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Don't Shoot the Dentist
by Stanley Fogel

A new generation of cultural-studies analysts is opening wide and biting off all that it can chew

... This is a school like any other,

Dependent on experiment & patronage & the trigger

Of the soul being squeezed at just the right moment.

Toothpaste really, always being brushed on to try & prevent

The inevitable (okay, so it's a banal analogy) decay from

Setting in. ...

"The New Revisionism," Douglas Burnet Smith

ANDREW ROSS, CONCERNED ABOUT gum decay, paid a visit to his dentist. If that tidbit puzzles you (or doesn't interest you), sorry, but you haven't picked up on the great paradigm shift. I know, I know: it was just a few years ago that Jacques Derrida struck a nerve when he and his disciples redefined what happens in literary studies at the university. So you dutifully scraped off the accumulated plaque of tradition and began, teeth glistening, to utter such terms as "deconstruction" and "phallocentric." You've even (possibly) gotten comfortable with that new language and use it to make sense of literature's impact; it's as if you've done your own orthodontal work to reform your mouth and its mouthings.

Now, you encounter Ross's post-postmodern musings. You note that he's billed in the volume Cultural Studies as a professor of English at Princeton University, and once more you're conscious of the cavity beneath your knowledge. (I'm stopping the dental motif at this point; otherwise you'll think, perhaps wrongly, that the practice of literary criticism has moved from the humanities to the faculty of dentistry.)

"New Age Technoculture" is the title of Ross's essay, the one that Oust one more dental pun, please) opens ... wide. It's an account of New Age consciousness that locates the allure of New Age thought in its holistic, ecological, anti-rational dimensions; it also traces New Age links and resistance to scientific thought:

In its own eclectic and self-fashioned way, New Age has assumed a virtuoso, experimental role in reconstructing a humanistic personality for science -- science with a human face, a kinder, gentler science, as it were.

This reading of New Age thought and its raison d etre may, you think, be nicely done. Nonetheless, you are perhaps uneasy: if studying New Age ideas heralds a new age for literary scholars, doesn't it speak of the diminution and adulteration of academic practice? Perusal of the aforementioned Cultural Studies, a third of whose contributors are English professors, would confirm the drift away from an engagement with "high art" or what common parlance considered to be "culture." There are articles on Rambo, the Book-of the-Month Club, and Hustler (which is, you'll surely agree, "counter-hegemonic in its refusal of bourgeois proprieties").

When a novel is cited, as likely as not it's going to be something like The Shoe, a Scottish novel about rock music fans by Gordon Legge. The line from The Shoe that we're given by the cultural studies critic is: "Richard says when you cease to spend most of your time in the bedroom you become a boring bastard." This, you realize immediately, doesn't rank up there with the Joycean grandeur of "Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowl." Your suspicions are confirmed; the shoe, as it were, is on the other foot. The kinder, gentler professor (still, you can be sure, an authoritarian figure in the classroom and a cruet grader to boot) sees around him or her the cultural slide to pop music, TV, film, and the Internet ... and s/he wants in. There's no "glam" -- and ever diminishing amounts of moolah -- in classic cultural capital. Knowing all the capitals, in other words, doesn't offer nearly as much cachet as a rocker's tour of those places would.

Even when Shakespeare makes his appearance in Cultural Studies -- his index entry, alas, being shorter than that of "Reagan, Ronald" and "Thatcher Margaret" (of whom more later) -- it is in a supporting role. Peter Stallybrass, in "Shakespeare, the Individual an the Text," investigates the ramifications of a word -- "individual" -- that Shakespeare didn't ever use. He does this in order "to suggest the cultural parameters" wit in which the term was used in the 17th century. Stallybrass further explains another related issue:

I'm very interested at the moment in spelling because I think that the question of spelling has a lot to do with the notion of the individual word. What does it mean to talk about an individual word if you don't have a standardized orthography?

With Stallybrass's concerns about whether a word flourishes in an era or not and whether it is spelled consistently, then, we can begin to articulate the approach that has come to be called cultural studies. Not a university department, discipline, program, or methodology, cultural studies is nonetheless an identifying moniker, attractive to many, within which are gathered (partly or fully) names, attitudes, values, histories, and activities. Stallybrass's interest, in the article referred to above, is not the "Major Author" Shakespeare, whose cultural position is secure and whose insights into "Life," dispensed via the closed, harmonious forms of his plays, are applicable universally, irrespective of history or geography. The "MA" Shakespeare is also not read in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation, compelling forces that unmake an audience's monolithic character, a writer's overreaching value, and a text's transcendent meaning and significance. Implicated in the resistance to "MA" Shakespeare is who dictates his place in the literary and social firmament and why.

