Why write?

Grappling with the purpose of writing anything right now.

I got into cultural criticism because I wanted tools to demystify culture. You have to understand, the first part of my adult life was controlled by culture—not just the consumption of culture, but the production of culture. With Headboard, I spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what other people wanted and how I could keep these others satisfied while also satisfying my own aesthetic interests. Those others included band leaders, audiences, and record labels. It was a complex mix of people and involved a lot of market analysis: what’s popular now, what does it sound like, what can we use, what should we avoid for its particular significations, and so on. I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but that was what I was doing. When I went back to college and read Adorno, I was shocked to recognize his description of that work. People had thought about this problem! So even when I went back to playing in a band, I carried critical theory with me: Adorno, Gramsci, Jameson, and so on.

The problem is that demystification only gets you so far. It helped me exorcise some demons, especially once I had to give up music and focus on grad school. But it can only get you so far in analysis. The result can historicize and criticize a particular work or a drift of work. That’s effectively what the first book was. But it doesn’t tell us much about what those works do or how those works are made other than as part of a process of hegemony. So there’s a dead-end here. We can critique and show the limits, but we can’t build a positive project. Or I can’t, anyway.

Okay, so what could I do instead?

Well, a lot of people went in for surface reading, affect, and post-critique because then they could write about what a piece of culture does. That seemed important for conjuncture reasons: institutions post-2008 saw declining humanities enrollments and the center of hegemony in 21C culture decidedly left cultural production. We have intense direct oppression of the working class and very little in terms of culture attempting to explain or mitigate that in a way which has any effect. As a discipline, English had (and has) a very real need to defend the study of aesthetic objects as a unique form of knowledge production as defined by the 21C university, whether we agree that English does produce this knowledge.

Some people read this project of institutional defense as an attack on critique. It is and it isn’t. From a conjunctural perspective, it would be a sensible defense if it had focused on a different audience. Post-critique evangelizes other scholars in English, as though we would be institutionally safe if we all chose the same object and method of inquiry. This is why, I think, post-critique can offer useful insights and still cause such a ruckus. It makes my back go up at times, especially since the drift of the argument can often seem to be that acceding to the desires of the master will solve our problems. I’ve read enough psychoanalysis not to fall for that one.

Yet I think affect is useful in terms of directing us to what cultural objects can do. That’s why I used it for my second book, but always focused on its situatedness. Affect and conjunctural analysis should work hand-in-hand, a position that we can find in disparate thinkers from Stuart Hall to Felix Guattari. Or what used to be called cultural studies. Somehow, that’s fallen off the radar as the critique/post-critique divide hardens.

The reason why cultural studies has dwindled as a recognizable position in lit studies, at least as far as I can tell, is that culture is no longer the central site for the construction of hegemony. Economic forces are MUCH stronger operators of hegemony now than culture was thirty years ago. Part of this is the collapse of mass media, which means we have fewer mass cultural texts attempting to mediate the contradictions of capital across many audiences. The atomization of the audience means that one can play to audience desires in particular ways. What would we call this? Consumer hegemony, probably. It’s not that I don’t think culture doesn’t have hegemonic effects. It just isn’t where the action is anymore. Close reading particular cultural texts doesn’t make much sense when they have so little effect. It has a real “missing the forest for the trees” vibe.

All of which is to say, I’m at a point where I want to step back for a moment and ask why doing critical work is worthwhile in the first place. Why do critical work at all?

We could use a pedagogical frame, e.g., what is it that students need or wish they had which we can give them? Why: because it will help students.

We could use a disciplinary frame, e.g., what is missing in the discipline? Why: because it will help others in the discipline understand something.

We could use an institutional frame, e.g., what is missing in our field that the institution needs? Why: because the field will help the institution achieve something.

We could use a political frame, e.g., what values or issues would we wish to examine in order to change that issue in the world? Why: because we wish to change something in the world.

So far, so obvious.

There must be more, but I got stuck thinking about this one:

We could use an aesthetic frame, e.g., what should we understand better about how a cultural text is made? Why: because it will help audience and producers understand their productions more fully.

That one stands out to me because it’s an approach we don’t take, or which some people in post-critique approach peripherally. One could imagine working back from a theory of attachment to a cultural text. It also inflects genre theory and work on film genre, though again as a mostly peripheral concern.

Is this a better reason for the work? Not necessarily. Yet it interests me, even if it is one so readily given to political and economic cooptation that it is hard to follow. To do it properly, it would have to be couched in critique. And it also confronts a likely resistance for the simple reason that I would approach this from the perspective of a critic and a reader rather than a producer. Genre studies gets around this problem by foregrounding reading as prior to producing, but it is the kind of objection one can readily hear from OUTSIDE the discipline and that’s worth thinking about.

But again this takes us back to the problem of culture’s dwindling role in the production of hegemony. If culture is not the key site of hegemony, then we have to navigate the middle ground between critique and positive production. What can be made or should be made? What is worth doing or saving or achieving, if anything can be achieved? Perhaps this suggests a path for a positive project alongside a conjunctural critique. Perhaps not.