Cultural Studies Now (2007): Presentation

[A small bit of context for some of the remarks below. During the opening night plenary session, Ien Ang's presentation included what I assumed was a throwaway line about "the old Birmingham boys" . . . which prompted Dick Hebdige to insert more than one side comment during his presentation about how "old" he was.]

Same as it ever was?:
The future of cultural studies (one more time)

For thirty years or so (maybe more), cultural studies dreamed about growing up, at least insofar as it visibly harbored ambitions of legitimation, of becoming a well-respected member of the broader academic community. What cultural studies seemingly never imagined, however, is that it would grow old. The fleet of fears and anxieties that routinely accompanied cultural studies’ various moments of institutionalization rarely included the notion that an ugly side effect of “growing up” would be an unseemly “generation gap” between the enterprise’s junior and senior practitioners.

What I want to offer today is a polemical take on the generational faultline that has developed within cultural studies. In contrast to how things stood as little as a decade ago, “cultural studies now” has grown increasingly (and disturbingly) comfortable with the idea that it has finally “matured” into something resembling a proper discipline. In spite of the lessons it should have learned from its own history, “cultural studies now” has managed to acquire an unusually settled sense of its own history and, even worse, of its own future. For newcomers to the enterprise, “cultural studies now” is increasingly approached as just another career choice — an area of specialty, a scholarly niche, a useful way to position oneself for the academic job market — and, arguably, that highly professionalized vision of cultural studies is not something invented out of whole cloth by incoming MA students as much as it is a result of the ways that various advisers, mentors, and senior practitioners frame the enterprise for novices. “Cultural studies now” has become a sphere of activity where the benchmarks by which success is measured, especially for those newcomers, are often more about reproduction than about invention, more about minding your elders and finding your place in the system than about challenging authority, being rebellious, or building something new. To borrow a harsh (but unfortunately accurate) sentiment recently expressed by Larry Grossberg, “cultural studies now” has become “fucking boring” — glossing over the self-defeating irony that the published version of Grossberg’s remarks used asterisks to sanitize the “dirty” word — and that a large measure of its boringness is connected to the ways that cultural studies has grown old. If “cultural studies in the future” is going to be more exciting than “cultural studies now,” somewhere along the way, it will need to do more than just bridge the “generation gap” that’s developed in its ranks: it will need to eliminate that gap completely.

I will admit that I’m not entirely sure how to achieve a “gap-less” cultural studies or even what that might actually look like in full, though I’ll make an effort, towards the end of my remarks, to sketch out some of what I think its basic parameters might be. If this were a problem with an easy and simple solution, someone would have already put such a fix into play, and there wouldn’t be a problem to talk about at all. What I want to focus on for most of my time today, then, is the current nature of that gap, and why I think those of us who care about cultural studies as an enterprise should worry about it.

My first example of cultural studies’ generation gap is a personal one. And perhaps it’s ultimately nothing more than my own manifestation of something akin to an intellectual midlife crisis. Though when I compare notes with other cultural studies scholars at roughly the same point in their careers, they tend to have comparable stories to tell. My story finds me interpellated in a peculiarly contradictory set of ways of late. On the one hand, I’m hailed as the Cranky Old Codger who keeps going on about “the good old days” and how much better they (allegedly) were. On the other hand, I’m hailed as the Brash Young Kid who’s too big for his britches, and who thinks he can teach his grandmother to suck eggs. Neither of these roles seems especially well suited for a 42-year-old, tenured, “mid-career” faculty member, and yet that role isn’t one that seems to come into play nearly as often as one might expect.

