Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
by Timothy Brennan
Cultural studies is both an area and a mode of study – a new field of objects and a different way of doing things – and has existed long before it was given the name. The set of practices assembled under its rubric developed in the early nineteenth century, even though its history has never been narrated in this way. When we are speaking about cultural studies, at any rate, we are speaking about a revolt against the usual academic disciplines in which culture had been investigated and discussed, and this is as true of its original, unrecognized, forms in earlier centuries as well as its more recent re-appearance in England in the 1940s and ’50s, giving way to an even more local emergence in Birmingham in the 1970s. Unfortunately, as many know, this last instance has come to stand in for a much older and more interesting configuration whose story has not been told. Even what makes the Birmingham case compelling is not generally discussed, since it was heralded in the late 1980s as the absolute beginning of the field, in that way leaving out what was most vital to it. Many of the most telling aspects have been lost in transmission –how in England during the 1970s a group of sociologists and literary critics operating in a tiny institute at the University of Birmingham took up ideas that had been put into circulation by subaltern historians like E. P. Thompson, or literary sociologists like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, to create a center with little funding and a fluid membership, and giving themselves the name “The Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham” (CCCS). Its figurehead and driving force, Stuart Hall, for example – a brilliant and energetic organizer and popularizer of theory – had had his own origins elsewhere. He had been an apprentice of Williams, Thompson, Perry Anderson and others in the early days of the journal «New Left Review», which he briefly edited for a time. That journal had itself grown out of another edited by Williams and others in the 1950s – Universities and Left Review, and operated in the spirit of the adult education movement which had been so formative on Williams, and gave his work its pedagogical, extra-academic edge. Critical of the concerns and ideas that were being debated within the wider circles of the British Communist Party (Thompson,
V. G. Kiernan, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill had all been members), this early formation was nevertheless trained in the Party’s civic-mindedness, its focus on everyday conflicts, its materialist grasp of a history made by and through forms of labor. The animating drive of the entire movement in gestation is best characterized, in fact, as socialist rather than New Left, at least in the sense of the post-’68 left. None of this intellectual setting has been passed down or made known to the many graduate students and younger professors who flocked to cultural studies as a way of opening out the humanities to the harsh worlds of business, politics, and popular culture. Intellectuals who had studied briefly at Birmingham rediscovered British cultural studies in America, and then sought to reapply it by merging its practices with various forms of literary theory. And so, as in other pockets of intellectual life (for example, with terms like «globalization», «postcolonial» «Marxism», «theory»), two meanings vie for ascendency – one, what the meaning of the thing is, and two, what the meaning has been made to be given the needs of a particular set of local political needs. Here, then, we confront a problem. The thinkers who invented “cultural studies” in the above sense were really drawing, quite directly, on precursors from the nineteenth century who had grown out of social movements and public discussions whose meanings had become vague with the passage of time. The important earlier emphases and contexts were obscured by the American attempt to revive the original concepts – among them, the concepts of «interdisciplinarity» intellectual «generalism», the problematic definition of «culture» itself, and the concept of «modernity». The latter, for instance, refers to a complex of attitudes and orientations that critics have generally agreed arose at a more or less precise stretch of historical time – roughly 1670-1820. Although many consider “modernity” the central question of the human sciences, it is less widely conceded that it was the child of an even more definite historical event – the French revolution (1789-1803). I will take this proposition as a central premise of my claims about cultural studies. What we require is a historical and textual understanding of how the term “culture” became opaque – that is, how it came to be considered a «problem» rather than as something transparent (that is, taken for granted, «obvious»). Culture became a problem following the French revolution for reasons we need to examine, but particularly so because of the comparisons forced on Europe by its colonial encounters with what it took to be strange and primitive cultures. European conquest and exploration gave way to experiences and, just as
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
importantly, sensationalist narratives that were widely circulated, that underscored how plastic the forms of culture were, and how normal was the abnormal. Out of the dilemmas of self-awareness, self-alienation, governmental policy, and the sense of human limits – above all, out of the rise of the «people» as a concept and historical reality – cultural studies in the broader sense was born, although it was not called by this name until that combination of literary theory and sociology in 1960s/70s Britain (as I said) became a marketable product in the United States. British cultural studies was itself, of course, very directly a descendent of German interwar critiques of mass culture associated with a group of largely Jewish and Marxist social critics – the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the «Frankfurt School»), and nothing it devised along the lines of «coding and transcoding,» or the «semi-autonomy of the superstructure», or «the psychopathology of everyday life», had not been elaborated before them by the Frankfurt theorists. But the history of cultural studies does not come so much from a specific school of thinkers as from intellectual reflection on actual mass movements, early experimental art forms, and the European confrontation with the colonies. These three elements prompted not only rich political thought but led to a startling new kind of self-examination in the metropolis itself, where some of the tools of analysis devised for quantifying, comparing, and controlling others in the periphery were deployed at home. Here, with the same sense of foreignness, and of simultaneous revulsion and fascination, the point was to understand, and ultimately to achieve mastery over, the «invisible» sectors of immigrants, misfits, criminals, and the laboring poor in the major cities. The French Revolution made the invisible ones (what Brecht would later call «die Einen [die] sind in Dunkeln» in the ThreePenny Opera) a potent force and an actor. Its will had to be understood, its purposes weighed and assessed. Hegel’s philosophy – a deliberate mixture of economic study, political reflection, historical prediction, and speculative descriptions of how subjects think – was the first, and most systematic, attempt to bring utterly diverse avenues of intellectual inquiry together in a structured whole. What drove him, moreover, was the study of the «people» and its (our) development and aspirations in the wake of the French Revolution. He described how tastes and values conform to political realities rather than spring from an a priori «ought», and vividly conveyed that culture is contingent rather than natural, that it changes from period to period, and that human beings do not have a static core but are continually remaking themselves. Above all, he argued that the person is not isolated, but is self-realized only in a social setting of shared recognition and conflict.
