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Deferral, Denial, Disavowal, Discontinuity: Leftism and the Love of Academia

Intellectuals must make use of the state in order to rid themselves of the state.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #14, May 1994

Intellectuals must make use of the state in order to rid themselves of the state.
— Pierre Bourdieu

American intellectual leftists have repeatedly demonstrated an inability to come to grips with their institutional positions. This has had tremendous costs, foremost among them the reproduction of the very repressive technologies that we often claim to be working against. Although my critique is broadly applicable, I will focus here only on academia, especially in professional terms, and specifically around the interdisciplinary field known as 'cultural studies' as it is being practiced in the United States. I am writing in this narrow focus for three reasons: first, I am currently living this problematic and therefore can speak to it directly and passionately; second, detail is important in this kind of critique because, as Michel Foucault has shown, power works at microphysical as well as at general levels; third, I believe it useful at this moment to try and intervene in cultural studies' institutional life. Although it would be absurd to think that within this space I could provide either a comprehensive critique or a thorough program for change, I want to at least lay out the terrain and suggest some paths for consideration.

Tony Bennett, in his essay 'Being in the True of Cultural Studies,' criticizes the notion that cultural studies is 'politics by other means.' Bennett contends that the university is not a transparent lens for political projects. One cannot simply move into its space and pursue political objectives as if the university does not impose certain practices and regularities on its subjects. But for some radicals since the late 1960s, the university has been precisely this space of 'politics by other means.' The tenure system, for instance, limits the ways in which one can be persecuted for holding unpopular opinions. This is extremely attractive for those who would find themselves occupying very marginal positions elsewhere for their political beliefs. Although it is a myth that the majority of 1960s radicals, or even the most radical among them, wound up on university faculties, there is now a sizable leftist contingent within American academia. Cultural studies has, in the United States, become a buzzword for politically informed or motivated scholarship.

While I would follow Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, Stuart Hall and others who argue that cultural studies is not simply a metaphor for people doing theoretically or politically informed research, but rather exists as a specific set of intellectual histories and practices, and a set of specific political commitments, it is not my desire or intention here to police the field. My point is simply that cultural studies work is generally done in the name of leftist politics, and that it is emerging as an influential formation within academic culture. Now, there are very few departments of cultural studies in U.S. universities. Many programs allow or encourage cultural studies work, but so far as I know, the closest thing to cultural studies departments are those originally founded as interdisciplinary humanities programs and now have a much more radical and theoretically inflected focus (I am thinking here of Santa Cruz's 'History of Consciousness' and Minnesota's recently renamed 'Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature').

The result is that cultural studies has to coexist within the spaces of other disciplines — most often within literature or communications departments, although it is clearly gaining strength in areas such as ethnic and area studies, feminist studies, American Studies, Geography, and even Kinesiology. People wanting to work in the field always need to position themselves with respect to an academic discipline. This also means that the conventional wisdom is that cultural studies always exists at the margins of disciplinary knowledge, and at the margins of departments. As my former colleagues at Minnesota will attest to, even when cultural studies has its own departmental space, it is still marginalized within the college, constantly having to legitimate itself.

This marginality I speak of engenders perhaps the most deadly fallacy underlying current operations within the field of cultural studies. It operates on a logic of disavowal and discontinuity, and it might best be called the 'fallacy of necessary marginality.' It is the belief that, on one hand, one's marginality somehow authorizes or authenticates academic practice as genuinely resistant, or critical, and on the other, that this marginality is necessary or permanent. The claim to the margins, while rhetorically powerful, is foolish. As academics, we occupy a certain class position. Pierre Bourdieu calls intellectuals 'the dominated version of the dominant class.' Class aside, the very occupation of an institutional position such as 'assistant professor' brings with it a whole set of power relations that cannot be overcome simply by invoking other kinds of difference. As any college student knows, a professor who walks into a classroom and refuses to lead discussion or teach has not suddenly liberated her or his students. Quite the opposite. This is not to argue for an authoritarian position on the part of teachers; it is simply to say that we can't wish away our authority. The power exists by virtue of the positions 'professor' and 'student' as they are inhabited by individuals.

