Cultural Studies is more Neo-Liberal than Neo-Liberalism

Michael Berube wrote a deliberately polemical column in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the non-impact of Cultural Studies in US universities. His argument has three dimensions:

1) Cultural Studies has a very slight institutional profile in US institutions. Berube gauges this according to the number of standalone graduate programs in Cultural Studies.

2) Cultural Studies has had little impact on other disciplines measured relative to the rhetoric of an ‘all conquering’ Cultural Studies imagined in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

3) A complex point about the critical ‘Left’ focus of Cultural Studies defined as a movement away from a 1970s Althusserian and/or neo-Gramscian Marxism towards what could be collectively described as a focus on issues pertaining to Left Identity Politics.

If Berube really wants to push the polemical envelope then he needs to step outside his privileged institutional position as a US professor. I normally like Berube’s writing, so I want to help him out. There are three other points about Cultural Studies that need to be raised if you really want to lay the boot in.

4) Cultural Studies is not a US discipline for most scholars practicing Cultural Studies. Think global, act local… because I don’t care about what is wrong with Kansas. I am not sure if much interesting work has come out of US Cultural Studies lately, I am sure there has been, it is just largely irrelevant to Australia, Europe, South America, China and most other places of Cultural Studies scholarship. There are a few exceptions of course, such as the work of Steve Shaviro and others. The point is that the situation of US Cultural Studies is only relevant for Cultural Studies in other national contexts because of the (slipping) hegemonic grip of big US-based publishing houses on dictating the ‘generic’ cultural tone of monographs. The sooner this synergistic dispositif of US publishers and US universities to condition global scholarly discourse dies the better it will be for everyone interested in engaging with and publishing about specific localised problems in their respective cultural contexts. I read my friends’ work published out of the US, only because I am curious to see how they translate localized problems in to publishers’ anemic US-centric discourse.

5) Cultural Studies is not a university discipline. I have worked at universities and now I don’t. I work as a writer for enthusiast car magazines. So what? Some of the very best work within Cultural Studies was carried out by those on the fringe of academia. Meaghan Morris’s work from the 1980s is a good example of this in the Australian context. The Birmingham School during its heyday is another good example of graduate students belonging to localised cultures who used the institutionality of the university as a resource to enable them to do the research (and address specific problems) they needed to do.
Cultural Studies is practiced by myriad writers and other creatives working in the ‘real world’. Some of the best work I have read recently has been produced by friends who have completed higher education in Cultural Studies but do not work in universities. Plus, they have a readership of a different magnitude compared to academic journals or books.

6) Cultural Studies within the university has a purer neo-liberal ideological basis than actually existing neo-liberalism. The careerist entrepreneur-of-the-academic-self embodies the neo-liberal ideology of capitalist self-actualisation. A career used to be something you ended up with at the end of it, not something that was planned through various stages of calculating maximisation of institutional ‘opportunities’. The sad thing I have witnessed is the inculcation of this careerist subjectivity on an institutional level so that very good people have to assume particular professional ‘careerist’ dispositions to get ahead. Those of us who are too rock and roll communist for this capitalist shit will probably never work in universities (again).
To be honest, sure, I eventually want a job in academia. I don’t have enough time to do the reading, writing and thinking I’d like to in my current job. However, I don’t want to work as a casual teaching other people’s courses or as a casual research assistant doing other people’s research. This sort of work is sold as an apprenticeship, something you need to do so as to get a foot in the door, but it isn’t. It is merely the proletariatisation of intellectual labour. The surplus of Cultural Studies Ph.D’s presents a classic Marxist problem of surplus labour. There should be a generalised withdrawal of casualised labour from universities to cause them some organisational pain.

17 thoughts on “Cultural Studies is more Neo-Liberal than Neo-Liberalism”

  1. Three excellent points, glen.

    I’ve responded elsewhere to a response to Berube’s column, and my point basically boiled down to the fact that I didn’t really recognise what was being described as ‘cultural studies’. That’s probably true for Berube’s account too, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with point 4 above.

    As for 6, the even sadder thing, glen, is that I think nowadays the two to three years following the PhD are crucial. I don’t think there’s actually any scope to get a job in academia “eventually” — if it’s not within the first five years, it’s probably not going to happen, except insofar as you could get a teaching-only or teaching-heavy position on the basis of your industry experience. If you want to get into research (and the research-teaching nexus is now all but broken), then there’s virtually no option other than grabbing an RA position on an ARC project and putting out some publications while you do someone else’s research for them — all the while trying to get yourself written in as a CI on a project with someone who has ARC form.

    If you can score an ARC within your first five years (i.e. while you’re still an “ECR”), then you’re reasonably well set up to apply for research fellowships. If not — or worse still (for the likes of me, but also for you if stay out of the university system for too long), if you have a career interruption that takes you 5 years beyond PhD in real time — your hopes of getting into the system are drastically diminished.

