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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hardest Road to Renewal or, Cultural Studies Now!

Posted by Andrew Seal on 09/24/09 at 10:29 PM

Bill has pointed out the ongoing kerfuffle which was kicked off by Michael Bérubé’s jeremiad on the past, present, and future of cultural studies in the Chronicle. The Bully Bloggers have posted two responses, one of which is rather extreme (the other is linked in Bill’s post and I think will be addressed here later). I’d like to make one quick point about the more extreme response and then draw some attention to an article from 1991 which I recently read and find both topical and valuable for the debate Bérubé has started.

One of the issues that the responses to Bérubé raise is the question of genealogy, as Bérubé’s argument relies on the fairly standard (though contested) narrative of U.S. cultural studies being a product of the importation and adaptation of work done by Stuart Hall and the Birmingham (U.K.) Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from the late ‘60s through the 80s and the earlier work done by theorists like Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Richard Hoggart. Bérubé makes the case that this importation and adaptation process missed the point of the CCCS work, or at least made a good attempt at misplacing it as often as possible.

The first response on Bully Bloggers to his article essentially took issue with what the author, Ira Livingston, argues is Bérubé’s barely covered patriarchal gender-political (and racial) agenda:

He complains that Hall’s work on “race, ethnicity and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited” while his work on Thatcherism– in other words, his “real” political work (presumably as opposed to merely cultural politics)– “is thoroughly ignored.” He regrets the common equation of cultural studies with scholarship on popular culture, that typically feminized realm of the shallow and sensational (at least since the 18th century, when male poets and others started railing about the success of female novelists).  And he laments that cultural studies has had more impact in English departments– the realm of the warm-and-fuzzy– and less in sociology, one of the “harder” disciplines.  Alas, a once swaggering and virile field is forced to come to terms with its own relative impotence.

I honestly don’t see this reading, and Bérubé points out in a comment where some of Livingston’s readings go a little awry, but more importantly I’d just like to offer the fact that the strength of CCCS was precisely in its ability to mobilize in a new way the categories of race and gender for leftist political action. Implying that its politics were “swaggering and virile” seriously distorts what actually was going on there, and makes invisible the fact that work like Women Take Issue or The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain (much less the later work by folks like Paul Gilroy and Hazel Carby) was perhaps only realizable in the unique environment of that Centre. Livingston’s attempt to tie CCCS like a giant white-male stone around Bérubé’s ankle is just a non-starter. 

Much more significantly, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that Bérubé’s argument follows fairly closely one made in 1991 by Joel Pfister ("The Americanization of Cultural Studies,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4:2 {Spring 1991}), appropriately enough written as a response to a conference Bérubé mentions as the high-water mark of the triumphalist predictions of cultural studies (the 1990 “Cultural Studies Now and in the Future"). Pfister actually took a very different view of that conference, assessing the conflict between the U.S. scholars and Stuart Hall (who spoke at the conference and pronounced U.S. cultural studiess to be in a “moment of danger") as indicative of the path U.S. scholars had taken toward a “post-political” engagement with popular culture, toward cultural studies as “interpretive performance” rather than critique,” toward an abandonment of history and a reconstitution of “power solely as a problem of ‘textuality.’” Pfister moderates these claims somewhat, suggesting that a harsh reading of certain trends within cultural studies is merely the easiest reading, but allows that these critiques have some serious force.

The bulk of the article analyzes the differences in contexts (both immediate and longer-term) between the formation of the CCCS in the UK and the the coalescing of a number of discourses in the U.S. which came to assume the same title of “cultural studies,” and attempts to trace the consequences of these differences in the U.S. case. As with Bérubé, the most important influence on U.S. cultural studies was (and is) the British version, but Pfister’s argument is a good deal more complex than Bérubé’s thumbnail sketch which does, I feel, in the end reduce to “we didn’t do it right, they did.” I hope to show how Pfister’s argument improves on that and still, almost two decades later, has a solid case to make about what didn’t happen in the development of U.S. cultural studies.

