a directed reading in
with timothy burke
i was drawn to cultural studies in my search for a major, it seemed broad enough, certainly in title, and as recent scholarship cultural studies seemed exciting territory that would put me on the cutting edge of academia. i had not yet seen anything official, declamatory, at swarthmore, but the rather brilliant young man responsible for my attending school here, joe razza, has since moved on to study cultural studies at university of pittsburg. he blew my seventeen-year old mind when i first visited the school by asking me how i thought polite community service could ever lead to socio-political change. i came to cultural studies expecting it might help me ask similar questions of scholarship and my own web enthusiasm.
cultural studies stands at the intersection of post-60s activism and postmodern plurality; reaching beyond the ivory tower and acknowledging "popular" perspective.
this proposes cultural studies as the wielding of study as implement of empowerment. but that project has a difficult history with the left (where cultural studies resides), and the illustration of some cultural studies specifics will show that things are not so simply explained. in fact, some contemporary cultural studies identified scholars refuse to allow or advocate for the establishment of cultural studies departments at large schools or even an intellectual identification, or credo. bear that desired unfixity in mind as i represent the materials that tim burke selected to give me a sense of this recent development in scholarship.
i was greeted by this immediate distinction in the field:
Britain is the home of the discipline; it was there in the 60s that academics first specified this activist study for change. Early cultural studies work subjected middle or lower class media to such scrutiny previously reserved for Shakespeare. By leveling the playing field of culture, what is popular is no longer simply trash, shallow and crude, but expressions of subversion or strength, depending in the class perspective of the scholar involved.
british cultural studies, as exemplified by the articulate stuart hall, proposes a front line of culture seeding revolution. it seems to come to cultural texts with political prereading. as tim and i discussed it, british cultural studies proposes the existence of the gramscian "organic intellectual," a hypothetical lower class bloke who understands his socio-economic situation and will use culture to bring about the inevitable class struggle and revolution.
american cultural studies, on the other hand, is typically more focused on the text, occasionally to a fault. this is the part of the bookshelf where you find elvis studies (greil marcus and gilbert rodman i read), for example. not just elvis as moment of popular uprising against proscribed culture; elvis as an intersection of race, gender and class questions. shift focus from elvis's revolutionary potential or activity, and study the range of reactions to him and his work, and elvis yields a rich reflection of american culture.
American cultural studies should not be confused with american studies, which is a more formal conjoining of english literature and historical studies, authorized and structured in academia. american studies has arisen as literature professors explore the context of the books they read, i.e. we're reading chandler's detective works, what other noir cultural output could inform that study? historians in this case have something to learn from literature professors as they have historically studied the hell out of an archive to presume and subtract the bias of the materials for to get at historical truth; literature professors simply understand the past as bias, accounts of the past as biased. this differs from cultural studies in that american studies is more consciously using techniques of literary and historical study. not that cultural studies does not, but having titled itself anew, and consciously distanced itself from any single discipline, cultural studians are more free to develop their own methods, where american studies scholars have a discipline of disciplines to serve.
much of this kind of work focuses on fan response to and use of culture, not potential revolutionary, but realized. henry jenkins, "textual poachers," covers the star trekkers and fans of british scifi, and their creation and commerce of illicit "slash" fiction, proposing subtextual homosexual plotlines set in the worlds of consumer culture. this phenomenon has already lodged itself in a corner of the popular consciousness; musing kirk and spock bisexual was too rich an aberration to stay secret for long. jenkins is acutely concerned with these aberrations; as he considers fans who are fans, fanatic beyond the point of social acceptability. tim and i discussed the oj simpson trial juror who wore her star trek starship federation uniform to court; she saw moral value enshrined therein, it was a gesture of respect to the proceedings.
i was interested in at what point modern consumer narrative becomes the central organizing metaphor for one's life. religions have had thousands of years to flesh out the permutations of the prophets, somehow recent synthetic mythologies capture the entire consciousness of significant segments of society in short order. bad tv shows will be famous for just that, and might suspect to be performed, collected, carried on in private rituals of communities of consumers. the rocky horror picture show is just really bad, but fans regularly invest more time in the ritual enactment of it than most christians invest in weekly observance of christ. at the same time, these consumer media realities are disposable, unsubstantiated by survival of the fittest, and not demanding intellectual rigor and lifestyle sacrifice on the part of its followers. in this way has the grateful dead arisen as a popular opportunity for occasional fits of ecstatic religious activity, its participants less restrained than they might be if they were asked to attend a pentecostal service where people actually do that shit for real. these casual cultures are flexibly adapted, visitable.
between elvis and star trek, cultural studians seem contemporary anthropologists visiting exotic fan conventions and probing the social mores and mating rituals of otherwise discarded americans.
the line is drawn with regards to the author's own fandom and resulting reverence or regard for the text. richard slotkin and henry jenkins talk for hundreds of pages about distinct genres of cultural production; that neither one calls himself a fan or admits his personal interest is a bit disconcerting. we don't necessarily ask the same of shakespeare scholars (why are you so into the bard, anyways?), but somehow when the subject is western movies, in slotkin's case, we are made to wonder why he doesn't just pause for a moment to gush over the artform. it is too academically unenshrined, too ephemeral - it needs to be personally justified. or, to put a positive spin on it, i'm sure slotkin has a rich personal relationship with these movies, the reader might approach the text with more empathy if the author offers their situation.
