Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About the UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate

(x-posted to The Valve)

In the course of a single week, we have seen academics making noise on several different fronts related to politics. First of all, here in California, there has been a large-scale effort to protest against the drastic budget cuts affecting students, workers, and faculty at University of California campuses. All sorts of mainstream media covered the story: some classes were cancelled, some classes were converted into teach-ins, most campuses held rallies attracting hundreds to thousands, and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) went on strike. It is now Monday; the main lingering protest appears to be the occupation of the Graduate Student Commons by students at UC Santa Cruz, who Marc Bousquet interviewed here.

Meanwhile, Michael Berube was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to the effect that cultural studies has not been a powerful enough political force in the university and the society at large. Berube argues that cultural studies has not produced much change in the way that the humanities are taught, nor has it been much of an ally for progressive political causes. His article incited some bloggers to write passionate retorts, while others, like the Valve’s Andrew Seal, took a more moderate and reflective approach.

Both of these highly visible controversies concern the relationship between politics and the academy, and more specifically between politics and the humanities, since humanities departments will be hardest hit by the cutbacks at the UCs. They are natural outgrowths of assumptions in place for decades now — namely, that the study of the humanities ought to be a political endeavor, and that because (at its best) it is political work, it makes students and faculty politically knowledgeable and effective.

There is no doubt in my mind about the first thesis. Work in the humanities is political; all knowledge work is, by its nature, inextricably bound up with ideological positions that bear on political issues. I have been, however, greatly disappointed by the fruits of this week’s labor. The protests were — are, in the case of the UCSC occupation — ineffectual. The discussion around cultural studies has been muddled. This is because of a failure to distinguish the differences between political activism and the dissemination of knowledge. Until we academics recognize and navigate this (seemingly obvious) difference, we will not be politically effective. We will not even have earned the right to claim a deep understanding of “the political.” We have to ask tough questions not only of UC President Mark Yudof but of ourselves, and this is not being done.


Political Activism Is Not A Seminar Discussion Or A Lecture Class

In a seminar discussion, words themselves carry weight. They are the signs of understanding. If numerous students come to new epiphanies and a new sense of clarity about assigned texts, that is enough — it is, in fact, quite wonderful. For activists, however, words are vehicles for demands. They are part of an ongoing battle that one side must lose by capitulating to the demands of the other.

The protests Thursday did not significantly disrupt the operation of the University. Students and workers will capitulate to the demands of the California government and the UC administration by paying higher tuition and accepting layoffs and furloughs. The building currently being occupied by UCSC students, the Graduate Student Commons, is non-essential to the operation of the campus, which is why these students have not been arrested.

The whole structure of the protests virtually guaranteed that they would not have an effect. They were not ongoing — Friday was business as usual. They were not consistent in mode: if every class was cancelled, or if every class was converted into a teach-in, that would have been noticeably disruptive. Instead, each faculty member and teaching assistant was urged to do “something” in solidarity, and could pick and choose what that something might be. I am not suggesting that the organizers could have persuaded all teachers to participate; rather, the problem was that even those who did participate did so in a diffuse and various manner. Again and again, people involved in planning the protests agreed to take a “decentralized” approach at the cost of efficacy.

The idea of producing a coherent set of non-negotiable demands became equally lost in the shuffle. Read Bousquet’s interview with the students at UCSC. Considering the demands they have listed, how could they ever call off the occupation? At what point could they legitimately claim victory? They are protesting not just problems at the university level, but problems with K-12 public education. They are not just concerned with California; they are concerned with the nation as a whole. Their public document seems to be protesting against Adderall and frat parties in addition to budget cuts. The humanistic modes of freely associative thinking and heterogeneous action, which have their place as desirable educational outcomes, simply do not work as forms of targeted activism.

Furthermore, the protests did not do enough to put those most affected first. The people most affected by these cuts are undergraduates and workers, including those represented by the UPTE. Unfortunately, the most audible voices were those of the faculty, including tenured faculty. The structure of the protests thus repeated existing power hierarchies by making students into recipients of knowledge and bodies to be counted up at the rallies.

Seminar Discussions Are Not Political Demonstrations

Let us be clear about the kind of “political intervention” cultural studies was supposed to represent. It was first an expansion of teachable materials to include popular culture and other kinds of marginalized productions. It was also heir to efforts by the Frankfurt School to produce new, more complex, less reductive kinds of Marxist cultural criticism. At bottom, the link between these two different goals had to do with the ways that Marxist ideals would justify the inclusion of “lower” forms of culture, either because popular culture represented the ideas and contributions of the masses, or else because it demonstrated forms of ideological control over the masses. The odd result was that hostile readings of Dickens became part of the “culture wars,” and so did appreciative readings of Madonna. Berube describes this as a lamentable conflation that happened to “cultural studies” when it was annexed by “cultural criticism,” but it was really a natural result of writers like Theodor Adorno being willing to include essays on jazz and film as long as he was allowed to denounce them unequivocally. Eventually somebody else started writing essays on jazz and film who begged to differ with Adorno about their value — and so on all the way to modern essays about American Idol.

