Making Sense of Culture
Some of the most exciting new areas of academic study have to be within the fields of American studies or cultural studies. (If academic work could ever be called “exciting.”) While the fields are growing every year, the disciplines are still new enough that they’re not yet quite respectable. These disciplines, put simply, look at culture (both high and low) and draw conclusions about the way people live. American studies and cultural studies seem to study the same thing, and one might ask what the difference is between them. The variation seems to be a historical one, and a question of origins.
“Cultural studies” initially grew out of a movement in England in the ‘50s, centered in Birmingham, that sought to bring textual studies and sociology together to determine how class and power relations were experienced by people in England. From there, the movement spread to other countries, including America. Around the same time, “American studies” was also getting off the ground. It sought to examine the peculiarity of American culture -— how it was different from other cultures in the world. It would appear that American studies was more text-based, used history rather than sociology, and focused on the level of national characteristics, rather than “smaller” divisions such as class, gender, or ethnicity (but mostly class). So, while American studies was situated more firmly in a certain place and was probably more nationalistic to boot, and cultural studies was probably more academically rigorous and sought to examine the effects of class, possibly to the exclusion of other factors, both seemed to cover the same ground.
Can we integrate these two approaches? That might be an appropriate question to ask of a book written in either field. Since the two disciplines have been around for 50 years now, it might be time to create a synthesis between them. And while Catherine Warren’s and Mary Vavrus’ new anthology, American Cultural Studies might fall more on the side of cultural studies, the question is a good one to keep in mind. After all, even if the methodology of cultural studies is international, the emphasis here is on American culture. As Warren and Vavrus posit in the introduction, “despite globalization those of us who live in the United States are subject to its history, its crime and violence, its racism, its media structures, its education, its economy, its communities.” Thus, the question to ask, in these 11 essays, is what form American cultural studies should take?
Warren and Vavrus also set out in the introduction that the “analysis of power relations is fundamental to a cultural studies critique.” The 11 writers in the anthology, for the most part, take their cue from this statement. Daniel Czitrom, in the book’s first essay, “Does Cultural Studies have a Past?” says: “American cultural studies needs a fuller engagement with how power relations operate in the realm of public policy. We need to pay more attention to the state as a site for the dynamic interplay between culture, politics, and economics.”
Joli Jensen, in “Arts, Intellectuals, and the Public,” continues the social emphasis: “I believe that we in cultural studies are always social critics, because our cultural analyses are inescapably social analyses in relation to hopes and fears about contemporary life.” Jensen also criticizes the traditional separation between academia and the culture-at-large. “Are we, as intellectuals, really all that qualified to lead society?” she remarks, then later states succinctly, “The public is us.”
On the matter of social theory, and the basis of cultural studies as a class analysis, this reviewer tends toward the textual side of things. Case in point: Robert McChesney’s essay “Whatever Happened to Cultural Studies?” He begins the essay by asking, “What happened to the cultural studies that was an explicitly politically radical enterprise? By politically radical, I mean anticapitalist, antimarket, pro-dispossessed, pro-democratic, and therefore pro-socialist, broadly construed.” First of all, there is the matter of calling yourself a “radical”, as in “I am a radical first, and my being an intellectual developed out of my politics.”
Ultimately, the term “radical,” like calling yourself a “maverick,” is incredibly self-serving and egotistical. Also, saying you are “pro-dispossessed” and “pro-democratic” is something that everyone would claim, as essentially meaningless as when conservative Republicans refer to themselves as “pro-family.” McChesney also says that “to be a radical student on a U.S. campus today is a feat of not inconsiderable courage.” Having only recently graduated from college, where it seemed as if every student were trying to “top” every other student in terms of who was the most radical, this reviewer would propose that real courage consists of saying something that doesn’t agree with the college-liberal consensus.
What is most annoying about McChesney’s argument is that he leaves no room in cultural studies for anyone else. If you’re not his brand of Marxist (or “post-Marxist” or “neo-Marxist” or whatever), then you’re just missing the fundamental dynamic behind everything. The appeal of cultural studies is that it lets one look at a whole range of cultural phenomena, to try to figure out what they mean to the people who experience them. This network of meanings is much more interesting than another tiresome discussion of why capitalism is bad. Like it or not, we are a capitalist country. That doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, agitate for social change, but one shouldn’t expect us to all turn socialist anytime soon. That also doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about class and economics, just that we shouldn’t talk about it to the exclusion of everything else. The Marxist stance assumes that there’s only one issue worth talking about.
That’s not to say that all the essays in this volume make this mistake. Norman Denzin, defines the purpose of cultural studies as: “to tell and perform critical stories about this society and the ways people make meaning in it.” James Carey, in “The Sense of an Ending,” talks about the primacy of nationality over other subcultural or transcultural categories of being. Both of these essays are quite strong, and interesting. And while there are a few weaker essays in the volume (such as Carolyn Marvin’s take on “Media Rituals”), the 11 essays collected here are mostly very well-argued. Furthermore, they work on a high level conceptually without falling prey to the temptation to use excessive jargon, so they are, for the most part, easy to read.
Overall, the 11 papers that make up American Cultural Studies add significantly to the discussion of what cultural studies should look like, while also not being the last word on the subject. It’s still a young discipline, and the process of definition goes on.