  2. Great work, Glen.

    One thing that continually bugs me about ‘whats wrong with Cultural Studies?’ pieces – now an industry of its own – is that there is never any reference to what Cultural Studies actually does at the undergraduate level. In a broad humanities school, the CS classes serve as a introductory theorisation class often filled by people who are unsure of what they are going to specialise in. Ie, Cultural Studies is a stand-in, at pretty much every institution I am aware of locally and internationally, for an introduction to the humanities for the skeptical, the unsure, the lazy and the adrift. This is on top of those who might be engaging with it geniuinely, or taking a class as part of a forced stream in a Media / Comms degree.

    Those classrooms, stacked high with 300-400 students, repeated lectures, 5-6 tutors, 30 students a class, mass madness and chaos – that is the site of Cultural Studies. Not Micheal Berube’s office and iPhone-synched-to-airline-take-off-times. We are rejecting the economists for depleting oxygen while producing damaging ideological tripe, and frankly when a exceedingly monied academic deigns to inform me what the state of the field is, I want to vomit. I taught a Cultural Studies subject last semester which is at a University people could generously describe as second-tier to 345 students with 5 tutors. I did so eighteen months into my appointment.

    Cultural Studies in that context has absolutely nothing at all to do with either the Gramscian or the identity politics streams. Nothing. Cultural studies as I know it, as I teach it, is about a foundational engine of doubt – teaching students about how rhetoric is formed and manipulated across media, who benefits from stereotypes, how images produce conformity and difference. In short, raise the stakes for intellectual doubt and critical behaviour for every student – make primary reading vital for the first, and possibly last time. In one lecture, I explained the Gramscian and left identitiy politics traditions as historical objects. We didn’t have enough time to do more than that – I was pushing primary reading from Marx, Stuart Hall, Butler, Fiske, Eng and a great deal from non Cultural Studies sources. My coda for every week was show – specifically – how deep rhetorical tools can explain and empower. Give students the capacity for high-stakes analysis of their world, their culture, their media, now.

    I don’t know if I did I good job, but I know that by Week 8, the term ‘neo-liberal’ did not need to be used at all. Ideological reading is a concept now taught in Year 10 English and frankly, Cultural Studies peeps should feel comfortable with the fact CS is, from the University’s point of view, a gateway drug.

    I choose not to interact with CS actively because of bad academic behaviour I saw at a CSAA – a very senior academic tearing into a MA candidate for ‘irrelevant research’ – and this endless fascination with self-analysis reminds me that I don’t miss it. I’m happy to be 3-5 years off the pace with cultural research, if I can avoid another self-congratulatory academic hero inventing the end of something or beginning of something else. Anyway, you might be more forgiving of Berube but I thought his column was dumb, mean, and out of touch.

  3. OK, I admit it, my column was dumb, mean, and out of touch because I didn’t redefine “cultural studies” as “critical reading in general” and discuss large introductory undergraduate courses. I’m sure that by week 8 Christian had accomplished all his pedagogical goals — and I’m sure he deflated all self-congratulatory academic heroes in the process. Kudos! One quibble, though: I do not have an iPhone-synched-to-airline-take-off-times. That would be silly. I have a private jet.

    About Glen’s post: I get the impression that my essay was wrongheaded because cultural studies in the US is even more irrelevant than I suggested. But thanks for helping me out — seriously. I disagree slightly with (4), because I think Blackwell and Routledge have more serious cultural studies backlists than any single academic publisher in the US; I think (6) is problematic because it involves a drastic overextension (and therefore dilution) of the term “neoliberal” (not everyone in CS plans a career, and not everybody who gets a job is a neoliberal); and I think (5) is exactly right, especially in Australia, and Meaghan’s work is a fine example. All I can say is that I’m envious, just as I’m agog that in the UK, Gordon Brown actually reviewed The Hard Road to Renewal in the LRB (though he missed the point, which is probably why he’s having such a hard time with the legacy of Thatcherism today). We have nothing like this in the US, where cultural studies is largely confined to universities and disconnected from much of the public sphere, and we’re all the poorer for it. So why did I narrow my focus? Um, because the essay was a talk given to the US Cultural Studies Association for a panel called “The University after Cultural Studies.” Always contextualize, as they say.

    Anyway, my even dumber and meaner and outer of touch followup is here. It was nice of Simon During to show up in the comment thread, imho, and Henry Farrell’s comment @ 28 is precisely on point. (Also, a link to Brown’s review of Hall can be found @ comment 26.) Thanks for reading my little polemic in the first place.

  4. Hi Michael,

    The definition of neo-liberalism I was using was implicit, so let me clarify.

