August 27th, 2005

"Pop!" Goes the Theory

While mopping the kitchen floor this morning -- I think it was on my second pass -- my mind drifted back to an idea I'd played with before and started adding new Legos to it. The book I'm working on spends a good deal of time musing on the relationship between popular culture and not-too-popular theory, in particular on the way in which the rise of punk and the rise of post-structuralism paralleled each other during the 1970s. But the main thrust of the project lies elsewhere. As I kept wringing out the mop head, though, I remembered that I had previously entertained the notion of writing another book on what happens when theoretical terms get deployed by people who don't have much scholarly training in their history, such as rock musicians, journalists, and right-wing pundits.

Today that inspiration became a lot more solid when I lit upon a good catch-phrase to describe its intent: "Not cultural studies and theory but cultural studies of theory." I realize this is a bit too pared-down to make much sense to most of you, so let me clarify. Most scholarly work on popular culture -- film, television, rock music -- can be grouped together under the loose-fitting cloak of the term "cultural studies." And most examples of cultural studies make reference to a big-name theorist or too, usually the sort that are mocked in the mainstream media for being incomprehensible or dangerous or both: Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler etc. In other words, the link between cultural studies on the one hand and theory on the other hand is a strong one. But at this point that link is so taken for granted that it has become invisible, like a long-term partner who becomes excessively familiar without the introduction of devices to spice things up. Perhaps it's time for that to change.

When I write "cultural studies of theory" instead of "cultural studies and theory," then, I'm suggesting that it might be advisable to stop taking the link between cultural studies and theory for granted and start using the techniques of cultural studies to reflect on what happens when theory enters the mainstream, whether against its practitioners' will or not. While those who know what they are talking about -- or at least believe that they do -- are inclined to complain that most people who bandy terms like "deconstruction" or "postmodernism" or "performativity" are simply getting those terms wrong, the fact remains that misinformation can be a powerful force and not only in a bad sense. If someone speaks of "deconstruction" without the slightest idea of who Jacques Derrida is or why it could matter, yet makes a good argument that helps people see something they might otherwise overlook, is the fact that she or he gets the term "wrong" more important than what she or he gets right? Maybe we should spend more time thinking about the productivity of cultural mixing, the way in which diluting a term's genealogical purity might actually make it more useful. At least, that's what I thought while I was mopping.
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Paradise

The other day, when Skylar was sleeping soundly during the time when she's normally awake and getting ready for school, I decided to play some of her favorite songs on the stereo to ease her into consciousness. I played Wilco's "The Lonely One," The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," and Sufjan Stevens's "Decatur." But I started with "Waterloo Sunset" by The Kinks.

It went over so well that I decided to put it on again this morning. Fully awake this time, the Bean requested that I play it several times over, musing on the lyrics as she used to when she was a four-year-old, particularly the chorus: "As long as I gaze on/Waterloo Sunset/I am in paradise." And then tonight, as I read her two classic "dad" books in her room before bed -- Du und Ich, Kleiner Bär and Piero Ventura's Cities -- she started singing the tune into her pretend microphone. "That's a really good song, dad." I was in paradise.