Category Archives: interdisciplinarity

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

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.

 

“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.

The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

Peter Burke, “Context in Context”

[plate printed cloth of George III and family (1784-5) courtesy of the Whitworth Gallery textile collection]

When I found this 2002 essay a while back, I was excited, because I had really liked the lucidity and accessibility of What is Cultural History? (2004).  I also liked the fact that it shared some of the theoretical preoccupations of my Cynicism book.  In Burke’s hands, Raymond Williams, the Warburg school, and de Certeau all hang together.  And of course I’d never seen or heard of this book until my own book had been published.

So Burke’s essay opens strongly when he reminds us of just how indispensable the term “context” has become for scholars working across an impressive number of disciplines.

Context is a term that has come into more and more frequent use in the last thirty or forty years in a number of disciplines–among them, anthropology, archaeology, art history, geography, intellectual history, law, linguistics, literary criticism, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and theology. A trawl through the on-line catalogue of the Cambridge University Library in 1999 produced references to 1,453 books published since 1978 with the word context in the title (and 377 more with contexts in the plural). There have been good reasons for this development. The attempt to place ideas, utterances, texts, and other artifacts “in context” has led to many insights. All the same there is a price to be paid, the neglect of other approaches and also the inflation or dilution of the central concept, which is sometimes used–ironically enough, out of context–as an intellectual slogan or shibboleth.

I won’t repeat the details of Burke’s argument, except to say that he does indeed “re-place context in its contexts–or better, its many contexts,” beginning with a Koselleck-style sketch of its “placements” in a series of linguistic and cultural fields.  But the most intriguing part of the opening was the promise that it would detail the “price to be paid” for using this term, and to discuss at some length the limitations that this term imposes upon our analyses.

Burke’s starting-point is the Ciceronian notion of literary decorum, and the rhetorical accommodation of one’s expression to a particular occasion, meaning the specificities of time, place, and audience.  In the fourth century, however, Burke sees the emergence of a new term, “contextio,” (from L. contexere, to weave)  that describes “the text surrounding a given passage that one wishes to interpret.”  The metaphor of weaving suggests that meaning is to be found not in any isolated element under examination, but in the manner in which it sits in its surroundings, or in its relations with those surroundings, however those are defined.  Note also that this double-move aligns rhetorical production with textual exegesis, thereby providing a double-perspective for understanding language and its uses.  “Context,” the relation of what was said to the social and linguistic situation in which it was said, becomes an indispensable aid to interpretation.

What follows in PB’s argument is at once hugely suggestive as an opening for research and a little disappointing in its follow-through, because the term “context” seems to arise almost without being noticed as part of an increasingly historicist attitude towards language and meaning.  Over time, it also takes on “culturalist” assumptions of the specificities of geo-political space, especially in fields like history, anthropology, geography, and so on.  One of the tacit assumptions informing the use of this term seems to be that particular “contexts”–whether those of period, tradition, or culture–are unique and incommensurable with one another.  This means that contextualizing becomes one of the standard practices of scholarship devoted to deepened knowledge of a particular time and place.  It also means that contexts, tacit or otherwise, allow experts or connoisseurs to distinguish the vases of one dynasty from another, the style of this writer from his subsequent imitator, and so on.  So “context” becomes one more way for scholars and connoisseurs to play the game of “distinction,” in every sense of the term.

And I have to say, now that I have read Burke, that “context” has to be one of the most important and undertheorized conceptual underpinnings for the period-specialist, since contexts become a crucial way to provide specificity and content to the expertise of the period-specialist, who defines his or her expertise solely by reference to a particular (and perhaps too arbitrarily defined) period of time.  It might be worth pointing out, too, that the informal, holistic, yet openended understanding of the literary period specialist often seems less professionalized, less specialized, and closer to the older, “amateur” worlds of connoisseurs, antiquarians, or dilettantes than the stricter, more regulated worlds of professional historians or philosophers.  So one problem that follows from Burke’s essay concerns the formality or informality of such contexts, and how we might understand how they are constructed or recognized in the past or present.

Finally, as suggestive as this essay was, I wished while reading it that Burke had followed up on his initial promise, and spent more time analyzing the limitations or possible dangers of contexts in interpretations. For example, how might it be studied in terms of specific encounters (or collisions) among disciplines?  The circular nature of contexts-as-explanations-seems like another problem well worth exploring concretely, as would be the question of how multiple contexts are supposed to relate to one another (cf. 171-6).  The multidisciplinary aspect of contexts stands as perhaps the most interesting part of this story, because the concept of “context” remains one of the ways that more or less remote disciplines communicate their results to one another, while also acting as part of the self-organization and understanding of those disciplines.  But I am grateful to Burke for opening up this line of inquiry, which I hope others will follow up.

DM