At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether.
As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on. A Further Note on Normativity, Politics, and OOO from Larval Subjects
Here at Larval Subjects I have often railed against forms of political discourse that target “capitalism” or “neoliberalism”. This is not because I am pro-capitalism or pro-neoliberalism, but because I believe these sorts of discourses turn capitalism and neoliberalism into “super-entities” against which it is impossible to struggle because they are everywhere and nowhere. Just as you cannot eat fruit as such, but only grapes, apples, oranges, etc., you can’t fight capitalism or neoliberalism as such.
The point is simple, you can only act on a global system through local elements within a network. The problem with discourses centered around capitalism and neoliberalism is that they’re just too baggy and they render these local networks invisible, denying us any route of action. We fall into theoretical pessimism.
In this respect, the struggle against capitalism resembles the struggle against terrorism under the last administration. By turning “terrorism” into a super-entity or an entity in its own right, we turned it into something that is everywhere and nowhere. Yet all we can act on with respect to terrorism is local networks. However, acting on these local networks can have profound effects on the larger network. Materialism, Privilege, Revolution from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
Seminar Discussions Are Not Political Demonstrations
Let us be clear about the kind of “political intervention” cultural studies was supposed to represent. It was first an expansion of teachable materials to include popular culture and other kinds of marginalized productions. It was also heir to efforts by the Frankfurt School to produce new, more complex, less reductive kinds of Marxist cultural criticism. At bottom, the link between these two different goals had to do with the ways that Marxist ideals would justify the inclusion of “lower” forms of culture, either because popular culture represented the ideas and contributions of the masses, or else because it demonstrated forms of ideological control over the masses. The odd result was that hostile readings of Dickens became part of the “culture wars,” and so did appreciative readings of Madonna. Berube describes this as a lamentable conflation that happened to “cultural studies” when it was annexed by “cultural criticism,” but it was really a natural result of writers like Theodor Adorno being willing to include essays on jazz and film as long as he was allowed to denounce them unequivocally. Eventually somebody else started writing essays on jazz and film who begged to differ with Adorno about their value — and so on all the way to modern essays about American Idol. [...]
There should be classes on political rhetoric, which would do well to analyze people like Glenn Beck, and there should be classes on aesthetic categories, including pieces of popular culture where appropriate. Departmental divisions and differences should remain within the over-arching umbrella of the “humanities,” rather than collapsing into one uber-class on hegemony. It is a sorry testament to the way modern academic understandings of “the political” have inhibited political work that academic outsiders like Greil Marcus have produced some of the best and most enduring works of “cultural studies” — books like Lipstick Traces that are much better than the canons of founding fathers such as Stuart Hall, and have no difficulty remaining in print. I agree with Andrew Seal that merely “complicating” existing pictures of neoliberalism and the political economy, as Berube proposes, is not doing enough. That sounds like embroidering a fundamental resignation with colorful, distracting dissent. But there isn’t another, better word out there, because the study of culture cannot begin with a set of political demands. It has to begin with intellectual curiosity and a sensitive ear for what individuals and institutions are trying to express, letting that access of understanding speak to issues of immediate political concern how it will. Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About the UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate from The Kugelmass Episodes by Joseph Kugelmass (x-posted to The Valve)
But I still have hope that the history of cultural studies might matter to the university—and to the world beyond it. My hopes aren't quite as ambitious as they were 20 years ago. I no longer expect cultural studies to transform the disciplines. But I do think cultural studies can do a better job of complicating the political-economy model in media theory, a better job of complicating our accounts of neoliberalism, and a better job of convincing people inside and outside the university that cultural studies' understanding of hegemony is a form of understanding with great explanatory power—that is to say, a form of understanding that actually works. Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. His next book, "The Left at War," will be published by New York University Press in November.