As promised, I have been reading and thinking about Cultural Studies (CS), less in the context of the place of the Humanities in the contemporary university than in that of originary thinking. Intellectual activity necessarily takes place in an institutional context, but it is the worst déformation professionnelle to privilege that context over the content and ultimate purpose of one’s activity. It is also very short-sighted from a practical standpoint. Humanities professors and even their deans are bound to a certain context, provosts and chancellors are not. If the only problem the Humanities can solve is that of finding busy work for themselves, forces beyond their control will soon relieve them of the problem itself.
The reader of the well-known report cum commentaries Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (Johns Hopkins, 1995, ed. Charles Bernheimer) is struck by the parochialism of the near-totality of the discussion, as though the real problem is not, “what is the place of our activity of cultural analysis in its broader ethical context?” but “how should Comparative Literature (CompLit) departments adapt their curricula to new ‘multicultural’ conditions?” If only for accounting reasons (zero-based budgeting), let alone intellectual ones, the first, ethical, alternative should have priority. Yet of all the participants, only my fellow Anthropoetics editorial board member Tobin Siebers put the ethical question at the heart of his response. The term “age” in the title seems to have foreclosed discussion: if this is the age we live in, we had better adapt to it, or at most, resist it. It would have been preferable to reflect on the nature of the cultural in our era before imposing a label on it.
What provoked most of the other responses was the feeling that the old CompLit ethos, created by pre- and postwar Central European exiles around a “Eurocentric” (I shudder to use this term) conception of high culture, must be modified to reflect the new multicultural reality with which cultural studies (CS) is associated. Should our students learn non-European languages? Should we use team teaching to introduce new elements into the curriculum? Should the “literary” be retained as a central category, or should we include other “discursive practices”?… The more enthusiastic (e.g., Mary Louise Pratt) emphasize the liberating value of new options; the sadder and wiser (e.g., Marjorie Perloff), the constraints of time and cohesion.
But these natural responses miss the point of the challenge posed by the enlargement of the purview of CompLit. GA can always make the valid claim that before studying culture, one should construct an originary hypothesis; but the value of the claim in this particular context comes from the fact that the real change is not the “discovery” of new cultures or of their importance, but the problematization of cultural identity. The old CompLit corresponded to the coherent idea of a single international culture, that of the educated European, which no doubt could not be fully mastered by any one individual, so that specialization in it required choices among languages and literatures, but which remained nonetheless a single culture. To that culture, one might add knowledge of, say, Chinese or Indian culture, without displacing its central importance.
But once world culture, including that of the Third World, is added to the mix, our difficulty in encompassing it is not just a function of the additional time required but of the very nature of this academic “encompassing.” What corresponds in the “global marketplace” to the high Western culture that dominated the European sphere of influence? On the level of high culture, we can still live pretty well as Eurocentrics; there is little pressure to study, say, classical Chinese literature. The drive to include non-Western cultures is attracted rather to popular elements and thereby to CS. But inclusion of the popular poses a different problem. European scholars were familiar with local popular cultures; they simply didn’t consider them relevant to the cultural identity that underlay the establishment of CompLit as a discipline. Why then should they be relevant now?
In a word, because “global culture” is not of the same nature as Western culture, the original basis for CompLit has disappeared, and the fundamental question is to determine the nature of the culture that has taken its place, not what curricula or job descriptions we should design.
I am the last to suggest despair. There is indeed a global culture roughly comparable in coherence to the Western culture of old. Where it is structured differently, thereby posing a problem to the academic structure of CompLit, is in the relation between its high and popular components. The importance of the popular is not an academic artifact of the intrusion of area studies and its politics into the CompLit orbit. There is no truly global high culture, and to the extent there is one at all, it is simply–pardon my Occidentocentrism–Western high culture. The West has provided the dominant thought-systems for the modern world, as well as–by no means coincidentally–its economic system. Culture is more democratic and pluralistic than economics or science, but we would do well to remind ourselves that the third-world resentment that sells so well in the cultural sphere cannot undo the historical triumph of the Western market system over its former global competitors, even if we forbear to speak of them as “Oriental.”
The high culture that complements the ethic of the Western economic system has therefore a global viability–for example, European classical music has a presence in Japan or Taiwan, even in mainland China, incomparably greater than that of Chinese or Japanese music here. But today the overall context of this viability is not such as to justify maintaining the old CompLit curriculum unchanged. Western high culture is not so much defunct as inadequate to the task of providing a global civilization with a living basis. That the phenomena of popular culture have come increasingly to the fore, disturbing the old “elite” stability of the CompLit world, is a genuine cultural fact, independent of the ideological biases of the academy in our own society. Although skepticism in the face of ideology is the beginning of wisdom, ideology generally reflects a certain degree of truth.
To say that global culture is more amorphous than Western culture is merely to allude to its popular nature. High culture, pace two decades of resentful critique, cannot be understood as the locus for the hegemonic illusions of the ruling class; it proposes rather to society as a whole an esthetic askesis. To know this culture in its spatio-temporal extension, in the exilic consciousness that Emily Apter pertinently attributes to the founders of the specialty, is to possess the summa of its ethical wisdom as enacted in the–eminently portable–linguistic imagination: what Erich Auerbach could bring together in wartime Constantinople while writing Mimesis.
Today’s global culture is equally portable, but no longer focused on askesis because no longer bound by the confines of a single society, however broadly defined. The old high culture was, ultimately, a sacrificial system, a means of purging resentment from an ensemble that, however vast, was conceived as a totality. The global system is a proliferating, “rhizomatic” network, not a totality–at least, not yet. Following the lead of the musical fifties in the United States, its culture is primarily one of youth, whose relative uniformity across world cultures has not gone unremarked. The generalized semi-excluded (and therefore semi-victimary) status of youth gives it an enhanced need for cultural rites de passage, and this function comes to dominate the entire cultural sphere.
On the basis of this analysis, how then should CompLit programs adapt to our age?
In the first place, although flexibility in opening up to the great cultures of Asia is a good thing, it should be recognized that today’s global culture has its roots in Western civilization, not only because the United States has played a hegemonic role in the creation of the youth culture (a phenomenon largely due, as I suggest in my recent book Signs of Paradox [Stanford, 1997], to the creative interaction of youth and our culturally significant Black minority), but more profoundly, because the market system that has created the socio-economic conditions for the global culture is a creation of Western society. This implies that the central role played by classical Western civilization in CompLit should not be abandoned for the sake of “diversity.” Whatever may be gained from studying Indian, Chinese, or Japanese culture, none of these has the same direct filiation with contemporary global culture.
But, in the second place, it is indeed important to study global popular culture. Popular culture is more uniform worldwide and far less difficult of access than high culture, and does not urgently require linguistic skills. One can acquire through translation a far higher degree of understanding of a Chinese popular song than of a Chinese poem. The focus on global popular culture, beyond the celebration of empirical diversity, should be on the creative interaction between its two originary elements, the Western and the local. As I have already noted in Chronicle 98, this focus emerges naturally from the empirical richness of the material: CS’s emphasis on content makes it “naturally” a critique of love rather than of resentment.
CompLit programs have therefore no need to disperse their curricula among endless choices. Their primary focus on European culture should be maintained, which need not exclude students with exclusive interest in non-European cultures. Above all, the fashionably victimary “post-colonial” mentality should not be allowed to obscure the primacy of Western civilization as the source of today’s global culture, including the post-colonial ethic itself.