Monday, September 28, 2009
Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About The UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate
(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)
In the course of a single week, we have seen academics making noise on several different fronts related to politics. First of all, here in California, there has been a large-scale effort to protest against the drastic budget cuts affecting students, workers, and faculty at University of California campuses. All sorts of mainstream media covered the story: some classes were cancelled, some classes were converted into teach-ins, most campuses held rallies attracting hundreds to thousands, and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) went on strike. It is now Monday; the main lingering protest appears to be the occupation of the Graduate Student Commons by students at UC Santa Cruz, who Marc Bousquet interviewed here.
Meanwhile, Michael Berube was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to the effect that cultural studies has not been a powerful enough political force in the university and the society at large. Berube argues that cultural studies has not produced much change in the way that the humanities are taught, nor has it been much of an ally for progressive political causes. His article incited some bloggers to write passionate retorts, while others, like the Valve’s Andrew Seal, took a more moderate and reflective approach.
Both of these highly visible controversies concern the relationship between politics and the academy, and more specifically between politics and the humanities, since humanities departments will be hardest hit by the cutbacks at the UCs. They are natural outgrowths of assumptions in place for decades now—namely, that the study of the humanities ought to be a political endeavor, and that because (at its best) it is political work, it makes students and faculty politically knowledgeable and effective.
There is no doubt in my mind about the first thesis. Work in the humanities is political; all knowledge work is, by its nature, inextricably bound up with ideological positions that bear on political issues. I have been, however, greatly disappointed by the fruits of this week’s labor. The protests were—are, in the case of the UCSC occupation—ineffectual. The discussion around cultural studies has been muddled. This is because of a failure to distinguish the differences between political activism and the dissemination of knowledge. Until we academics recognize and navigate this (seemingly obvious) difference, we will not be politically effective. We will not even have earned the right to claim a deep understanding of “the political.” We have to ask tough questions not only of UC President Mark Yudof but of ourselves, and this is not being done.
Political Activism Is Not A Seminar Discussion Or A Lecture Class
In a seminar discussion, words themselves carry weight. They are the signs of understanding. If numerous students come to new epiphanies and a new sense of clarity about assigned texts, that is enough—it is, in fact, quite wonderful. For activists, however, words are vehicles for demands. They are part of an ongoing battle that one side must lose by capitulating to the demands of the other.
The protests Thursday did not significantly disrupt the operation of the University. Students and workers will capitulate to the demands of the California government and the UC administration by paying higher tuition and accepting layoffs and furloughs. The building currently being occupied by UCSC students, the Graduate Student Commons, is non-essential to the operation of the campus, which is why these students have not been arrested.
The whole structure of the protests virtually guaranteed that they would not have an effect. They were not ongoing—Friday was business as usual. They were not consistent in mode: if every class was cancelled, or if every class was converted into a teach-in, that would have been noticeably disruptive. Instead, each faculty member and teaching assistant was urged to do “something” in solidarity, and could pick and choose what that something might be. I am not suggesting that the organizers could have persuaded all teachers to participate; rather, the problem was that even those who did participate did so in a diffuse and various manner. Again and again, people involved in planning the protests agreed to take a “decentralized” approach at the cost of efficacy.
The idea of producing a coherent set of non-negotiable demands became equally lost in the shuffle. Read Bousquet’s interview with the students at UCSC. Considering the demands they have listed, how could they ever call off the occupation? At what point could they legitimately claim victory? They are protesting not just problems at the university level, but problems with K-12 public education. They are not just concerned with California; they are concerned with the nation as a whole. Their public document seems to be protesting against Adderall and frat parties in addition to budget cuts. The humanistic modes of freely associative thinking and heterogeneous action, which have their place as desirable educational outcomes, simply do not work as forms of targeted activism.
