Postmodern Cultural Studies

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Cultural Studies and the Academy

1. Cultural studies in the academies of the advanced capitalist countries has transformed the object of studies in the humanities. In particular, in English departments, cultural studies has challenged the predominance of the governing categories of literary studies (the "canon," the homogeneous "period," the formal properties of genre, the literary object as autonomous and self-contained) in the interest of producing "readings" of all texts of culture and inquiring into the reproduction of subjectivities. To this end, pressure has been placed on disciplinary boundaries, the methods which police these boundaries, and modes of interpretation and critique have been developed which bring, for example, "economics" and "politics" to bear on the formal properties of texts. In addition, the lines between "high culture" and "mass culture" have been relativized, making it possible to address texts in terms of their social effectivity rather than their "inherent" literary, philosophical or other values.

2. The two most significant categories which have supported these institutional changes have been "ideology" and "theory." Althusserian and post-althusserian understandings of ideology, which defined ideology not in terms of a system of ideas or "world view" but in terms of the production of subjects who recognize the existing social world as the only possible and "reasonable" one, made possible the reading of texts in terms of the ways in which the workings of ideology determined their structure and uses. Marxist and post-structuralist theories, meanwhile, focused critical attention on the conditions of possibility of discourses, and upon the exclusions and inclusions which enable their articulation. In both cases, critique becomes possible insofar as reading is directed at uncovering the "invisible" possibilities of understanding which are suppressed as a condition of the text's intelligibility.

3. I support these efforts to transform the humanities into a site of cultural critique. I will argue that what is at stake in these changes is the uses of pedagogical institutions and practices in late capitalist society. If pedagogy is understood, as I would argue it should be, as the intervention into the reproduction of subjectivities, then the outcome of struggles over "culture" and "cultural studies" will determine whether or not the Humanities will become a site at which the production of oppositional subjectivities is made possible. Historically, the Humanities has been a site at which the contradictions of the subjectivities required by late capitalist culture have been addressed and "managed." For example, the central concepts of post-World War Two literary criticism, such as "irony," have the function of reducing contradictions to the "complexity" and "irrationality" of "reality," thereby reconciling subjects to those contradictions.

4. However, these recent changes in the academy have been very partial and contradictory. They have been partial in the sense that much of the older or "traditional" modes of literary studies have remained untouched by these developments, or have only made some slight "accommodations" to them. They have also been contradictory in the sense that cultural studies has accommodated itself to existing practices, by producing new modes of fetishizing texts and preserving conservative modes of subjectivity. In this way, cultural studies continues to advance the ideological function of the modern Humanities in a changed social environment.

5. The right wing attacks these changes, charging--as in the ongoing "PC" scare--that the Humanities are abandoning their commitment to objectivity and the universal values of Western culture. My argument is that these commitments and values have been undermined by social developments which have socialized subjects in new ways while concentrating global socio-economic power within an ever-shrinking...
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