Achieving Critical Mass

Another dip into the archive of old conference papers. This time, reaching back to the National Communication Association conference in Seattle in November 2000. There are some early versions of arguments here that eventually found there way into Why Cultural Studies? There’s a brief reference to a book project with Greg Wise and JV Fuqua that (sadly, but amiably) never got fully off the ground. There are multiple places where I describe cultural studies as a “field,” whereas now I would avoid that label (since it carries too many obligatorily academic connotations) and use “project” instead. And there are some brief jokes at the expense of what most of us in the US thought was then shaping up to be the messiest election aftermath we would see in our lifetimes. Ah, the innocence of youth…

Achieving Critical Mass (or, How to Become a Cultural Studies Expert in Just 3,176 Easy Steps)

Three thousand, one hundred seventy-six. How did I arrive at that particular number? The answer is very simple. I pulled out my dog-eared copy of The Top-Secret “How-To” Manual and Codebook of the International Cabal of Cultural Studies Experts, turned to appendix C (which lists all the steps in their proper order), and I counted them.

Coming from Florida, of course, I’ve spent the past several days recounting them, and the final results won’t actually be available for another week or so, but I feel confident that the 3,176 figure is close enough to the real thing for my purposes today.

Unfortunately, the time I have to present here is nowhere near enough to share with you all 3,176 steps. You’ll simply have to trust me that there are that many and that they’re all necessary. Instead, what I want to do today is to make three different passes at the question of what it takes to transform people from cultural studies novices to cultural studies “experts” (or some reasonable approximation thereof). The short answer — for those who insist on short answers — is that learning cultural studies is not something that one can do quickly or easily. [Of course, as I’ll argue in a moment, those who insist on short answers are actually part of the problem.] Whether one is teaching or learning cultural studies, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between (on the one hand) keeping cultural studies from becoming a project accessible only to people already fluent in high theory and dense academic jargon — the fate the “short answer” crowd most wants to avoid — and (on the other hand) recognizing the complexities, depths, and nuances of the field — and how difficult those are to master.

Pass #1

Late last year, a man who went by the alias “Phactual” wandered onto CULTSTUD-L, the cultural studies listserv that I manage, and almost immediately found himself at the center of a brief but intense flame war. Taken at face value, Phactual wanted nothing more than a simple explanation of what cultural studies is — but his persistent insistence that he be given a simple explanation helped to transform his seemingly straightforward question into one of the list’s more memorable moments of turmoil and invective. Claiming that:

“History” is the study of “significant persons and past events,” “Psychology” is the study of “the functioning of the mind,” “Sociology” is the study of “the functioning of groups,” and “Communication” is the study of “symbolic behavior,”

Phactual demanded that the list provide him with an equally pithy definition of cultural studies — and then went on to claim that the list’s reluctance/inability to meet this demand (and to do so immediately) demonstrated the inherently fraudulent nature of cultural studies as an intellectual project. Shrugging off pointers to a wide range of further reading that would actually have answered his questions with a fair amount of precision, Phactual claimed that listmembers were trying to trick him with smoke and mirrors, abstract jargon and excess verbiage. In his eyes, a field of study should evidently never be so fraught with ambiguities, complexities, or internal tensions as to resist being summed up in a single declarative sentence, and I suspect that what he really wanted to hear was something like “cultural studies is the study of culture” — even if this is no more accurate or helpful than describing quantum physics as the study of really, really tiny things.

The problem here, I think, isn’t that it’s impossible to craft a semi-reasonable one-sentence answer to the question “what is cultural studies?” I could, for instance, say that “cultural studies is a leftist, interdisciplinary approach to intellectual and political work that focuses on the intertwined questions of culture, power, and social justice” without feeling that I’d done extraordinary violence to the complexities of the field. This sort of definition, however, really only satisfies people who don’t want or need to know much more about cultural studies than that. It’s the sort of definition I might use with non-academic friends and family who merely want a general sense of what it is that I’m doing with my life, but it’s a lousy definition to give to someone who actually hopes to do cultural studies — or at least to learn enough about it so that they can know it when they see it and discuss it with some semblance of knowledge.

