Category Archives: Cultural Studies

The problem with problems: Gikandi ch. 3

As it turns out I have not given myself enough time to get into the spirit of this magnificent book. It may not be the kind of book I want to get in the spirit of, but I’ll keep trying through at least this week and probably beyond. And I’ll do another post later today that engages with it more directly and, I hope, generously.

In the meantime, I propose for discussion, if anyone’s interested, a provocation that arises from the accidents of a disorderly life. My wife Rachel is a conceptual artist whose concept for the last little while has been ‘the problem with problems’. One of the reasons we get along is that we both feel very deeply that there are plenty of facts of the matter to live around without making them into problems; and therefore it makes us sad and frustrated and angry when folks make problems where it seems like facts of the matter would have been plenty tricky to sort out.

And then this morning while I was circling Gikandi’s text, trying to sort out what he’s up to and what I’d like to be up to about it, and therefore doing some staring off into space and feed-checking to give my thoughts room to settle, one of my colleagues posted a link on Facebook to an article by Peggy Orenstein on “Our Feelgood War on Breast Cancer,” an absolutely brilliant little piece of reflective meta-analysis in which it turns out that making breast cancer a problem, to be aware of, creates new problems without contributing significantly to solving the old ones.

Like obesity and breast cancer and lots of other things, there are facts of the matter aplenty in Gikandi’s book. That it is so chock-full of fascinating facts of the matter is, to me as a historian, magnificent. I’m not sure I see a problem, however, and I haven’t entirely settled on whether Gikandi does either. Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem for big chunks of history, and for the most part educated people don’t have any problem seeing why it wasn’t a problem. So there’s a fact of the matter question about when, where, how and why slavery, in this case the racialized Atlantic variant, became a problem, that makes great sense to be the matter with this book. Clearly a moment that both articulates completely novel standards of universal humanity while also selectively denying their applicability to various humans – Africans, women, the working class, the Irish – is busily inventing new ways to make slavery in particular, and forced labor more in general, a problem. Ways that we have inherited and take for granted, which would be another interesting book. Gikandi gets this, and the use of aesthetics and the culture of taste to explore and illustrate this history of problemification is a further magnificence of the book.

Yet, and maybe this is just a prejudice from reading so many bad versions of this sort of project, I can’t help reading, or reading in, a problem in the book that looks a lot more like taking the universalism these folks invented and turning it back on them, retrospectively making slavery a problem when historically it wasn’t one yet. This standpoint of critique would be a problem to me, because it makes a problem where there wasn’t a problem, just a fact of the matter.

Specifically, it feels to me like Gikandi keeps puffing up this great and powerful Oz, Hume and the Enlightenment, just so he can keep whipping aside the curtain and saying Gotcha! Slavery! Which, in a sense that helps make the book essential, is true: the Enlightenment was enabled by an economy shot through with (not driven by, I’m afraid) slavery; and slavery (along with the Reformation, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, global empire, etc.) was part of the dense context / intertext of the development of notions of human self, dignity, rights, and liberty that again we now take for granted, so much so that my students all now want to talk about slavery as ‘dehumanizing’ as if the humanity they have in mind existed at the time. But that’s the point – this was not a moment in history when those concepts existed in any effective way – they were emergent there, being cobbled together as practices by the transition to industrial economy and consumer society, as ideas by a few intellectuals distant enough from the enabling contexts that they could begin to cluelessly imagine what it would look like to take privileges hitherto unproblematically associated with only a small fraction of the human race and assign them, eventually as ‘human rights’, to increasingly inclusive everyones.

Which again, Gikandi fully understands. So, why does it keep feeling like slavery ‘is’ a problem rather than becoming one? Am I just jumping at shadows, myself making problems where there are just facts of the matter?

Carl Dyke teaches, mostly introductory world history, at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC.

helen day on revealing the hidden language and literature curriculum

Since my last post, I’ve thought further about the significance of cultural studies for the literature curriculum, and done a little bit of additional reading about Meyer’s and Land’s notions of “threshold concepts.” In the course of my reading, I found an interesting article by Helen Day about the process of curricular discussion and reform at the University of Central Lancashire [avail. at Project MUSE].

Day begins by claiming that departmental curricula represent a prime opportunity for faculty to test their ideas about education:

It is through curricula, argue Barnett and Coate (2004: 25), that ideas about education are put into action: “Through curricula too, values, beliefs and principles in relation to learning, understanding, knowledge, disciplines, individuality and society are realised.” Yet, they continue, there is little considered
collective reflection on the curriculum, especially involving those who experience the curricula firsthand — the students (534-5)

The absence of collective reflection, either among faculty in the same department, or among departmental faculty and students more generally, leads to the common problem of departmental curricula developing piece-meal and irregularly over time, resulting in a mish-mosh of good intentions and hidden agendas.  Curricula in this historically stratified condition become difficult for faculty to discuss, or for students to learn from. Whatever portions faculty are unable to agree upon, they may very well leave tacit, even if students will experience the same portions as either contradictory or compartmentalized (“culture means x in one classroom, and y in another”) The portions of the official curriculum that have accumulated their own separate, largely tacit uses and meanings from teachers and students, Day treats as the “hidden” curriculum.  Day separates the formal from hidden curricula in the same manner that a literary scholar would distinguish authorial intention from audience reception.  This has some important consequences for how we view curricula.