This shift in emphasis I'm trying to enunciate is vital to an understanding of cultural studies, so I'll try to explain it in another way. Remember ol' Robert Frost on nature? He wrote that that perplexing term seemed to mean one of two contrary things: "all the pretty scenery" or "the whole goddam machinery." Frost was dead and buried before the second meaning of nature gots its postmodern comeuppance as something as much constructed as omnipresent. Regardless, his model can be adapted to fit two meanings of the word ,.culture": if culture is a solid entity, easily sectioned off and studied, whether as high art, pop culture, or national identity, then there's no need for malleable, self-conscious cultural studies. We've already got an army of literary critics to do some parts of the analytical job, battalions of anthropologists and sociologists to do other parts. And those disinterested (meaning "impartial," of course) arbiters of culture can produce dispassionate, clinical assessments well enough.

If, however, culture is "the whole goddam machinery," then what is required is more than a metaphorical lube job from professor-mechanics (as nice as it would be to get dirt under the fingernails of those who, but for Mao, haven't needed to clean their nails). The media that transmit culture; the audience that receives it; the artist that creates it: all -- along with the money that does or doesn't pay for it -- are part of the problem and therefore, themselves, open to analysis.

See, for instance, the way Jody Berland's essay in Cultural Studies positions spectators in a complex way:

much of the time we are not simply listeners to sound or watchers of images, but occupants of spaces for listening who, by being there, help to produce definite meanings and effects.

The cultural studies professor is similarly enmeshed and compromised, a part of the cultural context s/he is studying. Thus, there are no discrete units such as art or pop culture that can be isolated and ghettoized. Interestingly, much exciting work is being done on cyberspace, on the reconfiguration of space brought about by, among other things, the computer; concomitantly, media are regarded not merely as conduits of meaning but as meaning-makers.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (to call them up again as promised), as well as current Liberal honchos, distribute capital in ways that both affect and demand interpretation and even confrontation. (More of this, too, later.) Making money disappear, i.e., privatizing it, the Queen's public face going into a few private, deep pockets, should not necessarily be ignored by the literary critic. That is why one of Andrew Ross's books, No Respect.Intellectuals and Popular Culture, scrutinizes the position from which the professor speaks and the parts of the "goddam machinery" that construct him or her. Thus, the emphasis in cultural studies on the particular communities that help to shape us as audiences, consumers, readers, writers, scholars, etc. The book, once a closed, autonomous space, can be discussed now in terms of who reads it; how and why it is read; and how it is packaged and sold.

The book's placement in the library can also yield insights. A recent article by Nicholas Packwood in Border/Lines:

Canada's Magazine of Cultural Studies (truth in advertising demands that I declare I serve on its editorial collective) "reads" the Library of Congress classification system, specifically its slotting of the subject of homosexuality. Discovering that it is juxtaposed with perversity (as if Roseanne Skoke had sought to renovate the tower of Babel), Packwood teases out the implications of someone browsing, in this case, Carleton University's holdings on homosexuality; he argues that one might meander more easily (and more apolitically) through sections devoted to, say, travel literature.

In another Border/Lines piece M. Nourbese Philip "reads" the brouhaha around Show Boat, giving the lie to the liberal interpretation of its show(boat)ing, stating that it "is not intended for Black people; it never was." One final article I'd like to cite -- this one in Cultural Studies-- focuses on the audience for "Star Trek" (as well as the homoerotic Kirk-Spock spin-offs you are probably learning about at this moment). Its contention is that women make up a significant proportion of that audience.

Cultural reception, then, is not simplistic or unitary; one is, indeed, formed as a reader or spectator. This formation dictates meaning as much as anything that is being read or watched. Introduced here, and elsewhere in cultural studies, is a strong political thrust, for if audiences are made, who masters them? And aren't they usually made in the image of the dominant forces in our society?

Those sceptical of yet another redefinition of literary studies should be thankful for one thing: they will no longer need to role their r's. If the postmodern theoretical model, thanks to Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, et al., was decidedly French in inspiration, the source of cultural studies appears to be British. Raymond Williams's Culture and Society, written in 195 8, and the 1964 opening of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, are regarded as foundational moments. The whiteness and maleness of the model, though, have themselves been contested by important cultural studies spokespersons. C. L. R. James, the Afro-Caribbean critic, for instance, has been championed as a significant influence on cultural studies. Then there are also, not necessarily in the diaspora, Canadian centres (York University's Social and Political Thought program, Simon Fraser University's Department of Communications) and scholars (Jody Berland, Elspeth Probyn, loan Davies).

Your intellectual fluoride treatment is over; you may give your next appointment with the dentist the brush-off.


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