Friday, December 31, 2004

"The Need for Cultural Studies:
Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres”
Henry Giroux, et al.

Like eating a big bowl full of bran, reading this article was tough going, though I knew doing so was good for me. Just like bran, the prose was dense and hard to chew, so although it was very short, reading it took forever.

Giroux and his co-authors make the point in this article that academic disciplines are arbitrary and even harmful to the proper application of cultural studies because they “limit discourse.” The study of literary genres, they give as an example, really only became a legitimate area a little more than a hundred years ago. The divisions and classifications of subject areas are not only arbitrary, but also they change according to intellectual fashion.

Disciplines like Women’s Studies, Black Studies as well as (obviously) American Studies and Canadian Studies were developed as interdisciplinary programs “out of the sense that the most important issues were being lost between the rigid boundaries between the disciplines.” American Studies, say the authors, “began with the agenda of retrieving such issues.” The authors also point out, however, that both American and Canadian Studies were “spawned” by “openly political” nationalism,” so they really didn’t begin with the spirit that would engender a truly interdisciplinary and intellectual form of inquiry. So while one would think that these interdisciplinary attempts would have remedied the problem of disciplines, according to Giroux et al., these programs “have failed.” Oftentimes “[p]ractitioners are regarded as dilettantes rather than real scholars and their enterprises are written off as mere fads.”

Giroux and others argue that the present canon “is based upon an hierarchical economy where cultural objects are ranked. Certain of these objects (Shakespeare’s writing, for example) are assumed to be ‘the best’ of western culture; they thus represent, synecdochally, the essence of the culture. It is exactly this symbolic view of culture against which Cultural Studies should fight.” In other words, this new way of viewing the matter at hand shouldn’t rely on the old “truths” just because we’ve always believed them. Instead, “Cultural Studies [...] should be built upon a different economy, one which sees that cultural objects are, in fact, disposed relationally.”

The point, then, should be to develop the kinds of intellectuals who can “provide the moral, political, and pedagogical leadership for those groups which take as their starting point the transformative critique of the conditions of oppression.” These intellectuals, which Giroux et al. call “resisting intellectuals,” “cannot be housed in universities as they are presently structured” because they won’t fit into the expected norm of disciplines.

The authors realize that this stipulation makes their plan impractical, since universities have a vested interest in brokering knowledge the way they do so now. But they do recommend that intellectuals (scholars) not “resign” themselves to the roles universities assign them. In addition, they recommend that “Cultural Studies must develop a self-regulating discourse.” Finally, “Cultural Studies must resist the interests contained in the established academic disciplines and departments.

The proposal they make seems improbable, but since I had to research various American Studies programs to write my own at Union, I learned about how various of them are structured. The one at George Mason University comes to mind—where faculty from a number of disciplines serve on the faculty that teaches cultural studies courses. The American Civilization program at Brown comes to mind as well. And of course the program at Union as well. Giroux and the others are right, though. Any program that steps outside the artificial boundaries education has drawn for itself is immediately suspect; if it isn’t neatly within the waffle-squares of American History or American Literature, the idiots on the hiring committees or the degree granting bodies suddenly develop brain injuries that prevent them from understanding anymore…hmmm….I hate to sound cynical about this essay, which so clearly influenced two important institutions….

No comments: