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Containing Cultural Studies:
The Departmentalization of an Anti-Disciplinary Project

Steve Macek
Wilson College

Cultural Studies as an Anti-Disciplinary Project

Back in 1984, Henry Giroux, David Shumway, Paul Smith and James Sosnoski published what can only be called a manifesto for cultural studies as an anti-disciplinary project in the pages of the Dalhousie Review. Titled "The Need for Cultural Studies," the article began by decrying what the authors saw as the hopelessly balkanized state of the study of culture in the North American university. They charged that "the practitioners of disciplines investigating cultural phenomena—e.g. anthropology, sociology, history, literary studies—are limited in their ability to communicate to each other about their concerns . . . the study of culture is conducted in fragments" (472). Beyond that, they observed that the hyper-specialization of disciplines "removes intellectuals from other public spheres" (472). Disciplinary research requires sustained work on "those few questions that constitute its current specialized concern," questions which, the authors claimed, tend to be "far removed from the genuine controversies in a given culture" (476).

Giroux and company deduced far-reaching political consequences from all this: "the departmentalization of inquiry," they declared, "has contributed to the reproduction of the dominant culture by isolating its critics from each other" (472). With regard to the humanities disciplines, the authors note that they not only "disable critique" (472) through fragmenting specialization but almost always conceive of culture in a regressive and essentialist way as something permanent and fixed, as an Arnoldian archive of "the best that has been thought and known," which in turn further legitimates the ruling culture (476-477).

Despite this depressing situation, the article’s authors maintained that radical intellectuals in the academy need not resign themselves to a disempowering state of disciplinary isolation. Contrary to appearances, the disciplines are not, they contend, "the reflections of more or less ‘natural’ categories of things we call subjects"; rather, what is studied under the aegis of an academic discipline at a particular moment in time "reflects cultural, social and institutional demands" (474). And because the organization of cultural inquiry within the academy reflects not some timeless, essential structure of human knowledge but historically mutable "cultural, social and institutional demands," it is clearly possible to revise the way the university studies and teaches culture by challenging and transforming those demands.

Giroux and colleagues hitched their desires for a sweeping reformation in the academic study of culture to what was, in mid-eighties America at least, the newly emergent project of cultural studies. As they envisioned it, cultural studies would involve an approach to cultural issues that transcends and contests the premises of traditional academic inquiry. Central to its very mission would be an effort to question the logic of the disciplines, to, as they put it, "interrogate the knowledge-claims and mode of intelligibility central to the defense of the academic status quo in various departments and disciplines" (484). This interrogation of the official ordering of academic knowledge would not be undertaken merely in the name of some apolitical and abstract notion of "inter-disciplinarity," as if the only thing at stake was how to construct more accurate, holistic and comprehensive descriptions of the cultural world. Rather, cultural studies would be a "counter disciplinarity praxis" with explicitly radical, anti-hegemonic political aims.

Instead of exploring culture as a static canon of great works and great ideas, cultural studies as the authors of this piece imagine it "has the possibility of investigating culture as a set of activities which is lived and developed within asymmetrical relations of power, or as irreducibly a process which cannot be immobilized in the image of a storehouse" (478). On their definition, this "counter-disciplinary praxis" would refuse to "agree that ‘literature [and any other cultural object] is distinct from politics’ and can thus re-consider the ideological and political appurtenance of a text or any set of texts" (Ibid). Its central goal would not be to train students to become refined connoisseurs of fine art or literature, as was the aim of the humanities traditionally conceived, but rather to promote the creation of what they call "resisting intellectuals" who "can provide moral, political and pedagogical leadership for those groups which take as their starting point the transformative critique of the conditions of oppression" (480).

Given the irreducibly political aspirations of cultural studies thus defined, it is not surprising that Giroux and his colleagues insisted that the sort of work produced under its banner would necessarily have to address itself to a broader public. Indeed, they argued that cultural studies is best understood as an "oppositional public sphere." "We cannot," they wrote, "capitulate to the disciplinary notion that research has as its only audience other experts in their field" (482). As such, the project of cultural studies as they understood it would have to communicate its positions and findings in forums and formats fundamentally more accessible than the average scholarly journal or academic conference.

The authors were, of course, perfectly cognizant of the fact that their anti-disciplinary vision did not mesh very well with the priorities of most American colleges and universities (determined, as they are, by a fairly reactionary combination of blind tradition and profit-maximizing). Hence, they suggested that the project would need to be sustained by "various sorts of collective, variously-membered study groups, counter-disciplinary research groups, even societies and institutes" (483).

