Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Culture, Interpretation, and the Humanities
(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)
Timothy Burke, at his blog Easily Distracted, wrote a post some time ago arguing for a Department of Everything Studies. Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous responded, and so did Smurov (at the Valve) in turn.
One of the key paragraphs from Burke’s eminently readable post is as follows:
I want to go in the opposite direction: I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what [John Holbo at the Valve] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.
I agree with Burke so much that I disagree with him. That may sound odd, but what I mean is that so far in the blogosphere (which is already a Department of Everything Studies) there has been a regrettable conflation of two distinct viewpoints. One the one hand, the blogosphere has enabled serious discussions about a new academic interdisciplinarity within the humanities, one capable of working with mixed media and synthesizing imaginative (e.g. literary) and analytical (e.g. philosophical) materials. On the other, people working in literary studies have in both surrendered to and indulged in the desire to downsize literary studies in favor of criticism of television shows, blockbuster films, comic books, pop songs, and other media. You can see both strains in what Burke has written.
If the humanities were to re-shape itself in order to accomodate the changing shape of culture, all of the analytical disciplines would combine—Philosophy, Political Science, English, Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, and the rest—while the creative disciplines would remain separate, including Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, and Musical Composition. Critics and scholars are not always good artists, and vice versa. The grounds for such a merger would be basically ideological. If we accept the idea that our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions, then it makes sense to give the study of those constructions the widest possible scope, such that they can range across politics, literature, philosophy, and so on. At Stanford, there is a Linguistics/Computer Science major entitled “Symbolic Systems.” Perhaps Symbolic Systems would be a good name for this new confluence of the human sciences.
If you do not accept the idea that the world is constructed by human beings, at least insofar as it is an object of concern for scholars in the humanities, then there is no point to a merger. The merger absolutely depends on the notion that works of fiction, and all other tropological acts of expression, are as “truthful” as a nation’s Constitution or a work of empiricist philosophy, and in the same way, less differences of rhetorical mode that do not parallel the usual fiction/non-fiction binary. Otherwise, Visual Studies professors can turn their attention to graphic novels (many already have), and Film or Media Studies or Communications professors can work on television shows and advertisements.
These discussions, the visible part of them, are the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface is the fact that writers like Charles Dickens or Alexander Pope are less significant than they once were, and the general social apathy towards these writers also affects the scholars who are paid to study and teach them. Your time is limited: you can either keep up with Battlestar Galactica, or you can remedy some embarrassing gap in your knowledge of your own field, but you can’t (beyond a certain point) do both, since both literary specializations and popular culture now imply enormous territories. We live in a time of highly accessible digital media, and the consequences for text are real; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t see so many earnest Everything Bloggers discontinuing their blogs in order to write dissertations—that is, resuming their relationships with paperbacks and hardcovers at the expense of cultural studies and the blogosphere.
Look at how this anxiety informs the post at Acephalous. Scott writes,
Consider the example of “noir.” In order to present an accurate account of noir as a cultural phenomenon, you might begin with the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but you’d be remiss if you ignored film noir, as it was not merely a contemporary phenomenon, but a complementary one. (Many of the early films being adaptations of the novels and/or written by the novelists.)
Obviously, film scholars do not feel the same way. A work like Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night draws on noir literature, just as it draws on other literary works and academic disciplines, but it is not a series of close readings of Hammett’s or Chandler’s prose. So we end up with English scholars who want to encroach on other disciplines without making the claim (first introduced in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition) that they must make first about the breadth of cultural signification, and the analogy between fiction and culture.
Here is where the specific references that buttress these calls become both issues and problems. In all the time I’ve been reading blogs, I have never, ever seen somebody use When Harry Met Sally or so-called “chick lit” as an example of the need for Everything Studies. Instead, we get a very recognizable set of reference points, among them Harry Potter, comic books/graphic novels, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see Burke’s post). As long as these discussions are saturated by obvious pointers to personal interests, the discussion will have an unpleasant tang of disguised arbitrariness and dilettantism. For bloggers, even for academic bloggers, this isn’t a problem. You and I will find readers who share our interests, and even readers who share our depth of interest in each thing. But in terms of the academic tradition of the humanities, it is simply inadmissable. There may be good reasons for a continuing lack of symmetry between academia and the blogosphere.
