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--------------------- text of forwarded message ----------------------- >Date: Tue, 23 Nov 1993 12:19 -0500 (CDT) >From: Greg M Smith <SMITHGM@macc.wisc.edu> Mr. Williams's diatribe against cultural studies raises some interesting points. He discusses what he himself admits to be a caricatured view of the field, and I think that such caricatures/stereotypes are instructive for those of us who consider ourselves to be working in cultural studies. Most academic fields have powerful "myths" important to their originating moments. For psychoanalysis, this originating myth is the Oedipal story; for anthropology, it is the myth of the "primitive," "exotic" Other culture which the anthropologist is preserving in writing before encroaching forces of "civilization" destroy its virgin uniqueness. These myths exert great force on the work that takes place in these fields. Because of the power of the Oedipal myth in the defining moment of psychoanalysis, it becomes very easy for an analyst to reduce everything to an Oedipal conflict. "It fits" criticism is the easiest kind to do, and making real world phenomena fit powerful myths at the center of a field is all too easy to do. Mr. Williams articulates what is perhaps the originating mythic story for cultural studies: how the powerful hegemonic interests screw subordinate groups. Because of the particular moment in which cultural studies emerged on the academic scene, the emerging field advanced this powerful story as its primary one. And it is powerful because it has a great deal of what Mr. Williams might call "truth" about it, a truth which many felt was not being adequately represented in academic discourse at that time. Cultural studies has progressed since this initial moment in which it fought the political (yes, political) battle for the inclusion of this story in academic discourse. Fairly quickly cultural studies realized that it could not keep retelling the same story over and over (how the dominant screws the subordinate). The best examples of current cultural studies look at very specific examples of cultural expression and discover that such a specific focus of study allows you to see the interworkings of culture/power in much more nuanced terms. Because cultural studies initially leaned on theorists such as Althusser who looked at the broad workings of Culture, it adopted some of this broad vista. From a distance it certainly does appear to be true that the dominant interests screw the subordinate interest. Viewed more closely, it becomes apparent that much more complicated things are going on. Having said that, I think cultural studies needs to be more aware of the power of its originating myth. It's very easy for us to fall back into "it fits" criticism which simply retells the story of the dominant/subordinate screwing, and that kind of work is cultural studies at its worst. I think much of cultural studies today manages to bypass this difficulty, but we must always be aware of our potential to simply retell a fairly unsubtle story. On the other hand, it is extremely unfair for Mr. Williams to judge the field based on what he admits to be a caricatured view. Just as it is easy to dismiss psychoanalysis as a field which keeps finding the Oedipal story wherever it looks, it is also easy to dismiss cultural studies as simply retelling a particular ideological story over and over. When you actually look at what is being done in psychoanalysis, it's obvious that work is being done which goes far beyond the originating myth (Oedipus), and I think this is also true of cultural studies. It seems to me that condemning scholars based on a caricatured view of the field is not much different from condemning any group of people based on a caricature/stereotype. I encourage my students to make more nuanced judgments based on fuller understanding and reasoned arguments. Though the caricature Mr. Williams articulates still has power, I think it a necessary task for anyone who considers him/herself to be a scholar to go beyond such caricaturing. Greg M. Smith University of Wisconsin-Madison email@example.com