Marx did not so much overturn Hegel in these respects as extend this generalist model of intellectual work. It is particularly the person of Marx – whose example became legendary with the global rise of the labor movement, the growing power of social democracy, and the later successes of communism in the century after his death - that made clear the advantages of an irreverent mastery of several specialized languages and fields at once. These he turned by a brilliant synthetic mind and a beautiful writing style into the weapon of critique – which could be called, unpretentiously, a «weapon» only insofar as it was actualized in Hegel’s sense in the Philosophy of Right, which is to say, expressed itself in agency, movement, and social organizations. Marx did this, of course, as a failed academic, a would-be poet, and a furious, often penniless, amateur, in defiance of official sanction and the secular clerisies of the university, and with no hope of recognition that he had gone through the expected routines of professional apprenticeship. How, but in this way, and in the persons of Hegel and Marx, did this idea arise that a single intellectual could rove from one field to another, applying a knowledge of economics, aesthetic form, demographics, psychoanalysis, visual culture and biology to a single problem? Who but a revolutionary would have been so audacious to try? What are the conditions that brought the attitude to life in the past if they are not the ones I am examining? Generalism, then, is the idea of non-specialization in the context of a generally rewarded division of intellectual labor. But here we need a distinction – a way of distinguishing the generalist from the dilettante, the media oracle or the belletristic raconteur, for we are not talking about dabbling, or the triumph of network packaging over content, or the kind of freestyle judging found in critics of the Edmund Wilson variety, who turn quickly from one topic to another in order to savor them, reporting on the experience. We are talking instead about a kind of Wissenschaft that is more, not less, demanding, that believes «all is connected» and is therefore driven by an appetite for vast and wild reading to reveal connective threads and patterns of relation missed by mere stylists or by theorists «above» the messiness of actual research. For all that, generalism of this latter type is acclaimed after the fact, but discouraged as training. Hence, the structure of the English or foreign language department today, for which book-culture is the royal road to all knowledge.1 For at this stage of (American) life, 1
In my field of postcolonial studies, for example, it is impossible to explain to scholars or the public why Latin America should be thought central to the culture of the Americas without going beyond literature, and specifically by exploring popular music – that is, really studying music, the rhythms
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
only the literary person is allowed to be general; what is permitted in fiction is prohibited in critique, and a novelist or playwright, once they have become famous, will be invited to «New York Times» forums to offer authoritative social commentary in the form of a literary re-packaging of non-critical truths.2 This is an attitude that for all of its social language and political declaratives is antipathetic to cultural studies. All of cultural studies, whatever its later forms, owes a primary debt to left-Hegelianism. Sociology and anthropology, which bear a close resemblance to cultural studies and, some argue, are inseparable from it, are products of the nineteenth century (although ur-forms of both preceded that era).3 Without Marx, there would be no sociology and he was, one must say, the original sociologist; and all of its first modern exemplars (Georg Simmel, Max Weber) write with Marx firmly in mind, defining themselves against him, and seek to reclaim the study of the social from Marx’s radical interpretations in the name of a less frightening liberal alternative. Collectively, then, the origins of cultural studies can be found in a peculiar combination of early social theory, colonial dreams of the primitive, programmatic projects for new states, utopian socialism, psychoanalysis, the European avant-gardes, the communist movement, and the cultural theories that arose among colonial intellectuals themselves. It is against this background that we can appreciate how difficult it is today to talk about cultural studies without experiencing the tag of «belatedness». In regard to academic trends, at least in the United States, Britain (and their names), the sites and protocols of dance culture, the originally African elements of voicing and orchestration, and performance etiquette: in short, to act in this instance and for a time like a musicologist. This would be a concrete case of how the need for cultural studies arises, and a practical example of “generalism” that need not be the impossible search for everything (on the one hand), nor a lightweight exercise in surfing the website archive (on the other). 2 As a sign of the continuing influence of this tradition, we might think of the new Italian emphasis on the «General Intellect», taken from Marx’s Grundrisse. I bring this up, though, to distinguish what I am saying from that use of the term «general», which refers instead to the ostensible triumph of intellectual labor over material production. See P. Virno, Notes on the General Intellect in Marxism Beyond Marxism, S. Makdisi, C. Casarino and R. E. Karl (eds.), New York, Routledge, 1996. Although I do not subscribe to Virno’s arguments, they contain some insightful passages – in this essay, his argument that capitalism produces cynicism. 3 This idea is pursued in R. A. Shweder, Rethinking the Object of Anthropology (and Ending Up Where Kroeber and Kluckhohn Began), «Items & Issues», I, 11, 2000, pp. 7-9. «Items & Issues» is published by the Social Science Research Council. See also, A. Kuper, Culture: The Anthropologist’s Account, Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP, 1999.
and the Commonwealth countries, cultural studies is already old news. As I have been saying, though, the paradox of that formulation is that it is old before it ever arrived. Cultural studies is no longer fashionable in university circles, at least in the United States and Britain, but more than that, it is openly attacked, or so radically redefined by those pretending to embrace it that it no longer resembles even its compromised Birmingham incarnation. A recent essay (Stopping Cultural Studies) in the Modern Language Association’s annual journal «Profession» – long a marker of the academic consensus – urges us to «move beyond» cultural studies, arguing that although it once played a beneficial role in moving us past the narrow reading of literary texts must now give way to more scholarly, solid, disciplinary specializations that combine the social and the aesthetic in more responsible ways: for example, in studies of the history of the book, or in New Historical readings of genre, or in translation studies.4 At issue here is not merely the collision of competing accounts of intellectual history since my appeal to intellectual history is, in this case, ignored, and then replaced by a presentist account. For what an essay like the one above does – and it is far from alone – is consider cultural studies to be equivalent to «theory» (in that specialized sense that “theory” been given in recent decades in the Anglo-American academy). In other words, feminism, deconstruction, discourse analysis, postcolonial literary studies, film theory – these taken together, with some additions, simply is cultural studies in ensemble, as these authors see it. Apart from the conflations that such a brutal assemblage demands – its fusing of incompatible schools and its evasive streamlining of conflicting positions – this view appears as undiscerning as it is parochial. In regard to its undiscerning side, let us consider only the example of deconstruction. Why is this a questionable candidate for the movement or network known as «cultural studies»? Whatever else it is, deconstruction is a literary theory, a linguistic and even a cognitive theory, which is not to say it has no social ramifications. It is defiantly “bookish” in both its mode of address (its reflexive use of language, especially in the form of punning, for instance) and its substantive center insofar as it exalts writing as the writerly form best fashioned to reveal the myths of logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence. From the start, in other words, regardless of its contemporary terminological machinery and subtle Heideggerian trappings, it fits snugly into the conventional practice of close reading. It was, one might say, always perfectly 4
