- “Along the Watchtower”—Cultural Studies and the Ghost of Theory
“There must be some kinda way outta here,” said the Joker to the Thief.Jimi Hendrix
The profile of “cultural studies” today cannot be assessed outside of a view to its own genealogy within recent critical history—for it will be found, on inspection, to occur over a series of faults. The first, in the American context, would be its role as inheritor of a series of historical, often left-inspired critical projects (new historicism, identity politics in all variations) which brilliantly superseded the language-centered critique of deconstruction in the 80’s attending the call for a “return to history”; a second fault might attend the manner in which it appeared institutionalized in ways that have mutated away from its elusive initial impetus to intervene in the historical itself. Having busily abjected “theory,” why is cultural studies berated today by more orthodox left observers as itself too literary, as a failed political enterprise? Could an array of projects have found themselves re-inscribed in a familiar epistemological model going back to academic historicist trends?
There is, perhaps, a problem in the direction criticism has taken in its “post-theory” careers—that is, following in the 80’s the cavalcade of projects spanning identity politics, new historicism, and post-colonial critique which have, in some respects, melded into the absorbing cover offered by cultural criticism and cultural studies. For one thing, [End Page 400] a drive to press academic and popular culture into a political and emancipatory posture has witnessed the opposite effect—a decided drift to the right both within the academy and without. One cannot help but wonder if the abjection of what was called “theory” in the 80’s did not take place in too hasty, ritualistic, or misleading a mode, as if something was missed in the supposed “return” to the political and historical all along. At all events, the manner in which we have been presented with a progressive narrative leading from that phase has not played out as expected: despite the dominance of an all-absorbing cultural studies trajectory, presenting itself as a kind of “end” of critical history, it may be that this narrative is neither linear nor progressive, and that a good many folds or regressions have been involved to date. One thinks, say, of the proclaimed return to the agency of the subject, to a context-driven historicism not very different from seemingly older models (if dramatized inversely, as if from subaltern positions), of the return of discourses of “identity,” and so on. Yet the array of subjectivities has had something spectral about it, like a parade of the undead, as if the return to everydayness, experience, the body, the “political,” the pragmatic—everything supposed other to “theory” (had that term ever occupied a binary)—nonetheless echoed a precritical or phenomenological program. If so, one of the blind spots of “cultural studies”—aside from its being utilized, we might say, by a set of institutions to occlude a “theoretical” project that may, in the end, have been on the verge of disassembling a traditional representational economy—may be the manner in which it substituted new objects (pop culture, gender issues) for traditional ones without altering the preceding representational model, or for that matter, epistemology. Language receded as an issue; the political was thought to have been restituted, but in a manner programmed still by the institutions that were initially to have been transformed. This brings us perhaps to a another fault-line, that lying within cultural studies as we (and who does this not touch?) practice or identify with it today. Here it is again useful to sketch a mock genealogy—particularly if we plan to return to one issue that seemed suppressed from the opening under the name of “theory”: the problem of what must conditionally be called a linguistic materiality the agency of which contests historicist narratives, anthropocentrisms, and a mimeticism that had seemed, from the first, associated with metaphysics itself.
For one thing, what we call “cultural studies” not only seems embraced institutionally but seems to mark a return to descriptive [End Page 401] premises...