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What's the Matter With Cultural Studies?

  • Sep. 14th, 2009 at 4:34 PM
crypto: (sarah looks ahead)
A really interesting essay by Michael Bérubé in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I don't know enough to evaluate his arguments, but I'd love to hear how it reads from a fan studies and/or media studies perspective. A few excerpts:

...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....

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."...



(Anonymous) wrote:
Sep. 16th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Knock, knock
Good question -- the answer would be, basically, yes and no. In The Left At War, I do mount a defense of feminists' work in cultural studies in the 80s and early 90s. Here's a snippet:

The 1980s witnessed an extraordinary profusion of serious academic books on degraded popular cultural forms: the romance novel, the soap opera, the slasher film, and, of course, the most degraded form of them all, pornography. In each case, the argument was made that the close analysis of these forms was important not because the forms themselves were as aesthetically satisfying as The Tempest or as intellectually complex as Paradise Lost, but because they offered representations of the world, however phantasmic, that attracted millions of people; therefore, so the argument went, it was only reasonable to try to discover and come to terms with the thoughts and impressions of the people who devoted significant portions of their lives to romances or soaps or slash films– or even porn. Following the publication of Stuart Hall’s groundbreaking “Encoding / Decoding” essay and David Morley’s The Nationwide Audience in the U.K., and Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance in the U.S., many cultural studies theorists embarked on a kind of mass-media “ethnography” in which they sought the opinions of soap fans, romance readers, and TV viewers in order to try to understand how mass-cultural phenomena were actually “consumed” and understood by mass-cultural audiences. [Footnote here to Modleski, Radway, Carol Clover, Linda Williams, and Laura Kipnis]

It is difficult to overstate the amount of derision with which this project met, inside academe and out. When senior (male) scholars weren’t sputtering over what they considered books that should have been published as articles in High Times, mainstream (mostly male) journalists were guffawing at the idea that things like soap operas and romances merited a moment’s thought. [Footnote here to William Kerrigan writing, "People got tenure for writing about the imperialist fantasies of Marvel Comics or the gender rules in Harlequin Romances -- ideas that might have made decent articles for High Times but, driven by theory, got seriously out of hand." I just couldn't make that shit up.] That derision helped to reinforce cultural studies theorists’ initial point– namely, that certain mass cultural forms, and their audiences, are widely considered utterly unworthy of serious attention. But unfortunately, it also confirmed cultural studies theorists’ convictions that they were doing something Deeply Important, something that would shake academe and mainstream journalism and culture to their very foundations. The problem with those convictions of the theorist’s importance, in turn, is part of the larger problem of studying mass culture from a left perspective that looks especially for moments of dissidence or subversion: for if there’s one thing mass culture produces aplenty, it’s moments of “dissidence” and “subversion” that are nothing but. And just as skateboarding and “slash” fanzines aren’t really a threat to global capitalism in the end, so too, the academic study of skate punks and “slash” fans doesn’t really amount to much of a challenge to the established order– save for the established order in a handful of academic disciplines whose established order changes once or twice a decade anyway.

...which, I think, gets back to your original question.

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[personal profile] idlerat wrote:
Oct. 10th, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Knock, knock
It's funny to see "slash" in scare quotes in this venue. And not "skate" or "punk."