There is no direct relationship between any of this and what I refer to above as “targeted political activism,” any more than a copy of The Communist Manifesto in a bookstore is a sign of an imminent revolution. If students can be taught to analyze novels, they can also be taught to analyze concept albums, and since pop music is a valid aesthetic form it is worth their while to do so. There is no reason for us to respect Stuart Hall’s irritation with new analyses of Madonna or of The Sopranos any more than we would respect a Renaissance scholar getting tired of new books about Shakespeare. Yet his comments strike a chord because of the persistence of drearily repetitive forms of political analysis within these manifestoes on pop culture. Because many scholars of cultural studies treat the aesthetic validity of “low culture” as conditionally dependent upon the critic’s Marxism, a lot of pop culture analysis takes the form of an awkward dialogue between the capitalist ego and the Marxist super-ego of the critic, who is trying to persuade himself and us that he only enjoys what he is watching because it educates him about the newest forms of false consciousness. Berube’s division between “cultural studies” and “cultural criticism” enables him to claim that “cultural studies” hasn’t affected American thinking about economics, but all he is really saying is that American economists aren’t Marxist and haven’t been converted to Marxism by cultural studies. The problem is that most cultural studies scholars haven’t been converted to Marxism either, the proof being that their work shows (as Berube correctly notes) remarkably little solidarity with anyone besides a now non-existent Old Left, and bears scant relation to their actual lives. Of course, into that vacuum of revolutionary poses comes enthusiasts like Malcolm Gladwell, who writes one bestselling piece of cultural criticism after another.

Cultural studies has been extremely successful at opening up humanities classrooms to popular culture and analysis of popular culture. It has also been, pace Berube, co-eval with new forms of the transmission of knowledge, especially the arrival of online discourse, where conversations about popular culture constantly take inspired critical turns — even in (for example) the comments appended to YouTube videos.

However, the cultural studies movement has also been successful in drastically undermining the prestige and political relevance of the humanities classroom. This has redounded on cultural studies itself, which is why its success appears to Berube as a failure. Because of its insistence on treating culture as “all one thing” produced by oppressive capitalist ideology, teachers began to lose track of why a class teaching the Sopranos might not also spend a week on Fox News and the rhetoric of George W. Bush’s war on terror. After all, maybe showing students the parlor tricks behind Bush’s rhetoric would help convince them to vote for Kerry instead. This had a range of effects:

1. It alienated students from their teachers and lent a certain amount of justification to campaigns mounted by people like David Horowitz.

2. It helped disguise the transition from teaching content to teaching skills, such as the conversion of English classes into “rhetoric and composition” classes. Teachers were willing to accept skills-based classes as long as they could teach political content, but this was a devil’s bargain, as the content was of course now practically irrelevant except as raw material to be operated on in the name of more grammatical sentences and smoother transitions between paragraphs.

3. It alienated students and teachers from the curriculum itself. The “boom” period for English departments in particular, and the humanities in general, was the 1960s, when a song like “A Change’s Gonna Come” was considered to be a sort of cultural ally of the Civil Rights Movement, and a book like Eros and Civilization or The Birth of Tragedy could actually be considered part of a large-scale attempt at achieving new freedoms. The purely negative stance toward cultural products old and new, epitomized by texts like The Novel and the Police or Nation of Rebels, backed teachers of culture into a position of real self-loathing and undergraduates into passionless imitation of that self-loathing. If all you learned was that your teachers, who knew a lot about culture, apparently liked it less than you did, you certainly didn’t need to major in it. The more aesthetics and enjoyment became conversations for hobbyists, the less important it was to have professionals analyzing culture.

There should be classes on political rhetoric, which would do well to analyze people like Glenn Beck, and there should be classes on aesthetic categories, including pieces of popular culture where appropriate. Departmental divisions and differences should remain within the over-arching umbrella of the “humanities,” rather than collapsing into one uber-class on hegemony. It is a sorry testament to the way modern academic understandings of “the political” have inhibited political work that academic outsiders like Greil Marcus have produced some of the best and most enduring works of “cultural studies” — books like Lipstick Traces that are much better than the canons of founding fathers such as Stuart Hall, and have no difficulty remaining in print. I agree with Andrew Seal that merely “complicating” existing pictures of neoliberalism and the political economy, as Berube proposes, is not doing enough. That sounds like embroidering a fundamental resignation with colorful, distracting dissent. But there isn’t another, better word out there, because the study of culture cannot begin with a set of political demands. It has to begin with intellectual curiosity and a sensitive ear for what individuals and institutions are trying to express, letting that access of understanding speak to issues of immediate political concern how it will.