“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.

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

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Toni,
    Thanks for this terrific post. It is indeed unusual and curious to see someone telling others “not” to do something. Most other arguments about the direction of a field that I can think of have been “for” something instead. The only ones I can think of have been virtulently anti-progressive (stop being a feminist; stop queer studies) and more often from outside the academy. Wonder if I’m missing something here.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Toni. Your piece calls attention to a contradiction that I’m finding in the W/S non-project of “stopping cultural studies”: W/S seem to place some value on “Enlightenment” as a historical artifact (that’s why all that cultural studies stuff threatens the purity of those great monuments of thought), but this is accompanied, I think, by a disavowal of “critique,” at least as I understand how it is practiced. (“emancipation” doesn’t seem to come onto their radar, except as a delusionary hope that needs to be set aside as quickly as possible)

    As I understand it, anyway, “Critique” demands that reasons be given, evidence put forward, and some kind of “public” be invoked to make its own determinations. This normative ethos of critique also forces the critic to submit to others’ critique, with all that entails. This notion of “critique” has always had its enemies, as we know from writers like Barruel, de Maistre, and Burke. How would this notion of “stopping” be distinguished from those kinds of horrified reactions at the possibility of an unregulated “critique”? And the question that I would put to W/S would be: “where does critique fit in?”

  3. Well, I do think that both Bill and Cliff have the best intentions, and care about where the fields are going. But I also think that we need to call one another on matters like our stance toward our colleagues and our uses of privilege. I think they’d agree.

  4. Dave Mazella

    I think that one of the peculiarities of the essay/presentation is the fact that it functions like an invitation to a non-debate, with an idiosyncratic set of rules of engagement prescribed in advance by Bill and Cliff. There doesn’t seem to be any awareness that their position could or should be subject to the critique they make of others. So is there a next step to this exchange? Is it worth trying to turn this exchange into a real debate?

  5. John Richetti

    Dear Colleagues, An interesting discussion and a cogent posting from Toni B. I got to the W & S panel too late, and I wasn’t about to stand or to sit on the floor, so I left and had more coffee or something. But I wonder why the column I wrote as president of ASECS two years ago was ignored both by W&S and by all of you. It is possible, just possible, that you never read it! So here it is:

    President’s Column: John Richetti

    ASECS and the Disciplines: Thoughts on Professing Literature

    Browsing through the program for the forthcoming ASECS conference in Richmond, I am impressed by its inter-disciplinary variety. Despite the preponderance in our ranks of English professors like me, we are a multi-disciplinary society — historians of various kinds of endeavors (art, music, politics, culture, philosophy), scholars of literature in the European languages — all of us we hope bound together by a common interest in the European (or now, perforce, the global) eighteenth century. But many of us who are in English Departments have for a number of years suffered from disciplinary anxiety, and I suspect that the same holds true for those in other language and literature departments. Paradoxically, such nervousness can be seen in some of the ASECS panels where the topics are broadly cultural rather than specifically literary-historical or restricted to the workings of texts commonly regarded as literary. “Eighteenth-Century Studies,” after all, licenses broad inquiry that properly goes beyond narrow disciplinary concerns and methods. And yet uncertainty about the disciplinary identity of professors of literature persists. I find my colleagues in literary studies at ASECS panels holding forth on large issues and themes that are certainly present in works we agree to call literary, but often enough there seems to be no particular attention paid to the special qualities of form and language that make them literary. I remember a revealing incident that took place years ago at a tenure meeting of the English department I was then a member of as we were considering an individual who had written an as yet un-published manuscript on William Blake. The chair of the department committee that had evaluated this manuscript said that it was learned and provocative but from reading it one would never know that Blake wrote in verse.