Taken as a whole, the intellectual enterprise Giroux and his co-authors proposed in their piece is incredibly, perhaps even insanely, ambitious, as it involves a fundamental rejection of the very organizing premises of the American university. They pull no punches in describing the limits and obstacles the disciplines and the contemporary constitution of the university place in the way of the realization of cultural studies’ anti-disciplinary promise. They do not attempt to wish away or paper over either the staying power or the profound conservatism of disciplinary scholarship. In that sense, their "manifesto" is, for an advocate of post- or anti-disciplinary work, fairly sobering. It clearly spells out just how far we have to go to rid ourselves of the American university’s arbitrary divisions and hierarchies, its de-politicization of intellectual life, its hyper-specialization, its cant, and its technocratic mystifications. But the article is also marked by what I suppose one could call a distinctly Gramscian "optimism of the will": its vision of cultural studies not only seems within the realm of the possible but one gets the sense that behind the vision is a movement that is growing and gathering momentum.

The State of Cultural Studies in the USA Today

So how does the situation stand today? Fifteen years after Giroux and colleagues’ Dalhousie Review manifesto, what exactly is the status of cultural studies as a radical and radicalizing anti- or post-disciplinary movement? Where has it succeeded? Where has it failed?

Let’s start with the obvious: there’s no question that "cultural studies" over the past decade and a half has enjoyed something of a "boom" in the American academy. In that time, a handful of graduate and undergraduate programs professing to train students in the field have popped up around the country, most at large, respectable, research-oriented universities like University of North Carolina, Stanford University, University of Arizona, University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University and the University of Minnesota. While the numbers are not exactly overwhelming, the fact that administrators have approved the addition of such programs at a time when departments in established disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy have been getting the ax speaks volumes. Even more importantly, most major English and Communications Departments, and a growing number of foreign language departments as well, now regularly offer at least one or two courses in cultural studies, if not at the undergraduate level then at minimum as part of their graduate curricula.

Meanwhile, it is probably now possible to attend an interdisciplinary cultural studies conference somewhere in the country 365 days a year. And, as anyone who regularly peruses the periodical holdings of their local school’s library can tell you, cultural studies periodicals have been proliferating at an amazing rate. Angelaki, Arena, Soundings, Polygraph, International Journal of Cultural Studies, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Topia, Discourse, Communal/Plural, New Formations, Differences, Parallax, Public Sphere, Cultural Studies, Positions, Postmodern Culture, Body and Society, Lacanian Ink, the UTS Review, Space and Culture—these are just a few of the more recent additions to the growing legion of cultural studies journals. And this list doesn’t include the enormous number of once narrowly disciplinary journals that have thrown open their doors to cultural studies work.

Yet the strongest indicator of the on-going cultural studies boom isn’t the enormous number of new journals or new courses devoted to these concerns, but rather what has been happening in the world of book publishing. Over the past fifteen years, the academic press along with large commercial publishing houses like Routledge, Basil Blackwell and Sage have produced literally thousands of titles bearing the "cultural studies" designator. Indeed, for a while there, it seemed like cultural studies anthologies were the only thing Routledge published. Add the fact that the specter of "cultural studies" has been singled out for public attack by widely-read reactionary pundits like The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball., US News and World Report’s John Leo, and Newsweek’s George Will, and it certainly looks like the project has been at least moderately successful.

But looks can be deceiving. Judged in terms of the movement’s constitutive counter-disciplinary and political aspirations, cultural studies’ impact on the American university has been decidedly less than revolutionary. Instead of subverting disciplinary boundaries, the rise of cultural studies has merely rendered them somewhat more permeable. Instead of radically transforming the nature of scholarly inquiry in the humanities and social sciences, it has often merely sparked border skirmishes and jurisdictional disputes of various kinds between warring departments. Instead of addressing "the genuine controversies of a given culture," writers associated with cultural studies have frequently exhibited a profound lack of political judgment by carrying on about the oppositionality implicit in the gesture of ripping one’s jeans and waxing eloquent about Madonna’s threat to dominant order. And to the degree that the movement has produced new and surprising scholarship, one suspects that a lot of it is new and surprising simply for the sake of being new and surprising (or, more precisely, simply for the sake of hiring and tenure review committees). Instead of producing "resisting intellectuals," cultural studies has more commonly produced academized scholars whose chief concern is professional advancement not social change. Rather than providing hegemonic leadership within movements of the oppressed, it has more often than not indulged in the sort of fruitless, self-important "literary" politics that Marx once attacked in the work of the "critical critics." Far from generating a discourse directed at and accessible to the broad masses, it has given birth to a plethora of needlessly specialized vocabularies, elaborately convoluted theories, and pointlessly esoteric debates.

