Being (un)disciplined

In November 2004, I was part of a spotlight panel — “With Eyes Wide Open: Moving and Looking, Evaluating Critical Cultural Studies” — at the annual conference of the National Communication Association in Chicago. It was a crowded panel — 6 people giving short position papers, 6 more people responding to those papers — and, in typical NCA fashion, it was scheduled for a session that was much too short to accommodate all those voices adequately. 75 minutes, 12 speakers, and (theoretically) time for audience discussion. I was assigned to respond to a position paper from my friend Melissa Deem, which I had a hard time disagreeing with. But she ended with the claim that “Cultural Studies, in general, is a field in need of a good debate.” And, since I enjoy a good conference polemic as much as (if not more than) the next person, I ran with that provocation . . . and managed to slip in an oblique John Denver reference along the way. :D

I want to agree with much of what Melissa has said, especially with respect to the disappearance of cultural studies into the disciplines. Whatever success stories cultural studies has enjoyed over the past 10-15 years by carving out a space for itself on the margins — or even at the heart — of existing disciplines, it’s also worried too much and too often about purely disciplinary questions. How, for instance, do we justify what we do within the context of Communication (or Anthropology, or English, or what have you)? How do cultural studies graduate students position themselves on the job market in terms that the discipline cares about (especially when cultural studies remains a relatively rare phrase in most job listings)? Etc.

Taking up Melissa’s call for a good debate, however, I want to disagree — productively, I hope — with her proposed solution. ‘Cause I don’t see the CCS division — valuable though its work is — as the cavalry that will come to pull cultural studies out of its doldrums. To be sure, I accept her point that Communication is well situated to support cultural studies work, and that there’s room for optimism about the role that Communication can continue to play in cultural studies’ future.

But if Melissa’s right (and I think she is) that cultural studies has disappeared into the disciplines, then the best way to get it back out into the light is to insist on its interdisciplinarity, its antidisciplinarity, its multidisciplinarity . . . or even its nondisciplinarity, as I’d argue that cultural studies isn’t something that can only happen within the academy. If cultural studies is going to be reinvigorated, it’s not going to be because all those folks out there (in other fields!) who do it suddenly come home to a place (Communication) they’ve never been before, or because Communication cultural studies types head out to other disciplines, missionary style, to convert the heathen and spread the gospel of Communication. No, if cultural studies is going to be reinvigorated (at least within the academy), it will only be because folks (re)invest themselves in the hard work of reading and talking and listening across disciplinary lines.

Put another way, for my money, cultural studies is a huge part of what makes Communication an interesting and exciting field. Take the cultural studies out of Communication and many of us would have no reason to show up at NCA or ICA. Take the Communication out of cultural studies, though, and many of us could (and would) still find happy intellectual homes in American Studies, Women’s Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, English, etc. This is not to say that Communication doesn’t add something important to the shape and state of cultural studies — it most certainly does — but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the central pillar that props the whole thing up. Communication is an important disciplinary player when it comes to cultural studies, has been so for most (if not all) of its history in the US, and that’s a fact worth emphasizing to our colleagues across campus when they try to claim cultural studies as something all their own (and thus help “disappear” it again into their own disciplinary warrens). It’s not the only such player, but (if I can warp a famous line from Stuart Hall) it is one of the places where cultural studies might be constituted. That is why Communication matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.

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