Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lecture I : On the Question “What is Cultural Studies?”

Lecture I: On the Question “What is Cultural Studies?”



The immediate question that one confronts is “What is Cultural Studies?” This is a fair or even natural question to ask, but I hope that by the end of our time this semester it will not seem to be an important question.

There is a related set of questions that run something like this: “Is Cultural Studies the study of culture or is it the study of other cultures? Does it attempt to explain culture?” Let’s hold on to these question, though, and I will return to these questions a bit later in this essay/lecture.

For me, the question “What is the meaning of ‘culture’ in Cultural Studies?” is a much better question than “What is Cultural Studies?” --- if for no other reason than the question “What is Cultural Studies?” manages to carry with it the air of a judicial/administrative demand that we provide evidence of our value.
 L'Assassin menacé (The Menaced Assassin) 

So when I said that the question “What is Cultural Studies?” has the air of an administrative/judicial demand, I was not exaggerating. It is exactly the kind of question a college administrator would ask There is nothing strange about this, of course administrators would want to know how to fit it into the usual organizational structure of the academy and its’ disciplines. In short, it is a question about policing the boundaries of knowledge....

...But don’t worry if you thought to ask this same question. Frankly, such things are less about you than about your having been socialized into a totally administrated society. In such a society, asking an administrative question is quite natural, perhaps even more so in college --- where one prepares to assume one’s place within the social order and where the division of labor is often quite clear.

Given this connection between administration and the question “What is Cultural Studies?”, we should not simply reject it completely out of hand. Taking this question seriously can lead us to a critical analysis of our own assumptions. If we broaden the question a bit we can ask it critically. In particular, we should consider whether the question should not also be put to the traditional or accepted disciplines as well. What is English --- or Art History, or for that matter Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, etc? How are the objects they study --- English, art, politics, society, Man --- created and reproduced by these very disciplines? Is English the study of the language, or texts written in the language, or works in translation? (Is Shakespeare in translation Shakespeare?) English literature as opposed to non-literary texts? Likewise we might investigate whether there is a science of politics or if art can really be said to have a history, or what we mean by human?

One we begin to unpack these phrases and things – or “break them apart” as you will find it mentioned in many works, though I dislike the violence implicit in the phrase--- it becomes impossible to view knowledge as something that marches relentlessly towards one final truth. Knowledge does march on relentlessly --- as they say “Beautiful as the moon/terrible as an army with banners” [ ]--- It marches towards as many “truths” as the current social relations allow, all the while leaving behind the accumulated ruins of a great many more truths that were no less real and true in their day as our seem to us. There is no real comfort to be found in simply knowing that there is no single truth because knowledge and power are mutually constitutive --- they produce each other --- and authority is about imposing truths and knowledges on others. This is the function of ideology whether it is or is not the dominate ideology.

And so, although “What is Cultural Studies?” is not of much interest to those whose work is often associated with the term, it is of use to us in beginning to think about the relations of knowledge, power and authority.

I am sure you see where I am going with this: if one understands that the work in Cultural Studies was always undertaken because of an investment -- "a stake"-- in doing the analysis, then one can not ask the question “What is Cultural Studies?” as an administrative inquiry, but only as a opening to investigate the conditions that give rise to the need to ask the question.

Indeed, let’s turn back to ask “What is meant by ‘culture’ in Cultural Studies?” What continuities unite studies under the rubric of Cultural Studies?”

Now of course you know that I am going to say that there is no single answer to this question either. That is it a contentious questions and so looking at the ways in which it has been answered might tell us something about why it is so contentious. As you might have already guessed, Cultural Studies is not the place to look for final answers, but only tentative, contingent analysis.

Often in the works associated with Cultural Studies you will find reference to something being “at stake.” Generally what is at stake in Cultural Studies is understanding how knowledge, technology, institutions, and the reproduction of everyday life produce particular systems and regimes of authority and truth. It presents us with a profoundly critical analysis of how our social relations and systems of authority produce and reproduce who we are, how we reproduce those social relations in everyday life, and how through both we come to desire our own repression. In other words, Cultural Studies helps us understand how we, in Nietzsche’s words, came to be an animal with the right to make promises. It is the study of “life at the speed at which it is lived,” of “how we come to desire our own repression” of the ways in which power and authority permeate social life and our cultural artifacts represent these relations.

