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"Being Young Sucks": An Interview With Lawrence Grossberg

An interview with Lawrence Grossberg about the American right's war on kids, the struggle for the future, and the role of the intellectual.
Interview and Introduction by Jonathan Sterne
Transcription by Michael Baker

Issue #74, December 2005

Lawrence Grossberg helped bring cultural studies to the United States. He studied with Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the early 1970s, and then returned to the US, where he got a PhD in Communications. As a young professor, he was an important voice in debates about postmodernism during the 1980s, and helped to legitimate the study of popular music and youth culture in universities. Grossberg is also a defender of complexity in academic writing and the need for scholars in cultural studies to deal seriously and extensively with theory. He has always been a consistent advocate for a politicized vision of cultural studies. For him, like for Hall, cultural studies was always about politics first and popular culture second.

Grossberg’s most recent book, Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics and America’s Future (Paradigm, 2005) brings his political focus to the fore. Caught in the Crossfire denounces what he calls “America’s war on kids” and argues that leftists need to rethink their comfortable positions with respect to American politics. The book is also a stylistic departure for Grossberg, whose earlier writing was at times densely theoretical. Though there is much theory behind Caught in the Crossfire, it is aimed at a broad and educated audience. On a recent trip to Raleigh-Durham, I caught up with Larry and asked him some questions about his book and the larger issues behind it, including the politics of intellectual work.

A note for readers not familiar with the language of cultural studies: Grossberg’s use of the word “articulation” can best be translated as “connection.” Articulation describes the process by which ideas, political positions and social groups are connected to one another. So, for instance, the right currently “owns” the language of populism in U.S. public debate, but at the turn of the 20th century, populism was a term articulated to progressivism. The connection between pro-capitalist libertarians and religious conservatives in the Republican party is also an important articulation. The point of the term is to show that these kinds of connections are not “necessary,” and indeed could be configured differently, but that they come together and fall apart through political and cultural struggle.


JS: In your book, you say that there is a generational conflict. I’ll quote from page 90: “As youth gained an independent identity within larger social communities, it could serve as an emblem of the emergent sense of a new modernity. Being young became an ideology, a state of mind and body that could be achieved and marketed.” In your earlier work, you say a lot about youth as a category, you analyze the mobilization of youth, you consider how youth became something that is actually owned and controlled by older people – the idea that people can be young forever. It is an almost clichéd baby-boomer sort of thing. So an important part of your earlier writing is all about youth culture, but this book is about “kids,” which seems like a significant shift. All you have to say about that is in a footnote where you remark, “Well, they call themselves ‘kids’, so I’m going to call them ‘kids’.” What changed?

LG: A number of things changed. One thing was the recognition of the association of youth with a certain sense of the future -- which begins in the late nineteenth century and was fairly well connected to and grounded in a kind of naïve biology of young people, an idea of “age.” I began to see in the eighties that this notion of youth was increasingly disarticulated from the body of young people, as it were, and increasingly made into a kind of cultural and political signifier. What I did not see quite as clearly was how that disarticulation was itself part of a larger set of political, social and economic struggles. It’s kind of one of the missing arguments in We Gotta Get Out of This Place (1992). There is a kind of leap in that book from the generational issue and struggle to the Reagan struggle. I did not do the work and was not really perceptive enough (at the time) to see the ways in which that disarticulation of youth and a sense of the future was itself part of the larger project. It only became clear to me (as I say in the beginning of the new book) when kids began to talk to me about their own resentment, as it were, about being young.

JS: “Being young sucks.”

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LG: “Being young sucks.” So I use ‘kids’ because I think the concept of youth has been so disconnected from being young that I couldn’t talk about youth. I think that the term ‘children’ is so overloaded in our society with connotations that I did not want to get involved in the struggles over its complexity. I was aware of one of the weaknesses in the book, which is that I don’t really talk much about their culture and their responses to what is happening to them. I wanted to at least make the gesture to pick the term that most of kids culture uses. If you go online to websites where young people are talking about their own situations and recognizing some of what’s happening to them, that seems to be the term that they use to describe the commonality from five and six year-olds all the way up to seventeen and eighteen year-olds.

JS: I was going to ask when ‘kids’ stops…

LG: Well, one of the interesting things that is happening in our society is the phenomenon of young people returning home after college, a phenomenon that has happened in Europe for some time. We are re-establishing the way in which being a kid is defined as much by not having an independent life, not having a job, not being self-sufficient, as by anything else. It is kind of empty of lots of positive connotations and takes on more and more negative connotations.

