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The Coming of “Cultural Studies”
Students and faculty members who buy their books at the Yale Co-op usually know just where to look for what they need: Psychology is to the left of the center aisle, Philosophy on the right, European History toward the back, and Literature against the left wall. But this past summer, several of the standard headings sprouted an additional message: “See also: Cultural Theory Section.”
The new section (which is located just behind the information desk) includes Discipline and Punish, the late-French philosopher Michel Foucault’s study of the rise of the penitentiary system; Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, by Greil Marcus; and Camille Paglia’s best-selling examination of sexual decadence in art and literature, Sexual Personae. “If we aren’t sure where to put it,” says a Co-op salesman, “we put it here.”
In fact, most of the titles could have been shelved under any number of the standard categories—but that is just the point: Yale, like many of its sister institutions in this country and abroad, has been probing the boundaries of the established zones of study and concluded that they need some rearranging. For want of a more precise term for what is admittedly a messy undertaking, the emerging field is known as “cultural studies,” and embraces such apparently disparate areas as technological change, sexuality, the mass media, colonialism, and ethnic identity. Many of the topics—which at their most extreme include such issues as self-mutilation, cross-dressing, cyberpunk novels, Madonna, and the Weather Channel—once seemed beyond the pale of academic attention, and the highly theoretical attempts to link them are raising more than a few eyebrows among traditional intellectuals. But the supporters of cultural studies insist that they are seeking a new overarching synthesis. “Other than funding,” says J. Michael Holquist, a professor of comparative literature and head of the Council on Russian and East European Studies, “it is the major issue at most campuses.”
Even its advocates, however, tend to define cultural studies by explaining what it is not. It is not, for instance, what was long referred to loosely as interdisciplinary studies, which accepted the traditional definitions of what was appropriate to study within each subject, and focused on relationships among them. “Cultural studies grew out of a critique of the disciplines,” says Michael Denning, ’84PhD, a professor of American studies who has written books on 19th- and 20th-century popular novels and film and teaches courses on cultural theory. Adds Sara Suleri, a professor of English: “There is no capital ‘c’ to culture. There are many cultures, all of which are telling stories about themselves and other cultures. It is important to break down the sense that this is familiar and that is exotic, the distinction between margin and center.”
Such sentiments are entirely consistent with the criticism and analysis of the traditional university culture of “great works” (and academic authority in general) that have emerged in recent years as fundamental issues in American higher education. Many attribute their rise at least in part to the increasing number of women and minorities in the academic establishment and the impact on the curriculum made by ethnic studies, media and popular culture studies, feminism, and a host of literary theories as well as what might be called supradisciplinary approaches found most often in history and anthropology departments. At its core, cultural studies is about the nature of difference among identity groups of all sorts. The shared concerns of the newer approaches have been brought together on what Denning terms the “common ground of issues about how people create culture at different times and how you define a people. It should be a global mapping of cultures.”
Drawing such a map is no easy task, especially in an age of such growing fragmentation among ethnics, social groups, and nations. “Cultures are things that certain groups share with other people and by which they mark themselves off from others,” explains Denning. “Boundaries are crucial.” Culture, adds Holquist, “is about the negotiation of borders.” And as he points out, negotiating those intellectual borders is not merely an academic exercise: “In Eastern Europe, culture is driving the politics. It is the fundamental issue.”
Some scholars contend that such pressures have existed throughout history. But according to Denning, the traditional humanities “excluded a large part of humanity. We want to make visible things that weren’t visible before.” Suleri says that making other cultures visible tells more of the story than focusing on any one area alone could do: “It’s impossible to disentangle histories. Strict lines between East and West are ahistorical.”
A native of Pakistan who concentrates her research on the colonialization of the Asian subcontinent, Suleri cites as an example of such entanglement the history of what the world perceives as English culture. Long considered to be a sort of patrimonial inheritance as permanent and transcendent as the royal throne, the academic definition of English culture, according to Suleri, actually arose in the 19th century outside of England. In a recent book, Suleri argued that the colonialists in the subcontinent felt that they needed to impose a well-defined way of life on their colonial subjects. Their definition of that way of life—particularly its “canon” of great books—migrated with the colonialists back to Britain, where it was adopted in the universities. Eventually, that version of high culture made its way overseas to this country.
