The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.

 

Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

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One response to “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

  1. Dave Mazella

    Laura,

    I like your point that since we don’t know where lit study ends and cultural studies begins, stopping cultural studies risks stopping lit studies altogether. The boundary issue is further complicated by the fact that both approaches are eclectic, with little consensus about what constitutes a “core” vs. a “peripheral” methodology. For me, this is one of the reasons why cultural studies became popular in literary studies in ways that it didn’t in other scholarly fields. But an argument like Warner/Siskin’s, I think, would require at the outset a more convincing description of the two fields and their differences (in their methods, characteristic objects of study, and topics) to be persuasive.