It’s the sort of desire for quick and simple answers that typified the Phactual flame war — an impulse that, in a slightly different context, novelist Jeannette Winterson has described as “a fast-food format applied to a slow-cook problem” — that seems to plague the way an awful lot of folks (not just Phactual) approach cultural studies today. It’s too easy to find people and institutions — including many who really should know better — defining cultural studies in grossly oversimplified ways: e.g., by equating it with a specific object of study (such as popular culture), or theoretical school of thought (such as marxism), or research methodology (such as ethnography), etc. And so, if I were really going to be foolish enough to try and outline a set of step-by-step instructions for becoming a cultural studies expert, step #1 might very well be to point to all those soundbite-sized definitions with the firm admonition never to forget that cultural studies is always, always, always more complicated than that.

Pass #2

Over the past year or so, a small flood of beginners’ guides to cultural studies has poured forth from a range of book publishers. Two different books called Introducing Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Teach Yourself Cultural Studies. To name just a few. And while it’s clear that these books differ from one another in important ways — one of the two Introducing Cultural Studies volumes, for instance, is a 400+ page textbook; the other is a comic book less than half that size — they all share the generally laudable goal of trying to make cultural studies intelligible and accessible to one broader public or another.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit up front that I’m part of a small team (with Greg Wise and Joy Fuqua) that’s been working on our own book-length introduction to cultural studies for a few years now, so I come to the genre with a not entirely unselfish eye. At the same time, the process of trying to create such a volume has helped me to understand more fully some of the potential pitfalls of the genre.

One of the biggest of these is the simple fact that cultural studies has become too big, too sprawling, too diverse, too multi-faceted for any single book to do justice to it. And certainly all the introductory cultural studies texts I’ve seen include the appropriate disclaimers and qualifications along these lines.

That being said, however, it’s still possible to read deeply into the genre and not be able to tell that all these books are about the same field. Or even about different corners of the same field. Reading Carla Freccero’s Popular Culture: An Introduction, for instance, it would be easy to believe that cultural studies is almost exclusively concerned with the study of popular culture, while Elaine Baldwin and company’s Introducing Cultural Studies makes it seem as if popular culture and the mass media hardly matter to the field at all.

Moreover, from the perspective of someone who’s been reading, teaching, and doing cultural studies for more than a decade now, it’s sometimes hard to believe that these books are describing the same field I was trained in. Flipping through the indices and bibliographies of half a dozen recent examples of the genre, one could easily come to the erroneous conclusion that people like Paul Gilroy, Larry Grossberg, Meaghan Morris, and Constance Penley — all leading figures in the field — are marginal (or even non-existent) players, while people like John Berger, Richard Rorty, and Deborah Tannen (who, at best, might be seen as sympathetic fellow travelers) are mentioned with surprising frequency and in unusually rich detail.

What all this leads to, I would argue, is the odd problem — and one especially disturbing when it comes to the ways these texts might serve as guidebooks for newcomers to cultural studies — of introductory texts that are simultaneously too broad and too narrow in scope. Too broad in the way that all introductory texts are: i.e., of necessity, they present superficial surveys of a terrain they can’t possibly cover in full. But also too narrow insofar as the terrain they’re actually surveying is often much, much smaller than the terrain they’re claiming to cover.

The other major pitfall to the “Cultural Studies 101” genre — at least as it seems to exist to date — is that a disproportionate number of these books are designed as undergraduate-level texts. And, to be a bit polemical about it, I would argue that — with very few exceptions — there’s no such thing as an undergraduate course in cultural studies. Not in the US anyway. Put simply, cultural studies involves a commitment to theoretical, political, and intellectual work that most US undergraduate programs aren’t equipped to nurture in their students. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t individual undergraduates who can do cultural studies (there are) or that attempts to teach cultural studies to juniors and seniors can’t still be valuable educational experiences for them (they can), but that there’s more to doing cultural studies than simply providing a crash course in semiotics (or ideological analysis or identity politics), watching a few TV shows and movies, and then asking students to write some sort of analytic paper on those texts. Which, as far as I can tell, is what many such courses — and at least one of the books in question here — are aiming for. And while it’s not an unworthy target (by any means), there’s much more to doing cultural studies than that.