The first consequence is to take seriously the temporality of the curriculum.  As Day points out, students will almost certainly experience the curriculum differently from how it was constructed anyway, since their linear and temporal experience of threading through the curriculum over time strongly contrasts with a faculty-member’s vertical and segmented organization of knowledge.

The second consequence is to attend seriously to the lessons that the hidden curriculum teaches its students, whatever the intentions of the faculty who designed it.  In Day’s own department, these were only disclosed in a survey of students in their third year in the program: lessons included sentiments like, “lecturers teach according to their disciplines” and “students are not encouraged to take a holistic or ‘helicopter’ view of the modular structure of their degree.”  Even in an avowedly interdisciplinary program, students were not taught to recognize the overlaps or connections between the different “modules,” but instead to assume that the knowledge represented by each box in the grid was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient.

What I found most intriguing about Day’s account was that this largely-tacit notion of compartmentalized sub-specialties “owned” by particular specialists, each with their own self-contained methodology and subject-matter, was not even recognized until the students were surveyed and required to reflect upon what they had learned.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students did not initially enjoy the reflection-process entailed by the survey (though they valued it afterwards), nor did the faculty necessarily welcome the insight into the unintended effects of their curriculum. Nonetheless, this exercise in mutual reflection did make possible a kind of collective action that otherwise would not have occurred.

To bring it back to cultural studies, what this article suggested to me was not that literary scholars should stop cultural studies, but that we certainly need to provide students with  opportunities to reflect upon what we, and they, are doing, when we engage in this kind of approach, and to make clear to them the conceptual overlap–or dependence, even–between cultural and literary studies.


how might the notion of the “threshold concept” be applied to cultural studies? (response to Kathryn Temple)

Since Kathryn has opened up some interesting possibilities with her references to Meyer’s and Land’s notion of the “threshold concept,” I thought I’d briefly outline how this notion might be relevant to both cultural studies and literary studies.

In Glynis Cousin’s helpful “Introduction to Threshold Concepts,” she suggests that the threshold concept, or TC, helps us to overcome the “stuffed curriculum” problem that occurs whenever disciplines define their teaching as the transmission of an undifferentiated bulk of specialized knowledge, or set of facts, that need to be learned before students can be initiated into the concepts and research that characterize the field.

This unreflective view of disciplinary teaching focuses on the materials used by a discipline to define itself, rather than the concepts, intellectual organization, or  ways of thinking deployed by experts.  These are closely linked with the characteristic practices and skills necessary to “do” work in that field.

In other words, an expert in literary studies is not simply someone who knows more literary works, authors, and genres than someone else, but someone who knows how to think, write, and talk like a literary scholar, in a manner that is recognizable to other scholars.  (We often make this distinction when evaluating amateur or undergraduate work in relation to professional work in our field.  One exists in relation to existing conversations and debates, and follows the field’s protocols about evidence, reasons, and arguments, and the other does not(

Interestingly enough, the most characteristic features of a discipline cannot be brought into explicit analysis, reflection, or discussion except with reference to its pedagogy, meaning the process by which its distinctive forms of thinking are acquired by novices in the incremental process of mastering the discipline’s forms (cf., for example, the “Decoding the Disciplines” project).

Thus, instead of focusing the instructor’s attention on a bulk quantity or set list of disciplinary facts, the TC enables instructors to focus teaching time and energy on the relatively small number of field-specific concepts that, once grasped and eventually mastered, are genuinely transformative, integrative, and troublesome (among other things).  The TC is a concept that holds the key to entering into an understanding how experts think about a particular field.  In literature, concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” “close reading,” “interpretation,” “context,” and so forth represent terms that no literary scholar can do without, no matter what her individual project might be.  And we have seen how much resistanced the advocates of practices like machine-reading or culturomics have faced in arguing for new protocols of reading, interpretation, and evidence for literary studies.

In my view, the rich and complex notion of “culture” developed by Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and now elaborated by several subsequent generations of scholars can be said to operate in precisely in the manner outlined by Cousins: as a transformative, integrative, and troublesome concept in relation to literary studies.

