The Peculiar Success of Cultural Studies 2.0

The 1990s were a great age of theoretical experiment in American universities—in political theory, sexual theory, media and film theory. If you combined queer theory, postcolonial studies, and pop culture analysis with the lingering 1970s political energy around questions of feminism and African-American studies, you got the fizzy punch of “cultural studies”—a phrase first popularized by a conference at the University of Illinois in 1990, which led to this book. Cultural studies as a field didn’t exist when I entered grad school, but in 1999 I got my first postgraduate job in the field of “humanities and cultural studies.” Cultural studies seemed like the most useful intellectual catch-all ever: it was edgy, it was interdisciplinary, and it could critique absolutely anything, even the conditions of its own production in the university.

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Death knell of cultural studies 1.0

However, in the early 2000s the luster of cultural studies dimmed. I have my own reading of this with which you will doubtless disagree—I think Ralph Nader killed it. It turned out that “real” politics still existed, and proliferating endless critique on the left felt a little beside the point in the face of the Realpolitik turn of 2000-3 (the dirty-tricks Bush victory, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War). Cultural studies had been very suspicious of the supposed “objectivity” of science, but once official Republican policy was to deny the scientific consensus around human-induced global climate change, it felt more … interesting … somehow, to back the scientists. By 2007 I was telling my grad students to avoid the phrase “transgression,” which sounded dated. Where’s the glory in simply “transgressing boundaries” if the welfare state is dramatically being dismantled, hurricanes are wrecking the South, and American foreign policy is going berserk? The movements that replaced cultural studies in the academy had a more sober, practical mood: book history, archival research, studies of realism in the novel, a tentative embrace of technology and medical history, and (at the crazy edge) interest in the dispersed and barely-perceptible agency of systems, animals, and geological fault lines. Journalists got bored and started looking for their cultural panics elsewhere.

I think it’s safe to say that cultural studies is back, but the new surge is not particularly being driven by the academics who invented it. It’s being revived by the young—while professors are gently steering them toward book history, they’re protesting dramatically about trans rights and racist police killings. Marxism was always a marginal player in cultural studies—since in general (don’t @ me) it prioritized economic issues over secondary contradictions like gender, race, or resource conservation. But after 2008 the left rediscovered Marx, and so the revival of identity politics feels, to my generation, like we’re going back to a battle we already fought, and maybe a diversion of important political energy.

Predictably the revival of cultural studies is being treated by the once-again-so-interested media as a university-based moral panic, with the same horror at “coddled” youth and their demands for a better and cooler society. But cultural studies is now everywhere outside the university—everywhere, in fact, where young people are writing about culture on the internet. Cultural studies escaped its original institutional framework and is now flourishing in the wild. When I teach Victorian pop culture now, I hardly have to bother doing the whole sexuality-race-gender-class analysis, because it seems so intuitively obvious to my Beyoncé-trained undergrads.

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The dawn of cultural studies 2.0

We’re seeing a moment—like the spread of the New Criticism in the ’50s and ’60s—in which a movement originally developed in the ivory tower has trickled down to the high schools—and in this case, has been actively embraced by teens outside school hours. It’s odd to think that these two movements, which seem to have nothing else in common, should have been the ones to spread the most widely outside the university, but they do share one basic precondition. The New Criticism started as a rejection of historical criticism in the name of close reading the ironies and paradoxes of important, complex Romantic and modern poems; it spread because “close reading” can be done in any classroom without library research, and was suitable for the vast expansion of college education after WWII. Cultural studies 1.0 started off with nuanced readings of Benjamin and Foucault, but in fact you can also do it without expensive research and training—all you really need is the Bechdel test. It’s obvious, once you think about it, that girls should be able to kill vampires and bust ghosts, that black teens deserve second chances from the police like white teens, that Asian-American comedians should be on TV more, that lovers should love who they please. The new cultural studies combines the cheapness and accessibility of the New Criticism with the enthusiasm of internet fan culture and the urgency of the fight against political injustice.

Cultural studies has turned out to be, in retrospect, a weirdly thorough success that is influencing the creation and reception of culture everywhere in the world, especially outside the academy. One might even take the omnipresence of cultural studies 2.0 as a sign that research in the humanities, though obscure at the time, ended up having transformative cultural impact. My one grumpy Gen-X request is that, when they hit 30, today’s culture warriors get one of their girl superheroes to pass a law ensuring new mothers something like the paid leave they enjoy everywhere else in the Western world.

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