A Weekend in Chicago with Cultural Studies

by William Urban

The Mid-West Faculty Seminar is a long-standing outreach program of the University of Chicago for small college faculty. The University provides readings, outstanding speakers, and opportunities for discussionCas well as a chance to try out new restaurants and meet old friends, orCin my caseCto cram as many hours of library time at the Regenstein as possible.

The Aseminar@ (actually about sixty faculty drawn from about thirty colleges) can give one the feeling of entering into a Woody Allen Movie. We were told repeatedly that this program on Cultural Studies would confront the difficult problem of defining culture, difficult partly because culture was ever-changing and therefore the definitions were changing, too. But they were not prepared to anticipate every question. What, for example was the cultural significance of the fact that all four presenters Friday (3 male and one female) wore black shirts? I=m used to men wearing black shirtsCbut in Rome the priests wear white collars and in Palermo the thugs wear white tiesCbut not usually bare necked. And why weren=t the young coeds dressed like Annie Hall? Was this a petrified intellectual stereotype confronting ever-changing culture? Or was it merely an expression of individualism by the self-assured opinion-molders (and salary rate breakers) of the academic aristocracy?

On the other hand, one could observe that human persons with short hair, clean shaven faces, and ties can be as incomprehensible and wordy as the shaggiest academic. There was sufficient jargon and redefinitions of meaning that any course in Cultural Studies should meet a foreign language requirement. Also, please note that culture with a capital C meant one thing here, another there. In Britain they understood culture as a politically-potent word defining classes, not the equivalent of good manners or Acivilisation.@

The opening address was given by an aging but still energetic Marxist deploring the breakdown of conceptual unity in Cultural Studies. In the Sixties the leaders in the field of Cultural Studies had reason to believe that academic workers united could bring down the capitalist world order. Then their intellectual universe flew apart in the academic equivalent of the big bangCthe feminists said that the Revolution had to wait until they had castrated all the men; the multiculturalists said that any of their cultures was better than the worker=s utopia; and the deconstructionists suggested that Marxist ambitions were as much manifestations of patriarchal power relations as Lyndon Jonhson=s program of bombing Vietnam back to the stone age.

To be truthful, Marshall Sahlins= magnificent talk didn=t use any of these examples, but as an observer I am as privileged as anyone to discover the hidden truth in his message, exposing his scholarly citations as masks and his jokes as diversions to prevent gli postini (the postmen) from seeing his Pablo Neruda impersonation as a Saturn-like suppression of the Titans of Academia by stuffing them back into the womb of Gaia. To the uninformed he was merely damned funny. I found him tremendously engaging and enlightening.

Another presenter explained the present confusion of the social sciences as the displacement of culture (singular) by cultures (plural) and by concrete studies (Ruth Benedict, whose followers were referred to as Benedictines) supplementing theory (Raymond Williams, the patron saint of this gathering). The boundaries of the disciplines had collapsed. One of the great minds of Monmouth College=s past, Sam Thompson, had argued that disciplines represented discrete methods of inquiryCso that when new methods arose, so did new disciplines (or departments). Thus, a proper interdisciplinary study would be to gather in a seminar an historian, a theologian, a sociologist, and a scientist to discuss a common text from their various perspectives. Nowadays, however, interdisciplinary study means one person does it all, substituting political passion and feeling for disciplinary rigor. (What a frightful wordCdisciplineCin a permissive academy). Thompson foresaw where we were heading.

For a concrete example not involving Jimmy Hoffa: today biologists no longer have the hegemonic privilege to ritually sacrifice rats. Psychologists have moved in on one side, while environmentalists mourn the death of fellow creatures, and both demonstrate their moral superiority by showing that their majors earn less than biology graduates. Chemists remain safe only temporarily, because as Marx said, capitalism makes people into things and things into people. What alchemy so powerful can escape politicization?

The popularity of Cultural Studies can be demonstrated by the number of websites devoted to it. http://www.ualberta.ca/~slis/guides/canthro/concept.htm looks promising, if you can get on. However, these sites are so popular that logging on isn=t easy.

Popularity aside, how can one judge the worth of Cultural Studies? Perhaps an analogy is useful here: whenever I visit the chemistry floor, the professors there seem to know what they are doing. But it could be an elaborate charade. ER in HT. When I note that their graduates don=t blow up their places of employment and they cure more patients than they poison, I conclude that the Chemfac (a Goodthink term) are doing just fine. We don=t have a Cultural Studies major here, but in other colleges their graduates end up at the Modern Language Association Convention, the greatest collection of freaks outside of professional wrestling.

Cultural Studies does have entertainment value. People Magazine on campus. My son-in-law guarantees that Marshall Sahlins is entertaining and generous (he gave him an A- on an open book test that he brought the wrong texts to). Cultural Studies probably has considerable educational value, too. It=s like Freshman Seminar: if you hang around entertaining and intelligent people, you will learn something.

The culture wars are over, we were told. Culture lost. How this happened isn=t clear. There is a character on Monte Python=s Flying Circus who comes out periodically and declares, Athis is getting too silly.@ It must be that while I was off in Europe or writing a book that this character toured American campuses and told everyone they were being too silly. He must be due here any day now.

However it happened, the traditional social sciences and Cultural Studies lost their hegemonic status. This it came about that campus radicals changed into academic conservativesCCultural Studies purists hate deconstructionists. Not that seeking to exercise power is unusual for Marxists. In China and Vietnam Marxists sentenced anyone guilty of independent thought to reeducation camps. In America they send them to graduate school.

