The Cultural Studies Question in 2012: Literature, Specialization, Interdisciplinarity

There are three interconnected points that constitute this brief post’s point of departure.

One: the conflict between what are called literary and cultural studies approaches persists—that it continues to influence the seemingly discrete areas of peer-reviewed scholarship, postsecondary hiring decisions, departmental debates over curriculum shifts, proposals to reassert a disciplinary canon, and perhaps even discussions regarding the futures of existing academic departments.

Two: the antagonists and agonists (to use Miguel de Unamuno’s term) of this conflict—at times it is not even clear who is who—often do not agree on the meanings of these terms. ‘Literature’ and ‘cultural studies’ operate simultaneously at several scales of academic discourse, from the local (departmental) to the disciplinary community (at conferences) to the wider publishing realm (articles, books, web); and it is likely that consensus is lacking both within and across each of these contexts.

Three: where pockets of consensus regarding these terms may in fact exist there is relatively little awareness of what is at stake in continuing to distinguish between ‘literature’ and ‘cultural studies.’ This leads, first, to an internal schism among potential disciplinary allies and departmental colleagues, and it may lead also—where the rifts are strongest—to what is, in effect, a devaluation of the humanities.

It is likely that if you are reading this, you are ready to come down hard one way or the other: that is, in defense of literature against cultural studies, or vice versa—such is the power of the material and ideological conditions under which these terms have been negotiated socially. Unless one has a particularly nuanced point of view—of which there are so few in these disciplinary conflicts—to take either side is thus to affirm specialization.

Any discussion of literature and cultural studies that does not acknowledge the fundamental importance of the question of disciplinary specialization is flawed. Literary studies have evolved over the past two centuries as a discourse of specialized knowledge—buttressed by the characteristic bourgeois fragmentation of thought that has accompanied the increasing specialization of labor (Williams 1977; Lefebvre 1996, 2003). My experience is that most accept this as a matter of course—that literary study is a specialized area of knowledge—even if their perspective on this fact may vary. As has long been the case, given the standard periodizing narrative regarding the historical cycles of literary scholarship (Jameson 1981), some affirm the relative autonomy of literary study while others bemoan the way in which the former cordon literature off from a complex totality, a world “beyond the text,” as is so frequently said. These juxtaposed views are, of course, extremes—but very few could disagree that they are extremes mobilized implicitly in much scholarship and at times explicitly in both classrooms and disciplinary publications.

Furthermore, we do well in remembering that cultural studies was (and is) in essence, a move to go beyond the bourgeois notion that literature was a world of its own. The best formulation of the cultural studies method, for me, remains Raymond Williams’s assertion—in a 1986 lecture reflecting on its origins—that it was motivated by the need to give “equal weight” to both the project (art) and the formation (society) (Williams 2007, 152). What I often see happening, however, in academic discourse, broadly speaking (across disciplines as opposed to within my home discipline of Hispanic Studies), is that the term ‘cultural studies’ is invoked in a much more specialized/specializing way, perhaps, than was originally intended. That is, cultural studies, is seen to be a retreat from the text—and in many cases it has merely dovetailed with what has long been the goal of (Cultural) Anthropology, Sociology, Geography and other social sciences. In the end, some scholars have been slow to see that the effect of this shift is not to move away from (literary) specialization—but instead merely to replace one specialization with another and cordon off literature and the complexity of aesthetic questions from the totality such inquiries seek to explore.

While I have heard it said countless times by self-identified literary scholars that cultural studies “evacuates the text” and eschews any engagement with the literary (an unfortunate belief), I have also heard it said by non-literary scholars of various disciplines that there is nothing to be gained in close-readings of texts (by text I mean novels, poetry but also filmic texts, musical texts, graphic novels, and so on). There is a deep skepticism of close-reading outside of language and literature departments (David Harvey has been associated with this tendency—although despite what his own analyses would suggest and certainly despite the Lefebvrian inheritance with which he has persistently dialogued from 1973 to his most recent 2012 book Rebel Cities), but also within those same departments by individuals who would welcome cultural studies as a retreat from textual analysis.

If we really want to get away from specialization (read Williams’s Marxism and Literature for a primer), what we need to do is not disregard or go beyond literature but rather give “equal weight” to both aesthetic questions and what has been called the ‘extra-literary.’ Referencing Williams’s (and Henri Lefebvre’s) own Marxian perspectives—it is clear that Marxian thought has itself often struggled with the nature and role of art and aesthetic questions, reducing the latter to being mere reflection or mediation of social relations. Giving “equal weight” may play out at many levels unevenly (the individual article, the department curriculum, the discipline), but is an important guidepost if we are to reconcile the literary specialization with what are arguably the excesses of recent manifestations of cultural studies; manifestations that affirm literary specialization precisely by ignoring it.

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