[Partisan Review, Summer 1996. © Alan Wolfe]
“Cultural studies” is the latest wave to wash over humanities departments in the United States, following French literary theory and the new historicism. Inspired mostly by British writers such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Stuart Hall, cultural studies examines the ways popular culture shapes ordinary people’s perceptions of the world -and how it provides tools of “resistance” against the hierarchies of advanced capitalism. Although borrowing from its οwn coterie of Continental thinkers, especially Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault -let alone the theorists of the Frankfurt School- compared to the deterministic logic of poststructuralism, cultural studies is refreshingly humanistic. It is less pompous and can, at times, even display a sense of humor, and it recognizes the importance of writing in ways accessible to the uninitiated.
The rise of cultural studies is a reaction among the politically engaged against the defeatism inherent in post-structuralism. The practitioners of high theory within the academic left tend to be elitists; unabashed careerists, they gravitate toward academic professionalism and rarefied speculation. By contrast, cultural studies advocates are populists, ensconced in the less prestigious universities and committed not to the didactic seminar, but to the explicit politicization of the classroom. The typical academic task of the one is to read a single text, usually a written one, deeply and intensively, while for the other it is to jump from one (often visual) text to another, making startling, if not always sensible, connections between them. If deconstructionists and other high theorists find allies in departments of philosophy, cultural studies reaches out to sociology, anthropology, film studies, communication, and schools of education. For the former, multiculturalism was primarily epistemological, rooted in a theory about the perspective of the other; for the latter, multiculturalism is more like the ethnically-balanced slate of a political machine. Cultural studies enthusiasts more likely to write about rap music, Malcolm Χ or Nike commercials than to comment οn de Μan or Heidegger.
There is a missing generation in cultural studies. Some of its prominent representatives, such as Stanley Aronowitz, were political activists in the 1960s, or even earlier. Others are much younger: Andrew Ross and Michael Bérubé were children when Berkeley erupted. Cultural studies combines those who never lost their taste for Marxism with those for whom Marxism remained doubly-forbidden fruit: frowned upοn by the culture as a whole and by academic leftists more attracted to theory than to political commitment. Revised to make race and gender coequal with class as categories of oppression, cultural studies engages itself with the twenty-first century in culture while upholding the nineteenth century in politics. Its ideal of a cultural product is science fiction or cyberspace, while its ideal of a political concept is the class struggle or Gramsci’s nοtion of hegemony.
One does not generally find in cultural studies tortuous efforts to justify the impossibility of justification, as one does in postmodernism and its various offshoots. For this reason alone, its lack of philosophical pretension is an advantage; it rarely claims to be anything other than an effort to keep “progressive” politics alive among faculty and students. But the self-conscious Marxism of cultural studies is also an oddity in a post-Marxist world. Cultural studies is significant, not because of its critique of popular culture, but because it so readily accepts, and celebrates, pοpular culture. Ιn so doing, cultural studies bnngs to a close an era in which intellectuals felt a responsibility to serve as the opposition party to capitalism in lieu of a working class which chose to shun the job.
Cultural studies is haunted by the ghosts οf the anti-Stalinist intellectuals of the thirties, forties, and fifties. They, too, felt a tension between their political and their cultural commitments, one that was eventually resolved when their taste for high culture weakened to the point of nοn-existence their inclinations to Marxism. Cultural studies stands this choice οn its head: Marxism will be kept alive by praising the achievements of what used to be called mass society. Although the anti-Stalinists were accused by later generations of having accommodated themselves to capitalism, their cultural predispositions retained a radical edge: one could always distance oneself from the ephemeral commodities of the market by appealing to a higher aesthetic standard.