A coordinated effort: Rob van Kranenburg responds to the During discussion

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Simon During is partly right when he claims:

as cultural studies rejects the old way of thinking which thought of as the ideal nation as possessing one history, one culture, one ethnicity, one sexuality and one language, it becomes the first academic discipline to be defined by consciously political orientations.

Partly, because Don Anderson equally rightly observes this to be true of academic English itself and:

What of the great tradition that stretches form Matthew Arnold through T S Eliot through E R and Q K and Raymond Williams, a tradition not merely of ‘Culture’ of the ‘function of criticism’ of ‘the value of “English”‘, but a political, and a consciously political, Tradition.’

I’m sure (taking the liberty of speaking for) Simon During would agree with this observation and it is a pity Don Anderson is able to tackle During’s argument this easily as it is clear from his article that it is not so much During’s remark about cultural studies being the first academic discipline to be defined by consciously political orientations that bugs him, but the nature of these political orientations. Apart from his gratuitous and vitriolic use of words like commissar, kiddielit university and New Statism — from the use of which we can of course detect that something important is happening for where there is vitriol there is strong sentiment, might we say love even? — this is most evident in his views on what constitutes the crisis in contemporary culture:

The crisis in contemporary culture and especially in the brave new post-Dawkins — where is that Osymandias today? — academy, resides in the curious phenomenon that many of those who would traditionally have defended the role of the intellect, if not of intellectuals, now deplore it and them as elitist and celebrate the Postmodern egalitarianisms of TV soaps, rock videos and talkback radio.

And however unwillingly, Don Anderson has a point here, though not in the sense that he thinks he has. He has a point exactly because one of the main problems of Cultural Studies at the moment is to confront a serious conservative backlash that centres around a reductive use of the concept ‘intellectual’ in the new elitism of new revisionism that most certainly not celebrates a postmodern egalitarianism but instead falls back into a stringent high-low dichotomy.

Cultural Populism and New Revisionism:
These terms have been coined by scholars who have grown uneasy with much of what is current in contemporary cultural studies and especially the consumptionist focus on the reader and the recipient of the products of culture resulting in what they perceive to be an uncritical embracing of popular culture. What is interesting is that these scholars are very much aware of the critical debate that once led to the institutionalisation of cultural studies as an antidote to the elitist, exclusively male and European centred perspective that characterised literary studies and as such was responsible for the dichotomy literature — popular literature in the first place.

Yet, now that no one, at least in Britain and the United States, is no longer affronted or surprised by finding Madonna or Raymond Chandler on the academic curriculum, the initial euphoria seems to have worn off and since you cannot claim to be revolutionary by teaching comic books in an academy that hires Saatchi and Saatchi in the struggle for students, these scholars, much against their deconstruction influenced judgment, return to raising basic questions concerned with ‘quality’ and ‘cultural critique’.

The thesis of the 1992 book Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America, “and of most social commentators since the 1832 Reform Bill”, as James B. Twitchell himself writes, is “that the centre of gravity — the ‘norm’ in Western culture and world culture is dropping” [22]. Well, we have heard lamentations like this from Matthew Arnold, Ortega Y Gasset and Adorno and Horkheimer, but what is new is the irony. The author knows his classics but still the ‘norm’ is dropping.

Likewise Jim McGuigan identifies in his 1992 book ‘Cultural Populism’ an uncritical populist drift in cultural studies. He defines cultural populism

as the intellectual assumption, that the symbolic experiences and practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and politically than Culture with a capital C. [4]

Luckily he himself perceives the problematic use of ‘ordinary people’ but quite inadequately sees the term as “an open category in opposition to intellectuals who serve as agents of ‘exceptional’ culture” [4]. And this is of course very pretty and very nice and quite breathtaking FOR WHO HAS DEFINED THE EXCEPTIONS IN THE FIRST PLACE ?

Who has made ‘exceptional’ culture, culture with a capital C?

Intellectuals surely, who in one bold move are made to function disinterestedly, made to ‘serve’ as agents, which of course they do not. They are the agents. They are the ones that reign supreme. They do not — I repeat, do not, serve in any way of serving imaginable. They are interested actors who have helped to define the exceptions.

This simply won’t do.
You cannot construct ‘ordinary’ people as a category in opposition to a category ‘intellectuals’ without a thorough investigation of what it means to be an intellectual.