Foremost, Pfister says, the context of the British Old Left was the starting block for the CCCS, but also its main antagonist: “Hall’s stress on culture grew out of the pressing need to unlearn some of the assumptions, strategies, and goals of the Old Left,” doing so by “recogniz[ing] culture as a productive, determining force in its own right and not merely as a reflection or expression of the economic base” rather than by privileging “members of the working-class as the universal subjects of history” and focusing on the “determinations” of “mechanisms like competition, monopolistic control, and imperial expansion.” Furthermore, the work being produced by CCCS was being disseminated through non- or semi-academic channels (NLR, Marxism Today) which were at this moment flourishing on a number of fronts—including the cultural or the social. Pfister points to the “lists of Left discussion groups and advertisements for Left cafés which abounded in NLR during its first two years.” “The New Left’s cultural studies was indivisible from the project of regrouping in response to the predicament of socialism within the crisis of cold war capitalism.” This context simply could not be imported to the U.S. along with the texts (Althusser, Gramsci, et al.) which the CCCS researchers and theorists were using to make their breakthroughs.

Instead, the field of action shrank from society to the academy; rather than social transformation, disciplinary sublation was the goal. As an example, Pfister notes that “[Patrick] Brantlinger [the author of an important introduction to U.S. cultural studies, Crusoe’s Footprints] introduces the possibility of ‘the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism’ but, revealingly, as ‘the only conceivable way of solving the ongoing crisis of the humanities.’” Pfister astutely suggests that such an attitude reveals a greater debt to the pedagogical politics of, say Gerald Graff, than to those of Stuart Hall.

Pfister also questions some of the terms used to describe cultural studies work as already inviting a considerable degree of de-politicization or introversion, and this is probably worth quoting in full:

Words like ‘intervention’ and ‘interrogation’ are meant to signify the cultural studies critic’s serious ‘oppositional’ stance towards hegemonic traditions of knowledge production. These two words carry some obvious militaristic and disciplinary connotations: armies intervene and spies are interrogated; police intervene and suspects are interrogated. ‘Intervention’ and ‘interrogation’ have given critical theorists in US English departments a powerful self-image and sense of mission. Personally, I am delighted that literary critics in both Britain and the US are ‘intervening’ in literary criticism and ‘interrogating’ a canon that have [sic] frequently been misrepresented as having no political agenda. But I am also bothered because this discourse of intervention seems to romanticize the critic’s academic role as sufficiently ‘oppositional’… What is needed in the US now is certainly not a postmodern romanticization of the ‘political-intellectual’ but a greater historical understanding of the social, political, and academic conditions within which a discourse of ‘intervention’ seemed to make sense for those British intellectuals who practiced cultural studies because it was unmistakably one necessary dimension of a larger intervention underway.

Pfister’s point is very different from “we didn’t do it right, they did"—it is that in order to make use of British cultural studies, we need to understand how and why it believed it could accomplish anything at all. How did the scholars and intellectuals of the CCCS (and before) read the conditions they were living in, and why did they believe that the types of “intervention” which they pursued might bear fruit, and do so even outside of the academy?

But I think we can take Pfister farther. The problem that I find with the “discourse of intervention” is that it already assumes that the important question is not “what is a successful intervention?” but “what should we be intervening in?” The former is the type of question which requires the kind of historical understanding Pfister advocates; it requires that one have a pretty good idea of how one’s efforts feed into a larger project that exists in more than one dimension. The latter question does not require this historical understanding, nor this awareness of the “larger intervention underway;” it requires only an understanding of the relative social significances of atomized cultural phenomena.