Furthermore, the protests did not do enough to put those most affected first. The people most affected by these cuts are undergraduates and workers, including those represented by the UPTE. Unfortunately, the most audible voices were those of the faculty, including tenured faculty. The structure of the protests thus repeated existing power hierarchies by making students into recipients of knowledge and bodies to be counted up at the rallies.
Seminar Discussions Are Not Political Demonstrations
Let us be clear about the kind of “political intervention” cultural studies was supposed to represent. It was first an expansion of teachable materials to include popular culture and other kinds of marginalized productions. It was also heir to efforts by the Frankfurt School to produce new, more complex, less reductive kinds of Marxist cultural criticism. At bottom, the link between these two different goals had to do with the ways that Marxist ideals would justify the inclusion of “lower” forms of culture, either because popular culture represented the ideas and contributions of the masses, or else because it demonstrated forms of ideological control over the masses. The odd result was that hostile readings of Dickens became part of the “culture wars,” and so did appreciative readings of Madonna. Berube describes this as a lamentable conflation that happened to “cultural studies” when it was annexed by “cultural criticism,” but it was really a natural result of writers like Theodor Adorno being willing to include essays on jazz and film as long as he was allowed to denounce them unequivocally. Eventually somebody else started writing essays on jazz and film who begged to differ with Adorno about their value—and so on all the way to modern essays about American Idol.
There is no direct relationship between any of this and what I refer to above as “targeted political activism,” any more than a copy of The Communist Manifesto in a bookstore is a sign of an imminent revolution. If students can be taught to analyze novels, they can also be taught to analyze concept albums, and since pop music is a valid aesthetic form it is worth their while to do so. There is no reason for us to respect Stuart Hall’s irritation with new analyses of Madonna or of The Sopranos any more than we would respect a Renaissance scholar getting tired of new books about Shakespeare. Yet his comments strike a chord because of the persistence of drearily repetitive forms of political analysis within these manifestoes on pop culture. Because many scholars of cultural studies treat the aesthetic validity of “low culture” as conditionally dependent upon the critic’s Marxism, a lot of pop culture analysis takes the form of an awkward dialogue between the capitalist ego and the Marxist super-ego of the critic, who is trying to persuade himself and us that he only enjoys what he is watching because it educates him about the newest forms of false consciousness. Berube’s division between “cultural studies” and “cultural criticism” enables him to claim that “cultural studies” hasn’t affected American thinking about economics, but all he is really saying is that American economists aren’t Marxist and haven’t been converted to Marxism by cultural studies. The problem is that most cultural studies scholars haven’t been converted to Marxism either, the proof being that their work shows (as Berube correctly notes) remarkably little solidarity with anyone besides a now non-existent Old Left, and bears scant relation to their actual lives. Of course, into that vacuum of revolutionary poses comes enthusiasts like Malcolm Gladwell, who writes one bestselling piece of cultural criticism after another.
Cultural studies has been extremely successful at opening up humanities classrooms to popular culture and analysis of popular culture. It has also been, pace Berube, co-eval with new forms of the transmission of knowledge, especially the arrival of online discourse, where conversations about popular culture constantly take inspired critical turns—even in (for example) the comments appended to YouTube videos.
However, the cultural studies movement has also been successful in drastically undermining the prestige and political relevance of the humanities classroom. This has redounded on cultural studies itself, which is why its success appears to Berube as a failure. Because of its insistence on treating culture as “all one thing” produced by oppressive capitalist ideology, teachers began to lose track of why a class teaching the Sopranos might not also spend a week on Fox News and the rhetoric of George W. Bush’s war on terror. After all, maybe showing students the parlor tricks behind Bush’s rhetoric would help convince them to vote for Kerry instead. This had a range of effects:
1. It alienated students from their teachers and lent a certain amount of justification to campaigns mounted by people like David Horowitz.
2. It helped disguise the transition from teaching content to teaching skills, such as the conversion of English classes into “rhetoric and composition” classes. Teachers were willing to accept skills-based classes as long as they could teach political content, but this was a devil’s bargain, as the content was of course now practically irrelevant except as raw material to be operated on in the name of more grammatical sentences and smoother transitions between paragraphs.
3. It alienated students and teachers from the curriculum itself. The “boom” period for English departments in particular, and the humanities in general, was the 1960s, when a song like “A Change’s Gonna Come” was considered to be a sort of cultural ally of the Civil Rights Movement, and a book like Eros and Civilization or The Birth of Tragedy could actually be considered part of a large-scale attempt at achieving new freedoms. The purely negative stance toward cultural products old and new, epitomized by texts like The Novel and the Police or Nation of Rebels, backed teachers of culture into a position of real self-loathing and undergraduates into passionless imitation of that self-loathing. If all you learned was that your teachers, who knew a lot about culture, apparently liked it less than you did, you certainly didn’t need to major in it. The more aesthetics and enjoyment became conversations for hobbyists, the less important it was to have professionals analyzing culture.
There should be classes on political rhetoric, which would do well to analyze people like Glenn Beck, and there should be classes on aesthetic categories, including pieces of popular culture where appropriate. Departmental divisions and differences should remain within the over-arching umbrella of the “humanities,” rather than collapsing into one uber-class on hegemony. It is a sorry testament to the way modern academic understandings of “the political” have inhibited political work that academic outsiders like Greil Marcus have produced some of the best and most enduring works of “cultural studies”—books like Lipstick Traces that are much better than the canons of founding fathers such as Stuart Hall, and have no difficulty remaining in print. I agree with Andrew Seal that merely “complicating” existing pictures of neoliberalism and the political economy, as Berube proposes, is not doing enough. That sounds like embroidering a fundamental resignation with colorful, distracting dissent. But there isn’t another, better word out there, because the study of culture cannot begin with a set of political demands. It has to begin with intellectual curiosity and a sensitive ear for what individuals and institutions are trying to express, letting that access of understanding speak to issues of immediate political concern how it will.
Great post, Joseph.
I’ve been depressed in the past at how reflexively teachers and academics reject proposals for institutional reform, and so it feels sadly appropriate that many of those same academics are now so enthusiastic about actions which don’t even define success clearly enough to be doomed to failure. Marc Bousquet is a good example—after writing a number of posts here which not only attacked various reform proposals, but dismissed them as deserving only contemptuous mockery, he now uses fairly epic language in lauding a consequence-free march. I don’t mean to pick on him, though, or even on the protests themselves; the problem isn’t any one person or action, but the general stance that symbolic gestures of speaking truth to power are the only tactic pure enough to achieve our goals.
"The purely negative stance toward cultural products old and new, epitomized by texts like The Novel and the Police......”
I should have stoppped reading long before, but this finally did it.
Does cultural sociology or cultural anthropology get more involved with immersing themselves into the culture?
I feel like I should say something, Joeseph, but I’m at a loss as to what that should be. Though I am by no means a Cultural Studies person, I almost feel like trying to mount some kind of defense for Cultural Studies, or perhaps just for Michael’s defense.
Your post seems a bit confused, though I’m not quite sure where and quite just about what. OTOH you see that Michael wants to make a (real but perhaps not so sharp) distinction between what he regards as Cultural Studies proper (out of Birmingham and all) and other things with which it is often confused and conflated. But then you go right on confusing and conflating. I think.
Part of my problem in responding is that I don’t know the academic world in which you live. I got my PhD in 1978 at SUNY Buffalo and left the academy in 1985 or 86. Cultural Studies (and psychoanalysis and postmodernism and deconstruction and feminism and a few other things) were all around me at Buffalo, but I don’t quite recognize your 1 2 3 above. & I don’t know how much of that to lay at the feet of Cultural Studies vs. All The Other New Stuff. On the teaching of writing, whatever it is that Cultural Studies did there, it was only buying-in to gambits that were well under way even before I taught writing as a TA. As for 3, if so, that’s just sad sad sad. I never had any teachers who disdained the texts they taught.
