On Cultural Studies in the Future Tense

Reading Lawrence Grossberg’s Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, I find myself seeking answers to questions which, as an North American PhD student reared up in the intellectual house of Cultural Studies, have plagued me for many years of my philosophical development:
Why did I always feel so trapped within the critical theory classroom? Although I loved and reveled in the feast of philosophical premises set before me, at that dinner table I often felt like the child being taught a catechism to which there was only one right answer. And this, so confusing to one being told, daily, that there were no right answers. Why did I feel that if I did not share the particular critical views toward specific cultural institutions, that I was a shameful person? And why did I feel that if I did not take up a negative attitude toward the world, that I would be a failure to my academic family? Why did I find freedom in many of the premises, but bondage in their bearing out? Why did I tire of the arguments I read over and over in prestigious journals, feeling that I was listening to the same lecture from an older family member, time and time again? And why is it that I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to fulfill the vision held by my house, I would first have to leave it, and find a new home all together?
I believe that Grossberg answers many of these questions for me:
“Cultural studies is . . . a project that reshapes itself in and attempts to respond to new conjunctures as problem-spaces” (1)
“It is about the contemporary struggle over thought, imagination, and the possibilities for action as a part of the larger contextual struggles over modernity itself. The book tries to lay out some of the work we need to do–ultimately, collaborative, and collectively–to produce a cultural studies capable of responding to the contemporary worlds and struggle constituting them.” (3)
“The [Burmingham] Center was a response to significant social and cultural changes characterizing postwar British life . . . and the political challenges they posed. . . . which seemed to call for a reconsideration of at least a part of the function of the intellectual. . . . cultural studies [was] a response to a series of frustrations with the criticisms of existing academic practices and as an attempt to do work differently.”  (emphasis mine) (11)
“Cultural studies . . . assumed that . . . intellectual work mattered, both inside and, even more importantly, outside the academy. . . . an attempt to make the academy listen to the demands of . . . the world outside of (or intersecting with) the academy . . . the Center was not trying to create a new academic norm or field, but to articulate a different kind of intellectual project, a different way of asking and answering questions. . . . it was propelled by a sense of the inability of the dominant academic norms to provide adequate answers to the compelling and important questions of the age . . . the failure of the dominant academic norms to even ask the questions that mattered to students and the population more broadly . . . changes that were visible “out on the streets,”  . . . the project was lived more as a sense of discomfort and dissatisfaction, and it was articulated as a critique and a quest rather than as a completed and positive vision of coherent alternatives.” (emphasis my own) (14).
So to summarize: “demands, inability, failure, discomfort, dissatisfaction, critique” AND  NO “POSITIVE VISION OF COHERENT ALTERNATIVES.”
And that’s the dilemma which my generation has inherited from North American cultural studies today. And I would wager that significant number of Humanities students today feel the exact same dissatisfaction, not only with the traditionally “dominant” academic norms and answers…but with those provided by the generation which founded cultural studies: we are struck by the failure of this movement to provide a “positive vision of coherent alternatives.”
However, we have a choice. We can adopt the same sour, angry, disgruntled attitudes that our fathers and mothers did toward their elders…or we could thank them for the hard work they did in paving the way for change, for having the courage to call the world into question and not take for granted the answers they were given, and continue by moving forward into the future, taking their work a step farther, and accomplishing what they–in their historical-culturally-contextual moment–were restrained from accomplishing. We perhaps can attempt to provide a vision, even if it requires us reject certain aspects of our parents’ own suggested alternatives. While all children will bear the scars of their imperfect parents, any child who does not acknowledge that their parent gave them life, and worked hard to provide for them, is a foolish person, who will be taught the painful lesson of imperfection themselves, when they harm their own children and are hatefully accused by them. Therefore, our duty is to remember, “judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned…give and it will be given to you; for with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37). In saying this, I self-consciously practice what I preach.
We now find ourselves, as a generation, back at what Grossberg calls “the heart of cultural studies”:  “a project that reshapes itself in and attempts to respond to new conjunctures as problem-spaces” (1). For our generation, the problem space is not only the academy, our present global economy and political situation, nor even the daily lives we experience outside the academy, but we also inhabit the problem space of what cultural studies is at the University, and how it has impacted our relationship to other disciplines and publics now. Our generation wants to “change the world” as Gossberg says; we want to make a difference too, just as our mothers and fathers did. But in order to begin this process, we will have to re-forge relationships with other intellectuals which have in large part been severed or disjointed because of old offenses, pride, and bad feelings.
This task, however, is not beyond us, I think, because just as is the case within our discipline, the other fields also teem with fresh young minds and new blood. As a part of a budding generation in a global world, the youth of other disciplines are also becoming more and more aware of our need for connectivity and cooperation in order to get things done–an awareness which time and history has brought to bear, justifying our parent’s original claims and critiques–that a new order of thinking and inquiry was required of a changing world.
And perhaps, most hopeful of all, is the reality that–just as in all other places and times where blood feuds have held strong–youth and the spring time of love do have a tendency to win out, and in part, triumph over long standing hate. The incredible intermixing and inter-breeding, as it were, which our nation (and others) on every level, including the University, has hosted in the last 30 years, has meant that many relationships, partnerships, even marriages are forming between vastly diverse individuals, and a case could be made that these small and isolated ties collectively, may prove to be the most powerful cords intellectually, that may constitute a driving force for collaborative movement within the academy and beyond. That the marriage of the scientist to the Sociologist, the medical doctor to the English professor, the Women’s studies teacher to the Business professional, the Musician to the Lawyer, and the academic to the blue collar worker, not to mention the European to the Middle Asian, will be the true, underlying, and foundational hybridity that will transform the academic scape of the next century.
It may be that, after a century in which our fore-bearers fought against the domination, oppression, abuse, and bondage that the social tie of marriage can bring when coupled with ideologies of discrimination and prejudicial favoritism–that their children of the new millennium will rediscover the power of this corporal, physical, sexual, legal and intellectual bond between peoples which for all of human time has tied together nations and cultures, religions and creeds, races and classes, in order to mingle and evolve the people, ideas, and practices of the world–weaving together new ways of living and life on earth. Perhaps in our time, some aspects of this truly miraculous force may be rediscovered and reinvented in a way that redeems the problems which, through severance, our parents endeavored to protest, fight, and bring to light. By the mercy of God, may it be.

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