Theorizing and Mobilizing Cultural Studies: A Cross

Theorizing and Mobilizing Cultural Studies: A Cross-Comparison of Three Approaches
By Jill Bender, I.D. #0901235
For Dr. David Clark
CSCT 701
Apr. 26, 2010
Marc Redfield, in his essay “Theory, Globalization, Cultural Studies,” observes
that “a rhetoric of crisis has marked the idea of the university” (4) since the founding
moment of its modern career in late 18th century Germany (4). The current debate over
the idea of the “university in ruins,” he argues, can thus be understood as “the latest installment in a tradition of anxious writing about an institution that has persistently been
regarded as actually or potentially fragmented and rudderless” (4). This paper will offer
an analysis and cross-comparison of various approaches to understanding and theorizing
the place of Cultural Studies in this debate, focusing on the analyses of Cultural Studies
offered by Henry and Susan Searls Giroux, Bill Readings, and Tillotama Rajan.
Henry and Susan Searls Giroux view culture as a crucial site of struggle that offers opportunities for Cultural Studies to resist the tyranny of neoliberalism by making
the political more pedagogical and the pedagogical more political. Bill Readings, by contrast, argues that “culture is no longer the terrain on which a general critique of capitalism
can be carried out” (Readings 103). Challenging the redemptive hopes that have been
placed in Cultural Studies, Readings warns that Cultural Studies, as an institutional project, is in many ways simply a new manifestation of the logic of global capital, particularly by virtue of what he describes as its lack of theoretical definition. In response to Readings’ challenge to Cultural Studies, Tillotama Rajan suggests ways that Theory can be
mobilized to rethink Cultural Studies through frameworks not limited to a conception of
knowledge as exclusively cultural. By examining these contrasting approaches to Cultural Studies, and its relationship to pedagogy, identity politics, and Theory, I will attempt in
this paper to complicate the role of Cultural Studies within the shifting and contested terrain of the humanities, and of the university and society as a whole.
Henry and Susan Searls Giroux: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Educated Hope
The work of Henry and Susan Searls Giroux draws on the tradition of the Birmingham School, a tradition which has emphasized the necessity of making the study of
culture the study of all groups within society, and of bringing critical theory to bear on
pressing social and political issues, in order to understand political issues in terms of the
formative culture underlying them. They locate some of the most important contributions
arising from this approach in the work of Critical and Cultural Studies theorists such as
Lawrence Grossberg, Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Johnson and Stuart Hall, who, they
observe, have provided “valuable contributions to our understanding of how culture deploys power and is shaped and organized within diverse systems of representation, production, consumption, and distribution” (Take Back Higher Education 90). The Girouxs
are also heavily influenced by the tradition of American intellectuals such as John Dewey, W.E. DuBois and C. Wright Mills, who have sought to theorize the linkages between
pedagogy and democracy. Their approach reflects their conviction that, as Grossberg,
Nelson and Treichler argue, Cultural Studies cannot be defined simply in terms of the
particular sets of cultural forms and practices it is concerned with (Grossberg et al. 11).
Rather, Cultural Studies must be understood in terms of “how and why such work is done,
not just its content” (ibid. 11).
Along with Grossberg et. al, the Girouxs are highly critical of academics who are
“willing to generalize about cultural studies in complete or virtually complete ignorance”
(Grossberg et al. 9) of the body of work in the tradition of British cultural studies, running from its key institutional moment in the founding of the Centre for Contemporary
Studies at Birmingham in 1964 to the present (ibid. 9). While acknowledging that Cultur-
al Studies, in the words of Stuart Hall, “has never been one thing” (qtd. in Grossberg et
al. 3), and must “remain open to unexpected, unimagined, and even uninvited possibilities (Grossberg et al. 3), the Girouxs, along with Grossberg et al., nevertheless contend
that “it matters how cultural studies is defined and conceptualized” (Grossberg et al. 3),
and that “cultural studies cannot be just anything” (ibid. 3). While acknowledging that
Cultural Studies has expanded far beyond its origins in British cultural studies, the
Girouxs argue that to generalize about Cultural Studies in ignorance of these origins is to
do violence to the discipline by erasing its history.
