Daily Archives: August 28, 2011

“Stop Doing Cultural Studies!” – A Reply and a Challenge by Toni Bowers

I don’t see an inescapable or defining conflict between studying “literature” and studying “culture,” or any reason to be paralyzed by the difficulty of defining and controlling those terms. Any “flight from disciplinarity” that may be brought about by the “totalizing” method of “cultural studies” is not, I think, necessarily part-and-parcel of every version of that method current among literary scholars.[1] Nor does it seem to me necessary that bringing cultural studies into classrooms and published work must edge out close attention to language, as if interpretation were a zero-sum game. Sometimes, to be sure, close-reading – the currency in which literary scholars trade, our means of adducing evidence, and the most valuable critical-thinking tool we can offer to our students —  gets short shrift. But ineffective scholarship and teaching are not necessarily results of any single thing we can call “cultural studies,” and even if it were possible to “Stop cultural studies!,” ineffective scholarship and teaching would remain. The fact that it is possible to “do cultural studies” poorly is not an argument for the wholesale rejection of the method, which is really many methods and which cannot even be dismissed without imposing on “it” a reductive definition.

I express dissatisfaction with the declaration that “We must stop doing cultural studies” not because I feel compelled to defend cultural studies, nor because I think “it” needs defending. There are other aspects of the matter that I find more important. What most forcefully strikes me about Warner and Siskin’s “Stop Cultural Studies!” manifesto is the stance taken by the manifesto’s speakers toward their subject and, ultimately, their audience. It’s Siskin-and-Warner’s self-presentation as standard-bearers holding the fort against a dangerous menace that I find most interesting.  (At the conference, they became even more romantic figures than they had been in the Profession article: virtuous turn-coats who once unreflectively may have abetted the menace but who have now seen the error of their ways.) With that stance in mind, it matters that the clarion call repeatedly intoned at the ASECS conference — “We must stop doing cultural studies” — featured as hot-button words not only “cultural studies,” but also, more suggestively, “stop,” “we,” and the moral imperative of “must” and “should.”  “We” erroneously do this and that, the audience was repeatedly told; “we” really ought to “stop” behaving this way.

If it’s legitimate to speak about what “must” or “should” be the subject of scholarly research and writing – a pretty large “if,” I admit — I suggest that we might better ask a different question. Should two accomplished and privileged scholars devote themselves to shutting down the work of others – indeed, of casting a preemptive verdict on future scholarly work? “We must stop cultural studies” is not, after all, the same as a reasoned critique. It may be that Warner and Siskin will be able to demonstrate what they are claiming: that “culture” means too much, and therefore means very little, and that the term should be abandoned. That might be an interesting argument, with interesting (though by no means already obvious) implications for scholarship. But to declare in advance of that demonstration that “we must stop doing cultural studies” is, at best, a mystifying move; some might call it imperialistic.

When asked about this implicit imperialism at the ASECS conference, Warner and Siskin defended “Stop cultural studies!” by minimizing it as a merely rhetorical utterance. The call is overstated deliberately, they explained, for effect; it’s a moment of conscious showmanship designed to get attention, and ought not to be taken too seriously per se. But convincing scholarly arguments rarely reduce to sound-bites, or are well supported by rhetorical effects unable to withstand analysis. We can “do things with words,” as Austin taught us long ago;[2] but we cannot pretend that a sentence constructed primarily for its effect is thereby emptied of meaning. Warner and Siskin should own up to the real demand behind what they themselves swiftly recharacterized as a mere attention-grabbing declaration built to be sidestepped, and to the approach both to their subject and to their listeners/readers that “stop cultural studies!” enacts.

Warner and Siskin acknowledge, with winning forthrightness, that they have no alternative method to suggest; they are explicitly not offering any method that they find better. And, they went on to say at last March’s ASECS conference, that’s perfectly all right; after all, Newton didn’t have an alternative theory of the cosmos worked out when he mounted his critique of received notions. To which I respond, with all due respect and from a position not necessarily opposed in all features to Warner-and-Siskin’s, that none of us isNewton.  Hubris often has its own humorous side, furthermore, and hubristic language carries its own effect. It is not only inappropriate but perhaps slightly silly for any scholar categorically to pronounce on what others ought not to assume, think, or practice. “Stop!” is not an argument. And when it masquerades as one, I (for one) don’t want to be included in Warner and Siskin’s “we.”   

And about that “we.” “We must stop doing cultural studies,” Siskin and Warner declare. Okay, one might respond, taking literally their use of the first-person plural: feel free to stop. Both Warner and Siskin have already done some wonderful work in cultural studies; they should of course take new directions now, if they wish to do so. Despite their claims to the “totalization” of the method they deplore, in fact no one is forcing Warner and Siskin to “do cultural studies.”  I suggest that the “we” in “we must stop doing cultural studies,” while it might usefully point to an intellectual turn in Warner’s and Siskin’s careers, has no claim to extend farther than that. “We” — that is, they – can stop doing cultural studies. But they have not been granted the right to tell others what to do merely by virtue of assuming a commanding posture and speaking in the first-person plural. Once it is no longer mystified by a silently expansive “We,” the moralistic and imperial quality of the slogan — “Stop cultural studies!” — is plain. It’s not only that Warner and Siskin are saying “we must stop doing cultural studies;” they’re also saying, “you must stop doing cultural studies.”  I resist that unstated message, at least in its present form.

There is something oddly innocent, I think, a kind of magical thinking, in the procedure Siskin and Warner adopt. It is as if they believed it possible really to stop others thinking (and researching, and writing, and teaching) in certain ways merely because they say so, or because they believe it’s for the best. The gesture strikes me as reminiscent of other efforts to deny the constitutive past. Remember “after theory?” Remember the “new biography” and the “new historicism,” both, by some accounts, unprecedented, underived, and unattached? The fact is that new ways of thinking never come without debts to the old, and existent ways of thinking never fully disappear. It is possible to think in new ways, but the new never breaks entirely with its past, exceeding all resemblance. Likewise, the serious study of literature – the discipline in which both Siskin and Warner work, and in fact the same discipline in which every one of the speakers who debated their remarks at ASECS work[3] — has long had room for sets of assumptions and interpretive practice that don’t mesh comfortably with one another, yet do not cancel one another out, or remain mutually uninfiltrated. How, precisely, might the call to “Stop cultural studies!” take these facts on board?

Professors Warner and Siskin have challenged others to “Stop doing cultural studies!” I’d like to offer to Professors Warner and Siskin a challenge in return. Will Siskin and Warner now spell out in detail their specific arguments against “cultural studies” – arguments, not slogans?  And can they do so without the problematic stance I have aligned with “Stop” and “We,” and without the moralistic “Must”?  Warner and Siskin might object that without such terms their manifesto would no longer look like a manifesto. It wouldn’t summarize a platform, or issue a command, or decree a policy, or put anyone on notice, or demand attention. It wouldn’t be catchy. It wouldn’t be short. It wouldn’t come from a height, or dictate right and wrong, or clearly separate believers from nonbelievers, the righteous from the unrighteous. And by the time they got that far, I think Warner and Siskin might join me in wondering how much would really be lost were they to stake up my challenge.


[1] The quotations are from Cliff Siskin’s and Bill Warner’s presentations at the 2011 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, March, 2011. For “literary scholars,” see n. 2.

[2] J.L.  Austin,  How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1962).

[3] What about that disciplinary sameness, even considering the very different kinds of institutions represented here? Why is everyone participating in the present conversation affiliated with an English department?  I’m grateful to John Bender, who first drew my attention to that fact.

Advertisements