W. B. Warner and C. Siskin, Stopping Cultural Studies, «Profession», 2008, pp. 94-107.
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
tailored to the textualism of what preceded it in English departments: the so-called New Criticism, even though deconstruction’s Continental philosophical substrate is often seen to displace the New Criticism in favor of something more urbane and sophisticated, and less narrowly «American». For these reasons, it is just the opposite of cultural studies, since the latter always at the very least wanted to turn outwards to the world, to everyday practices, to problems of culture that were not enclosed within the literary, however finessed as the hors du texte. We return, paradoxically, to the problem of belatedness, although now its venue has changed. The accuser stands accused. As for the parochial side of the matter, there is the absence of prehistory in the Stopping Cultural Studies essay – the past passed over by those who never knew it in the name of normalizing their own institutional present; and the surprising appeal to “solid” historical study as opposed to the flakiness of cultural studies but without thinking to historicize the field itself. To clarify further what this prehistory consists of, let us return to our points of departure: 1) that cultural studies is not equivalent to “theory,” and is even hostile to certain branches of theory (such as deconstruction); 2) that it grows out of movements at war with disciplinary specialization, and constructs an ideal of “generalist” intellectual work; 3) that, like sociology and anthropology – themselves nineteenth-century inventions – it is driven by the recognition that culture is opaque, and as such, a problem whose ubiquity and closeness strangely add to its complexity; 4) that it self-identifies as “left”; 5) that it is quite old, and that its prehistory has been effaced or never learned. Taken together, these features allow us to begin to trace a genealogical tree of cultural studies, and also now provisionally to define it as: ethnographic studies of metropolitan life. To the points of departure above, we can now add one final one, the most important: for central to every branch of the network is critique, understood here as the negation of what exists and the exposure of what is hidden in the apparently normal and inescapable folds of custom and established authority. Two ideas reign: first, that knowing is a way to changing (although not coterminous with changing), and that the results of knowledge must be actualized; second, that culture’s subterranean meanings (what is hidden within it as «obvious») remain hidden so long as life is segmented, monadic, compartmentalized. Overwhelmed by work, the distracted laborer is witness to a larger division of intellectual labor, and the artificial separation of physical toil from theory leads to the cult of the specialist. Exposé depends, then, on a defiantly unspecialized view of the whole – the only vantage
point for seeing missed connections. Post-1968 «theory’s» antagonism toward cultural studies, and its effort (as we’ve seen) to appropriate the name of cultural studies for a new New Left, is another expression of its antagonism to philosophical concepts not usually discussed in this context – namely, universality and totality. Intellectual “generalism” is just another version of the stakes at issue in these two concepts, which come to us by way of left-Hegelianism, and which lie at the core of debates over international law, human rights, globalization, imperial trade, colonial discourse, and democratic theory. What, then, are some of these precursors (apart from those already mentioned)? First, 1) Young Hegelians like David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach – renegades from academia who took up the radical dimensions of Hegel’s philosophy and, like the young Hegel himself, made them into political weapons of engagement in current-events social issues and conflicts, sacrificing their own academic careers in the process. Writing for newspapers, popular pamphlets and best-selling books, they harnessed philosophy, taking it outside the university walls, assaulting public morals and good sense, questioning religion at first, and then the equally mystical credos of the free market. Next, 2) early twentieth-century Bolshevik studies of byt («everyday life»), which to early the early soviets meant not heraldic moments of subaltern authenticity, preserved forever as snapshots of the underclass, but drudgery, the workaday grind. This they sought not to heroize, but to abolish forever through art, free and compulsory education, and a new ethos of societal responsibility and shared sacrifice. 3) Chilean media critique from the early 1970s – the work of Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman, for example, who wrote what is still the best popular cultural “reading” ever – their analysis of the Walt Disney comics industry in How to Read Donald Duck. In related studies, they devised a way of talking about visual culture that did not preclude visuality or representation, but added to those interpretive techniques a primary study of the material substructure of these supposedly ethereal images found in media hardware and software, network design, and the ownership patterns of information. 4) Eastern European avant-garde practices that sought to undermine the effete world of aesthetic culture, cast suspicion on bohemia, reorient the function of art by obliterating its loftiness, and mess with genre in the mixing of media like the manifesto, the nonsense song, the commercial, the radio broadcast, and the street performance. 5) The long traditions of German and French Kulturkritik – those broad, polymathic diagnoses of societal ills and pathologies in influential masterworks by intellectual Renaissance men like J-J. Rousseau, Oswald Spengler, José Ortega y Gasset, Benedetto Croce,
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
Nietzsche, Max Weber, Freud, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, or (more recently) Douglas Hofstadter. 6) The early poetic sociology of Georg Simmel on the figure of the “stranger,” the “criminal,” on “fashion,” and the philosophy of money – all conducted according to a definition of culture as «nature altered by labor», and almost entirely free of footnotes. 7) Interwar Parisian world cultural congresses, 8) the adult education movement in post-WWII Britain, 9) the early Roland Barthes of Mythologies, 10) C.L.R. James’s work of the 1950s on American civilization and the aesthetics of sport, 11) Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering work between the wars on urban sociology and on Hegel – later bearing fruit in the postwar period in books that should be required reading for anyone pursuing cultural studies – that are not simply illustrations of its combined techniques, but that systematically theorizes a method of work by investigating the concepts of «level», «the semantic field», «repetition», and the «culturalist illusion»: Critique of Everyday Life, volumes I and II (1958, 1961), Introduction to Modernity (1959-61) and The Production of Space (1974); and above all, 12) the definitive work of the Frankfurt School and those on the Frankfurt periphery (like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch). The Frankfurt School itself did not arrive at its unparalleled contributions to the political meaning of instrumental reason, anti-philosophical thought, mass cultural dreams, and standardization only because it was a funded institute, and could therefore systematize what others had begun. It fashioned its modes of inquiry, as I have been saying, because of the Hegelian spirit already richly developed in the individual figures of Lukács and Bloch, both of whom had already written books that had secured their fame throughout Europe before the Frankfurt School was founded. In particular, Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia (1918), and his early (misnamed) literary essays from the early 1920s are classical instances of the roving, precise, generalist spirit that moves deftly from the psychology of taste to the ideology of musical form and the political substrate of popular entertainment. The «peripheral» role he is accorded in the Frankfurt legacy is better seen as pre-formative one, and Adorno, for one, took heavily from his early writing, especially his creative explorations of the social function of music. Once listed this way, we can see some tensions. On the one side, the great diagnostician-geniuses like Spengler or Croce, mastering every science in a grand synthesis; on the other, the quite different populist or communist critique of society, often the result of collective endeavors written by committee, or anonymously – and then, as a corollary of the Marxist origin, the attempt to reclaim the same model of metropolitan ethnography for political liberalism (Weber, Talcott Parsons, Simmel). Simmel is particularly important here, and not just for his
book The Philosophy of Money. His work into sexuality and everyday life is extensive, and much of it still untranslated in English.5 The cluster of his precursors at the University of Berlin in the waning years of the nineteenth century included Wilhelm Dilthey, who was the major theorist of Geisteswissenschaft (the study of the human sciences), Moritz Lazarus whose Volkerpsychologie from the 1850s studied the psychology not of individuals, but of groups in cultural and everyday life, and Gustav Schmoller, a historian school of national economy. Seen in this genealogy, cultural studies appears very much like a return to sociology that had been kidnapped and quietly murdered by managerial positivism; or put another way: that cultural studies is the serendipitous possession of a methodology of materialist cultural analysis by literature professors who discovered too late that they had chosen the wrong field.
