Irresponsible, Irrelevant and Proud of It: My Perspective on Cultural Studies
Timothy Burke • Swarthmore College

Originally presented at SUNY Stony Brook, November 1999.

A comment by an unnamed member of my department was relayed to me at the end of my third-year review. It was, the provost stressed, not really a criticism as much as an observation. “I hope,” my colleague offered, “that even though he is a cultural historian, Professor Burke will occasionally integrate economic and social history into his teaching.”

This puzzled me no end (besides making me feel acutely anxious in that very special junior-faculty kind of way). I was a cultural historian? The only label I had applied to myself up to that point was “Africanist”: I was someone who studied Africa using a variety of methodologies. I suppose if I had been confronted at gunpoint and forced to categorize myself in terms of my methodology, I would have said I was a social historian, largely because the kind of scholarship in my own field that I viewed most favorably self-identified as social history.

I called up one of my former advisors and asked, “Am I a cultural historian?” “Oh, yes,” he said. “Actually, I sort of think of you as a cultural anthropologist, or maybe even a cultural studies guy.”

Now I knew I was in trouble.

I made an uneasy peace with these labels after I was confronted with them. When you’re writing about commodification and advertising in southern Africa and Saturday morning cartoons in the U.S., it’s a bit hard to do otherwise. I did try to cultivate plausible deniability so that when confronted with someone fanatically hostile to cultural history or cultural studies I could, in a Goffmanesque fashion, perform another identity. But also, there was something in me that rebelled at the boundaries implied in the characterization, something that wanted to have cultural history and social history both to my name, something that insisted that the two forms of intellectual practice were perfectly compatible. That’s the nursery rhyme I used to sing to myself as I slunk quietly into my office on Sunday afternoons to write about Scooby-Doo and Jonny Quest . Don’t worry, I said. When you’re writing about serious stuff, you’re still writing about colonialism, capitalism, and proletarianization in southern Africa, even if you’re also writing about commodities and consumerism. That’s cultural history, social history and ethnography all at once! And then I would return to pondering He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

What I want to talk about today is what happened when I had finished both my respectably academic and my shamefully unscholarly projects, and how I found, despite my ironclad resolution to keep them absolutely impermeably separate from each other, that I had ended up with a very new and fused understanding of what it is that I do and will do in the future. I still think cultural history and cultural anthropology are compatible with social history or social anthropology most or all of the time. But I also think that the time may be coming for cultural history and cultural studies to situationally shake off the veil of respectable compatibility with other methodological and disciplinary styles. The problem with the academic study of culture may not be that it is wild, irresponsible, superficial and irrelevant—but that it is not yet irresponsible enough.

The respectable study of culture

When cultural history was first announced as a subfield whose time had come, its connections to social history, not to mention intellectual history, were readily apparent. Historians like Lynn Hunt, Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier argued that the “new” cultural history was a product of social historians’ growing interest in what the French Annales school called “mentalites”, modes of consciousness and representation in the past that defined particular social groups and particular social formations. That social history should have produced an ever-accelerating interest in both past modalities of representation and past forms of imagining and interpreting social experience was an easy development to anticipate. You cannot announce, as foundational social historians did, that you are studying the history of groups and societies previously excluded from the writing of history; you cannot look for the signs of that experience in previously unstudied types of documents or buried within the ostensible, visible content of dominant narratives, and then be surprised that such an approach brings questions about the ambiguity of representation to the fore.

So what Chartier, Hunt and others named as cultural history in the 1980s had been integral to social history for some time. What had changed, what had caused it to become visible as a different approach to the past? The divergence was mostly a consequence of the far more widespread epistemological crisis that had enveloped the whole of the humanities and the social sciences by that time, a big muddy that we are still hip deep in. The seeming empirical solidity and consistency of social categories crumbled not only under the weight of this general crisis, but also as a specific consequence of social history’s own successes. As Lynn Hunt and Victoria Bonnell have recently written about social history, “the more that has been learned, the more difficult it has become to integrate that knowledge into existing categories and theories.”