JS: Maybe we should talk a little bit about kids and time. You argue that one of the reasons that kids are abandoned is because people feel they are no longer responsible to the future – not for, but to the future. So I want to push you a bit on why people feel they are not responsible to the future, because it is a geo-political question; perhaps it is because America is not on the ascension in the way that it was in the 1950s. There is a sense in which optimism about the future is also optimism about the economic prospects of the state and your place in it, and if you do not have that sense of ascendancy, then it is harder to see how you are going to make more money than your parents and your kids are going to make more money than you do. You are building for the future.

LG: Let me separate two questions, because I think you are right that it is a geo-political question, which I don’t really address, but I’m not sure I think it’s the geo-political question that you’ve asked me to elaborate. If you believe in the inevitability of progress then you do not have to work that hard to ensure your kids’ futures are going to be better. Because it is going to be better by definition. It is when you are not sure that you have the faith in progress – and so you think back to immigrant populations and Depression era populations – and when you are not confident about progress, that you really devote yourself to your children. I think there has been a loss of faith in progress, but I do not think that is what is behind the changing sense of time that I am trying to describe. One can believe that what you do in the present has some influence on the future and not believe in progress. That is the faith – that what we do in the present has some predictable, not deterministic, relation to the future – that we are losing. We are losing it because of a set of struggles, and I do not want to say it is intentional, but it is the result of arguments, discourses, that are redefining our notion of time. It is about the increasing presence of apocalyptic discourses. It is about the increasing credibility in the public domain of arguments about unintended consequences that the right-wing has been very, very good at mounting. “Yes, the liberals’ good intentions set-up this program, but look, the consequences were just the opposite.” There has been a kind of discursive deconstruction of that relationship which is relatively independent of the question of progress. There has been a political struggle over constructing the nature of history and society. America’s sense of history has been fuelled in part by a return to religious metaphors for history, both from the Right and, unfortunately, sometimes from the Left. Both see history as apocalyptic narrative. I think it is increasingly the result of concrete experiences in people’s lives. Through transformations in social life, someone who lives their life assuming they have a pension – that they’ve worked their whole life and their future is somewhat predictable because they have acted in the present to insure the future – suddenly finds that their [employers] can suddenly abandon their pensions. They suddenly have to confront a different sense of the relationship of what they assumed to be the present and the future. I think there is this other dimension of our sense of time that is not progress, and that is where the real action is.

Now, I do think there is a geo-political dimension to it. I do not know if it is unique to America but it certainly is not coincidental that this transformation of temporality is taking place in America as a kind of leading edge. And it has a great deal to do with the cultural history of America and the specificities of America’s sense of its own temporality, of its own sense of destiny, of its own sense of religiosity – I think it has a lot to do with America’s competing or contradictory uncertainty throughout the twentieth century about what its relationship was to the future of the world. Are we only responsible for ourselves, or are we responsible – as moral police – for the world? I think those things are all implicated. There are reasons why it is happening here… at least as a pre-cursor. I cannot really say much to what extent it is happening elsewhere, and it may be that other places are going through similar, comparable struggles over the social reality of their lives without this dimension. The United States was a society which, more than other societies, did foreground this relationship between the child and time in the late-nineteenth and twentieth century. It is the society which most mastered the commodification of youth. So I think there are a lot of conditions of possibility, unique to America, which made this site of struggle particularly potent in the United States. I do not know that I would generalize the argument outside the United States.

JS: Some of what you are saying sounds like American exceptionalism; how do you feel about that?

LS: Well, yes and no. It is American exceptionalism in two ways, one of which is I think we have to realize the potency of that discourse [of exceptionalism] in America. It is a real and effective discourse in American culture and politics. To just say, “It’s bad and we don’t want to talk about it” or to only want to talk about in a normative rejection, is not to take it seriously and to realize the ways in which it is powerfully articulated throughout American history to a variety of political positions, sometimes progressive and more often than not conservative. It is our job as analysts to understand the specificity of this context and not to generalize across the board, which I think is too easy and [happens] too often.

JS: Let’s move on to your critique of the Left and the Left’s response to the war on kids. The first question I have -- and you’re really slippery on this -- is who should be included in the Left when you talk about the Left in the United States at this point, especially as it is relevant to the welfare of kids?

