Cultural Studies in the Future Tense: Pressure Points For the Present

One of the major weaknesses of Grossberg’s book is the fact that, although it was published in 2010, it continually felt, while reading it, as though it were written in a pre-9/11 world. Many of the authoritative quotes he used to describe the changes which have taken place in our world, our present moment were in fact written in the 1980s and 90s. While that does not make these statements any less valid, they often revealed the kairotic context and were not followed by Grossberg with any addendum filling in or modifying the concepts to apply to the current state of cultural studies (see for example his use of Readings on 178-181, or his use of Harootunian on 288).

However, this weakness is compensated by the heroic new paths Grossberg blazes for the future of CS work, providing scholars with an arsenal of methodological tools for considering “[q]uestions about what’s going on and our possible futures [which] remain paramount” (288).

I’d like to suggest three present pressure points, as Gossberg might call them. Three places in the complex networks/conjunctures of society where tension has becoming so strained that, we might say, “something’s gotta give.” Emergencies, crises, or ruptures where Cultural Theorists should should obviously report. I feel some of the particularly difficult questions that are born at these cites, deserve serious efforts, and our current pattern of only skirting the edges of these issues (particular the last two which I suggest) evinces our discomfort with the complex dissonances therin. I’m not going to flush them out at length here, only briefly attempt to make visible the kinds of difficulties present. The major pattern linking these events is that all of them were organized through social media, all of them involve complex convergences of economy, politics, culture, ethics/religion (largely missing from Grossberg’s methodological tools), and they all happened within the same time frame. Most importantly, they all constitute wars over various definitions of Modernity.
1. Democracy in the Middle East

It may be safe to say that the sort of wide-scale revolution and restructuring that is taking place in the middle East has not happened since the usually named “Democratization Era” refering the Europe and Aemrica’s own . . . rebellion. And, it may also be safe to say that, in a more time-space-collapsed economy, this rupture will have an even more monumental and immediate effect on the global state than the Western one did. If the first generation of CS scholars looked at the Peace Movement, Civil Rights movement, Hippy Movement, Sexual Liberation movement, and so many other large-scale ideological ruptures and said, “What does this mean . . . (for us)?” you can bet the my generation of scholars is looking at the Middle East asking the same question, with just as much awe-struck wonder.

Oriantalism scholarship has done a brilliant job of showing us (Westerners) that we are incapable of analyzing and evaluating and interpreting the East in a way that is beneficial, ethical, or even useful. So where does that leave Western scholars in the midst of the Middle Eastern revolution? I’m not sure that we can be much more than spectators, peering into the stadium from holes in the fence, unless a person has specific ties to that area of the world, and even then, we may be considered liminal at best. It may be a case where we can only, in fairness, wait quietly, or ask questions humbly, because the difficulty of our relationship.

On the one hand, Egypt has written their own, effective “Declaration of Independence;” On the other hand, they oppose much of the ideology we generally accept (like, say, post-structuralism). On the one hand, we are in economic cooperation with them; on the other we (whoever “we” may be) have been exploiting them (in a materially real but also wider ideological sense) for decades. On the one hand, They demand the support (in so many ways) from the West; on the other, there is a clear political agenda which America simply will never be able to agree with, no matter how much the financial benefit from it–some of these facts are (rightly) ignored in the moments where we cheer. But at some point we need to think about the difficulties. Also, while postmodernists love to see the oppressed revolt, these are states ushering in so many of the very economic and ideological structures which, in the Western forms, postmodernists have fought to expose as untenable in the long-run.

Scholars, no matter how much we (want to) image we are above politics, and economy, and bias, and ignorance, and all the other buzz words, are truly just human. And to approach these questions will have to deal with a TON of self analysis, to even begin to touch the kind of economic, philosophical, theoretical work the Grossberg Demands. Nevertheless; to ignore this issue would be to pretend that the largest volcanic eruption of our time doesn’t exist, while studying plate tectonics.

2. The Riots in London

I am not a British Subject. However, listening to the BBC cover the teen-age riots in London left me shaken, disconcerted and affect-ively defeated–I felt at a complete loss that a culture could expreience such an outburst, such a unmistakable and un-ignorable break in human forms of social control, and simply turn away in stoic obdurateness, as if this meant nothing. The public debates immediately following the event were heated, but quickly faded into the background in the US news. I’ve found some analysis online, but many exclude conjectural complexities that made this even different in the historical plane (see for example this psychological analysis, which never mentions social media). I am not in a position to analyze what led a generation of youth (most in their very early teens) in one of the most acclaimed cities of the world, in one of the traditionally conceived of as “civilized” nations in the world, to overturn cars, set fires to the streets, rob and pillage. But I believe someone needs to. And, possibly even more urgently, I’d like to know if this is libel to happen anywhere else.

3. Flash Mob Crimes

Moving to our own continent, and to something akin to the events in London, I can’t help but feel that we should consider the flash mobs that became a trend this year, which were particularly mobilized through social media, and were contemporaneous with the London Riots (no coincidence, obviously). I believe that instances of collective law-breaking and crime should be considered one form of pressure point because (like revolutions and riots) they constitute a form of rupture or outburst within a culture and often point to deeper conflicts within the particular kairotic moment. There are so many issues at stake in this particular conjectural analysis, when it comes to how people have responded to these events. Discussions surrounding social, racial, economic, technological and generational conjunctures quickly sprang up in the public sphere, providing plenty for the Cultural theorist to analyze, just in the way of perception, much less in the original material events. The climate which both fostered these moments, as well as the changing pressure zones which have followed, may give us an interesting forecast of the affect-ive changes taking place in our country, and how those changes are linked/converging with affective states of various groups around the world.

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.