This is not to say that his academic resurgence, and his contemporary significance, have gone unnoticed. See M. Kaern, B. S. Phillips, and R. S. Cohen (eds.), Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology, Dordrecht, Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1990.
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
We can begin to appreciate, then, how impoverished historically and intellectually the reigning account of cultural studies currently is in the English-speaking countries. Richard Johnson’s excellent post-Birmingham essay, What is Cultural Studies Anyway? portrays critique (with some chagrin) less as the gift of Marxism than the club with which Marxism was beaten by Hall and his followers, as though cultural studies were a field that defined itself against Marxism rather than took over its positions.6 This paradox is closely related to the view with which we began, and have been questioning: that the field is a British postwar invention that has been disseminated to other countries. For this view, I have been suggesting, is as imperial within the Anglo-American world as outside of it – as eager to dispose of one of Europe’s radical domestic legacies as it is to establish English priority by way of the CCCS at Birmingham. Any inquiry into the meaning of cultural studies, then, finds itself pursuing questions usually reserved for anti-colonial thought: the opacity of the foreign, the appropriation and digression of theory as it travels from one country to another, the role of the English-speaking countries in setting trends in the humanities, the way different institutional needs affect reception, and problems of originality, belatedness, and mistranslation. We can see that cultural studies is targeted for reasons both good and bad. In much of the 1990s and early 2000s, so much of it was shallow, facile, and pointless. Articles and books based on “reading” popular television, advertising, or film without any institutional research, or economic understanding, in ways clearly borrowed wholesale from their training in the reading of novels; cultural studies journals like Social Text exposed for publishing fraudulent essays on science that the editors concede they never read; academic celebrities in the field who announced they no longer had any time to read, and that it did not matter, since no one reads anymore, and so on. Essays like Stopping Cultural Studies are responding to these diminishing returns, and they intend to deauthorize dabbling, rightly skeptical of the claims to political relevance in this turn to anything and everything in the realm of culture, which deteriorated in one Routledge, Duke, or University of Minnesota book after another, to the point of becoming something suspiciously like cheerleading for the corporate culture industry. But there is another side to the anger. It is not simply this or that critical school that is being rejected these days, but the very idea of critique. As I have said, cultural studies has always been identified with the political left. 6
R. Johnson, What is Cultural Studies Anyway?, «Social Text», 16, Winter 1986/87, pp. 38-80.
Its eagerness to expand the range of cultural artifacts for study had the goal of moving inquiry out of the rarefied sphere of the museum, the library, and the concert hall, looking at popular forms and everyday cultural practices. This populist sentiment was combined with an emphasis on political struggle. Hence, cultural studies – regardless of whether this actually was the case in the work appearing under its name – was considered to be in opposition to society and critical of it. But what we are seeing today is a reaction against the oppositional attitude as such: a new formalism in literary study and a frank retreat into aesthetic enjoyment; a move away from theory of any sort by a younger generation impatient with the labor required to master theory, and a life-training in media technologies that offer immediate access and a bewildering abundance that seem to nullify distinctions, precision, or positions. A kind of art-activist type has emerge that considers the interpretation of art works passé. At a recent summer institute, a variety of apparently dissimilar speakers settled into a similar theme that might be instructive. The invited speakers ranged from ficto-critical autobiography, to crypto-religious arguments that secularism is another form of religious intolerance, to theories that machines are authors, to ideas that the best strategies for humans is just to die – to «do nothing» (as one speaker put it) – out of respect for the animals and the planet they have betrayed. In all of this one found the same brand of indignation. There were cyberintellectuals from the art museum scene who wanted to jettison reading, and who argued that they did not really care about ideas anymore because they were involved in «practice». The unifying thread among these trends was the wish to abolish critique – in fact, any form of critical thinking. To them, the real virtue (and it was put in just these terms) is to know nothing, to pull back from decision, and to experiment without an acknowledged end in sight, for no particular reason. This is all unfolding in an environment that, like our first examples above, has been prepared. Not that each representative above subscribes to a single school of theory, nor even spoke in a theoretical idiom. But the lessons each was drawing had come, osmotically, from the “theory” terrain that I described at the outset. How this lineage of theory could both resist (in fact, ignore) the prehistory of cultural studies I have been outlining here while still presenting itself as a dissident challenge to established power is a story that (like so much else) has
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
been exhaustively explored by the Frankfurt School.7 I am not, then, talking about the new, but the misrecognized. In his impressive study of the Frankfurt School, Rolf Wiggershaus explains the mentality at work in the reception of early Heidegger in terms that evoke the attitude I am adducing here: Taking Dasein as a starting-point made it possible for Heidegger to achieve a concreteness in the description of phenomena which was unusual in the field of academic philosophy, and a way of handling standard philosophical problems which suggested that they were derivative or even meaningless [. . .]. In place of the pure consciousness with which Kant or Husserl were concerned, concrete human existence appeared, “thrown” into the world. This existence, like pure consciousness, was concerned with the highest matters but had loaded them with vital significance. It was a question of authentic or inauthentic life.8
The turn to objects in existentialist ontology gives way in time to an improvisation on the original idea – namely, the reduction of the human to an object, and so in a state where nature might reveal itself; and what had been called «reification» in Lukács – a concept that led the theorist outward to criticize the imperious social relations that reduced the active mind – is now recast, parasitically as a liberation from thinking, and as such, the ethical immersion in a world of objects where the human can no longer do any harm, or suffer from the pretension that it knows anything. But the reaction against cultural studies has, from the point of view I have been outlining at least, also taken the form of an embrace. Here we find not the New Historicist appeal to «stop cultural studies» in the name of a less trendy, more established sociological study of the literary, and not the anti-theory of the art-school circles, nor the nouveau formalists, but a carrying of the torch of cultural studies in the name of extending «theory» in its post-1968 sense. It would be, in that sense, the opposite camp from the one represented by Stopping Cultural Studies, and the one targeted by it (whereas the constellation I am evoking here is not part of the discussion at all). To explain why this matters, let me turn to a recent example.
T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, New York: Continuum, 1994, pp. 61-144; M. Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, M. J. O’Connell and others (trans.), New York, Continuum, 1982. 8 R. Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, M. Robertson (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994, p. 99.
