A parting note on evidence in cultural studies

Soon I’ll wrap up my series of posts on cultural studies and move on to another of anthropology’s interlocutors, Symbolic Interactionism and the ethnographic tradition in sociology. Before I do, however, I wanted to take one last stab at cultural studies and anthropology’s uneasy relationship to it. One of the things that bothers me about contemporary anthropology and cultural studies is the way that, for much of the work in these areas, there is no sense that it is hard to do ethnographic work, or that ethnographic details must be clear and precisely stated. The easy part, in other words, is what is going on. The hard part is how to draw out the theoretical implications.

There are probably many reasons that anthropology is currently in this state, but what about cultural studies? Recently I finished Constance Penley’s “NASA/TREK”:http://www.amazon.com/NASA-Trek-Popular-Science-America/dp/0860916170/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1205784297&sr=8-1, a delightful little volume made up of lots of different parts, some of which are better than others, and not all of which hang together so well. The book’s argument is basically that when it comes to space travel, Star Trek is the theory and NASA the practice, and that this NASA/TREK complex has become a central location for Americans to rethink issues of progress, science, and gender relations (race was obviously there, but never really focused on). I was struck by the beginning part of the book which worked, surprisingly convincingly, to convince the reader that NASA and Trek were basically the same thing. Penley does this mostly through detail — that the first shuttle was renamed ‘Enterprise’ after a write-in campaign, that Star Trek cast members were invited to the first launch, that they played the Star Trek theme song as the shuttle was moved out to the launch pad. Equally her discussion of the Challenger explosion and the folklore surrounding it was fascinating to read (and relied on the work of a folklorist — another discipline I should talk about at some point).

At the same time, the second half of the book that deals with slash fiction was much less convincing to me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with Penley’s claim (now, 15 years later, we all know about slash and female fans). But it seemed to rely more on assertion, based on experience, of what slash writers were like and less on the sort of evidence I saw in the first half of the book. The concluding section, on the other hand, which situated slash in the context of American utopian literature by women and interracial mateship (to use a Stralian term) novel was fascinating although, I admit, totally out of my depth.

The point of all of this is just to say that along the way it occurred to me that literary criticism has always (this is going to sound dumb) criticized literature. Its data are works which people have already read and/or are utterly impossible to do justice to in a short period of space. And yet clearly, literary criticism is (or used to be, alas), criticism of literature, not a description of it. A monograph which provided a close description of a novel is simply… a copy of the novel.

This probably sounds extremely naive to someone who knows more about this topic than I do, but I’d hypothesize that the particularities of the subject of the literary criticism (longish text artifacts) has resulted in a particular method of analyzing them, and that this method has carried over, or at least had an effect, in its inheritor disciplines. Make sense?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

15 thoughts on “A parting note on evidence in cultural studies

  1. Rex, your coverage of CS continues to have all the intellectual heft of a wikipedia article. Boo, and hiss, sir.

  2. bq. I’d hypothesize that the particularities of the subject of the literary criticism (longish text artifacts) has resulted in a particular method of analyzing them, and that this method has carried over, or at least had an effect, in its inheritor disciplines. Make sense?

    Makes sense. But seems too direct in the leap from longish text artifacts to a method for analyzing them. Neglects the fact that the method in question is itself a product of history.

    From Wikipedia,

    bq. New Criticism was the dominant trend in English and American literary criticism of the mid twentieth century, from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Its adherents were emphatic in their advocacy of close reading and attention to texts themselves, and their rejection of criticism based on extra-textual sources, especially biography.

    The New Critics insisted on treating works of literature as autonomous aesthetic wholes that can only be properly understood from the inside out, i.e., in terms of the way in which the elements of a work are combined within the frame of the work itself. Their approach was, while restricted to works of literature, heir to the same romanticism as, for example, structural-functionalism in anthropology, which was built on the insistence that societies be conceived, like works of art, as autonomous wholes. Marx would have said, “fetishized objects.” Following sociologist Dan Foss (famous to those delighted by him for several years on Anthro-L), I prefer “thingies.”

    That said, I return to Marx via, yes, Victor Turner, and observe that simple transference of New Critical methods to pop culture artifacts results in the kind of mystification that, focused on the artifact itself, neglects the social context, the relations of production and consumption, the contradictions and political struggles in which the artifact is embedded and in which it may have numerous roles to play.

  3. Heh, I don’t suppose you have anything more specific and, er, _hefty_ to say on the subject LFB? Or is this pot calling the kettle black, comment-wise? Do you think I’m _wrong_ about NASA/TREK?

  4. Rex,

    Not having read the book, I can’t comment on your reading of it. The response was to the hypothesis mentioned at the end of your message. It is quite thought-provoking, albeit, as I indicated, a bit of a stretch.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of several directions in which research might be taken.