And moreover, the rhetorically seductive use of ‘ordinary’ people as if we could actually find them and the differences which would make them stand apart from … well, from whom?, us? us intellectuals? writers as opposed to readers? me?, forces me to make the gratuitous remark that we are all ordinary people, nothing more, nothing less.

I propose to label this cultural trend — of which I take James Twitchell, Jim McGuigan and Don Anderson to be modern examples — the new elitism, and at its core lies a profound distrust of feeling, emotion and sentiment. A very crude and reductive concept of sentiment as ‘physical arousal’ is invoked as an explanatory factor in Twitchell’s account of what he perceives to be the vulgarization of culture:

… generating laughter, tears, shivers, is what junk usually strives for. Sentimentality is the essence of the vulgar …s uccessful junk is escapist, of course. We escape the confines of the self-conscious self and become emotional participants.” [54]

Notice how the concept of sentimentality is linked to escapism and how emotion is severed from ratio, a move which denies sentiment any form of genuine critical productivity. Likewise McGuigan’s main problem lies in his perception that cultural populism’s solidarity with ‘ordinary people’ has become increasingly sentimental:

What then do I mean by ‘populist sentiment’? Roughly, it is a sense of commitment to ‘the people’ and their struggles, reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the ‘popular'” (5)

This linking of sentiment and sentimentality and popular culture is not something new. In fact it can be argued that from the late 19th century onwards sentimentality as a concept was invoked as a descriptive characteristic of mass culture, thus gendering mass culture as feminine and inferior. According to Andreas Huyssen (1986: 62) this universalising ascription of femininity to mass culture always depended on the very real exclusion of women from high culture and its institutions, and since fortunately such exclusions are for the time being and I quote “a thing of the past, the old rhetoric has lost its persuasive power because the realities have changed”.

Well, the realities may have changed, but the old rhetoric seems not to have lost its persuasive power and like a genuine return of the repressed comes creeping back, rearing its ugly head in the very places we thought, at least temporarily, immune. And this worries me immensely, for I think that the successful integration of the ‘popular’ text in literary and cultural studies is vital not only to its emancipatory project but to the very essence that once legitimised literary and may legitimise cultural studies and made it a meaningful productive critical practice, namely the study of human values: ways of living, ways of thinking, ways of writing and ways of speaking, sharing this common denominator: that however much we are bound by our interest in what is, we should never loose sight of what ought to be.

And yet we cannot close our eyes to the ease with which some cultural studies projects lay themselves wide open to new revisionist attacks and the charges of providing a ‘kiddielit’ curriculum as in Don Anderson’s terminology. The ‘definition’ of cultural studies that the editors provide in the introduction of ‘Cultural studies ‘(Grossberg, Routledge, 1992), a definition that not unsurprisingly focuses on the relationship between cultural studies and popular culture, is so vague that it becomes meaningless indeed:

one common misconception about cultural studies is that it is primarily concerned with popular culture (…) Cultural Studies is not simply ‘about’ popular culture — though it is perhaps always, in part about the rules of inclusion and exclusion that guide intellectual evaluations. (CS, 11)

This seems a bit vague, for what is it — always? perhaps always? in part? perhaps always in part? The unease and vagueness of the critical perception of what it is that constitutes cultural studies is literally inscribed in the overwhelming sheer mosaic of potential and actual topics that are listed in the introduction to ‘Cultural Studies’ as major categories of current work in cultural studies: the history of cultural studies, gender and sexuality, nationhood and national identity, colonialism and postcolonialism, race and ethnicity, popular culture and its audiences, science and ecology, identity politics, pedagogy, the politics of aesthetics, cultural institutions, the politics of disciplinarity, discourse and textuality, and history and global culture in a postmodern age.

But that’s not all:

cultural studies can only be partially and uneasily identified by such domains of interest, since no list can constrain the topics cultural studies may address in the future. (CS, 11)

Reading this list makes me wonder if I might come up with something that does not constitute cultural studies. To be sure, I don’t necessarily object to heterogeneity and variety as such, I applaud eclecticism whether in methodology, frames of reference, or value judgements, but the view that “the rules of inclusion and exclusion that guide intellectual evaluations” should function as the common denominator that underlies — and is thus supposed to bring about a certain coherence in — the overwhelming mosaic that constitutes contemporary cultural studies is not only insufficient, but a selfserving academic exercise as well: scholars, trained and schooled in academic discourse, investigate and question their own discourse in the very words that characterise this discourse, within the very frame of reference that allows the question concerning the limitations and legitimacy of their intellectual evaluations to become ‘problematic’.