The exchange between Bérubé and the UC-Davis students is fairly exemplary in this regard; both, I feel, think that what is at stake is something like the first question, maybe re-phrased as “what is a successful practice of cultural studies” but both ultimately try to resolve it in the content-focused terms of the second. Bérubé seems to be hoping for a culling or a tightening or focusing of cultural studies onto a few specific (and highly valuable) questions: “complicating the political-economy model in media theory, […] complicating our accounts of neoliberalism, and… 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.” But while these questions seem to be setting the terms for a definition of what a successful intervention might be, they actually draw back from doing so. The rhetoric he uses of “complicating” is, I think, taking a step back from the more confrontational discourse of “intervention,” as in the end “complicating” terms like ‘neoliberalism’ already understood to be immensely fraught and unstable seems more gestural than substantive—it pushes the focus back onto the object: the participle “complicating” is so blank that we move immediately toward whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing this underdefined action to. And a similar thing happens with the last phrase: “an understanding that actually works” again directs us away from the action and towards what it stands in apposition to—the point is that hegemony is important, not what specifically we’re doing to it.

Similarly, the UC-Davis students interestingly do not read Bérubé’s critique as being one about how they should be going about their work, but as a dismissal of what it is they work on: their fifth point seems to be refuting the (somewhat phantom) argument that cultural studies doesn’t study anything important. The items they select actually go quite some way to prove Bérubé’s point about cultural studies trumpeting their lack of a “specific methodology or subject matter,” but that’s not the point—they don’t see Bérubé’s critique as going after the way they “intervene” or “address” their subjects, but as attacking the frivolity of their choice of subjects. ‘No,’ they’re saying, ‘it’s not just Madonna; it’s the war on terror too.’ They offer that “what differentiates our practice of cultural studies is a deep historicization of these instances in relation to questions of power,” but that’s not a refutation of Bérubé’s admonitions but a doubling down on the importance of their chosen subject matter: this deep historicization to relations of power is primarily a reminder that power is the most salient aspect of the specific things they study.

Pfister, I think, helps us see that this type of move away from self-critique of methodology toward squabbles over content or subject matter isn’t just about re-focusing on methodology in an abstract manner, but that what is required is a firm historical understanding of methodology, how and why the specific methods of “intervention” or “resistance” are taken up. Without this historical understanding, the discursive formulations we use to describe our methodology ("complicating," “problematizing,” etc.) lose their character as actual maneuvers or strategies and that becomes the type of problem Pfister saw in 1991 and that we can still see quite plainly today.


Is neoliberalism really understood to be fraught and unstable?  My experience has been that it’s routinely invoked as an obvious, monolithic force.  I would love to be pointed toward lit that destabilizes or questions the term, especially in relation to cultural studies.

By on 09/25/09 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Andrew—this is great stuff.  It seems that there’s no way to link directly to Joel’s essay—though a quick run through the Internets suggests that it’s been assigned pretty widely, which is good news (I’ve taught it a couple of times myself).  On another relevant front, here’s an oldie but goodie (1999) from Janet Wolff on cultural studies and sociology.

By Michael on 09/25/09 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


There are obviously some attempts (some quite good, like David Harvey’s) at nailing down a meaning for the term, but I was under the impression that in general use it gets applied far too broadly and too thickly, diluting its analytical efficacy. It’s become one of those terms which are often employed without the employer committing first to a solid meaning. Which I think was sort of Michael’s point ("it’s the neoliberalism, stupid"—neoliberalism has taken on a monocausal status which, because it supposedly does everything, precludes a fine-grained understanding of what it actually does). What I’m objecting to is whether “complicating” that conceptual fuzziness is the operation we should really be talking about doing.

Thanks for the Wolff! And yeah, I really wanted to link to Pfister’s essay; perhaps I should have provided more quotes--the writing is very good. I also meant to (but forgot to) note that a large chunk of Michael Denning’s essay “The Special American Conditions” (which also may be relevant, and for similar historical reasons) is available via Google Books.

By Andrew Seal on 09/25/09 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Andrew: Just to be clear, I’m in agreement with you and Michael that “neoliberalism” is used too broadly and thickly and monocausally.  Harvey is an important source of that problem. 

May I ask again for textual evidence for your claim that “neoliberalism” is *already* understood in cultural studies writings to be “immensely fraught and unstable”?  This claim appears to be part of your argument against complication. 