    1. The history of the basic scientific/scholarly gesture of isolating problems to reduce them to manageable size.

    2. The relation of that gesture to functionalism and the notion that objects of study should be examined in relation to how their parts fit together, as opposed to circumstances external to them.

    3. The specifically romantic focus on aesthetic detail, which involves both acceptance of the basic gesture, framing the problem, and rejection of the scientific mode of framing in terms of concepts and variables abstracted from the object in question and aiming at universal, instead of particularistic, understanding.

    All this has me musing on the intellectual history of the early to mid 20th century and why this particular focus became so popular in fields as apparently diverse as anthropology and literary criticism. There is, in both these examples, a rejection of historical and biographical context. Why then? At that particular moment in history? Can’t help it. These sorts of questions occur to me.

  5. You seem to be conflating CS with lit crit, which it is not. Nor is it the miscellany that some people seem to think it is. Anthropologists often seem to take issue with CS because it eats into the limited number of anthro tenure track posts. But anthropologists do not own the study of culture, and would do better to examine in what ways contemporary anthropology could benefit from CS interventions. Also, anthropologists are quite wrong to categorize anything that is lacking in ethnographic rigor as CS. CS emerged out of a particular place and time (i.e. Thatcherite Britain.) They also fail to recognize that part of the appeal of CS is its explicit use of Marxism, and its efforts against the colonial baggage that anthro still carries around despite rather unsuccessful attempts to jettison it via forays into post-modernism in the last few decades. CS is, indeed, expansive, but is first and foremost concerned with power. It is necessarily politically engaged and committed to larger progressive projects, which is something noticeably absent from the vast majority of AAA panels I saw in November.

    What sometimes passes as so-called “American CS” is probably better described as pop culture studies, and is not – strictly speaking – CS at all. I have not read the book in question, but it looks like it is an example of the latter, so perhaps our quarrel is over terminology. Nonetheless, in your CS posts that I’ve read, you paint with very broad strokes, without much discussion of what CS actually is, what its potential is, or how its relationship to anthropology is marred by job market angst. With CS jobs in the Chronicle growing, and anthro ones often in peril, it might be a good time to examine why anthropologists have such a difficult time justifying their relevance these days. It is, in fact, very relevant… but why are anthropologists – especially cultural anthropologists – at such pains to convince others? I suspect that CS is not popular because it’s easier – it isn’t – but because it feels more relevant. There is plenty of bad CS, of course, but there’s plenty of second-rate work being done in anthro, too. And there are plenty of anthropologists with definitive views on CS who have no knowledge of its complicated genealogies, or who could even articulate its tenants. At any rate, my apologies for my earlier ad hominem on you, but I do look forward to your posts on Symbolic-Interactionism, which is another favorite sub-discipline of mine.

  6. John, in my contemporary theory class we recently reread (selections from) Reinventing Anthropology on the one hand, and Myth, Symbol, Culture — two volumes that come from almost exactly the same time and yet are radically different in their focus. I’m increasingly thinking you could write a history of contemporary theory tracing how those two trajectories played out. Just a thought.

    LFB: I think you articulate exactly the concerns that stimulated my blogging in the first place. Although your major beef in this particular case is that you don’t want to label Penley as “so-called American CS” rather that Real True CS. I’ll leave you and Penley to fight over who is pirating whose identity.

    However I will say that I do think it is important to examine how CS and anthropology articulate (that is after all, why I read the book in the first place). I have descended from broad brushstrokes (this is, btw, a blog — we do brushstrokes here) to the work of particular authors (Penley and Brooker).

    For the record, I do not feel angst about the job market since I already have a job (!) but (more seriously) the real problem facing anthro Ph.D.s is much, much bigger than academic turf wars between antrhos and CS/So-Called American CS and has to do with troubling large-scale changes in our institutions in their entirety. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Rex, although I think you think you know what we’re talking about, sometimes I think (and perhaps LFB does too) that you think you know more than you know. Or at least it sounds like that.

    For example: Cultural Studies (Birmingham school) is in the process of replacing both literary folklore and anthropological folklore in the United States. This has been widely remarked upon. So why, upon examining CS, would you then turn to folklore, when they’re essentially the same thing now? Read Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity. Discuss.

  8. bq. Reinventing Anthropology on the one hand, and Myth, Symbol, Culture—two volumes that come from almost exactly the same time and yet are radically different in their focus. I’m increasingly thinking you could write a history of contemporary theory tracing how those two trajectories played out.

    Could we humbly ask for you to elucidate a bit that radical difference in focus, for those of us–like myself–who may not have read the volumes in question?

  9. Both edited volumes, both influential, both from the late 1960s to early 1970s.

    Myth, Symbol, Culture: 1974, Geertz, interpretive/symbolic anthropology, contributions from Mary Douglas and James Fernandez. A very literary approach.

    Reinventing Anthropology: 1969, Dell Hymes, “action” anthropology/political economy, contributions from Eric Wolf and Laura Nader. A radical, critical indictment of anthropology.

  10. Sorry John I thought you knew all about The Old Days 🙂

    Reinventing Anthropology was an edited volume with its genesis in the late 1960s that presented a Marxist, left (they would say ‘radical left’) challenge to anthropology. It was edited by Dell Hymes, but also featured Big Marxists like Eric Wolf, Bob Scholte, and Stanley Diamond. There are direct connections, intellectually and sociologically between that scholarship and the political economy/historical anthropology (Sahlins, Wolf, Mintz) of the 80s.

    Myth, Symbol, Culture was a volume edited by Geertz based on a conference co-organized by Paul De Man and bankrolled with Ford Foundation money. Included the original, shorter version of the Balinese Cockfight Essay, essays by James Fernandez, Mary Douglas, Judith Shklar — the humanistic, apolitical, literary, Kenneth Burke version of cultural anthropology which has direct connections with the crisis of representation literature of the 1980s.

  11. Rex-
    Interesting that you draw the distinction between Reinventing Culture and Myth, Symbol, Culture this way. I wonder if this is really the ‘big split’ in post-1980s anthropology you suggest it is. Of course, there seem to be a lot of people who cite and “follow” (on some level) both Hymes and Burke. Hm.

  12. That’s a good point. I just taught our introductory undergrad historiography seminar (I’m a historian but I pop up here ’cause my field is intellectual and cultural history, specialty history of social and cultural theory) so I’ve got vivid recents on the front-end of such discussions.

    It’s humbling to see the students grapple with the sacred truths and rituals of the various historiographic sects. They start by thinking it’s all a bunch of egghead mumbo-jumbo. I might as well have a bone through my nose and wave a rattle at that point. After lots of conversation and reflection they see the point, but what excites them is all these different ways of looking at things. They don’t see any reason to convert to one faith or another, they want to grab-bag.

    By the time the precious few get to grad school they’ll be much more sophisticated about how important the dogmatic hairs being split are, and they’ll be all set to become theory missionaries.

    I’m more of an agnostic myself at this point, after an ill-spent existentialist-marxist youth.

  13. Rex, heck no. I’m the guy who is always pointing out that none of us will ever know more than a tiny fragment of what we might know, and I freely admit that there are huge holes in what I know. The late seventies and 80s, when I had busted out of academia and was scrambling find other ways to make a living are a time in which my anthro reading was particularly thin. That’s one of the reasons I like hanging out here, to find out what today’s young turks think was important.

    So, please do continue. You’ve done a great job with the author lists and Marxist political economy vs. Kenneth Burke humanistic, literary description. Could we have a bit more about what this difference meant in practice, topics, methods, results, that sort of thing?

  14. Rex, I think you’re right about the under-theorized “worst” of CS. But no less a representative of mainstream CS than Dick Hebdige said the same thing nearly 30 years ago:

    “Participant observation continues to produce some of the most interesting and evocative accounts of subculture, but the method also suffers from a number of significant flaws. In particular, the absence of any analytical or explanatory framework has guaranteed such work a marginal status in the predominantly positivist tradition of mainstream sociology. More crucially, such an absence has ensured that while accounts based upon a participant observation approach provide a wealth of descriptive detail, the significance of class and power relations is consistently neglected or at least underestimated.” (Subculture; Routledge, 1979)

    And how could Hebdige say such things that would be echoed by Rex 30 years later? Gramsci, via Raymond Williams: The reason why generations of cultural studies folks have asked why particular forms should occur at particular times and with what particular results.

  15. JP, I agree completely. I’ve been trying to figure out what was so odd to me about Rex’s distancing from Gramsci in the thread where he asked for the short reading selection he could use in his theory class. You’ve helped me pin it down.

    Gramsci was by far the most ethnographic of the ‘western Marxists’. Both his journalism and his prison notebooks read in many respects like field notes (or blogs, but that’s a different discussion). He’s working his way through low-brow, middle-brow, and high-brow culture throughout (the common sense/good sense/philosophy typology of intellectual systems).

    This is pretty hard to see in the commonly-excerpted translations, which tend to focus on the high-brow stuff by default. But he never did boil it all down into a comprehensive theory of culture, so what we get are these little gems of observation and analysis about mundane people with ordinary ideas, loosely tied together into categorical threads (again, like field notes or a blog). Not easy to excerpt.

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