The book New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory exemplifies the common move today to see cultural studies as «theory», and theory itself as an insurrectionary politics.9 Like a number of commentaries on cultural studies since the early 1990s, it sees no point in consulting intellectual history, since (as it puts it) the Birmingham version «is already dominant». So much for insurrectionary knowledge! Nor does the volume explain the distinction between cultural studies and fields like ethnography and sociology. Since many mainstream scholars have repeatedly argued that these fields are simply cultural studies before the fact, this contention needs to be addressed. The volume also seems paralyzed in many respects. It sits within a familiar reception of cultural studies as a British phenomenon inflected by «theory» – although what they really mean is a particular brand of theories of identities, texts, and bodies that, for reasons of market popularity, stifled access to other theories of agency, interested knowledge, colonialism, economics, and intellectuals, which were richly developed in these years, although not within the sphere of academic work given the name «cultural studies». These latter areas of interest were, one could argue, deliberately ignored by many of the maitres de penser repeatedly cited in this volume – and every chapter cites the same ones. In this sense, the somewhat overly dramatic epigraph at the start of the volume which recites a dictionary definition of the word «adventure» does include at least two accurate definitions of the approach here: although this is not a «dangerous enterprise» nor an action that «incurs risk», it certainly is a «commercial speculation» and a «playground». I take this to be dramatic irony. Following suit with other accounts of cultural studies as an originally British phenomenon, it is, even on these grounds, incomplete in the sense that it rushes past Hoggart, James, Thompson, and Williams to the generation after them – to the one they trained – Stuart Hall, who is the one who brought their version of «theory» into the mix. The process by which Hall and the CCCS fled from Hegelian Marxism towards Althusser took place, we should recall, in a move away from the supposed «unitary determinations» of Hegel and towards the concept of «over-determination» where the «concrete variations and mutations of a structured complexity such as a social formation» were understood as «complexly-structurally-unevenly determined»10. The claim, 9
G. Hall and C.Birchall (eds.), New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory, Edinburgh University Press, 2006. S. Hall, Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies, in S. Hall, D. Morley, K.H. Chen (eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 210, p. 209. 10
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although frequent, was never accompanied by textual evidence to substantiate it, and an extensive scholarly literature (never referenced) that would consider the term «unitary» applied to the explanatory mechanisms of Hegel or Marx misinformed or tendentious. In the books that have appeared that set out to explain cultural studies, almost no attention has been paid to this kind of transition or the dialectical reversal at its heart. 11 Let us consider the case of the early CCCS. One of Hall’s early, pre-Birmingham books, co-written with Paddy Whannel (The Popular Arts), came upon the subject of culture with the excitement of early Freud. When Chas. Critcher, John Clarke, Angela McRobbie et al. wrote up there early essays for the Working Papers on skin heads and the Teddy Boys, they dragged along with them a naturalized sense of corporate institutions, the police power, and the regulative agencies of the state within which this modest groove-resistance expressed its incoherent power. Exactly because they came out of an «economist» emphasis on organization, dual power, and labor, their heterodoxy could never wander far from a politics of intervention and of vying. What made it matter was precisely this mixture, precisely this moment of transition, which is fatal when arrested. This moment, at any rate, grew in time into a “cultural revolution” – something rather different from its origins, in other words – not only because of the inevitable overemphasis of the initial gestures by the CCCS, now carried away with its own discursive struggles. It became something else because of its discovery by alien constituencies whose unanchored, intellectual vanguardist boredom with existentialism and high-church socialism found a free range in a resistance without danger and a populism that despised the goal of popular power. They imitated what they could not understand. Nevertheless, this was the formula developed in the University of Illinois anthology in 1992 that proved so influential in the construction of the field in the United States. 12 In their introductory essays, the editors of New Cultural Studies try to fend off in advance any criticisms of what they did not include on the grounds that one cannot include everything. This, however, evades the point when the volume’s claim to our attention is that it is revising a take on cultural studies that was already a foreclosure – already the Illinois conference creation that cut 11
For example, F. Inglis, Cultural Studies, Oxford and Cambridge, Blackwell, 1993; S. During, Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction, London, New York, Routledge, 2005. 12 L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, and P. Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies, New York and London, Routledge, 1992.
cultural studies off from its origins. One wants them to wrestled more with those who originally defined cultural studies as precisely an intellectual practice that was not “theory” (Richard Johnson, for example), which would provide an interesting counterpoint to the «new generation» that is their audience. On the other hand, this lack of interest in intellectual history means, inevitably, a repetition of the projects of earlier thinkers. Irving Goffman, for example, wrote a book-length study of the «secret» – the topic of this volume’s final chapter, and a frequent trope throughout the volume. He is not cited in the book; but at any rate, Goffman thought he was doing sociology. Our attention is diverted from these intellectual problems by the volume’s upfront, energetic call to arms, which wards off criticism by appealing to our sense of solidarity. The whole first section of the book sets out to ride a wave of revo-speak. In the minds of the editors, cultural studies is not merely a science, a theory, or even a mode of inquiry: it is an instrument in the «development of a new form of politics and a new political project». Two issues arise at this point, though. It is questionable to have such ambitions when the project’s validity as a science, a theory, or a mode of inquiry is so tenuous: that is, when it cannot even define itself as such, and when it gives no evidence of having understood where it come from, or why. If it were not the case that the essays leaned on the premise of cultural studies as a coherent «field», this would be less disastrous. But they do – viz. the typical observation on p. 209 «[some interventions] exist at the borders of cultural studies [. . .] expand[ing] its jurisdiction in original ways, but do not fully register the potential impact of [. . .] thought on the field». This implies a field. So what is this field? But there is also a dubious assumption behind the volume’s references to forging a «movement of movements». The editors take for granted that neoliberalism has won and is here to stay. In fact, the integrity of the volume relies on defending this proposition, since almost everything the contributors write in the volume’s chapters flows from this premise. For the editors at least, revolution could not be farther from anyone’s mind today. Although they would very much dislike for it to be seen this way, a skeptical reader is invited by their comments to objectify them, concluding that the editors speak of movements and revolutions in theory only because it is now safe to say insurrectionary things in the stasis of a permanent neoliberal order. In its demotic opening statement, the editors defend, among other things, the continued viability of social movements in politics. But they seem not to realize that this compels them to analyze why their intellectual leads (the maitres de penser I alluded to above) have induced so much antagonism, if not nausea, among the organizers of social
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