Possibly you are projecting a specialized meaning onto “complicating” that makes it silly and needless—in that case, fine, let’s find some other term for undoing the breadth, thickness, monocausality.  If you are worried about the merely gestural, I am happy to suggest substantive approaches to doing this.

By on 09/26/09 at 02:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry--I don’t mean that neoliberalism is already understood in cultural studies writings to be immensely fraught and unstable. I mean rather the opposite, that in cultural studies it is often assumed to be a self-evident category, basically too big to fail as an explanation (of just about anything). Neoliberalism seems to be coextensive with everything--imperialism, globalization, Chicago School economics…

What “undoing” goes on, I think, is often not so much a direct engagement with the indiscriminateness of the term as it’s used in cultural studies as it is a more rigorous and disciplined deployment of the term and of other related (but not entirely coextensive) terms. I would point to the work of Gopal Balakrishnan (in his new Antagonistics), say, or of Perry Anderson (in Spectrum). What happens in these books is the development of an understanding of neoliberalism along with the understandings of other political and economic formations.

You are probably right that I am projecting a specialized meaning onto “complicating,” but my point was that this particular choice of terms ("complicating," “problematizing,” “intervening") permits this projection, if it doesn’t in fact invite it.

By Andrew Seal on 09/26/09 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks for the Balakrishnan ref, Andrew, and for the further words of clarification.

I want to complicate/problematize/challenge “neoliberalism” more fundamentally than Michael does: it’s a weakness of his position that he still leaves it as an all-purpose sign for the material base.  In that context I think you’re right to point out that his “complicating” doesn’t go far.  It can’t.  Michael ends up making the traditional cultural studies move of conceding the base and concentrating on how bits of superstructure can float loose of it.  Arguably this concession undermines his avowed goal of challenging the Chomsky-Herman-McChesney view of culture.

The recent Mirowski ed. _Road from Mont Pèlerin_ and the 78-79 Foucault C de F lectures are also useful along these lines.

By on 09/26/09 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cultural studies strikes me as an academic fad that has failed to address the real problem—the gulf between the humanities and the social sciences. IMHO, social science, conceived in the broadest terms, as human biology/psychology/archaeology/history/anthropology/sociology (ignore contemporary academic fiefdoms), is the whole; literary studies (what do these primates do for fun?) is one aspect of the whole.

You can look at the subject historically (what did the primates enjoy?), you can look at it in terms of mechanisms (WHY do the primates enjoy it?), or, most controversially, consider the present moment. This is the current shape of society; this is the current shape of primate fun. The two are related. How are they related? Discuss.

If you think you already know how current society works (Leftist ideology), that simplifies the discussion. Primate fun subverts the system? Supports the system?

But it simplifies the question at an enormous price. You’ve shut out anyone who doesn’t accept your vision of cultural studies liberating students from the shackles of hegemonic culture.

I’m not saying that you can’t believe that, if you want to do so, but you’re going to have justify it, not just assume it—as I think Berubé does.

By on 09/26/09 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to complicate/problematize/challenge “neoliberalism” more fundamentally than Michael does

Have you read the following?

Hindess, Barry (1993) ‘Liberalism, Socialism and Democracy: Variations on a Governmental Theme’, Economy and Society, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 300-13.

Last couple of pages have something to say about neoliberalism that’s quite interesting.

By on 09/27/09 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rob!  Yes—that whole issue of E&S is pretty good.  Maybe someone will give us a neoliberalism thread to hash this out more thoroughly.  I think one source of the problem that Michael points out is some folks taking the David Harvey (or Thomas Frank) account of the word (and hence, of the material and political world) as adequate.

By on 09/28/09 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan Sokal.  Remember him?

By on 09/29/09 at 09:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I was in fifth grade when the Sokal Hoax happened (well, between fifth and sixth), so I don’t really remember him. (I only started subscribing to Lingua Franca in 8th grade.) But Michael Bérubé has written about him a couple of times, and I’ve kind of picked up the pieces from there.

By Andrew Seal on 09/29/09 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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