To put a bit more flesh on those bones, when I teach my cultural studies seminar these days, my graduate students quite frequently understand me as some sort of Wizzened Old Man who’s been a Witness to History. No one’s explicitly asked, “So what did you do during the Culture Wars, Grandpa?” but that’s often the flavor of my students’ questions about, say, what really happened in Urbana in 1990 that didn’t make it into The Doorstop. More crucially, I get the distinct sense that my students take cultural studies for granted in ways that would have been inconceivable to me and my cohort when I was in grad school. Though that’s certainly not this generation’s fault. My students, after all, can see plenty of visible evidence (much more than was available to me when I was in their shoes) that cultural studies is a well-established and widely practiced form of intellectual work: it’s got degree-granting programs and journals and associations and conferences all its very own. And so it’s probably not surprising that, in their eyes, a major part of my role in their graduate education is to be a sort of “tribal elder” who can share firsthand knowledge of what things were like back in the day and who will offer sage advice on how they, too, can clear the various professional hurdles that stand between them and a fairy tale, “happily ever after” life as a tenured professor.

On the flip side of this coin, however, there are moments when I’m clearly interpellated as one of The Kids who will — hopefully, eventually, maybe, someday, if I can manage to stay in the good graces of those who are older and wiser and more experienced than I — grow up enough to finally be trusted with the keys to the cultural studies family car. Twenty years after I first embraced cultural studies, a dozen years after finishing my Ph.D., half a dozen years after clearing the bar for tenure, I can still submit book proposals to publishers and receive reviewer reports that describe me as “a bright young cultural studies scholar.” At one level, of course, I shouldn’t complain about this too much. The praise is certainly nice, and I don’t exactly feel “old.” At the same time, however, it’s a bit awkward and condescending to be hailed as a relative newcomer to an endeavor I’ve actively been part of for two decades. If Dick Hebdige can complain that he’s not really “old” (and, to be fair, I’d agree that he’s no such thing), then I think I have even more right to complain that I’m not really “young”: at least not when “young” is used in ways that come across as synonymous with “green” or “unproven.”

The most significant gap here, though, is neither the one between my generation of cultural studies practitioners and our students, nor is it the one between my generation and our former professors: it’s the one between those two extremes. When people like me are being routinely hailed by both ends of this spectrum as someone who belongs at the opposite end of the line, it suggests that those two camps far enough removed from each other’s frames of reference that “gap” may be an inadequate word to describe the distance. Perhaps “chasm” would do the job better.

Along similar lines, I want to point to a new cultural studies book that recently appeared in my inbox — and that you may have noticed advertised prominently in your conference materials: a collection edited by Gary Hall and Clare Birchall, with a picture of a cherubic infant on the cover a book and the forward-thinking title, New Cultural Studies. I haven’t read it yet, so I won’t presume to comment on the intellectual worth of the project. I’ve simply perused the table of contents and the lineup of contributors — and I’m struck by how senior most of these “new” scholars are. I’ve actually been friends with two of them since we were all in graduate school together umpteen years ago. The lineup as a whole consists almost entirely of “mid-career” academics, many with 2-3 books to their names and tenure well in hand (at least for those who work in lands where such a beast still exists). And this is decidedly odd for a collection explicitly dedicated to embodying what’s “new” in cultural studies. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not want to point fingers at the book’s editors for this gap, as it seems to me that the real problem here lies with the broader nature of “cultural studies now”: i.e., the context in which the collection was conceived and produced, a context where the voices who register as “new” and “young” turn out to have been contributing to the conversation for a decade or more already.

Similarly symptomatic, I think, is the name of this conference: “Cultural Studies Now.” The 1990 gathering in Urbana that produced The Doorstop had a similar, but significantly longer, title: “Cultural Studies: Now and in the Future.” One of the many ironies of that event is that almost no one who showed up actually tried to speak at any length about the future of cultural studies. But the basic question — “where do we go from here?” — nonetheless hung in the air throughout the event, especially insofar as much of the resistance to the conference while it was underway revolved around fears that the book to be made of the conference proceedings would “fix” cultural studies’ future in some sort of undesirable and irreversible fashion. I know full well that this conference was not explicitly conceived of as a sequel to the Urbana event — it was organized by different people, under different circumstances, several thousand miles away — and “the future” is clearly on the agenda here in more ways than one, so I’m not trying to read any willful motive into a coincidence of titles. Nonetheless, when I first saw the call for papers, that coincidence jumped out at me . . . and it seemed wryly appropriate to the changed state of the enterprise that the major difference between 1990 and today is that “the future” had disappeared, leaving only an eternal present.