movements. They simply assume a continuity between Jacques Derrida or Giorgio Agamben, on the one hand, and social movements, on the other, whereas the two are arguably repellent to one another. How, then, can an academic sub-discipline produce a movement? This would be a very important subject for theory, but not one they ask. By what mechanism? What features of the theory that attracts them (the «multitude» and «mobility» are two examples) might be said to prompt the formation of movements? Why do they ignore the theorists who in the past targeted precisely the attitude they are espousing here as idealism and a substitute for movement? Our fears are redoubled when the authors insist on the performative aspect of their enterprise. Leaving alone the very familiar appeal to the performative today in self-described «political» scholarship (and so a return once again to the issue of belatedness), there is a hidden assertion in the term. For it implicitly asserts that the very utterance of the political in cultural studies as witnessed by their volume brings to realization the political ends sought. For by arguing for, it thereby creates, the new cultural studies it enacts. This is a phatic gesture, in other words. It sets out to share with readers a set of attitudes known and agreed upon in advance. The editors believe theory has fallen out of favour for not being commercial, for not serving the interests of the corporate university. This is why, they argue, it is not rewarded in the corporate model. But so much evidence points in the opposite direction. Granted, there is a trend occurring alongside the commodification of theory among those who never took the trouble to learn it. In that way, it is very true, just as they say, that many deans now emphasize the «arts» within the humanities – that is, drama, painting, and film, the so-called creative industries – and flee from serious critical thought, since alumni, regents, and senior administrators all understand the utility of the «arts» as a form of entertainment or as cultural indoctrination, but do not prize anything perceived as a criticism of society – nor believe that donors can be induced to support it. But one has to ignore the use of humanities theory in business journals, the invitation of big theorists to corporate junkets, and the effortless careers made on theory’s back within the university to draw, so blithely, an equation between theory and anti-corporate resistance. The volume does not even entertain such issues, much less seriously address them. At this juncture, the resistance to critique again presents itself, although now in a special way. In an early passage, we are presented with a list of the theorists that most inspire the authors. These include Gilles Deleuze, Agamben, Georges Bataille, Derrida, Ernesto Laclau, Niklas Luhmann, Chantal Mouffe, Friedrich Kittler, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. Like the example earlier, the list poses a conceptual problem. Leaving alone whether figures like
Kittler, Luhmann, or Bataille are on the political left (as the authors imply), and forgetting for a moment the surprising absence of other candidates that the volume’s terms of engagement would seem to demand (Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Attali, Regis Debray, Alexander Kluge, David Harvey . . .) what exactly is the relevance to cultural studies of these thinkers? To its first practitioners, cultural studies meant some interdisciplinary critique of an everyday object, some radical interrogation of the common sense by which people live their everyday lives in a way that mobilizes the techniques of history, close description, ethnographic observation, and attention to language and representation all at once. Laclau is a political theorist; Derrida, a philosopher of language and an ethicist; Luhmann a systems theorist; Deleuze, a post-Freudian, neo-Bergsonian philosopher of modalities. What the volume actually seems to address deserves a different title. A more accurate one would be Post-Foucauldian Theory and the Post-Political or After Politics: The Silicon Generation, or something similar. To put this another way, Raymond Williams is a brilliant representative of cultural studies in many of his essays and in his media books, but no one would think of calling his The Country and the City a work of cultural studies. It is literary criticism. The sincerity and commitments of such a study are equally evident. Quoting Wendy Brown, the authors open themselves up, however glancingly, to the possibility that they are involved in a paralytic moralizing rather than politics, remarking that «theoretical fluency» – the repetition of well-known formulae from the theory lexicon – may well be a sign of «institutional comfort and political complacency». But in his own essay for the volume, one of the editors splices together an encomium to Derrida, a confession of his deconstructive sympathies, and observations by Stuart Hall on New Times – that is, the instauration of a permanent neoliberal consensus that supposedly forces the thinking left to redefine and radically scale back its goals, and to concede its many earlier failures as well as the progressive features of consumer capitalism itself (as though this prognosis that we had entered a «new modernity» was established in fact, and could be accepted without demur). He concludes confidently that cultural studies needs now to jettison the Gramscian theory of hegemony, turning instead to Antonio Negri, and finding in Negri’s many contradictions only further proof of his shrewdly deconstructive gestures.13 Less by offering an actual argument, and much more by appealing to the «new», he suggests we 13
To get a sense of the deliberate and conscious reaction to Hegel that underpins the institutionalization of cultural studies, and its Heideggerian core, see A. Negri’s Twenty Theses on Marx, in S. Makdisi, C. Casarino and R. Karl (eds.), Marxism Beyond Marxism, New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 165:
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should welcome all escape from «dialectical thinking». This declaration is not argued, nor is dialectics defined; it is, however, confidently assumed and shared with its readers as a knowing insight that few could doubt. This, again, is the phatic dimension of the argument, and the clearest aspect of its adherence to the post-critical outlook that characterizes the desire to get beyond cultural studies (here, by assuming its name). Many graduate essays and dissertations today bear witness to this odd morphology of the project of making the study of culture more political, and opening it out to a broader field of objects. Despite the policing of the discursive regimes of the new New Left of theory, many younger scholars are discovering hidden pasts for themselves. Nevertheless, the pull of the episteme is still strong enough to produce a common pattern, which frequently marks the writing in the following way: 1) large political and social claims are made based on the reading of works of literature; and 2) the fiction consulted is drawn from wildly different contexts and periods, by authors from entirely different literary traditions, political sympathies, and cultural frameworks. What such readings are supposed to prove is left open. There is no theory of mediation, in other words. The conflating of situations, can seen as a rather insensitive universalizing gesture, and is itself a way of skimming over the difficult factual rendering of specific histories, which one would think was essential to any effort to challenge the dominant discourses of Western representation. One attempts to splice incompatible intentions by a carefully worded general account. But this, of course, is not the generalist approach I invoked above, which involves massive reading outside one's discipline, and a mixed methodology. What it does not involve is what is here so much in evidence: conflating every issue into a metaphorical displacement of the interpretive procedures of a modernist reading of a literary text (even when the text is not modernist). A philosophy does not, by being philosophical, free itself from correspondence to a ground, so one never completely decouples a philosophical approach from the situatedness of history. A number of critics who fall loosely under the rubric of the «My effort to define ontological categories of subversive subjectivity against the dialectical categories of the relationship struggles-restructuration [. . .] ». Creative labor, he goes on, «reconstructs society itself, revolutionizing it through a process of subjectivization» (172) where the social is defined as day-to-day life, just living. For its part, subjectivity is defined as «the deconstruction of value» and revolutionary consciousness is defined as «radically, ontologically autonomous consciousness». In short, his view is indistinguishable from corporate individualism («you can have it all», «be all you can be»), which precludes the necessity of «struggle« and «restructuration», since living «subversively» is a form of creative labor that realizes its revolution without revolution by simply being.
