Monday, September 21, 2009

What's the Matter With Cultural Studies?

A timely article, a semi-obituary. . .

But I still have hope that the history of cultural studies might matter to the university—and to the world beyond it. My hopes aren't quite as ambitious as they were 20 years ago. I no longer expect cultural studies to transform the disciplines. But I do think cultural studies can do a better job of complicating the political-economy model in media theory, a better job of complicating our accounts of neoliberalism, and a better job of convincing people inside and outside the university that cultural studies' understanding of hegemony is a form of understanding with great explanatory power—that is to say, a form of understanding that actually works.



M L Raina said...

Thank you Rajesh for posting this timely warning.We in India have not yet reached the stage
where cultural studies could be considered as a developed field of study.For instance I was
fascinated by Dicken's and Shakespeare's use of popular /mass culture within their
works.But when Stephen Greenblatt asserted that Shakespeare is merely a speck of
'circulating energy' in the Elizabetahn social formation(an egregious stance now corrected
by him in Will & the World),I began to wonder whether cultural studies would provide a valid
ground for assessing a writer AS A Writer.I think the so-called cultural studies approach to
literary texts is at best partial and at worst stultifyng. Mind you I am writing as a student of
literature and not as a sociologist or anthropologist or even a cultural theorist in the Stuart
Hall vein.The latter never professed to be anything but a cultural theorist while pioneers
like Raymond Williams and E.P Thompson, in spite of their socio-cultural views,never lost
sight of literature as a distinct enterprise.
Television soaps are enjoyable and I have my own favourites in the current offerings. They
are good material for a sociological study. But to see the future only in Ghar Ghar ki Kahani
or Soprano is to forget that great writing,painting and other art forms are most of the time
moving against the grain of prevailing false consciousness. Williams's lectures on the novel
are an illustration.
Soaps are diversion, Shakespeare and Stevens call forth your strenuous powers of
imaginative empathy.
Here again we must distinguish films( films are other current fads in humanities) that tax
and challenge us (Tarkovsky,Godard,Ray,Sen,Gopalakrishnan, Kiarastomi) and the melting-
point Hollywood/Bollywood witches' brew which ensures conformity and even collaboration
with the dominant ideology.
As Mahatma Gandhi said of the western civilisation,cultural studies is a 'good idea' at best.
It will neither butter your bread(in India literature students are going abegging for suitable
jobs),nor will it provide a shield against false consciousness.Post-modernism is fun here in
New York where I am writing this note, looking out of my 21st storey apartment on to the
Empire State building now being dwarfed by an ugly pomo structure,but real challenges lie
in social struggle and in the power of art to say no.As the late Edward Said advised in the
eighties,practice everything that interests you,but concentrate on what is difficult and
intractable. And Said,whatever unforgivable limitations he has as cultural critic(he has a
lot),was a wonderful reader of texts.No mere cultural critic could write so feelingly of
Kipling's Kim as he does. Of how many of his panjandrums can you say this?

Surbhi said...

very well said , Sir.

However I do think that as Cultural Studies will develop further , we will find
better subjects. To say that Eisenstein is a classic and ought to be studied is
true. However to deny that the current filmmakers David Lynch or Bela
Tarr are merely
experimental would be judging too harshly. However, even this
understanding of Cultural Studies
seems to be missing. Blake would have never been rescued from oblivion
had it not been for Yeats and Eliot for Wordsworth and Coleridge
towered above all.