I do have some good company in this problem of describing Cultural Studies. If we turn to Larry Grossberg, one of the important figures in the American reception of Cultural Studies, who wrote that “there is no one Cultural Studies position. It is radically contextual.” Which means not only temporally and geographically specific, but also the meaning will change with the disciplinary context. Someone with a background in English will read and analyze the same text or phenomenon quite differently thanme, despite their agreement that we both are “doing Cultural Studies.” The genealogy of Cultural Studies will be described quite differently by someone from the Humanities and someone like myself with a background in Environmental Studies, Geography and Sociology.

We might also consider these comments from Stanley Aronowitz and Raymond Williams:

“ ....cultural studies... seeks to transgress the boundaries between the humanities and the sciences, and even to transcend the boundaries of formal academic sites. At its best, cultural studies is not interdisciplinary, it is anti-disciplinary.” ---Stanley Aronowitz

“...a quite central theoretical point which to me is at the heart of Cultural Studies but which has not always been remembered... is...that you can not understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation; that the relation between a project and a formation is always decisive... this is really what Cultural Studies has been about, of taking the best we can in intellectual work and going with it in this very open way to confront people for whom it is not a way of life, for whom it is not in any probability a job, but for whom it is a matter of their own intellectual interest, their own understanding of the pressures on them, pressures of every kind, from the most personal to the most broadly political....” --- Raymond Williams

Generally speaking these statements coincide with my approach. But again, remember that just as there is no one Cultural Studies position, so too are there many other ways to present the genealogy of Cultural Studies. [NOTE: For purposes of full disclosure, Aronowitz was my graduate school and dissertation advisor at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is where I observed the reception of Cultural Studies.]

Now to return to the statements by Grossberg, Aronowitz and Williams. Whether we agree with them or not, we can say that at least they are very clear. Yet they immediately point to the problems posed by the structures of academia and the relation of academia to what Foucault called “the government of the living.” We can see that Cultural Studies is admittedly difficult to classify or useful for governing, though this oppositional stance has weakened as the institutional respectability of Cultural Studies has grown and the popularity of “Cultural Policy Studies increase.

If there is a continuity between the texts and the persons that we will touch on this semester, it is to be found in their marginality during the periods of the World Wars and the following Cold War. They and their works did not fit comfortably within the conventional structures of knowledge and critique. It really was difficult to classify and discipline Cultural Studies. Besides, as with the term “post modernism” the phrase "Cultural Studies" was not used by many of those whose works are now closely associated with our institutionalized Cultural Studies.

And so to our two questions “Is cultural Studies the study of Culture?” and “Is it the study of other cultures?” we can say that the first is partly correct while the second is obviously false, at least in terms of the genealogy of Cultural Studies that I will be presenting to you. While the meaning of culture is so varied (see Raymond Williams’ entry on Culture in his Keywords) that no fixed object is to be found, it is certainly not anthropology. If anything, it is a reaction against the type of anthropological science that during the period of colonialism and imperialism organized our understanding of human life. The end of that era did not mean an end to its ideologies and truths, nor does it mean that those forgotten and repressed truths can not reappear in more modern form, as is the case with eugenics, for example.

Understanding this helps to make sense of the meaning of culture in Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies is not the study of exotic peoples with strange habits living either “out there” or in our own pre-history or degenerate enclaves. There was never a quest to explore or to seek out or even invent such peoples/others. The work in Cultural Studies has self-consciously focused on the West (for lack of a better word, but a word that is itself quite problematic and ideological), its popular culture, and on the ruins and promises left in the wake of Enlightenment. It has retained this orientation because our concept of culture are emblematic of our domination in the present and our repression of the past.
It has focused on these systems of knowledge, entertainment, and authority because, and this is no paradox, these all produce forms of resistance and reaction –though often short-lived and unsuccessful – to the social order that can point us toward possible alternatives.

This puts me in the position of Levi-Strauss at the start of his Tristes Tropiques: “Travel and travelers are the two things I loathe – and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.”

To set off, let’s consider the disciplines ones finds in every almost college and university.
Disciplines do not arise by their own accord. The social sciences and the sciences exist as they do because they are useful for providing knowledge for the government of populations and territories both real and imagined. With them, the disenchantment of Nature was furthered and once the world had been mapped and rationalized, geography in particular was no longer a viable academic field. Departments were closed or merged with other departments in a bid to become interdisciplinary, but also an acknowledgment that the field did not have an adequate answer to the administrative question “What is geography?”