The Girouxs offer a partial definition of culture as “a circuit of power, ideologies,
and values in which diverse images, texts, and sounds are produced and circulate” (Take
Back Higher Education 90). Within the circuit of culture, “identities are constructed…
agency is manifested in both individualized and social forms; institutions produce and
constrain social practices; and discourses are created that make culture itself the object of
inquiry and critical analyses” (TBHE 90-91). “Far from being exclusively about matters
of representation and texts” (TBHE 91), culture for the Girouxs is understood as “a field,
event and performance in which identities and modes of agency are configured through
the mutually determined forces of thought and action, body and mind, and time and
space” (TBHE 91). For the Girouxs, culture represents a dynamic site of possibility, offering “a pedagogical and political ground in which shared solidarities and a global public sphere can be imagined as a condition of democratic possibilities” (TBHE 91).
In his book Public Spaces, Private Lives, Henry Giroux offers a rebuttal of polemical attacks on Cultural Studies from the academic left which dismiss cultural politics
as an ephemeral and irrelevant concern that undermines political engagement by failing
to sufficiently stress “the primacy of class and the materiality of power” (PSPL 10). This
form of “left-oriented materialism,” he cogently observes, not only ignores the interconnectedness of economic and cultural issues, but also empties the political sphere of any
connection to the crucial concerns of “consciousness, agency and education” (PSPL 11).
Observing that the “high-minded puritanism” and “anti-intellectual populism” (PSPL 10)
of such attacks from the left in fact reinforces the depoliticizing effects of neoliberalism
by undermining the ability to turn private struggles into public issues, Giroux defends
cultural politics as central to “the theoretical necessity of articulating a theory of critical
agency that does not focus exclusively on individual agency” (PSPL 11).
For the Girouxs, “the promise of cultural studies” resides not in “a false opposition between culture and material relations of power, but in a project that bridges these
concerns as part of a larger transformative and democratic politics in which matters of
pedagogy and agency play a central role” (TBHE 90). While they reject criticisms from
the orthodox left that view issues of race, sexuality and gender as ephemeral distractions
from issues of economics and class, the Girouxs are also highly critical of narrow and
privatizing forms of identity politics. Susan Searls Giroux in particular offers a robust
criticism of identity politics in Between Race and Reason, challenging the “cultural turn”
in race theory and the “critical gaps and lacunae to which the decades-long fascination
with difference and identity have led” (Searls Giroux 29). She argues that identity politics, by reducing racism to an individual and psychological problem, rather than a complex and multifaceted systemic, political, and economic problem, contributes to the ideology of “colour-blindedness” which serves to make racism invisible by creating the illusion that we have moved “beyond race” and now dwell in a “post-racial society” (29).
Henry Giroux, in Public Spaces, Private Lives, situates attacks on Cultural Studies from conservatives, neoliberals, and the materialist left as part of a broader attack on
“cultural politics in public life,” on “the viability of the political as a crucial sphere for
investing in social change,’ and on “the courage to imagine the possibility of workable
political communities” (PSPL 11). Such attacks, he observes, constitute an attempt to
“undermine any linkage between culture, politics, pedagogy and power” (PSPL 11).
Connected to his challenge to attacks on cultural studies from the academic left is his critique of attacks on critical pedagogy from both conservative and neoliberal educators, in
which he argues that both approaches contribute to the corporatization and rationalization
of pedagogy by divorcing it from questions about “the conditions of its production” and
“the limits it embodies in its institutionalized and disciplinary forms” (PSPL 90). He argues for the necessity of a language that can provide “the pedagogical conditions for students to critically engage knowledge as a deeply implicated in issues and struggles concerning the production of identities, culture, power and history” (PSPL 8). Such a language, he argues, must offer ways of linking knowledge to “the power of self-definition”
and to “the capacities for individuals to expand the scope of freedom (PSPL 8), creating
the conditions for a “politics of educated hope” (PSPL 109).
