Friday, August 12, 2005


Over at I cite, Jodi Dean has posted an essay on "Political Theory and Cultural Studies".

She's rather positive about British Cultural Studies, though only really discusses Stuart Hall's work on Thatcherism, and nothing that Hall wrote while he was at the Centre, for instance. She says of Cultural Studies that "in a context of struggle with Marxism, and as an effort to understand and contest a newly emerging right wing alliance that had come to power in the wake of widespread social, economic, and political disruption—'authoritarian populism,'" it achieved "analytical power and political purchase, indeed, truth" (17). Less mention is made, therefore, of the fact that for Hall it was Thatcherism that showed up Cultural Studies' (or at least the Centre's) manifest failure: Thatcherism's success as a hegemonic project was a rebuke to the Left's inability to do more than watch, appalled, from the sidelines.

She then argues that as some of the ideas and approaches of British Cultural Studies crossed the Atlantic and become influential within (at least some parts of) US Political Theory, "a sense of the dominance of cultural politics (as opposed to the marginality of a venture called cultural studies), on the one hand, with the demands of political science, on the other, formatted political theory’s cultural turn so as to distance it from the state" (17). In the culture wars, everything, and so nothing, became political. Rather, however, than lambaste either US political theory or US Cultural Studies, she argues that this mutation is itself determined by a new phase of sovereignty: "Despite the depoliticization the claim perversely effects, the notion that everything is political marks a change in the political situation of late-capitalism, namely, the decentering or changed role of the state" (21).

I'd argue, by contrast, that Cultural Studies had lost sight of the state long before its 1980s or 1990s expansion to North America. Where, after all, is the state in Culture and Society? Pretty marginal. If there was a flurry of attention to state processes at the Centre in the mid 1970s, for which the best example is probably Policing the Crisis, this was above all thanks to the influence of Althusser (whom Dean never mentions). Once Althusser was sloughed off, in large part thanks to Hall's appropriation of Gramsci via Laclau's endorsement of populism as politics, Cultural Studies (British as well as American) could return to its populist impulses, and leave the state behind with hardly a glance in its direction thereafter.

What's most interesting is the slippage or sleight of hand at the heart of a movement such as Cultural Studies, and indeed at the heart of all populisms: a movement that claims to have the state in its sights, as it champions popular expression against domination from above, but which at almost the last moment loses sight of the state, putting a fetishized conception of culture in its place. And it is, of course, the concept of hegemony that enables this depoliticizing substitution.

No comments: