Wolfe, Alan: The Culture of Cultural Studies

Enthusiasts for cultural studies are the first to admit that popular culture is not always pretty; its images can be violent, pornographic, racist, and militarist, doing real harm to real people. But popularity must be respected for its οwn sake; if a product sells, there must be something to it. There is, in this sympathy for the popular, an element of realism; unlike some feminists against pornography, who simply want to wish away an ugliness they do not like (and who, according to Ross, therefore sound like the Cold War intellectuals of a previous generation), writers in the tradition of cultural studies are more likely to try and discover why pornography has appeal -and not just to men.

Doing this, however, often requires rather complicated gymnastics. And, truth be told, cultural studies stumbled badly. Το claim, as endless writers in this tradition do, that Madonna serves feminist goals by challenging the border between masculine and feminine represents little more than celebrity envy. It is a short step from that position to sympathy for sado-masochism or even the argument of Shannon Bell, who finds that feminist critics of prostitution, the ultimate form of women’s degradation, silence prostitutes by insisting οn a difference between licit and illicit sex.

Perhaps the most painful example of the inability of cultural studies to deal with ugliness is bell hook’s treatment of “gangsta rap.” Feminists must be “bold and fierce” in their condemnation of black rapsters who preach violence against women, she claims. But we should also recognize that the white power structure has an interest in having black music “stir up controvercy to appeal to audiences.” Gangsta rappen are just dupes of the machinations of white elites. Therefore, as hooks inelegantly cοncludes, “our feminist critiques of black male sexism fail as meaningful political interventions if they seek to demonize black males, and do not recognize that οur revolutionary work is to transform white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the multiple arenas of our lives where it is manifest, whether in gangsta rap, the black church, or in the Clinton administration.”

Agonies such as these are a product of cultural studies’ certainty that the popular culture is popular. But how do we know that it is? The mere fact that people buy something does not mean that they like it or even use it. The sociology of the popular is terra incognita; since the days of Paul Lazarsfeld, sociologists have been trying to understand the phenomenon of the mass audience, with little success. But cultural studies enthusiasts, unrestrained by a sociologist’s need for data, spin imaginative interpretations of what Hustler magazine or AIDS iconography mean to those who read or see them. If we οnly knew. The fact is that there is as little basis for concluding that popular culture is a source of resistance to the dominant order as there is for believing that it is a prop of the dominant order. Cultural studies happens when literature professors wander into the territory of sociologists without a map.

For this very reason, cultural studies also takes the popularity of popular culture far more seriously than the purveyors of popular culture do. Those who write soap operas and market punk rock are guided by little else than their relentless quest for something that will turn a profit. Postmodernists in their οwn fashion, they operate by nο core principles and subscribe to nο theories of human nature or the proper organization of society. They would be the first to recognize that there is nο message in their message, other than half-hearted efforts at product differentiation. They can never be sure that their contributions to pοpular culture will ever make it past the wastebasket and into the video stores. When their products are successfiιl, they usually have little idea why. If they were interested, and they generally are not, they could consult advocates of cultural studies, who are busy trying to supply a meaning and rationale for their work which they themselves do not possess.

Read Previous

Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

Read Next

Antennae 1