«postcolonial» in the left-Hegelian mold (Roberto Schwarz, Joan Dayan, Benedict Anderson) are literary scholars who helped show the way past this easy formalism passing for the political. The problems is not the literary versus the historical, as critics like Schwarz have shown by combining them, but a self-compromised theoretical posture based on received modernist figures like juxtaposition, irony, and double-entendre. In this context, it is far from surprising that the pun is the primary figure of deconstruction, the double-entendre ostensibly displaying the semantic play of language but actually showing the deliberate indecisionism of the radical critic afraid of real transformation. At one point in his reflections on the interwar avant-gardes, Alejo Carpentier writes: «there was in them a horrible disillusionment that translated itself into saying that all nature of progress, so much intelligence, so much philosophical thought, so much preoccupation with what D'Annunzio used to term in capital letters, Beauty, Aesthetics, Art – all that just to arrive at this destruction, these people blowing each other up, bloody in the mud of the trenches [. . .]. Well then, none of this [for the youth] amounted to anything of value at all, nor did it matter even to reflect upon it particularly, nor to speak of culture, and so there insinuated itself in their spirits – in certain spirits of youth – a species of nihilism».14 The idea here, not only its pointing to a sociological verity regarding how a stylized bohemian rebellion comes into being, but also the key observation that for a certain kind of dissident any attempt to reflect upon problems is considered useless: the impertinence of critique. This attitude can at times join the resistance against speaking about «culture» in high-aesthetic sense, as Carpentier describes. One of the impetuses cultural studies took the field, dialectically, in a contrary way from the culturalization of science in Freud or the discovery, through, phenomenology, of the everyday. That is, the modes of inquiry that science had claimed, or that the practitioners wished would be claimed by science (economics in Marx and Simmel; sociology in Dilthey and Weber; anthropology in Frobenius and Leiris; psychology in Freud) moved towards the «cultural» and adopted in a discovery of the symbolic, the representational, the environs of style, taste, judgment and the imagination in the creation of the social. One thinks here of Hegel’s long discursus on anthropology and on phrenology in The Phenomenology of Mind, for instance, as a precursor of these later developments. By the early 20th century, avant-garde youth was moving in the opposite direction. They began as 14
A. Carpentier, Conferencias in Obras completas, 14, Coyoacán: Siglo Veintiuno, 1985, p. 16.
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artists whose desire was to destroy art, to dismiss the invocation of a realm of culture that was not, in the obtusest and most dishonest of ways, a functional adjunct to a social machine of starvation and murder. This was yet another way to see the opacity of culture, and indeed, certain strains of dadism and surrealism contributed greatly to our understanding of the problem of culture and the need for its theorization, but in this case, in a manner that rejected critique for irony, concept-jamming, the oneiric, and the aleatory. We can visualize this bifurcation as branches of a family tree (See appendix 1: Lineages of Cultural Studies) with one lineage descending from a policy-oriented, educational, sociological approach to cultural study and the other based on the figure of the artist-outcast. In a general sense, «theory» (in its restrictive sense) develops a version of cultural studies based on this latter type, but importantly not as a carefully chosen option following a systematic investigation of the various traditions in play, but rather as an appropriation of an original concept that has been forcibly alienated from its first inspirations. The inspirations have never been realized as fully, as comprehensively, or with such originality and brilliance as in the work of the Frankfurt school, along with its immediate interwar predecessors (Lukács and, especially, Bloch) and intellectual satellites (Benjamin, Brecht, Lucien Goldmann, Habermas). The contributions within this tradition of left-Hegelian thought (only Habermas might be excluded from that designation) have produced a body of work that is not merely characterized by a mind-boggling disciplinary range but by individual studies that are now considered masterpieces. The conceptual terms coined within its orbit have proved indispensable for every critic in their wake (the culture industry, mass culture, authoritarian personality, reified thought, the not-yet, the angel of progress, age of mechanical reproduction, one-dimensional man, oppressive de-sublimation, affirmative culture, etc.). In the historical studies of Karl Wittfogel, the literary critical studies Leo Lowenthall, the critiques of scientific reason by Max Horkheimer, the sociology of Franz Neumann, the economic studies of Friedrich Pollock, the socio-psychoanalytic investigations of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, Bloch’s and Adorno’s studies of music, Benjamin’s work on the industrial-commercial fantasy objects of modernity, and so on, one has the entirety not only of what has been done in cultural studies, but what can be done. It is in the Frankfurt School that we get the first serious critique of the Enlightenment from the left (and, importantly, its partial restoration), the first attempt to explain the psychology and culture of fascism, the first diagnosis of the propaganda function of the entertainment industries under liberal democracy, the first empirical and
philosophical explanations of anti-Semitism, and the first overarching theory of the media’s imbrication in the state and the economy. Even in those areas of inquiry in which others have since made their mark, it is the Frankfurt school that sets into motion the discourse of a critique of positivism, of the rhetoric of authentic being, and of the culture industry, which a number of critics now enter as though these studies and these questions had always existed, forgetting the conceptual leap required to set research down this path.15 Adorno’s Cultural Criticism and Society (Kulturkritik) demonstrates that the Frankfurt School was quite aware of its competition, and what was almost from the first seeking to displace it.16 His seminal essay establishes that much of what I am questioning here in post-1970s cultural studies was already evident in the United States academic scene in the 1950s, with Adorno trying to show the ineffectual self-importance of a criticism that mistook itself for politics when it was only the prolegomenon for politics. Above, and in just this way, the Frankfurt school contribution is meta-critical; it did not merely make good on its general criticism by elaborating its arguments in philosophically intricate, exhaustive, and often empirically-based books and studies, but reflected upon what it was doing, explaining in detail how and why it was doing it, and what traditions of philosophy it was drawing on – the precursors that prepared the way. When one rehearses as I have here the scope of the Frankfurt contribution, it is significant that the one element of the intellectual tradition it considered self-defining – the one-word version of all they did – was critique. And recent studies of the Institute have argued, moreover, that the spirit that motivated this remarkable collection of committed minds was much more radical and more activist-oriented that is implied by charges of Kathedersozialismus that have on occasion come its way.17 The writing of Bloch, Adorno, Marcuse, and Lukács – to take four of the most prominent thinkers from this tradition – is never formulaic, but what might be said to characterize them methodologically is an acute sense of social contradiction, a sensitivity to the “interestedness” of thought in the sense that intellectual positions can never be decoupled from the sectoral or caste interests at stake, the dialectical nature of the movement of thought in relation to its object (that is, its movement or change through time and its dynamic interactions in 15
