amateur philosophy, amateur social anthropology, amateur sociology, amateur psychology, or amateur economic history, all of which are endemic these days, with the result that cultural studies enjoys the intra-university status that sociology enjoyed in the nineteen eighties. Finally, if you want to remake the world into your idea of a better place, then the English department is not obviously an sensible starting point.

30. seanmat - September 25, 2009 at 07:02 am

The matter with cutural studies, as your article documents, is that it has, at its core, an ideological agenda. It is always going to have problems fitting into a university environment (the new criterion crowd - if you like, the dual of the cultural studies crowd - never even really tried to establish themselves). Apart from that, cultural studies is installed in English departments - traditionally, you went to the English department to find out about what to read and the history of such opinions, and you still go there to learn how to write. You do not go there for amateur philosophy, amateur social anthropology, amateur sociology, amateur psychology, or amateur economic history, all of which are endemic these days, with the result that cultural studies enjoys the intra-university status that sociology enjoyed in the nineteen eighties. Finally, if you want to remake the world into your idea of a better place, then the English department is not obviously an sensible starting point.

31. seanmat - September 25, 2009 at 07:03 am

sorry about that. something went wrong with my browser!

32. harfield - September 26, 2009 at 04:53 am

"Finally, if you want to remake the world into your idea of a better place, then the English department is not obviously an sensible starting point."

It is a sensible starting place if English's guiding presumption is 'Look at all the great books we have in our tradition. And you know what? All rubbish; all about the sins of western culture. Here's why..." Which isn't to say there aren't a lot of competent cultural studies professors who enjoy their jobs, and like passing on what they've learned. But it disorients students within their culture if you don't hammer home the things that are good about it. Business does that, so naturally they go there. Law too, if they're lucky.

33. clydesmith - September 28, 2009 at 03:15 am

Very well done essay though I think this outcome was clear years ago.

My own experience of cultural studies in a higher education setting was in the short lived Cultural Studies in Education graduate program at Ohio State University where I earned my doctorate.

It was a very odd program that drew together a group of faculty with varying left/liberal tendencies but little interest in the concept of culture. There was never a serious discussion of the various uses of the term culture or of the history of cultural studies. I had to learn about all that on my own.

But the political struggle between faculty members in the program was the most disheartening element. As one faculty member told me, they battled to bring the program into existence and, once they had won those battles with outsiders, they then turned on each other.

At least they were true to the history of the left!

I could say a lot more but then I start to sound bitter at how much time I wasted in that program. Nevertheless, I learned a lot, though it was largely outside those classes and involved reading that I assigned myself or classes that I took in other departments.

Thank goodness for OSU's fine library system and the incredibly efficient interlibrary loan program of the time.





34. laoshi - October 01, 2009 at 09:40 am

@harfield
To Laoshi re "People who we'd label as conservative can become critical with the right coaching and training."

"What arrogance! While there are some unreflective "conservative" ideologues, conservatism is highly critical"

Arrogance? You are equivocating "people we'd label as conservatives" with "conservatives". There is a difference, just as those who we'd label as liberal are the most likely to threaten academic freedom. Most of those defined as mainstream conservatives are just resistant to change, period. The more reflective/critical ones are just trying to stay under the radar.

I'd agree with you that true conservatism requires critical reflection. My dream is to someday teach a course on "Conservative Critical Theory", but that will never happen on a US campus.

Apologies for not being more clear in my original post. Arrogance was not the tone I intended to convey.

35. markfoster - November 05, 2009 at 02:05 pm

I am a sociologist, not a cultural studies scholar. I would argue, however, that cultural studies has largely missed an opportunity to engage with critical social theorists in sociology departments.

Critical theory has come a long way from Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School 1930. Like cultural studies, modern critical social theory (usually called either new critical theory or postmodern critical theory) incorporates poststructuralist, critical pragmatist, and related perspectives. Both are also grounded in the "cultural Marxism" of the early Marx.

M. Foster

36. diatravels - December 01, 2009 at 05:56 pm

@cstars "As much as I appreciate Michael's essay, I still do not know what Cultural Studies is other than the study of pop culture."

The short response - you might be conflating Popular Culture Studies with Cultural Studies proper. The emergence of dissident fields of study in academic institutions (not solely Cultural Studies) are often the result of an interventionist politics that raises critical questions that established disciplines cannot bear to hear - or dare not ask.