The Girouxs powerfully articulate the need to resist the formative culture that
structures the “university as a corporate entity” (TBHE 226) in order to “create the institutional and ideological conditions that promote long-term analysis, historical reflection,
and deliberation over what our collective actions might mean for shaping the future”
(228). For the Girouxs, then, a central aspect of the task of critical pedagogy is the need
to provide students with a language with which to critically engage their own assump-
tions about their education, and to articulate new possibilities for defending and mobilizing higher education as a public good against the forces of corporatization, militarization
and depoliticization. Against what he compellingly describes as a “culture of antipolitics”
that “dismisses as futile both the discourse of critique and the call for social transformation” (PSPL 2), and against “an increasingly oppressive corporate-based globalism”
(“Utopian Thinking in Dangerous Times” 31), Henry Giroux calls for public intellectuals
to “resurrect a language of resistance and possibility, a language that embraces a militant
utopianism, while being constantly attentive to those forces which seek to turn such hope
into a new slogan, or to punish those who dare look beyond the horizon of the given”
(ibid. 31). The Girouxs, however, emphasize that the promise of democracy, if it is to remain democratic, cannot be tied to any one static utopian vision, but must remain an open
and contingent promise that is always yet to come. For this reason, they prefer to speak of
“democratization,” rather than “democracy,” as the goal of critical pedagogy.
Although the Girouxs articulate a strong vision for mobilizing Cultural Studies to
create the conditions for democratizing change, their approach leaves largely unexamined
one of the factors contributing to the erosion of any collective sense of the connections
between education and democracy: the reconfiguration of the relationship between national identity and citizenship. For example, although John Dewey, as Katharyne Mitchell
observes, “wrote eloquently of the importance of education in the formation of a democratic community,” he, “along with the majority of democratic theorists of the early twentieth century, assumed that ‘community’ was inherently and naturally bound within the
contours of the nation-state” (Mitchell par. 2). In fact, she observes, “the democratic project that Dewey advocated was aimed explicitly at the formation of the nation; American-
ism was defined in terms of a conjoint experience of living and learning together in an
open, plural, and egalitarian manner” (Mitchell par. 2). It is precisely the implications for
Cultural Studies of the reconfiguration of the idea of national identity in the context of
globalization that Bill Readings explores in The University in Ruins.
Bill Readings: Institutional Pragmatism and the Community of Dissensus
In The University in Ruins, Readings situates Cultural Studies within the changing
context of the corporatized university, in which, as he puts it, an empty and unspecified
organizing principle of “excellence” reduces notions of accountability to the logic of accounting (26), allowing the university to “understand itself solely in terms of the structure
of corporate administration” (29). While deeply troubled by these developments, Readings is also highly critical of redemptive narratives that posit Cultural Studies as “the discipline that will save the university by giving it back its lost truth” (18). Rejecting the repressive hypothesis that there exists a free flow of critical inquiry that is threatened by
oppressive forces such as corporatization, and that Cultural Studies has somehow managed to escape being imbricated within these social forces, Readings argues that “the attempt to make cultural studies into a hegemonic institutional project” (17) in fact provides “a vision of culture that is appropriate for the age of excellence” (17).
Tracing the history of the mission of the university, Readings provides an overview of what he identifies as three main phases in its development: the Kantian university, organized around the ideal of philosophy as the faculty of reason presiding over the
other faculties; the Humboldtian university, centered around the ideal of philosophy and
later literature as the realization of national culture; and the current era of the corporatized university, organized around the empty bureaucratic ideal of “excellence.” For
Readings, Cultural Studies represents an advanced manifestation of the decline of culture
as the organizing principle of the university and its replacement by excellence. In his
words, “Cultural Studies arises as a quasi-discipline once culture ceases to be the animating principle of the university and becomes instead one object of study among others”
(118). No longer tied to a notion of national identity, culture has been “dereferentialized,”
and, like “excellence,” no longer seeks to define itself in terms of a particular content.
Readings argues that attempts at theoretical articulation within Cultural Studies
have not been undertaken in a way that would define it in terms of its relationship to a
“determinate set of phenomena or an autonomous object” (97). Because “no full description of the phenomenology of Cultural Studies is possible from within the consciousness
of the practitioner” (97), he argues, “we cannot provide an account of what it is to do
Cultural Studies that is theoretically self-consistent” (97). The issue for Readings is not
that academics working within Cultural Studies do not pay attention to theoretical or
methodological concerns; indeed, he is careful to acknowledge that “individual essays
calling themselves ‘work in Cultural Studies’ usually display a high coefficient of selfconsciousness concerning the theoretical grounding of their methodology” (97). What
Readings finds problematic is that, despite the amount of theorizing that takes place in
the name of Cultural Studies, difficulties arise when we seek to understand precisely
“what it might mean to theorize Cultural Studies” (97).