LG: Let me preface it by saying that the politics of this book -- and this is the guilt part -- are not really about the welfare of kids. The end of the book is not, “Here is what we have to do to help the kids…” The end of the book is, “The only way we can help the kids is to do a better job in struggling over what our society is becoming.” So although I would support the Children’s Defense Fund and other attempts to ameliorate the suffering of kids in our society, I think in the long run (or even in the medium run) those are temporary bandages that have to be located in the larger struggle.

You ask the question of who the Left is… that’s a difficult one. I think there are two separate issues again. On the one hand I want to say the Left has to configure itself as progressives against liberals, it has to remember that history; on the other hand I want to say, even so far as there is a kind of polarization of American politics, it is a polarization between liberals and Leftists united against an increasingly powerful conservative hegemony. And we need to find a way of rethinking alliance politics so that we can understand how we are allied with the liberals in a struggle against the growing hegemony of the right while at the same time struggling against liberalism. The irony is that many of the Right’s arguments were first raised by the Left in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, the Right’s critique of welfare came from the Left, and it came from black groups. The critique of education came from the Left against liberals, yet now we find our ourselves in the position of either marginalizing ourselves out of the discourse or acceding to liberal definitions of the alternative. Neither is a viable solution. Whether one calls it a “hegemonic struggle” in Stuart Hall’s sense, or a “struggle over modernity” as I call it, we have to re-think our strategies and our abilities to create alliances. So I do not really want to define the Left. I could define it by a set of values but I think the problem of the Left is not so much a vision – lots of people are talking about [the Left’s lack of vision] – but that the Left no longer convinces people that it is possible to get to where we want to go. The fact is many people in America, and some evidence suggests the majority, still believes in a somewhat liberal and progressive vision of what American society should look like, but they do not seem to have any kind of faith that there is any way to get there anymore – so they opt for what they seem to think is the only alternative. We need to reconstitute that sense, and some people would call it a sense of hope, but I would call it a sense of strategic change.

JS: This also ties into your discussion of imagination and the loss of imagination. There I think of the stuff that was coming out a few years ago that was talking post-socialist condition, needing to re-think what it means to be a Leftist and what you’re arguing for. One direction, of course, has been the Hart and Negri direction which I know you’re not satisfied with. But when you start talking about imagination, I still do not have a really concrete sense of where that goes.

LG: Neither do I. To the extent that I believe the argument I made, I really do think that we are in the midst of the Hegelian image of “the old is dying and the new is not yet capable of being born.” All of these concepts like imagination, which were constituted, defined, and understood within one formation of what I would call modernity, are uncertain and destabilized – no longer effective as critical and political tools. Now on the other hand, I do not want to go to the postmodern extreme and say, “Look, it’s a new reality and everything old is irrelevant.” I want to say that you have to do the work of re-articulating these concepts. They are not just the same old same old. So if “imagination,” if “utopia,” if “strategy,” if “alliance” made sense in particular forms under one set of conditions, we need to begin to ask how changing conditions work out through political thinking and strategy. We need to invent new forms of imagination, just as the modernists at the turn of the twentieth century invented new forms of imagination. What imagination was in Picasso or in Stockhausen was completely different from what imagination was in Bach or Beethoven. What is imagination in the contemporary world? In a way, I think the Right is trying to destroy imagination in the modernist sense, and we need not to simply think we can hold onto that old sense (a much more utopian sense), we need something else. All the book really tries to do is say, “There is a lot of work to be done.” And I do not know that I see a lot of people doing it. I think there are people doing bits and pieces of it but we need to put it together in a conversation to do the work. The work is not purely theoretical, because theoretical concepts don’t tell us what is happening – they are tools that may or may not be useful. It has to be an engagement in the political realities in the same way that I critique neoliberalism. Neoliberalism isn’t a concept that tells you what is going on in the economy. If you want to understand the economy you have to look at tax laws, and corporate law, and all sorts of other things that are happening on the ground, in relationship to your categories.