Necessary marginality is dangerous because it allows a certain kind of experience — being in a dominated position — to function synechdochally as the authenticator for all of a person's actions. It assumes that a leftist or marginal position authenticates one as revolutionary in all contexts for all time. Let me illustrate in a few different ways. The purveyors of an 'anti-PC' rag, Heterodoxy, who describe themselves as having been 'leftists' in the 1960s, argue that leftist politics has 'gone too far' and degenerated into political correctness. They authenticate their position by claiming that they did their time as leftists in the 1960s — they marched against the war or whatever, and now their work is somehow necessarily enlightened by an anti-establishment thought that is 25 years old.

Much academic work in cultural studies falls into a similar kind of error. That because the individual is leftist or has been leftist at some point, every academic project is itself a revolutionary gesture. This manifests itself in different ways. To beat a dead horse (briefly), much of the work on Madonna seems to be an extended effort to justify the critics' pleasure. It operates, implicitly, on an assumption that all pleasure must be politically progressive; therefore, since the critic takes pleasure in one of Madonna's texts, there must be something inherent to that text that is politically progressive. This is faulty logic: I, personally, really enjoy the music of Helmet, but they're quite reactionary. It does not necessarily follow that I have the same politics as the producers or even the content of a text that I like. More broadly, this is the one-for-one translation of aesthetics into politics.

Throughout film and television studies, one can find references to deviations from stylistic norms being 'subversive'; texts 'deconstruct the dominant order' through irony or parody. Often these terms will appear from nowhere in what are otherwise straightforward (or even formalist) analyses. Charlie Bertsch in an earlier issue of Bad Subjects has elegantly restated Raymond Williams' caution against an aesthetic theory becoming a social theory, and I will not rehearse that here. My intention is to insist that a radical reading is not in and of itself necessarily a political act. Things do not 'subvert' simply because we say they do. Textual criticism is too important a project to do poorly.

In the above two examples, we have a certain assumption: because the critic is a leftist, the critic's pleasures are leftist, and the critic's projects are leftist. This does not hold simply for textual criticism. Even an overt political critique — for instance, an urban geography of Chicago that correlates cancer levels, race, and income to the proximity of certain kinds of heavy polluters — is not necessarily a revolutionary act. This kind of error is quite common in my field (Communications), where some political economists sometimes think their jobs begin and end with simply identifying the state and corporate interests behind various mass media practices. Political critique is vitally important, but we have to remember the specificity of our activity — we are inhabiting the academy, and as such, any homologous connections to projects outside it have to be made and maintained. There is not some kind of magical pipeline taking political critique out into the broader political field.

This is not to say that work within the academic institution itself does not have its own political stake. Quite to the contrary, there are important political battles to be fought in the academy — especially over mission, access, and content. Our work in the classroom is also fundamental in this respect — not so much in the traditional sense of 'raising students' consciousness' although that *may* be part of it, but in terms of giving people the right tools for the right task. American cultural studies, in general (and there are many exceptions to this), has done a rather poor job of orienting itself to non-specialists. In my area, Communications, this entails teaching broad undergraduate courses, and giving students something they can take with them whether or not they major in the field.

If 'necessary marginality' works to authenticate all academic practice as leftist, it also works to assure us that we will never be in positions of influence within academia, or elsewhere. There are several directions this can take. In pedagogy and research, there is the issue of specialized theoretical language. We need to learn how to speak clearly, not so that we never use specialized language (this quickly becomes a form of anti-intellectualism) but rather, that we don't always have to use it. Last fall, a good friend of mine sat on a lunchtime panel for physicists; the topic was science and postmodernism. The audience was fairly receptive until a speaker got up and started talking through deconstruction. He was unable to explain himself to the audience except through his own specialized language. Imagine if the tables were reversed, and physicists were speaking to cultural studies scholars, and only explaining their work with the most complicated mathematics possible. We need to move among levels, and this goes the other way as well.