Readings is critical of approaches to Cultural Studies, which, following Bourdieu,
attempt to map “the distribution of cultural capital in terms of proximity to or distance
from a cultural center” (111), thus attempting to take account of the dereferentialization
of culture while still offering the appearance of “a positive knowledge of culture” (111).
What such approaches fail to recognize, Readings argues, is that not only does culture no
longer represent a center or “citadel to be occupied” (111), but “no one sits in the center
any longer” (111). The nation-state that once occupied the center, embodying capital and
expressing it as “a culture that radiated across the field of the social” (111), has become
merely “a virtual point that organizes peripheral subjectivities within the global flow of
capital” (111). The decline of the nation-state, for Readings, means that culture can no
longer be understood in terms of “the inclusion or exclusion of a subject in relation to a
cultural center” (112), or even in terms of “degrees of inclusion” (112). Because “capital
no longer flows outward from the center,” but rather “circulates around the circumference” (111), the model of margin and center can “no longer serve to explain the dynamic
of power (113).
While critical of certain approaches to cultural studies that emphasize the centrality of cultural inclusion, and of certain multiculturalist positions that he understands as
arising from such an approach, Readings is ultimately less concerned with critiquing the
multiculturalisms he describes than with understanding them, along with the “culture
wars” more generally, as symptomatic of “the problems raised by the absence of a cultural center” (114). For Readings, the “story of the marginalization of dead white males”
(114) laid out in the polemics of conservatives such as Allan Bloom and William Bennett
does not represent a mere “falsification” or “ideological trick” (114). Rather, the paradox
that “the holders of cultural power need to portray themselves as unorthodox rebels”
(114) can be understood as stemming from the fact that they “feel the emptiness of the
cultural power they hold” (114).The culture wars, for Readings, are thus best understood
as a struggle not simply between those who hold the center of cultural power and those
who are excluded from it, but rather between “those who hold cultural power but fear it
no longer matters and those whose exclusion from that cultural power allows them to believe such power would matter if only they held it” (114).
Readings’ perspective on the turn toward identity politics is in some respects in
agreement with the critique of identity politics offered by the Girouxs. For example, Susan Searls Giroux, in Between Race and Reason, echoes Readings in arguing that “the
institutionalization of multicultural commitment, with rare exceptions, is an extension of,
rather than a progressive alternative to the privatizing impetus of the neoliberal era” (32).
However, the Girouxs, unlike Readings, understand the privatizing ethos of neoliberalism
as operating through a formative culture, rather than as purely administrative and devoid
of cultural content.
Readings argues that power, rather than being organized around a center, now
works through the administration of “peripheral singularities” (116). The advantage, for
Readings, of speaking in terms of “peripheral singularities” is that if offers a way of discussing “the contradictory and multiple ways in which relations of desire… power and
knowledge flow among individuals, without having to presume that there is a stable, natural or logical order of such relations that we have lost and to which we should return”
(116). Because “peripheral singularities do not stand at the center of culture” (116), to
speak of the “peripheral singularity,” for Readings, is to insist that “there is no ideal individual that might achieve either total self-consciousness or a harmonious, balanced relation to others and the world” (116).
At first glance, Readings’ argument that culture no longer operates to shape subject identities as we typically understand them appears to present a challenge to the posi-
tion taken by the Girouxs, which is centered on the imperative to understand and transform the way in which subject positions are shaped by the formative culture of which
they are a part, in order to create new possibilities for citizenship and agency. However,
his argument that power under late capitalism no longer works to shape citizen-subjects
in the traditional sense may not be ultimately incompatible with the Girouxs’ approach,
since their approach, as stated by Henry Giroux, does not focus exclusively on individual
agency (PSPL 11), and thus need not necessarily be tied to any one model of how roles or
subject positions are created in relation to one another. Indeed, much of the Girouxs’
work is characterized by a refusal of what Henry Giroux describes as the “high-minded
Puritanism” (PSPSL) of the orthodox left. The Girouxs’ refusal of what Henry Giroux
often refers to as “the politics of moral purity,” and its emphasis on individual ideological
purity over collective agency, thus in some ways aligns with Readings’ insistence that
“there is no ideal individual” who might achieve “total self-consciousness” or a “balanced, harmonious relation to the world” (116).
