Why Cultural Studies?: A short tease

whyLast week, my friend Ted Striphas (so cool that he has two blogs) stumbled across an Amazon link for my really-really-long-time-coming-but-finally-almost-here book, Why Cultural Studies? and posted some nice words of congratulations about it to Facebook. My friend Kembrew McLeod called it “the cultural studies equivalent of waiting for GnR’s Chinese Democracy.” My friend Timothy Burke followed up by saying that he already had a copy sitting on his Kindle.

That the e-book version is already available shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. (Authors are always the last to know, right?) Actual paper copies (from what I’ve been told) aren’t supposed to appear for another month or so, and so I wasn’t expecting any “Hey, your new book is out!” commentary just yet. Evidently there’s already a bootlegged PDF version available online … if you know where to look. (For the record, I don’t mind this at all, though I suspect the nice folks at Wiley-Blackwell may be less amused. I’m just happy that people want to read it.)

So, for folks who want to know more, here’s a short sample, taken from the start of the first chapter.

C’mon in. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Pour yourself a drink if you’d like. I want to tell you a story about this strange and wonderful thing called “cultural studies” and hopefully, by the time I’m done, you’ll see cultural studies as something that is appealing enough for you to take it up yourself—or to deepen your existing investment in it, as the case may be. Part of my goal in writing this book is to strengthen cultural studies by expanding the circle(s) of people who proudly claim it as their calling, and by encouraging current practitioners to renew their commitment to the project.

To this end, I was strongly tempted to begin with an even warmer, even friendlier invitation: something like, “Cultural studies! C’mon in! The water’s fine!” Too often, after all, cultural studies has come across as a sort of exclusive (and exclusionary) clique that’s only open to the cool kids: that is, the academic hipsters who wear too much black and spontaneously drop paragraph-long quotes from Deleuze and Foucault into “casual” conversation. And that is certainly not the vision of cultural studies that I want to perpetuate. If cultural studies is going to come anywhere close to fulfilling its mission(s)—and I will say more about what that entails later—then it needs to become more open, more flexible, and more expansive than it typically has been of late. Cultural studies isn’t easy work, and not everyone can actually do it—but it’s also not a tiny, private club that only a select few can join. At least it shouldn’t be.

At the same time, however, I also considered beginning with a clear, stark warning. “Cultural studies! Beware! Here be dragons!” Partially, this is because, for all of its value, cultural studies is not exactly in the best of health these days, and so the story that I want to tell you about it is not the sort of light-hearted, feel-good fairy tale that will ease your troubled mind or give you sweet dreams. It is, in part, a story about what’s wrong with cultural studies, about why cultural studies matters enough for its current malaise to be a legitimate cause for concern, and about what we might do to repair and revitalize cultural studies for the future. So you may not want to get too comfortable—and you might want to make that drink a strong one.

Even at its healthiest, cultural studies is a challenging, prickly, difficult sort of calling to take up—and so there aren’t many (if any) stories about it that should make you entirely comfortable. Done properly, cultural studies should agitate, provoke, disturb, and unsettle you. This is even more true if you actually claim to be doing cultural studies rather than just observing it from the sidelines. It is not just that good cultural studies work potentially shakes you out of your comfort zone (though this is also true): it’s that the very practice of doing cultural studies should make you nervous, even as you engage in it. If you have somehow managed to be completely at ease with the work you’re doing in cultural studies, then the odds are good that whatever it is that you’re doing isn’t cultural studies at all.

As that last bit suggests, the story that I want to tell is unashamedly polemical. There are plenty of polemics against cultural studies in the world already, but not many for it: either in the sense of being in favor of it, or in the sense of speaking to cultural studies in a stern, tough-love voice. As a polemic, much of what follows is painted with broad strokes and in deliberately provocative tones—and so it’s intended to make you uncomfortable. Ideally, though, it is a productive discomfort—much like the irritation that leads oysters to create pearls—but you should know in advance that the story I will tell does not come with a happy ending. If, somewhere down the line, such an ending actually becomes a reality, it will only happen because you and I and a cast of thousands work awfully hard to make it so. And very little (if any) of that work will be comfortable in and of itself.

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