Most of the disciplines that you encounter in college have come into existence quite recently and in the context of the social world of the 19th and 20th centuries and as the heirs of the Enlightenment. The critique of Enlightenment will be a topic we take up over the next several weeks. Today, though I want to give you an example to illustrate how knowledge is deeply rooted in its social context. I’ll use this one because it is elated to Enlightenment, colonialism, and the dislocations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This is still our era, no matter how much we want to repress it with thoughts of living in an enlightened or sustainable age. Let me use this example of mapping to illustrate the relation of knowledge to power as well as the idea that knowledge a part of its social context. Take a look at the mapping of Africa during the rise of geography and anthropology. Both fields owe their origin to the need to provide knowledge to govern the new colonial and imperial populations and territories. I am not picking on anthropology and geography. They are relevant to drawing contrasts that make Cultural Studies a bit clearer, but disciplines forget their errors and their obsolete truths.

And just so you know, my field of sociology has its own relation to government. It too has attempted to forget whole portions of its history when that relationship proved embarrassing through its connections to social work and eugenics.

Consider this text by one of the premier philosophers of Enlightenment, Hegel, writing on the place of Africa at the beginning of the 19th century.

“Africa proper, is far as History goes back, has remained --- for all purposes of connection with the rest of the world --- shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself --- the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. Its isolated character originates, not merely in its tropical nature, but essentially in its geographical condition....” Except for “European Africa” --- Northern, Mediterranean Africa, “the narrow coastal tracts” and the Nile River valley --- Africa “is almost entirely unknown to us,” it is “enveloped in the dark mantle of night” and so too are its terrible hordes, perhaps the result of an “internal movement” about which we know nothing. “For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.... What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” Hegel, Philosophy of History (1956 [1822]:98-99)

This is Hegel’s only mention of Africa in his Philosophy of History. He truly does simply leave it behind. In the midst of this discussion, he also notes his belief that Africans are willing to die in the thousands in defense of their lands because they have no sense of self and thus no fear of the guns of the Europeans. One wonders what Hegel would have thought of the battlefields of the American Civil War or of World War I.

In terms of the once thriving discipline of geography, the links are quite clear. Freeman in his A Hundred Years of Geography identified several trends in the modern era that were effected by colonialism and imperialism. The first of Freeman’s points are important for us today.

Freeman writes that geographical knowledge was the “collection of new information about the world” particularly Africa and North America where “there were still vast tracts... which were entirely empty on [the maps of the time]” (1961)

More than twenty years later, Johnson in his Geography and Geographers also discusses what he calls “the colonial trend” based upon “Britain, whose empire was being consolidated and developed... and covering a considerable portion of the earth’s surface. Organization of the commercial world required a great deal of information about the various countries concerned, the provision of which became a major task of [geography]” (Johnston 1983). Neither Freeman nor Johnston were being critical at all. They were simply noting two historical trends that they do not find objectionable. On the contrary, the rise of geography was for them something to be appreciated against the backdrop of global transformation.

A more critical and nuanced description of the time can be found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet -- the biggest, the most blank, so to speak -- that I had a hankering after.
    True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery -- a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere.”

Before Hegel’s day, one might find a map like this one: 
 Africa, map from 1630

This map is of course almost completely fanciful or at best based upon classical sources.

This next map is notable because it is signed by Moll, who identifies himself as a Geographer.

Map of Africa by H. Moll,Geographer, 1729.

While leaving aside the Medieval elements we found in the first map, this one also attempt to fill in the spaces. Note the presence of many geographical names no longer in use, such as “Negroland” and how Ethiopia stretches across the continent from the “Eastern Indian Ocean” to the “Ethiopian Sea” in the west. But more importantly, this map signals the organization of geography as a discipline.

By Hegel’s time, we are getting more honest maps, if less detailed.

And finally we see that in Hegel’s time, the map of Africa now looked like this. Note the recognition of there being “Regions Unexplored”:

 Map of Africa, 1824

Now, that was a play on words that I would not expect you to get, and that’s fine. Why should you? But in Hegel, the term recognition has a very special meaning and is a central aspect of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It is through the recognition of an “other” that the Absolute Spirit comes to understand itself.

The Phenomenology is a phenomenological description of human existence. That is to say, it describes human experience as it ‘appears’ or ‘manifests’ itself to the very one who experiences it. In other words, Hegel describes the content of the self-consciousness of man, whose existence is dominated either by by one of the typical existential attitudes that are found everywhere and at all times... or by an attitude characterizing an outstanding historical epoch.... (Kojeve 1969:261)

And in the period following Hegel, the historical attitude was one of exploration, mapping, and the disenchantment of the world. We will encounter Hegel a few more times this semester – whether we want to or not – so hold on to this description of the Phenomenology.