    Two of our colleagues in ASECS and in the English departments of NYU and UC Santa Barbara respectively, Clifford Siskin and William Warner, have lately in Profession 2008 (the Modern Language Association journal) written a brilliant essay about the disciplinary anxiety that may be said to haunt some ASECS members: “Stopping Cultural Studies.” This turns out to be a paradoxical title, since Warner and Siskin begin their essay by celebrating the advent of cultural studies as a liberation from “the limitations of a literary study that restricted itself to literary history, author-centered study, and various species of formalism (genre theory, close reading, rhetorical analysis) to decipher the meaning of the literary work.” They concede that however exhilarating and transformative cultural studies may be it is not a discipline, strictly speaking. They make the interesting observation that culture (let’s call it CULTURE) in the large anthropological sense highlights “culture” as the intellectual and artistic practices within the larger entity, so that as they put it literature professors are drawn back to those practices, whether they like it or not to their disciplinary home, to culture in this specialized sense, a sub-set of CULTURE. Their deliberately inelegant analogy is to a bungee cord jumper who is propelled back to the platform from which he jumped and suffers a dangerous collision with it on the rebound. The flight of such a jumper is, of course, nothing but an illusion, so their analogy perhaps reaches further than they intended. For Warner and Siskin, cultural studies has thus reached its end point because it brings us back inevitably to “the solidity of disciplinarity” (for them an unfortunate fall), and what they counsel is a return (thanks to our new data bases) to older, pre-Romantic notions of “Literature” (their scare quotes) where its current connection to culture is subsumed in the larger, indeed comprehensive category of writing, of all written texts. English professors (and I suppose all professors of “Literature” in any language) need to re-tool, as they put it, to get beyond mere disciplinary identity and to reorient our function of mediating to the public the now expanded media technologies that saturate our society: “electronic, digital, algorithmic.”

    I’m not exactly sure what this “remediation” would entail, just as I am skeptical that these new media actually alter substantially as Siskin and Warner claim the “expanded range of literary activity.” But I applaud the implicit trend in their ruminations toward what can only be called attention to the forms of “literature,” however they conceive it. Despite their undisguised contempt at the outset of their essay for formalism (“genre theory, close reading, rhetorical analysis”), Warner and Siskin are from my vantage point actually recommending traditional attention to the forms (I suppose they would say something like “delivery systems”) of literary expression as they urge us to give up or to suspend cultural studies, temporarily I gather until we can disabuse ourselves of narrow notions of literature as restricted to “culture.” Their idea that technology has altered the meaning of the formerly printed word is exaggerated. But more to the point I would say that in film or even in the video game or the text message there is an implicit recognition of genre and form that guides the viewer.

    I still think that the essential part of the disciplinary and methodological profile of professors of literature is our intense attention to form and to style, to the medium used to deliver the message, to the shapings of the words and language on the page (or on the screen as Siskin and Warner might want to add). If those who profess the study of literature are to be more than ill-trained or amateur social scientists or historians, they need to practice this attentiveness. The cultivation of such attention is not a part of the training of historians and social scientists. It follows, and Warner and Siskin I dare say would not agree with me, that another and related aspect of our disciplinary identity involves judging the effectiveness of the text by observing the formal means it employs. Indeed, what the larger public still expects of us as critics of literature is to judge, to evaluate, to offer informed opinions about literary quality based on that effectiveness. What Siskin and Warner lament, I think we should celebrate and cultivate: a return to close reading, to genre theory, to rhetorical analysis, to distinguishing as my late friend, Edward Said, once said to me, between good and bad books, because those acts of analysis and evaluation are an important part of our discipline, or perhaps of our vocation. We should certainly seek, as well, to explore what is at stake for that all-encompassing entity, CULTURE, in the particular objects we study. I would urge that as professors of literature we grant priority to intense attention to the text for its own rich rewards but also and absolutely as a means to whatever understanding we can manage of its larger cultural meanings. Indeed, it may well be that deep cultural resonance is part of the value we assign to certain literary texts. As I attend ASECS later this month, that’s what I’ll be looking for.