And what about the future? It wasn’t that long ago that the generic “what is cultural studies?” publication was a 20-30 page journal article that was at least as prescriptive in its focus (this is what cultural studies should be) as it was descriptive (this is what cultural studies is). John Storey’s marvelous anthology What Is Cultural Studies? gathers together 22 such essays, all written between 1980 and 1993, and except for the couple that are focused primarily on the history of the Birmingham Centre (what cultural studies was), all of them define cultural studies in ways that suggest a future very much in flux. These essays — and many others like them from the same period — are vectors: definitions in motion that examine what was then the present state of the enterprise with a deliberate goal of trying to shape its future in productive ways.

By way of contrast, the standard “what is cultural studies?” publication today is a 200-300 page introductory textbook aimed at undergraduates. As bizarrely divergent and contradictory as individual titles in this rapidly expanding genre often are, what they all tend to have in common is a sense of cultural studies as a shiny new discipline with a well-settled sense of its own history. In these volumes, if the future of the endeavor comes into play, it’s almost never in ways that suggest that cultural studies could (or should) deviate significantly from where it is right now. The future of cultural studies, at least according to the textbooks, will depend on how well newcomers can build their careers around the blueprints provided by their forebears . . . and so that future will, presumably, look an awful lot like the present. These books are not vectors: they’re still lifes that describe cultural studies’ “greatest hits” (or some version thereof), capture them in amber, and then repackage them for mass consumption and further reproduction.

One of the things that jumps out if you read enough of the old “what is cultural studies?” essays up against each other is the clear sense that, long after cultural studies got past “the old Birmingham boy” moment — certainly into the 1980s, and arguably into the early 1990s — it remained an extraordinarily unfixed enterprise: something that people were still making up as they went along. More important for my purposes today, a significant proportion of the people who were engaged in this process were not senior scholars: they were graduate students and freshly degreed new faculty. If Dick Hebdige is right to complain that he’s not “old,” it’s because he was part of a generation of young scholars (extraordinarily young by today’s standards) who weren’t simply Witnesses to History (people who just happened to be in the neighborhood when Everything Changed): they actually were the leading edge of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, by way of contrast, young scholars who claim “cultural studies” as their intellectual home are much more likely to be supplicants at the holy altars of gainful employment and tenure than they are to be major (or even minor) players in reshaping cultural studies for the future. Put a slightly different way, the “chronological center” of cultural studies has shifted upward dramatically over the past twenty years or so. Admittedly, there’s probably not a simple or perfect way to formally measure the degree of that shift, but I think that one significant marker can be found in who is (and isn’t) getting published in major cultural studies journals.

If you examine the past decade or so of three such journals — Cultural Studies, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and the International Journal of Cultural Studies — looking strictly for articles (no book reviews) where at least one of the authors is formally described as a student, you’ll find that the drop-off in graduate student authors since 1995 is not only noticeable, but it appears to be accelerating. From 1995-1997, Cultural Studies averaged a fraction more than one grad-student-authored article per issue. Both EJCS and IJCS began publication in 1998 and, in spite of this important increase in the number of journals explicitly devoted to cultural studies, the grad-author/issue average (taken across all three titles) dropped to slightly under one, and pretty much stayed there until 2002. At that point, the curve took a sharp downward turn, to roughly half a grad-author/issue, and held steady at that point through the end of 2006. The current year, however, is shaping up to push the curve down even further, with only one grad-authored article across six issues of the journals. These figures look even worse when you consider that this decline in grad-student authors took place at moments when all three journals expanded the number of issues they offered each year, and when the ever-increasing pressure on graduate students (at least in North America) to publish in top-flight journals so that they can land “good jobs” has presumably increased the number of grad students trying to publish their work in these venues.

