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Extreme Criticism

 Originally Appeared in: Critical Theory: Volume 26, Number 1 | Published: Autumn, 1999

Like many who came of age in the 1960s, I was led to literary studies because of a passion for poetry and politics. In turn, the emerging projects in theory, which in many respects were an attempt to consolidate intellectually what had been learned and hoped for in the political and social movements that had arisen in the 1960s and were then declining, illuminated the possible relationships between literature and politics in startling ways. The turn to looking at the question of culture, as the determining setting of literary practices and forms, then contributed to the origins of cultural studies in the United States. The passion of literary intellectuals for politics goes back to the eighteenth century and has manifested itself in everything from the literary-political reviews that have accompanied virtually every literary and political movement all the way to the temptations for writers and critics to become fellow travelers, functionaries, or tourists of the revolution. Today the vitality of the interplay of literature and politics in intellectual life is in trouble. Why?

 Cultural studies, in this its moment of ascendancy, exhibits an exuberant ignorance of itself. It takes great pride in going beyond literature, high culture, and disciplinarity. It defines itself as just this threefold transcendence. But what exactly is the practice of cultural studies?

For starters, cultural studies is literature. It exists through its journals, essays, conference papers, and books. It occupies a
significant slice of contemporary print culture-though a considerably smaller one than, say, the world novel.

Second, insofar as the dubious concept of high culture has a reliable meaning in our society, cultural studies-whatever aspects of culture it studies-itself belongs to high culture. To do cultural studies requires an extraordinary level of educational attainment, the mastery of rarefied styles of discourse and argument, and, most importantly, a methodically alienated attitude toward ordinary cultural objects, practices, and experiences. It bears all the marks of the elite and specialized training on which it depends. 

Third, as regards disciplinarity, cultural studies’ methods, topics, and discursive norms are, on inspection, narrower and more uniform than those of a traditional history department.

So, while cultural studies defines itself as going beyond literature, high culture, and disciplinarity, what defines cultural studies is that it is literature, high culture, and a discipline. In the swollen annals of intellectual mystification, that approaches perfection.

The confusions afforded by this self-misunderstanding are multi plying. Social Text discovered the dangers of hopscotching disciplines; it’s hard to do critical science studies if you can’t tell a quark from a lark. When it comes to the question of literature and politics, the obfuscations are dire. Take the recent PMLA forum on “cultural studies and the literary.” For the official publication of the Modern Language Association to invite interventions on the role of cultural studies at once accurately confirms and rightly legitimizes the presence of cultural studies in literature departments; it also implicitly acknowledges the intellectual conflicts and academic tensions that this presence fosters. But the discussion is skewed right off by the term the literary, a decoy concept if there ever was one. Nearly all of the thirty-two contributors to the forum took the bait. The only sensible manifestation of “the literary” as a concept establishing a field of research came from the Russian formalists, but nobody is talking about them. Otherwise, it’s little more than the buzzword of those English department sentimentalists who proudly, defiantly announce their love of literature as a first line of defense against ideas.

As soon as cultural studies is pitted against “the literary,” literary studies is reduced to either its most formalistic or its most ineffable dimension. Worse yet, it is cast out of any meaningful relation to politics. Except negatively: the proponents of cultural studies castigate the elitism of literature, while the defenders of literature fend off the intrusion of politics and ideology. The hard question-what might the active relation between cultural studies and literary studies be ? – and the vital question – what is the relation of literature and politics today? – immediately drop from sight.

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