The phenomenon of Cultural Studies (CS) has been spreading through the Humanities like kudzu through our inland waterways. Although I’m no expert on the subject, I’ve been doing a little reading, and feel I know enough by now for a first Chronicle. More are planned for the future.

I’m not a Realist in the Platonic sense, but one does have to pay attention to language. When people complain about the lack of unity or “methodology” in cultural studies, one might start by looking at the words. Since everything human is “cultural,” and “studies” says nothing specific about the mode of examination, it would be surprising if a field so named, whatever its beginnings, did not evolve into an infinite grab-bag. And so it has. Although in its British origins with Raymond Williams, cultural studies had a specific political agenda, which in Britain at least it has not altogether lost, the implicit caveat that “culture” refer to “popular” or “working-class” culture could not be sustained. No type of “culture,” including “high culture,” is outside the CS orbit. But better than a description or even a meta-description (“cultural studies is precisely what cannot be totalized in a [sc patriarchal] description”), I will provide a functional model. One advantage of this column over more serious scholarly publications is that first impressions are 90% accurate and save 90% of your time.

The chief reason for the success of CS is that it is an adaptation of the Humanities to the contemporary condition of the university. Most humanities professors, even recent PhDs, are trained in reasonably rigorous methods of literary scholarship, textual analysis, etc. Little of this is useful in CS. But the payoff, in contrast with the fabled dryness of the kind of scholarship we were trained for, is that CS involves ingenious, politically fashionable, and often popularly amusing subjects, and that the number of such subjects, unlike the traditional ones centered on the “canon,” is for all practical purposes infinite. This infinite possibility is a more central factor than even the PC that adheres to the various (post)Marxist domains like “subaltern studies,” “post-colonial studies,” et al. (A simple measure of (post)Marxist dominance in a text is the number of times the term late capitalism appears per hundred words.) What is of primary interest is interaction, not domination; less dogmatic minds see the postcolonial as interacting with the metropolitan rather than suffering its oppressive domination or even, à la Williams, resisting it.

The bottom line of CS is that it vastly facilitates holding conferences to which one can invite one’s network–the central preoccupation of 90s Humanities scholars. Instead of subjects that require well-defined, and therefore restrictive, expertise (e.g., the best known Montaigne or Dante scholars), CS subjects are ad hoc. No one is really an expert in them, and at the next conference they will be replaced by others. This puts a premium on networking rather than scholarly achievement as a criterion for selection. But precisely it is the networkers who set up the conferences in the first place. (Dawkins disciples would consider conferencing a meme and networkers its carriers: a networker is just one conference meme’s way of producing another.) Given the current CS vogue, the same people can reinvite each other indefinitely without ever having to do in-depth scholarship on any subject.

Conferencing aside, there is a clear positive side to this development. The proliferation of different cultural approaches and rapprochements is a welcome alternative to the rigid textualism that had dominated literary study since the New Criticism, to which deconstruction added both a new philosophical sophistication and an often sophomoric perversity. The canonization of Literature, whatever works it was deemed to include, was an artificial move that corresponded more to the structure of the university than to any organic cultural reality. Or to put it more sharply, it corresponded to the absorption by the university of all the living force of the old high culture. Today, “classical” musicians and poets, even artists, are increasingly likely to be found on university faculties. But there is a far more vital cultural world beyond the campus borders that cannot be forced into the traditional categories of literary study.

The study of popular culture in its various ramifications is closer in general methodology and approach, insofar as generalization is possible, to ethnology than to literary scholarship. Literature is tautologically textual; aside from the details of literary history and the necessary factual background, the student of literature is expected to be sensitive to the various levels of intertwined structure that make up the text. On the contrary, studying ad hoc interconnections between different genres and places is essentially doing “field work,” and indeed this term, which gave its name to the anthology I shall refer to below, comes up frequently as a kind of exotic professional marker–just as, conversely, in the heyday of deconstruction an ethnologist might have claimed to be studying the “text” of a tribal culture. This development signals not simply a shift in specialization, but a wholesale despecialization. Although the CS perspective is adaptable to the study of earlier centuries–particularly those involved in colonization–its real thrust is contemporary. As a result, the traditional historical fields of the humanities are sapped of their energy, and eventually, I fear, of their staffing.

The problem is particularly critical in the “language” departments, such as the one in which I am located. Although secondary in historical perspective and a minor specialty just a few years ago, third-world or francophone literature has become the hot field in French studies. This is not due to the brilliance of its literary production, although the former colonies are surely more vital today than the métropole, but to the PC-CS connection. French, at least, has a claim to the CS world; German and Italian, whose nations came too late to create colonial empires, are now, as if in vengeance for their savage reaction to this fact in World War II, approaching a position of quasi-extinction. When the current “language” faculty retires, it will surely not be replaced at anything like its current strength. The future of the Humanities points to “European Studies” programs that will be not only far smaller than the current ensemble of European language departments, but far less literary (as a local example, the UCLA European Studies program is heavily dominated by social science departments, especially History, which UCLA, I think rightly, classifies as a Social Science).


The debate on CS (such as in the recent PMLA Forum) goes back and forth on the literature cum history vs CS issue, which has important practical consequences for academic demography. But never does it pose the problem in originary terms, and rarely even in terms recognizable to standard anthropological theory. From the GA perspective, this is CS’s most significant weakness. There is no lack of “theory” in CS, but its thinness is at times remarkable. I will take one example. In her article “The Made-Up and the Made-Real,” in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies (ed. Garber et al, London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 214-24, Elaine Scarry of Body in Pain fame develops a new phenomenology of “created things”:

The difference between art objects and other objects can therefore be understood as follows: both undergo creation, but almost all artifacts other than art undergo a second stage of creation to which art is never subject (217; my emphasis).

Art, you see, is created, point. But, mirabile dictu, manufactured goods are created twice, once as things-in-themselves and again as elements of reality. A painting is just a created painting, but a car is (1) created as a car-thing and (2) created again as a driveable thing. This kind of analysis makes the Muses weep, not only because of its absurdity–as though the car wasn’t created to be driven in the first place–but because it ignores, whether in ignorance (I hope) or arrogance, all the relevant writings on the subject by Dead White Male thinkers such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, not to mention Plato and Aristotle. It’s as though now that the new era of CS Conferences has dawned, we can wipe the slate clean, or as the author puts it, demonstrating the admirable depth of her philosophical training:

In the past, a solitary philosopher may have now and then emerged to work on the nature of creation, but there never emerged a large assembly of people working in concert… (215; my emphasis)

To the extent that this example reflects CS’s attempt to clear away the theoretical cobwebs that prevent us from seeing anew, it appears that CS will not only reinvent the wheel, but start out by making it square.

Now GA makes similar claims, but I would not wish to describe its theoretical superiority over Scarry’s phenomenology as the mere result of a more thorough assimilation of the texts of Western philosophy. GA, as readers of both Girard’s work and mine know, is not a branch of metaphysics. It is rather Scarry, and CS theory in general, even when less embarrassingly vacuous, that begins where classical philosophy begins, with subjects and objects, as though CS’s relationship to classical thought were to have forgotten all of it except its weakest feature. GA, on the other hand, privileges human interaction, which is, curiously enough, precisely what CS tends to discover when it puts its theorizing behind it. But originary thinking provides an idea of what culture is that is not simply a working definition, of which the CS books have plenty, but an explanation of what culture is for. One would think that a hypothesis about what something is for might be useful to people who study it. Even Scarry, I am sure, understands that cars are for driving.

Thanks to Stacey Meeker and Markus Müller for their help in researching this Chronicle.

[to be continued]