links for 2009-09-28
The Late Richard Nixon on the Late William Safire: "An Exceptional Jew"

On the Analysis of "Degraded" Popular Cultural Forms

Crypto asks Michael Berube:

Would your argument be different at all if you'd turned to the place of cultural studies in feminism?

And Michael Berube replies:

FWhat's the Matter With Cultural Studies?: Re: Knock, knock: Good question -- the answer would be, basically, yes and no. In The Left At War, I do mount a defense of feminists' work in cultural studies in the 80s and early 90s. Here's a snippet:

The 1980s witnessed an extraordinary profusion of serious academic books on degraded popular cultural forms: the romance novel, the soap opera, the slasher film, and, of course, the most degraded form of them all, pornography. In each case, the argument was made that the close analysis of these forms was important not because the forms themselves were as aesthetically satisfying as The Tempest or as intellectually complex as Paradise Lost, but because they offered representations of the world, however phantasmic, that attracted millions of people; therefore, so the argument went, it was only reasonable to try to discover and come to terms with the thoughts and impressions of the people who devoted significant portions of their lives to romances or soaps or slash films– or even porn.

Following the publication of Stuart Hall’s groundbreaking “Encoding / Decoding” essay and David Morley’s The Nationwide Audience in the U.K., and Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance in the U.S., many cultural studies theorists embarked on a kind of mass-media “ethnography” in which they sought the opinions of soap fans, romance readers, and TV viewers in order to try to understand how mass-cultural phenomena were actually “consumed” and understood by mass-cultural audiences. [Footnote here to Modleski, Radway, Carol Clover, Linda Williams, and Laura Kipnis]

It is difficult to overstate the amount of derision with which this project met, inside academe and out. When senior (male) scholars weren’t sputtering over what they considered books that should have been published as articles in High Times, mainstream (mostly male) journalists were guffawing at the idea that things like soap operas and romances merited a moment’s thought. [Footnote here to William Kerrigan writing, "People got tenure for writing about the imperialist fantasies of Marvel Comics or the gender rules in Harlequin Romances -- ideas that might have made decent articles for High Times but, driven by theory, got seriously out of hand." I just couldn't make that shit up.] That derision helped to reinforce cultural studies theorists’ initial point– namely, that certain mass cultural forms, and their audiences, are widely considered utterly unworthy of serious attention.

But unfortunately, it also confirmed cultural studies theorists’ convictions that they were doing something Deeply Important, something that would shake academe and mainstream journalism and culture to their very foundations. The problem with those convictions of the theorist’s importance, in turn, is part of the larger problem of studying mass culture from a left perspective that looks especially for moments of dissidence or subversion: for if there’s one thing mass culture produces aplenty, it’s moments of “dissidence” and “subversion” that are nothing but. And just as skateboarding and “slash” fanzines aren’t really a threat to global capitalism in the end, so too, the academic study of skate punks and “slash” fans doesn’t really amount to much of a challenge to the established order– save for the established order in a handful of academic disciplines whose established order changes once or twice a decade anyway.

...which, I think, gets back to your original question.