[csaa-forum] Re: terry flew on CS

Mark Gibson M.Gibson at murdoch.edu.au
Mon Jan 10 23:52:46 CST 2005

Good response, Gary. It interests me that cultural studies seems so 
often to be made an object of ridicule -- just 'media hype' .... etc. 
To get to the bottom of it, I think we need to look past the Andrew 
Bolts and Keith Windschuttles and recognise that the tendency can 
even be found among those who wear the CS label (or, like Geert, to 
participate in CS discussion lists). Internal criticism of CS has 
often been coruscating, implying some fundamental error, wrong turn 
or egregious error. One of the most characteristic positions in 
relation to CS is a kind of ironic detachment -- 'we wouldn't want to 
associate ourselves fully with this field, but it can be interesting 
or amusing to hang on the edges, listen in, throw in provocations 
from time to time'. (It sometimes seems to me that everyone is doing 
this. ie. no-one is actually in the middle.)

Why is CS so prone to this? I don't see a similar tendency in say, 
anthropology, philosophy or media studies. The best answer I have is 
that the space it has sought to occupy -- somewhere between serious 
scholarship, the media, popular culture and mass education -- makes 
it inherently controversial. I'm often reminded in thinking about 
this, of Joshua Meyrowitz's argument about television -- that in its 
lack of respect for traditional boundaries, it ends up mildly 
offending everyone. Isn't our view of CS often rather like the common 
ironic detachment before TV?

All that said, I think Geert is right in pointing out the strong 
'Anglo' character of CS. Almost all the examples Gary cites of CS 
outside the US, UK and Australia are, when you look at them, 
offshoots of 'Anglo' formations: Kuan-Hsing Chen was a student of 
Larry Grossberg, who himself spent time at Birmingham; Koichi 
Iwabuchi did his PhD in Australia; Meaghan Morris is an Australian 
living in HK ... etc.

The only problem is that pinning 'Anglo' on the field brings us back 
to the ridicule. We all know, don't we, that there are no serious 
Anglo intellectual traditions? Surely anything that is said in CS, 
then, has probably been said before, and better, by a German 
philosopher or French theorist. This, it seems to me, is where the 
'media hype' analysis comes from. CS is flaky, derivative, second 
rate ...

This is why, for me, it is worth going back to the early 'Anglo' 
roots of CS -- not just in the UK, but also Australia and the US. If 
you do, I think you begin to recognise that there is something 
distinctive there -- and something worth holding on to. You could 
call it empiricism if that term was not also, often, a term of abuse. 
Better to call it a tradition of close observation. There's a preface 
by Jean-Claude Passeron (one of Bourdieu's closest collaborators) in 
the French edition of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, which 
makes the point nicely:

The discussion of the realities of class is certainly to the credit 
of numerous fractions of the French intellectual milieu, but it is 
not altogether wrong to suppose that its theoretical and abstract 
tone serves also to keep at bay a whole set of realities at once 
simple and scandalous - or worse than scandalous, vulgar. The whole 
empirical force of these realities is evident when a description at 
once ethnographic and autobiographical such as Richard Hoggart's 
brings them into focus directly, above literary artifice and 
scholarly exercises.

In my view, one of the things that CS has been good at -- and still 
is -- is honest description of 'ordinary' realities. I'm prepared to 
be proven wrong, but I don't know of anyone doing this earlier or 

To circle back to Terry's original provocation on the 'leftness' of 
CS, it seems to me part of the anxiety about this is a simple 
misrecognition of who we are and what we do. Terry asks, in his last 
post, whether CS people would do any better than the Labor party in 
liberating us from Howard. His implicit answer, I think, and probably 
right, is 'no'. But should we get too worried by that? CS is not a 
political party -- or even, I would say, a political movement. It's a 
tradition of cultural analysis and criticism. We should value it for 
the quality of its engagement with 'stuff', not dwell on its failure 
to do things it is not constituted to do.

-- Mg
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