I say all this as an "insider" to cultural studies, as the product of a cultural studies program, as someone who sometimes has careerist dreams, who has written opaque, jargon-laden texts, who spent time analyzing the trivia of pop culture as if it were the most urgent of political tasks. I certainly do not want to be understood as simply trashing cultural studies as it exists today (indeed, I would go so far as to claim that cultural studies is still responsible for much of the most insightful and socially relevant scholarship in the humanities and social sciences).

Nevertheless, I think we have to acknowledge that what passes for cultural studies in the American university today, popular as it is, is a far cry from the oppositional, anti-disciplinary initiative announced by Giroux and company. Indeed, some of the most famous names in cultural studies have acknowledged that the movement’s actual achievements, especially when evaluated in political terms, leave something to be desired. Thus, Stuart Hall has observed that "I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything" (Hall 285).

Now it could be, as Ted Striphas has recently argued, that the problem of what he calls "gaps and disjunctures that exist between cultural studies’ written practices and its institutional practices" needs to be reconceptualized (Striphas 465). It could be, as he suggests, that cultural studies’ anti-disciplinary talk should be seen as "a kind of on-going check, a sort of radical counterbalance, as it were, to the reformist impulses which cultural studies must assume, quite pragmatically, in an effort to negotiate institutional spaces. I see cultural studies’ performativity as a way to maintain its political edge, precisely at those moments when and in those spaces where the edge gets threatened" (Striphas 466). Understood in this way, the gap between cultural studies’ ideals and its realities turns out to be a pseudo-problem.

While there is perhaps a grain of truth in Striphas’ argument, I think he gives up too quickly on the project’s anti-disciplinary aims. To treat these aims as merely an unrealizable "regulative discourse," as a check on the reformist impulses which the project "must assume," is to have already given up hope of radically transforming the study of culture in the American academy and to have reconciled oneself to the institutional status quo. It is to stop imagining strategies for overturning the university as we know it. Far from allowing cultural studies to maintain its "political edge," the position of Striphas advocates would set the movement on a slippery slope leading to the abandonment of principled politics in the name of "pragmatic" gains.

So, if we accept that the disjuncture between the practice of cultural studies in this country and its aspiration to radical anti-disciplinarity remains a persistent problem, the question then becomes how exactly to account for this. Why is this disjuncture so incorrigible? Why has the cultural studies movement, despite its achievements, failed to live up to its full potential?

One central strand of explanation has to do with the way in which cultural studies has been institutionalized within the American university. In particular, I contend that the project’s institutional and administrative appropriation by departments of English, Literature and, to a lesser extent, Communications has done much to stifle its post- and anti-disciplinary potential. As Will Straw has noted, cultural studies in the U.S. almost exclusively represents a turn within disciplines in the humanities, particularly English, Comparative Literature and American Studies, to methods, questions, and concerns traditionally considered "sociological" (Straw 86-88). Thus, to take one famous example, one time Princeton English Professor Andrew Ross’ interests have shifted over the years from modernist aesthetics to the relationship between intellectuals and popular culture to the politics of science to, most recently, the Disney Company’s much maligned "new urbanist" development Celebration. Or, to take an equally famous case, consider the career of Elaine Showalter who started out as an authority on women writers and has lately turned her attention to, among other things, the sociogenesis of Gulf War Syndrome.

Indeed, if the cultural studies boom has done nothing else, it has certainly authorized scholars in the humanities to discuss a wider range of cultural artifacts and practices, and to concern themselves with issues of broad social and political concern. And this has been reflected in the shifting curriculum of the nation’s leading English Departments whose offerings now typically include courses on film, TV, the rhetoric of the sciences, popular culture, and cultural theory alongside standard courses on Shakespeare, the Victorian novel, Yeats and Eliot. As welcome as these developments are, the literature professors’ forays into the sociologist’s "official" terrain has done little to promote cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration. As Straw has observed, "more so than has been the case elsewhere . . . cultural studies within the United States has been marked by the minor role played within it by the established social sciences" (Straw 87).

Indeed, a glance at the departmental homes of the contributors to Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler’s massive 1992 collection Cultural Studies reveals a bias towards the humanities that I believe to be entirely symptomatic: 11 of the contributors hail from English departments, 12 from an assortment of other humanities departments (Art History, Cultural Studies, Religion, History of Consciousness and Humanities), 6 from Communications or Departments of Radio, Television and Film, 4 from Sociology and only one contributor from Anthropology. And as the contents of that collection and of any number of other recent American cultural studies anthologies can attest, the fact that the project of cultural studies in this country remains ensconced in departments of literature and the humanities has left a definite disciplinary stamp on the way it is practiced and taught.

As David Morley among others has noted, there seems to be a distinct tendency towards "over-textualization" in much of this work, an obsession with textual figures, images, rhetorics, and codes without a corresponding investigation of socio-political and institutional contexts, the determining power of economic and political forces, the experience of lived cultural practices or the actual uses to which texts are put (see Morley 1997). Having become the institutional home of cultural studies, the humanities disciplines—in keeping with their unspoken "organic conventions"—have reduced its practice to the endless production of ever more clever "readings" of texts. Thus it is hardly surprising that the representative product of such research tends to be the impressionistic essay typically, though not always, focused on an individual artifact and emphatically not the sort of totalizing and exhaustive empirical descriptions of cultural trends, formations and practices in relation to whole "social systems" associated with sociology and to a lesser degree anthropology. Indeed, the vaguely "humanistic" and literary bent of the American version of cultural studies manifests itself most clearly in its willful ignorance of the central debates in social theory, its aversion to quantitative data, and its refusal of any sustained inquiry into the economic sources of social power. (Perhaps this is why, in their rare discussions of Marx’s Capital, American practitioners of cultural studies can’t manage to get beyond the initial chapter on the commodity fetish).

Now, I want to go on the record as saying that the American social sciences’ resistance to cultural studies owes as much to their reactionary and anti-theoretical positivism and their close links to government and business as it does to their occasionally justified frustration with the incompetence of those humanists turned cultural studies enthusiasts who’ve begun to take up sociological and political issues. Be that as it may, there’s no question that lack of participation from the social sciences in cultural studies programs, journals, conferences and debates in this country has had distorting effects on the entire project.

Of course, other factors not directly related to departmentalization have played a role in thwarting cultural studies’ counter-disciplinary potential. The competitive pressures faced by graduate students, newly minted Ph.D.s and junior faculty force them to specialize, "professionalize" and locate their work firmly in an established disciplinary tradition. Publishing in the "right journals" and delivering papers at professional association meetings like the annual MLA get-together are pre-requisites for getting and keeping an academic job; and, often times, writing for the general public or being too involved in extra-academic activities can count against a job candidate. Above all, the dog-eat-dog academic job market frowns on Giroux and company’s "resisting intellectuals" with their "unprofessional" public orientation and activist proclivities.

Nor should we forget that the rise of cultural studies within the American university has taken place at precisely the moment when the progressive political causes that cultural studies most identifies with—anti-racism, feminism, economic and social justice, anti-imperialism, the peace movement, etc.—suffered some of their worst defeats in decades. A strong case can be made that the ideological incoherence and political stupidity which commentators are forever unearthing in the cultural studies literature can be traced to the intellectual bankruptcy and organizational meltdown of the American left in general. Far from being the cause of the left’s inability to think clearly about the problems of the epoch, as cultural studies bashers like Todd Gitlin and Tom Frank would have us believe, cultural studies at its worst is merely a symptom of the left’s post-Communist disarray, hopelessness and lack of direction.

All the above factors, no doubt, would figure into any complete account of what has happened to cultural studies in this country. Nevertheless, if I had to isolate a single over-riding reason why this intellectual movement has failed to realize its political and anti-disciplinary potential, it would be the way in which the entire enterprise has been institutionalized within the American system of higher education.

What is to Be Done?

All of this leads us once again to the burning question that animated Giroux, Shumway, Smith and Sosnoski’s polemic: namely, what is to be done? How do we revive cultural studies as a radical, anti-disciplinary practice? Obviously, working within universities and colleges to establish more inter- and post-disciplinary programs like the History of Consciousness Program at UC Santa Cruz is part of the solution. I have a few other suggestions.

First, renew the theoretical attack on disciplinarity. We need to continue with new vigor the effort to, as Giroux and colleagues put it, "lay bare the historically specific interests that structure the academic disciplines, the relations among them, and the manner in which the form and content of the disciplines reproduce and legitimate dominant culture: (484). The recent anthology on The Cold War and the University (1997) is a step in the right direction; we need more such publications—books, journal articles, etc.—in order to spark a more spirited debate on the arbitrary and conservative nature of the disciplines.