Yet what reality, if any, is served by this? More bluntly, who cares? Even more bluntly: Who gives a ‘beep’?

When every theory remains in essence but another mise-en-abyme in the transcendent idea of theory, what then are the words with which these theories are written but the shallow coffins of what was once meaning, but birdtrack marks (Johnny Cash’s metaphor of letters) on white paper?

The crossroads

In my opinion the fundamental question Cultural Studies has to face is to determine whether it wants to take a fundamental strategic or tactical stand, whether it wants to occupy the academic chair or dwell in the corridors of academic power. The danger — as Richard Johnson so neatly outlines — in becoming a separate academic program, lies in the tendency of such an operation to create founding fathers, paradigmatic texts, a specific methodology thereby falling prey to the trap of creating an exclusion-inclusion discourse that separates ‘real’ Cultural Studies from for example traditional anthropology, sociology and media studies.

Such an operation would perhaps rob it of its particular strengths: it’s eclectic analytical repertoire and its strong focus on interdisciplinarity. We can not, however close our eyes to the drawbacks of an interdisciplinarity and eclecticism gone wild: if there is no critical consensus to work towards something like a ‘Grand Unified Cultural Theory ‘, then Cultural Studies best bet lies in the concrete added value that it can bring to the various disciplines it finds itself working in.

This would mean that Cultural Studies does not build in its own home in academic Departments, but affiliates itself with concrete cultural research projects that were developed in a ‘traditional’ sociological or literary discourse. After all, if Cultural Studies cannot define itself in terms of content, since it claims no specific terrain of knowledge nor reality, and if it cannot define itself in terms of methodology, since it uses various ones indiscriminately, and since it neither can define itself in terms of a specific goal, since there are many conflicting opinions within Cultural Studies itself, how then can it claim a sphere of its own?

It can do so through the actual work that it generates on the various terrains that it is working in. Since it cannot claim an overall strategic goal as it has no regular place where we can locate it, from which it can confront other points of view and win and lose some battles, it can set up tactic goals in the various disciplines that is if effectively working in and working with. A tactic goal is not a victory one carries home, for there is no home to carry it to.

Concretely speaking now what would this mean?

It implies that we truly start out with the ‘problems’ or cultural artefacts we would want to engage with in a critical procedure before determining to which particular branch of intellectual activity these problems supposedly belong to, and before limiting ourselves to a specific methodology.

Two brief examples
(1) The purpose of the story ‘The Aboriginal response to Cook’s Endeauvour’ (http://simsim.rug.ac.be/schole/aboriginal0.html) is to make clear (to students) that one single trope — here: the politics of translating unknown procedures into your own — underlies various cultural encounters diverse in time, space and medium. This is the underlying pedagogical pay-off.

It is also something to which I want to draw students attention, in having them think about their own place in a multicultural society. In this way I can productively link a cultural clash, a radio program broadcast and avant-garde art: the disruption of Aboriginal Dreamtime by Cook’s Endeauvour, The War of the Worlds and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.

(2) Cultural artefacts are subjected to an intense and enthusiastic public debate by non-professional readers in magazines, studies, associations and fan clubs. It is only when certain cultural artefacts somehow find their way into the academic curriculum and become subjects of academic interest, that the need arises to legitimize the study of these cultural artefacts (and by implication the works themselves).

But this process also works the other way round. Sometimes cultural artefacts that are part of an integral set of canonical texts work their way into popular consciousness.

Cultural artefacts are sites of struggle where battles over value and meaning are fought. One of such sites is the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Throughout its critical history it has achieved a wide public acclaim yet many Shakespeare scholars do not rank it high either as a comedy or as a dramatic play. One of the most frequent arguments for this low ranking is the fact that the dramatic turn proper stems not intrinsically from a psychological or dramatic necessity:

Act 5, Scene 2

Friar Laurence: Who bare my letter, then, to Romeo?

Friar John: I could not send it,–here it is again,–
Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,
So fearful were they of infection.

Friar Laurence: Unhappy fortune! by my brotherhood,
The letter was not nice but full of charge
Of dear import, and the neglecting it
May do much danger.

Much danger indeed. A Letter late. Not ‘A Purloined Letter’ but a letter late.