Earlier forms of interdisciplinary studies have been a staple of universities—and a source of friction—almost since the rise of the academic departmental structure in the late 19th century. At Yale they reached a high point of sorts with the establishment in the 1930s of the undergraduate major known as History, the Arts and Letters, which drew on leading faculty members from many departments to explore the relationships among literature and the arts at selected moments in European history. That program expired in 1981, but its spirit has been maintained in individual courses by such current faculty members as Chinese historian Jonathan Spence, religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan, historian of the American west Howard Lamar, and literary critic and director of the Whitney Humanities Center David Bromwich. What is new about the cultural studies approach is the willingness of its advocates to focus not just on the similarities, but also on the conflicts among those disciplines.
The approach has taken root at many universities and departments around the country, including Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and various branches of the University of California. At Yale the process has been slower, but courses that could be included under the cultural studies rubric have now emerged in departments as apparently disparate as German and anthropology, American studies and religious studies, art history, political science, and even in the Law School.
The primary example of the type of work being done is a course called “Problems in Cultural Criticism,” now in its third year, offered by three professors from three different departments with three separate geographical region specialties. The course is jointly taught by Suleri, Holquist, and J. Joseph Errington, an anthropological linguist who has done extensive field work in Indonesia on the relationship between bilingualism and nationalism among the large Javanese minority. “There are no monologues in this class,” says Suleri. “If we disagree, that is well and good.”
In the classroom, Suleri, Holquist, and Errington alternate presentations on different aspects of the development of the idea of culture. The rise and fate of the nation-state is a central topic in the course. “Nations,” Holquist told a class last semester in Linsley-Chittenden Hall, “replaced religion during the Enlightenment as the fable of a people. How does a nation inspire love? It gives a biography for organizing individual lives.” For its texts, the course draws upon works including Shakespeare’s Othello, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Darwin’s Origin of Species, along with selections from Thucydides, Malcolm X, films, Subcontinental poetry, and theories of the formation of cultures and individual identity.
The goal of the seemingly disjointed approach, says Suleri, is to offer “a comprehensive survey of what are normally considered lesser areas of study,” including gender and ethnicity, nationalism, and colonialism as they are embodied in different groups. The professors acknowledge the problems that might emerge from their efforts. “Any course that attempts to be multifoci runs the risk of becoming a grab bag,” says Suleri. “You must be aware of why you juxtapose different materials.” In hopes of forging links to the existing curriculum, about a half dozen faculty members are trying to create a cultural criticism program that would be taught as a companion to existing departmental majors.
Suleri, for one, feels that the new academic approach can have some very real practical advantages for students who will soon be involved in grappling with a chaotic world. In her view, a course on the theory, history, and intersections of cultures is “an ideal place to look at the problem of nationhood and nationality. As the Soviet Union was literally disappearing, our course helped students understand what was happening because we talked about nations on an anthropological and historical level.”
As a literary critic and historian, Geoffrey Hartman, the Karl Young Professor of English and Comparative Literature and director of the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimony, also sees cultural studies as a tool for understanding the present. Hartman teaches a course on the “culture wars” in Germany between the First and Second World Wars in which he suggests parallels between those conflicts and the sort of disputes over “family values” and “Americanism" invoked by presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and others at last year’s Republican national convention. “Historically, my course looks at what happens when a state power gets hold of the idea of culture,” says Hartman. “I’m not saying it must happen here, but when culture becomes primarily cultural politics, it can be catastrophic.”