  6. Dave Mazella

    Hi John,

    Thanks for bringing your column to our attention. Others on this forum probably agree with you that literary (though not exclusively literary) concepts like style, form (either argumentative or narrative), genre, and value need to be taught and learned in English departments, along with the skills to identify and interpret them. I don’t think that anyone has actually stopped caring about those things, though the list of other concepts and practices gets longer and longer. So I think there might be more agreement on this principle than Siskin and Warner might lead us to believe. And I think that we can have a discussion about what kinds of synthesis are possible, and compelling for others to read, and which are not.

    However, I do wonder whether this kind of account of interdisciplinarity holds up in other disciplines, or our own? I’m thinking about the urban historian of eighteenth-century Philadelphia who must suddenly learn a lot about taverns, churches, stables, and so forth. This is not the kind of learning generally taught in coursework, and scholars in those kinds of fields are expected to do a lot of learning on the fly. Sociologists of doctors and nurses in hospitals must learn something about medicine to study them, and their findings are sometimes read by those who are studied. Even in “our” field, bibliographers and historians of the book spend a lot of time learning about the concrete procedures and protocols of book production, in order to ground their interpretations and debate their colleagues. So I am not as concerned about the kinds of learning necessary to “do” cultural studies, because I think it’s necessary for all the fields with some relation to social history.

    It seems to me that the porousness of literary studies as a field, the eclecticism of its materials and the kinds of evidence used, is what keeps it alive. (just as you did when you cited film as an example to make your point) It just extends the conversation in a new and slightly different direction.

  7. John Richetti

    Dear Dave,
    Thanks for this interesting response. Yes, urban historians and sociologists of medicine have to learn things on the fly, but their training prepares them, gives them a method and an approach to these things, even if they don’t actually know about Philadelphia taverns or what exactly happens in an operating theater. My point is that as literary scholars our methods, what we have been (or should have been) trained to do is to read texts with intense attention in ways that historians or sociologists don’t and don’t normally have the training for. People with Ph.D’s in literary studies should have a core disciplinary identity and defining method or approach. Cultural Studies of an extreme kind puts all that in question. Or so it seems to me.

    Yours,
    John

  8. Dave Mazella

    John,

    OK, fair enough. Let’s say you’ve been named (I won’t say how) the new Director of Graduate Studies in English Literature at Hogwarts U., with an infinite budget (magic!), a Chair who agrees with everything you’ve ever said and done, and impossibly compliant colleagues. How would you set up the PhD to help provide this core disciplinary identity? What would be done differently? (and we’ll assume for the moment that the students are all magically compliant, too).

  9. John Richetti

    Dear Dave,

    I don’t I confess have anything radical in mind for the curriculum, and mind you I am not saying that culture and history are not a part of what we study. I would say only that all our courses at Hogwarts should be in one way or another focused in the long run on formal issues and not primarily on thematics. Or to put this another way, subject matter should be subordinate in our courses to the ways that it is delivered, articulated, EXPRESSED. Expression is the center of it all. But as the enlightened and hopelessly superannuated DGS at this university I would have no way to enforce this except by my own good example as a critic and teacher. I guess I’ve met too many graduate students who no longer seem to have read what I consider the canonical works of the period.

    Yours,
    John

  10. Dave Mazella

    Dear John,

    See how easy it is once you introduce the concept of magic?

    Seriously, though, I like your emphasis on expression and the importance of modeling. I would love to hear more at some point about how we might instill and reinforce the skills involved with interpreting expression among students at various levels.

    I would make one observation: a set of institutions and practices that once (intermittently, with great variation) produced a certain identifiable set of skills and knowledges for literature students in English departments no longer seems to be doing this. If we do want to maintain some continuity in terms of core disciplinary values, then we may have to devise a new set of practices, curricula, and institutions aimed at producing those values in today’s students. And without the benefit of magic.

  11. I’m glad John posted his ahead-of-the-curve column with all its careful thinking about these matters. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of close, critical, informed reading of the actual language of specific texts: that’s what we know how to do and what our discipline does uniquely well.