You conclude: ...But there isn’t another, better word out there, because the study of culture cannot begin with a set of political demands. It has to begin with intellectual curiosity and a sensitive ear for what individuals and institutions are trying to express, letting that access of understanding speak to issues of immediate political concern how it will. Right, we should not begin with a set of political demands. Nor should we feel any obligation to seek out the political significance of a text, much less demand that any given text speak to the present political situation. Political reading is just one form of reading and merits no special privilege.
Because of [cultural studies’] insistence on treating culture as “all one thing” produced by oppressive capitalist ideology, teachers began to lose track of why a class teaching the Sopranos might not also spend a week on Fox News and the rhetoric of George W. Bush’s war on terror.
Either cultural studies in the US takes a particularly backward form, or you’re talking about only tiny pockets of cultural studies teaching/scholarship, and those that represent simply the residual traces of a “paradigm” (for want of a better word) that has been all but swept under the carpet (a phrase I use in full knowledge of the psychoanalytical work that might trigger).
I’m hard pressed to think of a cultural studies academic who I know or who is at all rated by anyone I know, who would not also squirm with embarrassment at the very utterance of the phrase “oppressive capitalist ideology”.
Nick: Oh! Snap!
Wall dives: Your name is “wall dives”? Also, everybody is immersing themselves in the culture. I call it the “Tony Soprano’s pool” immersion effect.
Rob: What’s the alternative that you have more in mind here? To put the matter another way, if the academics you know aren’t talking about oppressive capitalist ideology, why not? Isn’t capitalist ideology oppressive?
My post is actually less confused than you might think.
I don’t think that the sharp distinction Berube wants to draw between “cultural studies” and “cultural criticism” really holds up, for the reasons that I explain in the post. It strikes me as merely a way of separating what he likes, and what he thinks has a future, from what he doesn’t like. It would be like trying to separate Derrida from people like Barbara Johnson or J. Hillis Miller—it can certainly be done, but then you’re no longer talking about the “deconstructionist” movement in its historical reality. That’s why I don’t honor the distinction in the course of the post.
Isn’t capitalist ideology oppressive?
I almost don’t know how to begin to answer that question — especially seeing as your initial use of the phrase was part of a critique of uses of the phrase (i.e cultural studies’ “insistence on treating culture as “all one thing” produced by oppressive capitalist ideology"). So, you’re rejecting the explanatory force of a notion of “oppressive capitalist ideology” and showing surprise that anyone would not think in terms of “oppressive capitalist ideology”?
But also because there seems to be no acknowledgement of the widespread uptake of so-called “cultural populism” (e.g. Fiske, even Jenkins). Even if we concede that these cultural studies scholars being by understanding pop culture as “a capitalist product”, their argument that audiences put cultural texts to their own uses amounts to a rejection of the necessarily “oppressive” nature of “capitalist ideology”.
Not that I’m necessarily putting the populist line forward as a more tenable approach to the study of (popular) culture. There seem to be two widely reproduced views of cultural studies: the first (yours above), that it is the heir of the Frankfurt School, a purveyor of slightly more complex, less reductive forms of Marxist cultural criticism; the second, that it is a celebration of popular culture as a site of resistance, liberation, etc. And, of course, neither of these caricatures captures much of what is going on in contemporary cultural studies (since the early 90s at least, surely?).
Let’s just say that any answer I — and many within contemporary cultural studies (not that I’m quite sure I count myself as belonging to the latter discipline) — would draw to your question would begin by taking each of its key words ("capitalist", “ideology”, and “oppressive") and debating their coherence, presuppositions, etc., effectively asking such questions as the following: is there such a thing as a general structure of capitalism that would be identical across the range of diverse practices, processes, institutions, etc. that we might be inclined to understand as constituting the workings of capitalism, such that we could call something “capitalist” and feel confident that we know what we are saying about it when we do so? Which concept of ideology are we using here, what assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the processes of communication are built into that concept, and has anyone yet sufficiently revitalised the notion with a theory that is capable of doubting the existence of any of the general logics (e.g. of capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism) upon which most conventional concepts of ideology are premised? And what theory of power underpins this notion of “oppressive” and how much credit can it be given with regard to its potential to explain the manifold relations of power and the sometimes precarious flows of force that constitute the event of “consumption” (or indeed any other event in the operations of culture)?