This 1895 map of central Africa showing the exploration dates and routes illustrates, I think, the expansion of power and knowledge of the world as well.

By the end of the 19th century, much of the world was known and claimed by the European powers. The role of anthropology and geography in this process was captured by Hazen in his 1917 textbook:

“European annexation waited upon exploration. Africa was the 'Dark Continent,' and until the darkness was lifted it was not converted. About the middle of the century the darkness began to disappear. Explorers penetrated farther and farther into the interior, traversing the continent in various directions, opening a chapter of geographical discovery of absorbing interest.... by 1880, the scientific enthusiasm and curiosity, the missionary and philanthropic zeal of Europeans, and the hatred of slave-hunters who plied their trade in the interior, had solved the great mystery of Africa, the map showed rivers and lakes where previously all had been blank. Upon discovery quickly followed appropriation.” Charles Downer Hazen, 1917. Modern European History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 508-509.

Again, Hazen is also not critical of what he calls “European annexation.” As a result of exploration and annexation, Africa was no longer Hegel’s Dark Continent, but instead had finally been filled in. Notice who also supplied this knowledge: the curious, missionaries, and slave traders. Regardless, “a chapter of geographical discovery of absorbing interest” had opened and was in fact already shutting by 1880.
We might see this if we simply compare two maps of the British Empire:

It was no exaggeration that the sun never set on the British Empire, but in fact the sun did begin to set less than two decades after these maps were produced.

Like geography, the modern period of Anthropology was equally altered by its relation to the state apparatus and its need for knowledge of the world. On the one hand,anthropology provided a theory of social evolution that has its origins in the Enlightenment and creation of “the West” and “the non-West”. On the other hand, anthropological science, through its tradition of field work, filled out the “empty spaces” on the geographers maps and the ideology of the West. The anthropologist described the “cultures” of “other” peoples. As Eric Wolfe wrote in his Europe and the People Without History:

“The anthropologist who went out to consult the savages of the four corners of the earth” sought “to make sense of [his subjects] unfamiliar physiques, their bizarre behavior, the strange objects they produced. He had to measure skulls, to collect things, to observe seemingly extravagant actions....” The anthropologist approached his subject in the same manner that a naturalist approached nature, employing the “techniques of the museum collector, the human biologist, and the field observer....” (10-11).

Africa at the beginning of World War I.

One thing I can tell you is that Cultural Studies is not anthropology. It is opposed to the forces that created disciplines like anthropology and also geography, though at the same time, the effects of imperialism, progress, enlightenment also created a space for Cultural Studies to emerge as a critique.

With the end of World War II, many observers note a profound shift in the order of the world.
1] the end of colonialism
2] the de-centering of Europe (and the “European Man”) as the key referent
3] the rise of the United States and the globalization of American culture
To which I would add a fourth, the Rise of Fascism and Authoritarianism, and societies of terror[i.e., control of everyday life and acceptance of authority]
One might add to it the present de-centering of the United States that appears to be moving at an accelerated pace as the “American Century” comes to an end after only 50 years.

I will talk much more about these points next week because there is no time to do so today.

To conclude, I want to do a couple of things in this course:
1] Introduce you to a fairly wide ranging field of work that is for some an intellectual orientation, and for an increasing number of others, an new academic discipline. The differences between the two views are great, as we will see, and has led to differences in style, audience, critique, and politics.

2] To show how and where the currents that became Cultural Studies emerged, and the interventions by those whose work falls under the rubric of Cultural Studies in the important questions of their day and our own.

3] To dislodge some assumptions about knowledge and power.

We will spend the semester examining the origins of Cultural Studies and its later reception in the United States. The genealogy here is complex and for the most part we will look at the continuing importance of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the groundbreaking work of those in Birmingham and elsewhere in the U.K. The following chart is something of a schematic of the relationships we will be considering, and yet it is hopelessly simplistic and incomplete. However, it will give you some small sense of who we will encounter and their place in Cultural Studies over time, a sense that you can over time correct on your own.

Next Lecture:
The Dialectic of Enlightenment I: Bach, Kant, Frederick, Theresiana, Sade, Horkheimer/Adorno.