First things first. The party last night was awesome. Good conversation and good music.
There’s a raging debate in the “comments” section of Michael Berube’s Blog about Tom Frank’s new book. I even dropped a line there. It’s turned in to the standard debate about the populism of cultural studies (and left treatments of popular culture in general), which I just think is such a nonstarter these days. Yes, there are some great moments in Frank’s work on Kansas, but I don’t think Frank’s critique of cultural studies as populist (ongoing for quite some time now) is very well-researched or grounded in the history of the field. Yes, there are lots of populists running around (many in fields other than cultural studies) and yes it’s silly to read buying as transgression, but even John Fiske backs off that line in his last book.
Let me put it this was: it’s like saying physics is bankrupt because some idiots claimed they had figured out cold fusion over a decade ago. The nature of academia is that fields produce both good and bad work, and on that score cultural studies is a pretty standard field. One judges a field by its best work, not its worst.
It’s time to question the proliferation of self-congratulating critiques of cultural studies populism. I mean, I don’t know any serious scholars who are publishing that sort of thing or have in close to a decade. Maybe I run with the wrong people, but Fiske’s books are looking mighty dated these days. Let someone take on the faux populism of cultural history, which is alive, well and apolitical, and then we’ll see the fur fly.
Frank simply that he believes in his own authenticity more than he believes in other people’s, and his writing on popular culture consistently looks down on other people. He needs his critique of cultural studies so you don’t see him looking down on the very same people. I’m not a populist either — I think it’s a morally bankrupt position — but there’s a difference between challenging people and the positions they hold and condescending to them.
As a side note, the above debate on Michael’s site led me to another academic who blogs — Catherine Liu. Hers is both interesting and one of the coolest-looking academic blogs I’ve seen. Not like I have time to redesign this thing right now. Extra points for Liu: she’s interested in machines, and she teaches in my old undergrad department: Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, for which I still have fond memories.