Department of Everything Studies (Expressive Culture Division)

I meant to comment earlier in July on this excellent discussion at the Valve on Mark Bauerlein’s suggestions for specific “conservative voices” to be included in courses of literary theory. Pretty much all the criticisms I had planned to make were made in the course of that Valve conversation, though, particularly by Luther Blisset, who usually hits the bullseye in these kinds of discussions.

The most important point Luther and Adam Kotsko and others made in that thread was that it’s way past time to be whining about inclusion. Bauerlein (or anyone who finds his basic point of departure to be congenial) needs to get out there and do interpretative and hermeneutical work that is inspired by a conservative thinker that he finds valuable. That’s why Foucault got into the theory canon in the first place, in both history and literature departments: because people did literary interpretation and historical research that had Foucault as a point of departure, that used something that Foucault wrote to generate an inquiry. Even when a lot of that research tended to call into question some of Foucault’s actual arguments (as often happened in cultural and social history that drew on his work), the upshot was that Foucault ended up within the canon because people were writing with or against him, or bouncing off some premise of his thinking. It wasn’t because professors in the English Department pulled his name off the Master List of “really really left-wing people” in order to plump their citations enough to meet their allotted quota of leftists.

So don’t tell people they ought to make their students read Hayek or Horowitz. Explain what a hermeneutics that riffs off of Hayek actually looks like. Illustrate it. Do it. I have an easier time seeing a conservative literary criticism that comes from Arnold or even Edmund Burke. I could maybe imagine a Hayekian criticism, but it’s not in Hayek, not at all: there isn’t even the opening to a hermeutical or interpretative set of questions that Marx provided in the commodity fetishism part of Capital.


Ok, so I’ve got that thought off my chest. Amazing how a discussion that’s only two weeks old can feel like a lifetime ago in the blogosphere. I want to use another comment from that Valve discussion as a jumping off point for something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. John Holbo remarks that the problem that English Departments have is that they’ve tried to keep their options open on being “Everything Studies” and as a consequence don’t have an easy way to explain why they wouldn’t want to read Hayek and Horowitz and any other text someone might choose to throw at them. John wants those departments to specify some sort of domain rules that would justify saying, “But Hayek doesn’t do hermeneutics” in such a manner that one might also then have to agree, “And so neither do a lot of other people who maybe have fetched up on some syllabi in English departments”.

I want to go in the opposite direction: I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

I thought about these questions a lot during this last year when I was involved in interviewing candidates for our Film and Media Studies program. I didn’t want to write too much about this argument then for fear of prompting people to just parrot it back to me.

In a nutshell, I have diminishing patience for people who categorically tell me that studying a work of expressive culture requires nothing but the text or nothing but context, hermeneutics or historicism, appreciation or critique, canonical traditions or perpetual transgression.

Yes, there are pragmatic limits on the kinds of questions a scholar can ask in a given work of research. You have to give a syllabus that needs to be taught in a finite body of time some firm and justified limits. We can specialize in particular media for reasons of personal preference and intellectual competence. I couldn’t begin to write about music, but I can do fine with television and interactive media. Each of us has methodological limits that result from our training and our talents. I’m very bad with languages and linguistics: I couldn’t do criticism that required philology on any deep level. I’m not likely to ever be mathematically competent enough to do even simple statistical comparisons well.

But the limits on our research and interpretation of expressive media are provisional and personal. There’s no reason to turn them into prescriptive claims about the nature of interpretative work for everybody else.

When we study expressive culture (art, film, new media, novels, poetry, dance, theater, and so on), we should be asking how a given text or performance works in every possible sense of that term. None of the meanings of works are intrinsically incompatible with each other.

If I’m writing as a critic and scholar about a novel, I should be potentially interested in all of the following questions (which are not necessarily exclusive of one another):

1) How does this novel work in terms of its craft, how does it work as written language, how does it work in relation to other works of its type? What kinds of devices and techniques does it employ?

2) How does it work psychologically and experientially with any given reader? What kinds of cognitive effects does it have, how does its language and form affect the phenomenological experience of a reader?

3) How does it work with historically specific audiences? What effects did this work have upon its time and place and why? In relation to what?

4) What kinds of messages, arguments, values, ideas are communicated within this novel, by this novel? What do they or ought they mean to us? What did they mean in the past to others?

5) What kinds of historically specific intertextualities affect the way the novel is or was bought, consumed, reproduced in a given time and place? What effects did it have on intertextual systems? How did its tropes, ideas, language, reproduce over time in different works or media?

6) How did this novel come to be produced? What were the individual, collective, institutional and material conditions of its creation and circulation?

7) How does this novel instruct us as potential craftworkers ourselves? If we looked at it as producers of culture, or from the perspective of people who produce culture, what’s interesting about it? What can we learn from it about novel-writing, but also about the business of selling a novel? Do we have any useful or productive advice for someone in the business of selling novels like this one?