A more serious point of contention between Readings’ approach and that offered
by the Girouxs is Readings’ assertion that “culture is no longer the terrain on which a
general critique of capitalism can be carried out” (Readings 103). In sharp contrast to the
Girouxs’ attempts to understand neoliberalism as an ideology, and in terms of its underlying formative culture, Readings argues that “the global system of capital no longer requires a cultural content in terms of which to interpellate and manage subjects…” (103),
and that its hegemony is therefore best understood as “administrative rather than ideological” (103). He contends that “in lending primacy to the cultural, critics miss the fact that
culture no longer matters to the powers that be in advanced capitalism– whether those
powers are transnational corporations or depoliticized, unipolar nation-states” (105).
Ironically, given his emphasis on the dangers of corporatization, Readings’ approach is characterized by a limiting economism which views culture as a purely superstructural outgrowth of an economic base. While Readings is insightful in his observation
that it no longer makes sense to speak of a center and periphery in a world in which the
power of global capital emanates from everywhere, his characterization of the power of
neoliberalism as administrative, rather than cultural and ideological, runs the risk of foreclosing important sites of resistance by forgetting that power must legitimate itself. The
Girouxs’ approach, by contrast, offers a vocabulary with which to describe neoliberalism,
and its economic imperatives, as part of a formative culture.
Despite its shortcomings, Readings’ analysis offers a valuable challenge to redemptive narratives surrounding Cultural Studies. His argument, as he states, is not simply that “Cultural Studies is foolish” or that “those who practice it have missed the point”
(Readings 118). Rather, Readings focuses his critique on Cultural Studies because he
views the endeavour of Cultural Studies as “the contemporary way to speculate on the
question of what it means to be in the University” (118). Readings warns that if Cultural
Studies fails to face up to this difficult task, and to the related task of confronting its own
dereferentialization, it may find itself unable to do anything more than “critique culture
excellently” (118).
In calling for Cultural Studies to rise to this challenge, Readings asserts the need
for “a resistance to the technocratic University that does not ground itself in a claim to
know the true referent of the University, the one that will redeem it” (124). Although
Readings’ appeal to “institutional pragmatism” is in sharp contrast to the Girouxs’ call
for a “politics of educated hope,” the form of pragmatism he advocates is more complex
than it first appears. Readings calls for a pragmatism without guarantees and without alibis – a pragmatism which, moreover, refuses to believe that “it adds up to its own alibi“
(168). Indeed, Readings suggests that it may paradoxically be “pragmatic to abandon
pragmatism” (168). However, Readings also rejects “grand narratives” of redemption for
the university, asserting that “we need no identity for the University, not even the supplement will save us. Rather, we need to recognize that the dereferentialization of the
University’s function opens a space in which we can think the notions of community and
communication differently” (124). The ruins of the university, he suggests, offer us “an
institution in which the incomplete and interminable nature of the pedagogic relation can
remind us that ‘thinking together’ is a dissensual process” (192). He envisions the university to come as a “community of dissensus,” a community of thought that understands the
“obligation of community” (187), and of thought, as a question “to which we are answerable, but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).
Readings’ vision of the university to come, although thoughtful and provocative,
is limited by the fact that he largely omits any discussion of how to defend the role of the
university as a democractic public sphere, the necessity for which the Girouxs articulate
powerfully and convincingly. However, while the Girouxs provide a more forceful defense of the university as a public good than does Readings, their interventionist emphasis on mobilizing Cultural Studies in the interests of political change leaves largely unaddressed the crucial question of what the place might be within Cultural Studies, and the
humanities more generally, of forms of knowledge that do not easily fall into the frame-
work of the cultural and the political. Although their work, particularly Henry Giroux‘s
work in the field of Biopolitics, does indeed draw on theoretical traditions that, in various
ways, attempt to think the cultural and the political from the outside, the theoretical question of the relationship of these traditions to Cultural Studies is not explicitly addressed.
It is precisely this question that Tillotama Rajan takes up in her response to Readings.