JS: You say that one of the reasons this is happening is because the Leftists have failed. And of course I agree with you that Leftists need to think more carefully about strategy and we have to be a little more modest and not assume we have all the answers, but isn’t there a real power difference in America between Left and Right? I think of historical examples like COINTELPRO taking apart the Black Panthers, even at the level of electoral politics, which isn’t necessarily the domain of the Left; Bush has basically stolen one (and probably two) elections now. So even in the realm of liberal and conservative, it seems there is a kind of hegemony where we interpret people’s consent to a certain reality as “Yeah that sounds okay to me” and then there is the kind of consent one gives with an arm twisted behind your back and the other people demanding that you “say ‘uncle.’” Aren’t we at a stage where it’s more the latter than the former?

LG: Just as much as you could say, “What would have happened if the Black Panthers had not been literally murdered and destroyed?” you could also say, “What would have happened if the Left had not abandoned Johnson and the Democrats in the sixties?” Now, I am not saying we should not have, but it was a strategic choice and it may have been the wrong choice. Some people, not all of whom I agree with, are suggesting that. Power operates on both sides, and choices were made on both sides. But you are right: there is power. In part, it has always been there.

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The United States government and corporate America have always been operating behind the scenes to some extent with varying degrees of success. But in some cases, they have operated, not necessarily with a progressive agenda, but a more liberal agenda. The question is not “Are the Right and the Republicans manipulating the system and using the powers of discipline and police, etcetera?” Of course they are. The question is “How have they accomplished the ability to do it so blatantly?” What they have done is to convince a large section of corporate America to support them. It is not inevitable that corporate America supports the Republicans; much of the economic policy that Bush and Reagan support was present in Barry Goldwater, when the Wall Street Journal declared it to be economic lunacy and suicide for the country. The Right did the work of convincing corporate America to their side. They did the work of convincing the media to their side. There is no inevitability to the Right’s abilities – their ability to manipulate elections, and their ability to use their enormous economic resources and the power of corporate capitalism, is something they have constructed. They have built a movement. And we need to ask ourselves how they accomplished that, how we let them accomplish it, and what we can do about it? I am in the ambivalent position of wanting to say, as a Leftist, I am of course opposed to corporate capitalism. But as someone who cares about people who are dying, if I could convince corporate capitalism to work with me to alleviate some of the suffering in the world as the first set of movements, shouldn’t I be doing that? I think that we have assumed too quickly that there is a kind of inevitability to the situation we are in. Universal health care was proposed by Nelson Rockefeller – a Republican. It was corporate capitalism. It is in corporate capitalism’s interest, as they are now discovering, to have universal health care because they cannot afford to pay the health care, right? It is in their interest to have universal pension plans. Can we not articulate these interests, to disarticulate some of the power that the Right has, and some of their ability to mobilize police force, and to mobilize structures of corporate power in elections, to mobilize structures of media power? I just think these things are more contingent than we allow.

JS: Let's change gears a little now. This book reads like you’ve had a change in theoretical orientation compared with your work in the earlier nineties and in the eighties. Although terms like ‘affective epidemics’ that you used earlier come up again, and although you were never really a committed poststructuralist, I see a lot less of Deleuze & Guattari and Michel Foucault behind this book than in some of your earlier work and I see a lot more of Gramsci and discussions of hegemony. Is that an issue of topic? Is that an issue of translating for a broader audience? Or is it an issue of a change in theoretical orientation for yourself?

LG: It’s not a change in theoretical orientation, and the book I want to write now – that I’m hoping to start working on, which is a book about theorizing modernity in the context of these struggles – will go back to a lot more Deleuzian issues and Foucault. I have always been interested in bringing Gramsci, Deleuze and Foucault into dialogue. The book I am writing now will do that again. I did not do it [with the current book] for two reasons: one was a rhetorical decision. I thought the more theoretical side of my work would not aid my desire to speak to a broader audience. Maybe I fantasized about becoming a New York Times best-seller and going up against Tucker Carlson or something, but I wanted to speak to a broader audience and it seemed to me part of what you have to negotiate in that effort is the degree of sophistication – theoretical sophistication. I tried not to misrepresent reality and use a kind of framework that I thought was easier for a broader public to understand. But I have also always been a great believer that the questions you are asking determine the theories you use. At the level at which I was asking questions in this book, and the level at which I was trying to intervene in a political discussion, Gramsci was a more effective theoretical tool. Only because the book ends, for me, in a very unsatisfying liberal gesture – the call for a conversation; that is where I wanted to get to. In a sense, the argument of the book is “Look, there is a whole lot going on here that we’re not talking about and the complexities of it are not being adequately described, understood, taken into account in terms of our own sense of the battles that we’re fighting and the strategies…” And it seemed to me that to make that argument Gramsci was most effective. Now the next argument is, in a sense, “So what’s my sense of my position? If we can start this argument, what am I going to argue for?” And that, for me, involves how I understand modernity as a concrete social totality that is historically contingent in enough of way that I can begin to answer questions like, “How do you re-think imagination? How do you re-think alliance?” Not in a completely Deleuzian way and not in a completely Marxist way, but somewhere in the negotiation between them. So this book was written as a kind of call to arms, and not position paper. The position paper will go back to my Deleuzian-Foucauldian meets Gramsci theoretical position.