Notice all of these questions are, at least as I see them, politically and prescriptively open. You could pick up Triumph of the Will, have all these questions in mind as valid ones, and end up arguing that it’s a repulsive piece of work. You could pick up the entire cultural system of television and have gloomy, dismissive views of that entire media system that are filtered through these questions.

What I’m sick of is people who want a “conservative tradition” picking only the neo-Arnoldian parts of this list and then thumbing their nose at the rest as if it is self-evident that no self-respecting critic would want to talk about the cognitive, historical, economic, ideological questions that surround expressive culture, that all that crap is some social scientist’s dreary business and get it the fuck out of my English Department. Just as I’m sick of a historicist refusing to take hermeneutics seriously, or some Franksteinian Frankfurter regarding the practical questions involved in actually doing cultural production as some sort of low-class consorting with the hegemonic beast.

Yes, that’s a lot of questions. No, you don’t have to answer them all yourself categorically about any given work of expressive culture that interests you. But you do have to stay curious about all of them, and welcome the presence of research and criticism that is pursuing any and all of those questions within the disciplinary body where the interpretation of culture is being pursued.

If I’m reading academic work about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I want to hear from people interested in the craftwork involved in how it tells stories, including assessments of its quality as a visual and cultural work. I want to hear from people who talk about its use of symbols. I want to hear from people who study how fan communities read and write the text of the show, and from scholars who examine how mass audiences that don’t categorize themselves as “fans” reacted to the show. I want to know how much money it made, and how it made it. How Joss Whedon and other people involved in making it understood what they were doing. How the history of the trope of the “vampire” affected the show, and how the show affected that trope. About how it related to other shows on television and other cultural works in the time it first aired, and how it has affected them since. I want to know what it means, what it has to say, and whether I should value its communications either as entertainment or art. I want to know someone who wanted to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer would go about it, and whether our criticism can generate insights that are useful in practical terms to the people who made Buffy or would like to make something like it.

The exact same openness goes if I’m reading academic work about Hamlet. All of that is fair game, all of it is interesting, all of it potentially germane. I have enough room in my heart and my critical practice for Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, A.D. Nuttall, Stephen Greenblatt and Marjorie Garber.

The problem of course is to have world enough and time. We cannot write everything, read everything, teach everything. Scholars and publishers have to make decisions about what they value: which graduate student should advance or be rewarded, which work should be published, who makes the cut in a syllabus, which courses do we offer and not offer? Canons and disciplines are a pragmatic shorthand that keep us from having to rehearse our wanderings through Everything every time we set out to teach and research Everything. But that’s all they are. They’re not complete ontologies, not totalizing politics, not comprehensive philosophies.

If I had to boil it down to what the normative selective principles of my new megadepartment ought to be, I’d say that the only things I really care about are: 1) be smart; 2) be interesting; 3) be communicative and 4) try to keep the ecosystem of cultural criticism as varied as possible. Don’t load up on neo-Arnoldians or exclusive historicists or cognitivists or anything else besides. Stay invested in as many media and as many historical settings and contexts as possible. Don’t let anyone categorically say that the Department of Everything Studies (Expressive Culture Division) doesn’t deal with popular culture or doesn’t concern itself with aesthetics or regards actually trying to produce culture as some kind of riffraff vocational thing suitable for the lower orders and capitalist hegemons.

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12 Responses to Department of Everything Studies (Expressive Culture Division)

  1. akotsko says:

    This seems really right to me.

  2. Gavin Weaire says:

    How would you go about articulating a consensus on “smart” and “interesting” across all this? Esp. since “keeping the ecosystem of cultural criticism as varied as possible” would offer anyone a handy counter-argument to any charge of being “un-smart” or “un-interesting.”

  3. Jerry White says:

    It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in language departments, and in Religious Studies, is very close to what you’re identifying here. In many religion programmes (ours at Alberta, anyway) you would find some people both poring over the Hebrew bible and others trying to figure out the formal roots and contemporary reception of Egyptian film melodrama. Something similar goes on in our French department, where some folks pore over SONG OF ROLAND, some do quasi-statistical analysis to demonstrate that LE MONDE really is a tool of neo-colonialism, and some talk about really bad Quebec films like the LES BOYS (yes, yes, the the) series in terms of subaltern Francophone masculinity or whatever. I genuinely think that if English started to model itself more after language departments it would lead to a lot less hand-wringing and a lot more interesting, and I daresay disciplinarily coherent, research. I suppose that’s not so easy in the Anglophone world, but still, I don’t get the sense that colleagues in French programmes at Francophone universities have quite the same identity crisis.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that’s not easy, Gavin. At the same time, it’s what we already do (or claim to do) now: we talk about the quality of mind or how articulate a potential collegue is when we’re doing searches, we appraise some of the same when we’re looking at grad students, we talk about how smart an article is, and on occasion, we’re not just egotistically saying, “Because this person agrees with me”. Now it can be hard to say what makes someone smart or interesting in this sense, but we wouldn’t be any worse off if we abandoned the idea that a narrow commitment to a particular disciplinary ideology would somehow save us from such horribly subjective judgements.