Hartman is quick to point out that political zealotry can also threaten today’s academy in no less a fashion than it did in the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. “The danger is advocacy teaching,” says Hartman. “If you see your work as restitutive and addressing a constituency, the discipline is in danger of being lost. The real courage is to be a critic in relation to a community.” But while courses in cultural studies frequently focus on the politics of culture, even most of its critics would argue that Hartman’s concerns about academic integrity, while worthy, are not yet justified by practice, at least at Yale. “There is an advocacy at some point,” says Denning, “but the narrower advocacy of ‘Vote for So-and-So’ doesn’t happen here. The easy way to get students not to believe is to try to persuade them in the classroom.”
“There are few people at Yale who would treat cultural studies as a subversive act,” concurs David Apter, the Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Comparative Political and Social Development, who studies political change and cultural formation in developing countries, especially China. He supports the creation of a formal cultural studies program at Yale. “I’m a political ethnographer,” he says. “I have to live with the people I study. I don’t have an ideology about cultural studies. I use what I can. You have to ask yourself: What do unfamiliar ideas contribute to your own ideas and how do they help you understand a real situation?”
To critics who argue that cultural studies constitutes an attack on academic rigor, its backers cite its ties to a respected intellectual tradition, one represented most strongly by British literary and historical scholars and political thinkers. Among them are such heavyweights as Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, who were allied in their scholarship and teaching to the left wing of the British Labour Party. The study of culture, these thinkers contended, could not be isolated from politics nor from education itself, which they saw as a principal embodiment of the relationship between politics and culture.
In American universities, of course, such connections tend to be harder to make because scholarship and teaching have long been kept at arm’s length from most of political life. (Some prominent exceptions were the militarization of campuses during World War II, the faculty purges of the McCarthy era, and the student protests during the Vietnam War.) Indeed, when cultural studies arrived on American campuses, its political emphasis was diffused as part of the move to integrate literary theory into a wide range of disciplines—especially cultural anthropology—concerned with how cultures form. And at institutions with departments of communications, cultural studies was seen as an opportunity for an expansion of the humanities disciplines into studies of mass culture industries such as film, television, and advertising.
But if cultural studies is not having the political impact many feared, it is already claimed by its supporters to have had a fundamental impact on how fields of study have traditionally been arranged into such compartments as the humanities. “We’ve redrawn the boundaries,” says Denning. “The new map is taking on a different overall project than the humanities had. If the humanities was a way of thinking about the whole, with its own set of assumptions and ideology, cultural studies takes the same space and organizes it very differently.” Errington sees a related effect on the concept of area studies, made popular in the 1950s. “Area studies was founded on the bipolar, Cold War division of the world,” he says. “The categories are out of sync with what is going on—there’s ‘us’ and then there’s the ‘areas’ out there. To think about the way the humanities should be taught is not obvious when you take seriously the idea that the other areas no longer relate to us in the way they once did.” According to Holquist, cultures are structured more like narratives, tales that people use to situate themselves in their experience of the world. And those narratives must be continuously rewritten to encompass new facts and new relationships.
To understand that process, Holquist says, students should consider “how the once restricted sense of culture as the development of the mind and refinement of taste has evolved into the current web of signs that makes seeing the world from a particular place inevitable.” The most common point of view from which people understand their place in the modern world is through the nation, but Holquist points out this is no longer so certain as it once was because of the globalization of communications, the surge in religious and ethnic identification, and the rapid rise and fall of nations. “We’re living through an age when the nation-state can no longer serve the function it was created for,” he says. Other “places,” such as gender, class, religion, and ethnicity, have now emerged as cultures in their own right.
Such arguments might suggest that cultural studies is heading in the same intellectual direction as multiculturalism, the movement that has caused such turmoil among defenders of the literary “canon” who feel that standards are being abandoned in favor of a “politically correct” inclusionism. Holquist acknowledges the potential for what he describes as “a dangerous relativism that precludes judgment.” But he and his colleagues insist that they want to avoid simplistic postures: “We’re not out to deny history and pretend to a parity of cultures,” says Suleri. “We by no means buy the current discourse of multiculturalism, which I think is shabby. You can’t construct Rainbow Coalition–style syllabi and think you’ve made a difference. You must have a historical sense.” Adds Holquist: “No matter how you reconfigure knowledge, there are always going to be differences and hierarchies.”