At the same time, this rich sense of  “culture” is also “bounded” in Cousin’s sense as having a “provisional explanatory capacity,” and leaving a space for continued questioning of the concept itself.  And, we might add, such concepts in Cousin’s account are also “irreversible” in the sense that, once learned, scholars are unlikely to forget them, though they might modify or reject them in favor of a more refined or rival understanding.

When viewed from the perspective of the threshold concept, Cultural Studies becomes yet another instance of the ongoing debate over whether literature and literary studies should be defined as the transmission of a preexisting set of literary “content” or as a group of skills, and ultimately, concepts, to be learned by students and practiced by professionals. And, of course, from the perspective of the classroom, it seems unlikely that students can truly learn either skills or content in isolation from one another.  The promise of the threshold concept, I suppose, is that it makes it possible to think about the process by which the learner acquires both content and concepts a bit at a time, by moving from one to the other and back again.

NB: for two accounts of how threshold concepts can inform curricular discussions in English departments, see these examples, from the University of Brighton and Helen Day’s article in Pedagogy.


Kathryn Temple, “The Ends of Cultural Studies in Curriculum”

 In the summer of 2010, I was asked to participate in a panel at our annual eighteenth-century studies conference called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.” The panel responded to the 2008 essay in Profession entitled “Stopping Cultural Studies” by William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin. Little did I know that the panel would come at the very moment the issue of the relationship between literary history and cultural studies would surface in our Department.

As new chair in 2009, the third in five years, I had walked into a cluster of problems known to most chairs in these years of economic crisis.  We’d lost faculty, lost budget, lost space. Thus I guess I can be excused for leaving curricular reform largely in the hands of the curriculum committee over the opening year of my chairship. But in December 2010, a coalition of senior faculty made curriculum my business by taking their concerns to the dean. Not present, I could only reconstruct this conversation from after-the-fact reports, but it seems that these colleagues were concerned about our department’s failure to teach literary history. What the dean took away was that our Department no longer taught literature or literary history, but had been “taken over” by cultural studies. My dean was understandably concerned. He responded by calling me in for an emergency meeting to discuss splitting the Department into three smaller departments: one for literary history “as it is traditionally taught,” one for cultural studies, one for writing. I explained to him that this would result in the death of traditional literary studies as only three or four of our remaining faculty would define themselves as doing “literary history in a traditional way.” (Ironically, of the three faculty who had met with him, not all were in that category.)  I predicted that the rest of the ordinary faculty were very likely to migrate to what he was calling “cultural studies” whether or not they really had that training, meanwhile leaving “writing” almost entirely to adjunct faculty. “Stopping cultural studies” as Bill Warner and Cliff Siskin call it, at least in my department, would not have led to a revival of literary studies under new terms but rather to a kind of fragmentation that (given the way small departments are being eliminated these days) could quite possibly spell the death of literary history (“as it is traditionally taught”) at Georgetown.

In response, I brought this issue to the Department at our next meeting. Other faculty were concerned: unused to such administrative scrutiny, they worried about our larger presence on the campus and about academic freedom. They pointed out that most of our course titles were indicative of literary history rather than cultural studies orientations and wondered what the dean’s intervention might mean. The issue of our lack of collegiality was raised: what had made our colleagues feel so unheard, so marginalized in the Department, that they now felt going to the administration their only option? Resulting discussions in the department addressed all of these issues. We opened up the curricular reform process through holding numerous focus group meetings, inviting each member of the faculty in for discussion. We invited the dean to a larger department meeting and then held more department meetings to discuss our findings and move forward with curricular reform. Meanwhile, in our hiring in seventeenth-century British literature and culture and twentieth-century American literature and culture we were especially alert to issues involving the teaching of literary history.

Our curricular work and hiring were eventually shaped by our discussions, by awareness of the issues raised in the provocative Profession essay, but also by an important essay by Jennifer Summit, “Literary History and the Curriculum,” published in the ADE Bulletin in 2010. There Summit discusses the problem of the literary history/cultural studies divide given that, as she says, “our students were asking for something that we no longer believed in: the arc of literary history no longer holds sway as a dominant mode” (49).  After cultural studies, Summit argues, there is no coherence to literary study, no accepted set of great works, no accepted periodization. The admonishment to “go beyond the literary!” that Warner and Siskin discuss and reject in their Profession essay has served its purpose: it has, in fact, destabilized the canon and accepted notions of literary history; agreement on what texts should be taught cannot be reached except in the very broadest terms while agreement on how texts should be taught is even less likely.

Our faculty did agree on one thing: we needed to bring coherence to a curriculum that had long been a hodgepodge of courses, courses generated by our faculty research interests rather than by any effort to develop an overview of our field. Like Summit’s curriculum at Stanford, our curriculum offered no clear direction to our students. We had no literary survey courses, no introductions to the major, and no sets of courses meant to offer a sequential experience to our students. The conclusion was that our curriculum must cohere around something or at least must appear to cohere to students and parents and deans. The question became how to do this with a diversely trained and much diminished faculty in a departmental culture that has long valued as a sign of intellectual integrity the teaching of research interests rather than a set curriculum.

