Postmodern Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies and the Academy 1. Cultural studies in the academies of the advanced capitalist countries has transformed the object of studies in the humanities. In particular, in English departments, cultural studies has challenged the predominance of the governing categories of literary studies (the “canon,” the homogeneous “period,” the formal properties of genre, the literary object as autonomous and self-contained) in the interest of producing “readings” of all texts of culture and inquiring into the reproduction of subjectivities.

To this end, pressure has been placed on disciplinary boundaries, the methods which police these boundaries, and modes of interpretation and critique have been developed which bring, for example, “economics” and “politics” to bear on the formal properties of texts. In addition, the lines between “high culture” and “mass culture” have been relativized, making it possible to address texts in terms of their social effectivity rather than their “inherent” literary, philosophical or other values. 2.

The two most significant categories which have supported these institutional changes have been “ideology” and “theory. ” Althusserian and post-althusserian understandings of ideology, which defined ideology not in terms of a system of ideas or “world view” but in terms of the production of subjects who recognize the existing social world as the only possible and “reasonable” one, made possible the reading of texts in terms of the ways in which the workings of ideology determined their structure and uses.

Marxist and post-structuralist theories, meanwhile, focused critical attention on the conditions of possibility of discourses, and upon the exclusions and inclusions which enable their articulation. In both cases, critique becomes possible insofar as reading is directed at uncovering the “invisible” possibilities of understanding which are suppressed as a condition of the text’s intelligibility. 3. I support these efforts to transform the humanities into a site of ultural critique. I will argue that what is at stake in these changes is the uses of pedagogical institutions and practices in late capitalist society. If pedagogy is understood, as I would argue it should be, as the intervention into the reproduction of subjectivities, then the outcome of struggles over “culture” and “cultural studies” will determine whether or not the Humanities will become a site at which the production of oppositional subjectivities is made possible.

Historically, the Humanities has been a site at which the contradictions of the subjectivities required by late capitalist culture have been addressed and “managed. ” For example, the central concepts of post-World War Two literary criticism, such as “irony,” have the function of reducing contradictions to the “complexity” and “irrationality” of “reality,” thereby reconciling subjects to those contradictions. 4. However, these recent changes in the academy have been very partial and contradictory.

They have been partial in the sense that much of the older or “traditional” modes of literary studies have remained untouched by these developments, or have only made some slight “accommodations” to them. They have also been contradictory in the sense that cultural studies has accommodated itself to existing practices, by producing new modes of fetishizing texts and preserving conservative modes of subjectivity. In this way, cultural studies continues to advance the ideological function of the modern Humanities in a changed social environment. . The right wing attacks these changes, charging–as in the ongoing “PC” scare–that the Humanities are abandoning their commitment to objectivity and the universal values of Western culture. My argument is that these commitments and values have been undermined by social developments which have socialized subjects in new ways while concentrating global socio-economic power within an ever-shrinking number of transnational corporations.

The intellectual and political tendencies coordinated by cultural studies, then, are responding to these transformations by allowing academic business to go on as usual, and providing updated and therefore more useful modes of legitimation for capitalist society. 6. The contradictions of these changes in the mode of knowledge production need to be understood within the framework of the needs of the late capitalist social order.

The emergence of “theory” and (post)Althusserian understandings of ideology reflected and contributed strongly to the undermining of liberal humanism (in both its “classical” and social-democratic versions) as the legitimating ideology of capitalism. The discrediting of liberal humanism, first under the pressures of anti-colonialist revolts and then as a result of the anti-hegemonic struggles in the advanced capitalist “heartlands,” revealed a deep crisis in authority and hegemony in late capitalist society.

This discrediting also revealed the need for new ideologies of legitimation, free from what could now be seen as the “naivete” of liberal humanist universalism, now widely viewed as a cover for racist, sexist and anti-democratic institutions. 7. The institutional tendencies which have produced the constellation of practices which can be termed “cultural studies” have, then, participated both in the attack on liberal understandings and in the development of new discourses of legitimation.

The liberal humanism predominant in the academy has increasingly been seen as illegitimate because it depends upon an outmoded notion of private individuality-that is, the modern notion of the immediacy with which the privileged text is apprehended by the knowing subject. In this understanding, literature is understood in opposition to science and technology, as a site where what is essential to our “human nature” can be preserved or recovered in the face of a social reality where this “human essence” (“freedom”) is perpetually at risk.

However, the more “scientific” methods (like semiology) which have undermined the hegemony of “new criticism” in the American academy, largely through the use of modes of analysis borrowed from structuralist anthropology and linguistics, have themselves been discredited by postmodern theories as largely conservative discourses interested in resecuring disciplinary boundaries (for example, through the classification of genres) and protecting an empiricist notion of textuality. 8.

Cultural studies, then, is the result of the combination of the introduction of “theory” and the “politicization” of theory enabled by these social and institutional changes. However, the postmodern assault on “master narratives” (“theory”) has responded to the discrediting of both structuralism and Marxism in a conservative political environment by redefining “politics” to mean the resistance of the individual subject to modes of domination located in the discursive and disciplinary forms which constitute the subject.

This has opened up the possibility of a new line of development for cultural studies: one in which the local supplants the global as the framework of analysis and description or “redescription” replaces explanation as the purpose of theoretical investigations. I will argue that the set of discourses which have “congealed” into what I