Jameson on cultural studies

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu
Mon May 20 01:34:56 MDT 1996

I've been asked for the reference I mentioned in my recent post.  The
article is:

Jameson, Fredric.  "On 'Cultural Studies.'"  Social Text 34 (1993): 17-52.

Though I'm not a big fan of Jameson's general approach (and this despite the
fact that he's on my academic committee), he surely can sometimes deliver
some pretty interesting goods.

Here's the opening of this essay:

"The desire called Cultural Studies is perhaps best approached politically
and socially, as the project to constitute a 'historic bloc,' rather than
theoretically, as the floor plan for a new discipline.  The politics in
such a project are, to be sure, 'academic' politics, the politics within
the university, and, beyond it, in intellectual life in general, or in
the space of intellectuals as such.  At a time, however, when the Right
has begun to develop its own cultural politics, focused on the reconquest
of academic institutions, and in particular of the foundations and the
universities themselves, it does not seem wise to go on thinking of
academic politics, and the politics of intellectuals, as a particularly
'academic' matter.  In any case, the Right seems to have understood that
the project and the slogan of Cultural Studies (whatever that may be)
constitutes a crucial target in its campaign and virtually a synonym for
'political correctness' (which may in this context be identified simply
as the cultural politics of the various 'new social movements':
antiracism, antisexism, antihomophobia, and so forth).

"But if this is so, and Cultural Studies is to be seen as the expression
of a projected alliance between social groups, then its rigorous
formulation as an intellectual or pedagogical enterprise may not be quite
so important as some of its adherents fell, when they offer to begin the
left sectarian warfare all over again in the struggle for the correct
verbal rendering of the cultural studies party line: not the line is
important but the possibility for social alliances that its general
slogan seems to reflect.  It is a symptom rather than a theory..."

I think this can be seen as an interesting explanation of the Sokal
affair.  No wonder the specific details of the article that _Social Text_
published weren't so important--as they themselves admit.  Rather what
counted was this general desire for alliance--here with a representative
>from the sciences.  Jameson goes on to call this desire a form of
populism--"'Cultural Studies,' now understood as some vast Popular Front
or populist carnival" (50)--whose weaknesses can now be seen in the
repercussions of this hoax.  For while its desire for alliance and to
avoid nitpicking sectarianism (and the sort of--here
academic--disciplining that would have rejected Sokal's article) are no
doubt positive, cultural studies cannot take up a position to go beyond
and critique such populism, especially when, as in this case, it is then
turned against them: Sokal turns out to be more populist still in his
attempt to shame an ivory tower, whose main mistake (it might seem) was
not to be sufficiently guarded.

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu

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