As for a concrete instances of cultural studies rejecting the logic you’ve claimed as central to cultural studies, try the following:
Hunter, Ian (1993) “Setting Limits to Culture”. In Graeme Turner (ed.) Nation, Culture, Text: Australian Cultural and Media Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 140–163.
Hartley, John (1992) ‘Popular Reality: A (Hair)Brush with Cultural Studies’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1991, p.11.
Even though I’ve had some critical things to say about Hunter, and especially the moves he’s made since this paper, the latter is, I think, cardinal — very much worth looking at. The Hartley piece is worth it just for being often hilarious, but also for saying a lot of similar things to what you’ve written in your post.
I’m usually quite reluctant to out myself in blogs, but this time — why the hell not? If you’re interested in a longer answer that I might have to a question such as yours — one which, I like to think, takes the question further, feel free to take a look at the following (or email me for handy pdf form):
You could probably just pick any issue of Cultural Studies Review (where my paper is published) at random and start flicking through it to find that very few people in cultural studies today are talking about “oppressive capitalist ideology” (or at least, not in those terms). Obviously my particular paper doesn’t directly address your question, but in some ways, strangely enough, it may appear to confirm your reading of the state of cultural studies pedagogy, with the significant difference that I’m attributing the state of pop-culture teaching to a very different set of forces than a putative belief that “culture [is] “all one thing” produced by oppressive capitalist ideology”.
Don’t s’pose anyone would care to edit my previous post to fix the broken tag in my first substantive paragraph (after the “and")?
think rob is missing the point that Cultural Studies should be largely about political action--and that includes irrevocably action against the oppressive capitalist ideology. And, (please correct me if I’m wrong Joseph) one of Berube’s aims (which Andrew Seal takes further in his piece) was, to put it simply, to point out that Cultural Studies hasn’t really done this and has failed because of it (or, at the least, it’s lost sight of this goal and instead writes papers on American Idol). Thus, the form of Cultural Studies that rob seems to champion illustrates exactly Cultural Studies’ apparent failings....
Thanks for the comment. Nice to know that it was read by someone, even if not by the one who actually requested the response.
Cultural Studies should be largely about political action
To the extent that I’m aware that the above is how cultural studies is/was imagined to be and that it’s this idea that informs Bérubé’s polemic, I don’t think I’m missing the point. What I’m doing is questioning the validity of the assumptions that underpin the point. I’ll leave aside the issue of whether or not such questioning politically enabling, ruinous, progressive, reactionary, or otherwise (but please keep in mind that my above post was in response directly to Joseph’s question about “oppressive capitalist ideology”, and also that I, at this point, am not really advocating anything, but rather describing a situation).
There are a whole series of questions that I think need to be considered if we are to accept the claim that “Cultural Studies should be largely about political action”:
(1) What is meant by “political action”, and what meaningful and direct impact on such political action could cultural studies realistically aspire to?
(2) What are the material conduits through which cultural studies’ effects may be relayed, and are these conduits themselves simply “neutral” or do they potentially operate in such a way as to reduce, constrain or negate the efficacy of cultural studies?