Although I supported the development of critical methods courses and literary history survey courses that held the promise of “coherence,” on another level talk of coherence worried me. The risk, as Warner and Siskin suggest, following Latour, is that explanations of complex systems that reduce them to one or two representative moves like “coherence” empty out complex chaotic reality. Historical coherence could result in a comforting lockstep progress through the literary periods as taught in the 1960s; theoretical coherence could result in an intro to methods course of the “teach three methods” variety. In seeking coherence, we could replace the rich but chaotic complexity of the English Department’s approach to culture with (as Latour has it) “some stuff” like historical coherence, presenting in the end something that looks nothing like the not always coherent world of intellectual possibilities that we wish to pursue in our scholarship or to teach our students.

In my struggle to negotiate “coherence,” I’ve been thinking hard about what our work means, both our scholarly work and our pedagogical work. I’ve been returning to the past, trying to recall (and to call up) what first excited me about literature and what first excited me about eighteenth-century studies. That excitement came not from any historical or theoretical coherence, but from complexity and a seemingly open-ended approach to problems of meaning. Indeed, what had frustrated me in literary study as an undergraduate was the efforts my professors made to maintain coherence. In the 70s, there were many who oversimplified the New Criticism, adhering to the coherence of a method of close reading that pretended to know only the literary work and, of course, only the literary works that counted as canonical. Others taught what I thought of as “clump and dump” courses, knowledge downloads of canned historical “truths” that students memorized and reproduced on exams. It was with a huge sense of relief that I encountered various approaches loosely reflective of cultural studies when I went back to school in the late 80s. Though I skated on the surface of understanding and it was years before I began to see the implications for my own work, I took full advantage of the liberty “cultural studies”–very broadly construed–afforded for reading outside the narrow confines of the canon and for interpreting outside the bounds of New Criticism. For me it opened up literary study to the world and the world to literary study. That said, because my graduate career coincided with a moment when cultural studies was already beginning to feel a little used up, I never had to embrace any particular version of it, never became a deconstructionist or a Marxist critic or even a feminist critic in the sense that many were. I had all the freedom and none of the responsibility.

To pursue a career based on this incoherent and under-theorized approach to theory may seem hopelessly naïve, and yet I have spent twenty years drawing on hybrid approaches from many different methodologies. Always a lumper, never a splitter, I would hate to see us turn away from cultural studies, from something that has offered so many rich ways of thinking about what we do. I would hate just as much to see us turn away from close reading and careful analysis or from nuanced understandings of literary history. But above all, I reject the narrow ideological biases that so often seem to drive English Department discussions. The risk of issuing a universal call to “Stop Cultural Studies” lies in its binary approach to what we do and in the possibility that various power groups will attempt to force one or the other of these binary poles (cultural studies OR literary history; close reading OR survey courses) on their peers. When “presentists” bash historicist approaches without having read the historical tradition and literary historians denounce theory without reading it, I feel that wonderful wide world of new ideas, approaches, texts shrinking.  So let’s not “stop” cultural studies, but rather embrace it, precisely for the reasons Siskin and Warner want to end it, precisely because it’s too broad, because it doesn’t focus on literature, because no one can really define it. Cultural studies perhaps more than any other change in the past thirty years has given us the freedom to craft careers that take us in new directions and allow us to reinvent ourselves.

What’s next, I believe, is the very period of questioning, rethinking, and remapping that we’re experiencing now. If, as Siskin and Warner say, the function of English Departments from their beginnings has been to mediate society’s relation to technologies of knowledge, then let’s explore the possibilities offered by what they call a retooling. This retooling need not mean that we toss out the old toolbox (indeed, the new toolbox wouldn’t have been possible without the old one), so much as add to it. I see exciting new directions indicated by new technologies but not confined by them: neuroscience offers us new ways of thinking about how our brains process text; affect theory allows us to re-examine what used to be called the age of reason; the overabundance of our current access to archives places ever greater importance not on what we know but on how we manage the knowledge in those archives. If this results in incoherence, if one thing seems to blur into another, then the task becomes the making of distinctions and the foregrounding, I believe, of why we make particular distinctions at particular times, not the truth value of those distinctions. In the end, if pressed to find some sort of curricular coherence, I’d ask us to focus on this foregrounding, to add to the call to “always historicize” the admonition to “always articulate,” to articulate what we are doing and why it matters, to our students and to ourselves. This, rather than some a manufactured “coherence” that shuts down possibilities, is our responsibility as teachers, as interpreters and transmitters of a literary and cultural history that is always, at every moment, being newly created.