Shakespeare’s’ Romeo and Juliet stands not alone in this interesting critical process. The ‘Spectator’ noted in a Wilkie Collins obituary :

“He was an extremely popular writer — deservedly popular, as we think– who was not very highly esteemed…That is an odd position, and we do not know that it has been satisfactorily explained”(CH: 5)

These odd positions are still not satisfactory explained. Do they need explaining? Should we bother? Shouldn’t we leave exactly these odd position to the fans and the glance of the consumer? Why should we gaze?

Because the glance might turn out to be exactly that. Forever is not a very long time in the world of the web. ‘The Romeo and Juliet Forever‘ Website in the Verona Web Ring, is nolonger updated. Perhaps we as critical pedagogists are the updaters of today. Our Romeo and Juliet story is a modern update.

And with reason. In his extremely rich book Highbrow/Lowbrow, The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence Levine describes the historical process of what we may call the disciplining of Shakespeare. Up till as late as 1850 Shakespeare and his work were part of the popular culture of America event to the extent that his words were the object of parody in folk culture. In order to be able to perform the act of parody, the object has to be extremely well integrated into a popular consciousness.

The disciplining of Shakespeare was achieved in 19th century America by a critical paradigm that was part of a larger disciplining process as Lawrence Levine so brilliantly observed. By reducing the Shakespearean play to words only, by claiming that one could only fully understand him after more then ten years of hard and diligent labour, and then only just, a literary-critical paradigm almost succeeded in sucking the life out his plots, the juice out of his words. This disciplining process still survives. In ‘Whose Shakespeare?’ Richard Stayton (http://www.gigaplex.com/theater/shakes.html) claims that Shakespeare

“…is, and is not, our contemporary. By calling the author of such awesome accomplishments as “Hamlet” and “King Lear” our contemporary, today’s producers can somehow reduce him to development level. The hip, with it, chic, cool thing to do with Shakespeare is to make his work ACCESSIBLE… not by speaking the lines clearly, or elucidating a plot simply, or addressing profound philosophical discourse in a conversational style. We make Shakespeare accessible by costuming him in today’s fashions, or making him a screenwriter obedient to a director’s fantasies.”

His advice to today’s players is : “Forget the faces. Work on the words.”

Why can’t we do both? ( http://simsim.rug.ac.be/schole/rjwarning.html)

The concept of genre has come to function as a critical framework that guides textual interpretation that operates within the dichotomy high/low and canon/popular. It narrows the range of questions we might put to a book and it guides our way of reading. If we want to discuss of each and every work the politics of its writing, the politics of its personal reception (a personal reading by a reader; you me and her) and the politics of its institutional reception (reviews, articles, studies) we must find a new critical framework that is not guided by concepts of genre. The concept of trope seems promising. We could consider a new trope: cataract.

Cataract (catharsis of the act): A trope is a diversion from the literal to the figurative. In literary criticism and theory we work our way backwards from the rhetorical devices of the text to the actual acts and occurrences in real life. We might start the other way around: we begin with the act and see how it has been textually narratized (the catharsis of the act) in various ways and different forms. The cataract of Romeo and Juliet is the kiss. We can thus come to an understanding of for example the romance without dichotomic strategies as we are able to reflect upon the kiss of Romeo and Juliet and the kiss of the heroine and hero of a Mills and Boon at the same time and within the very same frame of reference.

This way we would be doing cultural as well as literary studies. I can agree completely with John Frow when he claims that:

Cultural studies is a way of contextualizing texts, of any kind — of analysing the social relations of textuality; and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t include literary texts and literary regimes amongst its proper objects of knowledge.

And with Paul Salzman who expands on this:

The new literary studies, like the new cultural studies, engages with much more than the canon. Like Frow, I see both endeavours as complementary, particularly if we bear in mind the fact that the written text of the past bears the popular as well as the highbrow, bears, indeed, at some fundamental level, the past itself.

And in this particular discussion that centres around Romeo and Juliet I would very much like to make use of Don Anderson’s vast knowledge of Shakespeare. I really don’t see the need for literary scholars and cultural studies researchers to quarrel along theoretical lines when we might work so productively together on concrete and effective teaching material that provides students with a sense of history, a sense of belonging and a sense of place.

I must add on a very personal note that this quarrelling also bothers me in a political sense. I have always been taught to keep my doubts to myself and walk upright in the open as if I know where I am going. There are so many people out there who would love to see Cultural Studies disintegrate, I don’t think we should hand them the noose ourselves.

Rob van Kranenburg is a researcher at the Department of Teacher Training at the University of Gent, Belgium. His work is online at http://simsim.rug.ac.be/schole.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]