Michael Berube on Cultural Studies

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

From yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education, a thought-provoking analysis, "What's the Matter with Cultural Studies?," from a former University of Illinois colleague, Michael Berube.

Here are two excerpts:

In 1990, my first year as an assistant professor there, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held a conference on "Cultural Studies Now and in the Future." The program included historians, media theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and AIDS activists; and the theoretical terrain—over which cultural studies had held earlier skirmishes with deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, and, of course, in an epochal struggle, with Althusserians and neo-Gramscians—had lately been enriched by the arrival of Foucauldian historicism and queer theory. It really did seem plausible that cultural studies could be the start of something big.

And, from later in the piece, as Berube contemplates the relatively limited achievements of cultural studies to date,

...How often do we find ourselves ascribing disparate political events and cultural phenomena solely to neoliberalism—that is, to the evisceration of the social-welfare state and the privatization of social goods? That is not to say that neoliberalism is immaterial; it has dominated the political and economic landscape for 30 years, and its effects on higher education are palpable, baleful, and undeniable—the corporatization of administration and research, the withdrawal of state financing for public universities, the enrichment of the student-loan industry...

But I want to ask, in a general way, whether cultural-studies theorists are starting from the fact of neoliberalism and then proceeding to the analysis, or whether the analysis simply concludes where it begins, with "It's the neoliberalism, stupid."

A discussion is just starting on the Chronicle's website but the topic, with its references to Illinois's long institutional investment in cultural studies and to colleagues such as Robert McChesney, might also warrant discussion here on Kritik.


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Anonymous said...

Certainly, some cultural studies thinkers reduce the complexity of issues to the same things all the time: neoliberalism (I agree, and it would be good if we ask ourselves -honestly- if besides of overusing the term we can concretely and precisely define it, which I doubt) and power relations (where the ones to blame are always the same: capitalism, whites, heterosexuals, men, etc.)

Patrick Bray said...

I certainly wouldn't be too sad if what passes for cultural studies in the US - the fuzzy thinking that mixes academic Marxism, popular culture, and strangely enough, often a holier-than-though elitism - were to become a relic of the 1990s. Bérubé is right to critique "cultural studies" as now meaning "everything and nothing; it has effectively been conflated with "cultural criticism" in general, and associated with a cheery 'Pop culture is fun!' approach." But perhaps he could have traced better the origins of this conflation in the weakness of the cultural studies model itself.
Bérubé's analysis of how cultural studies has failed to change the political culture of the American left reveals as much about the intellectual problems of cultural studies as it does about American politics. He shows how "the manufacturing consent" model proposed by Chomsky and others is not only simplistic (Chomsky might count this as a virtue), but that it seems to think that the working class is stupid and or gullible. In other words, that the masses are only consumers of media who cannot even understand what they are consuming. Bérubé links this "bamboozled" theory to the monocausal obsessions of the left (and cultural studies) economism and neoliberalism. Each obsession leads to a kind of circular argument - "I want to ask, in a general way, whether cultural-studies theorists are starting from the fact of neoliberalism and then proceeding to the analysis, or whether the analysis simply concludes where it begins."
Indeed. Yet I suspect (and would welcome correction on this), that in fact cultural studies - by privileging cultural (social) phenomena - produces, or justifies, the notion of culture it critiques. By studying "popular" culture as a manifestation of the desires of the masses, cultural-studies theorists ignore how individuals create meaning out of their surroundings and aren't necessarily duped or molded or reflected by the vague notion of "culture" (see J. Racière's work in general, and in particular "the Philosopher and his poor"). By breaking down the barrier between social sciences (which seek meaning in explaining what things are - the status quo) and literary criticism (which looks at how meaning happens, how difference or the new comes into being), cultural studies ends up conflating cultural production with cultural meaning, leaving no room for interpretation. If I were to choose my own "monocausal" explanation, it would be the reinvigorated determinism which now dominates discourse not only in the sciences and social sciences, but in the media and business worlds. Cognitive science, information technology, statistical economics, genetic research, behavioral psychology, all seek to explain (or explain away) difference through quantitiative analysis, which to many in the academy and outside it is a much more seductive model than a retooled 1970s British Marxism. Cultural studies comes off as "too soft" and qualitative compared with this determinism, and too sociological compared with more earlier forms of critical or literary theory. (Sorry for the long comment!)

marry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob Rushing said...

Part of me loves the enigmatic character of "this post has been removed," since I am free to imagine all kinds of dreadful and insulting comments that used to be there. On the other hand, it was probably just spam.

That said, for those who don't follow the vigorous action over at Michael Berubé's blog, I thought I would link to some of the responses to his piece on cultural studies. This piece:


seems to me to be a rather mean-spirited and close-minded response, one hell-bent on mis-reading at least some of Berubé's points, but interesting for its vitriol and its use of Gloria Swanson from Sunset Blvd. I feel entitled to describe it as "close-minded" rather than "sassy," as another commenter does, since the author or administrator deleted my excellent comment almost immediately. Hooray for free speech!

Cultural Studies at UC Davis collectively offered this response:


and Berubé responded (with links to other reactions) over at Crooked Timber:


This last has a rather copious comments thread.

Lauren said...

Thanks for those interesting links and your post Rob.

Just want to make clear for posterity that at least for so long as I've been an administrator of this blog the only posts that have been removed were indeed spams. Although we discourage any abusive posting and might in theory delete such comments, in practice we've managed to sort things out without resort to censorship.