Finally, it is important to remember that just because Everything Studies isn’t given official departmental recognition by universities doesn’t mean it isn’t part of our culture right now. Sites like Television Without Pity or Pitchfork Media already do a great deal of cultural “work,” and they do so with a willingness to actually criticize when they write criticism. My own experience writing about auteurs like Joss Whedon is that the academic blogosphere is incapable of taking seriously the flaws in a given work of popular culture. My guess is that this has two causes: academics are used to suspending value judgements when producing readings of canonical texts, and they would consider it ridiculous to hold Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the same standard as they do Little Dorrit. (For example, because of the obligations imposed by writing for network television, as though Dickens wasn’t writing a serial under equally rigorous commercial and formal constraints.) Anything less generous makes us anxious about turning into cultural conservatives a la Harold Bloom. But, in the process, we condescend to what they propose to analyze, and pay the price: our analyses are novelties, interesting but marginal. A site like Television Without Pity has no problem criticizing episodes of Buffy, because it truly, without strain, considers the other episodes among the best that is thought and said.
In a grumpy comment at The Little Professor, I complained about a tradition of “vapidity or fraudulence” in film studies classes. “Arbitrariness and dilettantism” is a nicer way of putting it. Without the security of a canon, it’s impossible for a tourist (even one who took a month-long vacation) to present anything other than “what I happened to bump into.” Presented that way, as a starting point of a communal foray into basically unknown territory, with a good teacher and good fellow students the class might be rewarding. Presented as anything else?
And increasing the number of institutionally approved canons that humanities instructors need to swallow and regurgitate does not seem like a way to improve higher education.
But I’m far more comfortable on the web than I was in the undergraduate classroom, so what do I know?
Actually, I guess I do at least know something about why I’m more comfortable on the web. You write:
“One the one hand, the blogosphere has enabled serious discussions about a new academic interdisciplinarity within the humanities, one capable of working with mixed media and synthesizing imaginative (e.g. literary) and analytical (e.g. philosophical) materials. On the other, people working in literary studies have in both surrendered to and indulged in the desire to downsize literary studies in favor of criticism of television shows, blockbuster films, comic books, pop songs, and other media.”
The first sentence describes, yes, part of what I like about the web. The second describes the crap I tend to skip: it’s usually as dull on web pages as it would be in a course, albeit without the added insult of grading.
What makes the web a good “Department of Everything Studies” is something more like Kaufman’s ideal of bringing in a Melville scholar to teach Melville. I don’t need John Holbo to tell me about comics: the web includes an impressive number of articulate comics artists and near full-time comics enthusiasts. I don’t need exclamatory dither over an idiotic journalistic hash of a new research paper. So long as I have access to the research journals themselves, I can get to the good stuff.
As you point out, the web already has Television Without Pity. What’s needed to split that “regrettable conflation of two distinct viewpoints” is sufficient adventurousness to break out of the self-imposed notion that one can learn all one needs to know from fellow academics. Everything Studies is alive and well: it’s just not being handled by the Crooked Timber blogroll.
“Finally, it is important to remember that just because Everything Studies isn’t given official departmental recognition by universities doesn’t mean it isn’t part of our culture right now.”
I think this is a rarely acknowledged truth about the current state of the Humanities, especially literature departments.
In some senses, isn’t it fair to say that literary studies have gotten pretty darn close to seeing themselves as Everything Studies?
I don’t know about Joseph, but in my experience with graduate programs in literature, the scope of acceptable or germane areas of inquiry has expanded beyond any sort of easily discernible disciplinary boundary. Literary study, in a large number of American universities, already encompasses “Philosophy, Political Science, English, Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, and the rest.”