Both Hartley’s and Hunter’s pieces, in their different ways, ask these questions, and both arrive at the conclusion that — regardless of how cultural studies may self-represent, regardless of what it may want to do or of what anyone may think that it should do — cultural studies has been utterly ineffective with regard to “political action”, if by that term we mean widespread transformation of attitudes/practices, or transformation of social institutions, or organisation of resistance, etc. (Of course, if we take the term “political action” to include “forming ideas”, then cultural studies has been reasonably successful, and I can see no evidence that it does not remain so.) Moreover, in both cases their analyses/arguments imply that this got nothing to do with some “de-politicisation” of the content of cultural studies — indeed, both were writing at a time when cultural studies still strongly identified with an image of itself as politically engaged and transformative (even if it was also fragmenting). On their account, then, cultural studies is politically ineffective because cultural studies as an institutional practice is itself disengaged — in a material sense — from the institutions, practices, etc. that it seeks to transform. And this is because, when it understood as discipline (as distinct, in a sense, from “a discipline” or “interdiscipline"), what cultural studies can be seen to achieve is the cultivation of a particular ethical demeanour, a particular critical disposition in its students. The techniques that constitute education and publication have little contact with “the actual array of historical institutions in which [cultural] interests are specified and formed” (Hunter, p.143).
That’s a radical (and highly inadequate) summary of both their papers. To put it in as simple terms as I can, the key question is this: what are the direct, material points of contact between cultural studies and its “outsides”? At present I can imagine only a handful of limited points of connection:
1) Research and publication, which rarely connects cultural studies to anything other than more cultural studies, though when it is encountered outside cultural studies, that outside mostly takes the form of other fields of scholarship (e.g. literary studies, sociology, law, etc.). The one exception here is “empirically"-based policy-oriented research and/or institutional histories (commissioned or otherwise), which have the potential to inform reviews of social institutions, etc. — however, this is not the kind of cultural studies that Joseph characterises above, nor even what Bérubé seems to be thinking of.
2) The university system itself, through cultural studies academics’ representation on various committees, their “resistance” or otherwise to various changes within the university, etc.
3) Public debate, which, for a range of reasons too complex for me to go into right now, is often the arena in which cultural studies (of the type characterised in Joseph’s original post) shows itself to be most useless.
4) Teaching, which connects with students. Here, there’s some hope for “transformation”, though what exactly can be transformed by cultural studies pedagogy and how is simply talking about politics, power, etc. enough to bring about political transformation/action?
It’s this question of pedagogy and transformation that my paper explores, albeit limited to thinking about cultural studies’ potential to transform popular practices of cultural consumption. In that paper, I don’t advocate any particular form of cultural studies so much as say, if you (i.e. the reader) want cultural studies to actually be effective, then you need to think about cultural studies’ materiality (in such a way as to focuse on the specific techniques, forms of calculation, institutional divisions, routines, etc. that define that materiality) and you need to accept that cultural studies’ effects in that regard will, inevitably, be limited in scope.
That’s about as much as I can write right now. If you’re interested, links to the Hartley and Hunter readings below.
First of all, my bad for not answering your comment sooner. I can well appreciate the time and thought that went into it, as well as into your response to Patrick, and I’m grateful for that.
Basically, as I understand your argument, people like Berube are misinterpreting the mission of cultural studies by trying to force it to adhere to a certain sort of political mission that some of its best practitioners have either re-formulated or just abandoned.
I can definitely accept that argument (i.e., that representation of the field as it exists now). However, it does present some clear problems. First of all, my vision of what cultural studies should mean has nothing to do with making a term like “oppressive capitalist ideology” meaningless. The kind of word-by-word deconstruction that you mention in your first comment is not an invention of cultural studies scholars. It is the same post-Wittgenstein, now post-Derrida method that has been part of modern academic theory for many decades. “What do you mean by [x]?,” a circular question that eventually produces a reductio ad absurdum, holds a fascination for some thinkers but has been worse than useless to the development of philosophical thought, including political philosophy.
The phrase “oppressive capitalist ideology” is neither embarrassing nor incoherent. It just isn’t relevant to all areas of academic investigation into culture. But where it is relevant, shying away from it shows a lack of political concern or understanding, rather than some kind of exceptional linguistic or conceptual rigor.