JS: Well, that leads into my last question, which is about the motivation behind, and the desired effects of, this book. It is your most accessible prose to date – you used to be a defender of complexity in academic writing, and not particularly an advocate of public intellectuals, and there is still some of that here. In the beginning you sort of say, “Well, I didn’t quite cross over all the way; I believe in some need for complexity and I believe in the need for speculation.” And yet, you just said you did have some desire to cross over. So how is your understanding of yourself as a writer or an intellectual changed since your earlier and more complex work, or has it? Is this just a new offshoot?

LG: Good question. I have not given up complexity. The responses I got from publishers and people who initially read the book initially was always, “This is much too complicated. The academic stuff is too complex. You’re doing too much.” So one argument was to write a book about the state of kids, and then write another one about the state of American society. And, of course, being in cultural studies, my argument was if you write the second book without the first it becomes abstract and has no grounding. And if you write the first book without the second it has no politics – it’s the politics of suffering and that’s not what I’m particularly interested in. I had one publisher write back and say, “Do you have to talk about economics and politics and culture and… Couldn’t you just write about kids and the economy?” But of course, it is in the complexity that I think the argument is there. So I hope I have not given up on complexity and the necessity that it is our responsibility as political intellectuals not to simplify and to try and bring forward the complexity. I did make the decision that in order to do that I had to sacrifice some theoretical complexity in order to keep what you might call the empirical complexity of the social formation.

Part of my motivation is a real sense of frustration with the Left, and myself, and Left intellectuals who seem not to have had a sense of the larger picture. As much as I might disagree with Hart and Negri’s argument in Empire (2000), I have enormous admiration for their effort. To do this, to take on the complexity of a totality – and I am not very comfortable talking about global totalities – I admire the fact that they were willing to try and look at the complexity of the social, the political, and the economic (they don’t really deal much with the cultural). I wanted to try to do that and I was particularly frustrated by my own sense of inadequacy as a representative of cultural studies. I was particularly disappointed in my own ability and the ability of the people I love and admire as cultural studies people. As a Leftist, I can talk about neoliberalism, or I can talk about the evils of capitalism, or I can talk about free access to culture or whatever. But I wanted to know what difference it would make if I as a cultural studies person tried to write about what was going on. And it is that sense of complexity and that sense of contingency and possibility, and struggle, that cultural studies brings to the mix. So in that sense, I did decide not so much to become a public intellectual (if I was to do that the book would be a lot shorter and have fewer footnotes) but to at least demonstrate (as much to the cultural studies community as to the broader community) that there were responsibilities we had and possibilities we had as political intellectuals to engage with these issues, bringing the full weight of our intellectual practice to bear on it. Surely, we must be able to come up with better descriptions about what is going on in the world or in the United States, out of which better understandings of the possibilities of the future might emerge. And as I said, I do not see much of that on the Left. Obviously, Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism is a kind of model, but so is Fukiyama and Samuel Huntington -- as much as we might decry their positions and their readings of history, one wants to ask, “Where is the Samuel Huntington or the Fukiyama of the left?” Now I do not believe many people on the Right actually read Fukiyama or Samuel Huntington – they are a bit too intellectual, they are not Tucker Carlson or O’Reilly or something, but they are people trying to talk about the totality and the ways in which contradictions and complexities shape the totality. As intellectuals, we need to fulfill a certain responsibility.

Lawrence Grossberg is Morris Davis Distinguished Professor in Commuication Studies and co-director of the University Program in Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University and is an editor of Bad Subjects.
Michael Baker is a doctoral student in the Graduate Programme in Communication Studies at McGill University, where he plans to write his dissertation on rockumentary.

Copyright © Lawrence Grossberg, Jonathan Sterne and Michael Baker. Red kids image: Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor. All rights reserved.