    I’ve talked with some Historian friends about this — they sometimes experiment with looking closely at language, but there are always other agendas they need to (want to) put first. I’m increasingly happy to be a literary scholar, and increasingly aware of the value of disciplines. (How unfashionable is THAT?) – – I thought that W/S were saying something similar when they decried “the flight from disciplinarity,” but John’s column makes me think I may have misunderstood that.

    No-one is disagreeing, I think, with the point that cultural studies can be misused. I definitely agree that language and form are the bedrock, and that thematic studies must build on that. People who “do” cultural studies have more, not less, responsibility to give what John calls “intense attention” to language.

    It would be nice to invite Cliff and Bill to chime in here at some point — perhaps after all the other initially invited posts have been considered?

  12. Laura Rosenthal

    John,
    Thanks for posting this column. I will confess to being one of those who missed it! But it’s an illuminating piece. I notice that you encourage us to pay more attention to form. That is, you are recommending a direction for future criticism. If you take W+S at their word, they are actually not doing this, but are instead telling us not to do something. At the same time, the thing we are not supposed to do is so amorphous as to exceed definition, so I’m not exactly sure when I will have stopped doing it. What I took to be Toni’s point was the analysis of this unusual and disconcerting rhetorical gesture. I think the W+S analysis of “cultural studies” is astute: at least in the way it has been absorbed into eighteenth-century studies, it actually has not really undermined our embrace of traditionally-admired texts and has not led us to transcend disciplinarity (although it has allowed some broader explorations). But this is what I like about it and I can’t see what would be gained by stopping.

  13. Hi everyone & thanks, Toni, for this terrifically insightful response. And thanks, John, for sharing your column, which I, too, had missed.

    I’d like to pick up on the rhetorical command to ‘stop’ at the heart of Bill & Cliff’s piece that Toni was spot on to decouple from the uncomfortable and mystified ‘we.’ Laura’s returned to talk about this, too, following her initial framing that part of what Bill & Cliff are doing is telling their colleagues to cut it out.

    That reprimand is really interesting to me because one its effects is to jump over what cultural studies has done for the field, even if that practice is difficult to define. Laura’s pointed out that cultural studies in the eighteenth century has, in many ways, reinforced the eighteenth-century canon. I think that cultural studies in the eighteenth century has also allowed for other kinds of voices, other kinds of expression (to use John’s term) or representation that certainly are better understood through perhaps more traditional literary analysis, but that would not even come into view or acquire enough status to matter critically were it not for ‘cultural studies’ per se. And these tend to be the sorts of concerns and questions associated with various minority discourses, again broadly construed. The reprimand reminds me of other kinds of claims linked to being in a ‘post-‘ kind of moment–the gist of which are often summed up as ‘aren’t we over that yet?’

    Tita

  14. Laura Rosenthal

    Just to be clear: I’m not claiming that cultural studies has reinforced the canon. I’m only agreeing with W+S that certain scholarly practices inspired by cultural studies have enabled the reconsideration–and thus continuing discussion of and consequently transmission to new generations of certain long-admired works (such as *Clarissa*, for example). W+S seem to suggest that this is a kind of cop-out in the face of the radical claims of cultural studies. But I think that the radical potential can itself be found in the continual return to those texts. (Although by radical here I don’t necessarily mean leftist, but something more like life-changing and paradigm-shifting.)

  15. John Richetti

    Dear Tita and Laura and others:

    I really agree that our proper and defining methods as literary scholars are crucial for dealing with non-canonical materials, even if the result might be (as it was for me many years ago in this city from which I write today — London) to dramatize the relative poverty of such materials. Of course, it then becomes possible to speculate why such materials have been denied the means of cultural production. And so on.