I’d even suggest that Everything Studies is loosely synonymous with Culture Studies. I’d love to hear someone explain the differences between these two.
Just a quickie or two . . .
At Stanford, there is a Linguistics/Computer Science major entitled “Symbolic Systems.” Perhaps Symbolic Systems would be a good name for this new confluence of the human sciences.
The last thing the world needs another bullshit pseudo-discipline – such as “general systems theory” or “Sebeotics” (the Sebeok approach to semiotics) – which attains its scope by treating everything as a nail – to use a familiar trope – and pounding the living daylights out of it. If, for example, cultural studies is heading in that direction, then it’s dispensible. Perhaps Theory is like this as well, I don’t know.
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If you want to deal with any art form, you need to think seriously about how it works on and through the senses. Pretending that ideas are all that matters is convenient because it allows you to ignore the sensuous existence of art and the difficulty of sheer description and analysis, never mind evaluation and appreciation.
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As for coverage, the study of literature is organized around a relatively small body of canonical texts. It’s easy for a single scholar to master a reasonable body of such texts along with various ancillary materials. And so the discipline is basically one of lone scholars who do not have to collaborate intimately with their peers. Thus most books and papers have only a single signature on them.
If we really want to open up all of culture to examination – with or without evaluation, which is a separate matter – then we’re going to have to change how things are done. There are too many texts for coverage through the lone-scholar model. We’re going to have to come up with a more collaborative way of doing business.
I’m not holding my breath on any of this.
"Sites like Television Without Pity or Pitchfork Media already do a great deal of cultural ‘work’, [...]”
I’d guess that you may be one of the few people who mean this seriously, but in general when people write something like this, the subtext is “Look at how cool I am for acknowledging the outsider artist.” (Where “commercial” has become “outside”, because once you get away from high art or high criticism, it’s all outside.) But most people who habitually express such sentiments are equally capable of denigrating any individual TWOP-like text as a reaction piece, not even good enough for undergraduate work, if it suits them to emphasize their professionality.
I haven’t commented much about Everything Studies, because it seems to me to be an expression of academic anxiety and not much more. If you’re taking your object of study seriously as a “human science”, there’s no way you can branch out into everything. That runs counter to the hyperspecialization seen in the actual sciences. There is an understandable and sympathetic but inherently conservative desire to be able to read everything, to encompass all knowledge within a mortal lifetime, that has been increasingly impossible over the last few centuries. For example, Harold Bloom claims to have read all major works, and you can see this anxiety both in his claim and in the often angry reaction to it.
Despite being in lots of ways very sympathetic to what you’re saying, I’d react to what seems to me an unacknowledged tension in this, Joe. I’m talking about a buried expansion/contraction metaphor, one that comes close to contradiction. So, going from ‘literary studies’ to ‘everything studies’ certainly looks like a Big Bang-style expansion. But then you write:
people working in literary studies have in both surrendered to and indulged in the desire to downsize literary studies in favor of criticism of television shows, blockbuster films, comic books, pop songs, and other media.
I suppose the anxiety is that to step out from under the umbrella of the canon is to be pummelled to death by the Niagra of unfiltered Culture; an anxiety reinforced by the sense that any canon of comic books or SF Pop Music is mere amateur ‘I happen to like ...’, and not anything systematic. I don’t see why, though. There’s a mass of general culture, but not a literally unmanageable mass. If you’re happy to devote a year to (say) SF Pop Music you’ll get on top of the subject--and many people devote much more of their lives to music, or TV, or film, or comics. And if you do that, and having done so assert that Bowie, Hawkwind, Sun Ra and Pink Floyd are ‘canonical’ figures where Barclay James Harvest, Mike Oldfield, Franz Haydn and (Christ, I don’t know) Bill Haley and the Comets are not canonical ... that wouldn’t automatically be a dilletante judgment, would it?