The divergence of cultural history was thus not initially a surrender to a perceived crisis in social history, but a solution, a methodological attempt to manage the historical relationship between representation and practice by consciously borrowing techniques and insights from literary studies and critical theory. I think it is fair to say that it is no longer perceived as such by die-hard social historians. Much as some cultural anthropology, especially of the Clifford and Marcus variety, is perceived by disciplinary traditionalists as a menace to the future survival of anthropology itself, cultural history, sometimes glossed as history written after the “linguistic turn”, is increasingly blamed by established social historians for spreading the taint of postmodernism and producing what many perceive as a serious breakdown of the discipline. In anthropology, at least, this battle is being fought in plain sight: every meeting of the AAA leaves blood on the floor from struggles for the soul of the discipline. In history, on the other hand, my quite anecdotal sense of this battle is that it is primarily fought at tenure time and in peer reviews, behind the veil of anonymity.

There have been some notable public exchanges, particularly in the pages of the journal Social History . Those public exchanges, particularly Patrick Joyce’s important essay “The End of Social History”, certainly suggest that postmodern thought and cultural history both have in fact seriously eroded aspects of social history’s command of its subject matter. But as I see it, much of cultural history remains compatible with a modified version of goals and sensibilities of traditional social and intellectual history. This is a modified version in which “the social” no longer stands in a simple one-to-one correspondence with “the real”, but also in which representation is not infinitely pliable or arbitrary or wholly without reference to the material world. In my own case, I’d generally say that this is true of my past work on commodification in southern Africa and of my current project, a comparative biography of three colonial-era chiefs.

To begin with the former case, my fundamental assumption has always been that commodification was an important dimension of colonialism in southern Africa. Canonical social histories of modern southern Africa have frequently argued that the spread of capitalist patterns of consumption among Africans were an important part of the reproduction of colonial capitalism generally. However, such studies are equally notable for their failure to actually look beyond these observations, accepting that Africans developed "new needs" as an inevitable consequence of colonial rule––a process whose unfolding is assumed to have been self–evident or a natural result of other processes of capitalist transformation. My own work took off from this point of historiographical silence and argued that changes in the relations between things and people, in the meanings and uses of goods, in the structure and experience of desire itself, were anything but simple processes in southern Africa. To explore the historical complexity of commodification with an interest in these issues, I argued, one must necessarily address consciousness, performativity, representation, and subjectivity—and thus make major use of the tools and methods of cultural history.

In my current project, I am primarily interested in unpacking what has become a truism in much Africanist social history, namely, the earnest, desperate and constantly repeated assertion that Africans had agency under colonial rule. Taken at face value, this is roughly like saying that Africans ate food or breathed oxygen under colonial rule. All humans have agency.

There are two more meaningful questions: What forms and structures of power constrained or enabled particular expressions of African agency under colonialism? This is a question that social history has excelled at dealing with.
The second question, on the other hand, is one that social history has dealt with poorly, namely, what did the actual exercise of agency by Africans look like at the level of lived experience in colonial society? The problem here is that agency is necessarily about individual action and experience, something that social history almost has to approach in a reductionist manner. The best that many Africanist social historians can do with this line of inquiry is talk about individuals by folding them into a descriptive sketch of a larger group or by making a given individual a representative “ideal type” who stands in for such a group. Cultural historians dealing with other societies long since rose to this challenge in various ways, most strikingly with the “microhistories” championed by Carlo Ginzberg or histories which privilege narrative, like those of John Demos and Alan Taylor. Africanists have been slower to embrace such strategies, because they all focus on the idiosyncratic character of individual experience, refusing to easily dissolve it back into the social—which in turn makes the pious celebration of African agency as inevitably heroic and positive far more difficult to engineer.

The refusal of individual experience to dissolve back into the social does not necessarily make such work incompatible with social history. Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms , a marvelous study of a miller’s idiosyncratic engagement with written texts in 16th Century Italy, would make little sense if we did not have a disciplined sense of how Menocchio the miller differed from the people of his community, or the social institutions which ultimately detected and punished his acts of interpretation. Nothing in this kind of cultural history necessarily perturbs the “grand narratives” which social history sketches so ably. Indeed, this kind of work is necessary for a complete description of those narratives. When I was talking about commodification in southern Africa, whether I was talking about its undeniable centrality as a historical process or the relatively peripheral and non-representative histories of particular commodities or particular acts of consumption, I was doing a kind of cultural history which was a natural complement to canonical social histories. As I now write about the idiosyncratic and particular exercise of agency by several African individuals, I am doing the same.