There has been much criticism of Cornel West's new book Race Matters. Much of this has come from a Marxist intellectual left that has accused him of selling out. While I in no way want to argue the merits of the book (I haven't read it), the tone of the argument points to a larger problem in leftist discourse: we are generally unwilling to accept the parameters of popular media. West has been accused of 'selling out,' of 'knowing better' than to make the kinds of simplified arguments he puts forth. On the other hand, he sold over a million copies. The book has had a much larger impact than, say, Gayatri Spivak's latest. That's not to say that all cultural studies writers should suddenly start writing for the popular press, but rather that someone should. Such a move would mean admitting that complicated arguments do have to be simplified and connected to people's affective investments in order to be popularized. Furthermore, it would concede that one of the reasons the American left has been so ineffective is its unwillingness to abandon its own insider/outsider dichotomy, where either you know the lingo, or you don't. This denial of our own complicity in our marginality winds up in an anti-democratic stance. The suggestion that the left can operate entirely through a politics of corrosion, subversion, and infiltration has a decidedly vanguardist ring to it. We are relieved of the burden of convincing anybody of anything. I, for one, believe that broad, sweeping social change ought to have some kind of popular support, and that we might want to do something about trying to garner that support, beyond teaching politics as a new form of moralistic discourse within the classroom.

So, in terms of connecting academic work to broader political struggles, we need to learn to use language tactically, we need to get over our anti-popular biases, and we need to learn how to deal with non-specialists. Finally, we ought to start learning how to use various media ourselves, unless you can explain how a political project in this age can work entirely outside the mass media. Along with our work at forging connections with politics beyond the academy, we need to rethink politics within the academy in a number of fundamental ways. I mentioned mission, access, and content as three especially vital areas of work. One place where these things can best be affected is from an administrative position. I have heard repeatedly such comments the gist of which is 'How could a dean change anything? Your hands are tied with red tape.' The comment is quite telling. One could ask the same question of a professor or graduate student. There is a fundamental misconception at work here: the professional is not always the political. We need to pick our battles carefully. People should be able to feed themselves and support their kids if they choose academic work. That may mean writing some papers for tenure instead of the revolution.

Pierre Bourdieu is right on when he says that we need to learn to assess and defend our own interests, within the institution, in order to be politically effective in a broader sphere. Why couldn't there be a dean or a provost trained in cultural studies? Why couldn't this be a good thing? We need to stop pretending that we are somehow above or outside the banal mechanics of the institution. We need to relearn how to talk with people in other fields. Within academia, we have many potential allies that could come from unlikely places, if only we were to look — empiricists and formalists are not necessarily or always our enemies.

We have a lot more in common with other people in the human sciences than we are willing to admit. It is true that some alliances are not worth forging. It is also true that we cannot know that ahead of time. Cultural studies scholars, and academic leftists in a more general sense, have to recognize that they are in a tricky position. On one hand, we can easily become marginalized, and we still often have to fight battles of justification simply in order to carry on with our own work. On the other, we could perhaps succeed more often if we didn't start out assuming that our position is necessarily or always marginal. The belief in necessary marginality simultaneously allows us to pretend that whatever we do is always a politically progressive act, while at the same time, disavowing any power or agency we might have within the academy. This means we ought to own up to our own implication in the 'games' of academia and culture; we ought to learn the rules and practice a bit so that we could win more often, or at least help build a winning coalition.

For Further Reading:

Tony Bennett, 'Being in the True of Cultural Studies,' Southern Review, 26 (2), July 1993.

Pierre Bourdieu, 'Fourth Lecture. Universal Corporatism: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World,' Poetics Today, 12 (4), Winter 1991.

I would like to thank Carol Stabile, Larry Grossberg and Tony Bennett for the many insightful discussions that have made their way into this paper. I have also drawn on discussions from the April 27 roundtable discussion of feminism and the media in my Feminist Cultural Studies seminar (Comm 490, Spring 1994, University of Illinois) and wish to thank all the participants.

Jonathan Sterne is a graduate student in cultural studies, Speech Communication (the former currently trying to redefine the latter), and Critical and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently involved in a movement to unionize graduate student employees on this campus. He is currently wearing a temporary tattoo. He can be reached at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.