the popular nature of these sites of study is that our shared cultural experience with them is so immediate, we deny them the posterity of history. with these types of cultural studies, i can participate. my social position and age means that i have seen elvis footage, watched women on tv, seen star trek, cartoons, even read erotic fan fiction online. this passing familiarity allows us to hold forth on these things as a part of our world being alive today; our passing familiarity makes everyone a potential cultural studian.
so intellectuals, by studying popular culture, open the field of discourse to millions of opinions. one can perfectly imagine some wrought commentary on a tv sitcom eliciting some direct feedback from avid watchers, "that's just dumb." the anal retentivity of scholarship is most obvious when it turns its obsessive gaze on present culture. at their worst academics appear to be rabid fans who will not fully immerse, who refuse to admit their devotion. society has a hard enough time with people who know every lyric of every madonna song, let alone the person who knows every lyric of every madonna song and proposes therein a historiography of ethnic america's wrestling with gender theory and the cultural interplay of fetish, or some other amalgamation of current theoretical hot topics. this is particularly disconcerting when cultstuds avoid confessing appreciation for the materials. everybody knows you like doctor who, jenkins, why don't you just come out with it? they distance themselves from what is popular about the work while maintaining authority over it.
other authors admit readily to fanship but dismiss other similar media as simple, shortsighted when you consider they study television or comic strips. a moment that reveals academics as biased and imbalanced as everyone else. the example i'm thinking of here is that of susan douglas, whose excellent study of modern women and media, "where the girls are," refers to "children's cartoons," talking down to the medium. anyone with a slight hankering for illustrated motion and storyline would likely find this characterization nothing if not narrowminded. this woman is studying tv, and it is clear she has fought some battles for respect in that regard. now that she has her turf, she is withholding respect for near disciplines. sounds like a friend talking shit over lunch; not so professional. of course i would have no grounds to judge her if she operated outside the public media zone, so she is to be appreciated for her human scope of study and resulting vulnerability to critique by millions of tv viewers.
but pioneers in specific genres of cultural studies are not always so impressive. grant mckracken's book on "big hair" is largely a collection of salutations and soliloquies; underwhelming scholarly reasoning and insubstantial study. but how many other even slightly academic books can we identify on big hair? so we buy this book because it boldly goes where no scholar has gone before.
there are some scholarly outlaws at swarthmore college; this semester i studied clothes, paperclips and chairs with kitao in the art history department - "design of everyday things." the theoretical resources concerning items of everyday use are surprisingly underwhelming, considering the number of tracts on god, whom i seldom sit on or use to eat meals.
so brant and his cohort, susan douglas, certainly get props for venturing down from the ivory tower. they are the early intellectual investors in popular scholarship, and they risk second guessing by teenagers, hairdressers and their students; not a typical position for professors. a more traditional academian might see the cultstud having succumbed to the seduction of popular media. most academics would not support spending as much time on the beauty and the beast television series as one could spend on shakespeare. the text is considered inferior, regardless of its market share. the higher production value of the tv series over the written word, and the corresponding ease of absorption makes first line cultural historians, cultural studians, targets of a candy critique: they are like children infatuated with their sweet tasting, meal spoiling eye candy / brain candy. so, these people must work doubly hard to justify their expense of time and brain labor on the modern media consumables of laborers and children. but i did not need to search very far for tangible value in this, tim cited me a scholar who is going to live in a new corporate community for non-employees: disney's "celebration" in florida. disney has built the homes, the schools, the libraries, the stores; this could very well become a widespread phenomenon. as it stands at a liminal point between popular consumer cultural architectural sociology, it is certainly too current and crossdisciplined to be considered by a traditional english department. but isn't the text of the disney suburb what we care to study? this idea of text, the nonspecific media content delivery delineator allows the cultstud to practice such a wonderfully broad range of disciplines, certainly the disney case calls for historiography sociology anthropology economics, or a sort of literary analysis on the world. so this student of cultural studies has projected his own penchance for dabbling onto the discipline, certainly drawing from across the disciplines causes some consternation amongst old school faculty who argue that is all connections and no grounding; flaky, insubstantial and lazy. (another example of this crossdisciplination is marjorie ingall's "field guide to north american males;" applying orthinological taxonomicals to datable males. i don't believe she has any background it birdwatching, but it serves as a useful way to interpret young men to young women.)
but it is nevertheless popular. and as it seems to me a more hip, cosmopolitan way to manage four years of post-adolescence in a single institution. how could you be surrounded by so many different kinds of minds and not want to study somewhat some different specific systems, and perhaps apply it to everything that surrounds you when you leave swarthmore. certainly i have found exciting the application of orientalism, colonialism, postmodernism, all the popular isms of swarthmore theory, to the web; faculty at swarthmore think i'm a dilettante flake and hard core cyberkids think i'm an egghead blowhard. an uncomfortable place to be. i'm attracted to it because making those connections is exactly what establishes the future; creates opportunities for the profound enshrinements of the academy to leak out as soundbyte philosophies for future hackers, inspiring anticorporate communitarians who still haven't finished high school; while their style and instinctual labor provide the grounding and compensation/affirmation for the long nights spent equating haitian caribbean african catholic vodun synchronicians and san francisco queer drug-using internet-exploiting identity politicians.