@harfield "I've yet to meet the cultural studies person who could seriously rebut the principles of limited government, being more interested in sniffing out oppression than championing freedom (except, of course, when it comes to their own department)"

I am not certain why you assume that an analysis of oppression and championing freedom are somehow mutually exclusive. Characterizing the undertaking of such critical analyses as "sniffing out" suggests to me you too aren't really clear as to what the political and ethical imperatives of cultural studies is and its institutional geneology. A short coming of Berube's article.

Perhaps this is why seanmat would presume that American Studies is being "infected" by cultural studies. On the contrary nation-focused fields like American Studies, Canadian Studies, etc. are themselves institutional incarnations to grapple with the interventions that cultural studies scholarship brought to bare on academe. In particular how social subjects are constituted in relation to regimes of knowledge production.

37. diatravels - December 01, 2009 at 06:13 pm

@markfoster

As a sociologist, who does cultural studies scholarship I have been hard pressed to discern what explicitly distinguishes Cultural Sociology from Cultural Studies beyond the fact that the former has stronger institutional moorings? I am genuinely curious as to your thoughts.

I participated in workshops at the Centre for Cultural Sociology @ Yale and the scholarship studied and produced in that arena was indistinguishable from cultural studies scholarship. The only striking marker that appeared to me was an attempt to make methodological concerns more explicit.

I do agree there are fruitfull conversations to be had between these two "camps" - if it is appropriate to refer to them as such.

38. debbiebrown - December 30, 2009 at 01:55 pm

Hello everyone,

As a first year grad student in Cultural Studies, I found Berube's article interesting, and your comments even more so. For my final project last quarter, I wrote a paper entitled "The Future of Cultural Studues," which attempted to answer all the questions and criticisms raised in your comments. Thanks for such wonderful inspiration for a paper topic!

39. geniesan - January 06, 2010 at 11:36 pm

I'm having difficulty tracking how the categories are assumed to be working in this particular debate over the status of "cultural studies" since the content marked by the concept "culture" seems to slip around. This, in my head anyway, is a bit symptomatic of categorical thinking itself, since there are very real problems that emerge out of any attempt to fix boundaries around concepts, sets of practices, etc. Worse, as can be seen in the inumerable posts above, categorical thinking seems always to produce the desire to judge. Is it valid? Is it legitimate? Aren't the more tried and true disciplinary categories of English, History, Sociology, more legitimate in their production of knowledge. Aren't their methodologies more sound?

Sure, but let's not forget that "English" departments are just as likely to produce crappy scholarship, as they are likely to produce rigorous work. And what exactly is a disciplinary methodology? Are the various disciplines really so unified in their understanding of what defines the discipline? What are historians to make of Foucault? What are philosophers to make of something like Mille Plateaux?

Maybe this repetition of the debate on culture studies over the last while is just the symptom of a greater disciplinary consciousness/anxiety that needs its "oriental" other to beat up every once in a while, so that those with deep investments in their own legitimation schemes can come out and say, "meh! what hogwash!" One year its comp. lit. Another its cultural studies. Next, it'll be the history deparment.

The point of the article, to my mind, wasn't to argue about whether or not the discipline is legitimate. A question that seems more productive, and it's the question Berube seems to ask at the end, is what we do with the discipline? What do we produce with it?

Thought. Thinking. Not simply the reproduction of imagined disciplinary boundaries. Not simply the production of more knowledge to be tabulated and registered. God, how boring the university would be if all we did was stick to our various disciplinary methodologies to churn out a dead repetition of last decade's work. Worse than that, we would threaten to make ourselves irrelevant to all that isn't "academically derived" because of our too rigid adherence to disciplinary forms of thinking.

Cultural studies was not simply a "discipline." I never got a sense that it was fueled by a desire to find its place alongside all the other "great" disciplines of the University, so why do people keep arguing as though that was the point? It was a machine of a different sort. Built on a hope rather than a certainty - that thought was still possible within the confines of institutional disciplinarity. That thought could still matter.

This was a hope that spread into other disciplines where things had turned stagnant. In Asian Studies the emergence of cultural studies opened up a whole different set of possibilities for dealing with the "cultures" outside of a western imaginary. Modern Japanese Literature didn't have to be solely about translating texts and "representing the oriental other." It could be more critical and more productive. "Culture" opened up a space where literature, thought, and economy could interact in ways that were not thinkable before. Granted, it has also given rise to a lot of "half-assed" theoretical work, but I always thought that was because some people didn't quite get the point of pulling fields together. It wasn't that the study of culture forced us all now to spend half our time in theory and half in literature or history. It meant we had to work twice as hard. We had to be twice as sharp.

But the benefits were well worth it, and I, in agreement with Michael Berube, still think they are.

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