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?