Works Cited

Summit, Jennifer. “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What and Why.” ADE Bulletin No. 149, 2010. 46-52.

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

Kathryn Temple, J.D., Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor

Department of English

Georgetown University

Today’s Eighteenth Century

Tita Chico continues the discussion:

In the 2008 edition of Profession, William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin, scholars whose work is grounded in the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies, advise literary critics to stop doing cultural studies altogether. Their primary complaint is that the term “culture” connotes two ideas that emerged concurrently in the late eighteenth century, both the notion that every society has a culture and the understanding that culture more narrowly means high culture, not just any art form. For them, this “historic doubling” (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 102) produces an incoherence that negatively implicates cultural studies, forcing practitioners both to dispense with disciplinary logic to accommodate the broad meaning of culture and also, contradictorily, to revert back to the disciplines in their most traditional forms to analyze great art. Given the double-bind they imagine, the only solution, in their view, is to stop the practice altogether. Long before the emergence of cultural studies, however, the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies in particular had been shaped by what might be called “culture,” “historicism,” or even “background.” The historicizing tendency is evident, for instance, in footnotes to Gulliver’s Travels that narrow the satire to a specific political allegory (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 22 n. 1; 36, n.1) as well as in the work of critics such as F. R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks, who would not ordinarily be associated with contextualizing (Norris, “Pope among the Formalists,” 141). Given the field’s persistent, if uneasy, relation to these references, Warner and Siskin’s complaint posits an opposition that, in effect, undermines the important ways cultural studies over the past twenty years has opened up topics, texts, and methodologies for consideration – and a flexibility and capaciousness – that have, in turn, strengthened the field. Their message also obscures the genealogy of today’s eighteenth century, an archive and an epistemology that have been made available because of the questions and concerns that cultural studies raise.

When cultural studies began to emerge in the academy during the late 1980s and 1990s, eighteenth-century literary studies was buffeted by the recovery of forgotten texts and by explicitly theoretical work that called “attention to the resistance to contemporary theory that has largely characterized the study of eighteenth-century English literature” (Nussbaum and Brown, 1). The conceptual reframing of “early modern” that often accompanied the moniker of “cultural studies” at this time likewise offered a loose boundary to think beyond the confines of the traditional eighteenth century. Cultural studies scholarship opened up the canon, extended the boundaries, re-conceived historical difference, and produced political criticism.  In its most hopeful manifestation, cultural studies asked literary scholars to look at different things–to take the literary critical eye to examine the formal features of materials that were beyond the normative bounds of the literary and, in so doing, to look at them differently. If the field of eighteenth-century literary studies has long engaged with “culture,” then cultural studies has given many scholars concerned with eighteenth-century literature an opportunity to reflect upon these texts’ relation to history and other contemporary artifacts per se, and to grapple with and deepen the various intellectual and political legacies of the theory wars.

Even as cultural studies began to make these kinds of inroads into how eighteenth-century literature was studied and taught, there were various forms of resistance to its practice and findings. One year (2004), the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Cultural Studies Caucus featured a panel of scholars voicing their fatigue with political criticism and hoping that scholarship might just focus on art again. The next year (2005) showcased critics who firmly advocated for political criticism, a conversation that led, in part, to a special issue of Philological Quarterly edited by Rajani Sudan, entitled “Rethinking New Formalism.” While the arguments back and forth can be productive, the significant difference today is that these debates now take place within a much more fraught and tenuous economic environment for higher education in which almost every unit on campus is under budgetary – and, at times, political – siege. As it turned out, the year that Warner and Siskin published their cease-and-desist message happened to be the same year that the worst economic crisis in the US since the 1930s began. Why does the concurrence of the call to stop cultural studies and the economic contractions convulsing through institutions of higher education matter? If this recession “threatens to be not so much a period of retrenchment followed by recovery as an opening onto a thoroughgoing transformation of the postsecondary system” (Porter), then it is even more incumbent to articulate and to advocate for the field’s pedagogical and scholarly work, and that economic entrenchment not be allowed to be repackaged as an intellectual principle.

Implicitly underwriting Warner and Siskin’s work, as well as that of others, may be a concern for preservation, perhaps in response to material and political conditions that threaten obsolescence (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 105; Siskin and Warner, Enlightenment, 1-12; Rosenthal; Latour, 232). At this time, there is much work to be done to demarcate and identify the intellectual work that literary scholars do, though arguably the trope of the humanities in crisis has circulated for more than a century. When a friendly and curious colleague from the sciences asks why graduate students are reading Robinson Crusoe, “a book they all should have read years ago,” the question incorrectly presumes that the reading of literary critics is just like all other reading and that the meaning of a literary text is easily decipherable and ultimately transhistorical. The answer to such a question must convey the knowledge production of literary studies writ large as well as the specificity of today’s eighteenth century. Reading as literary critics means re-reading with ever greater insight and nuance, developing and refining the skills of close reading and attending to much more than the adventure story that the scientist remembers having read as a child. Reading also means doing so in concert with related texts, no matter how that relation might be defined, through the lens of today’s eighteenth century. Together, these models of reading allow for an illumination of how, for example, the afterlife of Robinson Crusoe as a recurring myth of Western individualism and colonialism in fact overshadows the uneasy and uneven global order through which Robinson navigates.