The radical thought that began to dull in 1989 has no cutting edge now. Nobody at the conference mentioned Ché Guevara or praised the Cuban medical system, nobody was even sure that indigenous peoples were superior to Acivilized@ ones. (Rousseau, the first Enlightenment critic of civilization, is truly dead!) It has been realized at last that the Eingeborenen (natives) adapted quickly to Eingebildeten (academic foreigners), selling them artifacts or information as best as the market would bear. If Margaret Mead wanted to know about sex, her female teenage contacts told her what she wanted to hear so that she could come back to America and make a career of preaching guilt-free sex to the flapper generation. In short, today those natives aren=t as dumb or innocent as they once seemed. Nor are they willing to remain the private zoological specimens of would-be academic grant-seekersCunchanging, primitive, and poor.

Semiotics, on the other hand, the corner-stone of cultural studies (I once spent six weeks studying semiotics and structuralism at Brown University) can elucidate modern American behavior. The study of signs, symbols, and signifiers has practical applicationsCit can give meaning to abstract concepts. If a governor of Arkansas (a symbol of authority) uses signs to persuade a state employee (symbol of subservience) to perform certain significant acts upon him, that can lead, some might say, to Semiotics. Others would just blow it off. Still others would say that it depends on what the meaning of meaning is.

Whatever that means, a visit to the University of Chicago is always a worthwhile experience. No respectable campus can do without its Spartacist League denouncing both Democrats and Republicans as racist, sex-hating parties determined to deprive the PEOPLE (always in capital letters) of their X-given rights to liberty. (X is a substitute symbol for God, who doesn=t exist. Alas, X doesn=t either.) Where else could a president get the students upset by suggesting that the place could be a little more fun?

I do not think I learned what the speakers intended, but deconstructionists have pointed out the obvious fact that listeners often get a different message than lecturers intend. (Anyone grading essay exams knows this, but deconstructionists can say it in haiku.) Culture is always changing, they told us, like a living creature. As I remember biology, to study a living creature=s innards you have to kill it. But even a Ph.D. cannot keep culture dead. The tabloid press goes mainstream and Mussolini is forgiven everything as long as the trains run on timeCthe polls always gave him a 100% approval rating, and what better judge of the popular will (another idea of Rousseau=s) can you get?

Was this seminar worth the cost in time, money and energy? You bet! All participants will be citing the readings and speakers for yearsCthe cult followers passing on the true gospel (small g, just as culture is not Culture), most picking and choosing among ideas and examples (like rag-pickers or web surfers), and a few skeptics saying that the speakers would have been pretty good scholars even before cultural studies existed.

Please forgive the levity. One can take only so much of this stuff at a time. Or don=t forgive me. It struck me at one point that if we forgive people for stupid remarks, Dan Quayle will become a viable presidential candidate. All we have to do is remember that he can now spell potato. Forgetfulness improves reputation greatly. What remains is an impression. Perhaps our impression of culture is more important than its reality, whatever that might be.


Dead White Men and Potatoes

The most sparkling presentation of the seminar was by Catherine Gallagher of the University of California Berkeley on the potato riots of the 1790=s in England. Arthur Young had been promoting the planting of potatoes in place of wheat because a field of potatoes could feed three times as many people as the bread that could be produced. Moreover, potatoes needed no processingCmillers and bakers could be eliminated as production costs.

This promotion of ever-increasing wealth moved Malthus to write his famous essay on population. Boiled down to its pasty essential, Malthus's thesis was that people had only two drives, food and sex; people start raising potatoes but end up with a crop of children. Since potatoes are consumed locally, they do not enter into economic exchangeCnot only do they produce no value, but they increase the unproductive population, making the inevitable famine only that much worse.

Ricardo was concerned that potatoes, unlike grain or flour, could not be stored for later sale. Thus, potatoes make the already unpredictable market for foodstuffs even more unstable. Potato production was, therefore, not a wise economic policy.

The English public, of course, had no interest in these theories. They rioted because they preferred to eat bread. Culture, not economics, was the essential cause of popular discontent. Hence, scholars may talk about the Amoral economy versus the political economy@ (E.P. Thompson) or the Abread nexus versus the cash nexus,@ but the fact was that the English did not want to eat swill (pig=s food).

This excellent paper could have been written before the speaker was born, if only a few phrases were translated into English (APotatoes became an icon of autochthonous myth.@); it was generally free of jargon and theory, except to poke a bit of fun at them, and articulately delivered. One person in my discussion group complained that there were six male speakers and only one woman (actually there were two, but the complainer=s math skills were challenged.). My reflection was that sometimes it takes three men to equal the quality of one woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the speaker did not look or dress like a Berkeley professor. Is it that cultural diversity has come to California=s flagship university?

January, 1999, Monmouth College Courier.

Explanation of some points that made sense in 1999. Il postino was a popular Italian movie about a shy and apparently untalented young postman who yearned for a beautiful but unapproachable girl. Neruda, a Chilean poet living in exile deep in the Italian countryside, taught him how to woo her and thus demonstrated that you were a real Mensch, you would be a Communist. Neruda was more than a Communist. He was an unabashed Stalinist.

Eingebildet is best translated as conceited.

Not all feminists want to castrate all men. But the joke was too close enough to reality to laugh off.

Gaia was a popular feminist saint. Today she is among the patron saints of environmentalists.

Woody Allen was an important social commentator, comedian and movie maker who died before Derrida. Or so it seems.

Rousseau is alive and well.

Dan Quayle, having neglected to read the box on potatoes, never became a viable presidential candidate.

Swift presented a modest proposal to deal with Malthus's problem. But his essay has not been read in introductory English classes since the 1960s. Maybe 1970s.

The president of the University of Chicago did indeed infuriate the students at the time of the conference by suggesting that they were taking themselves too seriously. Only a few years before the university had reinstated football, partly in order to diversify the student body somewhat. That obviously wasn't enough.