Tillotama Rajan: Theorizing Cultural Studies Otherwise
Responding to Readings’ critique of the hopes that have been placed in Cultural
Studies, Tillotama Rajan, in her essay “In the Wake of Cultural Studies,” offers an analysis of the history of such hopes, tracing their development through the evolution of the
“encyclopedic impulse” (68) and the history of post-Kantian idealism. Whereas Readings
focuses on the displacement of literature by Cultural Studies as the flagship discipline of
the humanities, Rajan focuses on the displacement of Theory, which she argues has become “an endangered species,” reduced to “a signifier for ‘cutting-edge’ discourses” and
a “domesticated ground” for Cultural Studies (67). Responding to Readings’ challenge to
Cultural Studies to face up to the opportunities and difficulties created by its dereferentialization, Rajan argues that Theory must play a critical role for Cultural Studies in responding to its dereferentialization in new and productive ways. She suggests that Cultural Studies has limited itself by remaining within the framework of the British encyclopedic impulse, ignoring the possibilities offered by continental philosophy and by the
German encyclopedic impulse for conceptualizing culture and Cultural Studies from the
outside, in ways that are not limited merely to the cultural and the social.
Rajan argues that “like the humanities generally… Theory has become submerged
in Cultural Studies, which displaced it in the nineties as a central concern of institutes,
interdisciplinary programs, and lecture series” (67). Like Readings, she acknowledges
that “there are no absolute epistemic shifts,” and unlike Readings, she distinguishes the
scene of teaching from other institutional practices with regard to the growing hegemony
of Cultural Studies, observing that “practices at the ground level of teaching” have remained more diverse (67). However, she nevertheless asserts that “at the level of marketing and image… Cultural Studies has become the primary focus of North American academic publishing in the humanities” (67).
Rajan observes that Theory has “migrated out of English into continental philosophy departments and book series” (68), with the result that it has been esotericized and
narrowed to post-Heideggerian French philosophy (68). This narrowing of Theory can be
understood as connected to what Marc Redfield identifies as “the journalistic equation of
‘theory’ with ‘deconstruction,’ and the subsequent confusing of theory (as ‘deconstruction’) with cultural studies“ (Redfield 4). As Redfield argues, this slippage, “however annoying and wrong it seems to many of the critics who have an investment in these terms”
(4), nevertheless has “its own perverse logic” (4), reflecting and responding to “structuring instabilities at the heart of aesthetic discourse itself” (4).
Among the structuring instabilities that Redfield sees reflected in the slippage
from deconstruction to Cultural Studies is the way in which deconstruction “examines yet
cannot avoid repeating the contradictions that aesthetic culture provokes” (4), while “cultural studies achieves critical purchase to the extent that it exploits, consciously or not,
the rhetorical volatility of aesthetic discourse” (4). The historical status of these terms, he
observes, is complexly intertwined with the history not only of “our modern institutions
of culture and acculturation” (4), including art and literature, but also of “classical ideas
and institutions” of rhethoric, language and technics (4), and it is this complex history
that Rajan’s wide-ranging analysis attempts to trace.
Rajan chooses to focus on both Cultural Studies and Theory, because, as she observes, they are both encyclopedic organizations of knowledge that have served as “flagship or metadisciplines of the humanities” (68). She further observes that both fields have
been “constituted outside the regular structures of departments in programs and ‘centers’”
(68), and that they have been responsible both for decentering the humanities by “recognizing the emergence of knowledges outside traditional boundaries” (68) and for recentering “the humanities’ ‘mission’ by which it addresses the university at large” (68).
In describing Theory and Cultural Studies as encyclopedic bodies of knowledge,
Rajan defines the encyclopedia as “a gathering of subjects that are meant to be interrelated as knowledge by a single individual” (68). She observes that actual encyclopedias, like
encyclopedias in the broader sense of a gathering of subjects, have been “intimately tied
up with existing or projected organizations of knowledge” (68), and that “both Theory
and Cultural Studies have served as invisible encyclopedias for the liberal arts” by “legitimating a certain range of knowledges, a method for interrelating them, and indeed a concept of what constitutes knowledge” (68).
