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"Pop!" Goes the Theory - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
"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.

Mode: from turquoise to copper
Muse: It Ends With A Fall - Okkervil River - Down The River Of Golden Dreams

9 comments or Leave a comment
From: marcegoodman Date: August 27th, 2005 08:10 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This sounds very promising. As if to exemplify your original idea (that is, "what happens when theoretical terms get deployed by people who don't have much scholarly training in their history") I was immediately reminded by your further evolved idea of Harold Bloom's notion of "misprision" or misreading. On my first less-than-entirely careful reading of this entry, I was immediately reminded of how absolutely appalling I found much of what was written upon Derrida's death both in the MSM and the blogosphere.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 28th, 2005 01:11 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I found most of that obit stuff appalling too. I'd much rather read a music review that drops Derrida's name randomly but without being smug or mean-spirited. I should revisit that Bloom stuff sometime. I only read it in a cursory fashion as an undergrad, before I really knew my way around in theory.
From: marcegoodman Date: August 28th, 2005 02:52 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Agreed. The random usage is so benign in comparison. The obit stuff was incredibly mean-spirited. I mean, the man died from pancreatic cancer, which is not an especially easy way to live out the end of one's life. Looking back from Bush's reelection a month later, I regarded the reaction to Derrida's death as an premonitory sign of what was to come. It struck me that we really were living in a much chillier universe.
commonalgebra From: commonalgebra Date: August 27th, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
For someone who is fascinated by theory—and, more broadly, self-conscious analysis of the world around me—but has no real desire to spend my life in academia, this is very exciting. I think imagining your project as “cultural studies of theory” also highlights the fact that pre-knowledge or seeds of very complex theoretical ideas are actually present in popular or mainstream culture. I am always pleased when my little, theoretically unsophisticated middle school students hit upon ideas that register as post-structuralist, surrealist, etc. to me without any knowledge or even attempt at a highfalutin' term on their parts. Curiosity and imagination are the faculties that I believe lead one to create and write theory. And, though in language far less complex, many individuals arrive at the idea that gender is performed and unfixed or that meaning is relative and entirely subjective without any awareness of Butler or Sartre.

I believe, in reality, all of us at any epoch are actually creating theory by how we speak, what we buy, how we advertise, what laws we pass, how we teach our children or write histories. The theories are, in a way, threaded throughout the larger pattern of a culture. While I believe in individuality to a point, we are all shaping and shaped by our culture—we create both the theories and theorists of any given time period. After all, these theorists...or "thinkers" are observing human behavior and are themselves part of human society at a given point. It is not that I want to take credit for the brilliance and hard work of theorists who share my time in history…but we all do have a hand in their projects in a strange way.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 28th, 2005 01:17 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I completely agree. One of the main points of the early-to-middle Cultural Studies work from the UK, especially from the "Birmingham School" that started it all, is that ordinary people -- working class, teens, immigrants from the far reaches of the Empire -- are a lot more capable than elitist intellectuals give them credit for being. The trick is to find a way to prod that capability into becoming actuality, which is where Cultural Studies-based approaches to teaching find their raison d'êtreArt Into Pop, which is a favorite of mine. In it, he unfurls the notion of "low theory," the sort that ordinary people use in organizing their cultural lives, in opposition to the "high theory" of the academy.
commonalgebra From: commonalgebra Date: August 28th, 2005 05:11 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

god, I just can't shut up!

I am also interested in...I guess what might be called the "history of theory." But, I could also see it called "cultural studies of theory," in the sense that one studies the theory, its origins, etc. in terms of the culture(s) it came from rather than examining culture in terms of theory. I'm sure that any self-respecting scholar would do both. And in the course of the work maybe he or she would use that absurd word "interpenetrating."

While I cannot hold with that word, I do think it is impossible either to examine culture without awareness of some theoretical structures--perhaps in unsophisticated terms--or to examine theory without awareness of the cultural moment it came from. From the syntax and diction of your description, I would assume your examination of punk and post-structuralism would be doing both.

I love the idea that theory does not inhabit some far off region of academia, but that the seeds of it are every where--that any particular theory is inextricably linked to much more apparently mundane aspects of life: buying shoes, pan-spiritual new-agey community groups, selling shit on ebay, etc. This undoubtedly marks me as a true child of this time period...whatever you'd like to call this moment in history. I just know that contextualizing knowledge is quite the rage these days...and I certainly champion this idea.

I don't know how I feel about an opposition between "high" and "low" theory. I'm telling myself that this uncertainty is not merely a knee-jerk reaction...but it may be. I'll have to educate myself on this particular topic before I can really understand what is meant--both consciously and unconsciously--by these terms. I just believe the creation of theory is not really any different than any number of the other occupations individuals take up in a culture. Perhaps it has a greater element of self-consciousness...but perhaps all theories are really quite similar to other artifacts of any given age.
From: marcegoodman Date: August 27th, 2005 11:36 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I am also reminded that in 1985 a reviewer writing in my college newspaper described a song on the Velvet Underground's "VU" as being, something to the effect of, "the perfect deconstructionist pop song", which I took to mean, then as now, as performing its own exemplariness. I remember thinking then that this could be said to be true of virtually anything, including a million other pop songs, bad or good. I also remember feeling embarassed for the writer, implicitly recognizing that in my own heady infatuation with post-structuralistism, I might have said something similar.
From: e4q Date: August 28th, 2005 06:51 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
and then again, what happens to regular terms when poached by academe... coming out of the releatively benign and supportive atmosphere of art school i had no idea the nest of vipers the academic world had going, and i remember the rude slap of discovering what academia had done to the phrase 'common sense', turning it on it's head to become a visciously damning phrase for 'utterly un thought-through complacent lazy thinking such as only fit for the plebs' (i think was the dictionary definition)
re de construction and similar, expecially in everyday life, i think, psychoanalytic terms, although it is irritating when a word has a specific meaning to see it thrown around like a precision instrument mishandled, i do think it is interesting that a word gets accommodated into common parlance, albeit wrongly, because it seems to fill a vacant linguistic/conceptual need.
i think turning the cult studies light on academia is a very appropriate thing to do, though. while being very clever about stuff is great, it does seem to me that there are often big big gaps in reflecting on processes. and i like the notion of how the 'subjects' conceptualise what is being inflicted on them by 'experts'and the appropriation of language into everyday parlance seems like small revenge on the world of the expert.
i was told a yarn once, that marshall mcluhan had been hoodwinked by some tribe into believing they couldn't see a moving image unless it was projected on bark. dunno if it is true, but i am willing to bet that there are loads of tales like that in anthropology frinstance. and there are lots of medical related ones, not least the case of 'agnes' which praps you know?
From: zokah Date: August 28th, 2005 11:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've only just now read this through - slowly.

I like this thinking. It brings me back to the article I forwarded to you some time ago: the idea that theory is packaged in so many different ways that the public is consuming it's constructs without even realizing it.

I think what you've hit upon here is capturing the middle ground. Those of us *not* in academia who have read and reread Butler, Foucault, and Said because cultural systems interest us and ideas on culture interest us, although we would never say we subscribe to any sort of brand of theory.

What I didn't like about the article (and I say this without having it at my disposal and only remembering my "feelings" towards it as opposed to any real statement of fact) and what you haven't done here - thankfully - is state some sort of need to mass market theory as an imperative. Rather what you're doing is enlightening those to which they've already become enlightened.

I for one, could use such a flashlight.
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