Sunday, January 15, 2006

The first rule of cultural studies

I realize it's been awhile since I last posted. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm in the process of writing my book about changes in the US and global book industries. I "reward" myself for a good writing week with blogging. I know, I know--it sounds incredibly masochistic to reward intensive writing with more writing, but I guess that's what having a passion for writing means. Anyway, I'm here because I've made progress.

The January 6, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained a cartoon on p. B6 of the review section. I wish I could reproduce it here, but because of copyright considerations I'm sure I'd get my butt whupped (though it arguably could fall under the "criticism" proviso of the US fair use exception, but that's another story...). Anyway, it depicts two Sex & the City-ish women in what appears to be an upscale bistro, sipping martinis. Both look rather wealthy and aloof. The caption? "What happens in Cultural Studies stays in Cultural Studies."

I'm not sure what to do with this. On the one hand, I couldn't help but laugh, mainly because I cannot understand why people make such a big deal about why cultural studies (I don't use capital letters) has a specialized language. Doesn't anthropology? Mathematics? Physics? Literary studies? So why single out cultural studies--yet again--to suggest it's some kind of insular and exclusive (fight?) club? Given its pervasiveness in the humanities, why are these kinds of criticisms still circulating?

Maybe I'm just being too sensitive. At least the cartoon foregrounds two women, and as we all know women too often are under-represented at all levels of academe, in cultural studies or otherwise. On the other hand, there's a clear sense in which the cartoon seems to be suggesting that cultural studies is, at the end of the day, a martini-sipping, petit bourgeois discipline.

What do you think about this?


jonathan said...

But in the U.S., isn't cultural studies a bourgeois discipline? I mean, we are professors, after all. Do we need to apologize for that or hide it? Granted, some universities now pay petit-bourgeois wages, but the habitus is all middle class.

As for the cartoon, I don't know the context, but I don't necessarily read it from what you've written as being about language. It could just as easily be about cultural studies' scholars own sense of their field (or others' sense of cultural studies) as somehow scandalous. Like Vegas.

Reminds me of Michael Denning's glib comment about MLA -- that people only go there to get a job or get laid. What happens at MLA stays at MLA?


Ted Striphas said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for writing, and your points are well taken. I guess what troubles me, beyond any critique of cultural studies, is the larger sense in which US intellectuals are elite--economically or otherwise. I realize that some (probably the vast minority) are very well off economically, but as you say, the habitus indeed is stolidly middle class. My friends and family often are shocked when I tell them that I actually work for a living--especially during summers, when ostensibly I'm "off."

Your point about language also is right on the mark. I suppose I couched my post that way because I'm still reacting to the 1996 Sokal "affair," when cultural studies (or something called that) was attacked in part for its linguistic proclivities. All the same, I wonder what it is about cultural studies that leads people (outsiders?) to perceive the field's sense of itself as somehow scandalous? Though I believe very strongly in the project of cultural studies, most work that goes on under its moniker is, honestly, rather boring.