Setting aside their provocation, Warner and Siskin make a helpful point that the “culture” of “cultural studies” is an under-theorized term that, in practice, stands as “the Teflon category. We fret over it—everyone complaining at one time or another that it doesn’t quite do the job—but the complaints don’t stick because it’s so easy to use. We simply don’t know what we would do without it” (Warner and Siskin, 104). Extending their logic, “culture” in “cultural studies” can be a catch-all term that almost mystically has the evidentiary status of a truth claim, though the specificity of that status may not be fully articulated; as a result, it is important to reconsider how the term “culture” functions in eighteenth-century literary studies. How, for example, does the word “culture” suggest, but perhaps not fully explore, particular domains of knowledge and experience? How are these related to – or in tension with – literary practices?  What happens, moreover, when agents and actors are imagined in specific relation to claims about culture? The point of these questions is not to dispense with cultural studies per se, in large part because of the radical work that it has provided, pedagogically, intellectually, and institutionally.  The literary criticism characterized here has brought with it innovations in how we study literature and who matters enough to have a voice, whether this is in the eighteenth-century archive or on the faculty and in the student body of the modern university. Cultural studies has the potential to open up institutions to forms of difference that can deepen our thought and practices. Literary criticism that perceives and articulates these forms of difference can show more nuanced relationships and yield ever more powerful and pertinent analyses.

To stop cultural studies, then, is to yield to obsolescence, an idea that, of course, took root in the eighteenth century along with its twin, novelty. Both of these likewise opened a Pandora’s box of criticism qua criticism that arguably has produced this putative impasse in the first place (Latour, 232). So while it may be novel to argue for obsolescence from within the field at the same moment that higher education and intellectual work are being challenged from without, the more productive route is to consider the eighteenth century as an archive that promises a way forward. This is an understanding of the Enlightenment as a theoretical-historical concept that simultaneously calls for radical change as well as harbors appeals to the ideals of humanism. Today’s eighteenth-century archive is, as Derrida acknowledges, “at once institutive and conservative,” it catalogues anew and it preserves (Derrida, 9). Today’s eighteenth century builds upon and extends the cultural studies model with its multiplicity of voices, texts, and concerns, known through and by the material conditions of their production and interpretation. Today’s eighteenth century also encourages scholars to see beyond the traditional markers of the field, whether those divisions are defined chronologically or regionally. These efforts –whether regarding, say, sensory perception, poetry, or politics– draw from the expansiveness of earlier iterations of cultural studies and share, at the core, a commitment to mimesis, the object of literary interpretation. Thus the knowledge making of literary critics is not exclusively about the discovery of new texts and new things, or merely re-enacting an epistemology that vacillates between novelty and obsolescence. The work of literary critics is more accurately, if difficultly, concerned with unraveling these histories of representation, pushing ourselves to think hard about what is represented when, how, and by whom — arguably, the central tenets of a cultural studies approach–even when the answers to and satisfaction with those questions change over time.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print. 

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.

Norris, Christopher. “Pope among the Formalists: Textual Politics and ‘The Rape of the Lock.’” Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry. Ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987. 134-61. Print.

Nussbaum, Felicity and Laura Brown, eds. The New 18th Century: Theory, Politics, Literature. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. Print.

Porter, Catherine. From the President, “(Re)Defining Productivity,” Reprinted from the Winter 2009 MLA Newsletter. Weblog entry. Accessed 24 April 2011.


Rosenthal, Laura J. “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.”  Paper presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference, January 8, 2011. Revised and expanded as “Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities.” Weblog entry. The Long 18th. January 27, 2011. April 1, 2011. (URL: ). A fuller version is forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.

Siskin, Clifford and William B. Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010. Print.

Sudan, Rajan, ed. “Rethinking New Formalism,” special issue of Philological Quarterly 86:3 (Summer 2007). Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. Second edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961. Print.

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

Tim Burke’s response to “Stop Doing Cultural Studies”

I don’t want to hijack the still-emerging discussion of Cynthia Richards’s excellent post on the limits of teaching cultural studies in a small liberal arts college, but I did want to call people’s attention to the historian Tim Burke’s cogent response to Warner and Siskin over at his blog, Easily Distracted.

(For those who don’t know his work, Burke is a specialist in modern African history at Swarthmore, but his long-running blog is far more wide-ranging)

Burke raises an interesting question: does the process of disciplinary change really follow our legitimating narratives of change?