  16. Dave Mazella

    @Tita, @Laura, @John,

    Once we assume that categories like “canonical” and “non-canonical” or “major” and “minor” authors are not objective descriptions of writers or works, but view these categories instead as the products of historical and institutional processes conducted over years of collective interpretation, then our account of close reading needs to be filled out, to get to the question of “why we are reading this closely?” In other words, any single act of close reading is preceded and informed by an earlier process of interpretive selection that helped to decide which passages and authors “deserve” close reading.

    This moment of selection may be received from others, tacitly, the way I was taught that the Preface to Gondibert was important enough to read, though I was never encouraged to read Gondibert itself, and never given a reason, either. But I am assuming that we would want students, at any level, to begin to be able to make such judgments about interpretive selection themselves. In my view, this demands explicit pedagogical discussion of how certain things were valued over time, with the understanding that students must also learn to begin to make such judgments for themselves.

  17. Dave–I agree, and it’s tantamount to thinking through and making explicit not only the conditions of cultural production, but also the conditions of aesthetic value. For me, the gesture of ‘cultural studies’ allows for an enhanced understanding of the aesthetic work that texts do — and that their reception enacts.

  18. Dear Friends,

    It’s all well and good to say that the canon is constructed (of course it is) or to quote Dave, who puts it very well — “not objective descriptions of writers or works, but view these categories instead as the products of historical and institutional processes conducted over years of collective interpretation” –but the difference between, say, Ned Ward and Pope is enormous and the construction of one as a popular and non-canonical author and the other as the greatest poetic genius of his time is, it seems to me, inevitable, even it is accomplished by historical and institutional processes (and what’s wrong with that? Is the suggestion that such processes are somehow inauthentic? falsifying?). So, too, the difference between Betsy Thoughtless and Clarissa is the difference between good and great. To come around to specifics!

  19. Hi John,

    We’re still not in disagreement here, not yet anyway. To say that this category is constructed is not to say that anything goes. If anything, it means that highly popular works, especially those that are popular over the longest stretches of time, will be the easiest for which to claim value. For example, the long history of judgments that have placed Pope over Ned Ward in literary history cannot be set aside, at least when considering the two as authors. But this phenomenon of sustained interest represents, I think, a tiny percentage of what we might consider to be canonical literature (e.g., Shakespeare vs. Davenant). So the feeling that some of these distinctions are self-evident diminishes the further we get from what we might call the hyper-canonical and self-evidently superior works (which individual critics may like or dislike without any danger to their status). I don’t have any problem telling students who dislike Richardson or Dryden to read it again, because they’re missing something. I do think, though, that it’s easier to suggest the value of something like Pope, or Richardson, or Haywood, even, once we know something of their critical history and how they were read and received at the time, and teach those aspects of reception to novice readers. I don’t think there’s anything in cultural studies methodology that would prevent instructors from assisting their students as they learn to make those judgments.

  20. Dear Dave,

    Very well put! Who can disagree with such sweet reasonableness! I suppose if we compared Pope and Edward Young that would be more interesting. Young was an 18th-century titan; nowadays he is almost completely unreadable. I suppose this is a CULTURAL matter, largely, since Young was a competent poet.

  21. Dave Mazella

    Well, I’ve been called many things, but “sweetly reasonable” is a first. I just hope I’ve been able to show that the boundary lines between a cultural studies and a literary studies approach are not so absolute, given the evolution of literary studies since the days of Raymond Williams or Edward Said. In my view, it’s not a matter of close reading or awareness of literary value. What would be helpful, though, would be a more systematic account of what differences do exist between the two approaches, and when they do matter. Any ideas, anyone?

  22. I put up a short thought about all this at my own blog, but another thought here. I guess I find the argument that “the essential part of the disciplinary and methodological profile of professors of literature is our intense attention to form and to style, to the medium used to deliver the message, to the shapings of the words and language on the page” unconvincing, if that’s what distinguishes literary study from cultural history or cultural studies.

    I think in fact that defining that difference as a methodological difference is where disciplines go weirdly if understandably wrong. It’s understandable that they should because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit left as a source of disciplinary distinction once you get rid of strong canonicity. When disciplines are about canons, then that was easy. When they don’t the temptation is to say, “Well, we have our techniques and they’re special and they take years and years to learn to do properly and we’ll spot you in a minute if you try to act like a member of our guild because you’ll bungle the job”. Believe me, historians do this as much as literary scholars, decrying an inferior craft of engaging in the archive and so on. And we offer this to each other as a kind of peaceful settlement of territorial goods: “Oh, you are ever so much better than I at analyzing 18th Century tavern life and the incorporation of the idea of science into everyday life!” “My dear madam, you excel so very greatly at the close attention to textuality and form, I should never be able to say more than ‘isn’t that a poem’?” But I think there is a certain amount of humbug in this. There’s zillions of literary scholars who do beautifully in archives, with material culture, etc. without having trained at the knee of some properly authenticated historian. When people do badly with archives, it’s not training, it’s that they want to bugger off and do something else besides sitting on their asses calling up a bunch of documents. And vice-versa: it’s not that hard to pay close attention to text and form and to understand genre, just sometimes that’s not where a cultural historian is going to vest attention.

    What I think this suggests is that we turn to methodology as a source of disciplinary distinction because it gets out of the really tough kind of argument about disciplinary difference: that they may be built around valuing different kinds of interpretative or knowledge-producing acts. We avoid that because it has the potential to get ugly, but also because it’s so porous and unstable as a governing principle. What happens if a literary scholar stops valuing a particular kind of investment in literature, aesthetics, culture? What happens if a historian takes a “textual turn” not for reasons of method but reasons of value, as a philosophical or theoretical commitment? Do we send them over to another department? The boundaries we create with different statements about value are real, and they derive from long practice and experience of scholarly work. But we avoid vesting discipline there because it creates sharp arguments and because it calls for a very different administrative or organizational structure than the ones that many of us have allowed to shape our professional lives.

  23. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree with your idea that doing interdisciplinary work is as much about valuing the kinds of work done in other disciplines as it is about going through the motions (in the archive, in front of a printed page, etc. etc.). It’s never been clear to me, though, how to organize and manage collective intellectual labor over time, in universities anyway, without some degree of “humbug” (departments, administration, disciplinary boundaries, etc.). However, the question of what might replace “humbug” in the constitution of the contemporary university is a topic for another day. For now, the question that interests me is what is it about cultural studies that it makes us aware of (i.e., makes available for debate) those intellectual and institutional structures and boundaries in ways that other kinds of scholarship does not?

  24. Because regardless of which type or institutional flavor of cultural studies we’re talking about, if it’s an actual administrative program, it’s rivalrous to existing territorial understandings between disciplines whether it wants to be or not.

    But this is an extraordinarily rare situation in real life: there are very few such actual administrative units. “Real” cultural studies as a concrete organizational entity within universities tends to be bottled up within institutes, centers, temporary projects, administrative drunk tanks, interdisciplinary initiatives and various scholarly Devil’s Islands.

    So instead, what makes it available for anxious debate within disciplines is in a way the combination of tangibility (there are a lot of concrete descriptions of “cultural studies” as a project within the intellectual markets of multiple disciplines) and absence (there is almost no real person in most instititutions to whom one must offer a kind of territorial politesse when you rise to characterize or imagine cultural studies).

    That makes it rather like communism in Cold War culture: a fearful danger to precious bodily fluids for some, a marvelously wicked kind of transgressive dalliance to others (to be abjured if the authorities actually show up and put you to the question). It’s an implement for rattling cages in some cases, or picking locks in others.

  25. Well, I agree, but this characterization also seems to resemble the Warner/Siskin formulation we started with, which was that Cultural Studies simultaneously Went Too Far but Not Far Enough. For one set of advocates, CS would finally enable the study of literature to be fully integrated into a broader analysis of culture, effectively dissolving that boundary. It sounds like for you, CS has the potential to dissolve the territorial boundaries that separate disciplines. Apart from the fact that these are different projects, it seems as if the boundary-dissolving aspect of CS is not the same as eliminating them altogether. It’s just that two very different kinds of work go forward, pursued as you observe by scholars honoring different values, without a very clear account of how they might relate to one another. And how satisfying can that state of affairs be?

