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.

Cultural Politics — Balance

One of my friends posted a link in twitter to this article in Truthout, a progessive US-based socio-political magazine, by Henry Giroux, on the

lethal combination of money, power and education that the right wing has had a stranglehold on since the early 1970’s and how it has used its influence to develop an institutional infrastructure and ideological apparatus to produce its own intellectuals, disseminate ideas, and eventually control most of the commanding heights and institutions in which knowledge is produced, circulated and legitimated.

Giroux engages with the so-called Powell Memo, written by Lewis F. Powell and released in 1971 to the US Chamber of Commerce with the title “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” Powell recognised that right-wing and conservative ideologues had to create an infrastructure for the long war of the Reaganite and post-Reagan years. Princeton University Prof. has noted how this infrastructure has supported the recent work of ‘tea party patriots’ in challenging their congressional representatives at ‘town hall’ meetings over the US health care reform. Giroux says it is essential to attack this infrastructure, not just its effects.

Any attempt to understand and engage the current right-wing assault on all vestiges of the social contract, the social state and democracy itself will have to begin with challenging this massive infrastructure, which functions as one of the most powerful teaching machines we have seen in the United States, a teaching machine that produces a culture that is increasingly poisonous and detrimental not just to liberalism, but to the formative culture that makes an aspiring democracy possible. This presence of this ideological infrastructure extending from the media to other sites of popular education suggests the need for a new kind of debate, one that is not limited to isolated issues such as health care, but is more broad-based and fundamental, a debate about how power, inequality and money constrict the educational, economic and political conditions that make democracy possible.

What I found fascinating was one of the techniques advocated by Powell for reconfiguring the ideological composition of university faculties, because it is used in Australia and not only for attacking universities:

Powell recognized that one crucial strategy in changing the political composition of higher education was to convince university administrators and boards of trustees that the most fundamental problem facing universities was “the imbalance of many faculties.” Powell insisted that “the basic concepts of balance, fairness and truth are difficult to resist, if properly presented to boards of trustees, by writing and speaking, and by appeals to alumni associations and groups.”

In Australia, calls for ‘balance’ have been made by conservatives when attacking the perceived ‘imbalance’ of public broadcasters, such as the ABC and SBS, and the ‘public institution’ of journalism. The call for ‘balance’ has no easy counter, especially when combined with the amplificatory effect of the conservative echo chamber of soft-conservatism in daily newspapers and the hard-conservatism of politicians and conservative newspaper columnists. I guess the equivalent on the left side of politics to the conservative infrastructure would be the work of NGOs and unions, but they don’t seem to have the same effect on cultural and social levels to inflect the ‘talking points’, a.k.a. what John Howard called ‘BBQ stoppers’, except in limited examples such as in the case of the work of unions to highlight the lack of fairness in the Howard governments labour and workplace relations legislation before the previous Federal election. Or am I wrong about this? Maybe I don’t see the effect?

The ‘balance’ line of attack is arguably more successful than other attempts, for example, to argue that ‘left wing theories’, a.k.a. ‘postmodernism’, has little utility in the ‘real world’. Poststructuralist theories from philosophy, literary studies, sociology and cultural studies are much more effective than neo-classical social theories at understanding social relations and cultural meanings, hence, they are exceptionally useful if your purpose is to exploit social relations or cultural meanings as economic resources. The problem for conservatives is that once you start to understand these theories properly you can’t really be a conservative anymore. To understand the complexity of social relations means that you are forced to understand, intimately, the perspective of other people or at least strive to understand other perspectives. This is the inverse of the conservative line of ‘balance’. Instead of one’s own perspective and voice being incorporated into institutions, you are forced to incorporate other perspectives into your own. The number of conservative students I saw flee from learning such theories when I was a student was hilarious. They often tried to get into law.