    I follow Negri and Hardt’s definition of politics as the struggle over the production of possibilities in the passage from the virtual to the actual. Their Deleuze-Foucault(-Kant) mashup is explicitly future oriented. Part of this involves the way the past is mobilised as a way to modulate the capacities for present and future action, which is why there is this continual reimagining/reinscribing/revalorising of the history of Cultural Studies. The key point is that ‘neo-liberalism’ for me is not an ‘-ism’ like a sporting team one is part of or one is against, rather it is a composition of power relations that condition possible action and form a transversal series across a number of scales from the personal to the institutional (yes, what I take to be Deleuze’s understanding of Foucault’s def. of a dispositif). Neo-liberalism thus defined is an event that is differentially repeated across a number of transversal scales.

    On an institutional scale of, say, the corporate university and cultural industry scholarly publishing business, possible action is conditioned in ways that are congruent with maximising profit in the sales of mass-readership ‘introductory’ and ‘popular’ scholarly texts, extracting surplus ‘teaching’ value in full-fee courses from the surplus labour pool of graduate students and newly-minted PhDs and transforming the keen and critical minds of committed academics into investment (funding) brokers and departmental and course managers.

    The careerist subjectivity is not an ideal model of the neo-liberal academic, but the diagrammatic representation of this transversal line involving the neo-liberal reconfiguration of the political and knowledge-production capacities of academics on a personal level. For example, I perceive a real pressure to publish in certain ways and to partake in the regimes of the institution with a certain resigned enthusiasm. The possibilities for future action are thus constrained by maximising those possibilities; these are often discoursed as ‘opportunities’.

    (When was the last time you described something as an ‘opportunity’ to a junior academic? Was it because it was carrying out research that would serve as an intervention in a social problem or because it would help the junior academic’s career?)

    To give you an idea of what I mean, in Australia you are classed as an Early Career Researcher for five years after completing a PhD. You are meant to have some sort of conception of a career planned out that is congruent with being a manager and broker of one’s own future.

    Many of my friends and other academics are waging a war against this careerist subjectivity. Surely if Cultural Studies is anything, then it is not the narcissistic project of developing one’s own career, but instead involves mobilising around those problems isolated in the real world with real people and drawing on the resources of the university and the fantastic privilege provided by all our reading.

    Cultural Studies has completely failed, in my eyes, because it has not warded off, or even developed weapons for warding off, the personal, departmental and institutional embodiment/inculcation of this neo-liberal reconfiguration of power relations that conditions the movement from the virtual to the actual.

    I acknowledge your correction regarding the backlists of US publishers. As a Cultural Studies PhD with an eye for future publication however, my concern is with future publication and the conditions by which me and others in a similar position have to find publishers. Therefore, I am concerned with the constraints the current publisher-university nexus places on current and future publication, not with whatever achievements are demonstrated by their past actions.

    If I am understanding your response sufficiently, I believe you are suggesting that Cultural Studies has a socio-political efficacy when ‘others’, ie non-cultstuds and non-ackas, such as Gordon Brown, are engaging with the scholarly texts of Cultural Studies. Tracing the impact through textual reception may be a consequence of your particular professional/scholarly training and work or the relatively scant economy of action required for the cut and thrust of online debate to provide examples. Another way to think about tracing the impact of Cultural Studies would be to carrying a genealogy of concepts taught and circulating within Cultural Studies and to see their efficacy in the non-academic world. The autonomy of concepts to move through culture as a refrain of the ‘progressive’ political and social intentions of most Cultural Studies academics should not be under-played.

    In fact, I suggest a book: ‘Cultural Studies: This your LIFE!” The same way we are already each a multiplicity, the multiplicity of Cultural Studies could be traced through its witnesses.

  5. To give you an idea of what I mean, in Australia you are classed as an Early Career Researcher for five years after completing a PhD. You are meant to have some sort of conception of a career planned out that is congruent with being a manager and broker of one’s own future.

    Many of my friends and other academics are waging a war against this careerist subjectivity. Surely if Cultural Studies is anything, then it is not the narcissistic project of developing one’s own career, but instead involves mobilising around those problems isolated in the real world with real people and drawing on the resources of the university and the fantastic privilege provided by all our reading.

    Cultural Studies has completely failed, in my eyes, because it has not warded off, or even developed weapons for warding off, the personal, departmental and institutional embodiment/inculcation of this neo-liberal reconfiguration of power relations that conditions the movement from the virtual to the actual.

    OK, I’d have to agree with this. Likewise, it hasn’t done much to ward off, or even develop weapons for warding off, the neoliberalization of US higher education — though the people I mentioned in the CHE essay (Williams, Bousquet, Ross, Nelson — and also Giroux, the subject of your latest post) have at least called attention to this.

  6. Anyway, my even dumber and meaner and outer of touch followup is here.

    Fuck. I’ve been checking Bérubé’s blog ever since the original storm for an announcement of his follow up post, and I’d seen nothing other than a post on Mad Men, which I skipped, because I didn’t want to read any spoilers. Now I see that the announcement of the follow up was buried in the Mad Men post!