What’s interesting in these moments is that they reveal how disciplines are not really markets, nor are they composed of a series of persuasive speech acts, though we sometimes act as if or claim that either or both are true. E.g., we sometimes argue that disciplines change because their practicioners have new interests, priorities or techniques, that they have a supple if slow-paced response to a kind of intellectual market. You write what you think is important, and the field either “buys” it or it doesn’t. And we sometimes say that the priorities of a discipline are determined by persuasion: that scholars do work and then argue for its importance or necessity. If they argue well, ta-da! knowledge.

As you might suspect, the actual development of disciplines, as debates like this show, is not so simple.  And these accounts, he argues, have important implications for the discussions a number of literary scholars have been having lately about justifying the humanities in the contemporary university.  Take a look, and tell us what you think.


Cynthia Richards: Walking the Line at a Liberal Arts College

      I would like to tell three stories.  Two are set in a small liberal arts college and the third in an even more parochial setting, my daughter’s high school. I draw attention to these settings in part to draw attention to the limits of what I have to say about Cultural Studies. My interaction with Cultural Studies happens primarily at the level of its transmission to undergraduates. Yet I also draw attention to these settings because I think these settings, in turn, draw attention to the limits of Cultural Studies.

      For example, this essay considers “Stopping Cultural Studies,” as William Warner and Clifford Siskin argue we should, when I could argue that at a liberal arts college of limited means where I chair the English Department, Cultural Studies never really got started. I should clarify: in my department, Cultural Studies has shaped our curriculum, our preparation, our scholarly research, our syllabi, and even our sense of mission. It has also shaped our service: we are Directors of Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, and leaders in Film Studies. Yet in terms of student work—the types of tasks instructors can assign and then assume successful completion of—Cultural Studies has been of limited applicability. When Cultural Studies has been read as simply another way of saying the study of pop culture, our students have been quite willing to take on these tasks—although still the caveat about successful completion remains. But when Cultural Studies is defined more properly, as Warner and Siskin do, as requiring its practitioner to “Historicize!“ (97) and “Go Beyond the Literary!,” (98) successful completion cannot be assumed.  With a small library, limited access to databases, and absolutely no travel funds for student research, small “c” culture has proved a more precious commodity than its large “C” counterpart. Thus, in the setting of my liberal arts college, the hothouse politics of close reading proves a more egalitarian practice than the socially-expansive one of Cultural Studies: without equal access to the objects of study—even if those objects are themselves less rarefied —new hierarchies emerge. In other words, what and how we teach in my department is radically changed, but what we ask our students to do with that material is shockingly less so. So, I am both deeply appreciative of the questions raised by Warner and Siskin, particularly regarding the ends of Cultural Studies, and also a little nervous that just as digital archives are becoming more accessible and even our weakest undergraduates “hyper” sensitive to the catholic reading practices so integral to Cultural Studies that its usefulness and viability is being questioned.

   But that is only an example and this essay promises three stories. The first I am going to call “The Darkness Without,” partly for dramatic effect, partly because it opposes nicely the title of the course I will discuss shortly, and mostly because nothing so inspires thoughts of encroaching darkness and the comforts of one’s disciplinary home than a self-study and external review conducted during a time of economic crisis and under an administration resolved to cut costs. For all the drama of that introduction, this story is also the most predictable. For when I sat down to make my case, I found I had no home to protect. Despite our strong numbers in the major, administrators assumed that English was on its way out, soon to be made obsolete by digital delivery systems, the short attention spans of the students in our entering classes, and our own interdisciplinary proselytizing. Cultural Studies had allowed my department to expand its coverage and re-configure in creative ways its institutional responsibilities, but from an administrator’s point of view, it had also made us seem more permeable and open for realignment in ways that threatened our core values of teaching students to read, write, and think critically while introducing them to both high and low “L” literature.[1] It also meant that quick fixes to the college’s economic woes could be easily grafted onto our diminishing base. More specifically, a position in Medieval Literature and Shakespeare could become one in Journalism and Film Studies, two areas of interest that consistently showed up on prospective students’ checklists as desirable majors. Moreover, the expansiveness of our interests made it more difficult for us to argue for any one area of expertise as essential.  They were all important, and hence none were.  Happily, after our reviewers’ visit, we have assurances that administrators will be reminded of our core contributions toward reading, writing, and critical thinking and that interdisciplinarity, in the current state of academia and the world, is a strength rather than a weakness.  Of course, what we don’t know yet is how all of this will end.

