Pious convert brimming over with nothing to say

Inside Culture
November 2, 2001

Good novels, Orwell wrote, are written by people who are not frightened. They are not written by orthodoxy sniffers. The same should go for intellectual statements of intent, even for textbooks. A textbook in the human sciences may nonetheless have it in mind to define the doxa. But it will be readable insofar as it aspires to say something capable of making your heart swell or your blood run quick. It will not be readable if its author tries to show that he or she has read absolutely everything, and sprinkles the page with dozens of damn silly little brackets giving the references to prove it. If it is important to tell us what they say, then say it here and now.

It is much to be feared that Nick Couldry is a rather fearful author. He is obviously a decent man, courteous to a fault, scrupulous to admonish us to listen to other people, anxious that his new discipline conduce to good lives and honest labour.

This excellent worthiness is inextricable from the dire jargon and extreme piety with which cultural studies at the present time baptises its acolytes. He exhorts us to that state of grace in which the devout student will be: cleansed of cultural sterotyping; immune to the blandishments of closure in narrative; inclusive of all those stigmatised by the deadly trinity of race, class and gender; interrogative of all texts while alive to the density of context; and, in the final transfiguration, bricklayer to the building of "an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism".

Not much irony in all that; not much thought of a critical kind either. Nor much actual study of culture: whatever it is when it is at home (and Couldry does not say). In his painstaking little book, which seems so much longer than it is, Couldry directs us, by way of innumerable inverted commas, to meditate on the canonical topics of worship in the subject: self, presence-in-absence, Otherness, structures, reflexivity and (the prizewinner) "community without closure".

What is most dismaying about this kindly, careful and utterly anxious homily is that it is all a matter of exhortation. Couldry never shows us what to do or how to do it. Telling and not showing is bad teaching, although we are all guilty. Like the motley and not-very-authoritative authoritarians he presents to us so respectfully (such as the preposterous Gayatri Spivak), Couldry is constantly "calling for" desired states of affairs and announcing that "we need" theories of this or that when the world is brimming with theory, most of it vacuous.

He leaves this poor reader sometimes waving with helpless rage, sometimes drowning in helpless laughter, either way wishing that he would write straightly to his subject, a set book or two in hand, a circumscribable topic in view. But then his whole thwarted struggle is to find a way of thought that takes in every single one of the approved perspectives, sanctioned by each and all of the cardinal virtues of a late-Foucauldian day, conducing to a perfect accommodation for the many and the one of high old individualism and brave new communitarianism.

For all his admirability, Couldry stands arraigned by the words of R. G. Collingwood: "To ask questions you see no prospect of answering is the fundamental sin in science, like giving orders that you do not think will be obeyed in politics, or praying for what you do not think God will grant in religion."

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

Inside Culture: Re-imagining the Method of Cultural Studies

Author - Nick Couldry
ISBN - 0 7619 6385 5 and 6386 3
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 166

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