Both kinds of work often focus on what I would call “importantly insignificant” histories. Ginzberg has no intention of treating Menocchio as anything but what he was, “so unusual as to appear incomprehensible”. The most important expressions of agency in the lives of the three chiefs I am writing about did not concern issues that were central in colonial society: one of them regarded the most important time of his life as the time he served as an urban fireman, while another waged a pitched political battle with colonial authorities over the building of a communal bathroom in his town. The uses of toothpaste in colonial Zimbabwe were not particularly important compared to the social experiences of migrant mine laborers in the rigidly authoritarian “compound system” favored by colonial authorities.

The gesture that I am refusing—and that some cultural history and cultural anthropology similarly refuses—is what I would characterize as one of the classic “Stupid Dissertation Tricks”, which is discovering a previously obscure document or incident and declaring it the secret key to some previously obscured central narrative of social experience. To insist that importantly insignificant histories as traced by cultural historians add necessary texture or detail to the grand narratives of social history is to acknowledge both their compatibility with social history and their difference from it.

Irresponsible scholarship

But enough of this respectable treatment of irrelevant history. What I’m sure everyone wants to hear about is the irresponsible stuff—which of course means Saturday morning cartoons.

No doubt you are thinking that once you commit to writing a cultural history and ethnography of Saturday morning cartoons, irresponsibility comes quite naturally. Quite the contrary. Aside from the fact that some work in cultural studies and cultural history can make the most seemingly trivial aspects of pop culture sound as morally weighty as genocide (more on this shortly), there are some excellent, serious and intelligent works of accessible scholarship by scholars in cultural studies, communication and cultural history about children’s entertainment or children’s television. One in particular I want to mention is Heather Hendershot’s 1999 work Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip . This is a really superb piece of scholarship which manages, without pretention or opaque theorizing, to intelligently and seriously analyze the history of public debates about children’s television.

I mention it as a point of contrast from the outset because some of the arguments that my brother Kevin Burke and I offer in our own Saturday Morning Fever are in many ways similar to Hendershot’s central argument, but the manner and style of our writing is very different and very deliberately non-scholarly. What I want to talk about at this point is what I learned from approaching the study of culture from a deliberately non-scholarly perspective—an irresponsible perspective—and how that lesson is curving back in on my scholarly work.

The disciplinary history of cultural studies is now remarkably well chronicled, especially when you consider that many practicioners and critics alike do not regard cultural studies as a discipline. By now, the story of “British cultural studies”, with its strong sense of political commitment and its genealogical ties to social history, radical literary criticism and cultural anthropology, is well known. This is the form of cultural studies described by Rita Felski as “Cultural Studies A”, which she argues “wants to link descriptions of cultural texts and practices to analyses of how structures of power operate…Cultural studies, in that definition, involves a delicate balancing act between the macro and micro and between the competing claims of textual and social analyses.” Felski contrasts this with “Cultural Studies B”, which she says is the bad American form, which is “simply shorthand for political approaches to literature”. The gambit—distinguishing between good British cultural studies and bad American cultural studies—is familiar.

What it is that makes the American variety bad varies from critic to critic. Felski says it is a shorthand for crude political readings of literature, which, she argues, almost everyone is tired of—and which the really good American cultural studies scholars don’t do. They do British cultural studies. Other critics, most recently Thomas Frank in his New Consensus For Old: Cultural Studies From Left to Right, say that bad American cultural studies is too eclectic, or too disorganized. Or, as Felski notes, disciplinary specialists fault it for being insufficiently like their discipline—not historical enough for the historians, not anthropological enough for anthropologists, and so on. And many (esp. social historians) fault it (and sometimes cultural history as well) for lacking the political commitment of British cultural studies. It is, they say, trivial and irresponsible.

I say, not nearly enough.

What makes much cultural studies scholarship so deadly to read or work with is in fact its strong gestural attachment to the language of politics and commitment. Contrary to Felski’s assertions, that tendency can’t be easily distinguished from the style of “British cultural studies”: indeed, the British model, with its insistence on connecting texts to power, is one of the key contributors to this tendency. As Barry Shank describes it, British cultural studies has “conceived of culture as a realm of conflict and struggle, striated by power differentials and fragmented along multiple axes of social differentiation.” It thus forms one of the canons which practicioners of cultural analysis, both in cultural studies and within disciplines like history and anthropology, feel obligated to cite and emulate. What British cultural studies and other bodies of related work—including social history—then becomes is a superego which can be mollified by adopting the appropriate rhetorical posture.

