Monday, November 15, 2004

“Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen:
Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies”
George Lipsitz

I’m starting to see a trend, at least with contemporary essays in American culture. So far, all of them have begun with a clever device that attempts to deviate from the devices of a typical scholarly essay. We had George Wise’s paradigms of American Studies, Jay Mechling’s “That reminds me of a story” (as well as his American culture grid), and Mary Helen Washington’s analogic examples such as the play, The Wedding Band, because it illustrates her ideas. In other words, American Studies scholars of the last ten to fifteen years ten to place a lot of importance on beginning their essays with a connection to literature, to art, before they delve into the murky ennui of theory. We can predict that the literary grounding of the introduction will be followed suddenly be a recap of some length of the history of contested issues in American studies—though that history may be of varied length, intensity, or interest. Only then can the writer move into the issue at his or her hand. Lipsitz doesn’t deviate far from this formula, though one could say that his writing on his general topic is quite good.

Lipsitz begins his essay with the story of a trumpet player who had the distinction of joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra in its heyday. The trumpet player wanted to know what to do, but Ellington would tell him only “listen,” which frustrated the young musician. Finally, Ellington had to explain to the guy “there’s listening, and then there’s listening, but what I want from you is to listen.” Lipsitz explains that the musician “had been so preoccupied with what he might contribute to the orchestra as an individual that he had not taken time to hear what the other musicians needed. He had not yet learned to hear the voices around him nor to understand the spaces and silences surrounding them” (615). So, in order to be in “harmony” with the other “voices,” one has to “listen” carefully to how they “play” “in concert.” Lipsitz applies that to “the present moment for scholarly research in American Studies.” That is, the present moment as of 1990. He calls it a time of “creative ferment and critical fragmentation.” Because the emphasis is no longer on the elite culture, new possibilities are opened by the “complex relationship between scholarly methods and popular cultures, political economies, and ideologies of America” (616). Lipsitz argues that this fragmentation and “ferment” proves that the field of American Studies is opening up, rather than ending, as many had predicted (616).

Lipsitz next takes up the issue of Cultural Studies vs. American Studies, an important distinction. European theorists like Althusser, Lacan, Irigaray, Cixous, and Bakhtin have “theorized a ‘crisis of representation’ that has called into question basic assumptions within the disciplines central to the American Studies project—literary studies, art history, anthropology, geography, history, and legal studies” (616). The debates these scholars bring up are critical because they question basic concepts such as “the utility of national boundaries as fitting limits for the study of culture” and “the reliability of categories that establish canons of great works” (617). These debates—in particular those involving national boundaries obviously call into question the very existence of American Studies. But Lipsitz goes on to say that “the threat posed to American Studies by contemporary European cultural theory is more apparent than real, more a product of our own fears than of any concrete social reality” (617). In fact, Lipsitz thinks that such a challenge to thought offers a chance to revitalize the field because the European critics have much to offer the discipline.

Derrida, for example, offers much as a theorist, because he reminds us that our “logocentrism” causes us to focus solely on written texts and “dismissal of competing systems of thought as ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’” causes us to privilege “the experiences of modern Europeans and North Americans as ‘human’ while dismissing much of the rest of the world as some kind of undifferentiated ‘other.’” Derrida’s work has been valuable to help “cultural critics to break with logocentrism, to be self-reflexive about the tools they wield” (619). It’s a useful tool to American Studies scholars because it opens up new realms of possibilities.

Foucault is another European thinker who, like Derrida, causes us to consider “how discursive categories constitute sites of oppression.” Foucault points out, for instance, the way “medicalization of sexuality or the criminalization of ‘antisocial behavior’ has constructed the body as a locus of domination and power.” In other words, power is used to constrain, contain, silence, and suppress “potential opposition” of people in “marginal social positions” (619). This is an interesting concept. I need to come back to this. By oppressing and silencing, he means shutting up—and by medicalizing, he’s saying “oh he’s crazy.”

Lipsitz says that locating the idea of power in the body “constrains, contains, silences, and suppresses potential oppositions” (619). Further, he says, when power is suppressed this way, people are marginalized. In a way I see what he’s saying. If I can apply it to students I have worked with, I can see that if students protested the way they were being treated and the system wrote them off as “conduct disorder,” then no one had to examine whether or not there was a system-wide problem that mishandled the African American boys such that they were grossly overrepresented in special education. So Foucault is another influential European cultural theorist.

