restricted access Cultural Studies versus the "Third Culture"
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.1 (2002) 19-32

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Cultural Studies versus the "Third Culture"

Slavoj Zizek

We are witnessing today the struggle for intellectual hegemony (for who will occupy the universal place of the "public intellectual") between the advocates of postmodern-deconstructionist cultural studies and the cognitivist popularizers of "hard" sciences, that is, the proponents of the so-called Third Culture. This struggle, which caught the attention of the general public first through the so-called de Man affair (where opponents endeavored to prove the protofascist irrationalist tendencies of deconstruction), reached its peak in the Sokal–Social Text affair. In cultural studies, Theory usually refers to literary/cinema criticism, mass culture, ideology, queer studies, and so forth. It is worth quoting here the surprised reaction of Richard Dawkins: "I noticed, the other day, an article by a literary critic called ‘Theory: What Is It?' Would you believe it? ‘Theory' turned out to mean ‘theory in literary criticism.' . . . The very word ‘theory' has been hijacked for some extremely narrow parochial literary purpose—as though Einstein didn't have theories; as though Darwin didn't have theories." 1

Dawkins is here in solidarity with his great [End Page 19] opponent Stephen Jay Gould, who also complains that "there's something of a conspiracy among literary intellectuals to think they own the intellectual landscape and the reviewing sources, when in fact there are a group of nonfiction writers, largely from sciences, who have a whole host of fascinating ideas that people want to read about." 2 These quotes clearly stake the terms of the debate as the fight for ideological hegemony in the precise sense this term acquired in Ernesto Laclau's writings: the fight over a particular content that always "hegemonizes" the apparently neutral universal term.

The Third Culture comprises the vast field that reaches from the debaters of evolutionary theory (Dawkins and Daniel Dennett versus Gould) through physicists dealing with quantum physics and cosmology (Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Fritjof Capra), cognitive scientists (Dennett again, Marvin Minsky), neurologists (Oliver Sacks), and the theorists of chaos (Benoit Mandelbrot, Ian Stewart)—authors dealing with the cognitive and general social impact of the digitalization of our daily lives—up to the theorists of an autopoetic system who endeavor to develop a universal formal notion of self-organizing emerging systems that can be applied to "natural" living organisms and species and social "organisms" (the behavior of markets and other large groups of interacting social agents). Three things should be noted here: (1) as a rule, we are dealing not with scientists themselves but (although they are often the same individuals) with authors who address a large segment of the public in a way whose success outdoes by far the public appeal of cultural studies (suffice it to recall the bestsellers of Sacks, Hawking, Dawkins, and Gould); (2) as in the case of cultural studies, we are dealing not with a homogenized field but with a rhizomatic multitude connected through "family resemblances," within which authors are often engaged in violent polemics but where interdisciplinary connections also flourish (between evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences, etc.); (3) as a rule, authors active in this domain are sustained by a missionary zeal, by a shared awareness that they all participate in a unique shift of the global paradigm of knowledge.

As a kind of manifesto of this orientation, one could quote the introduction to The Third Culture, in which the editor (John Brockman) nicely presents the large narrative that sustains the collective identification of these authors. 3 In the 1940s and 1950s the idea of a public intellectual was identified with an academic versed in "soft" human (or social) sciences who addressed issues of common interest, taking a stance toward the great issues [End Page 20] of the day and thus triggering or participating in large and passionate public debates. What then occurred, with the onslaught of "French" postmodern deconstructionist theory, was the passing of the generation of public thinkers and their replacement by "bloodless academicians," by cultural scientists whose pseudoradical stance against "power" or "hegemonic discourse" effectively involves the growing...