Pass #3

In my own attempts to teach cultural studies at the graduate level — i.e., a situation where I have much more room to maneuver than I would in trying to construct a quick definitional soundbite, or in trying to help write a beginners’ guide to cultural studies — I find myself faced with a different, but no less vexing pedagogical problem. And it’s a problem I don’t have a good answer to, so if folks have helpful suggestions to offer afterwards, I’d be delighted to hear them.

The quandary I face boils down to one of time. Not so much that there’s never enough time in the semester to cover all the material that absolutely, positively has to be squeezed into the syllabus (though that’s an issue too), but that the linear flow of time creates organizational problems for the course, especially from the perspective of students completely new to the field. One has to begin somewhere, and anywhere one begins seems to be comparable to teaching children to swim by throwing them into the pond.

Put a bit too simply, in the past, I’ve structured the course by starting the semester with various meta-discussions — essays that attempt to define the field, to outline its history, to explain its general strengths and weaknesses, etc. — and moving on from there to more specific examples of cultural studies in action. The idea is to try and provide some (hopefully) useful context and background with which to make sense of the actual cultural studies research we get to afterwards. The problem, however, is that it’s incredibly hard — especially for newcomers — to read those meta-discussions and have any clear sense of what actual cultural studies research might look like in practice.

The obvious solution here, however, simply swaps one set of problems for another, roughly equivalent set. It would be possible, for instance, to start the semester with an detailed example of good cultural studies research: a move that allows students to approach the field from the ground up and spares them the trauma of having to wrestle with theoretical abstractions and meta-debates about a field they still know nothing about. At the same time, however, it’s not as if there’s a single way to do cultural studies research, nor is the implicit model found in any one book likely to carry over neatly to some other project. So such an approach would probably require multiple examples up front — which raises the potentially more confusing question of explaining how this book on the US mass media and that book on 19th-century British literature and those essays on Australian cultural policy are all instances of cultural studies. What helps to make those connections easier to see, in the end, is all that meta-discussion that this approach postpones till later in the semester.

Concluding thoughts

I want to close by coming back to the not-so-serious question I asked at the start of my talk — why 3,176? — and to actually take it more seriously. In April 1987, as a prospective graduate student trying to figure out what schools I might apply to, I attended a popular music conference in Pittsburgh. It was there that I first met Larry Grossberg, and he asked me if I was interested in coming to Illinois and learning about cultural studies. Not knowing any better at the time than to equate “cultural studies” with “the study of culture,” I said yes. Happily, that turned out to be a good fit for me intellectually and philosophically, but not because I knew what I was getting into in advance. A little less than nine years later, I started teaching my first graduate seminar in cultural studies at USF. And so, if I wanted to be fanciful about it, I could argue that it took 3,176 days (give or take a week or so, but that’s the way we like to do things in Florida) for me to move from never having heard of cultural studies before to teaching it at the graduate level myself.

And I think that, if one really wants to be a cultural studies “expert,” it’s important to think about that transformation, not strictly in terms of what you’ve read or what you’ve taught or what you’re researched or what you’ve written (though those all matter), but in terms of time. While this is an argument I don’t have time to tackle fully here, I’d suggest that doing cultural studies well involves a fundamental shift in the way one walks and talks and moves in the world all the time — and not just those moments when one is completing the ordinary, expected tasks of academic labor — and that, as such, cultural studies might best be understood, not as a field or a discipline, but as a whole way of life. And so maybe any and every path to cultural studies expertise runs through the pond, and you just need to be tossed in and flounder about for a bit. But that’s not so bad. Really. C’mon in. The water’s fine.

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