Just as Readings connects the reconfiguration of the humanities with the reconfiguration of the nation-state, Rajan observes that the humanities, by centering itself
around Cultural Studies, has reimagined itself “in terms of the globalism of culture rather
than the nationalism of literature, even as the wider technocratic apparatus thereby reduces the entire humanities to a form of ‘area studies’ “ (67-68). As she observes, “everything in publisher’s catalogues for the humanities is now ‘studies,’ so that even if ‘Cul-
tural Studies’ is separately indexed… ‘American,’ ‘Medieval,’ and ‘Literary’ studies are
all really Cultural Studies” (75). This mode of identifying disciplines according to their
content can be understood as a manifestation of the British encyclopedic impulse identified by Rajan – an approach, she argues, which is limited in that, unlike the German encyclopedic impulse, it presupposes that all knowledge is social, and can be organized as
Like Readings and the Girouxs, Rajan offers a critique of narrowly privatizing
forms of identity politics that reduce issues of identity and inequality to matters of cultural representation. However, her main focus is on what is done to knowledge in the name
of reducing it to the cultural, and to frameworks of “cultural difference.” Rajan identifies
cultural studies as identity politics with a conglomerate of approaches, including some
forms of postcolonialism and gender studies, as well as studies of popular culture and
“everyday life” (71). She describes these approaches, referred to by Simpson as the academic postmodern, as “nostalgically reverting to Benjaminian storytelling, autobiography
and subjective experience, ostensibly to insist on local knowledge, but really to reinstate
self-expression and identity politics” (71), and criticizes what Terry Eagleton describes as
their “narrowing-cum-pluralizing” focus (71), as well as their tendency to aesthetically
abstract the social from the economic (71). She further observes that these approaches
tend to avoid theory, retaining the “poststructuralism” of the late sixties as “the oppositional overthrowing of structures” (71) without the “rigor of its linguistic turn” (71). As a
result, she argues along with Terry Eagleton, these approaches leave no room for “politics beyond the… particularisms of cultural difference” (Eagleton, qtd. in Rajan 71).
Rajan opposes cultural studies as identity politics with what she refers to as “cultural studies as techno-domination” (75), a conglomerate of approaches, which, in contrast to the “academic postmodern,” are “eminently theoretical” (71). This form of cultural studies, she observes, tends to embrace technology in order to “ally itself with science,
progress, and membership of the global scene” (71), and thus marks “a shift in the very
thinking of culture from education or cultivation to technology” (71). In contrast to the
older sense of “techne as self-cultivation” (72), Rajan observes that technology within
this approach to cultural studies has come to name “the manufactured character of a disposable, manageable subject” (72). Rajan argues that this approach, like the “academic
postmodern,” is unable to think itself from outside, because it attempts to codify and contain everything within a social system, excluding knowledge which does not easily fit into the framework of the social (72). As a result, she argues, this form of cultural studies
risks becoming nothing more than “the mimetic repetition of the technologization it studies” (72). Readings’ analysis arguably falls into this category in some respects, since his
emphasis on the techno-bureaucratic and administrative nature of power at times becomes totalizing, reproducing its effects by limiting our ability to think outside of it.
Rajan observes that these two forms of cultural studies, despite their “profound
disjunction” (72), are able to coexist because they share several important operational
features that “result in their performing the same work of discursive exclusion and the
redistribution of disciplinary power” (72). One common feature of both cultural studies,
she argues, is “a certain presentism that signals the end of history” (72). Here she is
speaking not so much of the ignorance of the history of Cultural Studies as a discipline
criticized by Grossberg et. al, but of the way in which Cultural Studies, although it may
deal with earlier periods and texts, nevertheless typically remains “oriented by today’s
social politics” (72). In clinging to this presentism, Rajan argues, Cultural Studies profoundly limits itself by failing to “reflect on itself within a historical framework so as to
recognize that there are other ways of thinking culture, let alone interdisciplines that mediate humans’ relationships to their world differently” (72). A second commonality Rajan
identifies in both forms of cultural studies is their emergence as “the humanities’ simulacrum of the social sciences” (72). The result, she argues, is that Cultural Studies, gathered, along with the rest of the humanities, into the “social scientific culture” (74) of the
“human sciences” (74), has largely abandoned the critique of positivism, and no longer
seeks to “claim a way of thinking the social from the outside” (74).
A third aspect of Cultural Studies of which Rajan is critical is its “teleology of
‘absolute self-transparency’ based on total communicability” (74). Like Readings, she is
critical of the model of learning as transparently “communicative rationality,” a model
which assumes that communication takes place between subjects who are already transparent to one another, and that forecloses the possibility of thought by denying its opacity. For Rajan, as for Readings, thought, in order to remain open to the possibility of
thought, must always be aware of the ways in which it is different from itself – “thought
beside itself” (Readings 192), to use Readings’ phrase. Just as Readings argues that
transparency serves the interests of “excellence” as a regulatory ideal, Rajan argues that
the “transparent” teleology of Cultural Studies, in which all knowledge is social and can
be communicated and codified, provides “the organizational structure for the transparent
society, or rather for the academic globalization of this society” (75).