Still another important cultural theorist to influence American studies is Jean-Francois Lyotard because of his work in defining post-modernism. Lyotard calls po-mo “more of a sensibility than a time period,” citing “delight in difference, self-reflexivity, detached irony, and ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’” as parts of the definition (619). Even though po-mo isn’t officially a time period, it still does “stem from the modern sense of living in a ‘pose’ period characterized by the exhaustion of modernism and Marxism as ways of understanding and interpreting experience” that includes “the rejection among deconstructionists and post-structuralists of the ‘grand master narratives’ emanating from the Enlightenment” (619).

Other European theories to play important roles are Lacanian psychoanalysis, Althursserian structuralist-Marxism, British Cultural Studies, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and post modernism. Theorists like French feminist Luce Irigaray and Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin also have helped to define American Studies (620).

Most important to know about these theorists is that they have brought about “acrimonious debates,” including “an anti-intellectual dismissal of new methods and approaches” on the one hand of “deconstruction and post-structuralism” (620) and on the other hand “a reification of theory into a ‘magic bullet’ that can by itself position scholars outside the oppressions and exploitations of history” (621). So, the result, according to Lipsitz, is both sides misunderstand each other. In his view, the solution is to define culture broadly enough that it makes sense to use the meaning of competing theories in the ways that best make sense.

Lipsitz says that “one of cultural theory’s greatest contributions has been to challenge the division between texts and experience” (621). He cites Stuart Hall’s goal of cultural criticism as “the reproduction of the concrete in thought, ‘not to generate another good theory, but to give a better theorized account of concrete historical reality’” (621).

Lipsitz also looks at American studies historically. He breaks with the authors I’ve read so far who discuss the contested issues in American studies in that, while he sees that the myth and symbol school of theorists “served conservative ends,” Lipsitz still thinks that they were “asking critical questions about the relationship between the social construction of cultural categories and power relations in American society” (622). So in other words they did not completely ignore the politics of power. Lipsitz cites Giles Gunn’s thought that the work of the myth and symbol scholars “was both diagnostic and corrective because they recognized the interpenetration of symbolism and semiotics with power and privilege” (622).

Lipsitz also addresses Gene Wise’s review of the field article (1979) that I already discussed (which argues “for a new American Studies”). As far as Lipsitz is concerned, European cultural theory can be useful in developing that new American Studies because it “inevitably leads it toward cultural practices beyond literature, especially to popular culture” (623). Cultural theory applies well to this inquiry because Cultural theorists are “trained to see literary texts as ‘multivocal’ and ‘dialogic’” so they “find rich objects of study within the vernacular forms and generic recombinations collectively authored within commercial culture” (623). The European cultural theorists apply especially well to popular culture because they apply well when it is “difficult to distinguish the text from its conditions of creation, distribution, and reception” (624).

Lipsitz also recommends that “For many years, American Studies has needed more explorations into popular culture grounded in political economy and guided by theoretical critique” (626). The contemporary world makes the study of popular culture all the more urgent. Indeed, “the work of artists from seemingly marginal communities calls attention to unprecedented opportunities for serious study of popular culture, for explorations into politics and economics, and for renewed theoretical inquiry. Fourteen-year-olds with digital samplers may not know Jacques Lacan from Chaka Khan, but they can access the entire inventory of recorded world music with the flick of a switch” (636-637).

Further, the boundaries are changing, much as Jay Mechling predicted they would. Lipsitz says, “The musics of Laurie Anderson and David Byrne presume that artifacts of popular culture circulate within the same universe as artifacts of ‘high’ culture, and they build their dramatic force from the juxtaposition of these seemingly in compatible discourses” (627). It doesn’t stop there, though. What’s even more interesting is the way that the artists have begun to assume our expertise in popular culture. Lipsitz gives the example of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as a popular culture production that anticipates “viewer competence in the codes of popular culture as well as the concerns of contemporary cultural criticism” (627).

One of the most interesting points Lipsitz makes has to do with the inter-connectedness of “post-modernism in literature and the visual arts” with that in the electronic mass media. He says that “one might argue that the most sophisticated cultural theorists in America are neither critics nor scholars, but rather artists—writers Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko […] or musicians Laurie Anderson, Prince, David Byrne, and Tracy Chapman” because “their work revolves around the multiple perspectives, surprising juxtapositions, subversions of language, and self-reflexivities explored within cultural theory” (627).

Lipsitz’s article is important not just because of the connections he makes between European cultural studies and the field of American studies. He also makes a case for the importance of the study of popular culture, proving that popular culture is not a frivolous topic, but rather an important way to see parts of American culture.

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