    Jerry, religion departments do seem to have that nice mix of people who do ethnography, sociology, hermeneutics, etcetera. A good model, I agree.

  5. I’ve been doing that sort of cultural studies for the last 30 years and, yes, we need it. And we need a little more than a “smattering” of well, cognitive science. If you’re going to think seriously about culture in the 21st century you need to know something about the mind and brain. Freud, psychoanalysis, and philosophy don’t cut it anymore. The cognitive and neurosciences don’t really cut it, not just yet. Perhaps they need some well-informed pressure from humanists who’ve read beyond the popularizations.

    In any event, my response to the Bauerlein discussion was to sketch out a graduate course in the theory of literature (which is not the same thing as literary theory) moves from texts to groups to history in which I consider to be an intellectually contempory fashion. It doesn’t cover all the disciplinary and conceptual bases (it wasn’t designed to do that), but it’s plenty broad enough for a single semester. Some of the cognitive science issues get talked about in the comments.

    You might also check out Chris’s discussion of Extended Cognition and Literary Criticism at Mixing Memory.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Bill, I definitely think of you as a model of this kind of polydisciplinary study of culture.

    When I say smattering, the only thing I want to avoid is inviting in the kind of cognitivism that is aggressively dismissive or wildly reductive about hermeneutics, of which I think there is sadly more than a little. That and bad evo-psych of which I also think there is unfortunately quite a lot of. But I’m 100% in agreement that we need a lot more attention to mind, brain, vision, embodiment (in the natural science sense, not the neo-Foucauldian sense), and so on when we study culture.

    I like that course sketch.

  7. Gavin Weaire says:

    It sounds way more scary when you don’t have tenure 🙂

    Seriously, though, I do think that disciplines provide useful heuristic points of reference for making such judgements.

    (Not that they save us from their ultimate subjectivity or anything like that. We absolutely should be modest about this. Disciplinary histories are useful tools, as you say. They’re not religions.)

    I’m married to a musicologist, and I know that, while there are some types of musicological work I can appreciate, there are others that I just can’t – I simply don’t have the training.

    I think that disciplinarization and departmentalization are also in their way forces for pluralism in the academy – they give a measure of institutional protection to the distinctiveness of smaller, quirkier areas like religious studies and classics, which might otherwise get trampled by the 800-pound ubergorillas of English and History.

    (Classics also is a field which offers a fair amount of what you want. Anything goes within our chronological and geographical range, and the reception of same outside that. At least in principle, and to some extent in practice. It’s what attracted me to the field, in fact.)

    I can see that, if one started from scratch, it would make sense for classics to be a interdisciplinary program, scattered across a number of departments. Like medieval studies tends to be. I’m selfishly glad we’re not.

  8. Tim – interesting ideas, and I must say that I generally find my own inter-disciplines of Media Studies and American Studies fairly invested in most of these questions. Here’s the question – is it preferable to put a boundary on the field of inquiry, such as specific object of study (mass media) or national culture (American), or just let it truly be the study of all possible cultural forms & sites & contexts? I’d be a bit leery to build a curriculum for a major in Everything Studies without it simply being a smattering of miscellany.

    One key advantage of bounding the object of study is that it forces students to think about the same type of cultural practice using different lenses – studying Bugs Bunny in terms of industrial history vs. cultural representations vs. formal craft. Otherwise, students might study animation aesthetics, the industry of Latin American music, cultural representations in Russian novels, etc. – how could that be presented as coherent to students? Can you just present a range of methods without some sense of a shared object of analysis?

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the key is emphasizing that these choices are heuristic rather than political or philosophical or theoretical. E.g., study Bugs Bunny in a particular way because only by choosing some constraints can you produce knowledge. Not study Bugs Bunny in a particular way because that’s a dogmatic or even empirical necessity for studying Bugs Bunny.

    And if these choices are heuristic, that means they’re particular to the moment of study–in the field in general, yes, there might be animation aesthetics, the industry of Latin American music, and cultural representations in Russian novels. You wouldn’t expect students to know or study that all, but neither would you want them (or their professors) to make a final statement that excludes one or the other of those from the Everything Studies Department for some principled or theoretical reason.

  10. …only by choosing some constraints can you produce knowledge.

    Because knowledge is found in patterns of detail. Constraints narrow the field so that you can accumulate a critical mass of detail. At the same time we need the freedom of multiply shifting conceptual lenses because different lenses pick out different kinds of detail and thus reveal different patterns.

  11. dave mazella says:

    Excellent post, Tim. I had some thoughts about this, and posted about it at my 18th century studies blog, The Long Eighteenth, here:

    Best wishes,


  12. Sdorn says:

    This is the most thoughtful and persuasive argument for transdisciplinarity I’ve seen. I disagree, but that’s not because I disagree with the fundamental argument you’re making about the constructed nature of disciplines. It just took me six weeks to carve out enough time to explain where and how and why I disagree in the institutional regards.

    Incidentally, what happens if the cognitive bits you’re inviting into the Department of Everything Studies implies that disciplinarity matters to learning?

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