"Who is This 'We' That Has Yet to Sing in Our Already Too Familiar land? A Response to Larry Grossberg"
Guest Writer: Robert Mejia

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A frame from Erykah Badu's video "Window Seat" (2010) 

 [On Friday March 2, Lawrence Grossberg spoke at a CAS MillerComm lecture hosted by the Institute for Communications Research. In the following post guest blogger Rober Mejia describe Grossberg's lecture while also discussing the keynote lecture at the March 2-3 Institute of Communications Research 2012 Alumni & Friends Reunion Conference]

"Who is This 'We' That Has Yet to Sing in Our Already Too Familiar Land? A Response to Larry Grossberg" 

Written by Robert Mejia (Institute of Communications Research) 

The affective investment Larry Grossberg has had in the path of Cultural Studies should not go unrecognized. As the only U.S. student to have studied at both the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (under Stuart Hall) and the Institute of Communications Research (under James Carey), Grossberg took direct part in an intellectual exchange that was just beginning to occur in the late-1960s. His name is associated with several of the most significant publications and conferences in the history of cultural studies, including Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988 [conference in 1983]) and Cultural Studies (1991 [conference in 1990]), and he has continued to operate as a significant intellectual force through his long tenure as editor of Cultural Studies (1990-Present) and, most recently, through his publication of Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (2010). 

It goes without saying that the field of contemporary cultural studies is indebted to the early and ongoing work of Larry Grossberg. And yet, though I am fond of much of what Grossberg writes, including the selections we read from his recent book, I cannot help but wonder who the “we” is in the “how can we sing—in a strange land?” And for whom is this land strange? 

Interestingly enough, Aisha Durham gave a related lecture on the following day called,“Black to the Future: Old School Lessons for a New Hip Hop Generation.” Like Grossberg, Durham questioned the possibility for alternative politics in our contemporary moment. In her case the question was less “how can we sing?” than why do so many fail to hear those who have already begun singing? Rephrasing the question as such allows us to complicate the main suggestions touched on during Grossberg’s lecture: 
  • We should develop rigorous and theoretically consistent models. 
  • We should find means for contemporary counter-culture to enter the popular. 
  • We are not yet pessimistic enough to undertake the work necessary for grasping the complexity of our contemporary political moment. 

A second frame from Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" (2010)
Theoretical Consistency

Grossberg characterized the work of much of contemporary critical theory as “opportunistic” in substituting the theorist’s own politics for methodological rigor. His claim is that cultural studies (or more generally the academic leftwing) has criticized dominant knowledge paradigms such as science only to uphold the authority of those same paradigms whenever it became politically expedient to do so. This methodological inconsistency, he believes, has played into the hands of conservative politics, while the postmodern destabilization of the “real” has made it difficult to act in the name of ethical political action. Although Grossberg’s concern is relevant, I am uncertain if “we” have all had equal ability or desire to operate so opportunistically. 

I am reminded of Barbara Christian’s The Race for Theorywhich expresses concern that the very moment at which “the literature of blacks, women of South America and Africa, etc.” were beginning to receive significant national and international attention is when this “overtly ‘political’ literature was being preempted by a new Western concept proclaiming that reality does not exist.” Is Christian part of the “we” referred to in Grossberg’s talk? The problem with such uncritical use of the pronoun is that it often means some combination of White, Male, Western, Middle-to-Upper-Class, able-bodied, Academic Professional, etc. 

Entering the Popular 

Asking about whom the “we” stands for in the talk’s title matters in terms of Grossberg’s suggestion that contemporary counter-culture is in need of a means through which to politically engage the popular. The insinuation of this claim, however, betrays the combination of the “we” that he imagines as constituting the popular; for, as Durham suggested in her talk, many populations have not stopped singing. Rock-and-roll was influenced by African American artists from the south, such as Muddy Waters. Hence, it could be argued that what “we” conceive of as counter-culture was at least a partial cooptation of radical politics by much less radical (and, in many cases, overtly commercial) interests. In general, I agree with Grossberg’s contention regarding the limits of an all-or-nothing conception of politics; however, I still believe that it is worth noting that it seems as though “counter-culture” is often recognized as existing only when white populations participate.

Matt and Kim in "Lessons Learned" (2009)
This assumption, too, illuminates the significance of Durham’s lecture, for her analysis of the reception of Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” illustrates that the question is not so much “how can we sing” but, rather, why can this “we” not yet hear those who have already begun to sing? For those unfamiliar with “Window Seat,” the music video features Badu walking through the streets of Dallas, singing lyrics such as “I need you to want me / need you to miss me / I need your attention” as she slowly disrobes. Durham explains that Badu’s music video was inspired by Matt and Kim’s music video for “Lessons Learned.” Whereas Matt and Kim’s nudity in “Lessons Learned” was meant to convey an idea of “just not giving a fuck anymore” and resulted in an apology from the police officers on scene who attempted to break up the filming, Badu was cited for disorderly conduct and her actions generated a significant amount of controversy. As Durham suggests, the question of singing is not so much a matter of production as it is one of the policing of consumption—that is the “we” who refuse to see those who have already begun to sing. 

Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect 

I will conclude this response to Larry Grossberg’s presentation with a discussion of pessimism. As his lecture came to an end, Paula Treichler asked how “we” can find the political courage to act in a moment so overwhelmed with pessimism about the possibility of any significant effect (in the face of events such as Citizens United). Grossberg’s response was that “we” are not yet pessimistic enough—and here, I would agree. To the extent that the “we” formulated by Grossberg refers to those in possession of some semblance of privilege—whether real or imagined—I do not think that many of those of his intended audience yet carry the sense of desperation needed to undertake the scholarly work necessary to contribute to a larger—i.e., beyond tenure—problem. This is not to propose a false binary between academic work and political or any other kind of work; rather, I suggest that too often, graduate students and faculty are taught to think in terms of interesting questions as opposed to necessary questions. Although interesting questions have a place in the academy, and are not always separate from those of necessary questions, the stance taken matters. 

In other words, what is at stake if one is lazy when engaging with an intellectual question—what is at stake? Tenure? No. For we all know that a wrong published answer is worth more than the correct, but unpublished, answer when the question is one of tenure. But when the questions are those of how cuts to Women, Infants and Children (WIC) funding will affect your sister and nephew, or how the economic recovery is affecting your father, and how much you can afford to help support them on a graduate student’s salary, then you had better be damn right when answering your questions—because in moments such as these, one does not have the luxury of getting it wrong and still being right; one must live with the consequences. 

Until “we,” whomever they may be, understand this—understand that some questions are more than just questions, but rather a matter of life—then “we” will continue to produce interesting questions for the tenured (or not) faculty to ponder, but “we” will fail to ask the questions and produce the answers that are needed at this particular moment.


I would like to thank Dr. Aisha Durham and Amanda Murphyao for their feedback and support in the writing of this response.


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Anonymous said...


This is a very well written response to Dr. Grossberg. I think, however, that your response ignores some of the bigger imports of the lecture, what I consider to have been the crux of his talk (and this is from my notes): "How do we create the belonging within complexity, a unity out of multiplicity."

And I think that the "we" in this last question is an all-encompassing we.

You mention Muddy Waters and his significance to rock-and-roll -- great point!! Led Zeppelin as well as other white artists "borrowed" from the music of blues musicians who came before them without "citing." ... But again, I feel like that still does not respond to Dr. Grossberg's point about "the way the music mattered" in the heyday of counterculture. His question was: "Why doesn't it do that today? It doesn't constitute a sense of belonging." These concerns ring very true to me and I am not speaking only in my role as an academic.

I think that THESE are the important points of his lecture and the answer to them has something to do with why "the left is losing." And the left really IS losing.

Anonymous said...

This blog post is yet another vague and needlessly polemical critique of another person's talk. Much better to craft a reasoned and reasonable response.

Unit for Criticism said...

Anonymous #2 - Kritik's policy is to discourage (and reserve the right to delete) anonymous comments. However, we do understand that many people are accustomed to anonymous commentary elsewhere on the web. This comment, however, is borderline abusive; it infers that the Mejia post is "needlessly" polemical and not "reasoned and reasonable." Yet it offers no evidence for that opinion. Although the post won't be deleted, please be aware of this policy for the future. Many thanks (LG)