  26. I actually think Cultural Studies is a bit of a red herring. I think we might be able to have fairly clear accounts of how different forms of knowledge production represent different ways of valuing both the subjects and purposes of knowledge. Most of us avoid that clarity because being clear is also being openly adversarial or rivalrous in the convening language of a program of study. The current arrangements allow to pretend to complementarity in all things: you do text and aesthetics! I’ll take care of institutions and practices! Often all that cover story does is push the expression of rivalries over values into more covert and indirect arenas: Borgias poisoning each other rather than putting troops into trenches and staring across no man’s land.

    I think it’s possible that a university could form units or programs of study that were convened around clear statements of rivalrous values and yet expect that there was some higher harmony of purpose; and expect moreover that this clarity would provide an educational good in its own right. You’d know more clearly as a student when you were leaving the Department of Ontology is Bollocks and heading over to the Department of Positivism Is Actually Ok or the Department of Wallowing in Hermeneutics. But even in that kind of regime, you’d still have scholars that wanted to be liminal figures, or to obscure sharply drawn boundaries.

  27. Tim Burke is an excellent polemicist, although I’m not sure what “rivalrous” means? Is that a term of art? I do know that historians tend to think that literary scholars are trivial and self-indulgent, that philosophers think that people in English Departments don’t know how to think, and that English professors find historians literal-minded. Tim, where exactly are you in terms of a discipline or department? Cultural Studies is like pornography, to allude to the Supreme Court Justice who said he couldn’t define it but knew it when he saw it. A recent number of Eighteenth-Century Studies was devoted to “Hair,” and although I couldn’t bring myself to read the essays I gathered that The Rape of the Lock was interesting for the contributors only in so far as it pertained to the topic of HAIR!

  28. Rivalrous in the context of different value systems for the production of knowledge and interpretation within the academy means simultaneously that two (or more) groups may disagree fairly profoundly about how to approach the exact same text, corpus of texts, or other issues AND that this disagreement may overlap contests over resources within the academy. E.g., if two scholars in the same discipline and department disagree with each other in articles published in Representations or Past and Present or Shakespeare Quarterly, then it’s a disagreement. If they’re in different departments and their disagreement spills over into an argument about which department should have more faculty positions or have exclusive say over a general education requirement or something similar, then that’s something very different.

    (I’m a historian by training and in a history department. But I often violate the terms of my parole.)

  29. @John, I think the study of literature, and certainly the teaching of historical literary works, will always involve some degree of exposure to, and interaction with, social history. That means thinking about literary works in relation to all sorts of material questions that are in themselves fairly minor or specialized (e.g., how did eighteenth century ladies arrange and maintain their hair?), but may have implications for the work’s meaning. So the test for me is what this kind of contextualizing information contributes to our understanding of the poem, writer, social milieu, etc. I don’t think this kind of use of social history can be preemptively ruled out for literary texts, because the language of any writer has a social and historical dimension that had to have been understood by his or her contemporaries. But this is something that needs to be argued and the benefits of such an “approach” demonstrated, correct?

    @Tim, it sounds to me as if that for you the real issue is not cultural studies per se but the possibility of a genuinely interdisciplinary version of scholarship within the confines of higher education. I know that you’ve made your own pitch for an “everything studies,” [tried to link but the Swarthmore server is down for some reason] but do you think the objections to an ad hoc approach to knowledge are simply pragmatic and institutional? In other words, what kinds of intellectual benefits do scholars gain from this kind of tribal or territorial organization of “turf”?

    I suppose these questions suggest that I am looking for a better, more persuasive account of “interdisciplinarity” that could take on board both John and Tim’s concerns.

    Best,

    DM