See R. Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance cit. T.W. Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society, in Prisms, Samuel and Shierry Weber (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983, pp. 17-34. 17 This view has been developed, for example, by A. Demirovic, Der nonkonformistische Intellektuelle. Die Entwicklung der Kritischen Theorie zur Frankfurter Schule, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1999. 16
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which both subject and object are affected), the structuring function of capitalist social relations, the need to theorize the form or patterns of history as following a traceable logic, the continued viability of philosophy in an age of instrumental reason, the importance of art as a critical force and a refuge of utopian possibilities, and the idea that inquiry as such, intellectual scrutiny as such, was by its nature oppositional – that is, critical. The times we live in are characterized above all by the overripe. We are continually stymied by the recognition as intellectuals that the incisive critiques of the Frankfurt School and of interwar Marxism generally have, in their own areas of concern, not been surpassed and cannot be surpassed. This tradition has fully articulated precisely the problems that still confront us and that remain, with some important exceptions relating, say, to new media- and bio-technologies, in much the same form as they did then. Williams’s concept of the «dominant, residual, and emergent» is decisive for explaining why this homology between the interwar era and the present can be said to exist, and brings up in a more sophisticated, balanced way the issue of «belatedness» that lurks behind antagonistic versions of cultural studies. What we might conclude, then, is that the novel theory of cultural studies that proposed itself as stepping in to sweep away the staleness of the Frankfurt models was motivated by the desire simply to have something that was new to say, something that was theirs, since the sectoralist special interests of intellectuals are always concerned with breaking from predecessors in order to establish their own insights as innovators. In other words, there is a kind of guild mentality that, for purely functionalist reasons, dictated a certain turn in the direction of whatever was at hand that might convey a break or the dawning of a new era quite apart from the collaborationist tinge that accompanied the politics of their move (that is, the instinctual agreement, on their part, with the broad outlines of liberal democracy as a political, although not a philosophical, project. What evolved from that move over the next three decades, I have been arguing, took progressively more and more radical a posture in respect to the social critique that defined Frankfurt Hegelian ground. Unable to square the left political sympathies of its brief with its concessions to a firmly ensconced (and to them unshakeable) neoliberal order, the critic was unable to imagine alternatives to that order; and eager above all not to be seen as nostalgically adhering to a discredited model of intellectual negation and opposition, the critic devised strategies of wiliness and indirection for evading critique altogether in favor of a being other, whose various avatars – among them, performativity, subversive subjectivity, the multitude, immanence, indecisionism,
ethical commitment – coalesce into an emphatic sameness. They share a rejection of the origins of cultural studies in the name of cultural studies, a substitution of “theory” for inter-disciplinarity (a theory, moreover, made up of modernist literary tropes), and in place of critique, the phatic. To know why cultural studies should not be stopped but started in earnest, we have to get beyond presentism and return to intellectual history. This would be to go beyond the question of the “field” to recover something larger – the extreme originality and stayingpower of the left-Hegelian invention of the generalist intellectual.
Critique â€“ Or, Starting Cultural Studies
Gli studi umanistici, almeno nei paesi di lingua inglese, conoscono una rinascita, nel segno di una nuova disposizione a ricondurre la letteratura verso i libri, gli archivi, i canoni, e gli autori, lontano dalle speculazioni astratte sul significato, il linguaggio e l’essenza. Come se dovessero confessare precedenti peccati, una serie di volumi e saggi recenti appaiono chiaramente motivati dal desiderio urgente di abbandonare la ‘teoria’ e sostituirla con quelle che considerano indagini disciplinari più solide. Una delle vittime di questo auto-prodotto ritorno a un lavoro accademico paziente e più esplicitamente modesto è quel settore che va sotto il nome di studi culturali. Il titolo di un articolo apparso di recente su “Profession” – portavoce ufficiale della più vasta organizzazione professionale del Nord America – annunciava senza mezzi termini le sue intenzioni: “Fermare gli studi culturali”. Nel suo saggio, Timothy Brennan traccia una storia alternativa del settore, mostrandone lo sviluppo a partire dalla teoria sociale del primo XIX secolo, la nascita della sociologia, la deriva antropologica della filosofia dell’inizio del XX secolo, e la creazione dell’intellettuale generalista in contesti e dibattiti rivoluzionari specifici. Brennan sostiene che l’equazione ‘teoria’ letteraria-studi culturali (come nell’articolo di “Profession”) sia una cattiva interpretazione, che i due termini, siano, addirittura, antitetici, e che, lungi dall’essere giunti al capolinea, gli studi culturali non siano ancora stati considerati nella loro interezza, o attraverso una comprensione della loro complessa preistoria. Non si tratta soltanto di un certo settore definito dal lavoro di Stuart Hall e del CCCS di Birmingham, come molti pensano negli Stati Uniti e in Gran Bretagna. Anzi, in maniera molto più significativa, non lo sono mai stati: è solo la nostra ignoranza delle varie correnti al loro interno, e della storia specifica del Marxismo e dell’anti-Marxismo da cui sono dialetticamente derivati, che ci impedisce di vedere che la loro presa sulla nostra attenzione non è mai stata più forte. The humanities, at least in the English-speaking countries, are alive with a new mood – one eager to bring literary study back to books, archives, canons, and authors, and away from abstract speculations on meaning, language, and being. As though confessing earlier sins, a number of recent books and essays are clearly driven by the urgent desire to abandon “theory” and replace it with what they consider more solid disciplinary inquiries. One of the casualties of this self-styled return to patient, and ostensibly more modest, scholarly work is the field
Critique – Or, Starting Cultural Studies
known as cultural studies. In fact, the title of a recent essay in the journal Profession – the official mouthpiece of the largest professional organization in North America – announced its intentions bluntly: “Stopping Cultural Studies.” In the following essay, Timothy Brennan lays out an alternative intellectual history of the field, showing its development out of early 19th-century social theory, the rise of sociology, the anthropological turn in early 20th-century philosophy, and the creation of the model of the generalist intellectual in specific revolutionary political contexts and debates. He argues that the equation of literary “theory” with cultural studies (as in the Profession article) is a misrecognition – indeed, that the two are really opposites -- and that far from being at its end, cultural studies has never really been taken whole, or with an understanding of its complex pre-histories. It is certainly not a field defined by the work of Stuart Hall and the CCCS of Birmingham as most in the United States and Britain assume. More importantly, it never was, and it is only our ignorance of the many strains within it, and the specific history of Marxism and anti-Marxism out of which it dialectically grew, that prevents us from seeing that its claim on our attentions has never been greater.
Published on Nov 20, 2011
Published on Nov 20, 2011
Cultural studies is both an area and a mode of study – a new field of objects and a different way of doing things – and has existed long bef...