     More interesting was my department’s local response not only to these administrative pressures, but also to a perceived neediness on the part of our students. With so much to be covered in English, our students felt knowledge was eluding them, and they wanted something concrete they could point to, like a list, for example. So we created a list, actually we called it “The List”, and asked each member of the department to offer five entries. We avoided the word “canon”, openly acknowledged the list’s idiosyncratic nature, and adopted a mechanism for social change. Anyone who completes all 70 books gets to add one to the list and future students will have to read that book to complete the list. The response was enthusiastic, to put it mildly.  It has inspired an annual colloquium series, quite a few aspirants, and a geology major nearly to complete it. We suspect his entry to the list will be truly interdisciplinary.

    The second story relates to a general education honors course I teach entitled “The Darkness Within.” The course begins with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and ends with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. These Irish bookends notwithstanding, the course is comprehensive in its range, but singular in its purpose: it is my evangelical course where I sell our best and brightest on the value of readings that theorize, historicize, look beyond the literary, and even lead to personal and societal change.[2] Of course, what I encounter in that classroom is a lot more prosaic: a room full of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology majors who have invested their capital in the temples of science—mixed metaphor intended—and see little value in literature. For a while I took a defensive posture, but more lately, I have taken another tack. I have found that by letting go even more, by letting one of my assignments be fully interdisciplinary, I have regained some of that space. In an assignment that functions as the centerpiece of the course, I allow my students to apply the methods of their chosen majors to diagnose the so-called “darkness” within a literary text. Hence, they have applied chemical equations to the incendiary plot of Wieland, and run computer programs in order to finally pin down the true monster in Frankenstein. And remarkably, rather than the value of the literary being diluted through this process, it has been multiplied. In seeing the text transform as read through different cultural and disciplinary frameworks, they have been persuaded by the core value of the text in question. In other words, what they can do with the text makes it contents all the more impressive. In some ways, this tactic reminds me of what Warner and Siskin identify as the “Literature and … “approach(103),  necessarily requiring the policing of literary borders to work.  In this case, however, I have found that by not policing the borders of literature, I have become more secure in my classroom. 

    My final story will be brief.  I would like to say it is called “the light bit of light at the end of all that darkness,” but that would be stretching it. I do think it is an interesting story, but that may be for personal reasons—as will soon become apparent. My daughter attends a high school where disciplinary excellence—and its borders—are heavily monitored. There is honors biology, honors algebra, honors chemistry, each course requiring an exam for entry—except of course, in English where there are no honors courses, and also no exceptions to viewing English as an egalitarian enterprise. We will not all be chemists, but we will all read and write. I get this philosophy—it follows from the radical roots of Cultural Studies—but my daughter didn’t.[3] She studied a little harder, she loved language just a little more, and in a weekly vocabulary game where no one is ever supposed to win, she won.  Now, even a proud mother knows that is not an interesting story, but what happens next could be. She won the game, and as a result, the school stopped playing it all together. Once she won, there was no longer room for the give and take of a game predicated on the assumption that excellence in English will always be elusive and determined by the social moment. Put in these terms, it is easy to see how this story can point to the limits of Cultural Studies: it is troubling that at my daughter’s high school, English emerges as a discipline reluctant to set value, or establish functional borders. My daughter needed an honors English class. But I also think this story points to the limits of stopping cultural studies. The game being played in my daughter’s high school English class—and in many undergraduate institutions like my own—is a good one. It is engaging to students, flexible in assigning merit, inclusive in scope, and attentive to its social and historical moment, and I doubt over time my daughter would have remained the only winner. The benefits of the game are many:  it should not have been stopped.

    Social change comes in lots of forms, mostly unexpected ones—geology majors being the first to complete literary lists, chemistry providing a surprisingly coherent framework for reading Wieland, the expansive move toward interdisciplinarity eroding the territory of an English department at a liberal arts college. When we consider the beginnings and ends of a field, we can’t predict what will change, only name what shouldn’t: that what matters is what our students can do with what we teach them.









[1] Warner and Siskin  make this distinction between small “l” and large “L” literature in “Stopping Cultural Studies,“ pointing to a historical shift in the definition of literature as meaning “all kinds of writing” (104) to meaning “only certain texts within certain genres” (104.).  I am also indebted to Warner and Siskin’s essay for the title of my essay, both of which play off the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line.”

[2] Warner and Siskin identify these moves are three of the pillars of Cultural Studies. The fourth is the “power of” culture;” in my text, this move is translated as “personal and societal change.”

[3] See Michael Bérubé’s “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies? for an excellent discussion of those radical roots as well as a poignant farewell to his more idealistic aspirations for the field.


Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael, ‘What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” The Chronicle of Higher Education

       56.4 (2009): 9-11.Print.  

Brown, Charles Brocken. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jan

     Fliegelman.NewYork: Penguin, 1991.Print.

McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert de Maria. New York: Penguin, 2001, 2003. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. New York:

      MLA, 2008. 94-107. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New

       York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.