Leaden theory in boots of concrete jargon

European Journal of Cultural Studies
October 8, 1999

What can be done with or about cultural studies? For a subject to be a subject among the protean forms of knowledge, it needs a few sacred books, a cluster of distinctive concepts, some stiffening by way of method and tradition, and an intelligible, exclusive and more or less well-mannered idiom.

The results thus far, it must grimly and swallowingly be said, are pitiful, and this wizened periodical is type and token of our failures. After the classics at the inception of the subject, after Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Clifford Geertz, Pierre Bourdieu, Martha Nussbaum; after that the whirl of the present and the accidents of institutionalisation left practitioners of the subject with spinning heads,glazed eyes, generous hearts, raucous tongues and a desperate determination to publish, to win the fateful battle of the books as fought between the academic generations.

The result is this little medley of quotations from the journal in hand, an anthology compounded in equal proportions of banality, cliche, leaden theory in boots of concrete jargon, allied to not-

unendearing but perfectly unspecific homiletics on behalf of the multitudes of the oppressed: "Diana's celebrity was almost completely dependent on the manipulation of mass-mediated images of her" ... "The majority of students appeared to have difficulty stepping into a position which allowed them to critique the possible meanings abused women could be taking from the text, because they had enjoyed the romance of it so much" ... "The main modes of displacement are, on the one hand, embodying and sexing the figurations of subjectivity, the narrators included, and, on the other hand, feminist deconstruction, with the help of irony" ... "Assuming I am allowed to speak, I am relegated to speaking from an already marginalised position at the 'international' rendezvous" ... "Hence, we also need to begin to reimagine what a broader political movement might look like, and this will require us to avoid both a fetishism of the local and a celebration of the micropolitical."

These are the tiny, tinny voices of conversation on a wavelength that still, on its day, broadcasts Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and, until a moment ago, Gillian Rose. These stylishly Sage-produced, wretched issues of a journal press home hard the question, as Henry James put it at a decidedly more propitious moment for culture, "what is the function in the life of man of such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance?" Their dismal pages betray every symptom of that "moral hypochondria" Geertz diagnosed a decade ago in his corner of the human sciences. Here are that helpless self-referentiality, sanctimony and self pity, that awful prose and trivial subject-matter, that giddy illusion that intellectual inquiry may substitute for politics; above all, for a moment when reason is not just asleep but a fashionable object of derogation, here is the abject failure of thought, distinction and style together hidden in their universal darkness by the dunces of the day.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

European Journal of Cultural Studies: (three times a year)

Editor - Pertti Alasuutari, Ann Gray, Joke Hermes
ISBN - ISSN 1367 5494
Publisher - Sage
Price - £1.00 (institutions), £36.00 (individuals)
Pages - -

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