In challenging this notion of transparency, Rajan draws on Jean-Luc Nancy’s notions of “community” and “singularity,” which she contrasts with the “civil discourse” of
academic “society.” She argues that “while society absorbs singularities into a ‘common
substance,’ or at least a democracy in which one is represented by an ethnic or other
group identity” (77), community occurs “around a questioning of identifications, whether
consenting or resistant” (77), such that, in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, “being in common means… no longer having… in any empirical or ideal place, such a substantial identity, and sharing this ‘lack of identity’ (qtd. in Rajan 77). Rajan’s notion of a community
based on shared singularity and lack of identity thus has clear affinities with Readings’
notion of a “community of dissensus.”
In the final section of her wide-ranging analysis, Rajan poses the question of
“What should be the nature of metadisciplinarity in a university not synonymous with
society?” (77). She argues that “given the limits of the current culturalist organization of
knowledge, it is now all the more necessary to keep a place open for Theory, both in itself and through a larger reflection on epistemic organizations that is itself inflected by
Theory” (77). In closing, she suggests that Foucault’s The Order of Things offers an invaluable approach to rethinking disciplinarity, offering us a new way of “(not) organizing
knowledge on the ground of Theory rather than Cultural Studies” (86), and of phenomenology rather than governmentality. The vision of interdisciplinarity, and sometimes antidisciplinarity, articulated in Foucault’s early work, Rajan suggests, offers a way of
thinking the humanities otherwise that we should not ignore if “interdisciplinarity itself is
not to become a form of global communicative rationalization.
Conclusion: Theorizing and Mobilizing Cultural Studies in the University to Come
As we have seen, the divergences and interconnections between the approaches to
Cultural Studies put forward by Henry and Susan Searls Giroux, Bill Readings, and Tillotama Rajan raise complex and illuminating questions about current debates over the
place of Cultural Studies in the university. Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, provocatively argues that Cultural Studies must be understood as a manifestation of the way
in which the university has been dereferentialized by the loss of its animating mission as
a bastion of national culture. However, his analysis fails to elaborate precisely how Cultural Studies might respond to the challenges and possibilities that this dereferentialization opens up. Rajan’s analysis responds to Readings by suggesting ways in which Theory – particularly forms of Theory which attempt to think the social and the political from
the outside – might be mobilized to think Cultural Studies otherwise. However, the question nevertheless remains of how the interventionist drive that animates both the Girouxs’
work and the traditions of British and American cultural studies from which it takes its
inspiration might be combined with the attempt to theorize Cultural Studies otherwise.
Related to this question is the question of how Cultural Studies might be mobilized for
democratizing political change, without becoming so politicized that it becomes merely
utilitarian, emptied of any sense of knowledge as an end in itself.
While there are no easy answers to these questions, I would argue that helpful responses are suggested by Stuart Hall’s argument, in his chapter “Cultural Studies and its
Theoretical Legacies, for the need to hold political and theoretical questions in perpetual
tension, and to avoid formalizing questions of power, history and politics to the point
where they are aestheticized and theoreticized “out of existence” (286). As well, Roger
Simon’s reflections on the need to move beyond redemptive narratives of education,
which seek to define the purpose of the university in terms of a social project, offer a
valuable reminder of the importance of resisting the temptation to locate the mission of
the university solely in terms of its effects outside of the university, and of affirming the
importance of what takes places within the university. For Simon, the “question of being
together in the university. . . cannot be decided entirely in advance of its enactment” (14).
Redemptive claims for education, he suggests, cannot be made effectively without attention to what he refers to as the “core idea” of the university as “a space-time in which being together on the terms of thought-in-relation is held as an open question” (14). By
framing the core idea of the university as “an open question,” but without characterizing
it, as Readings does, as one to which we “cannot supply an answer,” Simon modifies the
Readings’ notion of a community of dissensus, which posits aporetically that we are answerable to an unanswerable obligation. For Simon, we can indeed offer partial answers
to the question of what it means to be together in the university, although all such answers must be understood as incomplete. Simon’s conception of thought-in relation,
then, offers a valuable starting point from which to begin to conceptualize a relationship
between the pedadogical and the political that, in the Girouxs’ words, “affirms a politics
without guarantees and a notion of the social that is open and contingent” (TBHE 228).
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