Second, engage the social sciences. Those of us who come to cultural studies from the humanities ought to make a concerted effort to open up a critical dialogue with disciplines like sociology, political science, geography and economics, particularly in those areas like radical political economy, quantitative analysis of the media and the sociology of gender which have a direct bearing on the work of cultural studies. This will mean informing ourselves about their methodologies, findings and theoretical traditions, no matter how distastefully "positivist." Just as reading Kuhn on "normal science" is no substitute for studying physics, reading Foucault on, say, the emergence of economics is not a substitute for actually reading Smith, Marx, Keynes, Baran and Sweezy, Mandel, etc. This does not mean cultural studies should submit to the ultimate authority of the social sciences, but at least where it breaks from the social sciences those breaks will be warranted.

Third, unionize, unionize, unionize. The formation of graduate student, adjunct and faculty unions could create precisely the kind of "oppositional public spheres" Giroux and his co-authors envisioned in their manifesto. In addition to fighting for better wages and working conditions for TA’s and pressing for the creation of more full-time, tenure faculty positions, such unions could be a radical voice for anti- and post-disciplinary curriculum reform and would be well placed to defend de-disciplinized "resisting intellectuals" within the university from the inevitable wrath of their conservative peers (not to mention their even more conservative administrative bosses).

Fourth, pursue more collaborative projects with activists, movements and organizations outside the academy. It will be hard for cultural studies to live up to its radically anti-disciplinary potential unless its academic partisans reach out to and become actively engaged in struggles for social and economic justice raging outside the walls of the Ivory Tower. Of course, many scholars involved with cultural studies—particularly those associated with Queer Studies and feminism—have been doing this since time immemorial. But there needs to be more such collaborative relationships between activists and academics, and such collaboration needs to be more deliberate and organized, to take place on a much grander scale and with a much higher public profile. SAWSJ and Teachers for a Democratic Culture are two such efforts in this direction that work on labor and education issues respectively and it is too early to tell how successful they will be. People in cultural studies need to get on board with these efforts and try to make them work.

Finally, fight to revise the criteria for tenure in ways that would reward anti-disciplinary cultural studies practice. The practice of cultural studies in the American university would be better able to realize its anti-disciplinary aims if tenure review committees valued such things as cross-disciplinary collaborative teaching and research, writing for a general public, and scholarship in the service of radical political and community activism. This is not to say that everyone should be forced to write op-eds or get involved in community study circles as a condition of professional advancement, but at the very least people should not be punished for such activities as is often the case these days.

These, at least, are my ideas. The above list by no means exhausts the possibilities. However, enumerating such big movement building strategies is an utterly meaningless exercise unless some of them resonate with and appeal to a sizable constituency of academic intellectuals. Unfortunately, the way cultural studies in this country has been "departmentalized," coupled with the considerable financial incentives and professional rewards of disciplinary academic work, drastically diminishes the chances that any of these proposals will be seriously taken up by even those scholars who presently align themselves with the cultural studies project. One thing is certain: if cultural studies is to develop in a way that brings it closer to its original anti-disciplinary ideals, if it is once more to be a movement of "resisting intellectuals" making progressive political interventions in the public sphere, it will have to transform itself and transform the American university in the process. The problem of just how to do this is unfortunately still very much with us.


Chomsky, Noam, ed. 1997. The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years. New York: New Press.

Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, James Sosnoski. 1984. "The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres." Dalhousie Review, 64: 472-86.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson and Paula Teichler eds. 1992. Cultural Studies. New York and London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart. 1992. "Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies." In Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler. New York and London: Routledge. 277-294.

Jameson, Fredric. 1992. "On ‘Cultural Studies’." Social Text 34.

Morely, David. 1997. "Theoretical Orthodoxies." In Cultural Studies in Question, eds., M. Ferguson and P. Golding. London: Sage.

Nelson, Cary. 1997. Manifesto of a Tenured Radical. New York and London: New York University Press.

Rooney, Ellen. 1990. "Discipline and Vanish: Feminism, The Resistance to Theory, and The Politics of Cultural Studies." Differences, Vol. 2, No. 5: 14-28.

Straw, Will. 1993. "Shifting Boundaries, Lines of Descent: Cultural Studies and Institutional Realignments." In Relocating Cultural Studies: Developments in Theory and Research, eds., Valda Blundell, John Shepherd and Ian Taylor. New York: Routledge. 86-102.

Striphas, Ted. 1998. "Introduction—The Long March: Cultural Studies and Its Institutionalization." Cultural Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4: 453-475.

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