4 nov. 2008

In order to distract myself from this election, which is driving me crazy and will until Obama is actually inaugurated in January, I have been thinking about the "aesthetics of cultural studies." I checked out a book with this title from the library, ed. by Michael Bérubé about 10 years ago. The book seems a defensive move aimed at the "return to aesthetics" movement. Bérubé in the intro and Rita Felski in her essay argue that aesthetics was always part of cultural studies in the first place. Yet other authors in the book point out that the view of aesthetics in CS is mostly "instrumental." Many of the contributors still skirt around aesethetics per se, and rarely consider any aesthetic dimension of any cultural or literary text. It is still a game of positionings. If your main context for responding to particular piece of classical music is Bugs Bunny cartoon you saw as a child, I suppose that's somewhat interesting, but it's still doesn't tell me much about aesthetics, not even about the aesthetics of Warner Brothers cartoons.

The first problem is that CS places two other sorts of values in primary position: political and commercial. Secondly, it is still caught up in categorizing culture as popular and elite, and deriving ideological conclusions from this division. An "aesthetic" approach would be not to care too much whether a particular cultural artifact belongs to the realm of popular, middle-brow, or elite culture, losing the self-congratulation inherent in studying popular (or elite) culture. The "coolness" of studying popular culture is essentially a mirror image of the snobbishness of studying elite culture. Also, the idea of "edification" persists in both enterprises: whether one becomes a more cultivated person by reading Rilke or uses popular culture for empowerment, the basic goal is a kind of personal edification. Culture is still "nutritional." (A few of the essays point in the direction of this critique.)

There seems to be a lack of imagination about what kind of cultural artifacts might be interesting to study. MB points this out in the intro, when he talks about the proliferation of Madonna articles in the 1990s.

If aesthetics is the product of the 18th century, it might be useful to talk about what aesthetics was before it was aesthetics. In other words, what existed in an analogous position before the word aesthetics was invented? We know that literature came into existence, as a concept with that name, in the 18th century (though that concept is not exactly our own either), but that there were other equivalent concepts before, mostly poetry. Cultural Studies still seems caught up in that 18th century dynamic, rather than looking for an approach that goes beyond those kind of conventional ways of looking at things. If there was an aesthetics before "aesthetics," there can be one after "aesthetics" as well.

4 comentarios:

Jordan dijo...

Points for your summary of topsy-turvy self-congratulation.

I'm not sure I understand what the concept of aesthetics is here, beyond personal response; I know I don't get the goal of cultural studies. To assess what needs any given cultural products fill, and therefore to diagnose the culture? To escape the might-makes-right of elitism by taking refuge in the might-makes-right of mass appeal?

This confusion goes some way toward explaining why I've avoided grad school this long.

Thanks for allowing me to think about something besides the election for seven minutes.

Jonathan dijo...

It [Cultural Studies] began as I understand it to counter the traditional Marxist disdain of mass culture as false consciouness. So the initial impulse is to say that mass culture has something of political value (even sometimes when it doesn't seem to). That's what the contributors call "populism." Then, yes, it's to try to explain how certain kinds of cultural heavy lifting gets done. The typical example would be to look at Romance novels and see how women use them in ways that aren't necessarily just a replication of the very traditional gender ideology that these novels seem to reinforce.

Jordan dijo...

I knew dialectics had something to do with it.

Speaking of which, time to re-read Hegel!

Judy dijo...

I'm caught up in your nutrition analogy. Organic granola vs. Cocoa Puffs? Where does Rice Crispies fit in? Raisin Bran? And with what kind of milk: whole, 2%, skim, soy, rice, or nut? If I had another life to live I could feel a dissertation coming on...