That kind of talk can only be reassuring to those on the Yale faculty who remain committed to a basic dose of Western civilization as a fundamental part of a liberal arts education. That approach was furthered both financially and symbolically two years ago with the creation of the Bass Program in Western Civilization. Still in the planning stages, the new program was established through a $20 million gift from trustee Sid R. Bass, which endowed senior Bass professorships in various humanities and social science departments whose holders will teach a year-long sophomore course in Western culture. That course of study will largely pursue the controversial program of “common studies” that former Dean of the College Donald Kagan had advocated for all undergraduates but which will instead be another, albeit intensive, elective. Although Kagan made clear his desire that students have a more universally shared basis in Western culture, he acknowledges that reorganizing the curriculum along such lines is not possible at Yale. “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” says Kagan, who is on leave this year at the Institute for Advanced Behavioral Study at Stanford University. “We should teach a course that has value and hope students will agree.”
The chairman of the Council on West European Studies and head of the Bass program is Henry Turner, a cultural historian, who expects the course to be “an attempt to see the record of a great civilization from the beginning to the present in as much breadth as we can conceive. This is not a cheering section for Western civilization. It will be warts and all. There will be no attempt to pretty things up.”
Several of the faculty in the program engage in their own work in cultural studies. One of them, Roberto González Echevarría is a leading authority on Latin-American literature, theory, and culture. Born in Cuba and raised in Florida—where he played minor league baseball for a stint—his current projects include a book on Cuban baseball and United States imperialism. He says, “I don’t think the one thing invalidates the other. I would want students to take the cultural criticism course after taking the Bass course.”
If scholars like Turner and González Echevarría are willing to indulge the cultural studies idea, there are many who are not. A number of those who are skeptical also pursue more traditionally interdisciplinary work, and fear that a focus on the intersections among cultures may miss the roadway altogether. “The issue is not so much the subject of study as it is the approaches,” says Professor of Comparative Literature and English David Quint, ’71, ’76PhD, a specialist in Renaissance literary history. “All disciplines should want to borrow from other disciplines, but to do interdisciplinary studies requires that there actually be disciplines one can work among and that one recognize that each discipline has its own approaches and aims.”
Other faculty members want to ensure that courses that cover popular culture, sexuality, ethnicity, and other subjects outside the traditional areas of study do not become loose exercises in ego rather than intellectual investigation. “You want to guarantee the courses have studies and are not just being what you are, which is not an academic subject” says Claude Rawson, an English professor who teaches both traditional literature courses and subjects that fit within the emerging cultural studies framework. “If cultural studies wants to make itself a serious subject, it must produce its texts and not just read what a Chicano wrote yesterday afternoon.”
One of Rawson’s own courses—on literature and cannibalism—might seem no less far-out than some of the subjects the cultural studies people are pursuing, but he feels there is a fundamental difference. He explains that by looking at descriptions and reactions to cannibalism from Homer to modern popular figures of speech, it is possible to understand what he terms “cultural reticence,” or resistance to subjects that are difficult to discuss. “It’s cultural studies,” he says, “in that I don’t make distinctions between literary texts and nonliterary texts. But it’s different from taking the fact of ethnicity and making a discipline of it. I’m interested in cannibalism not because I want to know how cannibals operate, but because I want to know how noncannibals talk.” Adds anthropologist William Kelly, who among various aspects of Japanese culture is currently studying the game of baseball in Japan, which he says explains much about the structure of Japanese life and about that nation’s complex relationship to America: “We all share an interest in many forms and structures of meaning, whether it’s television, a baseball game, or Romantic poetry. Putting people together may let students see what an anthropologist and a literary critic might share, but that doesn’t warrant getting rid of English and anthropology and making them units of cultural studies.”
That is not likely to happen anytime soon, especially at Yale. “This university has not been conducive to that sort of thing compared to a number of other institutions,” says David Apter. “It’s an extremely conservative place when it comes to the nature of knowledge.” But, he adds provocatively, “so much happens at the intersections.”
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