(Old) New Words

Returning to my semi-regular march through the archives of old conference papers, here’s an untitled presentation from the 2005 National Communication Association conference in Boston, where I was on a panel dedicated to honoring the 2004 recipient of the Woolbert Award (which, if I recall correctly, is given to the author of an essay published in an NCA journal that has stood the proverbial test of time). As it happens, today also happens to be the birthday of that award winner. And while that wasn’t part of the plan for this week’s post (plan?!? y’all think any of this happens because I plan it? ha!), it’s an extra good reason to share this bit of the archive today.

This is getting to be something of a habit.

In 1995, that other big communication association — the one that somehow manages to be both smaller and more global than NCA, all at once — honored Larry Grossberg with the B. Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award. At that year’s ICA gathering in Albuquerque, this honor was commemorated with a panel called “Dancing in Spite of Ourselves: Reading Larry Grossberg” (some of you will recognize that title as one that Larry later “liberated” for a collection of his own essays). As part of that panel, I presented a paper called “Dancing in the Dark: Misreading Larry Grossberg” — and, as you might guess from my deliberately cheeky and smart-assed title, I offered a willful misinterpretation of Larry’s own words to make an argument for how cultural studies might be practiced: an argument that I felt pretty sure Larry would disagree with.

Ten years later, I find myself on another panel honoring Larry: this time, for his 1993 essay, “Cultural Studies and/in New Worlds.” And since I’m still deliberately cheeky and smart-assed — perhaps even more so than I was then, if that’s possible — I feel compelled to once again offer up a willful misreading. Only this time, I want to willfully misread, not just Larry, but the broader agenda for this panel.

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that I mean no disrespect either to Larry or to his “New Worlds” essay, as they’re both more than deserving of the honors bestowed upon them here. Still, I have to confess that I don’t actually have much to say about “New Worlds,” in and of itself, that would be novel or insightful enough to be worth the podium time. Partially, this is because “New Worlds,” worthy though it is, actually isn’t my favorite of Larry’s essays from the early 1990s. I actually much prefer “Cultural Studies: What’s in a Name (One More Time),” which remains an important touchstone for me in both my research and my teaching . . . but which had the unspeakably bad taste not to be published in an SCA/NCA journal — and so it presumably wasn’t visible enough on the association’s radar to be considered for the Woolbert Award in the first place.

[Polemical sidebar]

It’s probably worth noting that, in 1993, there was only one SCA journal where cultural studies scholars could safely assume that their work would receive a fair hearing. So it’s actually not all that surprising that much of the best work written by Larry (and countless other communication-based cultural studies scholars) often wound up being published in non-SCA/NCA journals. But I’m not sure that things have actually changed all that dramatically in the dozen years since then. Arguably, there’s still only one NCA journal where cultural studies scholars can safely assume that their work will receive a fair hearing — and it’s not CSMC, which probably wouldn’t publish an article like “New Worlds” today.

[End of polemical sidebar]

The major reason why I want to willfully misread the agenda of this panel, though, is that I’m much more interested in talking about the “new world” of Larry’s most recent work — in particular, his book Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics, and America’s Future — than I am in dwelling for too long on the “old world” embodied in a twelve-year-old essay. And so, if I were going to belatedly give my talk a deliberately cheeky and smart-assed title, I would liberate the title of Larry’s that brings us here today . . . only I’d shorten it by a single letter: “Cultural Studies and/in New Words.”

In pointing to Caught in the Crossfire as an example of Larry’s “new words,” I mean to do much more than simply acknowledge the book’s recent vintage. Larry’s new book also finds him using a strikingly new voice and a new (or at least new for him) vocabulary. For folks who haven’t read the new book, perhaps the easiest way for me to explain this shift in voice and vocabulary is to compare “the new Larry” to “the old Larry” — with the necessary caveat that one could survey the range of Larry’s scholarship from the past thirty years or so and construct several very different “old Larrys.” So the description I’ll offer up in a moment is admittedly something of a caricature. Even given the variations amongst all the “old Larrys,” none of them look very much like “the new Larry” at all.

The old Larry would have approached (and, in fact, did approach) a book about the crisis of politics in America armed to the teeth with an array of abstract conceptual models and dense theoretical language, much of it shaped by Larry’s reading of Deleuzean philosophy: things like machinic assemblages, deterritorializing machines, and affective alliances. And a patient, diligent, persistent reader of the old Larry would have been rewarded with a complex and nuanced understanding of the rise of the New Right, the popular appeal of Reaganism, and the failures of the Left to turn back the rising tide of conservatism . . . but that reader would have to have been very patient, very diligent, and very persistent to get there. Put another way, the old Larry did not always produce the most accessible prose in the world, and his abstract conceptual models were not always accompanied by “real world” examples that might help a reader understand what those models had to do with “real world” political struggles.