the first thing that tim handed me to read was Paul Gorman's "left intellectuals and popular culture," that elucidates the history of intellectual prejudice against popular medias. As he says, "condemnation of the popular arts and entertainments in western culture date from at least ancient Greece and Rome," so cultural studies might be seen as an antidote to the social snobbery of intellectuals; rather, academia might consider popular culture valuable, on its own terms. Certainly cultural studies innovates by actually reading the texts in question.
but this seems more in keeping with american cultural studies - where the text is evaluated as signifying culture, not with british cultural studies where text is approached as part of the populace projected political program. bear in mind that both tim and myself feel more at home in america, as we are americans, so the tone of british cultural studies has come, in the course of my study, to seem out of touch, if just not my cup of tea. in all likelihood i have not read enough of it and certainly have not seen it in action; tim tells me about stuart hall's study of thatcherist england, revealing the ways that the new conservatives in the 1980s used popular culture to manipulate or cultivate sympathy in the working class for the conservative agenda. by revealing the intentions and methods of the campaigning on the right, hall hopes to augment media saaviness on the left. this, contrasted with american scholarship's baseline interest in titillation. so if cultural studies is humanizing scholarship, making it less professional, more vulgar, then american cultural studies can be seen as cultural studying cultural studies.
besides the accepted geographical split in cultural studies, tim and I identified and worked throughout the semester with three "camps."
the first camp was located primarily with the sentiments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as specified in their essay "the culture industry," which saw popular culture as nefarious capitalist manipulation. they cited no hollywood movies in specific, they merely dealt with the studio system; so this is cultural studies distanced from the text and purporting purity of politics and purpose. these texts inform and entertain when they rail radically and lambast the pillars of corporate culture. as a twentieth century media denizen, i am surrounded by these forces, so some marxist anti-consumption bomb throwers are welcome. i was inspired by "the culture industry" to write about "the internet industry" because i saw easy transplant of arguments against corporate control of content. the internet is at once a moment of unbridled creativity and dispersion of ideas, but also, media technology lends itself so well to conspiracy theory.
The second camp we located with Laura Kipnis, author of "bound and gagged," a study of pornography. she attributes to porn a rich power of rebellion for oppositional discourse - that by revelling in pleasures identified as low-class, this popular culture is calculated threatening subversion. Most if not all of the cultural studies folk identified with this position made heroes of mass culture makers. As I have alluded to above, it's almost a liberal kneejerk response to straightjacketing scholarship to reach out to Larry Flynt and make his Hustler magazine the willful articulate respondent to conservative America. It's too easy; not all popular extremist assholes are expressing the greater angels of our nature. often these people idolizing or enshrining rebels wouldn't identify personally with the materials; though her book jacket picture looks vaguely eroticised, there are few moments where we are to gather that she actually spent some time with hustler, and certainly nothing of her own sexuality is available.
The third camp was decidedly epitomized by Susan Douglas, and her study of women and media, "where the girls are." describing her younger years spent in front of the tv, she both acknowledged her intimate relationship with the texts in question, and questioned the will of the powers-that-be to manipulate a media consuming public. Her fandom lended her analysis authenticity, and prevented the preaching tone of the first camp, while her willingness to put her demographic on the line kept her from seeming too culture crazy, or star struck, as those in the second camp. personal identification with the scholarship, and careful articulation of the forces at work makes this very effective; both with regards to the pedagogy, but also the readability of the materials produced. perhaps this is a moment, early enough in the study of Charlie's Angels, where we care to hear about the writer's personal odessey, because we so seldom see ourselves being seen seeing in a text, and so perhaps after "media studies 79; gender transcription in charlie's angels era television" has become a decided course of study, personal relationship to the text will become tiring. but in this case douglas uses and explores her own original reaction to the text as means of interpreting or balancing her later political revelations. cultural studies represents a weird moment, that might be illuminated by referring loosely to human development. very few of us, when we are children, analyze our toys. when we can and do they often lose much of their magic. by taking the tools of the college-educated 20-something and turning those tools on the pleasures of youth, cultural studians act to enshrine those pleasures, and either regress, if you think it is facile, or acknowledge their roots and participation. the academic nature seems like perpetual post-orgasm. having either witnessed or experienced before pleasure, the academic attempts to then take it apart, to relieve their sense of squandered time or to create its component parts for recapitulation and systemic understanding. cultural studies seems then the latest, most honest attempt to recover that orgasm. the honesty, necessitated by studying popular familiar texts, places the scholar in more intimate and approachable dialogue with both the subjects and recipients of their study. that seems entirely healthy to me. scholarship has always shielded its proprietarian vulnerabilities. let 'em start talking about what everyone else is talking about and fight for their worth, and maybe they will elevate the discourse in goddamn popular media.