The consequence of this in much cultural studies writing is the celebration of transgression and subversion, or alternatively, the relentless characterization of particular texts or popular practices as playing a central role in domination. Texts trangress. Particular representations or images dominate. Performers subvert, and audiences do, too. But against what? Or dominate what? Sometimes nothing particularly discernible. Sometimes against or for the usual suspects: the culture industry, the patriarchy, global capitalism, local autocrats. Often we are reduced to a game of spot-the-hegemon. And sometimes the transgression or domination is purely figurative, a rupture in or confirmation of a master discourse (master of what, we are often not told) which only disrupts or confirms as long as the scholar takes note of said transgression or domination.

Cultural studies ends up caught between its own version of the devil and the deep blue sea—in this case, the old materialist logic of “the last instance” that demands that a claim about the political content of representation eventually be referred back to material reality and a celebration of culture as endlessly and generically protean, determined by no referent or predicate other than itself. In between lies the worst of both worlds, a neurotic posture which frets about free-floating forms of power and even more insistently about its own political authenticity. I found echoes of this characterization in Jerrold Seigel’s recent intelligent critique of Derridean ideas about the self in relation to historical scholarship. Seigel notes,

In [Derrida’s] thinking, the very same linguistic structures that impose a radically relational constitution on the self simultaneously locate it in a space of boundless transcendence…Derrida dissolves concrete self-existence in order to let an unconditioned, abstract kind of selfhood arise in its place. It is only when self hoold is conceived in this way that it becomes available to power such utopian projects as Marxian revolution, the Nietzschean Uebermensch, Heideggerean authenticity, and the various compounds that may be made of them. Such a vision, simultaneously wrapping the self like a mummy inside a tight web of relations and projecting its escape into a world where no bounds restrain it, hardly seems a promising way to think about the powers and limits of the self.

The solution to this mummification, it seems to me, is to reject that superego, to stop preemptively and autonomically justifying the study of culture in terms of some overall or totalizing project of critique whose terms and problematics remain fixed phantoms in the scholarship. This is the opposite of what Thomas Frank demands, which is a return to responsible, legitimate, "necessary" subjects.

If critique is our objective, it should be critique that is modestly matched to the particular constellation of texts and practices at hand, something that Frank correctly criticizes "cult studs" for their failure to achieve. One prominent author who seems to me an emblematic failure of this kind, who perennially argues that if popular culture is not unmistakeably radical and comprehensively transformative it must be complicit with every bad and reactionary thing, is bell hooks. The now-infamous anthology The Madonna Connection had something of this tone about it in the opposite direction, a desperate hunger to legitimate writing about Madonna by finding expansively transgressive content in her every pose and vogue.

In contrast, if I had to name works of cultural studies that engage in serious critique but which direct that critique to the more modest and particular terms that are native to their subject matter, Gilbert Rodman’s Elvis After Elvis , Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers and Laura Kipnis’ Bound and Gagged are closer to the mark. Hendershot’s Saturday Morning Censors is a superb example of restrained and careful critique: it focuses on a particular kind of censorship within a particular form of cultural production, and its connection to a larger but still quite specific politics of childhood.

For other purposes, we might wish to go even further than the mere taming of critique, the mere reigning in of the superego to a helpful and focused whisper. When cultural studies scholarship seeks to move into what Constance Penley calls “multiple public spheres”, beyond the mere tedious dialectic between the academic and the popular, a more irresponsible id needs to move to fore and center. Scholars in cultural studies incessantly proclaim the necessity of such a strategy: Felski’s defense of “good” cultural studies argues that it is not merely dreary academic jargon, but in fact “less prone to the sin of intellectual smugness”. Lawrence Grossberg describes an ideal cultural studies in which scholars are “co-travellers” with popular audiences who unnecessarily practice “voluntary self-exclusion from the everyday world of media life”. The problem is that almost no one actually does this in their work.

