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  • Anacoluthon: On Cultural Studies
  • Timothy Bahti (bio)

To study cultural studies seems to risk entering a hall of mirrors—a place familiar, but no less uncanny—where the object of study and the method become images of each other. Can one study cultural studies as anything other than culture? If not, does one not then have the object re-enfold the method, and its study become a further instance of its practice before possibly becoming any autonomous act of scholarly knowledge? Cultural studies could keep reflecting back to its investigators that they are appearing as and, indeed, doing what they want to seize and know as knowledge, and that this is the very principle and point of cultural studies: scholarly representations, like all semiotic representations of which they are but a class, are the communication, the exchange, the transaction of cultural values; they are part of the practice of culture. The distortion that must occur in this hall of mirrors—the practice of cultural studies qua object growing larger, the effort to know it forever shrinking in its absorption and virtual disappearance into its alter image—is the fun of the funhouse, and perhaps also the source of its exhilarating delirium, its current energy.

If life can’t be true, at least it should be fun, Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have said (except when he thought its sadness closer to its truth). In the funhouse that cultural students cohabit with others who would know what the former do, the epistemological dilemma—how does one know what cultural studies is and does?—will not go away but can be made to change shape and appearance. Some, following Rorty, would fold epistemology into pragmatics, [End Page 366] since epistemology, in this view, is just another practice by some academic wannabes who wrongheadedly model themselves after old-fashioned, truth-or-consequences philosophers. Others, following Foucault, would trump epistemology with the new ideology of power. In one way or another, the cognitive and interpretive effort to approach the object by means that are at least provisionally other to that object—the very criterion of knowledge—gets deflected into the forcefield of the assumptions and practices of cultural studies itself. “Itself?” What can be assumed about cultural studies “itself,” even by those who want be so identified?

I recall two things at the very start, both anecdotal and thus at best parabolic. The assumption that cultural studies is “progressive,” left-wing, or otherwise good for the body politic as well as its soul, should not be made innocently. It is the case that many cultural students are post- (not ex-) Marxists who would otherwise be helpless or at least embarrassed in face of the cards dealt them by what they used to call objective historical processes. But it is also the case that the Family Research Council, one of the most right-wing advocacy groups aligned with the Republican Party, has a “director of cultural studies.” The politics of assigning any value whatsoever to “culture” and its “study” are by no means clear, or simple, and in politics, as in Mother Courage’s war, no one remains innocent for long.

The other point to make from the start regards an assumption and value of self-knowledge: do cultural students themselves know what they are doing, and do they care? There are states of mind and body, highly pleasurable ones at that, in which the very indifference of boundaries and limits is the condition for the determinately undefined modes of being. Could knowledge be one of these constitutive indifferentiae for cultural studies? One of its most distinguished practitioners once averred in conversation (and only half-jokingly) that “when cultural studies knows what it is doing, it should probably stop doing it.” We—“we?”—are still a ways away from knowing what we are talking about when we talk about cultural studies.

Apart from these two anecdotal points, a third point can be asserted at the start, and it will be accepted, I trust, as uncontroversial. Whatever cultural studies is, and does, it is and does it in various degrees of contrast with literary studies. That is, literary studies that studied primarily literature, and primarily “high” literature...

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pp. 366-384
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