After a fashion, this characteristic of the old Larry’s prose style was the basis for my deliberately cheeky and smart-assed paper in Albuquerque. Back then, I appropriated pieces of Larry’s “What’s in a Name” essay to argue — against the grain of Larry’s own thinking at the time — that those of us who do cultural studies need to be better at finding (and using) voices that could speak to audiences outside the traditional circuit of academic life. And I could make much the same argument today by appropriating pieces of “New Worlds.”

“It seems to me,” Larry says in that essay, “that, in part, we have become so fascinated with theory that we have forgotten a fundamental lesson: . . . . [that] we must begin where people already are if we want to move them to somewhere else.” In context, of course, the old Larry didn’t intend these words to be a call for cultural studies to become more accessible to “ordinary” people. A paragraph later, after all, he’s back to discussing the “production of subjectivity” as “a phenomenological field” and “machinic productions” and the like. Even when “real world” phenomena enter the picture — in the case of “New Worlds,” these examples mostly involve the violence in the streets of Los Angeles in 1992 — they do so as fleeting moments of concrete description, rather than as focal points for extended analysis or as thumbnail sketches for how other critics might actually use Larry’s abstract conceptual models to engage in their own cultural and political analyses.

That, however, was then. This is now. And the new Larry, as I’ve already suggested, doesn’t sound much like the old Larry at all. To be sure, one could make a case that the shifting visions of American modernity that the new Larry discusses for the last hundred pages or so of Crossfire are an extension (or perhaps a revision) of the sort of abstract arguments found in “New Worlds” about replacing temporal logics of modernity with spatial logics of modernity. And so I should make it clear that I don’t think that the new Larry has (or will, or should) completely abandoned the realm of theory.

But, in ways that I’m not sure the old Larry (any of the old Larrys) ever did very much in his own writing, the new Larry has clearly taken to heart the old cultural studies mantra about “the detour through theory.” Whereas “New Worlds” is largely a theoretical essay that takes occasional detours through “real world” examples, Crossfire is largely a book devoted to “real world” problems — in particular, what Larry calls “the war on kids” — that takes occasional detours through theory in order to help make sense of those “real world” problems.

Put a slightly different way, the old Larry would probably have begun a project like Crossfire from the premise that there is currently an acute crisis in the formation of American modernity, and he would have offered nuanced abstract descriptions of the multiple logics that organize the shifting terrain of American modernity, and — maybe — he’d have sprinkled in the occasional example of how much it sucks to be a kid these days as a way of gesturing towards an empirical truth lying somewhere behind his otherwise largely philosophically minded discussion.

The new Larry, by way of contrast, begins with more than a hundred pages of detailed facts, figures, evidence, and statistics to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an ongoing war on kids being waged in the US today. The new Larry presents an exhaustively researched, meticulously documented, utterly persuasive case that kids are routinely, systematically, and disturbingly being fucked over. The new Larry, it seems — and given the old Larry, this is pretty surprising — actually turns out to be something of an empiricist.

The obvious question raised by all the empirical evidence that Larry presents in the first section of Crossfire is why kids would be the target of such a pervasive array of punitive policies and public scorn. And it’s here where Larry turns to his analysis of shifts in American modernity, with the argument being that the war on kids is enabled (and even necessitated) by these shifts, and the ways that these shifts have produced a profound and systematic disinvestment in the future (and thus, by extension, in the general welfare of children). The more abstract and philosophical sections of Crossfire, then, come pre-grounded in a range of carefully articulated empirical questions.

Mind you, describing any section of Crossfire as “abstract and philosophical” seems wrong if one’s point of comparison is the old Larry. If you’re looking for the sort of dense discussions of Deleuzean “lines of flight” or “bodies without organs” (or some such) that were the old Larry’s forte, Crossfire is not the book for you . . . or maybe it is. Because one of the things that I think that the new Larry does extraordinarily well is to present most (if not all) of the underlying concepts behind his favorite theoretical abstractions in language — new words, if you will — that should, in fact, be readily accessible to non-academic audiences, and help to make more evident the political relevance of those theoretical abstractions.

Over the years, in a variety of contexts, Larry has frequently cited Gramsci’s argument that the primary task of intellectual is twofold — to know more than the other side, and to communicate that knowledge effectively to a broader public — and he’s argued that this is an especially important ideal for those of us who travel under the banner of cultural studies. Ten years ago in Albuquerque, I finished my comments by suggesting that those of us who do cultural studies needed to find a way to live up to both ends of that Gramscian imperative, rather than just the first end (which was the old Larry’s preferred approach). And that if we couldn’t do so, we’d simply wind up dancing in the dark by ourselves.

Today, however, I want to point to Caught in the Crossfire and suggest that, more than anything the old Larry ever wrote (and, again, that’s not to deny the lasting value of the old Larry’s work), the new Larry fulfills both ends of that imperative impeccably. And so the conclusion I want to offer today, given the new Larry (he was so much older then, he’s younger than that now) is simply this: Let’s dance . . . and let’s do so in the streets.

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