This was certainly one of the things I wanted to do with Saturday Morning Fever (and, I must note, my editor wouldn’t have settled for anything else…) It is, as we say in the introduction, a history, a rant, a plea, a meditation, a memoir. Kevin and I wanted to make something of the same argument that Hendershot does, namely, that battles over children’s television were really battles between adults over the meaning of childhood and competiting forms of power over children and over cultural production more generally, that the critical intelligence of children was persistently ignored in favor of the deceptive figuration of “innocent childhood”. But we wanted to make this argument in terms of our own experiences, past and present, and the experiences of many other people of our own age.

We wanted to make this argument in irresponsible ways, with irresponsible language. So rather than translate certain kinds of iconic generational conversations about kidvid into some respectably academic form, and so assert their “real” significance or meaning, we wanted to reproduce those conversations as we experienced them—and in some parts of the book, make our own contributions to those conversations in their own idiomatic form. We didn’t want to find some hidden hermenuetics in the widespread perception that Scooby snacks were laced with narcotics, or argue that the cartoon version of G.I. Joe reinforced the hegemony of the military-industrial complex. We didn’t want to hold Papa Smurf responsible for patriarchy. We didn’t want to look through the business history of kidvid production with X-ray eyes to some concealed real set of motives or intentions underneath—though we also didn’t want to the history of the kidvid business and kidvid advocacy simply at face value, since the producers and critics of kidvid themselves don’t do so.

We didn’t want to do these things both because these claims would be empirically incorrect and because we would have been denied many authentic insights we gained by writing about cartoons in everyday language and generational idiom. More than anything else, we wanted to avoid the persistent aura of slumming that haunts much cultural studies work which consciously strives to speak within popular conversations about culture. As a result, we weren’t forced to defer some of the perennial issues and ideas associated with kidvid, or television as a whole. We didn’t have to pretend that the issue of quality, of the badness or goodness of particular programs, was somehow only interesting to an intellectually unsophisticated audience. And we didn’t have to dress up our own experience of aesthetic pleasure in theoretical drag. Rita Felski’s defense of cultural studies in The Chronicle of Higher Education is most urgently addressed to the final chapter of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country , in which Rorty accuses cultural studies of draining all the pleasure, awe and romance out of reading or consuming culture. I don’t think Rorty had in mind the pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian or Reboot , but on this point, I think I’m far more sympathetic to him than I am to Felski.

Now this is not a model for most scholarship, I grant you, and that’s why I think it is worth stressing the difference between Hendershot’s work and Saturday Morning Fever . Hendershot’s work is a basis for future research and should have a kind of authority which I would never claim for Saturday Morning Fever . Our work is more what historians call a primary document, a commentary from within the subject rather than outside of it.

Each cognate disciplinary form of cultural analysis has its irresponsibly unscholarly twin that rewards the scholars who dally in it. For cultural studies, it is middlebrow cultural commentary and fan-talk. For cultural anthropology, I would suggest that it is journalism and travel writing. And for cultural history, it is story-telling and narrative.

Which brings me back to where I started, trying to reconcile social history, its strong sense of mission and its strong commitment to critique, with “importantly irrelevant” work in cultural history. If you’ll remember, I argued that this work was ultimately compatible because cultural history describes the uneven and idiosyncratic texture of everyday life, it gives us a more phenomenological sense of how “grand narratives” are actually experienced, and a sense of how people make the concerns that animate social history meaningful in their individual lives. Knowing that class is not a “real” category but instead a relational and experiential one doesn’t have to lead to Patrick Joyce’s proclaimed “end of social history”: the fact that each person experiences social class at a particular historical moment in a different way doesn’t mean that they experience it in an arbitrary or infinitely variable fashion. Social history constrains the possibilities; cultural history fills the space in between.

What I’d like to suggest is that a walk on the wild side of our disciplinary approaches to culture, irresponsible ventures into reportage, memoir, middlebrow commentary, fannish passions, and from-the-hip critique, further serves our ability to provide and explain the kind of texture I have described. You can overdo it: Camilia Paglia is Exhibit A for the prosecution as far as that goes. But most of us are not in danger of that kind of excess: quite the opposite.
Working on Saturday morning cartoons has given me a new sense of the limits and powers of scholarly work, which is in turn having a powerful impact on my current project in modern Africa. I have a finer sense of where my unnecessary pieties and inherited inhibitions lie, and a renewed respect for the power of narrative not just in my work but in the lives of the men I am writing about.

My venture into irresponsible cultural studies has made my irrelevant history and ethnography all the better. I plan to keep doing both.


return to easily distracted