Some of my art from the 1970s
Art, April 2009

Michael Bérubé on the fate of Cultural Studies

Kathryn Cramer

A long time ago, when Cultural Studies was all the rage, I was in graduate school. And I thought Cultural Studies was neat because the rage for Cultural Studies allowed me to  talk about things like genre fiction and publishing with professors whose interests would otherwise have been too refined to  allow me to discuss such things in an Ivy League graduate school. 

The beginning of the end was when one of my advisors asked me if I was independently wealthy after I described for her my intended course of study. This took a while to sink in, but when it did, I dropped out of graduate school and got a job.

The problem with Cultural Studies when I was in graduate school was that while it allowed the pretext under which I could discuss genre literature, making claims that any particular book was better than any other book and that it was possible to tell the difference between good books and bad books seemed to be streng verboten under Cutural Studies rules.

My final term in grad school, I bumped my head on a chair while writing my final papers and got a concussion, and this brought me to my senses. So I ran away with the circus, or rather went to work as an editor of hypertext fiction for Eastgate Systems, showing up for work shortly after New Year's Day in 1994, a decision I have never regretted.

I had not thought about Cultural Studies in some time. But Michael Bérubé is an academic, and so he has watched its course. He has a long post entitled, "the university after what, now?" which I won't attempt to summarize, but is very much worth reading. But here's a sample: 

. . . I want to accentuate the negative in order to point out that over the past 25 years there has been a great deal of cultural-studies triumphalism that now seems unwarranted or embarrassing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we heard (and I believed) that cultural studies would fan out across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, inducing them to become at once more self-interrogating and more open to public engagement. Some people even suggested, either in hope or in fear, that cultural studies would become the name for the humanities and social sciences in toto. And lest this sound grandiose, I want to insist that there was, at the time, good reason to think this way. The period of theoretical ferment that began in the late 1960s and gained traction in the 1970s seemed to have reached the boiling point: when Illinois held its “Cultural Studies Now and in the Future” conference in 1990, the program included historians, media theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and AIDS activists; and the theoretical terrain, over which cultural studies had held its earlier skirmishes with deconstruction, with psychoanalysis, with feminism, and of course with the epochal struggle of Althusserians and neo-Gramscians, had lately been enriched by the arrival of Foucauldian historicism and queer theory. It really did seem plausible that cultural studies could be the start of something big, something that would have a profound intellectual and institutional impact on the American university.

Oh God, how glad I am that I got out while the getting was good and went out and just did weird stuff that I felt like, and published a bunch of anthologies which said over and over, I can too tell the good from the bad, and here's what you ought to be reading. 

Just where would I be now if I'd played by the Cultural Studies rules?