On “Stop Doing Cultural Studies”

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s post. Reading Toni Bowers’ excellent post about a panel at the American Society for 18th-Century Studies in which Cliff Siskin and Bill Warner called for scholars of literary studies to “stop doing cultural studies”, I kept thinking: this feels familiar. I think the stance of Siskin and Warner has some kinship with what I was talking about in yesterday’s post.

What’s interesting in these moments is that they reveal how disciplines are not really markets, nor are they composed of a series of persuasive speech acts, though we sometimes act as if or claim that either or both are true. E.g., we sometimes argue that disciplines change because their practicioners have new interests, priorities or techniques, that they have a supple if slow-paced response to a kind of intellectual market. You write what you think is important, and the field either “buys” it or it doesn’t. And we sometimes say that the priorities of a discipline are determined by persuasion: that scholars do work and then argue for its importance or necessity. If they argue well, ta-da! knowledge.

What’s uncomfortable in a call to NOT do something is that both of those narratives are rather openly pitched over the side. Rather than waiting to see if there is a “market” for getting cultural studies and literary studies messed together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or accepting that if such work is persuasive in its arguments for itself, there must be something to it, the “we” invokes an invisible off-stage governmentality. Doesn’t seem so innocent or magical to me, though neither is it realistic–so much of this kind of call to governmentality in disciplinary life is rather like the Wizard of Oz in his humbug mode, fire and flash but just little people behind curtains when it comes to it.

But this is also part of what sets up the kind of narrative that I was critiquing yesterday: it’s the first positional move in a longer game. First you call for an unnamed disciplinary sovereign to safeguard the traditions of the disciplinary nation. Or you harrumph that changes have taken place in your discipline and your institution without your consent, without a plebiscite. When the restoration of your treasured norms by sovereign fiat doesn’t follow, you can begin beating the O Tempora O Mores drums, and paint yourself into the margins. From there you can get a pretty clear sighting of a kingdom of unhappy exiles, the Land of Violated Traditions, and should you wish, they’ll be happy to stamp your passport and show you to the refugee camps.

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One Response to On “Stop Doing Cultural Studies”

  1. Withywindle says:

    But there are plenty of calls not to do things that do work to police boundaries. They’re called “bad reviews in the peer review process.” Or other, subtle measures. Disciplinary enforcement is most effective when silent and unpublic.

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