So. What now? In “The Future of Cultural Studies,” Raymond Williams focuses most of his time discussing cultural studies’ past: specifically, the oft-forgotten pre-Birmingham history of cultural studies in adult education programs of the 1940s and 1950s. He engages in this seemingly paradoxical move to note the importance of a particular set of issues that were fundamental to cultural studies’ initial formation, to suggest that those issues had been pushed to the side while cultural studies had made important advances on other fronts, and that the time was ripe for those issues to be brought back to the forefront of the project. Williams is quite clear that his agenda for the future isn’t a call for cultural studies to “roll back the clock,” to abandon the space it had (even then) gained for itself in universities, or to return to its “roots” in adult education. He recognizes that the broader cultural and institutional circumstances in which cultural studies operated had changed dramatically, and that bringing these old (if still unresolved) questions back to the table in any effective manner would require a new approach to cultural studies that could meaningfully engage those old questions in the new context.

Along similar lines, I want to recognize that cultural studies’ current generation gap can’t be eliminated by returning the enterprise to some idealized previous state of grace. At a strictly literal level, after all, the chronological gap between cultural studies’ most senior and most junior practitioners will continue to grow, simply because the “old guard” continues to age, and the younger end of that spectrum continues to be anchored by fresh waves of new graduate students. The problem at hand, however, isn’t simply that cultural studies includes 20-somethings and 60- or 70-somethings: it’s that, taken as a whole, cultural studies itself is no longer terribly youthful in spirit or energy. At its best, cultural studies has never been just another major, just another job, just another day at the office.

At the risk of romanticizing “the good old days,” I think it’s worth remembering that much of the Birmingham-era scholarship that fueled the initial expansion of cultural studies was undertaken without any guarantees that such work would inevitably lead to a cushy faculty appointment or the holy grail of tenure. In fact, there was often good reason for those early practitioners to believe that they were undermining their chances for viable careers, because the “safe” paths to long-term employment all lay elsewhere — and yet cultural studies mattered enough to them to pursue it anyway.

And so one possible, partial path to solving the problem of cultural studies growing old would be to de-professionalize it. This is not to say that it needs to be removed from the university completely — by any means — but that it needs to be reframed, rearticulated, reimagined as something more than just another career choice. It might, instead, be understood as a passion, a calling, even a whole way of life. In an admittedly very different context (the closing of his novel, The White Boy Shuffle) Paul Beatty succinctly captures the flavor of my concerns here with a poem:

Like the good Reverend King
I too “have a dream,”
but when I wake up
I forget it and
remember I’m running late for work.

Insofar as cultural studies has “grown up” to become increasingly driven by the pressures of professionalization and careerism, we, too, have forgotten the dreams and passions and ambitions of our collective youth. We, too, are running late for work. And I think it’s long past time for us to wake up and try to recapture those dreams.

One Response to “Cultural Studies Now (2007): Presentation”

  1. [...] Sometime over the past week, I did actually manage to HTMLify my presentation from the conference, but let me save a more detailed report on the event as a whole for a later post. For now, I’m still processing the bridge collapse. So far, at least, no one from my circle of friends and colleagues and acquaintances was on/under the bridge at the crucial moment yesterday . . . but given the where and when of the situation, it’s still perfectly plausible that someone I know wasn’t so lucky, and I simply don’t know it yet. The bridge is — was — right next to campus, and I-35W is the major north-south highway running through Minneapolis. I didn’t use that bridge every day, but it also wouldn’t have been unusual for me to have done so: I crossed it at least twice last week, walked by it on two other occasions, and was more or less right around the corner a mere hour before it fell. [...]

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