    Funny how the seemingly large-scale forces of geopolitics can play themselves out in the most small-scale and mundane of spaces.

    Another way to think about tracing the impact of Cultural Studies would be to carrying a genealogy of concepts taught and circulating within Cultural Studies and to see their efficacy in the non-academic world.

    Yes, yes, yes!

    This is exactly what I would argue — and, indeed, have argued elsewhere, albeit in relation to nothing quite so significant as the neoliberal transversality. Nicely put, glen.

  7. Micheal, having read your follow up, I have a much broader context for your points about the visibility and efficacy of CS, and as you say – context first, second and third. Similarly, in Australia, the culture wars are fought very differently and the sensitivity to discourse has quickly become materially important. To be ‘cultural studies’ at all in front of a funding application in Australia, is sometimes sort of admitting to vampirism.

    Apart from walking back my priggish tone, I wanted to add that at least in the contexts I can see, the comments on the second piece certainly ring true – CS has had a kind of retroviral effect on how research is conducted in many fields, inoculating against simplicity and isolationism. This still has done very little to counter-act the neoliberalisation of work – both research and teaching at the ground level, which, hidden in the bracken, was my original point. The irony is that I have never seen such interest from higher faculty groups in curriculum, as they offer help in choosing the most benign textbook which can produce that Girouxian ‘balance’. In these books, where ‘political economy’ is suddenly characterised by Lessig of all people, to be considered as one of many categories alongside ‘feminism’, ‘postmodernism’ and so forth, ‘cultural studies’ is a fly-away highlighted box, an entry on a list.

    Glen’s point that “Cultural Studies within the university has a purer neo-liberal ideological basis than actually existing neo-liberalism” is, to me, worthy of an expansive discussion. What if we’ve been backing the wrong horse?

  8. Ok, so after Christian’s comment above, now we have two lines of engagement. 1) Tracing the use of concepts closely associated with CS within popular culture as another way gauge pedagogical reception, application and impact. 2) Investigating the socio-political timbre of allegedly CS-style texts in foundational CS-style undergraduate units.

    I truly believe that CS can help develop a weaponised thought, which can work to better the conditions within which people find themselves. Even if it is to only enable them to proceed down the path of self-awareness (which sounds too hippy for me, I imagine something more militant).

    A Foucauldian style analysis of CS would be productive. Not to mimic Foucault’s philosophical concepts that he was enabled to think through his historical work, but a repetition of the historical methodology itself. A while ago I suggested something similar on a micro-scale looking at the reception of Francophone texts in Sydney in the early-1980s when a loose assortment of interested young scholars (Paul Patton, Meaghan Morris, etc) worked to introduce and disseminate this emerging body of work.

    Maybe we should set up a wiki/map/timeline mashup that allows interested participants to map the various lived intellectual scenes from which the more formal university-based institutions emerged. Like actual times and places of meetings, and what was discussed. (Of course, I am deploying a notion of a ‘scene’ here from my diss, but it may not be the right word.) Hmm, I don’t know enough about all this Web 2.0 shit to be a masher-upperer of different apps.

  9. now we have two lines of engagement. 1) Tracing the use of concepts closely associated with CS within popular culture as another way gauge pedagogical reception, application and impact. 2) Investigating the socio-political timbre of allegedly CS-style texts in foundational CS-style undergraduate units.

    Is it a bit crude (careerist even?) of me to plug my own writing here? even if it is “merely” about popular culture?

    http://curtin.academia.edu/RobertBriggs/Papers/101672/Culture—Pedagogy–On-the-Popular-Art-of-Reviewing-Popular-Art

    Anyone who’d prefer it in handy pdf format can email me (address available at my academia page).

  10. rob, that is awesome! I got the PDF from the above linked page (the download option).

    You should put more of your stuff up!?!

  11. Hey, thanks glen. Really nice to know it’s been read and appreciated. One of weirder aspects of publishing (from the perspective of affect, if nothing else) is having no real idea what kind of responses your work generates, nor even if anyone has actually read it — those rare occasions where you stumble across a reference to something you’ve written aside. And this weirdness is only being intensified the more that chunks of academic discussion and debate move onto the web 2.0 scene where response is all that more immediate.

    As for my other stuff, the bulk of the publications are up on my academia profile page — though not all of them are the actual published versions, but rather based on the original word docs. I keep meaning to bring in the actual journals and scan the papers so that the citable versions are more widely available.

    Here, if you’re interested:

    http://curtin.academia.edu/RobertBriggs/Papers

  12. I haven’t read it properly yet. I want to have the time to digest it. And write up notes for a blog post on it! I have only scanned it to get the jist.

    Thanks for the link to the other docs, will check them out.

Comments are closed.