When I first started posting on The Valve, I was a firm believer in the “strong critic” as, at bottom, not much different from the “strong artist.” I was accused of eclecticism, of neglecting truth value, etc., as if attention to art that is itself eclectic must come from a single perspective, as if art itself neglects truth.
Today, I stand by my defense of the strong critic. Following my dissertation defense, I’ve been making a few minor revisions to my Wilson Harris chapter, revisiting his essays, and can only say that his essay on the Furies, which bridges classical culture, modernist literature, *Fatal Attraction*, and the first Iraq War, says more about literature, cinema, and politics than most specialists.
We don’t need a department of everything studies. We need critics with the balls to take a risk, to venture an assertion without complete knowledge, to take stabs in the dark. And we need blogs that don’t go looking to write off any critic who isn’t some sort of Franco Moretti. Literary studies used to have a fairly wide breadth for empirical proof. One needn’t have read every popular novel about clouds to make an assertion about modernist representations of the weather. One needn’t have read bodice-ripping harlequin romances to make assertions about the historical novel.
I am not promoting a know-nothingism. But I am increasingly sick of the historicist/completist version of evidentiary standards. So sure, if some NYT writer makes stupid comments about *Maus* being the first comic book for adults, go after the dog. But just because a writer didn’t go to comic-con this year doesn’t mean that they might not have excellent insights into Julius Knipl.
Ray, great comment.
Mike, in Burke’s post, he used the term “everything studies” in order to avoid the specific methodological and cultural assumptions informing the historically specific “cultural studies” movement.
Bill, thank you for pointing us towards the need for more collaborative efforts. It is astonishing how far ahead of the humanities the hard sciences are in their willingness to be collaborative.
Rich, of course I was being earnest in my references to those evaluative sites, and I agree that the desire to consume everything is a useless and debilitating fantasy.
Adam, please say more about the contradiction you have in mind. If somebody wants to study science-fiction themed pop music, I am sure that after a year’s time they could be quite knowledgeable. A couple caveats, however. First of all, “science fiction themed pop music” is the sort of thematic focus that potentially misses the fact that David Bowie was a much better musician than Hawkwind. Certainly, lots of amateur musicians write and record songs and albums about science and space in their basements. So, then, are we focusing on Hawkwind instead of 1,000,000 amateurs because Hawkwind was ephemerally popular? The kitchen sink approach runs into more than a problem of aesthetic quality; ultimately, it begins to erode one’s ability to distinguish what is meaningful from what is not.
If somebody wants to not only blog about Sun Ra etc., but actually to be paid for their research and writing, shouldn’t they be in Media Studies or Music? My point was that my background as an English major doesn’t necessarily prepare me to write meaningfully about Sci-Fi pop, and though I could spend a year trying to remedy that situation, I could also spend a year reading Robert Musil, H.D., and the rest of Hemingway, all of which would be more germane to my real field of specialization.
We must keep in mind the distinction here between avocation (blogging included) and vocation. I wrote downsizing literary studies because English majors seem eager to write about The Sopranos, but I’ve yet to encounter the Communications major who feels the need to put in a chapter about Pynchon.
Luther, the kind of broad work you’re describing is also what continues to make Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin so fascinating. I am certain that more institutional space should be made for that kind of interdisciplinary teaching and research. The reason I suggested the term “Symbolic Systems” in my post was that it seemed to capture the fundamental assumption of Harris’s kind of structural anthropology.
Well, I’d call it textuality studies — with the caveat that the “structure” of textuality cannot be characterised simply or adequately in terms of “expression” (and so I’m not sure whether my Textuality Studies would the same as your Everything Studies).
All of this was once called “semiotics.” I still remember the feeling of “a-ha!” upon reading Robert Scholes’ excellent introductions to structuralism and semiotics.
But what separates Barthes and Scholes (and Benjamin) from cultural studies scholars is this: an intense love of high art and the undying knowledge that great art offers more and better pleasures than bad art. I’m no Scrunton here. I think film, comics, pop music, etc. all can achieve the status of great art. (This was where Adorno went wrong on jazz. He was right about 99% of the jazz-inflected dance music he came across. He was wrong that there was something implicit in jazz that made it a proto-fascist mass form. But I’m glad that no jazz scholar came around and talked Adorno out of publishing his essay.)
All scholars are wrong. That’s the nature of empirical study. But today there’s a demand to be careful, as if precision equals truth. I’d rather a million Adornos, who are brilliantly wrong, than a million PMLA articles on 18th century wallpaper patterns and the representation of wallpaper in picaresque literature of the lower Rhine. Historicism without concepts is mere fact.
"Adam, please say more about the contradiction you have in mind“
I only meant that your post seemed to characterise a notional shift from ‘literature’ (or ‘high art’) studies to ‘everything studies’ as simultaneously an expansion and a downsizing.
Maybe it’s the Nietzschean genealogy-of-morals point that we associate value with the select, the elite (the aristocratic); such that any expansive broadening (or democratization) of ‘culture’ must be an evaluative “downsizing”. That said, I’m extrapolating from what you said, not citing or, I daresay, representing it.
Adam, by expanding what we call “literary studies” to cover any study of anything in any medium, we would reduce the practice of actual literary studies--which I trust we could all agree is the study of literature, rather than (say) film--especially since, as Joseph notes, everyone finds it easier and more fun to watch all the episodes of their favorite TV program than to read everything by an author in their field. The written word, in other words, becomes of reduced importance, at exactly the same time as it is similarly diminished in the world at large (and for largely the same reasons). By excessive and unconsidered broadening, literary studies would be sacrificing the expertise which makes it uniquely valuable (without, I think, making particularly worthwhile contributions to film & media studies, cultural studies, etc.), essentially sending the message, “It’s okay with us if you can’t get into books.” I can’t be certain that this is what Joseph means by “downsizing,” but the term certainly seems apt.
Luther, how’s this:
Practically speaking, there’s a clear difference between reference or speculation and survey or summary. Prevailing social currents tend to drag us from the former to the latter. If my casual conversation was recorded, I’d probably be able to gesture “Cut!” at the line when I crossed it, and I’d probably cross it many times.
Casual conversation wouldn’t be much without “vapidity or fraudulence.” We take that for granted. But when the weight of institutional authority is thrown around, what should be casual conversation amps into boorishness. Adorno is saved, for those for whom he’s saved, by his marginality. But if he fucking flunked me for loving the Ramones and saying so and explaining why, he ain’t no friend to me.
That conclusion was a bit abrupt, as suits a Friday night comment. I hope no one will mind if I tease it out a bit....
My life’s spent modelling domains which I know only cursorily—vocationally with software; avocationally with discursive prose—and although I don’t say that’s worthless. I do limit my claims. For example, I’m OK with how my Dickinson / ballads essay turned out, but it’s parasitic on specialists who with a fillip could smash my speculations to smithereens.
On those rare occasions when I can speak fairly authoritatively, I still need to mind the gaps. Although no one’s asked me to introduce Melville yet, I have delivered a guest lecture on Samuel R. Delany. That doesn’t make me an expert on Lacan or 1950s Harlem—there again I need to rely on the scholarship of others. And if I did lecture on Melville, I wouldn’t become a Doctor of Sea Studies.
Even in a rather conservative English department, the tasks set and ignorances tolerated seemed to me far too arbitrary to be borne gracefully. Widening the pretended scope would only increase the arbitrariness of what was practically required by the institution. Can you imagine the orals for the Department of Everything Studies?
Now, if the only purpose of the Department of Everything Studies was to solicit support for dedicated scholars in fields not otherwise institutionally covered—that sounds kind of attractive. But that would be a Department of Everything Else Studies.