CULTURE STUDIES NEEDS A DIAPER CHANGE.

February 5, 2007

I recently watched a completely uninspiring video teacher’s aide in which two dreary, yet earnest looking persons discussed To Kill A Mockingbird in that phlegmatic secondary school manner which puts people off Shakespeare for life: it’s boring but for reasons I can’t explain you need to know it. There was the man and the woman: and like all good lefties he gave the ‘Marxist’ reading, she: the ‘feminist’ one.

These “Marxist” and “feminist” reading consisted of not particularly acute observations of gender/class relationships in Depression era Maycomb, Alabama – as presented in To Kill A Mockingbird. For example: the distinction between the deserving/undeserving poor (The Cunninghams and the Ewells respectively) being grounded in the fact that the former did not receive welfare whilst the latter did. The ‘Marxist’ made a big deal of this as if the whole point of Harper Lee’s book was a propaganda exercise for critics of the welfare state.

Why these and the equally uninspiring ‘feminist’ observations should be labeled as such is beyond me. Perhaps left-wing teachers are convinced that they will fill their pupils with radical notions and thus change the world. They seem to have forgotten the natural antipathy of adolescence to their elders’ beliefs. If they truly want to make them leftist radicals they’d be better off preaching Milton Friedman.

It is precisely these labels that will make ‘left-wing’ education such a target for the Howard government this year. The conservative forces (watch Andrew Bolt) will expend much typeface getting hysterical over radicals programming our kids with propaganda. The fact that much of the intellectual work that might fit under the terms Marxist and feminist might be worthwhile will be ignored. That work in fact will be stigmatized regardless of quality.

The right will target the Humanities academy as it has developed over the last fifty years or so. Largely emerging from Marx inspired work by the Frankfurt School and British academics like Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Stuart Hall, intellectuals coming from a background in literature who turned their attention to cultural changes precipitated by twentieth century technologies and the resultant mass entertainment industries. The result is the widespread replacement of such phenomena as the study of literature with Cultural Studies. This new interdisciplinary intellectual phenomena examines cultural practices, artifacts and institutions within a social context especially as they relate to power structures.

Whilst I am not per se opposed to this, (I am in many ways a product of Cultural Studies), I do have to admit that various critics of Cultural Studies have a point. The obligation to view cultural products exclusively as political manifestations runs risks. Ideology can replace quality. As long as someone produces something consistent with a nice left-wing point of view it’s deemed good regardless of its sloppiness or distortions. The suspicion of hierarchies of quality – that is that some things are better than others – leads to a plebian stew that equates, to paraphrase Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Hamlet with the White Pages.

I’m not arguing here that one should not be permitted to seriously examine ‘trash’ culture. What is trash? Shakespeare himself was dismissed for many years as the Jacobian equivalent of pulp fiction. And Raymond Chandler actually did write pulp fiction. Equating great works of literature, however, with transient, utilitarian publications in the name of equality goes too far. Moreover it fails to achieve anything like social equality. It simply defies common sense and makes one look foolish. It also evades the sublime and essential quality of the arts – the transmission of the meaning. The readings of To Kill A Mockingbird described above dealt extensively with various social aspects of the novel but failed at any point to deal with it as a beautiful book despite the fact that the presenters obviously loved it!!

Currently there’s a tendency to evaluate literature (by example) not according to ‘old-fashioned’ standards like literary excellence or historical insight but according to individual notions of what constitutes ‘ideological soundness’. My favourite illustrative anecdote comes from some years back when Jane Hardman-Brown an English secondary school teacher made the news refusing to take her students to a performance of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that it was ‘heterosexist’. Ms. Hardman-Brown might want to read the play a few times and figure out what’s going on between Romeo and Mercutio before she makes those sorts of conclusions. She also might want to confront the fact that most people are heterosexual.

This is the sort of easy target that ideological standards of scholarship will inevitably set up. Naturally people will argue with me that Ms. Hardman-Brown’s actions are not typical. Perhaps not. But they are a substantial phenomena of the modern arts academy. To question cultural attitudes to homosexuality or anything else is a good thing, (funnily the To Kill A Mockingbird crew fail to mention Truman Capote or Harper Lee’s sexuality) but activist enthusiasm does not give educators carte blanche to inflict their counter-bigotries on students. Educators have responsibilities, and in that role those responsibilities are primary.

To disregard Shakespeare as heterosexism (he was bi dear) is akin in my mind to a biology teacher teaching Genesis instead of Darwin. I should know my biology teacher attempted to do just such a thing, supported by the (Christian fundamentalist) principle who seemed to believe that conformity was more important than learning. He succeeded. During his tenure uniform wearing became mandatory and the grade average plummeted.

All that said I support the basic precept of cultural studies: to mix ‘literary’ approach to culture with an anthropological one. I merely believe that rigorous standards should replace wooly thinking pretending to aspire to some kind of dining room radicalism. The phenomena whereby the Humanities takes in the whole culture and not its most precious artifacts is itself a radical shift. In order to make it work it’s best (I feel) to jettison ‘leftist’ doctrine in favour of free enquiry unencumbered by ideological defaults but evaluated according to standards of excellence in research and elucidation.

Thus the challenge from the right might turn out to be a good thing ultimately. Often people are at their best under adversity. The Howard government, wily as it is, will not blatantly declare the (bad) lefty Humanities academy out to be replaced by (good) right-wing types, although this is what they intend to do. They will simply assert that criticisms launched at cultural studies by various forces (think Harold Bloom and Alan Sokal for starters) and try and stain anyone and everyone in their sights with same rhetorical brush: lunatic, dogmatic, trendy etc.

That the ideological default standards tend to have effects within the politics of Universities ensure that there will be plenty of people to sling labels at. Naturally the right will want quality scholarship stained as well. It is the quality stuff that threatens after all. Andrew Bolt frequently attacks Robert Manne not because his work is bad but contrawise.

The Humanities academy having sustained criticism and economic rationalist attacks for the past 25 years or so will not go down without a fight. Cultural studies has brought the humanities out of the ivory tower and into streets, homes and office buildings. It is potentially much more relevant now than it was in the days when it’s basic purview was discussions about Wordsworth, Montaigne, Descartes and Rembrandt.

Still change’s gonna come ‘round. One positive outcome of such might be the promotion of clear and precise standards of expression. This will be hard on anyone who’s adopted Judith Butler as a style-guide but a boon to any intellectual who wishes to share her (or his) ideas with a general public. Anyone who has no ideas and uses postmodern obfuscation to disguise the fact is in trouble. However in the end the right might find their sortie backfires. Threats might force Arts intellectuals to do two things: seek out a market for their ideas and write in a style accessible to a popular audience. This is already happening but assaults from conservatives will amplify the trend and thus spread the ‘radical’ ideas out to a world thirsty for ways to express why precisely it is that things suck.

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